https://www.chronicle.com/article/Saving-History-at-College/247866By Audrey Williams June
JANUARY 19, 2020
In 2013, Jocelyn Robinson enrolled in a radio-production skills program at WYSO, a public radio station that used to be owned by Antioch College. During the training program, she produced a piece that included civil-rights era audio from WYSO’s archives, setting the stage for what would become her passion: preserving the audio from radio stations at historically black colleges and universities.
While she was fairly new to radio, Robinson, who has degrees in art history and cultural studies, was no stranger to African American history. She was on staff at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, in Wilberforce, Ohio when it opened to the public. She also worked as a federal-grant program administrator at Central State University, a historically black institution, until deciding to pursue a career as a radio producer.
Over the past year, Robinson has been working to find out what kind of archival radio material black colleges have. She was awarded an audio-preservation grant from the National Recording Preservation Foundation to survey radio archives on HBCU campuses and has visited nearly 20 stations.
Robinson spoke with The Chronicle about the path she took to becoming a radio preservationist, the challenges faced by radio stations at HBCUs, and the importance of audio to an understanding of history.How did you come to focus your radio-preservation efforts on HBCUs?
I did some preliminary research and found that one-third of HBCUs have radio stations. What’s really unfortunate is that as we’ve been losing HBCUs, we’re losing the radio stations, too. The FCC license for a radio station is an asset, and a lot of them have gone pretty cheap, unfortunately. That’s an incredible loss.
I did a presentation on my idea while getting my graduate certificate in public history with a concentration in archives from Wright State. Then I literally fell into the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, and I had the opportunity to present my idea for this project. I got to know people who are engaged in radio-preservation work throughout the country.What have you been able to do with your grant money?
I began by putting together profiles of the radio stations. I collected basic information: Where the stations are, when they were founded, and contact information. When that was done, I created an online questionnaire, working with some archival professionals who were generous with their time and expertise, and that was open through most of the summer.
The online survey was to figure out what materials they had archived: Do you have anything? How much do you have, and what is its condition? Eighteen out of 29 currently existing stations have participated. They’re a self-selecting group, but they’re a pretty good cross section of what’s out there — public and private, rural and urban. I contacted the stations that participated to see if I could come visit, and so far I’ve done site visits at half.What kinds of audio have you found?
At the site visits that I conducted, there was a lot of material, but it’s so disorganized at this point it’s hard to tell. Much of it has been lost, is what I’m finding. Magnetic tape back in the day of reel-to-reel was reusable. It was bulky to store, and at many of our institutions, the radio stations inhabit very small quarters, or they’ve been moved around campus. So whenever you pack up an office, you throw out the stuff you don’t need — particularly if you don’t have a reel-to-reel machine to play it on. The obsolete media is the first thing to go.
At South Carolina State, there’s a bunch of cassettes in a box, and the labels on the cassettes have the briefest of descriptions. One of them was Dr. Cleveland Sellers [who helped organize a civil-rights protest in 1968 during which three South Carolina State students were shot and killed by the police] and someone else. Obviously it was an interview or a lecture. At HBCUs, radio stations are likely to record convocation speeches, commencement speeches, lectures, concerts, even classroom presentations.
It is nobody’s job to go and organize that material and to do it in such a way that they’re paying attention to best practices in preserving audiovisual material. You have to be able to identify it, stabilize it, get the appropriate archival boxes, and then store it where temperature, humidity, and light can be controlled. At some point, if the material can be played back, you have to ask, Can it be digitized? Can the appropriate metadata be provided? There’s also sticky-shed syndrome [in which the binder in a magnetic tape deteriorates, causing poor playback of the tape].
Our institutions are underresourced, understaffed, and we still don’t have a really good handle on the fact that our materials are important and worthy of presentation. Because of the ephemeral nature of radio, people are so busy trying to keep the station on the air, they don’t even think about preservation plans or a disaster plan. I really see this whole project as being something that is going to start a necessary conversation.Was there something you saw during your visits that gave you hope?
When I went to WCLK, at Clark Atlanta, the general manager had two of her senior staff there, and the head of special collections at the Atlanta University Center Consortium came down and we all sat and talked. They are developing a preservation plan for the radio station. What was exciting was that the materials that do exist at the radio station are going to be taken into the institutional collection with some ease. They have a staff of five and two processing archivists. They have an incredible opportunity to sort of model what that relationship can look like. I’m very excited about the possibility.
One of the things that I think really bears a lot of scrutiny would be the radio station at Jackson State and at South Carolina State. Things happened at both of those campuses [students were shot and killed by the police during civil-rights protests] that reflect the times and that aren’t so far removed from what’s going on in the present.
There are places like this that we know, because of what happened there, we need to dig deeper to find if there’s anything there. Anyone who is trying to research the civil-rights movement would find that material invaluable.What if it’s too late to save the material you think stations might have?
What a great loss that would be. There is nothing like the sound of the human voice to convey — through language, through resonance, through inflection — the time and the place. It is a primary source, even more so than images.
Within the preservation community, if we are to preserve the historical record, that means everybody’s record. In the past, the archival profession has been the gatekeepers of history and culture. In order to remedy the gaps that we have because of that, we need to collect these materials, and we need to preserve these materials because they’re important to all of our histories and legacies.
My hope is that I’ll be able to develop some kind of follow-up. I’m interested in helping institutions develop preservation plans and getting some funding that allows them to do it. If we don’t go out and find what’s there, we’ll never know.
Correction (1/21/2020, 1:25 p.m.): This article originally said the Library of Congress awarded Jocelyn Robinson an audio-preservation grant. The grant was awarded by the National Recording Preservation Foundation. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.