Susan Kaplan: Born to Broadcast

More precisely, born in Boston, Massachusetts in November 1956. My birth announcement, a radio tower, WSK.

My dad Stan Kaplan, worked at WMEX. Though only married about a year there was no doubt he was going to divorce my mother, their marriage a totally ill-conceived union. So, I wasn’t surprised to find this mention of my him during research for a book that I’m writing about radio. (slowly)

Stan Kaplan was the flamboyant Sales Manager of WMEX. One day he pulled Jack Gale

(a very talented disc jockey) aside and told him a secret. “I’m going to quit this job to

marry a woman with millions of dollars, and then I’m going to buy a radio station. And,

Kaplan said, “I want you to run it and become an owner.” “Yep,” thought Gale. “I’ve

heard that one before.”

     Turn It Up American Radio Tales 1946 to 1996 by Bob Shannon

In 1964 Jack Gale got the call. Kaplan and his new wife Sis Kaplan had bought a station in Charlotte, North Carolina. As Gale tells it he got off the phone, called his wife and told her to pack up the house and the kids. Within a week, Gale drove from Boston to Charlotte. Together with my dad, my step mother and a posse of gutsy very young and very talented people they put BIG WAYS 61 on the map. Bringing Rock and Roll to a town that along with a roiling South would never be the same.

The first time I heard NPR’s All Things Considered was in the late 1970’s. I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts and running between a job bagging organic cranberries in a small health food store and class. I don’t remember the story, but I was blown away. So, I pulled the car over and dashed into a phone booth to call my dad. “It’s amazing. It’s called National Public Radio.” His response, “There’s no such thing.” As you might imagine I would remind him of his mistake, occasionally, for the rest of his life.

From that day on all I really wanted to do was to become a public radio reporter. But meandered first as a stage manager in the theater in Washington D.C. and NYC. By the time, I was ready to get a job in radio I took the easy route and jumped into sales. The lure of doing work that came easily, thanks to some kick ass DNA, a chance to get to know great commercial stations like WPRO in Rhode Island stayed appealing until I ran out of sales steam. Following a short stint as a talk show host at WHYN am in Springfield, Massachusetts I high tailed it to public radio station WFCR in Amherst and convinced the News Director to hire me as a freelancer. She did. And within a few months, in 1995, the station hired me. As it turns out this will be my last week at WFCR, now called NEPR. On June 5 th, I begin working at WGBH. Returning me to the city where, I truly believe, I was born to broadcast.

Serendipitously I was admitted to the Public History Master’s program at UMass Amherst last year. I’ve been the local All Things Considered host at FCR/NEPR recently and the station allows me to take one seminar a semester. Still, the instant I walked into the class room I fell in love with the students, faculty and concepts, equally awed by how much I had to learn and slightly overwhelmed by the work load.

During my academic foray, like my partners in this endeavor, I’ve thought about ways to preserve, amplify and create broad and innovative public radio style narratives. Wondering about their use in the larger mandate of education. At our workshop, I’ll be talking about an idea for a hybrid course. Part journalism, part history and likely of interest to students in other disciplines that will use actual pub radio archives. In the process, it will digitize sound that’s stashed in storage at public radio stations around the country, on cassettes, mini discs and even good old fashioned reel to reel. I believe the curriculum is a win-win.

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The Personal is Archivable

By Erin Pack-Jordan

You’re listening to The Bear, 102.5. Waco’s classic rock station!

Whenever people remember their childhoods, station identification usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

My dad “played radio” for a living.

As a result, I spent many years in radio stations, enjoying music, going silent when the red ON THE AIR light flashed, and recording commercials for local businesses.

These were the days before deregulation, before media monopolies reigned supreme. Locally-owned stations with tight-knit staffs were Dad’s bread and butter. Even though radio can seem like an odd career path, his mom (my grandmother) had been a local radio jingle singer. I’m a historian interested in radio. Several other family members have done announcing, whether as a hobby or as their profession.

Sometimes, it feels like a family business. At the very least, radio is part of our familial heritage.

Once, I remember asking Dad why he picked radio. Why not TV or print?

“Well, why not? Radio is the most personal medium. I can talk to the whole city, but they think I’m talking just to them. Radio’s special.”

Radio is special. That’s why programs ought to be archived for future generations.

Although my personal connection to radio is strong, it’s not unusual. Non “radio people” feel personal affinities for their favorite hosts or programs. With the advent of podcasts, many of which are also broadcast on radio or got their start there, the connection has grown stronger.

In this working group, we seek to figure out ways to save radio history. By using collaborative methods with broadcasters and public historians, hopefully, we will find ways to accomplish these goals.

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Age 5, in front of a studio microphone. Dad looks on, like a true radio professional. 

Why Should the Public Care?

Over the years I’ve been beating the bushes, making individual contacts (often with surviving family members) to secure snippets of audio history. This sort of collection isn’t as glamorous as fine art or even antique cars, and the potential audience for such a collection is, by definition, relatively small. Finding funding for a project like this is equally daunting, and although it’s seldom asked, there’s always the underlying “Is anyone really interested in this?” question.

It’s difficult to come up with one appropriate answer, but there was a situation recently that really frames things well.

A little background: Often when I ask for tapes, I get a negative response. In a surprising number of cases, the man will say,” My ex-wife threw all of them out.” But I try to keep the conversation going, and that frequently leads to, “But I do have some pictures if you’re interested.” Of course, I’m always interested.

So our collection includes pictures, old scripts, station playlists and various and sundry other pieces of the past.

Late last year I got a phone call from a woman in Texas. She had found our website, searched for a name and come up with the man’s broadcast history in the market and a scanned photo of him from an early broadcast. She wanted to know if she could get permission to download the scan, which I of course agreed to. Then she told me the back story.

She had been married to the man for many years and had often heard him speak fondly of his days in radio here. Their lives were marred by a fire which destroyed their trailer and all of their belongings, including his radio memorabilia. A few days before her call to me, the man had passed away, and the family wanted an early picture of him to display at the funeral home – a sort of memory of better days, if you will.

So does the public really care about whether we preserve this material? The answer is simple: They don’t care at all, until they do.

(Frank Absher is the founder and executive director of the St. Louis Media History Foundation.)

Providing Historic Perspective With Country and White Gospel Music

Bobby Moore, University of West Georgia

@bmoorewrites

Like most prospective historians, I’m immensely curious about a certain topic that’s helped define individual lives and regional cultures. My topic of choice has long been music. From my teenage years though my first stint in grad school (M.A. in Public History, University of West Georgia, 2011), punk rock dominated my studies and social life. While I still enjoy that style of music and deeply appreciate its role in defining my morals and values, I’m less curious about music practices I’ve experienced hands-on—my years between ending my M.A. studies and beginning an online Ed. S. program in 2014 included a short yet eye-opening run living in a punk house in Cleveland, Ohio. Besides, friends and acquaintances have devoted way more effort to do-it-yourself scenes and do a fine job preserving their own work and the contributions of their peers.

Years marred by poor life choices and lost loved ones made me better appreciate the country and white gospel music of my childhood. Now it’s those forms of roots music that find me digging deeper into the stories beyond timeless songs and artists. Both musical styles are oftentimes like a soundtrack to the socio-political happenings at 20th century mill villages, farms, and church houses, providing new perspectives for sharing history with broad audiences.

Since 2013, I’ve supplemented my income with freelance writing gigs. As with my research, covering punk and garage bands has given way over time to a growing interest in roots-based music. Even when writing about current Americana music, exemplified by such mainstream stars as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, I love a story hook that ties today’s music to the past. Sometimes, I get to write about history, like I’ve done with She Shreds magazine’s Legends series. However, most publications seek stories with current contexts, so I would be better served quenching my musical curiosities as an educator, be it on a campus or at a museum or historic site.

As I plan my next step, be it a Ph. D. program or (fingers crossed) a career, opportunities to pursue my musical research interests are a top priority. In the interim, I am working on a magazine article and oral history project with Jack Cole, the son and singing partner of early Northwest Georgia-based hillbilly and gospel recording artists, and Atlanta and Rome, Georgia radio stars Grady and Hazel Cole. The 83-year-old former pastor may be the last person alive from the Cole family’s musical career, which is significant historically because Grady wrote the modern arrangement for “A Tramp on the Street,” an early Southern gospel song immortalized by Hank Williams. The Cole family’s story is the type I want to find and preserve, in the spirit of hometown record label Dust-to-Digital or the University of Southern California’s Gospel Music History Archive.

Sounds Like Civil Rights: WERD Atlanta and Radio Activism

Harvee White, University of West Georgia
@happyharvee

My current work involves the Atlanta radio station, WERD. This station, on air from 1949-1968, was the first station in the nation to be owned and operated by African Americans. In studying WERD, I want to discover radio’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, and more specifically WERD’s influence in Atlanta civil rights. As an avid podcast listener and human rights advocate, I have become increasingly interested in the way social justice movements use radio as a platform. When it came time to choose a thesis (I am in my final year in the University of West Georgia’s public history program) I began searching for a way to marry these two interests. After a long series of failed ideas I was led to WERD. I have partnered with the Auburn Avenue Research Library (AARL) in Atlanta, as they house a collection of WERD paraphernalia including oral histories from those who worked at the station, and recordings from the radio programs that aired on WERD.My goal is to facilitate a panel discussion on the use of radio in the Civil Rights Movements, ultimately creating a short radio documentary/podcast using the panel discussion and any audio from WERD that I am able to use  Throughout this project I have faced challenges that I believe are relevant to this discussion.

Many small institutions struggle with funding, and the AARL is no exception. This means that many of the tapes have been left untranscribed and difficult for me to sift through in a timely and orderly fashion. Lack of funding also means lack of technology. Much of the audio of the programming was recorded on reel to reel tape. The library however, does not have a reel to reel player rendering this primary source useless. I plan to work with the library to see if we can find ways of acquiring the appropriate technology to play their sound, and find a way to get someone to transcribe the tapes.

My project is quickly evolving, and everyday I am faced with new challenges and new potential solutions regarding the use of radio (audio) archives. I am hopeful that the use of this audio will provide listeners with knowledge of how the use of sound technology is not a new phenomenon in civil and human rights. From this working group, I would like to learn how I, as a student and young professional, can help institutions realize the potential of their audio archives.

Making Up the Rules Along the Way

In 1987 a few of us were brainstorming at the St. Louis Press Club about the dearth of preserved local media history. Within a period of 15 minutes we came up with a plan, and the St. Louis Media Archive was born.

There was never any money. We had no idea how to adequately preserve the material. All we really did was gather anything that seemed worthy of saving and turn it over to the public library, where it supposedly would be properly handled and cataloged.

They succeeded at cataloging, but preservation remained on the bottom of the priority list because of the cost.  As the library’s waning interest in the project became more apparent a few years ago, I set up my own foundation, raised money and offered to pay for the digitization of over 500 radio airchecks I had gathered. They refused the offer, saying it was not a priority. Would they loan them to me (I had used my own money to purchase them) so I could have a local recording studio digitize them? Absolutely not. That violated their policies.

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So I started another collection from scratch and am in the process of digitizing the audio for storage on a hard drive for researchers to access. In addition I make small snippets of the airchecks available in the radio section of our foundation’s research website: http://www.stlmediahistory.com

We manage to get a lot of donated services and are able to pay a small amount to a friendly studio for digitizing. Our media history collection is also growing. We have 6,000 images from local media history available for viewing on line and are finishing construction of a small research room in a local museum for listening, viewing and perusal of our files.

The downside is our lack of any sophistication and sense of organization. Anyone expecting an institutional approach to our preservation will be disappointed. Our cataloging is all being done on Omeka shareware by me. Any professional archivist would probably run from the building screaming.

But we have accomplished the two most basic tasks found in our foundation’s charter: We are preserving local media history and are making it available to the public.

(Frank Absher is a broadcast veteran who served as an adjunct professor for a few years before retiring, which is when he really got busy.) 

Rediscovering Radio at WYSO

Jocelyn Robinson is an educator, digital storyteller, public historian, and radio preservationist based in Southwest Ohio. But before that, like most people, she was a listener.

img_5229-1I’ve been a radio listener for as long as I can remember, and that’s a long time–nigh on six decades. I hadn’t considered being much else until 2013, when I was encouraged by my local public station’s general manager to enroll in a six-month course that teaches regular folks how to tell radio stories.

This program got off the ground in 2011, initially to teach people how to collect oral histories to augment civil rights-era broadcasts WYSO (91.3 FM in Yellow Springs, Ohio) had recently digitized through the American Archive of Public Broadcasting Pilot Project. The two initiatives, Community Voices and the WYSO Archives, became entwined when I produced my final feature piece for the course, which included oral history, personal reminiscence, and historical audio that had originally aired on WYSO in the early 1960s.

To say that I was bitten by the radio bug is an understatement; over the next three years, as the first WYSO Archives Fellow, I produced dozens of pieces using the historical material, won a PRNDI, became an AIR New Voices Scholar, quit my day job, earned a grad certificate in Public History/Archives, began teaching radio storytelling, and joined the Radio Preservation Task Force‘s African American and Civil Rights Radio Caucus (I’m particularly interested in the materials held by Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCU) radio stations). So today I am not only a listener, but an educator, digital storyteller, public historian, and radio preservationist all wrapped up in one neat package.

As a producer, my editors are constantly working with me to fine tune my radio voice to the frequency of the listener, to tamp down my propensity for formal, academic language. Write like you talk, they say. Well, I do! I love the scholarly discourse that arises from finding and sharing historical audio, and I’m grateful for this new forum provided by the NCPH Working Group, wherein I can use my authentic voice as a public history geek.

That said, I’ve been blessed to work with some fascinating and provocative archival radio over the last several years. The license holder for WYSO is a progressive liberal arts institution, Antioch College, and the bulk of its early archival material is from the 1960s and 1970s . The 277 hours of tape that have been digitized thus far represent the tumult of those years; the voices are diverse and strident, and most importantly, they lend context to the social and political landscape of the present.

Here’s a link to the Rediscovered Radio page on the WYSO website. It should give folks a view into how we use the material in our short pieces that air on local news breaks during Morning Edition and All Things Considered. This web presence gives us the opportunity to present the historical audio in its entirety, and to add text, images, video, and links in support of the 4-5 minute radio stories. We have a blog and Facebook page, as well. Most of the digitized material is available online, too, through a partnership with the Greene County Public Library. Last October (American Archives Month!), WYSO partnered with Antioch and several other institutions to present The Past Made Present: The WYSO Archives 2016 Digital Humanities Symposium, an event that brought teachers, students, and preservationists of all sorts together to explore the Vietnam era through digital means. We hope to do more such public programs in the future. And in the next season of Red Rad, which is pending funding, we plan to highlight the historical materials that are representative of the women’s movement.

In the interim, it’s a privilege to share how WYSO has “let them hear it,” how we’ve developed the WYSO Archives, created new media with it, and built partnerships to preserve and present this small but important chronicle of our community and our world. Feel free to give me a holler with questions or comments. And please, share how you became a radio preservationist!