The American Archive Of Public Broadcasting Celebrates 5 Years Of Preserving Public Media
Interview by Ellen London, Digital Editor, Explore WGBH Digital
WGBH and the Library of Congress are five years into their stewardship of the American Archive Of Public Broadcasting, which was instituted in 2013 to coordinate a national effort to identify, preserve and make accessible the historical record of publicly funded radio and television broadcast in the U.S. We sat down with Ryn Marchese, Engagement and Use Manager for the AAPB here at WGBH, to learn more.
How does the AAPB help stations around the country to preserve their programs?
Ryn: While the need for a public broadcasting archival initiative was recognized more than fifty years ago with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, efforts and funding to methodically implement a nationally coordinated program did not begin in earnest until the advent of the digital age in the 21st century.
In 2011, the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB) funded 120 stations to inventory their collections. From this initiative, 2.5 million descriptive records were created. Subsequently, in 2012, CPB funded 100 of these stations to digitize what they determined was the most historically significant to preserve, and from this initiative, 40,000 hours of programming was digitized.
At this point, CPB selected WGBH and the Library of Congress as the permanent stewards of this collection, which became the beginnings of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. The LOC houses these broadcast treasures in its Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, the state-of-the-art preservation facility in Culpeper, Virginia, that was once a high-security storage facility operated by the Federal Reserve. The same facility that once stored gold bars now preserves public media!
How is WGBH uniquely positioned to take on this role?
Ryn: As a public broadcaster, WGBH brings its knowledge of the public media system and an understanding of the core issues facing both television and radio stations to the table. Primarily responsible for access to the collection, metadata and systems/website management, as well as outreach and engagement, WGBH has long been positioned as a leader in the areas of media management, preservation and copyright issues.
Why is it important to preserve public radio and television programs?
Ryn: We need to preserve America’s public broadcasting legacy. As an outlet of communication produced for and by local communities, archival recordings document places, people, events, issues, opinions, perspectives, ideas, innovations, landscapes, etc. across both time and space. To see this importance in context, I invite audiences to visit AAPB’s Curated Exhibits, which includes a selection of radio and television recordings that focus on themes, topics, and events of cultural and historical significance such as climate change, protesting in America, civil rights, and the Watergate Hearings, now preserved and made accessible to the public, once again.
What’s the most notable or surprising piece of content you’ve come across in the archive?
Ryn: There are so many radio and television programs that stick with me. Some programs include travel to places I’ve never been, stories I never thought would be true, or characters worth listening to. A great sampling of this is in the AAPB Road Trip Special Collection. It highlights the breadth of the AAPB collection from sea to shining sea.
However, one interview that has left a lasting impression is the raw interview of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, from American Experience‘s The Murder of Emmett Till Interviews Special Collection. Imagine it. On-screen is Ms. Mobley, a woman I’d only seen in photographs or read about in history books. The camera focuses in on her face as she listens to the director off-screen. She takes their feedback seriously and begins retelling her story. It is in these exchanges, between the multiple takes, that I realize the magnitude and transparency of public media archives. Ms. Mobley is an example of an ordinary citizen who wasn’t trained in film production and didn’t ask to make history, but here she is, trying to be true to her story and relatable to unknown viewers.
In short, the AAPB has given me the opportunity to see ordinary people thoughtfully phrase their experience on-the-spot. Between all the production cues, infographics, and theme music, I appreciate public broadcasting’s ability to be curious, bring unique stories out of the ordinary day-to-day, and connect people.
What’s been your favorite year or decade, from the 1940s to the present, to preserve and why?
Ryn: Instead of offering a timeframe, I’d like to approach this question geographically. With the AAPB, we’ve preserved material from Guam PBS to WUSF in Tampa, FL, so I often find my favorite content based on location and what that local community thought was important to broadcast. For example, who knew a second-wave feminist talk show would come out of WNED in Buffalo, NY? Or the oldest radio programs are from Wisconsin, following the tradition of educational farm programs?
Whether it be raw interviews, educational programming, documentaries, a talk-show, magazine series, or news programs, they are all my favorite to preserve because they are all an invitation into a specific moment that was worth broadcasting.