Who'll Save Pacifica Radio Archives' Treasure Trove of Progressive Voices?

The reel deal!EXPAND
The reel deal!
Photo by Gabriel San Roman / OC Weekly

The Pacifica Radio Archives calls the second story of KPFK's North Hollywood station home for now. Endless reels of radical radio are stored at a cool 64 degrees with controlled humidity levels. The storage provides safekeeping for the Pacifica Network's five-station legacy of documenting social movements since 1949. Rare recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Upton Sinclair, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X form part its gems. But is the archives' precious collection at peril? 

Earlier this week, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters put out a call to action to "preserve and protect" the archives. NFCB Chief Executive Officer Sally Kane wrote a letter to the Pacifica Foundation Board stating that privatizing or selling the collection off would be "a fundamental betrayal of the values and spirit" that it represents. "We believe an educational institution is the best avenue," Kane wrote, suggesting a different course. 

It all came as news to the staffers. "I'm surprised that Kane did not contact anyone from the Pacifica Radio Archives before sending out the call to action," Interim Archives Director Mark Torres tells the Weekly. "Frankly, it's shocking."

The archives have undeniably fallen on tough times. Back in June, Pacifica imposed budget cuts that laid off one archive staffer and reduced pay by 25% across the board. Former Archives Director Brian DeShazor resigned quickly after the austerity measures took effect. The Pacifica National Board didn't return the Weekly's request for comment. Board Chair Tony Norman did tell Current that there are "no plans of privatizing or selling the archives," but would consider working with a university if the network could no longer afford to house its own collection. 

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There's one point of agreement for all interested parties: that the archives are a national treasure. "It is the only archive of its type in North America," says Josh Shepperd, Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force. "The recordings are some of the best primary sources for activist history." The Weekly has dug in the vault for its people's history articles (most recently for our cover story on Malvina Reynolds) and the archives house OC rarities like a 1968 Dr. King speech given in Anaheim. But Shepperd became concerned with the future of the archives' more than 90,000 hours of recordings when the Network backed out of the Task Force's initiative to have academics write grants for digitizing and preserving the collection on their behalf.

"I've never seen anything like this anywhere," Shepperd says, who is also a Media Studies professor at Catholic University. "Why would they turn away all this free labor?" All the changes had the Task Force deem the archives as an "endangered collection." The NFCB referenced Shepperd's writings in making its own case. More recently, Shepperd's been in conversation with Torres, hoping to collaborate in finding a local Southern California university for preservation purposes, but there are reservations, still. 

"We're not going to send the entire collection to a university and lose access to it," Torres says. Pacifica programmers regularly rely on staff to provide historical audio clips quickly and that could change with the collection being housed outside the network. Torres tells the Weekly that he isn't opposed to digitizing the archives at a university, just not all at once. The archives have already digitized 15,000 tapes so far with 35,000 to go, but could definitely use help with disintegrating reels looming on the horizon. "I have yet to speak to a university that has the resources to professionally transfer and archive materials; We have the infrastructure for all of that here."

In the meantime, Torres, who has worked with the archives since 1990, wants to expand revenue streams including doing outreach university classrooms where recordings can be assigned to students by professors. The archives also want to build their notoriety outside of ivory towers and into the public's eye like when an early Bob Dylan interview from the vault got re-imagined as an animated short on YouTube thanks to Quoted Studios' "Blank on Blank" series. 

"We're preserving the legacy of the Pacifica Network, "Torres says. "We need to stop being the best kept secret in America."

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