WBGO adds jazz gems to public broadcasting archive

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Becca Pulliam/WBGO

Betamax cassettes from WBGO's collection of jazz recordings.

An archive project underway at WBGO is preserving a treasure trove of jazz programming recorded over decades in tape formats that have faded into obsolescence. 

The collection, stashed in closets of the station’s headquarters in Newark, N.J., includes episodes of The American Jazz Radio Festival, a WBGO series that was recorded on Sony Betamax video cassettes during its run in national syndication from 1985 to 1991. Digital audio tapes and an unknown number of compact discs hold recordings of archived programs, live performances from New York City jazz clubs, and even airchecks of WBGO “Jazzathaans.”

Becca Pulliam, a jazz radio producer who came out of retirement to lead the project, estimates that the archive holds at least 1,000 interviews with notable jazz figures, including Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jamal, Betty Carter and Max Roach. 

With development and technical support from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and about $75,000 in grant funding, the WBGO Archive joins a small but growing collection of music content that’s accessible to the public, and preserved for posterity, through AAPB and the Library of Congress. 

During a recent interview at the station’s office on Wayne Shorter Way, which was renamed in honor of the recently deceased jazz saxophonist and native son of Newark, Pulliam marveled at a thumb drive she had received from Memnon, the Indiana-based company that’s digitizing some of WBGO’s recordings. The 2.5-inch drive held 10 two-hour episodes of The American Jazz Radio Festival, taking up 43 gigabytes of storage on the device. 

“It’s just unbelievable the space that’s going to be liberated by getting this stuff out of the ’BGO closets,” Pulliam said. 

WBGO jazz host Becca Pulliam
Pulliam (Photo: Candyce Mason)

In 2004, a decade before she retired, Pulliam did the yeoman’s work of burning CDs of WBGO’s 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape recordings. But the money ran out before she could digitize WBGO’s digital audio tapes and Betamax video cassettes. “I always felt that I dropped something that I needed to finish,” Pulliam told Current. 

WBGO’s inaugural GM, Robert Ottenhoff, who returned to the station as interim CEO in early 2020, asked Pulliam to work on the archives that year. It didn’t take any arm-twisting. In the process of preserving the station’s legacy, she has also been preserving her own radio career.

During her 30 years with WBGO, Pulliam worked on American Jazz Radio Festival and JazzSet, another nationally syndicated series that captured live jazz performances from 1992 to 2012. She also produced live New Year’s Eve specials from jazz venues around the country for 28 years.

One of the challenges of Pulliam’s archiving work is managing her joy in rediscovering WBGO’s rich musical history. At times, she sets out to spot-check the digital transfers but gets carried away and ends up listening to the entire recording.

 “I start taking notes, like when I was working on a script,” she said. “But it’s not a script anymore. I have to think about metadata now.”

“At the time that we made these shows, I was critical of our work,” she said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to get better at this’ or ‘This didn’t sound right.’ But that’s not what I hear now. Now it’s a pleasure to listen to this material.”

Grants back AAPB expansion

WBGO teamed up with AAPB to secure funding that would enable Pulliam to finish what she had started. Scott McCraw, WBGO’s director of strategic partnerships, called AAPB an “incredibly generous” partner.

The Grammy Museum Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation, a longtime public media funder, provided separate grants totaling $75,000 to the WBGO Jazz Archive. (Current is among the Wyncote Foundation’s grantees.)   

Casey Davis, AAPB project manager, described WBGO’s archive as a mid-sized collection. As stations like WBGO add their music recordings to the archive, she hopes more will “recognize AAPB as a home for their collections,” she said. 

Now in its 10th year, AAPB has preserved roughly 150,000 public TV and radio programs. The Mellon Foundation recently awarded a $16 million grant to AAPB to digitize another 150,000 programs over the next four years, essentially doubling the size of the collection, according to the grant announcement. 

The entire AAPB collection can be accessed in person at the Library of Congress and at GBH in Boston, but only two-thirds of the archive’s programs are accessible online through AAPB’s website. The remaining third can’t be accessed remotely because of rights issues, according to Davis.

Digitization is done at no expense to the stations, though the stations pay the staffers who inventory their archives and box up the tapes, Davis said.

Housing the WBGO Jazz Archive within the Library of Congress was especially appealing because even the rights-protected content will be accessible online, according to McCraw. The system that runs LOC’s website “has the capability of making anything rights-protected available to [the public], kind of like an electronic interlibrary loan,” he said. “You can get access to any of the files, rights-protected or not, for a certain amount of time, after which you lose access to them.”

WBGO can’t afford to acquire rights to rebroadcast, stream or produce podcasts from all of its archival recordings, McCraw said. But he expects the station will be able to mine the content on a limited basis. 

Interviews in the archive are “very editable” and could be used in podcasts, Pulliam said. But the music that would accompany the interviews is problematic. Producers would have to secure permissions from festival presenters and performers.

WBGO did secure a rights clearance to rebroadcast an archived recording of a live performance by McCoy Tyner, McCraw said. The 1997 performance was recorded at the Village Vanguard, the legendary Greenwich Village jazz club, and featured in a 2022 episode of Jazz Night in America, the WBGO series that’s distributed by NPR. Part of the recording had been produced and released as an album. A set that wasn’t included on the record ended up on the radio show, and it didn’t involve arduous negotiations. Tyner’s son, Deen, granted broadcast rights to Jazz Night because of his friendship with host Christian McBride.

“I don’t know if it would have been as easy without our esteemed host,” said Sarah Geledi, Jazz Night in America producer. 

“That’s an extraordinary example of how we hope to use these recordings,” said McCraw. “That was a gem from the archive, but it’s certainly not the only gem. These gems will be picked. … If there’s some important date coming up like the centennial of an artist, maybe ahead of time, we can start getting the rights together so we can maybe turn it into something.”

Voices from the past

The WBGO archive joins a small library of historic jazz programs already within AAPB’s collection. An archive from WRVR, a public radio station owned by New York’s Riverside Church until its sale and conversion into a commercial license, includes more than 1,000 episodes of Just Jazz, which aired from 1961 to 1971. WRVR programs hosted by the late Norman O’Connor, who was known as the “Jazz Priest,” are also in the collection. O’Connor served as a chaplain at Boston University and hosted shows on WBUR and WGBH-TV before landing at WRVR. 

A Boston jazz gem in the archive is The Evolution of Jazz, which aired in 1953 and 1954 on WGBH. It was hosted by the late Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist who wrote about civil liberties as well as jazz.

AAPB also holds more recent jazz radio productions, such as Friday Night Jazz With Reuben Jackson, which aired on Vermont Public Radio between 2012 to 2018. Jackson personally selected 17 episodes of the three-hour program that are available online.

And a collaboration between AAPB and KMUW-FM in Wichita, Kan., is digitizing thousands of recordings from eight Kansas public radio and TV stations, including recordings of live performances at the Wichita Jazz Festival and airchecks of KMUW’s Styles of Jazz show.  

Pulliam is unsure when she will finish her work on the WBGO Jazz Archive. But when she does, she’ll have more time to play music. She has a master’s degree in jazz piano.

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