HBCU Radio Preservation project expands to 29 stations

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Digital audio tapes from the archives of Elizabeth City State University's WRVS.

A radio preservation project focused on audio archives of Historically Black Colleges and Universities is expanding to 29 stations with a $5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. 

The HBCU Radio Preservation Project is a collaboration between the WYSO Archives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the Northeast Document Conservation Center of Andover, Mass. The partners will support HBCUs in digitizing their radio archives, contextualizing historical material through the production of oral histories and research, and building infrastructure to share their collections as digital media. 

The project began in 2020 as a pilot project involving four schools. Mellon provided a $250,000 grant to fund that work. Now WYSO and NEDCC, a nonprofit conservation center that was founded in 1973, will assist all HBCUs that operate radio stations. 

The universities all have campus libraries with archives, but “most of the radio stations don’t have relationships with their archivists,” said Jocelyn Robinson, founding director of the project at WYSO. “Radio is ephemeral, and we don’t think about there being materials associated with the sound.”

Preserving archival audio of HBCU stations will recover the voices of Black people who were active in historical events such as the Civil Rights movement and protests of the Vietnam War. Much of the material is from music programming. The public affairs programming reflects issues that were important on campus or in the local community. 

Robinson in the WYSO Archives.

The archives are “important to the campus and its history, to the station itself and its history, but also to all of the people within the community who could tune it in to hear gospel music … or to hear the commencement exercises,” Robinson said. 

As one of 24 stations participating in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s 2009 pilot project, WYSO got an early start in preserving its analog recordings. The collection included 3,000 tapes and other archival materials dating back to 1958, when the station launched its broadcast service, through the early 1980s. 

“There were Black voices within the [WYSO] collection that were really important from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s,” Robinson said. “That whole transition from the Civil Rights era into Black nationalism, into the anti-war movement, into the women’s movement. … There’s like really very vibrant voices of all sorts. But there were some particularly interesting Black voices, both locally and nationally.”

The preservation work inspired WYSO’s Community Voices project, which trained local community members to produce oral history interviews that contextualized the archival material. “WYSO started training community people to do interviews,” Robinson said, “and that kind of blossomed into something more, which was the Community Voices project.”

Robinson, an educator and independent producer, became a Community Voices producer in 2013. More recent projects include the WYSO storytelling project, “West Dayton Stories”; The Big Ponder, a podcast from the Goethe-Institut USA; and The Pulse, WHYY’s weekly radio series on health and science. 

She continues to produce radio stories that build on WYSO’s audio archive, including Rediscovered Radio, a series of short historical documentaries. “Women’s Voices, Women’s Music in the Archives,” a special Rediscovered Radio series that Robinson co-produced with WYSO Music Director Juliet Fromholt, released its first episode March 26.

Robinson credits her background in African American history and culture for inspiring her to focus on the Black voices in WYSO’s archives. Eventually, she received a grant from the National Recording Preservation Foundation to survey HBCUs about archival audio in their collections. The HBCU Radio Preservation Project began with that research, which was completed in 2020. 

Robinson’s presentations of findings from the HBCU survey were covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education and NPR’s Weekend Edition. Afterward, NEDCC approached her about forming a partnership. 

The Mellon Foundation provided a $250,000 grant in 2020 to support the new partners’ pilot project with four stations. Participating stations included WRVS at Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, N.C.; WFSK at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; WHCJ at Savannah State University in Savannah, Ga.; and WSSB at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. The next phase of the project, which runs through 2027, will serve all 29 HBCU radio stations.

Partners joining the project expansion include AAPB and Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center in Jackson, Miss., which holds a collection of oral histories of HBCU radio managers, staff and interns, Robinson said. 

Turning tape into ‘public history’

The HBCU Radio Preservation Project is implementing a three-step model of preservation.  

It starts with training in digital preservation, which includes oral history collection and disaster preparedness. Many HBCUs are located in communities that are at high risk of weather damage, Robinson said. 

Many stations aren’t able to play their archival audio and the recordings deteriorate, she explained. “[We are] working directly with both radio station staff and archive staff to build capacity, build their skill sets so that they can care for their materials.”

In addition to training, the project also offers a yearlong paid fellowship for a recent Master’s graduate with a commitment to preservation and a summer internship for current graduate students. 

The next step focuses on collections assessments that will involve radio station staff and institutional archives at their HBCU university. Much of this work involves reformatting analog material into digital formats.  

Jenohn Euland, an HBCU field archivist with NEDCC, works on cassette tapes from collection of Elizabeth City State University’s WRVS.

A team of preservationists will visit each campus to hold workshops, help with collections assessments and “really be boots on the ground,” Robinson said. With the permission of the HBCU, the digital files may be included in AAPB’s collection.

With oral histories of people who worked at HBCU radio stations, Robinson aims to “trace the experience of being part of HBCU radio,” she said.

The third step of the project is what Robinson calls the “public history” — making the collection an accessible resource for historians, storytellers and the public at large. Plans include producing a podcast, developing an independent interactive website and publishing academic research on the collection. Researchers could also present their findings at professional conferences, such as the National Association of Black Journalists and the Association of Education and Journalism and Mass Communications.

The engagement plan also includes public presentations and holding an annual symposium to discuss HBCU radio preservation and radio history, Robinson said.

“The public history … is really how we present this material both as scholarship, but also in ways that we can interface with the public,” Robinson said.

In addition to training for HBCUs and their stations, the project offers a yearlong paid fellowship for a recent master’s graduate who has a commitment to preservation. It also will offer summer internships for current graduate students to work with professionals. 

Robinson hopes that the HBCU Radio Preservation Project can serve as a model for other types of radio preservation. 

The project is “really looking at ways that we can undo hundreds of years of inequality and inequity,” Robinson said. It’s not prescriptive, but structured to allow preservationists to share  their knowledge and techniques “so that others can build capacity and sustainability in their own organization, their own institutions, their own stations and, and archives.”

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