Researchers Kyle Barnett and Christine Ehrick are saving Kentucky sound.
Not saving as in redeeming, of course. They’re preserving the audio that is unique to the state’s character.
As the Louisville representatives of the Radio Preservation Task Force, a national initiative from the Library of Congress, they find recorded sound throughout the city and state in need of keeping.
“We are looking at archival audio that might be in danger, and starting to identify which collections are in need of preservation,” says Barnett, an associate professor of media studies at Bellarmine University.
That audio isn’t just music. It’s oral history, newscasts, radio shows or even sound effect recordings — things that together weave a distinctly Kentucky portrait of both national news events and daily life.
“Many of the most important historical moments over the past century have been recorded in audio in different sorts and were broadcast over radio,” Barnett says. “There’s something different about hearing a breaking news report about the death of a president, let’s say, or some major historical event. Hearing that, hearing the voice, hearing the grain, hearing the effect, is fundamentally different than reading it.”
Barnett says there are more “slice of life” moments with regional resonance, like a program put on by WHAS radio that offered tips for farmers as they were planting and tending their crops.
But despite radio’s historical significance, it hasn’t always been the best guardian of its own past.
“Materials were rather haphazardly preserved,” says Christine Ehrick. She’s a professor of history at the University of Louisville and author of the book “Radio and the Gendered Soundscape: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950.”
“So part of it also is the preservation field catching up with and paying attention to radio, because a lot of work has been done in the preservation of film, a lot of work has been done on television, but radio has always been the forgotten, you know, stepchild of media and media history,” she says.
Both Ehrick and Barnett have been involved in the Radio Task Force initiative since its inception a little more than a year ago. They’ve identified the main possessors of archived material, which include the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, and Western Kentucky University libraries.
Next steps include targeting community and college radio stations, public radio archives, and then finally private collectors — but the pair hasn’t gotten that far yet.
You might imagine there’s a lot of material out there. According to Barnett, Kentucky has a long connection with radio, dating back to a man named Nathan Stubblefield “who may or may not have invented the radio, depending on whom you ask.”
Linking sound past and present are names in Kentucky’s radio history that Louisvillians will still recognize. Many of the city’s current television news stations had their start in radio.
“It’s been really exciting,” Ehrick says. “Just an an example, here at the University of Louisville archives, I think they said there are 360 transcription discs from WAVE Radio from the late ’30s to the ’50s.”
While the hunt has been exciting, Ehrick says, there are challenges that come with sound preservation. Take those 360 transcription discs sitting in the U of L archives. They haven’t been heard in so many years because the technology to do so isn’t readily available.
“The hope is that part of this task force, as it moves forward with money from the Library of Congress, whatever that may be … is that the funds would become available for actual digitization,” she says. “So that these materials are preserved, but also so that someone can actually get access to them.”
Another issue with the archival efforts is sorting out who actually owns the audio. Many of them are without a distinct owner. For example, the audio holdings that Bellarmine University has of Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic writer and monk: No one is quite sure to whom the tapes rightfully belong.
“We even have a category that has sort of emerged, orphan recordings or orphan media,” Barnett says.
Joshua Shepperd, national research director of the Radio Preservation Task Force, says while sound preservation presents challenges distinct from other archival work, there is also an opportunity to involve professionals from disciplines that seldom overlap.
“We just had our first conference as an organization in D.C. a few weeks ago,” Shepperd says. “It was open to individuals in academia, archivists, curatists, preservations and people who work in radio.”
Sheppard says the key to making this initiative successful will be in utilizing the talents of sound enthusiasts across fields to ensure the materials are not only preserved, but that they are accessible to educators and researchers in other fields of study.
“This isn’t a project that is simply about looking back,” he says. “It’s about making sure that materials are around for the future.”