When you've worked in radio for a while, cleaning the basement can
be a different kind of chore.
For me, it has meant sorting through boxes and milk crates full of
more than 20 years of reel-to-reel tapes of all sizes and formats,
cassettes, carts, LPs, 45s, more than a few DATs and even a minidisc or
two. Somewhere in there is precious stuff.
Much of what we do in radio is ephemeral — the traffic report,
weather and other things that can be important at the moment. But why
worry about keeping it forever?
A GM friend at a commercial station with a long legacy said that
when you have station history that goes back 50 years or more, nobody
really knows what they have. Many stations didn't save a lot of
Many stations have extensive archives on
analog media that could be transferred to linear digital
Still, some of these treasures have been found, and specials,
soundbites and retail products have surfaced as stations and networks
celebrate their history and bask in the glow of nostalgia.
Sentiment aside, radio's intellectual property could be financially
valuable in the future — let alone historically important. I
would never want to repeat one of the greatest failures to keep tape I
could imagine — the loss of nearly all of the tapes of The
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1972. In the midst of
some clearly forgettable sketches and interviews were some wonderful
gems. Radio has also lost its share of gems.
Quality, quantity and recovery
On a day-to-day basis, the new world of radio is digital storage
— on hard drive-based systems, mirrored for redundancy or
routinely backed up.
Dolby AC2, MP3 and MP2 coding formats are data-reduced, taking out
parts of the audio that can never be recovered. If you are going to use
the audio more than once, better to have it sound as perfect as
possible. With faster processors and cheaper storage via hard drives,
the consensus opinion is to go linear if you can, if possible with
24-bits and 96kHz sampling. If you can't afford to go linear yet, keep
the audio as high quality as you can.
The regularity of stations performing backups ranges from daily to
weekly to whenever they please. I spoke with one individual who
suggested that general managers stress the importance of backing up the
digital treasure by having the operations staff exchange the backup
tapes with bookkeeping to receive their paychecks.
Editing, editing, editing
As hard drive storage gets cheaper and cheaper, the bits get cheaper
to store, but managing the content can get more complicated. Every day,
stations, clusters, groups and networks are making decisions on their
digital content management. How much hard drive space your producers,
techs or hosts have to use has a direct relationship to with how much
of your content they will keep on your system.
If they are squeezed for space, you may hear about it from what you
don't hear, like an award-worthy commercial done for a hard-to-please
client that got deleted because there just wasn't room anymore.
You will always seem to need more space, but sometimes it's because
less-valuable content, work parts, duplicate files and plain junk are
taking up space. File maintenance is an important bit of housecleaning
to keep the system running well, but it's also important for the staff
to remember what it was that they put there in the first place.
Computer-based logging systems ease the
chores of storing, cataloging and retrieving audio files.
Eventually, you will need more digital storage space. The key is to
make sure you and your staff know what is in the system that might be
so valuable it shouldn't be erased.
Keeping the old stuff
Religious broadcasters, public radio outlets and some news/talk
stations seem more interested in keeping and reusing archival content.
Among the networks, news and talk archives seem to be of increasing
The broadcast rules in Canada require compliance logging, mandating
stations to keep 30 days of programming. There are computerized loggers
that accept multiple feeds. Stations that want to keep the audio longer
can transfer the files to some other media type or increase their
capacity. The same technology can be used to digitize analog content
for the future.
Some networks are interested in archiving for host and actuality
content for several years. This adds to the storage capacity
requirements. Other legacy issues are a problem, not just for old audio
formats, but for data backup systems. Some tape formats for tape backup
systems are getting hard to support.
It is best to get everything of value on to some digital format,
such as CD-R, at the highest digital resolution possible. While no
format can be guaranteed to be timeless, making a periodic digital copy
every couple of years will buy some time.
Using what you keep
For use on the air and the Web, there are commercial and
non-commercial stations and networks that want to keep every word and
program uttered. Keeping years worth of programming is more than a
storage issue — it's a major challenge for finding and reusing
When we turn audio into digital files, we can give it a
user-friendly name so we can associate a database file to it. We can
put it into categories. For pre-produced content, setting protocols and
applying labels may work well but I have a feeling we're going to miss
much of the value of our stored sounds with the need for so much manual
If we could search audio content the way we search text, the ability
to find value in our stored archives could improve dramatically.
Speech recognition and speech-to-text solutions being developed for
court reporting and captioning may hold an important solution. For
example, Fast-Talk Communications is developing a high-speed audio
search engine that has garnered the interest of security analysts and
telephone and Internet customer service operations. If that kind of
technology can be developed for use by broadcasters, it could turn
radio into a searchable treasure trove.
Whatever you store, you must back up. Whatever hardware and software
you purchase, it must be replaced. Hard drive space may be cheap, but
you will always long for more.
Now, back to the basement. If I can get my hands on a DBX II
decoder, I think I have a really valuable tape down there.
Hanley is director and general manager of WDUQ,
Thanks to Dave Scott of Scott Studios, Jay Hyrich of OMT
Technologies/iMediaTouch and Don Backus of Enco Systems for their help
in providing information in preparing this column.