I started looking into the weird and messy fileworld of internet radio archives because I was trying to find my storytelling forebears.
Last winter, I started an audio storytelling project at Brown, Now Here This. At the time, there hadn’t been any outlet for podcasts or narrative-driven radio on campus. As far as my team knew, Brown students had never been making the same kind of content that we were. As soon as we launched our new radio project, though, we started hearing that yes, actually, there was a precedent for the kind of storytelling we were doing at Brown. A really high-quality, successful precedent. The only problem was that no one knew how to access their story archives.
Inside Out was started at Brown by Paul McCarthy ‘01.5. It was a student group making narrative audio features for Brown Student Radio; they published weekly, work that sounded like a student-produced, Providence-specific twist on shows like This American Life. What they were doing sounds a lot like what we do at Now Here This, which is why I wanted to listen to what they made. But, it turns out that finding the programs produced by Inside Out in the early 2000’s – finding any internet radio produced in the early 2000’s – is pretty difficult, maybe impossible.
The physical studio space for BSR probably looks like what you’d expect for a college radio station – just a little less populated. Inside Out was being produced at the station’s hippest and most energized time, when live shows happened in the studio space every week, and the station had, as far as I can tell from the old posters littering the space, a pretty robust campus presence. Since I’ve been at Brown, there’s a lot of open air time. The studio is decorated with polaroids of people who graduated in the early 2000’s, and the floors are lined with boxes of BSR sweatshirts designed and printed ten years ago. I go inside to look for any physical archive space that might be there, and there isn’t anything obvious; if there are files stored on hard drives, they’re probably buried under a pile of XLR cables in a dusty equipment closet. No one I know who works at BSR these days knows how to access them.
So I decide to search for the records online. The BSR website has the same feel as the studio space: funky and a little bit flashy, with mismatched fonts that are reminiscent of the early aughts. I use the search function to look up Inside Out, and, optimistically, a show page comes up. Less optimistically, the page contains archives of just seven shows, three produced in 2004, and four from 2003. There’s no record of the shows produced weekly in 2000, 2001, or 2002. The link that claims to redirect toward archives of older seasons is broken.
This isn’t just BSR, and it isn’t just a fluke of broken links. I corresponded with Andrew Bottomly and Jeffrey Morris, who recently presented at the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference that happened in February. They’re working on creating a new archive of podcasts and early internet radio; Bottomly studied the history of podcasts for his dissertation work, and Morris is an assistant professor of Media and Cultural Studies with a focus on new media use in everyday life. I asked them a lot of questions: how common is it for early internet radio to be inaccessible? Why is some radio preserved online and some isn’t? Are there secret internet troves of old online radio somewhere? Some kind of hard drive database, maybe? What they told me was basically “we lost it all.” Here’s a real quote from Andrew:
“I think most of early internet radio is simply gone. Of course, a lot of the content was simulcast, so there may be broadcast archives somewhere – but it’s going to be just the audio, not the full webcast package. For content that was web-only, in many cases the individual producers or institutions (stations, networks, etc) very well might have saved something. However, that means having to track down each individual person/program, and even then you end up dealing with lost files, outmoded formats, or just simple reluctance from people or institutions who don’t want to be bothered with the time and effort it’d take to dig up something from 15+ years ago. I’ve tried in a few cases and had moderate success, but more often than not my inquiries either get outright ignored or strung along.”
“To my knowledge, there’s no organization out there saving other people’s work in any sort of strategic way. I don’t think any one’s paying attention, period. I don’t know how well aware people are of the gaps. I just don’t think the problem occurs to anyone.”
Andrew and Jeffrey told me that the Internet Archives’ Wayback Machine is only moderately useful in archiving audio material; the machine captures websites sporadically, and the embedded audio files are often incomplete or impossible to play. Even when particular producers archive their own work, they told me, there’s not a real record of the early internet radio experience.
“In some cases you can get the audio but not the webpage, or the webpage but not the audio – it’s almost impossible to get an accurate representation of the entire constellation of texts and paratexts.”
The preservation of podcasts – downloaded as files, rather than streamed – seems to be a bit more routine. But Andrew told me that there’s a false sense of permanence, even there. The smaller independent podcasts produced in the early years of the medium often had their servers disconnected; there are a lot of broken links. And, especially with more popular podcasts, producers censor their own archives, removing material from online databases as their publication grows and changes.
The conversation about archiving audio is happening. The National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress is working to collect historical tape; they organized the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference. National Public Radio has an entire work group dedicated to archiving what they’ve produced, and WFMU, the longest running freeform radio station in the US, has archived all of their audio content going back to January 1, 2001. But nobody seems to know how to address the fact that most of the early audio work that students, and basement podcast producers, community radio stations were streaming online – content that changed the form of radio – might be completely irrecoverable.
After hearing that news from Andrew and Jeffrey, and after giving up on searching for the Inside Out records online, I called Paul McCarthy. I figured that even if the episodes weren’t publicly accessible, the guy who started the project must have them stored away. Right?
Paul didn’t have the records. But his colleague, someone he’d worked with at BSR back in the day, did. She had them stored on a hard drive somewhere; she was living in Chicago now. And when I think about the content that independent producers like the Inside Out students worked so hard to make, in many cases teaching themselves, pushing their teams to put some kind of new content on this new kind of radio, I have to believe that most of it is stored away somewhere like that. In a basement, maybe, totally inaccessible to the public, probably. But still, stored. So that even if I can’t listen to it today, somebody sometime will be able to.
At least, I hope so.