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One Woman's Quest To Preserve The Radio Archives At Historically Black Colleges

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When it comes to preserving important documents and recordings, it's often a race against time with few resources. That's what Jocelyn Robinson has seen on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. She's a radio producer who's been on a year-long project to find out what recordings those institutions have and whether or not they've been properly archived. NPR's Sophia Alvarez Boyd went to check it out.

SOPHIA ALVAREZ BOYD, BYLINE: When Jocelyn Robinson embarked on this project, she was hoping to find something special.

JOCELYN ROBINSON: That hidden Martin Luther King tape or some other kind of audio that would be remarkable.

ALVAREZ BOYD: And she's heard it's out there. Here's an email she got from a school in Greensboro, N.C.

ROBINSON: (Reading) I know we made recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy and many others. The library has since moved to a newer facility, and I don't know if those tapes made the transition or if they were thrown away.

ALVAREZ BOYD: That's an issue Robinson has come across often. She's been to a dozen college campuses, and the majority of them are not archiving or preserving their work properly, if at all.

ROBINSON: For folks who are trying to keep a radio station on the air or who are trying to educate students, that's not necessarily a priority. But also, as black folks, prioritizing our history and prioritizing our legacy is something that we don't get to have time to do.

ALVAREZ BOYD: Preservation is time-consuming and costly work. And HBCUs tend to have limited funding and much smaller endowments than non-HBCUs. In some places, Robinson has seen cassette tapes and floppy disks thrown into unlabeled boxes or bags, reel-to-reel tape that's past repair. At one school, she says, there wasn't anything saved from over 40 years of broadcasting. So Robinson is trying to get more schools at least thinking about preserving what they've got.

ROBINSON: I've come to find that very few radio stations have a relationship at all with the archivist on their campus.

ALVAREZ BOYD: About a third of historically black colleges and universities have a college radio station. But today, she's going to an HBCU where the radio station doesn't exist anymore - the University of the District of Columbia. She meets with curator Judith Korey.

JUDITH KOREY: Hello. Hello.

ROBINSON: It's nice to meet you.

KOREY: Welcome. Come on in.

ALVAREZ BOYD: Twenty-three years ago, the university was in a financial crisis, and it had to make a sacrifice. It sold its radio station, WDCU, for $13 million to C-SPAN.

ROBINSON: Selling a license - it's an incredible asset. And that asset is at risk in many places. So if - to keep the school open, the license has got to be sold, then what do we do with that continuing legacy of that station? And how can it be made useful for the campus community, for researchers?

KOREY: Here's some cassettes. But we keep our cassettes.

ALVAREZ BOYD: Unlike other archives that Robinson has seen, Korey shows her one that's organized and full.

KOREY: We actually physically carried all of those things over, all of - you can see the LPs, the - about 14,000 recordings, you know, CDs, all of the business records, membership lists, program guides, lots of photographs and tapes as well. So we made sure nothing that we could get our hands on was thrown out.

ALVAREZ BOYD: Here at the University of the District of Columbia, boxes are piled high, almost reaching the ceiling. And Korey pulls out more than a decade's worth of CDs and other recordings from rolling stacks. She plays a tape of the program "Cross Talk" with host Ernest White from May 8, 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "CROSS TALK")

ERNEST WHITE: We are going to try today to touch on some of the pertinent issues facing...

ALVAREZ BOYD: Riots and protests had broken out in some neighborhoods of D.C. after an African American police officer shot a Salvadoran man.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "CROSS TALK")

WHITE: ...In Mount Pleasant. Mayor Dixon imposed a curfew. And there were - what? - 66 arrests. And - but there was relative calm in that community. Well, we're going to talk a little bit about what is at the core of the problem.

ALVAREZ BOYD: It's not the undiscovered audio of Martin Luther King Jr. that Robinson was hoping for, but it's still a slice of history. Now she's even more determined to find some revelatory treasures.

ROBINSON: I still think that that hidden tape is out there. But we have to get the process started so that we can find it.

ALVAREZ BOYD: Her next step is to assess which schools are most at risk and help them develop a plan to save their archival audio.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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