Shawn VanCour Appointed Director of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force

Scholar of media archival studies leads project of the LOC’s National Recording Preservation Board.

Shawn VanCour says that when writing his 2018 book, “Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture,” one of the challenges he faced was the dearth of radio recordings from the very early years of U.S. radio broadcasting in the 1920s, which posed the challenge of “how to talk about the creative work of radio making, without being able to directly listen to the results of those labors.”

“Part of the contributions of that book, I think, are as much its method as its content,” says VanCour, an assistant professor of media archival studies in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. “It demanded, as a scholar, that I look at other kinds of sources to determine how things were made and how they sounded – doing sound historiography, in other words, without the sound.”

Today, VanCour serves as director of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB). He was one of the founding members of the RPTF upon its initial formation in 2014 and most recently served as its assistant director. 

In December 2020, the NRPB appointed VanCour director of the RPTF. The group’s mission, he says, is “to promote preservation of, scholarship on, and educational uses of radio collections from the earliest years of broadcasting through the present.”

“The ‘task force’ designation is in some ways a misnomer,” he explains. “We’re a national radio preservation initiative that brings together hundreds of scholars and educators, archivists and other information professionals, and private collectors from across the country.” 

VanCour notes that radio has long been one of the most popular sources of public information and entertainment, and continues to enjoy larger audiences than any other content delivery platform. However, “preservation of radio materials was traditionally deprioritized by most collecting institutions,” says VanCour. “The RPTF was established to help change this.” 

Over the past six years, RPTF members have conducted a national survey of extant radio holdings at institutions ranging from federal and state archives to colleges and universities, local museums and historical societies, and private collections; developed a publicly accessible national radio recordings database; facilitated successful grant applications preserving thousands of hours of at-risk recordings; and published a series of special issues of academic journals with university presses. 

“What we found was that the range of collecting institutions with radio holdings is incredibly diverse,” he says. “There are a lot of federal and state level repositories, a lot of college and university archives and libraries that have these recordings. But there are also a lot of local institutions with radio collections. They’re at historical societies and local museums, at community-based archives, and in the hands of state or local broadcasting associations and private collectors, as well in station libraries, which have collections of materials no one else has, that in some cases document decades of radio history. And a lot of these materials are not the things that aired on our national commercial networks. So, there are whole corners of our cultural heritage there that we would miss if we just focused on more traditional, large-scale collecting institutions.”

Professor VanCour says that the RPTF has currently documented over 3,000 extant radio collections in its national recordings database, which include not only sound recordings, but also paper documents, photographs, and other holdings. He describes the evolution of this database in his co-authored paper, “Building the National Radio Recordings Database: A Big Data Approach to Documenting Audio Heritage.”  

The creation of this database is part of a five-point mission statement for the RPTF, which includes fostering collaboration between scholars and information professions toward the preservation of radio history;developingan online inventory of extant radio collections, promoting preservation of endangered collections; facilitating educational uses of radio collections; and encouraging preservation and the academic study of radio history through facilitation of grants, the creation of research caucuses, and development of metadata on extant materials. 

VanCour has implemented a new organization structure to fulfill this mission statement, with three larger executive divisions that focuses on the issues of physical preservation of sound recordings, scholarly research on radio, and educational uses of radio collections. He notes that this educational work includes not only use of collections in university instruction but pedagogy at all levels, from elementary school through higher education.

The key to the task force’s success, Professor VanCour says, is its “cross-sector approach,” which is aimed as fostering collaboration between scholars, educators, and archivists.

“It’s founded on the principle that the goals of the information professionals in charge of managing these collections and the goals of researchers, teachers, and content specialists who want to use these collections, can and do align, and that together, these groups can accomplish more to promote preservation and use of these collections than they can do alone,” he says.

VanCour says that during the pandemic, the task force has been focused on assembling public resources on its website, but that preservation projects have also been continuing at archives throughout the country.

“Task Force members have continued to get some high-profile grants during the pandemic to do this physical preservation work,” he explained, “and it has not slowed anyone down much, I’m happy to say. Just in the first quarter of 2021 alone, our database team added 250 new collections to the database, so we’re continuing to find and get information on new collections.

“A lot of the collections that came up during the past year were collections held by local broadcasting stations, and the collections team is working increasingly now with private collectors, too, to get some of their collections documented. That’s another area that’s been important for us, outreach to private collectors, who in the past have often gone their own way; but building active relationships with the private collector community is really important, since they have some extremely rare recordings that just don’t turn up in many official repositories.”

Moving beyond better-known collections at larger institutions that document mainstream programming produced by national broadcasting networks, the RPTF has also championed previously neglected materials held by smaller institutions and nontraditional archives that document local programming created by and for traditionally underrepresented groups. 

“The work of the RPTF to date,” VanCour says, “has sought to preserve and promote radio histories and cultures at all levels, helping collecting institutions recognize and value their radio holdings and encouraging innovative scholarship and educational work that can cultivate new understandings of our collective audio heritage.” 

To advance these inclusive goals, the RPTF’s series of themed caucus groups explore funding opportunities, help identify and generate metadata on relevant collections, and encourage academic study and educational uses of radio collections, with strengths in areas such as African American and Civil Rights, Spanish-language broadcasting, Caribbean radio, college, community, and educational radio, gender and sexuality in radio, and the history of in-studio performances. The collections that the RPTF works with in some cases include programming created for distribution on national commercial networks, but VanCour notes that there are “many alternative traditions, from very local, community-oriented stations, educational stations, stations that broadcast in Yiddish or Spanish, stations whose programming is geared toward audiences of Black listeners, Indigenous audiences, pro-labor stations, religious broadcasters, and stations whose constituencies include other audiences neglected or poorly served by the commercial network system.” 

“The range of early broadcasting was very broad and continues to be so — there’s a lot of different radio out there,” VanCour continues. “We try to do deeper dives into some of these areas, to highlight collection materials and programming traditions that too often fall under the radar and have been written out of traditional histories.

“What we’re about is not just preserving but also actively transforming cultural memory – showcasing the incredible diversity of our collective audio heritage and creating space alongside better-known mainstream programming traditions for work on radio cultures that have been underrepresented and underappreciated in the past.” 

Professor VanCour notes that task force members have a strong track record of successful grants from a variety of federal funding agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, Council on Library and Information Resources, Institute of Library and Museum Services, and National Recording Preservation Foundation, which has enabled work on materials documenting the history of educational broadcasters, community broadcasters, stations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and others. 

“The increased support we’ve seen from federal funding agencies is really heartening,” says VanCour, “and has been an important part of the RPTF’s work. When we began, the number of radio preservation projects supported by these funding organizations was very small, but now we see multiple projects funded every year, including projects aimed at documenting the histories of local broadcasting traditions and programming aimed at traditionally underrepresented groups. So, [it’s] the idea that radio matters, and the kinds of radio that’s seen as worth saving has shifted noticeably since we started. I’d like to think our task force advocacy efforts have played some small part in that.”

But approaching radio preservation “as cultural memory work,” VanCour says, “means not only retrieving many local broadcasting traditions and affirming the importance of ‘the local’ as part of national heritage work, but also operating at an international level.” Some of the RPTF caucuses, he explains, work with groups outside of the United States, such members of the Caribbean Radio Caucus. This caucus includes members of the UCLA Library’s AV Preservation Lab and Digital Library Program, who have developed a partnership with the Instituto de Historia de Cuba to preserve collections that include rare recordings of Universidad del Aire (University of the Air), an educational radio program that aired in Cuba from 1949–1960 — one that VanCour says is remembered by many Cuban Americans in the United States.

The RPTF’s Spanish-Language Caucus is actively promoting identification and preservation of “borderland” radio heard by audiences across the US-Mexican border, and the task force also maintains a Cold War Communications Project led by scholars and archivists at the Hoover Institution and Santa Clara University. This project team has partnered with dozens of archives across North America and Europe that hold collections of internationally distributed radio programs from the Cold War era and is also now building partnerships with collecting institutions in other parts of the world. 

“The production, distribution, and reception of radio programming has never respected the boundaries of individual nation-states,” VanCour says, “so mapping national radio heritage means we need to operate at very local levels but also at an international level. Radio preservation isn’t just an issue for institutions based in the United States – radio is a global phenomenon, and preserving radio culture requires cooperation between organizations across multiple countries.”

Professor VanCour and other RPTF members have published extensively on the work and progress of their group. The most recent of these is a special issue of the Journal of Archival Organization that VanCour guest-edited with his colleague Laura J. Treat, an archivist at UC Santa Barbara.

“These publications are an important part of the outreach work that we do… documenting the work that our members are doing, so that the value of the collections we work with is recognized and that people have different models for preserving these materials and showing what new kinds of historical knowledge can be gained from these collections,” says VanCour.

Visit this link to read Professor VanCour’s article on “Locating the Radio Archive: New Histories, New Challenges,” in the Journal of Radio & Audio Media.

To learn more about the Radio Preservation Task Force, visit this link.