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Preserving Vintage Radio Recordings
New Jersey collector Greg Lentine lent the Sarnoff Collection a set of 80 oversize discs preserving Mystery Theater programs originally broadcast by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio, a major rival of the RCA/NBC conglomerate associated with the David Sarnoff Research Institute (the entity – to make a long story short – behind the Sarnoff Collection at TCNJ). This collection of discs preserves dozens of serialized shows from January 4, 1949 to March 21, 1950 and thus captures a unique part of the history of radio. Working with a very patient collector, in a process interrupted by Covid-19, the Sarnoff has digitized the full suite of recordings.
As lockdown ended, Sarnoff volunteer Jonathan Allen outlined a solution to the challenges offered by the project, and then acquired, put together, modified, and tested a set of components meant to bridge middle-of-the-last century analog technology and today’s digital storage and playback environments. To give just two quick examples of the thorny problems the project presented, since the recordings are a non-standard weight and size, the vintage turntable’s platter drive had to be modified to maintain accurate rotation speed and its tonearm position and length altered with exquisitely simple metalwork and beautiful lap-joinery to allow cartridge and needle to track accurately across the entire disc. (Two side notes: Jonathan will insist this is all in a day’s work, and djs “of a certain age” may resent the alteration of the turntable. To the first point, sorry, my friend, but the author gets the last word, and to the second, this device was rescued from the trash, so…)
This past summer, student worker Stenneth Swaby joined the project. Just as the long-awaited digitization process began, several last-minute technical roadblocks (aka “opportunities for further study and reflection”) revealed themselves. Stenneth and Jonathan worked together to find elegant solutions to these problems, and then Stenneth was on the job, playing and digitizing the discs, editing the resulting files to remove “dead air,” and titling and storing the files consistent with the conventions used by such institutions as the Library of Congress that collect and make available similar audio materials.
The next-to-last step in the project was the return of the set of recordings to Greg Lentine; the final step – the one we’re moving into now – is creating a web presence supporting access to the material. We very much look forward to interacting with the folks who will access and enjoy – and share their thoughts on – this resource, and we will announce that access here and celebrate it with an event we will publicize here and through our social media and email newsletter.
Our gratitude goes to Greg, to Jonathan, to Stenneth, and to all of you who we hope will share your thoughts about this unique collection and the period it represents.