Digital recordings put soundtrack of U.S. history at risk

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New digital recordings of key events in U.S. history and early radio shows are at risk of being lost much faster than older ones on tape, and many are already irrecoverable, according to a study on the nation’s audio heritage released Wednesday.

Even recent history - such as broadcasts and audio chronicling the 9/11 attacks and even the 2008 presidential election - is at risk because digital sound files can be corrupted, and widely used CD-R discs only last three to five years before files start to fade, said study co-author Sam Brylawski.

“I think we’re assuming that if it’s on the Web it’s going to be there forever,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”

The first comprehensive study of the preservation of sound recordings in the U.S., being released by the Library of Congress, also found that many historical recordings already have been lost or cannot be accessed by the public. The material includes recordings of most of radio’s first decade from 1925 to 1935.

Shows by singers Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby, as well as the earliest sports broadcasts, are already gone. There was little financial incentive for early broadcasters such as CBS to save sound files, Mr. Brylawski said.

Digital files are proving to be both a blessing and a curse.

Sounds can be easily recorded and transferred and the files require less and less space. But the problem with the newer technologies, Mr. Brylawski said, is they must be constantly maintained and backed up by audio experts as formats change. That requires active preservation, rather than simply placing files on a shelf, he said.

The study co-authored by public radio producer and on-air personality Rob Bamberger, was mandated by Congress in a preservation law enacted in 2000.

The old analog formats that remain are more physically stable and can survive about 150 years longer than contemporary digital recordings, the study warns. Still, the rapid change in technology to play back the recordings can make them obsolete as well.

Recordings saved by historical societies and family oral histories also are at risk, Mr. Brylawski said.

“Those audiocassettes are just time bombs,” Mr. Brylawski said. “They’re just not going to be playable.”

There are few, if any, programs to train professional audio archivists, the study found. No universities currently offer degrees in audio preservation, though several offer related courses.

A hodgepodge of state anti-piracy laws passed in the last century also has kept most sound files out of the public domain before U.S. copyright law was extended to sound recordings in 1972. The study found only 14 percent of commercially released recordings are available from rights-holders. That limits how much preservation can be accomplished, Mr. Brylawski said.

The study calls for changes in the law to help preservation. As it stands now, he said, copyright restrictions would make most audio-preservation initiatives illegal.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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