For WNYC archivist, it’s a painstaking labor of love

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He is not trying to formulate the theory of relativity, but with his head crowned by a dense flaring growth of gray hair, archivist Andy Lanset easily brings to mind the popular image of Einstein. Lanset's connection with space and time, however, is much more down to earth. His is a monumental operation and responsibility. He must discover, retrieve and archive a magnitude of broadcast content, much of which is unique, irreplaceable and of immense cultural and social significance. At the moment, Lanset — the first and only archivist for the famed Municipal Broadcasting Station, since it went on the air July 8, 1924 — is fighting for space and time.

Whether by design or coincidence, WNYC's diverse personnel are in the midst of packing up and moving to larger quarters in July 2007, the first move in 80 years. The current space is inundated with over 50,000 audio formats of all types, 30,000 of which Lanset has listened to, reformatted and catalogued. They represent the compressed history of New York City's unique municipal broadcasting station for some 70 years. This is in addition to new items that turn up, such as a collection of several thousand old sound effects and production music records. Add photographs, memorabilia, reports, news items, program guides and other institutional records, and one can begin to realize the enormity of his job.

Feeling crunched in with it all, Lanset said, with a touch of gloom in his voice, "It's all very complicated and we may not be able to move by July. It's taking a little longer for one thing, to build the new place. I'm slowly doing inventory and packing things and waiting to get a secure staging area to pack materials."

The whole undertaking is very sensitive and requires painstaking labor. It is not a matter of finding old audiotapes and putting them on a shelf for storage. Imagine trying to play old 78 records on LP or 33 1/3 formats on current audio equipment. This is where a preservation specialist comes to the rescue. The process requires patience and selectivity.

"With older analog systems, you have to play it back at normal or regular speed. You can't double-time it or transfer it at higher speed," Lanset explained. Another factor that adds to the pressure is the threat of rapid deterioration due to the age of analog tapes, the poor quality of tape stock and storage conditions. A study published in 2005 found that some 84 percent of historical sound recordings spanning jazz, blues, gospel, country and classical music in the United States, made from 1890 to 1964, have become virtually inaccessible.

From a wide variety of audio formats that include cylinders, wire, wax, shellac, acetate, vinyl and polyester, among others, Lanset must determine the proper playback medium in order to listen to and preserve these historic recordings. Tapes must be inspected to determine such arcane matters as tape curl, splicing and any mildew collected due to improper storage. In addition, there is the necessary cleaning and restoration, as well as the necessity for carefully calibrated playback equipment, so as not to cause damage at friction points.

Space limitations are also critical at this stage.

"Dealing with storing all this stuff is also something I spend a lot of time with," Lanset said. "We're trying to get a lot of material cataloged and stowed off site because we're running out of space here. And then there are the temperature and humidity issues that go along with proper storage. In all, it's a lot of work, and very rewarding."

Move to Hudson Square

Anticipating the move from 51,400 square feet of rent-free space in the Municipal Building at 1 Centre St. to two-and-a-half floors of a 12-story former printing building at 160 Varick St., Lanset said, "When we move, we will be implementing a whole new digital asset-management system."

The power of digital technology to preserve public broadcasting's audio, film and video history is an extremely important need for countless radio stations, according to Congressmember Edward Markey, chairperson of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

The upcoming relocation is in its own way as historically significant as was the acquisition of WNYC from the city on Jan. 7, 1997, by private citizens known as the WNYC Foundation. Previous administrations had threatened to close or sell the stations because of fiscal priorities. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani administered the final coup de grace, selling it to the foundation for a relatively small sum of $20,000 (WNYC-TV went for $207 million), saying that the city didn't belong in the broadcasting business.

WNYC-AM was established on June 2, 1922, making it one of the United States' oldest municipal radio stations. Its legacy was always extremely frugal, as it first began broadcasting on 570 AM with a secondhand transmitter shipped form Brazil. The FM station was added in 1943. Both stations were owned by New York City until it transferred ownership of the licenses to the foundation.

During its formative years, the station even lacked funds for a record library and reportedly borrowed albums from record stores around the Municipal Building. The Masterwork Hour, radio's first program of recorded classical music, received its impetus from a listener who began loaning classical records to the station in 1929. The notable NBC radio commentator H.V. Kaltenborn brought "The Current Events Bee," radio's first quiz program, to WNYC in 1926.

A precursor to the station's record of notable live remote broadcasts was the hero's welcome from Mayor Jimmy Walker to Charles Lindbergh in 1927 after Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris. Walker described WNYC's mission in two succinct sentences: "This is a station for the people. It cannot be bought and it is not a political agency."

Indeed, during the Great Depression in 1931, WNYC provided special programming, including the daily reading of retail food prices, and continued to keep New Yorkers apprised of the cost of food during wartime rationing. And on Dec. 7, 1941, WNYC was the first radio station in the United States to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was Morris Novik who in 1938, as the station's director, made this mission a matter of policy, dedicating all its programming solely in the public interest and, in effect, creating public radio.

This mission gave rise to impressive accomplishments, such as the creation of the American Music Festival in 1940 and performances by famous folk singers Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Bob Dylan, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger and the great performer of American song Oscar Brand, who still can be heard in WNYC studios. As late as 1951 during the cold war, the public interest was served by broadcasts of the New York State series "Plan for Survival."

But over the years mass audiences gradually shied away from broadcasts of government hearings, daily United Nations sessions, City Council meetings and other dry, often dull, city-oriented content with a slice of music and news parceled in between. Dry though these might have been, WNYC had a small but diehard following. The station's policy of requiring its entire announcing staff to serve with "distinguished anonymity," meaning that no one was to identify who was speaking, emphasized that it was the municipality that was important.

The municipal programming emphasized city functions, administration news, safety, education and, secondly, music and culture. This was totally opposite of public radio, with its concern with culture and entertainment and very little if any dull city information.

But there always existed some confusion about the distinction of public radio versus municipal broadcasting, a confusion that caused a great city to abandon an irreplaceable entity.

Money changes everything

The station's mission to operate as an authentic municipal radio service began to dissipate in late 1960, when announcers began to identify themselves and others. This came about through the adoption of on-air fundraising, a staple of public broadcasting. Listeners wanted to know who was asking for money. The end of municipal broadcasting came with Mayor John Lindsay in 1971 exacting severe budget cuts and layoffs that forced longtime station director Seymour Siegel to resign in protest.

Yet, WNYC's new owners, the foundation, might be considered a perfect model of public radio with diverse offerings of news, educational, cultural and public affairs programming and a strong focus on building a national presence. The station reports that it is now the most listened-to public radio station in the nation, with an audience of 1.1 million listeners. Yet, on a relative scale, few New Yorkers outside of Manhattan are aware of the station. And many listeners over age 40 identify it primarily as the station that broadcast Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics during a 1945 newspaper strike, even though he only did it three times. He was heard, however, regularly on his program, "Talk to the People."

It is the foundation, however, that has made it possible for Andy Lanset to realize his goal of creating a vast repository of the history of WNYC broadcasts. With an eye toward the future, he was formally appointed by Dean Capello, vice president of programming, as archivist for WNYC in 2000. Luckily, throughout the years, though there was no archivist, nobody threw anything away. Things were saved in many scattered areas. This frugality was more out of negligence than the thought of preservation. And now, as if paying penance for sins of neglect, archivist Lanset dedicates most of his waking hours to picking through the grave of artifacts, digging up the WNYC that was, which bears only a tenuous relationship to the WNYC that is. But this is his calling.

Indeed, as an 8-year-old, he was already collecting and cataloguing records and windup phonographs for a card file. As a budding archivist, his search took him to flea markets armed with money he earned working a paper route. A former freelance reporter, he evaluated and preserved audio materials for New York University's Wagner Labor Archives, Columbia University and other institutions. Now his support comes, not from paper routes, but from the dedication and encouragement of two assistants and two radio stations. His cramped office doesn't dampen his enthusiasm or drive, which he puts to good use in the struggle for fiercely competitive grants.

"I love collecting," he said. "I'm always eyeballing trashcans. Even when I'm home, I search everywhere, even online, busy looking for bits and pieces for history notes. We're always looking, searching everywhere," he said, while surveying his immediate stack.

"So much of what we deal with on a regular basis has been dealt with in the past," Lanset observed. "For example, current fears about terrorism and threats — we can revisit some of these same attitudes and feelings if we go back to some of the World War II material we have where there were daily air-raid drills and a lot of civil defense activity took place."

By virtue of WNYC's function as a municipal station, it became the city's monitor of important events and was host to movers and shakers of importance not only in New York but throughout the nation. That being so, Lanset's selection policy is total inclusion.

Lanset speaks with admiration for the pre-foundation period.

"The station was run by the city and it was at the mercy of the budgetary issues," he said. "Sometimes it did amazing things on a shoestring budget. We still strive to be the voice of New York City."

In the meantime, the material continues to swell.

"The stuff that gets catalogued amounts to 25 to 50 hours of new material each week," he said. "I've got a job for life."

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