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Archives Over the Air

Public media giant WGBH broadcast its first radio program—a live performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—in 1951, and its first television program, the kid’s show “Come and See,” in 1955. In the nearly 70 years since then, WGBH has amassed a vast amount of original content.

Today, WGBH archivists manage almost 750,000 items. Some are shows that many people know and love, like “Masterpiece Theater,” “Frontline” and “NOVA.” But much of the archiveis a treasure trove of unknown—and sometimes unedited and unaired—programming and original materials, such as a rare interview with Steve Jobs, interviews with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, a film featuring Dr. Timothy Leary making the case for LSD and Julia Child explaining how to prepare asparagus the French way.

With so many artifacts rich in historical and cultural significance, the question arose: How could WGBH make the public aware of this repository and bring items from the archive to light?

One way is through a collaboration with two Olin students, Matthew Brucker and Evan New-Schmidt, both class of 2020, and Olin Special Projects Strategist Jeff Goldenson. “We were looking to create a totally different kind of interaction with the archives,” says Karen Cariani, executive director of the WGBH Media Library and Archives.

Brucker and New-Schmidt were eager to tackle the creative design and engineering challenge, and embarked on a joint independent study with Goldenson to work with WGBH to develop a user experience that couldto bring new life to archived content.

“I was excited to get experience seeing a project through to completion over the course of a semester, and delivering it to stakeholders,” says Brucker. Plus, he was simply jazzed to work with the institution that brought him shows he adored as a child, like “Arthur” and “ZOOM!”.

In fact, the team wound up embracing that nostalgia factor. After several Olin-run brainstorming sessions, they decided to create an interactive exhibition combining classic broadcasts with classic technology—big knobbed, rabbit-eared TVs from the ’70s and early ’80s. Users would be able to touch the TV to change channels to find streams of content and even adjust the antenna for better reception. The TVs would be arranged in a vintage living room setting that captured the character of the technology and the content.

“Our intention was to bring back an era that had been lost in the archives by recreating an experience for people,” says New-Schmidt.

WGBH selected the content to feature. Many of the materials they selected were part of a major digitization project to preserve at-risk media. (Magnetic media, like videotape, has a short lifespan.) Brucker and New-Schmidt puzzled through the technical idiosyncrasies of how to reprogram old TVs. Using TV station equipment bought on eBay, they designed and built a low-power broadcast system to transmit the content to their newly assembled collection ofvintage, analog TV sets.

This past October, the students set up the Archives Over the Air installation at WGBH’s alumni reunion event as a way of testing their technical setup. During the event, current and former WGBH employees milled about the installation’s living room-based set. The TVs successfully broadcast multiple channels at same time—each with a different theme, such as children’s shows, dance or drama.

 

Many attendees had the chance to see content they had worked on decades ago.  “Lots of people didn’t realize they were creating history when we were shooting it in, say, 1963,” says Cariani. “But they were documenting social and cultural history.”

The alumni event influenced the direction the team is now taking as they set out to create a new iteration of Archives Over the Air. They’ve set their sights on a long-term interactive installation for the public, possibly at an institution such as the Boston Public Library. Some of the changes they’re considering are adding headphones so people can hear broadcasts clearly, and adding more monitors so people can engage with content of their choosing.

One of the new goals is to promote multigenerational curiosity. “I hope families see it together, and the kids’ excitement about seeing this old technology sparks a conversation with their parents about it,” says Brucker. With that in mind, the next installation may add contextual elements that give information about shows’ airdates and what was happening in the world at the time.

Revisiting the past, with or without youngsters, could give viewers a sense of perspective while appreciating what the WGBH archives—and public broadcasting as a whole—have to offer. “We’d love this installation to not just be for students and researchers, but also for lifelong learners who see a broadcast again and think about how their perspective changed over time,” says Cariani.

Learn more about WGBH’s effort to digitize its collection and access some of the most historically important content produced by the public TV and radio station online through its Open Vault.