He was hoping for something about the Titanic, but the newspaper from the early 1900s pleasantly surprised him nonetheless.
Jim Stephens, a sound engineer who specializes in reformatting old recording media, had discovered the newspaper stuffed inside of an old wax cylinder recording someone sent him to reformat.
Stephens likens working with old recordings to opening time capsules.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to be the one to open them,” he said. “It’s amazing how much recorded history is out there, even in basements and attics.”
For the last few years, Stephens also has been reformatting aging reel-to-reel tapes onto compact discs for KOPN, a community-sponsored radio station at 89.5 FM.
Some of these decades-old radio programs are being heard again in Columbia for the first time in years, as part of KOPN’s “Spring into the Arts” program.
The series has included rebroadcasts of national and local poets reading their works and children’s shows. In June, the focus has been on vintage local concerts, especially those featuring local artists.
KOPN is able to rebroadcast these programs, originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape decks, only after they have been reformatted to CD. The rebroadcasts are the culmination of a $3,314 grant from the Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs.
KOPN has been reformatting tapes in the station’s massive collection since 2004 with other state and local funding as part of its ongoing Reel-To-Reel Project.
David Owens, the station’s general manager, said that many radio stations are facing what he called a “transfer it or lose it” situation because of the limited shelf life of reel-to-reel tapes. After about 30 years, the tape starts to degrade and disintegrate, and KOPN’s best option was to reformat the programs onto CDs.
“We considered doing it in-house,” Owens said. “But it’s a very specialized thing, and it was far more effective to outsource.”
Stephens’ business, Deep Sky Audio, operates out of North Carolina.
Project Director Jenn Kimball said the cost per tape of reformatting runs anywhere from $12.50, if it is short and in good condition, to $35 if it is a longer tape or in poor condition.
Kimball acknowledged the challenges of deciding which tapes to save.
“It’s definitely an art, not a science,” she said. “We pick local first, because no one else has them, and oldest first, because we have the shortest time frame to work with.”
The selections are made more difficult by the fact that no one can listen to the tapes before they are sent for reformatting for fear of damaging them.
Certain grants and donors stipulate that certain types of programs be selected for reformatting. The Black Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at MU, for example, have donated money to reformat tapes relevant to their programs.
Shelda Eggers, administrative assistant in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, said that KOPN has done a lot of women’s programming through the years.
“We want to make that available for MU students in classes,” she said. “We like the idea of doing that.”
Kimball, an MU junior who wrote the grant request to the city, said she has used recordings as primary sources for college projects more than once. She hopes others will follow suit.
“We want people to use and hear them again,” she said.
Since the project started, Kimball said, about 550 recordings have been transferred. The station has inventoried about 3,000 reel-to-reel tapes, she said, and there are more that haven’t even been touched.
Marie Hunter, manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said several things stood out about the project to the Cultural Affairs Commission, especially the unique nature of the tapes as a resource.
“The diversity of music was definitely something interesting to the commission,” she said.
Kimball hopes to find more sources of funding in the future, but for now, she is happy with the results.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” she said, adding that they have received numerous requests from listeners for copies of the programs.
Stephens called the project a noble effort.
“It is very uncommon for a radio station to do this, because so few keep tape recordings,” he said, adding that none of the other projects he’s seen involved as many recordings as KOPN’s. “Many stations just don’t make the investment.”