Preserving WQED footage leads to plenty of surprises
In a control room filled with vintage video equipment, Media Preserve video technician Chris Shevlin plays old 16mm black-and-white WQED-TV news footage into a Macintosh computer during the restoration and digitizing process. The company is recovering and restoring a variety of old film, kinescopes and tape for WQED-TV. The company rebuilds and uses equipment long ago consigned to storage or junk as it's the only way to play back old media. The restored images are digitized for current use.
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At The Media Preserve, the audio/video division of Preservation Technologies in Cranberry, each day of work preserving old footage from the archives of WQED is a little bit like Christmas.
When preservationists open a film canister or begin to play an old videotape, they never know exactly what they might find or what condition it will be in.
"We see stuff no one has seen before," said Bob Strauss, Media Preserve vice president of marketing and sales. And if the footage has been seen, in many cases, it's been decades.
WQED is one of 22 public broadcasting radio and television stations nationwide to advance to Phase II of the American Archive Pilot Program managed by Oregon Public Broadcasting for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This program marks the first effort to create a uniform process for preserving, archiving and indexing media produced since the earliest days of public broadcasting. It also aims to rescue deteriorating collections that are gathering dust in public broadcasting stations nationwide.
In Phase I, OPB offered 25 stations up to $10,000 in grants to locate and inventory portions of their tape/film library related to the American Civil Rights Movement and local spinoffs of Ken Burns' "The War." Phase II gives stations up to $100,000 in grant money to restore and digitize a small portion of what's in their archives.
In going through its own video library, WQED employees discovered content on many different media formats, including some 16mm films that "literally we have not looked at since they were put into cans and stuck on a shelf 40 and 50 years ago," said executive director of marketing and communications Rosemary Martinelli.
"Heritage," a public affairs interview show from the mid-1950s, is among the programs getting close attention.
"We found four half-hour programs where there are interviews with some of the most prominent people of the day," Martinelli said, including Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey, known for integrating baseball with Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Other canisters on the shelf at The Media Preserve are labeled "Eleanor Roosevelt."
The station has also pulled out "WQED Newsroom" episodes from the 1960s and 1970s, some in black and white. One program, which could be "Newsroom" or maybe "Jazz Beat," includes an interview with Louis Armstrong. At first, the preservationists could not find the audio track, but eventually they came upon it. (Some media formats recorded and stored audio and video separately.)
Martinelli said when WQED embarked on this project using a $100,000 CPB grant, she was thrilled to discover Media Preserve in the station's proverbial backyard. At least three other PBS stations are also using Media Preserve to clean up programs from their libraries. The company also helped The Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College and Family Communications preserve and digitize more than 700 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
On Wednesday morning, Pat Shevlin, Media Preserve's director of technology, used vintage equipment to play the opening minutes of a 1980 documentary, "The Changing Face of Pittsburgh," reported by Herb Stein and featuring plans for One Oxford Centre and PPG Place and footage of the implosion of the Carlton House Hotel. Earlier he showed a clip from "WQED Presents: Is Anybody Listening?" which included scenes of August Wilson in the Hill District.
Depending on the condition of the media, preservationists must go through different time-consuming cleaning processes before the media is played. And every program is recorded the first time it's run through a machine in the event the aging original is damaged or falls apart and cannot be played again.
"Right now these are elegant paperweights," said Strauss, nodding toward a 2-inch quad videotape reel. "They were never meant to be archival. They were working broadcast media. But once you digitize it, it becomes valuable."
In digital form, the footage could be used by anyone -- licensed to filmmakers, made available to educators -- without having to go through a preservation process or finding equipment to play a long-dead media format.
WQED's Phase II preservation efforts -- about 25-30 hours of older material cleaned up by Media Preserve and another 15 hours of more recent material digitized in-house and cataloged at WQED -- are due to OPB next month. A future CPB goal is to secure additional funding to expand this national media library and make its contents available to the public.
"We hope it's the start of what can be a major ongoing initiative," Martinelli said, "and we hope there are funders out there who can help us keep it going."
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First Published December 25, 2009 12:00 am