Abigail Shneyder was selected to receive an Enrichment Grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. With this grant, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Radio Preservation Task Force conference. You can read Abigail’s reflection below, read past grantee reflections here, and visit the PCSE website to learn more about all of our grant programs.
From February 26-27 of this year I was fortunate enough to attend the Radio Preservation Task Force conference in Washington D.C. The aim of the conference was to bring together people who were committed in some way or another to preserving American radio (and aural) history as suggested by the conference title: Saving America’s Radio Heritage: Radio Preservation, Access, and Education. I was invited to attend because I had recently produced the 75-years anniversary video/documentary for WESU, Wesleyan’s college and community radio station. Luckily registration to the conference was free, but transportation, of course, was not. To cover the fees incurred by D.C. metro cards, midnight and 6am taxi lifts to and from train stations, and round-trip tickets for the six-hour Amtrak journey each way, I found myself actually hopeful while applying for a PCSE Enrichment Grant. I am so grateful to the Patricelli Center for funding a significant chunk of my trip; it was well worth it, I promise! For the rest of this post I’ll describe the experience that had the greatest impact on me from my few days in this nation’s capital city. Long story short: I ask the first question of the conference, and I get a dismissive response. In a way, it’s a very Wesleyan story, you’ll see. Here we go!
The first day of the Radio Preservation Task Force conference took place in the Library of Congress James Madison Building in Washington D.C. While waiting for the conference to begin formally in the Mumford Room, I eyeballed C-SPAN cameras and crew around the room and nibbled nervously on some pineapple from the refreshment table. The room started to fill up, and fill up completely. There were about 240 people in attendance that day, which was over 100 more than expected. The thought Is it just a fluke that I’m here? circled around my head, especially as I glanced at attendees’ name tags, noting representatives from the NPR Archives, Pacifica Archives, the Library of Congress, the Prometheus Project, and scholars from universities and radio societies from across the country. But the conference got underway shortly, and I became lost in the idealistic prose of Paddy Scannell, professor of and author on Media and Communications extraordinaire and the very first keynote speaker.
Scannell spoke romantically of how listening to voices from the past was in a way resurrecting life, the soul of the speaker retransmitted forward in time. He spoke of how sound is one of the most ephemeral of media; words are lost the moment they’re enunciated; how do we preserve something so fleeting? I thought the talk was quite lovely, but something in my head clicked when he suggested that film or television would not be nearly as effectual without the audio content; in other words, this is where my Wesleyan education kicked in. I asked myself, what about people who cannot access sound? More specifically, what about deaf communities? So, when the talk was over, and no one seemed eager to ask the first question, I thought: here’s my shot!
You can watch the entirety of my question and answer, lasting under a minute and starting at the 1-hour and 8-minute mark, in this clip on C-SPAN online (you can also watch the rest of the talk, too, of course!). In any case, I stumbled over to the center aisle, took a microphone in hand, began my question, and realized that my voice was still not audible to the rest of the room. With the situation not resolving quickly, I decided simply to project loudly, and then essentially asked: What about the power of audiovisual media minus the audio for people without access to sound, such as deaf communities? I hurried back to my seat, as the response echoed through the conference hall: I’ll tell you, what I really have to say doesn’t speak to the deaf communities. Next question please.
If I hadn’t already slid back to my seat, I would have challenged him even further. I would have asked the question from a different angle. But the conference moved on, and his response continued to ring in my ears; I am a hearing person, and at the time I was also a rather let-down person. Did I do something wrong? I really should have asked that question better. Maybe I really wasn’t meant to attend this conference after all?
Suddenly, I couldn’t focus so well on the Q&A session. I felt like I had asked a dumb question in front of a room full of impressive people, and the whole interaction would soon be on C-SPAN—C-SPAN! I don’t exactly remember what questions came next, but eventually the session was over, so after some thunderous applause, people got up and started to move about. I stayed glued to my seat because the panel discussion I would subsequently attend occurred in the same room, and by then I was furiously texting friends trying to dissipate some of my out-of-proportion nerves.
A few text messages later, no fewer than three individual attendees approached me, all separately, to thank me for my question. I am so grateful to these strangers who offered me even more insight than I could have expected. I’ll share their responses now.
The first was a man who told me he studies the intersection of radio and disability studies, so my question spoke right to the heart of his research. The second was a woman who told me about letters written by deaf women in the 1920s to radio producers, explaining they could also “hear” the new medium; by placing their hands on radio receivers, they could feel vibrations of music and speech, experiencing something quite magical. My heart almost burst, the story was so beautiful. Having forgotten the title of the text she suggested, I found this article online, and had the pleasure of reading a letter written in 1924 by Helen Keller—yes, the Hellen Keller—to the Symphony Society of New York. I must share it now, it is so powerful!
I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony.’ I do not mean to say that I ‘heard’ the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in the joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony some one suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the top, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music. The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violin owed and owed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious mood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds with the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
Of course, this was not hearing, but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand—swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.
As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others—and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.
Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me. I want also to thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world.
Beautiful, right? The third person to approach me was a woman closer to my age who works for the Library of Congress Sound Archives, if I recall correctly. She also thanked me for the question and let me know I shouldn’t feel bad for asking. All three of these lovely souls agreed that the professor was not the right person to ask such a question, but that there were answers and these answers should be and are being explored.
I continued the rest of the conference, attending panels in which I heard creators of the NPR Archives speak on their unexpected findings, panels that discussed how radio could be used by marginalized communities such as gay communities, Native American communities, and non-English speaking communities. I attended a caucus on College Radio and learned about Elizabeth Hansen’s new project: The College Radio Archive. It was an exhausting, jam-packed two days. I didn’t ask any more questions, but I listened and listened and listened and took over 15 pages of notes.
At the end of two days, that very first brief interaction I had with the keynote speaker continued to push itself back to the front of my mind. I realized that a common theme of the conference was indeed access. Radio as a tool for marginalized communities, to unify and share experiences in any way wished. Radio as a piece of American collective heritage, a heritage that should be accessible with standardized metadata and proper archive organization. Radio as a medium that has a healthy amount of untouched-by-corporate-America soul left, so the little person can get their voice heard. I realized, when we talk about radio, we talk about access. And just because non-hearing people don’t have access to sound in the traditional sense doesn’t mean they can’t have access to radio or the national heritage(s) to which they might belong.
I came back to Wesleyan with the sense that our radio station was doing OK in terms of access and archival material and access to archival material. There’s always more to be done, though! Perhaps I can begin research on a thesis for radio and disability, much like the first gentleman who approached me after the keynote talk. A few weeks have passed since I’ve been back in New England, yet I’m still looking forward to finding out where exactly this experience will take me.
Again, I thank the Patricelli Center for allowing me to attend such a lively, constructive, and thoughtful conference. If readers would like to know more about the conference or about the Radio Preservation Task Force in general, they might like to visit radiopreservation.org, follow @RadioTaskForce on Twitter, or simply search for the #RPTF hashtag, also on Twitter.