Digitizing WPLN (Nashville Public Radio): An On-The-Ground Report from EBSCO Fellow Ryan Inman

My home workstation displaying the DAT deck in process of converting a tape to digital file, featuring dog sleeping under desk

As a University of Alabama graduate student with the School of Library and Information Studies (UA SLIS), and a Nashville-based EBSCO scholar paired with WPLN (Nashville Public Radio), I digitized 61 “WPLN News Archive” Digital Audio Tapes (DATs), 32 “WPLN News Archive” CDs, and 192 CDs of the WPLN literary radio talk show, “The Fine Print”, now available on the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB). This has resulted in a total of 1,085 WAV files which range from minutes to hours in duration. 90.3 WPLN-FM is a National Public Radio affiliate which has existed since 1962. Their programming includes a variety of local and national news, arts and culture, and music shows. Of the many DATs and CDs that I digitized, I consider them to be of two categories: local news segments and episodes of “The Fine Print with Rebecca Bain”. This WPLN digitized collection is a result of my nearly 300 hours of labor.

Many talented WPLN reporters have created engaging news segments about happenings surrounding middle Tennessee for WPLN throughout the years. Whether covering Senate races, new legislation, demographic trends, historical stories, controversies, business developments, art gallery openings or ballet premiere nights, music and musician profiles, local human-interest pieces, or even a five-part series on the devastation of meth in Tennessee, WPLN’s now-digitized collection offers a wide breadth of material spanning from the late 1990’s through the early 2000’s.

A collage displaying a sample of the DATs and CDs provided from WPLN for digitization

Of a similar 90’s and 00’s time range, WPLN’s “The Fine Print with Rebecca Bain” offer a diverse series of interviews featuring WPLN’s talented Rebecca Bain interviewing local and nationally reputed authors about their works. Rebecca Bain was respected as a premier interviewer who was passionate about literature. She interviewed authors of diverse genres, and always knew their works thoroughly. As Serenity Gerbman wrote of Bain in an homage piece, authors could rest assured that Bain “had read the book, written the questions, and prepared the ground for a meaningful conversation.”[1] In the same article, Gerbman also wrote that “in this age of instant gratification, it seems absurd and antiquated that her voice, her whole career, exists somewhere in recordings inaccessible to us.”[2] When I read those words, I felt a sense of elation that my digitization efforts will make a meaningful impact to at least one person. I intend to reach out to that individual to share the many episodes of “The Fine Print” which are now hosted on the AAPB.

A collage displaying a sampling of decorative cases from the archived “The Fine Print with Rebecca Bain” CDs

The process of the work, along with its successes and failures, has been enlightening in many ways. Time management has likely been the most significant consideration for me along the way. It became clear quickly that certain archival actions should be prioritized over others to accomplish the goals of the station—of primary importance was the question of if I should spend more time describing individual items at the expense of digitizing the whole collection. The initial experience of digitizing materials from home was one of excitement and fascination.

I worked with a DAT deck which was provided for me, digitizing audio tapes from the deck onto the MacBook that was also provided. Digitizing the tapes was surprisingly straightforward, and it was satisfying to see the audio translating visually into wave forms on the open-source audio software, Audacity. Many of the DATs given to me were unlabeled, and these imparted a sense of discovery as I would push play and listen for what voices, music, and words would reveal themselves. The real-time capture of the DAT digitization means a one-to-one time spent on converting the audio; a two-hour tape would take at least two hours to digitize.

Digital Audio Tape (DAT) deck, laptop, external hard drive, and cables to be used for audio digitization

After the more manual process of digitizing DATs, it was a nice change of pace to digitize CD tracks, although I spent considerable time typing track names into Apple Music for them to import with accurate track titles. Additionally, for future successful ingestion of the tracks and corresponding metadata into the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s website, I needed to format the track titles without spaces. This warranted some file cleanup before and after digitization, and that manual work was an unexpected time cost.

The most frustrating obstacles I encountered when digitizing CDs was the occasional corrupted disc. I labeled CD cases after I processed them, and on those faulty discs I made note of which discs would either not play at all or were scratchy inaudible digital files. There were a handful of CDs which were unsuccessful, and it is disappointing to think that those segments and episodes are gone. However, for the 200+ CDs that I successfully digitized, I like to think that I came just in time—there is no telling how much longer it would have been before that data would have disintegrated and been lost forever.

[1] https://chapter16.org/remembering-rebecca/

[2] https://chapter16.org/remembering-rebecca/

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