Restoration Blues

From 1995-2010, I taught a mathematics unit as part of a summer science/math camp for high schoolers offered by my college. It ran twelve days—most years the students arrived on Father’s Day (the camp still runs—it’s going on right now). On the first Friday of the camp, we traditionally took a day-long trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, a landfill, and a guided nature program.

The timing of the camp meant that I was invariably involved with duties of some sort on my dad’s birthday (today would have been his 88th—this morning, I’ll be at the cemetery delivering flowers). My parents lived just off the interstate on the way from the zoo to the location of the nature program, and many times I arranged to break away for a brief birthday-related visit.

The music Twitter-verse went all abuzz two weeks ago when Jody Rosen published “The Day the Music Burned” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a completely deflating account of the June 2008 blaze that destroyed countless master recordings by hundreds of artists whose work was controlled by Universal Music Group, as well as UMG’s subsequent cynical efforts both to disguise the severity of the loss and recoup damages via lawsuit. The next day my attention was directed to an article, written five years earlier, by music historian Andy Zax. Zax had not only understood then the magnitude of UMG’s losses but went on to outline, in depressing fashion, four issues surrounding the preservation of old masters: 1) existence of the tapes; 2) ability to access the tapes—storage is a big deal; 3) ability to use the tapes; 4) dealing with the corporate overlords, the big three companies that own the masters of almost all major-label recordings. Even though there’s overlap between the two articles, both are worth your time if you haven’t already read them.

It was Zax’s third point—dealing with the potential for obsolescence of the recording medium, in the sense that functioning machines needed for playback may not be sufficiently prevalent—that reminded me a segment I heard twenty years ago today on NPR’s All Things Considered. It was part of a series called Lost and Found Sound, a feature they were running on Fridays throughout 99 as everyone prepared to bid adieu to the CE years that started with a 1. (It looks like the series actually continued with some regularity through the end of 2005.)

That year we stayed at the zoo later than usual. I’d driven separately so I could swing through Florence to help Dad celebrate #68 but quickly got caught in a bad Friday afternoon traffic jam on the Ohio side of the river. Something—an accident? construction?—kept me crawling at a snail’s pace for a long time. When 4:00 rolled around, I switched the radio over to ATC; I’d guess Lost and Found Sound came on toward the end of the first half-hour. The title of the segment was “Restoration,” and I quickly learned that over the previous few months a number of listeners had sent in decades-old media they no longer could play, in the hopes that the L&FS team might help. L&FS in turn reached out to Steve Smolian, who was well-versed in extracting sounds from such objects (and who apparently is still in business today). Before the piece ended, two folks who had mailed in material were rewarded: one heard a beloved grandparent speak, and another got to listen to the voice of a sibling who’d died at a very young age. I’m not saying I got choked up at that point but I’m not saying I didn’t, either. All I’ll note is that it was a good thing I was going less than five miles an hour.

Out of all the things I’ve ever heard on NPR, that story is the one that made the deepest impression. Maybe eight years later, I did some digging around on their website, found an archived copy, and listened to it again. Yep, still a moving piece.

About ten days ago, after digesting the Rosen and Zax pieces, I went searching for it again. I easily located a summary (that’s how I re-discovered the story had originally run on Dad’s birthday). Then the irony began to set in. In the upper left corner of the page was a play button one can ordinarily click for listening. But it was grayed out; below I saw, “Only Available in Archive Formats” and a clickable “REAL MEDIA.” I clicked and I got a .ram file. When I tried to open it, there was a note from QuickTime letting me know it doesn’t play files with that extension.

And now, a brief summary of the past week:

“Well, it’s been a while, but I’ve used Real Player before, so I’ll just download it to my work laptop and…oh, there hasn’t been a Mac version supported since 2012? I’ll ask Ben to put it on his PC so I can play it…what? It says that it’s not backwards-compatible with the format of the audio file? Hmmm…maybe I’ve got an older copy of Real Player on my ten-year-old personal laptop? Or the almost as old desktop sitting in the basement? Nope, and nope.”

It could be I’m overlooking something obvious (I don’t think I’m especially savvy in this sphere), but it also could be that I and/or NPR could use a bit of Steve Smolian’s assistance. It appears that all of the Lost and Found Sound stories are in this archived format; I presume that’s true for every NPR story up to some date in the not entirely distant past.

The problem Zax identified might not be limited to recorded music.

Closing out with a song that seems vaguely appropriate for the matter at hand, released a few months after I first heard “Restoration.” “Millennium Blues” is the leadoff track of Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse. “You’ll never get the chance to recover/They say it’s not you anymore.”

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