From urban decay to economic revival, the City of New York has changed dramatically over the past forty years. Over that same period of time, New Yorkers gained an increasing ability to tell their stories through advances in video technology. Today, we take for granted a nearly universal ability to create and distribute videos all over the world, instantaneously. From 1961 to 1996, publicly owned WNYC-TV on Channel 31 fulfilled this role for average New Yorkers by enabling them to share their stories and discuss issues facing them in their daily lives. Although at first the channel served as a portal for municipal functions like mayoral addresses, WNYC slowly began to focus more on civic affairs and creating original and informative programming that reflected the various communities of the city. Now, staff at the Municipal Archives have begun digitizing video tapes from our WNYC-TV collection, spanning from 1982-1996. Our goal is to preserve as much of this material as possible, while also making it easy and convenient for people to watch.
Following financial and political crises in the 1970s, WNYC-TV secured a large amount of new funding and independence from City Hall in the 1980s. This revival was marked by a wealth of new, original series like Heart of the City, Neighborhood Voices and New York Hotline, as well as specials that showcased important events or guests in New York, like Nelson Mandela. These panel talk shows and cultural magazines focused on difficult issues the City faced in the 1980s and1990s, like homelessness, the AIDS epidemic and race relations. They also featured thriving but overlooked communities in New York, like the Nuyorican Poet’s Café or the Coop Theater in Brooklyn.
The WNYC-TV collection at the Municipal Archives is composed mainly of three video tape cassette formats: ¾” U-matic, Betacam and VHS. While VHS might be familiar to all but the youngest of us, the other two formats are less widely known. ¾” U-matic was the first video cassette format. Sony widely released the ¾” U-matic system in 1971, originally designed for home use. The cost ended up being far too high for amateur consumers, but the system caught on in professional organizations, like WNYC TV, that had the funds to make the initial investment. Sony improved the ¾” U-matic design and in 1982 released Betacam, the format that makes up the bulk of the WNYC-TV video tape collection.
Unlike paper, photo, or film documents, which potentially can last for hundreds of years if taken care of properly, magnetic tape of all types typically don’t last more than 30 years without at least some significant quality loss. There is window closing at archives around the world to digitize their tape collections before it’s too late. The Municipal Archives is joining the effort at just the right time. In 30 more years, the only working tapes will be like Edison light bulbs today. They might play, but you’ll be lucky if you get any meaningful image off of the tape.
Thus far, the Municipal Archives has digitized nearly 200 tapes and counting, currently focusing on the oldest and most endangered tapes so we can get to them before they’re lost. What endangers a tape and why are tapes so much shorter-lived than most recording formats? The short answer is that video tape is essentially a ribbon of tape with a glue and metallic powder mix pressed onto it. Every time that glue gets too warm or too damp from humidity in the air, it starts to degrade and loses its ability to stick, resulting in something called ‘sticky shed syndrome.’ The top layer of the tape will literally turn into a gummy sludge and flake off, destroying the recorded video. If it survives intact long enough, every tape will go through this process.
The longer answer is that there are actually many ways that a video tape can cease functioning before sticky-shed syndrome sets in. On video tape, analog video signals are recorded as a repeating wave form by aligning magnetic particles in the glue-metal powder mix with a spinning magnetic head. When a tape is played back, it gets pulled out of the cassette by a series of rollers and pins and gets wrapped around the video head while it spins. This can place a significant amount of physical strain on the tape, potentially damaging it every time it’s played back, much like a vinyl record is damaged by its needle. Unlike a vinyl record, though, video tape was never, and has never been seen, as a high-fidelity format. And the level of enthusiasm for video tape systems has never been enough to warrant continued production of new machines after the 1990s. This means that production of specialized parts needed to repair playback machines ceased decades ago. Preserving analog video isn’t just about preserving the tapes, but also maintaining the machines.
In a future blog post, we will give you a tour of the A/V Digitization Lab, show you all of the tools we use to stabilize our video tapes and go more in depth as to how we turn a wave signal found on a tape into a video file on a computer drive.
Voice of the City: The Rise and Fall of WNYC-TV, MJ Robinson, UMI Dissertation Services