Archivists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are embarking on a mission to digitize, and make public, some of the oldest public radio recordings in the United States.

The project, called Preserving Rural and Women’s Programming on Wisconsin Public Radio, would strive to save recordings of broadcasts that aired on WHA, a station launched by the university in 1917. The precursor to Wisconsin Public Radio was an early example of public service broadcasting: It featured weather forecasts, farming reports, and a “school of the air,” in which children would receive lessons in drawing or writing.

The problem, according to digital and media archivist Cat Phan, is that people can’t listen to the recordings now without putting them at risk. That’s because they’re currently stored on 16 inch-wide aluminum disks covered in a black lacquer, called “transcription disks.” The disks were popular in the golden age of radio for recording broadcasts, but they're also considered among the most fragile forms of audio preservation.

“They’re a really great example of an obsolete format that’s deteriorating quickly,” said Phan.

Transcription disks easily degenerate from heat and humidity. Playing them is not recommended: Some experts say that the disks can become warped after getting played a half-dozen times, or even fewer.

David Pavelich, the director of the university’s Special Collections and Archives, said it’s typical for audio and video formats to be especially fragile, and tricky to archive.

“We’re all pretty aware that the preservation of audio … is pretty important for the future. Things are degrading at a higher rate than many things in our paper collection,” he said.

The UW-Madison Archives launched the WHA project in May, and has already received a $19,664 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington, D.C. The goal, said Phan, is to figure out a process for digitizing the old broadcasts by focusing on about 250 disks from the collection.

That will involve inventorying the disks, cleaning and physically preparing them, transferring the audio to a digital format using specialized equipment, and then figuring out best practices for storing the digital files. Much of that work, said Phan, will be with a vendor that specializes in digitization.

The project will focus on broadcasts from two shows: “The Farm Program,” which featured agricultural reports and research findings from faculty at the university's Agricultural College, and “The Homemakers Program,” an educational program for women.

Phan said that because of the delicate nature of the transcription disks, she hasn’t had a chance to listen to much of the shows. The shows include reports on cheese, a gardening club segment, and plenty of agricultural journalism. She said it exemplifies how WHA was an early model for the Wisconsin Idea — the philosophy that the university should apply its resources to help the state as a whole.

“They’re really good examples of the early educational programs the station was doing,” she said.

Phan said that part of the project will focus on collecting better metadata and descriptions to store with the broadcasts.

“We’re thinking long term, right? It’s not going to be good enough to just have (files on) a hard drive,” she said. “With digital files, you have to look at the file formats you have, the intermediary software you’d use … think about, is there ever a time when that format would become obsolete?”

Phan said that the ultimate goal will be to have the digitized files accessible and listenable on a public database.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the grant.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.