Audio Preservation

Magnetic Croissants, or, I was on the radio!


Michael Grant at the MARMIA installation at the Baltimore Art Museum earlier this year.  Photo by Lorena Ramirez-Lopez.

National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast an All Things Considered piece about XFR Collective.  It was a thrilling experience, to say the least: within 12 hours of being contacted by producer Scott Greenstone, another producer, Angus Chen, showed up to the steps of the Tribeca loft where we perform transfers on Monday nights.  He followed us up 5 flights of stairs, and immediately began recording us as we performed a VHS transfer.  The VHS tape contained home movie footage recorded of a family in the 1980s during a Thanksgiving gathering.

The story, titled Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them was accompanied by a blog post on All Tech Considered.  Myself and colleagues Brendan Allen and Michael Grant were interviewed, and clips of us talking through the transfer were featured.

The story focused on VHS tape, likely because it was one of the last popular consumer magnetic formats that most NPR listeners would be able to recognize.  However, it’s good to know that XFR works with a variety of video and audio magnetic media formats.


Andrea Callard being interviewed by NPR during a Monday transfer session.  Picture by me.

Some post-NPR interview thoughts:

If you listen to the interview, you may notice that I talk about having nightmares about the tapes I own in my storage space turning into goo.  It’s a funny, hyperbolic thing to say but frankly, is an inaccurate description of what actually happens to tapes: I kind of wish I had referred to rotting tapes as “magnetic croissants” instead.  Why croissants? Tape, over time, due to a chemical reaction between the chemicals in the tape’s substrate and moisture in the air can inflict a nasty tape sickness called “sticky shed syndrome“.  A tell-tale sign of SSS is a high-pitched squeal while playing a tape on a deck, as well as a flaky residue left behind on tape heads. Hence, le croissant.


Speaking of inaccurate statements: when reading through some of the comments on NPR’s Facebook post, I couldn’t help but notice that some folks were claiming that their memories were “safe” because they had transferred content over to some DVDs.  I have my own pile of sketchy media that I have yet to properly transfer over to my computer, so I don’t want to come off like I’m trying to “transfer shame” anyone: sometimes, a burned DVD will do it for the available time and money we have to devote to our own personal archiving and preservation projects.  But, I am hoping that continued conversations about magnetic and optical media best practices can help change the common attitude that somehow, CDs and DVDs are safe.  In fact, they are not to be trusted, and often fail catastrophically.  At least with a flaky magnetic croissant, you can literally bake it to re-adhere the sticky particles to the tape and get one last transfer off it (see?! the croissant metaphor hits on sooo many levels).  However, media contained on a failed optical media disc may be rendered completely irretrievable.

In any case, I am so glad I got to be on the radio, repping XFR!