Brecht DeClercq

Brecht DeClercq

Last updated on 30 November 2017

Brecht Declercq is Secretary-General of FIAT/IFTA, Digitisation Manager at VIAA

Hamburg, Germany, almost day on day 40 years ago. Swiss writer Max Frisch, at age 66, went to great lengths to travel from his hometown Berlin to Hamburg. He has accepted to give a speech at the SPD party congress in Hamburg. Frisch has had a good relationship with prominent German Social Democrats such as Willy Brandt and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt for years and the speech may be regarded as a friends service. The party congress is known as "the day the Chancellor asked the poets for advice" - Günther Grass is also present - and takes place in the midst of what the Germans call the German Autumn: a period of far left attacks and kidnappings, from Germans, against Germans. The speech of Max Frisch is a benchmark, even a crisis. To the German Social Democrats Frisch will point out their social democratic responsibility, also as a government party, and also in times when the street's call for severe repression against the very young RAF terrorists sounds particularly loud.

The German autumn, the party congress, the speech, undoubtedly they are all interesting events, but it this blog post is not about these, it is about the archive clip itself. That clip offers us an insight into three interesting aspects of digital preservation, first and foremost about accessibility, and in particular the availability of Western European radio archive material online.

The above might have made you curious, and you may have already looked up the speech of Max Frisch on Youtube. For those who have not yet done so: save yourself the trouble, you will not find it there. The only place where it is available online is the unsurpassed 'Archivradio' site of the South German public broadcaster Südwestrundfunk (SWR). Trend-sensitive web designers will find that site quite 1.0, but in terms of curated content - and that's what radio is all about - it's hard to beat. Archivradio now exists for 10 years and it is almost the dream of every radio listener with a sweet tooth for history: no broadcasts on FM or DAB, but a 24/7 internet radio full of hardcore talk radio from the radio archives of the German public broadcasters of the ARD group and the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (DRA). Only occasionally these broadcasts are alternated with specials, such as those about the particularly impressive audio archive of the Stasi, or interviews with radio archivists about their work and about the most striking pieces from their collection. Add to that: a website with hundreds, perhaps thousands of archive fragments, arranged by theme and provided with a particularly clear contextualization and all together one may consider Archivradio among the very best sites featuring radio archive material that the web has to offer.

It might come as a surprise that such a magnificent radio archive website is made in Germany. Archivradio never presented itself at an international conference of radio and television archives. In fact, the German public broadcaster is surprisingly absent from many international fora and initiatives in the field of audiovisual archiving. Only SWR and the Bayerische Rundfunk (BR) pop up occasionally. The DRA, an institution with a huge potential, is also hard to spot. Of the nine archives under the umbrella of the ARD, only one (Deutsche Welle) is a partner in the EUscreen project, a European platform on which broadcasting archives can post their own jewels.

But make no mistake. As the example of Archivradio proves, this does not mean that there isn’t happening anything of interest in Germany when it comes to audiovisual archiving. On a technical level the merits of the Institut für Rundfunktechnik (IRT) and a few companies such as Cube-Tec and the German-Austrian NOA can hardly be overestimated. In the film world MWA and Arri are world famous. A project with the for non-Germanophones unpronounceable name 'dwerft' in which various aspects of mass film digitization were studied, passed as good as unnoticed. A pity, because it brought some quite interesting results. In terms of content, the ‘Verein für Medieninformation und Mediendokumentation’ (VfM) has been in place for more than 20 years now. There are the active colleague groups of archivists who use the WOSAD, FESAD and MUSAD databases. And there is the almost 50-year-old ‘Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte’, holding an almost unrivaled position globally in the field of broadcasting history. But unfortunately all these groups have one thing in common: they are very poorly connected outside the German-speaking world. The savoir faire is there, but the international faire savoir is clearly less.

But Max Frisch shows us another, typically German aspect of digital radio archiving, this time with regard to the description of the fragment. In the description of this document reference is made to 'O-ton', an abbreviation or 'Originalton', a word that exists in no other language as far as I know. What 'O-ton' exactly means is clearly explained in the graduation thesis that Martin Falbisoner – nowadays an audiovisual archivist at the CDU study centre - presented to the Fachhochschule Potsdam in 2007:

“[O-tones are] the kind of inserts that enrich the daily material, that on itself is so quickly outdated and not suited anymore for radio-editorial re-use, apart from aspects relevant only to broadcasting history. Obviously O-tones can be found not only in daily news and current affairs reporting. But still for these, the O-tones have a significance that can hardly be overestimated. An O-ton warrants for authenticity. Ideally it focuses on the core message of a news report and it illustrates its true content in the form of a direct quote. The sharper the O-ton is chosen, the higher is its recognition value. The construction and care for an O-ton archive thus is of high interest to broadcasters, and also to Bayerische Rundfunk. ARD‘s Spoken Word Radio Regulations (Regelwerk Hörfunk Wort) stipulate: ‘radio productions are a part of the non-written cultural heritage. As for the written cultural heritage they may hold a value and recognition as a historical and scientific source’, and this is true for the O-tones in particular. If politicians, scientists or other remarkable historical figures express themselves, it speaks to the interest and self-esteem of a broadcaster such as the BR and its programming to obtain reliable access to this material, both promptly and in the short term, immediately after receiving a relevant statement, as well as in the medium and long term perspective.”[1]

Based on this description you could translate O-ton as 'soundbite'. But this word doesn’t really bring the right honors to the concept. Because the definition given by Falbisoner is inextricably linked to a historiographical tradition, which in turn is deeply rooted in German culture. The authenticity value given to the O-tone sounds pretty Rankean, as if it would be possible to write the story "wie es eigentlich gewesen." The O-tone thus gets a status that it does not really deserve. Not only because authenticity in audiovisual archives is a very problematic concept[2] - something that Falbisoner also recognizes - but also because it assigns a greater value to the special, the exceptional than to the daily, the banal. That in itself is a very outdated conception, but one that still poses a direct threat to historical falsification for many archives, audiovisual and other. Because you might do your best effort today, but inevitably every archive collection also reflects the selection policy of the past.

Completely unintentionally the archival clip with the Max Frisch speech provokes one last remark, namely that the digitization of the audio tape did not come too soon. It suffered clearly from a considerable print-through effect: if magnetic tape is wound up very long or very tightly, the magnetic signal can be printed through from one winding onto the other. The result is exactly the opposite of an echo: even before the actual speech of Max Frisch can be heard, a loud voice can be heard in the background, especially on the silent parts, in between the words of the reporter. The print through effect can’t be removed with any sound restoration tool. The only preventative remedy is to regularly wind and rewind the tapes. It’s an operation that for every European public radio archive, with easily over 100,000 audio tapes, can compared to painting the Eiffel Tower: even before you're done, you have to start all over again.

Without going too far, all these aspects of this archive clip - the access to it, the description and the digitization - provide a special insight into the problems that lie behind digital preservation as an umbrella term. Because although this discipline is expanding rapidly on its own rules and standards, there is still the unruly practice - situations, each with their own context - to which every theory must be tested.

[1] Falbisoner, M. (2007) Die O-Ton-Dokumentation in den Hörfunkarchiven des Bayerischen Rundfunks im  Spannungsfeld von Digitalisierung und Public Value. Concluding thesis in the advanced studies Scientific Documentalist / Information Specialist at the Institut für Information und Dokumentation (IID). Potsdam: Fachhochschule Potsdam, p. 8 (translation by the author).

[2] Wright, R. (2011). The Real McCoy. What audiovisual collections preserve. In: Zorgen voor onzichtbare assets. Over het behoud van digitale AV-collecties. Hilversum: Beeld en Geluid.

Profile photo credit: Marcin Oliva Soto.

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