Into The Vault

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the TV station I work for.  Celebrating the occasion has required me to delve into the archives, such as they are, to clear out a few cobwebs and produce some on-air reminders of the station’s heritage, while shaking my head sadly at how much of our own history has been lost.

In part, we are victims of the relentless march of technological progress.  We’ve thrown out miscellaneous reels and boxes of videotape in various formats from successive decades, sometimes for the lack of a machine capable of playing them.  The 3/4” cassette tapes that were our mainstay from 1978 to 1993 might contain a few priceless moments, and we still have a working player or two for that format.  But with each passing year, the tape and its oxide coating become more fragile.  Any trip across those spinning playheads to see what’s on the tape, could be its last.

Interviews conducted twenty years ago with a few of our local TV pioneers and recorded on 3/4” tape, have been archived in a modern digital format.  Moments from a few broadcasts between 1979 and 1984 were rescued from oblivion, almost accidentally.  The highlight of every year’s station Christmas party was a blooper reel, and footage of several of our reporters and anchors survives, thanks to that yearly ritual.  Our first co-anchor was Melanie Morgan, in recent years a Bay Area radio broadcaster, and for a while a familiar sight on Sunday morning political shows, where she carried the water for conservative causes.  About two seconds of her early career at KOAM-TV is preserved on a reel of outtakes.  Our most famous alumnus, NBC newsman Brian Williams, appears on two of those Christmas shows.  In one of them he performs a comedy routine where he seems to be impersonating a young Bill Clinton.  The other, which I’ve lost track of lately, records one of his stints as a weekend anchor, during which, with good humor and a self-depreciating smile, he completely butchers the sports segment.

Buffalo Bill & Slim

A few weeks back (See “The Man Beneath the Feather”) I reported on one tenuous connection I have with “The Lone Ranger,” completely forgetting another.  The host of our kids’ show “Fun Club” from the late 60’s to the mid-8o's was Lloyd “Slim” Andrews, best known as Tex Ritter’s sidekick in a string of “B” Westerns, but who also appeared alongside the actor most firmly identified with the Ranger, Clayton Moore.  Their film was a minor effort, “Buffalo Bill In Tomahawk Territory,” made while Moore was on hiatus from his most famous role during a salary dispute.  The two actors also made personal appearances together, and are featured in an online photo album maintained by Moore’s nephew.

We get a few calls every year from viewers who, as children, were interviewed by Slim Andrews on “Fun Club,” hoping to discover that we have a vault of footage from the show, perhaps even a moment that captures their own appearance on it.  We don’t.  I’m afraid that only a slender segment from one of the final episodes survives on tape and on disc, thanks to the station's 50th anniversary DVD.  Otherwise, the show exists only in memory, and on miscellaneous snapshots and home movie footage taken by viewers.

Fortunately, back at the very beginning in 1953, someone did shoot black-and-white 16mm film showing workmen constructing our concrete-block building, and hoisting sections of the tower into place.  One of our engineers also took some 8mm footage of one of the very first Chritmas parties, attended by the original anchor team.  Those formats are now considered virtually extinct, but since they are not electronic, depending instead on rotating gears and optics, machines once regularly used to play them can be dusted off, oiled, tinkered with, and made to work with just a bit of effort.  We’ve also taken several still shots and photographic portraits over the years.  Many of these have been digitized, had a "Ken Burns” motion effect slapped on them and have been turned into video.  More importantly, our Promotion Department passed those photos among several of us old-timers, and affixed names and approximate dates to as many as we could remember.

There’s a lesson here, and perhaps a warning.  During the years before we graduated to high-definition formats, KOAM-TV’s news broadcasts depended on Polaroid stills, 16mm film, 35mm slides, 2-inch Quadruplex videotape, Akai 1/4” open reel video, Sony Umatic 3/4” cassettes, Hi8 tape, 1-inch Type C, DVCAM, DVCPRO, Betacam SP, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.  Some of the older tape formats are either defunct, or are heading down that road.  A few of these could still be transferred, expensively and often disappointingly, by specialized dubbing houses.  On the other hand, properly stored still photographs, reels of film and boxes of slides generally endure a very long time.  While some consider movie film to be on the endangered species list, I suspect that it will continue to be cranked through projectors well into this century (Past that, it's someone else’s problem).

A few months back a friend asked me to transfer a VHS copy of her wedding video to DVD, because she no longer owns  a VHS player.  Besides, DVD is digital and digital is forever, right?  Well, I made her two DVD’s and kept a copy of the file on our server, but unless she and I are both careful, her wedding video still could be in jeopardy.  Commercial DVD’s are very sturdy, but the dye layers in the discs we burn on our computers are susceptible to fading in direct sunlight.  Keeping a virtual copy on a server seems like a good idea, until we remember that every hard drive now spinning will one day grind to a stop, never to spin again.  How about the flash memory in a thumb drive?  Does that last forever?  Everyone seems to have a different idea about the longevity of the devices, but the word “forever” never comes up.  They might faithfully store files for twenty years under optimum conditions, but there could also be a limit to the number of times data can be written and read.  I had one go belly-up after a year, despite careful treatment.

Thanks largely to smartphones, we are now living in the most thoroughly-documented era since the development of photography.  Not only is it now possible to snap a picture effortlessly, almost anywhere, but the result is a scad of highly-detailed, large-format pictures, which are frequently gorgeous.  I wonder how many of them will be available to future generations, say, 150 years from now.  Will they survive by the tens of millions, residing on the future equivalent of a server cloud, still tagged with the names their cameras gave them, such as “S50080123?"  Or will people then be too busy obsessively recording their own time to give much thought to ours?

I keep coming back to that “Pikes Peak or Bust” photograph, taken 153 years ago, when photography was in its infancy, and was still a cumbersome, complicated, laborious process.  The fact that it still exists is a minor miracle.  An accident in the darkroom apparently marred the image of the most famous subject in the group portrait.  The damaged plate might have been destroyed, but was instead handed off to a tourist who had come to Denver with visiting relatives.  Thanks to his grandson, it became part of a collection in the Denver Public Library, which has made it available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.  It provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the New West, but we find it especially beguiling because such a glimpse is so rare.  If we had access to a million other pictures taken that year, would we think of giving any one of them a second look?

© Dale Switzer 2023