ABOUT THE FORMAT
Transcription discs are a type of grooved media popularized during the 1930’s as radio broadcasting corporations sought to record and distribute content to their syndicated radio stations. This allowed an episode of the Adventures of Superman to be distributed from CBS to a local station like WKZO in Kalamazoo. Once the station was done airing the episode, it could be sent along to another local station until all the stations had aired the episode. These discs and this method of broadcasting are in large part responsible for the amount of Golden Age radio from the major broadcasting corporations that has been preserved, but the technology was expensive and many local stations did not use transcription to record local programming – in part because individual stations had little cause to preserve their own programming, as they weren’t planning to send it on to another station.
MSU Libraries has been fortunate to partner with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum to clean, digitize, and make available online the WKZO Transcription Disc Collection, which features local programs created by the Fetzer Broadcasting Company and aired on Kalmazoo’s WKZO and Grand Rapids’ WJEF during the 1940s and 1950s. These programs were a fulfillment of US law at that time, requiring broadcasters to devote roughly ten percent of their programming to educational and informative programs. For the Fetzer Broadcasting Company, this meant shows like “Western Michigan at Work” and “Know Your City,” hosted by Dr. Willis Dunbar, a history professor at Western Michigan University and highlighting the history and culture of various industries and institutions around Western Michigan.
Many of these programs are recorded on the reverse side of CBS programming, possibly suggesting that WKZO was the last stop on the line for those recordings and they were re-using the transcription discs after they had aired. These recordings were only made after John E. Fetzer acquired WJEF in Grand Rapids, thus necessitating educational programming for both of his stations.
While the preservation of local radio programming may seem like a thing of the past, it remains a major problem. Both local radio stations and smaller local and regional podcasts may or may not have the money or desire to maintain extensive archives of programming. Podcasts in particular may only exist as long as the creators have the interest and money for purchasing hosting for their podcast. Local radio stations in the 80s and 90s often erased then recycled audio tape to save on costs and cut down on the amount of space physical archives took up. Addressing these preservation issues is vitally important to maintaining a full and rich archive of local and regional culture.
Transcription discs, due to their lacquered surface, are particularly susceptible to two types of deterioration: delamination and plasticizer loss. Delamination is the detachment of lacquer to the base of the record which can lead to information loss. Once you begin to notice this detachment, seek conservation help immediately. Plasticizer loss displays most commonly as palmitic or stearic acid coming to the surface of the lacquer. It looks white waxy substance, often mistaken for mold, which over time can cause irreparable damage. Only attempt to clean with proper equipment and technique. See the Preservation Self-Assessment Program’s Collection ID Guide for more guidance.
While there isn’t much we can do about fixing delamination, we put considerable effort into cleaning each disc. We remove as much of the palmitic acid in addition to any wax crayon marks that are sometimes used to cross out segments not meant to air.
First, we very gently wipe off any dust or foreign debris that may have settled on the surface. After placing the record on a record player we slowly cover the disc with Disc Doctors Miracle Record Cleaner solution using a record cleaning brush and let it sit. Any time we wipe or brush the disc we use the motion from the turntable and simply hold the brush or microfiber towel perpendicular to the edge of the disc so as not to damage any of the grooves.
After a few minutes, and while the record is still plenty wet, we use a microfiber towel to clean off the solution and acid. We may repeat this process a few times while applying greater pressure to the record if necessary. Then we rinse thoroughly with distilled water, being careful to use a clean microfiber towel reserved for this step.
Finally, as soon as the record dries and before more dust settles, we press play and record. If the needle digs up more dirt or palmitic acid, we clean the needle and let it finish playing the side. Then we simply do one more cleaning pass before we record again. Since most of these discs have only been played one or two times before being placed in storage, they often have very few scratches and clean up very nicely.
Discs should always be stored upright in snug boxes so that they do not shift too much when moved. Each disc should be in an archival sleeve in order to minimize friction and contamination from the environment. Extreme care should be given when removing the disc from the paper sleeve so as not to snag the paper label or exacerbate a delaminating disc.
Lacquered discs prefer a cooler storage environment, with ideal temperatures being 40-54 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity should be around 30-50% RH.