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Vaudeville to Vinyl Ninety-second radio program Sound Beat draws on SU’s extensive audio archives to take listeners back in time Words : Annie Menna Art : Cara Adrianos

Jenny Doctor fumbles around her desk for a moment, then excuses herself and exits her small office at the Belfer Audio Archive. “Bob, do you have a cylinder in here, lying around?” she asks her co-worker. When no one in the office can find the object, Doctor leads me into a classroom down the hall. She pushes a button beside the door, illuminating a line of gramophones, phonographs, and record players encased in mahogany boxes, all gleaming in pristine condition against the far wall of the classroom. She steps into the room and holds up what she was looking for—a short cylinder etched with lines. As director of the Belfer Audio Archive, Doctor is a wealth of information on the subject of musicology and, incidentally, it was these types of cylinders that paved the way for modern CDs. They are just one piece of the archive’s extensive collection, which is one of the largest in the world. But Doctor says it’s impossible to have an accurate count on how many audio recordings Belfer contains. “We specialize in recordings from the 1890’s to about 1970,” she says. “We also have an important archive of recordings that were produced by people in their personal collections.” Recordings and other items arrive at the Belfer Archive via donations or purchased acquisitions. Belfer was founded in 1963 with a collection of 150,000 recordings under the care of professor Walter Welch. As a way of sharing this incredible resource, Jim O’Connor writes and produces a 90-second radio program called Sound Beat, which consists of selected highlights from the Belfer Audio Archive. “I think it’s represen-

tative of what people have been listening to in America for the past 130 years. We bill the show as ‘vaudeville to vinyl,’ because it’s about the first century of recorded sound,” O’Connor says. Clips for Sound Beat, such as old folk recordings or speeches, are picked several months prior to airing. O’Connor then researches the clips, writes the episode, and records it in the Catskill Mountains with voice actor and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications alumnus Brett Barry. “What’s cool about the show is that, for every episode, we take a record off the shelf and digitize it,” O’Connor says. “It might have been in my grandpa’s attic and he dropped the box, and that’s why there’s a scratch at the 30-second mark of the song. That’s cool and romantic. It really is about the recordings—it’s about the songs—but it’s about the records individually.” Of particular note in the archive’s collection are the physical movie scores and recordings of Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa, both world-renowned composers in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Think Alfred Hitchcock—rousing overtures and orchestral swells. Belfer has also amassed an impressive collection of materials from the post-World War II arts scene in New York City. These include physical materials and films from Grove Press, a radical publication that has featured such notable figures as Samuel Beckett and Malcolm X. The Belfer Audio Archive began with Welch’s mission to preserve audio and related emerging technology, a novel concept for the time. “The idea of putting audio onto

carriers was only 50, 60 years old at that point,” Doctor says. The archive itself was mostly self-sufficient until it was shut down in 1992. Years later, Doctor and O’Connor were brought on board to revitalize Welch’s undertaking for the modern era. O’Connor writes almost all of the episodes for Sound Beat, which reaches listeners all around the world through iTunes podcasts, the Internet, Reader Services, and public radio—WAER, WRVO, and WCNY all broadcast Sound Beat weekly. The shows he doesn’t write come from the Sound Beat Class Partnership, a collaborative experience between Sound Beat and the class HNR 340: “Inside the Words and Music,” taught at Syracuse University by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers. The students begin by writing 500 words for a specific episode, then edit down to a finished and recorded project at 125 words. Kelsey Francella, a senior communications design major and fall 2013 participant in the Sound Beat Class Partnership, says that she was interested in the wide variety of recordings available. “I think this is a cool way to showcase the archive, because it is a really unique thing SU has that no one really knows about,” Francella says. Through Sound Beat, Doctor and O’Connor are readily returning to and expanding upon Welch’s original mission to preserve and protect audio records. “This beautiful building lay dormant for so long. Since Jenny came on in the last three years, they’ve even physically changed the way you walk into the building, which makes it more inviting,” O’Connor says. “And I think it’s a great metaphor for the fact that they’re getting more people involved in the archives, and we’re happy to be a small part of that.”


360 Degrees: REWIND Issue  

The Fall 2014 REWIND issue of 360 Degrees Magazine, SU's premiere cultural publication with a themed twist.

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