This article is the sixth in a series featuring clips from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which is working to digitize television and radio pieces so that they may be preserved for years to come. For more about the project, see our introduction to the series, where you'll also find a handy list of all the series' pieces so far.
In radio and television stations across the country, thousands and thousands of hours of tape are slowly deteriorating. If they don't get digitized soon, their contents will be gone. As Karen Cariani, director of WGBH's library and archives told me, "Video tape and audiotape is not a stable format. After 40 or 50 years, they are disintegrating. And the information—pictures, sounds on that physical medium—is disappearing. Unlike a piece of paper or a photograph that might last 100 years, media formats are extremely fragile."
Unfortunately, that deterioration is all too apparent in the following, remarkable clip from WGBH. In it, we are treated to a conversation between two of the 20th century's most remarkable figures, Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but it is marked by an audible, distracting buzzing throughout. As WGBH archives manager Keith Luf explained to me, "this is the result of a deterioration of the original video source tape to the extent that the two audio channels have begun to 'bleed' together as the tape begins to physically breakdown. Videotape was never intended to be permanent, and its decay does not discriminate on content, even if it is an historic meeting between JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt."
Luf says that the clip was the final program the WGBH series "Prospects of Mankind" and was recorded and broadcast in June 1962, a year and a half into Kennedy's term. As host of the series, Roosevelt interviewed guests on the issues of the day, such as nuclear disarmament; political changes in China, Berlin, and around the world; and the role of the United Nations. The series producer, Henry Morgenthau III, knew Roosevelt as his father had been the treasury secretary in her husband's administration. Morgenthau III, Luf says, "brought Eleanor Roosevelt to public television and, in turn, the caliber of guests to the series can be directly attributed to the international reverence and respect the world had for her."