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Putting a Price on Historic Footage

The following column is brought to you by nostalgia — the unique kind experienced only by unrepentant newsies approaching a half-century of existence. But have no fear; technology plays a key supporting role, as always.

A slow weeknight evening shift at a regional cable TV network prompts some wide-ranging Internet exploration between newscasts. I dial up Dallas-based news Web sites and blogs as I play catch-up with events in the city I worked and lived in from 1991-’97. For some reason, I end up with a link to takes me back even further in time than that;, an online memorial to the long-departed KZEW-FM, a Dallas rock radio station that got me through high school and college in the late ’70s/early ’80s.

Thanks to the magic of the then-bleeding-edge technology of cable, big-city radio stations were available to those of us in dusty West Texas who knew how to wire our stereos to our coaxial connections. I sit back with the earphones and relive classic rock bliss, along with some very funny morning disc jockeys, thanks to 30-year-old audio now digitized as .wav files.

The TV monitor next to the computer is showing me another, darker side of Dallas. “JFK: Three Shots That Changed America” is on the History Channel, and while it goes over familiar ground, the fascination for me lies in the archival footage of that day from the local network affiliates. Newsmen chain-smoking cigarettes on-air struggle to get a handle on the biggest story of their careers without the benefit of satellites, cellphones, handheld cameras. They drag still-shaken eyewitnesses fresh from Dealey Plaza horror into their studios. They repeat phone dispatches from reporters at Parkland Hospital (the prevailing image for me from the hours after Kennedy’s shooting is of anchormen in black-and-white footage, clunky phones glued to their ears, broadcasting live all the while and multi-tasking long before anybody knew what that word meant.)

All of it is compelling, even if you’re not a journalist wondering how other newsmen — sorry, but women newscasters are noticeably absent in those “Mad Men” days — managed to gather the facts on what ended up being the real Crime of the Century.

So here I am, reliving America’s past and my not-so-recent past, thanks to old and new media. And I think: Every local TV station has to have something valuable in their vaults, much like the Dallas-Fort Worth outlets do with their Kennedy footage. Also, any radio station with a legacy worth talking about has to have old audio worth saving from the ravages of time; not just how their news staffs covered major events, but also archives of much-loved DJs and maybe some in-studio performances by famous bands and singers.

There are enough news junkies, students, academics, historians, artists and others eager to have access to all this material. Journalism is the first draft of history, as the saying goes. Should that history help pay for journalism’s present — and make sure it’s still around in the future?

History as It Happened

I know: Why shell out money for archival news footage when YouTube has it all? About three years ago, a search for newscasts from Sept. 11 initially took me to Google’s user-generated video site, where somebody had uploaded the first hours of the tragedy as covered by local New York stations along with the broadcast and cable networks. Check YouTube now for “Sept. 11th newscasts” and you still see some on-air footage of that day, but a lot of the network material has since been removed.

However, YouTube isn’t likely to have all the big major-market events — or major market reaction to worldwide-worthy news — that some people might be willing to pay for. Here in Seattle, high school and college classes might want to see how local stations covered the World Trade Organization riots, or recent earthquakes, or Mount St. Helens. Group discounts for education purposes? A paid “As It Happened” page on affiliate Web sites?

Back to Dallas and another sprint down my own memory lane: A victory parade for the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in early 1993 ended with 18 injuries, dozens of arrests and lots of civic soul-searching regarding racial tensions between black and Latino youths. Dallas’ TV stations could make that premium content available on their Web sites, and offer up DVDs at group rates for universities studying both race relations and how the media covers/exacerbates such issues.

What about radio? Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, former WABC New York disc jockey, is a broadcasting legend, already enshrined in the NAB Hall of Fame for helping to usher in a new era of rock and roll to America in the 1960s. Go to WABC’s online shrine to “the greatest top 40 music radio station of all time,” and you can hear classic airchecks free of charge as MP3 audio files. My unsolicited advice: Keep offering up some free content, but hold something back for premium service, and burn some professionally done CDs for sale to collectors. (Yes, I’m aware that you already do with the MP3 files on the site; it may come as a shock to media-mixing technoids, but not everybody out there either wants to burn their own or is comfortable learning how — but they might like a CD full of Cousin Brucie introducing the Beatles to New York audiences in 1966.

The material doesn’t have to be for historic or educational purposes. Sell the archival footage and watch artists go at it with mashups and new media mixes. Watch them mine new fields of dramatic — and comedic — possibilities with the material. Sure, it’s history’s first draft, but it could be rewritten in crayon thanks to the developers at companies like Adobe.

A New Pay-to-Play Attitude

I’ve written before about how content providers are going to have to be very careful if they step back behind the walled garden concept. Asking people to pay for news content they get for free right now will depend a lot on the quality of the content, the price and how easy they make it for people to pay. As is obvious by now, I think there should also be consideration for allowing people to do what they want with the content, re: mashups or CD/DVD burning. In the previous section, I’ve talked about radio and TV stations providing archival footage on discs; I still think there would be an audience for that, but stations should allow the users to have the option of DIY downloads and manipulating them to their heart’s content.

In my opinion, archival footage would be one of the few items within a local TV or radio station’s cabinet that viewers/listeners might actually consider buying. The broadcast networks certainly think so. NBC offers up “Time Capsules” and ABC has “The Day It Happened” podcast material available for US$1.99 per episode or about $30 for the series on Apple’s iTunes. CNN – the only cable network that’s been around long enough to offer some historic footage – has in the past put together DVD’s of its coverage of post-1980 major news events, but as of now has no archival video available for sale on iTunes.

Selling archival footage certainly won’t make up for the economic downturn that’s impacted advertising at your hometown TV station. General managers/news directors might ask the same question: “Who am I going to get to put this project together? We’re down to the minimum staff as is, thanks to layoffs.” But all avenues for potential revenue should be explored, no matter what the potential return.

Who knows — nostalgia that is powerful enough to transport people back in time might be strong enough to bring in a little cash to recession-slammed media properties.

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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