This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Hoarding and the Diogenes Syndrome
by Martin Grams, Jr. © 2016
(From Radio Recall, August, 2016)
For decades, the hobby of old-time radio has been one of relish and recollection. Enjoyment that came from exchanging conversation with others who share a common interest: listening and learning about old-time radio. Of recent, an aging fan base is making way for a newer generation who demonstrates a lack of appreciation for old-time radio. And a lack of concern when it comes to archiving and preserving old-time radio programs. Misconceptions and myths perpetrate news groups and Facebook, virtual platforms where anyone can preach to the masses.
A myth questioned becomes accepted fact after 20 people have jumped into the conversation, each expressing their opinion. And therein lies the complication: a lack of clarification. Black and white becomes grey when people will not accept the facts. What is the difference 4 between an opinion and a fact? Anyone with an I.Q. higher than room temperature can tell the difference. But reading comments on Facebook makes you question the future of old-time radio.
To understand the hobby, you have to know that you fa ll under one of three classifications: the collector, the historian (also known as the researcher), and the archivist. The collector seeks copies of recordings to hear, shelve, catalog, label and inventory what they own. The collector buys, copies, swaps and downloads. More serious collectors will buy transcription discs, wire recordings and cylinders from eBay and other collectors, and will transfer from these master recordings for personal use. Less serious collectors download.
The historian is focused on gathering metadata from various archival sources, to help identify recordings, broadcast dates and the history behind the performers, writers, directors and of the program itself. They research (i.e. travel and do the legwork) and publish their findings. (And yes, historians have a collection of recordings but that does not make them solely classified as a collector.) And you might be surprised to know that a recent national study among archivists discovered 55 percent of all extant sound recordings have no dates. Historians are committed to lowering that percentage. You can thank one historian for having reviewed Popeye, the Sailor radio scripts in the past year. You know those four radio broadcasts that have circulated among collectors for the past few decades? We now have broadcast dates. Collectors and archivists can thank the historian for that.
The archivist is responsible for the preservation aspect. The archivist converts sound recordings to a digital medium, usually in broadcast wav format (BWF), from the original cylinders, wire recordings, transcription discs and other formats. The archivist catalogs and inventories, scans archival documents and photographs, and performs all of these tasks using the best equipment and software available. A collector generally maintains his or her collection from private residence using standard hardware and software. An archivist generally works from a library that is federal, county or state funded, working with industry standard hardware and software.
As explained by the keynote speaker, Paddy Scannell, author Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, "Collectors are generally not concerned about the historical aspect of radio broadcasts. They are not content driven." A collector hears the radio and a historian listens to the radio. "Hearing and listening to radio is not the same," Scannell explained. A historian listens to the content of speech and voice, how words are spoken, and will decipher the meaning and context. The collector hears Bob Hope tell a topical joke and chooses to laugh - or not laugh - with the audience.
A historian listens to what Bob Hope said and laughs with full understanding of what the joke was referring to. The success of Kate Smith and Arthur Godfrey, as Scannell demonstrated, spoke not to an audience of millions but to one person - you. The plea to purchase a War Bond was scripted but it was how Kate Smith delivered that plea that helped her sell more than $40 million to aid the war cause. Collectors have one advantage: they can buy and read the books that are written by historians. Rather than devote years of combing through archives across the country, taking notes and spending thousands of dollars doing so, they merely have to pay a small fee and read the book. All the hard work was 5 done for them.
The recent RPTF conference held in Washington, D.C. and the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland at College Park was open to the public but I observed no collectors in attendance. All of the attendees were scholars, historians and archivists. And I repeat, there were virtually no collectors.
While it may be discouraging to report that such diversity exists in the academic field, it should be noted that the gift of an archive has been taken for granted many times. Policies are placed in effect for a reason. And since the majority of the griping on Facebook concerns "hoarders" who will not surrender recordings in their possession, the lack of collectors at the event may have been a blessing in disguise.
The rumors of large collections of historical papers and archival materials being tossed in the dumpster certainly has basis of truth. When a new station manager walks through the door, their first decision is to chuck the history in the dumpster because they do not know how to monetize it. When the question comes up as to who is responsible for the discarding of radio preservation, the answer usually falls on corporate decisions. All three - collectors, historians and archivists - cringe when they hear such stories.
But what happens with the archival materials that is saved from the- dumpster is dependent not just with the individual who had the foresight to rescue the materials, but what they do with the materials. And collectors who store these archives in their basement, attic or garage with careless disregard for preserving them are just as guilty as the people they claim are "hoarding.
Which brings me to the last aspect of clarification. A hoarder in this subject of conversation is defined as someone who acquires archival materials, including recordings, and does nothing with them except to serve as bragging rights. They are not saving or preserving history through this method. We are not discussing mp3 files downloaded off the Internet; those are considered "copies" and downgrades from archival maters. What we are discussing are transcription discs, photographs, radio scripts, scrapbooks, and other materials that are archival in nature and original source material.
If permanent loss for all of time occurs as a result of flood or fire, the greed of the hoarder is solely responsible for that loss. If, however, someone rescues a transcription disc from the dumpster and arranges for the transfer to digital files, and off-site backups to ensure the recording will never vanish, then they are not - and should not - be classified as a hoarder. In fact, the defense should be made that they truly rescued the material and deserve respect and acknowledgment. The pattern of behavior that stems from excessive acquisition and the unwillingness to preserve original archival materials will cause more than significant distress to the community. Among collectors, the words "hoarding" and "hoarders" is branded about too often and with little basis of knowledge.
It was uniformly agreed upon by scholars, historians and archivists that the Internet should never be used as reference, but rather as a tool for reference. No serious scholar, researcher or historian uses Wikipedia as an encyclopedia, but they will explore the links at the bottom to learn the whereabouts of archives, gather contact information and discover titles of published reference works they did not know existed.
The Internet both compliments and challenges the scholar/historian. The Internet has added confusion, spread myths and opened the door for what has been termed 'The Diogenes Syndrome." This infects collectors who download free radio programs by the tons, disrespecting quality for numbers, obsessed with the "more is better" mantra: claiming ownership of tens of thousands of audio files, not radio recordings (I had to clarify the difference).
Statistically, these collectors have more programs than they have hours left in their life, and without proper education unjustly gripe on social media that hoarders are responsible for the reason why they do not have more. (If you ask them who these hoarders are, they can rarely name names.) They consider themselves among the hobby of old-time radio; nothing can be far from the truth. Many of these individuals do not buy or read books on the subject, are not members of old-time radio clubs, and do not subscribe to the club newsletters. Even fewer attend conventions (fan gatherings).
"That carried me back maybe 15 or 18 years to my first trip to the home of the aging founder of the KRA (Kentuckiana Radio Addicts) club in suburban Louisville," author and historian Jim Cox remarked. "I was absolutely appalled out of my wits not merely by the sophistication and range of his recording equipment but, far more, by the bookcases, closet shelving, tables, desks, 6 boxes, drawers, and floor space appropriated for hundreds of thousands of shows. I had never seen anything like it in a private collection. So surprised was I that I inquired, 'Have you listened to all these programs?' He stunned me with his retort: 'No, and I won't live long enough to do that.' I couldn't let it pass. 'Then why do you have so many?' I asked. 'So I'll have them,' came his instant reply. Here was the best example of the Diogenes Syndrome I ever saw. That man died three or four years hence. And his wife made a deal with a distributor in another state to clean out the house a short time afterward. It all seemed like such a waste of time and money."
While the limits of collecting is relative, the first indication that someone is suffering from this syndrome is not compulsive, but the decline of living quarters. If a collection extends beyond shelves and wall space, and starts taking up floor space, restraint is required. Sadly, there are many who sacrifice their living quarters (or a section thereof) in exchange of owning recordings they may never listen to in the first place. Burdened widows have thrown much in the dumpster after their spouse passed away; children and grandchildren gain disrespect for "that old stuff" as a result of the inconvenience.
Many of these individuals have proven radio historian Paddy Scannell correct by collecting compressed (and inferior sound quality) audio files but devote more time watching television than they do listening to the radio. These individuals claim to be among the hobby of old-time radio but they rarely read books about old-time radio, are not members of old-time radio clubs, and do not subscribe to the club newsletters. And the sad part is, those who suffer from The Diogenes Syndrome have no idea the real value of old-time radio programs.
I know a young lady in her twenties who watches old black and white movies. Her living room consists of a shrine of DVDs consisting of thousands of pre-1960s movies, almost all of them purchased over the years. There is no shrink-wrap on any of them because she took the time to watch each and every movie. She reads one book a month (a biography of Marlene Dietrich, the history of The Little Rascals, etc.). She has vintage movie posters hanging on her wall - not reproductions.
That young lady is more into old-time movies than some people who claim to be into old -time radio. The problem is not financial; it stems from the level of appreciation. Perhaps over time, when downloading inferior mp3 files either becomes exhausting, frustrating, or reaches an over-saturation level, those who suffer from this syndrome Will take time to rehabilitate their bodies, their homes, their collection and their mind. To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, there is no fault for an education as long as those individuals realize there are books that stimulate.