Preserve Those Voices

Bob Fass at WBAI in the 1960s, courtesy of Lost Footage Films via Columbia University

So much corporate history and cultural history resides in oral history. To that end, I was delighted to learn that Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library is archiving 10,000 hours from “Radio Unnameable.” This program by Bob Fass on New York City FM station WBAI was a window on the world for metro-area kids like me. Through the archiving, it can enlighten whole new generations (and scholars) some 50 years later. As Fass told Columbia: “Too much of recorded history is cold, cut-and-dry—factual. It rings false. These magnetized moments, trapped in glowing incandescent amber, invite curiosity, clear away confusion, alienation, and distance from the foggy turnpike of some 50-odd years. And what odd and wonderful years they were!” Amen.

At we always encourage companies to conduct, transcribe, and save oral histories of company founders and long-time employees (that means saving them on paper as well as electronically!). Even if you don’t have the budget to deploy these histories right away, they will prove invaluable. Writing the 100-year history of The Clorox Company would have been difficult and certainly not as vivid without access to a thigh-high stack of oral history transcripts done for the 75th anniversary. The material was not used then, but what a difference it made 25 years later. (The fact that so many corporate history efforts are aborted for short-sighted budgetary reasons is a subject for another blog post.) An oral history program doesn’t cost much relative to the institutional memory value it provides long-term.