ALBUQUERQUE — When veteran television producer Michael Kamins first started at New Mexico Public Broadcasting Service (NMPBS) in 1986, the station’s programming was brought to you by thousands of two-inch analog tape and video-playing behemoths.
“These huge dinosaur videotape players were still in practice,” said Kamins, executive producer at NMPBS, in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Eventually, the station transitioned to new technologies, leaving the archival media in limbo. Though the materials were kept in a climate-controlled environment, there was no real understanding of how to care for the archive. KUNM-FM 89.9, a National Public Radio affiliate based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, kept some of its old audio tapes in a men’s bathroom.
Over the years, public broadcasting staff members became acutely aware that the fragile documents were in jeopardy.
“It’s videotape,” said Kamins. “It’s this little piece of plastic with a very thin coating of oxide and all of those molecules have been rearranged into incredibly valuable history.”
Today, NMPBS staff and volunteers are at the leading edge of digitizing decades’ worth of irreplaceable New Mexico-produced broadcast media via the New Mexico Public Media Digitization Project. The endeavor will preserve thousands of analog and digital media from the 1960s to the present and includes half-hour episodes, hour-long programs, and rolls of raw footage from five public television and radio stations across the state. The project, which will digitize more than 8,000 video and audiotapes, is expected to be completed later this year.
Along with the preservation of a crucial and irreplaceable portion of New Mexico’s history, the archive, which will be available in the public domain, illustrates the state’s unique social, political, cultural, and artistic DNA while highlighting underheard voices, stories, and perspectives.
The New Mexico Public Media Digitization Project began after NMPBS received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. By that time, NMPBS was lucky to still have a robust — albeit disorganized — collection of treasures on their hands.
“There were times when I’ve had people walk up to me in the station and say, ‘If you don’t do something with it, get it out of the way or we’re going to throw it away,’” said Kamins, who’s the project director. “I told them, ‘No, we’re not.’”
Not everything avoided the dumpster. In a truly heartbreaking anecdote, Kamins recounts the time when a huge volume of vintage NMPBS materials was pulverized.
“They took all of the thousands of videotapes and ran them through a bandsaw to remove the aluminum flanges to recycle the aluminum and then threw all the videotape away,” which erased a bulk of NMPBS’s programs prior to 1981, Kamins explains. “That entire history was destroyed in that effort to recycle the aluminum.
“That always stuck in my mind and with other people here,” he said.
The New Mexico Public Media Digitization Project is taking place in collaboration with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), which will allow the public to view the archival footage for free on the AAPB website as of October 2022. (Some New Mexico content is already available.) In 2013, the Library of Congress and GBH Archives, which are also partnering with NMPBS on the project, became the permanent stewards of the AAPB, a digital archive created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the collection now consists of more than 135,000 digitized programs.
By 2019, the AAPB found that the archive lacked New Mexico materials. The next year, NMPBS received the Council on Library and Information Resources grant, and the project hit the ground running in January 2021.
A small team of staff, interns, and volunteers are digitizing the back-catalog of video and audiotapes, such as the current affairs program New Mexico in Focus, arts and culture show ¡COLORES!, and Espejos de Aztlán, which highlights Chicana/o and Latina/o resistance and visibility. The project’s five broadcast stations include Albuquerque’s NMPBS/KNME-TV, KUNM (FM), and KANW (FM); KRWG (PBS) at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; and KENW-TV (PBS) at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.
Once it’s completed, a network of more than 25 local, regional, and national partners — including The New Mexico State Library and The University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research — plans to feature a New Mexico Public Media Digitization Project portal on their respective websites. High-resolution masters will live forever at the Library of Congress.
David Saiz, who has been working on the project, is especially excited by New Mexico public media’s long history of amplifying marginalized perspectives.
“One that really stood out to me was the LGBTQ youth in New Mexico who was able to have a voice and talk about some of the discrimination that happens in the state,” said Saiz. “On another episode, people of color in the state discussed how resources were unavailable to them in terms of getting medical attention, or feeling uncomfortable within medical institutions.” Saiz added that other archival programs highlight women artists in the state as well as the HIV/AIDS crisis in New Mexico.
In concert with the archival effort, Saiz and Rachel Snow are co-curating the digital exhibition Witnessing New Mexico: The New Mexico Public Media Digitization Project. The exhibition, scheduled to debut this summer in the exhibits section of the AAPB website, “provides a critical look at often obscured perspectives, stories, and peoples” through New Mexico-produced broadcast media. The exhibition’s sub-themes “Reclaiming Histories,” “Revealing Forgotten Faces,” and “Navigating Racism” will look into “the inequitable treatment of people based on differences in ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, tribal affiliations, and intellectual and physical (dis)abilities,” said Saiz.
For Kamins, the project and the digital exhibition allow some of New Mexico’s most cherished people to continue contributing to the state’s rich and unique fabric.
“Over the years, I’ve had a chance to sit down with [Qatsi trilogy director] Godfrey Reggio and have him talk about our misguided belief in technology. Or spend days with [artist] Rina Swentzell walking through Santa Clara Pueblo and having her talk about the wind and how important it is. Or [New Mexico author] Sabine Ulibarrí giving fabulous poetry readings about race and that there really is no such thing as race because all of us have the same color of blood that’s red,” said Kamins.
“You can’t go back to some of the people and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this now?’ Through this project, we remind people that these great voices have been part of our lives and still can be, and that’s incredibly valuable. It makes me feel like there’s something Sabine Ulibarrí or the folks that aren’t with us anymore are still contributing to who we are and what we can be.”