Placing Archival Skills into the Hands of Individual Podcasters: Interview with Mary Kidd on Preserve This Podcast!

This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.

In this installment, Archivist and COPA Early Career Member, Kristi Chanda, interviews Mary Kidd. Mary Kidd currently works in the Preservation and Collections Processing Department at the New York Library as their Systems and Operations Manager. She also served as a Project Lead for a two year grant based project called Preserve This Podcast!, which worked to teach preservation skills to independent, individual producers.

KC: What is Preserve This Podcast! and how did it originate?

MK: Preserve This Podcast was a two year grant funded project. It ran for a finite period of time,  from January 2018 to January 2020. Thankfully, it ended right before CoVid and lockdowns hit North America, so good timing on our part. Its primary purpose was to teach independent or “indie” podcasters (that is, podcasters working out of their home as opposed to for a radio station or a media corporation) about digital preservation, especially in terms of preserving digital podcast files and everything else that makes a podcast. So that, in short, was Preserve This Podcast.

In terms of how it originated, a few years ago, back in 2016, I was working at the New York Public Radio archives. I was part of a National Digital Stewardship Residency cohort that year, and I was paired with  NYPR on a project where I was looking at all of their born-digital output and documenting the flow from the point at which someone created something to be broadcast up to the point where it was placed into long-term storage.

As part of my program, I was attending a bunch of conferences and one of them was the Radio Preservation Task Force conference. This was the first conference of its kind addressing radio preservation so it was pretty exciting for me to go. It was being held at the Library of Congress that year so I traveled out to Washington D.C. By chance, I met Dana Gerber-Margie who was one of the co-leads on Preserve This Podcast. She was working at the time at the Wisconsin Historical Society on an oral history project. We had a lot to talk about, since we each had a foot in archives and another in audio-visual preservation. Fast-forward a year later, she contacted me and a few other people and asked us if we wanted to be part of hosting a workshop at the Personal Digital Archiving Conference (PDA). It was being held that year at Stanford University in Palo Alto. She wanted to facilitate a workshop around podcast preservation. That was the first I’d ever heard of this concept of podcast preservation, so you could say PTP originated from Dana’s brilliant mind. I agreed to do it and it was a lot of fun. The workshop was geared towards indie podcasters, but we were primarily talking to archivists because this was an archivist’s conference. So we were preaching to the choir a little bit. Fast forward another year, I was contacted by Molly Schwartz, who was working as the studio manager at the New York Metropolitan Library Council, also known as METROfor short. She was working on a podcast called Library Bytegeist, which is a really great podcast about librarians and archivists working in New York City. So, a super fun podcast for people interested in that kind of stuff. She contacted me and said, hey, I heard that you hosted this workshop on podcasts preservation and I think that’s a really good idea. Why don’t we apply for a grant? So, Molly, Dana and myself started meeting over the summer of 2017 and eventually we were put in contact with the Mellon Foundation.  They were really receptive to our idea. By January 2018 we launched the project and hit the ground running. So that’s the story of Preserve This Podcast.

KC: Why is this organization significant in the podcasting/archiving community?

MK: I think most podcasters, unless they work for a radio station or media company with an archive,  are not always thinking about long-term preservation.  The point of Preserve This Podcast was to produce a suite of free tools for people to get them thinking about it. One of those tools was a five part teaching podcast called the Preserve This Podcast podcast that spoke directly to  indie podcasters to make them  aware of the problems plaguing digital files,  and here are the reasons why you should take time out of your day to take certain steps towards preserving your content.  Indie podcasters’ digital content is at more risk than  big box podcasts like  This American Life. That is because indie podcasters are likely time and resource-strapped. They don’t have a lot of cash. They are working by themselves or on a small team kind of outside of a day job or raising families. They don’t necessarily have the resources to take on a preservation plan and as any person in our field knows, preservation always takes time and resources. So I think it was important that we put out this suite of tools for people to make it easier for them to learn a new skill. Our podcast is a really fun listen with high production quality. We worked with a team of people to produce this podcast, including an editor,  and a soundtrack. We really wanted to speak to podcasters in the language that they’re most familiar with, in order to bring the message of preservation to them. 

In terms of PTP’s importance for archivists, potentially an archivist listening to our podcast or encountering our work may also be the first time for them to  consider  podcast preservation. Not a lot of institutions have a podcast collecting policy or focus on podcasts as part of what they acquire.  Some institutions do, but by and large you just don’t hear about podcast collecting. I think, in part, it’s because it’s contemporary to us, it’s here now, and so there’s kind of this notion that it’s just like here and it’ll be around for a while. One example that we talked about  at librarian and archivist conferences  is concrete proof  that some of the earliest podcasts produced 20 years ago have already disappeared. So this is something that you all should pay attention to and not take for granted the fact that this is a popular medium now, but you could say the same thing for VHS tapes thirty years ago. So that’s what we brought to the table for archivists and people working in preservation, nudging them and saying, this is something to look at and this is something important that you should consider for  your collection development or preservation policies.

KC: What were the challenges that you had to overcome while working on the project?

MK: I think our greatest challenge was convincing people of  the problem. We really did our due diligence in a lot of ways and did a lot of research to prove that podcasts have already disappeared or were at-risk.  One of the first things that we did was we worked with a data analyst, Jacob Kramer-Duffield,  who helped us to design a survey that we distributed out to podcasters. We took the results of that survey and we were able to qualify the fact that a lot of indie podcasters have not thought about preservation or put a preservation plan in place, compared to their non-indie peers.  Through this survey we were able to support our hypothesis that indie podcasts are at risk. In addition to the survey, we also looked at a collection of some of the very first podcasts ever made, called 2005 Podcast Core Collection, hosted on the Internet Archive.  The person who compiled this collection was Jason Scott, who works at the Internet Archive now and back in 2005 he wrote this script that crawled a directory of podcasts that existed at the time. For each podcast, the script would scrape the audio and any RSS XML data. This script ran for about two years.  One of the things that we had podcasters do when they attended one of our workshops was to call up this collection, choose a podcast at random, and then try and see if they could find it listed in  Apple Podcasts or by performing a web browser search.  By and large, for most of these podcasts, you could not find them.This exercise was a concrete example showing that podcasts made only 20 years ago have disappeared.  I’m sure  a lot of these original creators  never expected that their podcasts would just disappear. Giving podcasters this example really hit home, and I think it spoke to people on the urgency behind podcast preservation. 

KC: What did you hope your audience will gain from attending the workshops and conferences?

MK: We really wanted people to walk our of workshops with some sort of plan. At the end of our workshops we would say, okay, given what you’ve learned about things like metadata, backup plans, and file and folder organization, what are some steps that you can take today? Even as that’s like, I have a no open container of coffee rule at my desk, that was fine. Then what can you do in the next week, month, six months, and try and see if you can also incorporate these steps into your podcast production workflow, because I think that was the key to making sure that people would go home and actually take these steps. If you don’t incorporate it into sort of your everyday workflow it will probably fall to the wayside. So one of the things that we wanted them to walk away from you know from our workshops is an idea of how they can incorporate preservation into producing a podcast. We tried to incentivize them. One of the things that Dana pointed  out was that, more often than not, podcasters will get some sort of request. NPR will email a podcaster, and say, “Hey, we’re really interested in using this 30-second from your podcast episode from three years ago into our news segment, can you send us a file by the end of today?” If you have a file and folder organization plan in place — which is something we taught at our workshops — with , you are more likely to  find the file really quickly. If you don’t, then you’re scrambling. The lesson here is that file and folder management is not just  something you do for preservation, but it can also help monetize your podcast.

In terms of what we wanted archivists and librarians to learn from us, we wanted them to understand the technical aspects of podcasts that make them unique assets. We especially wanted to drive home the point that podcasts are not just digital audio files. There may be an mp3 file, as well as unedited raw audio, a soundtrack, transcription metadata, and release forms which can affect things like rights metadata. You may also have an accompanying website, which is also a rich trove of descriptive metadata or even artwork and branding.  There is also the RSS XML metadata, which is like a really rich source of standardized metadata, which you can use to your advantage to automate incorporate into existing preservation workflows.

KC: Are there any plans/goals set for the future?

MK: Preserve This Podcast lives on in a number of ways. A few of us have been asked to guest lecture classes and teach workshops post-grant. An exciting and new development is an upcoming NEH grant-funded project, Open Sources: Training Communities of Practice for Complex Born-Digital Collections, which will be spearheaded by Myriad Consulting. This project will see the “development and implementation of curricula, resources, workshops, and community events tailored to smaller cultural heritage institutions focused on preservation of and access to born-digital materials”. The formation of this project took some inspiration from Preserve This Podcast, and will be using a teaching zine to teach digital preservation concepts. So although it’s not a project aimed specifically at preserving podcasts, it still captures the spirit of supporting staff and other individuals working for smaller or under-resourced cultural heritage institutions. I will be taking on a consultant role for this grant, and will be taking what I learned through the course of PTP to this project.

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