Exploring the Rainbow History Project radio archive

Digging into audio archives: the trailblazing “Friends” radio program

D.C. Gay Pride March, Photo courtesy of the Rainbow History Project

History happens fast, and there’s not always time for archiving. A group of LGBT activists in Washington D.C. realized this firsthand: after decades fighting on the front lines for LGBT equality, they’d amassed thousands of historical artifacts in urgent need of preservation. In 2000, The Rainbow History Project was founded out to steward the many first-hand documents and recordings from D.C.’s vibrant LGBT community.

Among the founders of the Rainbow History Project was Bruce Pennington, who intimately knew the need to preserve this history: he had almost a decade’s worth of historic recordings on reel-to-reel and cassette tapes rapidly disintegrating in his own basement. That’s because Pennington was a founder of Stonewall Nation Media Collective, which created programs like D.C.’s groundbreaking “Friends” radio show.

Friends was one of the first and longest-running radio programs to specifically address
LGBT issues, creating stories “for, by, and about the gay community.” Amidst much contention (one critic called Friends “the voice of the Viet Cong”), the show ran on Georgetown University radio station (WGTB-FM) and later Pacifica Radio (WPFW-FM) from 1973 to 1982.When Pennington passed away in 2003, he left the recordings, along with funds for their digital preservation, to the Rainbow History Project.

reelsSince then, an active community of volunteers has been hard at work to digitize the Friends archive and make it discoverable to the broader public. Yet even after many of the recordings were transferred to CDs, the archive was still far from searchable. The audio was digital, but it was still opaque, stored in files with labels like “Untitled I.” Other recordings either lacked labels entirely or were stored in containers with labels that were smeared or destroyed. And with hundreds of hours of audio, the volunteer-run organization simply didn’t have the resources to listen through it all.

Pop Up Archive gives us a tool for preserving and sharing our history. —Vincent Slatt, The Rainbow History Project

That’s where Pop Up Archive comes in. This year, Vincent Slatt, who works as an archivist by day, has been spearheading the effort to make the Friends archive accessible online. To date, the Rainbow History Project has uploaded more than 114 hours of audioto a public collection at Pop Up Archive. Immediately after uploading, the team began to surface gems, including a 1973 interview with independent film director John Waters and his muse, Divine, and a 1976 speech by then-Governor, future President Jimmy Carter,that details his views about employment of homosexuals (spoiler: he’s all for it, unless your homosexuality can be used as blackmail in a national security position). Beyond the big names, Friends also broadcast recordings from some pivotal events in America’s LGBT history, such as early Gay Pride celebrations and a “Lesbian takeover” of anAmerican Psychological Association seminar in Detroit.

According to Slatt, the collection on Pop Up Archive still only represents about one third of the complete Friends archive. The Rainbow History Project hopes to raise the funds to digitize and upload the rest of the archive to Pop Up Archive by the end of the year. In addition to transcripts, Pop Up Archive provides a user-friendly digital archive interface that can be edited and maintained by their volunteer base over time. The Rainbow History Project also benefits from Pop Up Archive’s integration with Internet Archive, as ultimately their audio will be preserved both at Pop Up Archive and through archive.org.

Already, the Rainbow History Project’s public audio archive serves an invaluable resource for researchers and history buffs alike.

Explore “Friends Radio: Broadcasts and Outtakes, 1973-1982”