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Posted by: Airwaves, March 21, 2012, 3:46pm
Canadian musical memorabilia
has nowhere to go

Red Robinson with his treasures

By Stephen Hume,
Vancouver Sun
March 21, 2012

A recent column about the imminent demise of the CBC's historic archive of vinyl recordings and its possible departure not just from Vancouver but from Canada triggered quite a response.

Among the most interesting, a letter from Red Robinson, the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame DJ who helped shape the musical tastes and sensibilities of generations of Vancouver teenagers over a 40-year broadcast career.

Well, not just Vancouver teenagers. As a kid in a small Interior town, I remember using the crystal radio I built in a shop class and then hid under my bed to listen in the wee hours, conveniently the only time it would pull in the distant Vancouver stations, to the '50s rock 'n' roll that my parents despised.

(Actually, my mother knew all about the crystal set but wisely turned a deaf ear to the tasting of forbidden fruit on the theory that eventually I'd come to my senses and discover the wonders of Beethoven and Mahler - I did, but I still like Buddy Holly.)

Robinson, those of a certain age will recall, rocketed up the ratings charts at CJOR by introducing teenage Vancouver to the Motown sound, Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis, Chuck Berry and the progenitors of what would become the defining popular music of the last half of the 20th century.

In fact, he's a living reminder of just how rich and turbulent this city's broadcast history is, from its origins 90 years ago in hotel basements, back shops, newspaper offices - including The Vancouver Sun's- and train stations.

Western Canada's oldest radio station went on the air in Vancouver in 1922. Another radio station was launched as CFDC in Nanaimo in 1923, then killed by regulators in 1925 when the owner simply moved his transmitter in a suitcase and began broadcasting from Vancouver, then resurrected as CKWX in 1927. CBC and public broadcasting arrived 1936 and earned acclaim for producing some of the best and most significant radio drama in Canada.

Robinson, then 17, was first put on the air by program manager Vic Waters for the teen audience. He started playing music that was like nothing anyone had heard before and within the year commanded more than half the Vancouver audience.

It was, as they say, a different world - but the giants of broadcasting today nevertheless have their roots deeply embedded in it, which is what makes Robinson's observations on the CBC situation both poignant and troubling.

He says this trend of jettisoning the past is a much bigger problem than the one with which the public broad-caster is now seized. CBC, he suggests, is just catching up with the private sector in this collective exercise in cultural Alzheimer's syndrome.

"Most local radio stations that have been sold to large corporations have thrown out their libraries and photo history into Dumpsters long ago," he writes. One collection of 300,000 items covering the history of 20th-century recorded music was sold to a private collector for $6,000. Others are in the hands of broadcast veterans who don't know what will become of them when they die.

For example, Robinson says, his unique role as the top DJ in the Vancouver music and recording scene brought him into contact with many of the most significant pop performers of the modern era, from Duke Ellington to The Beatles. He interviewed many of them. Robinson's collection - composed of his own interviews and many recorded by the late Jack Cullen - amounts to more than 4,000 historical audio documents.

What's to become of this priceless historic archive?

"In my case, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland wants my collection of celebrity interviews, photos and other memorabilia relative to the genre. I don't want to do this but there is no alternative."

That and the CBC dilemma raise an important question for both the provincial and the federal governments. Why is there no alternative? Why don't we have a national museum and archive for material like that collected by CBC, by Robinson, Cullen and others? Why are we faced with having this important part of our heritage go into foreign hands? Why, as Robinson asks, "is all this about to disappear?" Perhaps it's a case of familiarity breeding contempt; the broadcast industry is so relatively young that perhaps bureaucrats and politicians cannot perceive its early days as "history" worth preserving. This is a colossal error of judgment for which their memories will be soundly cursed by our descendants.

Robinson says there are efforts to establish a national broadcast and music repository where these archival records can be preserved for a future that will almost certainly value them more than corporate and political interests do now.

But he says the initiative has stalled on bureaucratic indifference and a lack of political will.

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