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Preserving What Remains of Bay Area TV News History

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Sam Harnett/KQED

SFSU archivist Alex Cherian eyeballs a piece of film in the archives.

JOSHUA JOHNSON, News Anchor: Before TV programs were saved on videotape, they were saved on film.  Here in the Bay Area, one of the best film archives of our local TV programs lives at San Francisco State University.  Its records read like a modern history: campus riots, cultural uprisings, famous faces and some footage that's just plain odd.  The problem is, film is expensive to archive and degrades over time, so a lot of what's left from the fifties, sixties and seventies is gone.  Sam Harnett met with an archivist whose trying to save what's left, before that history is lost forever.

(Sound of film rewinding)

SAM HARNETT, Reporter:  That's the sound of San Francisco State's TV archivist Alex Cherian at work. He's spinning film reel-to-reel on a rewind table, hand-cleaning and repairing it, frame by agonizing frame.

ALEX CHERIAN, archivist:  Sometimes it's exciting. Often it is very, very dull and repetitive.

SAM HARNETT:  But there's a payoff -- rediscovering history.

JERRY BROWN (in 1974): Today I'm announcing my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor.

HARNETT:  That's Governor Jerry Brown back in 1974. And this is protesters and police clashing 5 years earlier on the SFSU campus:

(Sound of glass shattering, people yelling: Come on, get out of the way!)

HARNETT: Normally you'd have to stalk through a local station archive to find footage like this. And it might not even be there. Now, thanks to SF State's archive program, anyone can watch this clip online.

ALEX CHERIAN:  What we are trying to do is really bring the material so it enters the popular mind, it grabs their imaginations, because that way they can connect with their history.

HARNETT: There's no national initiative to save local television. Instead, it's up to a patchwork of independent organizations. In much of the country, no one is doing it at all.

ALEX CHERIAN: People assume that TV news is there waiting to be found when they want to reconnect with their history. The sad fact is that it's not.

HARNETT: The bulk of the archive film comes from local stations KTVU, KPIX, KRON-4, and KQED. But Cherian is always looking for more film, trying to fill in those historical gaps. Earlier this year he hit the jackpot.

(Sound of a sliding door being opened)

DAVE PEOPLES:  Here's an old Kodak camera. I just couldn't bring myself to throw it out.  It's probably a sickness.

HARNETT: Dave Peoples can't get rid of things. His storage facility in Berkeley is dank, dark and packed with stuff.  Peoples is fascinated by film. He's worked with it most of his life. In the 1960's he was a visual editor at local station KRON-4. Back then, he says, local stations used to send out large, professional camera crews.

DAVE PEOPLES:  We had the greatest cameramen. Al Kine and Sam Lopez...

HARNETT:  Peoples stares off wistfully as he recalls their camera work.

DAVE PEOPLES: I remember Sam Lopez loved the wide-angle lens, which meant when there was some action going there, Sam was right there, right in it.

HARNETT:  Stations trashed all that extra footage shortly after a story aired. But Peoples says he often just couldn't bear to throw it out. Instead, he sneaked it home and stuck it in his storage facility.

DAVE PEOPLES:  I didn't have a methodical way of doing it. I would just look on the piece of tape we put on the reel and it would say "Bobby Seale in Oakland" or something and I'd say, oh you can't throw out Bobby Seale in Oakland, that's history, right?

HARNETT:  Now, 45 years later, anyone can watch that clip of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale online at the SF State TV archive.

BOBBY SEALE (in 1968): Black people are not making any progress.  The revolutionary struggle should go on forth.

HARNETT:  It's 1968 and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall has just denied bail to Seale's fellow Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. The case was a lightning rod for racial tension at the time.

BOBBY SEALE (in 1968):  Thurgood Marshall, as far as I'm concerned his ass belongs to black people.

HARNETT:  Peoples only saved about 10 hours of film. But Cherian says outtakes like these are rare gems -- unedited, and intimate glimpses into the past.

ALEX CHERIAN: These are images with the camera rolling, and you feel a real sense of being able to reach out and touch history. And this is the kind of thing that Dave preserved.

HARNETT: There are about 4,000 total hours of tape at the SFSU archive, but so far Cherian has only been able to put 4 percent of it online.

ALEX CHERIAN: Some of the film will be in the wrong can, some will be unlabeled, who knows what we have.

HARNETT:  A few weeks ago, Cherian got another call, this time from KRON-4 reporter Art Finger. Finger remembered interviewing Robert Kennedy three days before his assassination.

CHERIAN:  I've been ransacking through the KRON collection to try and find this material because it would have been the last interview Robert Kennedy would have gave before he was killed.

HARNETT:  Cherian finally found the right film can. But the footage was gone. Robert Kennedy's last interview could be anywhere -- unlabeled, mixed up in some other can, or lost forever.  For KQED News, I'm Sam Harnett
 

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