Fire Contaminates Radio Recordings Historical network and local radio broadcasts were contaminated with PCB's in a recent fire at a Los Angeles radio museum. The museum can't afford to decontaminate recordings.
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Fire Contaminates Radio Recordings

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Fire Contaminates Radio Recordings

Fire Contaminates Radio Recordings

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Los Angeles, some relics of the golden age of network radio are facing an uncertain future. The items include rare recordings and one-of-a-kind artifacts all caught up in a fire that left the collection heavily contaminated. As NPR's Luke Burbank reports, a group that saved those relics once is trying to do it again.

(Soundbite of audio equipment)

Mr. MARTY HALPERIN (Audio Equipment Collector): I mean, I've got three CD recorders, a DAT recorder, of course a mixer and my turntable. I don't know what people would call me. Obsessed or crazy or what?

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

In a room off of his kitchen, 77-year-old Marty Halperin has set up his version of heaven: a wall of audio equipment, some of it new, some of it really old.

Mr. HALPERIN: I'm going to play a disc here to show you. It's dated 1947.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Announcer: ..."Jack Benny Program" presented by Lucky Strike, quality of product is essential to continuing success.

BURBANK: Halperin's eyes light up as the record pops and crackles.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HALPERIN: I can see it because I used to work at NBC and was a page on their show.

BURBANK: His love of radio started as a young child growing up in Michigan.

Mr. HALPERIN: I moved around a lot. And each time you move, it's sort of traumatic. You lose your friends. But when I'd get to a new town, I'd turn on the radio, and there were my friends.

BURBANK: That early escapism led to a career as a radio engineer in Los Angeles. Halperin loved radio so much that in his spare time, he joined a fraternal group of radio fans known as the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters. As formats changed, radio stations were tossing out the original recordings of shows like "Dragnet" and "Chandu the Magician," which didn't sit right with Halperin.

Mr. HALPERIN: At a board meeting, I made the mistake of saying, `Why don't we ask our members to save their material?' And they said, `That's a great idea. It's yours. You're now director of acquisitions.'

BURBANK: Thankfully for the broadcasters, the vice president of a Hollywood bank was a big fan of radio. He offered them free space in the facility's basement, coincidentally, the same spot where the NBC radio studios had once been. A perfect fit, right? Well, it was until late last year.

Mr. HALPERIN: What has happened to us is a nightmare, and it's a catastrophe.

BURBANK: Sometime in the early morning of December 13th, an underground electrical transformer caught fire, spewing toxic smoke throughout the bank and its basement. The good news is that the records can be cleaned off. The bad news is that it'll cost over $100,000.

Mr. HALPERIN: The amount of money involved is just unbelievable, and we don't have it.

BURBANK: Making things worse, Halperin and his buddies can't even look at their beloved recordings until the cleaning has happened. The toxins are that dangerous. The building's current owner, Washington Mutual, has been helpful in the process but has stopped short of paying the hefty cleaning fees. Trapped in the basement are things like Bing Crosby's personal microphone and lots of odd tidbits of sound like this recording of Clark Gable singing an impromptu version of "Happy Birthday" to his wife Carol Lombard.

(Soundbite of "Happy Birthday" by Clark Gable)

Mr. CLARK GABLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Ma. Happy birthday to you.

BURBANK: There's also a copy of the original 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds."

(Soundbite of "War of the Worlds")

Unidentified Man: The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air in "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells.

Mr. HALPERIN: People who turned into the show late, even by a minute, missed the opening, and they thought it was real.

(Soundbite of "War of the Worlds")

BURBANK: With World War II just around the corner, the broadcast set off a national pandemonium. Halperin's friend in Los Angeles had just gotten off his shift at the radio station.

Mr. HALPERIN: The manager is coming out the door carrying two suitcases. And he said, `Where are you going?' He said, `Oh, I'm leaving. The martians are here.'

BURBANK: Halperin and his friends are hoping for the best, but as of now, their archives are in limbo. If they want to hear their treasured recordings, they'll have to rely on their imaginations. Fortunately, that's something that comes naturally.

Mr. HALPERIN: The voices along with the sound effects along with the music, just incredible listening. You didn't have to look at anything, but you saw it in your mind. You know, it was a world unto itself.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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