Preserving LGBT Footage for Posterity
Five days a week for nearly four years Oakland, California resident John Raines has watched more than a thousand hours of old home movies, television station news reports, and other audio-visual archival materials of LGBT historical significance.
Each weekday Raines sits down at a desk in a converted bedroom in his apartment, boots up his computer and AV equipment, and sets about preserving the LGBT footage and recordings by transferring them to a digital format.
The celluloid images run the gamut from gay Halloween parties to leather and drag contests to the inaugural voyages of gay cruise company RSVP to endless coverage of gay Pride parades and athletic events.
"It can be a little tiresome to watch the nth round of the Miss Continental contest. But it is also fun because little surprises will pop up," said Raines, referring to the annual female impersonation pageant that has been held in Chicago since 1980.
The preservation work is a labor of love for the gay retiree, who turns 53 on October 19, as he has been doing the work on a pro bono basis for the GLBT Historical Society based in San Francisco.
"I treated it like a job Monday through Friday," said Raines. "In seven hours I can transfer six one-hour reels."
When the historical society opened its first museum space in the gay Castro district back in 2009, Raines signed up as a volunteer. Part of the display featured video screens in the window showing archival LGBT footage.
Having a background in audio-video post-production, Raines offered to assist with fixing the visual presentation shown on the monitors.
"I enjoyed it. It was fun to learn about preservation and conserving analog media," said Raines, who worked for several San Diego radio stations in the 1980s and later at a cable TV advertising firm in Los Angeles. "I am self taught."
Impressed with his work, the archival group’s executive director asked if Raines would be interested in diving further into its audio-visual collection and help convert it into a form accessible to modern-day filmmakers, researchers, and academics.
Raines accepted the offer, only to discover that the preserved material was in various formats, largely uncataloged, and some reels in better condition than others. He decided to start with a relatively easy task, picking a collection of old radio programs donated by journalist Randy Alfred.
"Randy had donated them in 1996 and there they had mostly just sat in boxes. There were 250 reels, most one-hour long, so it was over 200 hours worth of material," recalled Raines. "I started with it because it was audio, a format I was familiar with. Also, they were in really good condition."
Not only had Alfred kept the documentation for his GLBT Radio show, which aired on KSAN-FM San Francisco from 1973 to 1984, he also had meticulously stored the collection.
"It was about as tidy as it gets," said Raines, who over the course of three months brought the equipment he needed to do the work into the archives, which are stored in a building in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood and can be publicly accessed by appointment. "I had no difficulty with that collection."
Eventually, the Alfred tapes and those of the Fruit Punch gay radio program that aired on KPFA Berkeley in the mid-1970s were made available online through the "Gayback Machine" portal on the historical society’s website. The material has since been downloaded 8,997 times from the site and an additional 3,376 times directly from the Internet Archive, where they are also held.
Having earned the trust of the archive staff, Raines began bringing the archival tapes and reels to his house in order to do the conversion work at home. He also started acquiring the machinery he needed to convert the older formats into digital copies by scouring hobbyist websites and eBay listings.
The video material held by the archives was shot in various formats, such as Betacam, U-matic, VHS, Video Hi8, DAT (for digital audio tape), and the obscure Sony CV Skip-field. Each requires its own player in order to be converted; it took him months to secure a machine that can play EIAJ-1 class=st> half-inch open reel videotape.
He even acquired a phonograph player, as the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus released in 45 rpm record format a cheer song for the 49ers football team.
"Maybe I’ve spent $5,000 altogether," Raines estimated.