Tiny Technology keeps McMurdo upbeat

Better morale is generally not one of the justifications for adopting new technology. But at McMurdo Base, the use of digital recording is helping to keep those at the ice smiling to the beat. The collection of vinyl records used by the radio station at McMurdo -- called "Ice 104" -- is being transferred onto minidisc over the coming winter months to preserve it from destruction due to normal wear and tear.

Some of the vinyl in the library at the McMurdo radio station dates back to the 1960s, according to Chuck Kramer, supervisor of multimedia at Antarctic Support Associates(ASA), and the records are wearing out. ASA is a Boulder,Colo.-based firm in charge of some McMurdo staffing and support.

The transfer of the albums onto minidisc preserves the recording and gives the station more space in which to operate. The new room will be used for TV and radio production, and possibly videoconferencing. ‘It will save incredible amounts of space," Kramer says.

Minidiscs have the advantage of being more durable than vinyl. The minidisc format has been around for several years. While the disc itself is smaller than a CD, music can be recorded on it not just once but thousands of times. The quality of the audio is just below that of CDs, but far superior to any analog recording medium such as magnetic tapes.

The current library of vinyl recordings contains about 10,000 titles, not all of which will be transferred. First on the priority list for transfer are the most-popular titles, as dictated by the log sheets of songs played over the past two years. Included in the albums held in the collection are a range of genres, including jazz, blues, 60s and religious music.

Much of the work will be carried out by John Booth, a broadcast engineer stationed at McMurdo for the winterseason. The transfer process will be done manually using two turntables and two minidisc recorders. The majority of albums will be transferred directly on to minidisc with all their scratches and pops. But Booth may clean up some of the recordings by using specialized audio software.

Before any recording is transferred, Booth first checks a Microsoft Corp. Access database to ensure that the albumhasn't been previously transferred or isn't on an existing CD at the station. The library currently holds around 1000 CDs, with up to a dozen more arriving monthly.

Minidisc was selected as the preferred format because it's easy to work with. "With CD, you write once -- and if youmess up, you have to start over," Kramer says. Minidisc also has the advantage that tracks can be identified not only with an index number, but also with a full-text caption that can be displayed when searching for tracks or during playback.

Once the vinyl records have been transferred onto the new medium, they will be destroyed. Until very recently, the radio station was operated by Armed Forces Radio and Television Services (AFRTS), but this changed with the withdrawal of the Navy from the operation of McMurdo. Under copyright agreements with record companies, the records were only to be played by AFRTS. But a stay of execution has been granted for the albums until they are transferred onto minidisc.

The station is now operated by ASA with around 40 volunteer disc jockeys running the shows during the summer. The station also operates in winter, but with a reduced staff of around 20 people. Kramer estimates that up to 600 listeners a day -- mainly at McMurdo itself -- tune in. The station cannot be picked up by other nearby bases, such as New Zealand's Scott Base, because of hills that block the FM signal.

There is a strong rumor that some of the vinyl albums being transferred were the same ones that were played by Adrian Cronauer on his "Good Morning Vietnam" radio show broadcast in Saigon in 1965 and 1966. Kramer says that he doesn't know how this rumor got started, but one station DJ even went so far as to track down Cronauer and ask him about it. However, no light was shed on the subject and the rumor lives on.

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