Tech

A YouTube Radio Archivist Blasts the Previous Into the Provide

Then as now, the days heave with smoke and apocalypse, the howl of sirens.

I am a child of rebellion. Which is to say, I know something of history’s violent fires and how they spread. I came of age in the 1990s, the era of Black prosperity, raised on the belief that if I worked twice as hard, stuck to the rules, I’d survive.

But what I saw on TV said otherwise: Rodney King drew breath and was beaten into blood and pulp; the police who did it walked free.

So this summer, as our present spiraled into our past, I went searching on YouTube for recordings of LA radio programs taped in the spring of ’92. I needed a reminder: We were here before, we would make it through again.

I didn’t find the riot broadcasts on my mind, tapings from the SoCal radio trinity of my youth: Power 106, 92.3 The Beat, and 102.3 KJLH. What I discovered instead was the channel of Jean-Gabriel Prats, who, since 2015, has been assembling an impressive archive of radio ephemera—a pomade of nostalgia I didn’t know I was missing.

Under the moniker Majestik Magic, Prats uploads hard-to-find, mostly forgotten broadcasts from all over the world, typically programs that aired during the 1980s and ’90s. He is a hoarder of sounds and places, an Arturo Schomburg for our digital cosmos. There’s a bit of everything to chew on. I’m treated to a buffet of crunchy hip hop classics on a November 1, 1996, taping of The Tim Westwood Rap Show (BBC Radio One). A succulent two-hour loop of New York After Dark with Yvonne Mobley (98.7 Kiss FM) from March 31, 1988, blends brass harmonies and silky R&B hits, including Tower of Power’s lover-boy anthem “You’re Still a Young Man.” Not to be outdone, a 1997 taping of K-Love’s afternoon hour (LA’s 107.5) is a gushy whirlpool of Spanish romance ballads, from José José to Enrique Iglesias.

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As I was listening my way through Prats’ archive, I wondered: How do we hold onto the pieces that define us if progress demands an abandonment of what came before? What bits, if any, should we preserve? The only requirement for bona fide, bone-deep change, the kind our world so desperately craves, is that we adapt, that we grow, that we architect new styles of being. At the same time, surely not everything needs to be discarded.

Prats, who is 55, finds “satisfaction in sharing memories,” he tells me by email from his home in Soissons, France. For him, restoring snippets of old radio is an act of remembrance, of ushering what was into what is. Doing so, he says, arises from a need to safeguard those small but precious histories. “It would be a shame if that was lost forever.”

Prats grew up surrounded by music; his father collected vinyl, and his mother loved watching variety shows on TV. The sounds were everywhere and eclectic. He counts Jean-Michel Jarre, Run-DMC, and Kate Bush among his favorite artists, along with the film composers Akira Ifukube and Lalo Schifrin. These days, he’s a regular on vintage-radio web forums. “This is part of cultural history, just like cinema or television,” Prats says. “Companies spend a fortune to protect film or professional videos from time, make restorations, but there’s nothing in the world of contemporary radio stations. It’s a shame.”

Getting Prats’ broadcasts onto YouTube is a team effort. Some he pulls from Archive.org recordings or scans sent to him by followers. Others he digitizes from old cassettes and tapes, which he saved from a stint working as a disc jockey for a French radio station during the early 1980s. Prats uploads to Mixcloud, too, and a handful of other music-centric platforms.

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In 1986, Prats left the radio gig to, he says, “devote myself to a ‘real job.’” He hopped from graphic design to network administration to managing an air-charter company. Still, he cherished his time in radio. He was one of the first DJs to introduce Parisians to the American concept of mastermixes, long sets that blend loosely connected genres across one unbroken tract of musical bliss.

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