WSFA donates decades of film, video and photos to Alabama archives department

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 6:00 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - WSFA 12 News and the Alabama Department of Archives and History are proud to announce a partnership that will help preserve and make accessible to the public much of the station’s historic footage, which spans the decades from the 1950s to the early 2000s.

This announcement is more than two years in the making and follows the station’s move from our original studios on East Delano Avenue, home since Christmas Day 1954, into a new downtown facility near the Capitol. It came amid a global pandemic that brought much of daily life, and this project, to a standstill.

The station’s planned move in early 2020 presented a number of logistical challenges, among them what to do with all the archival film, tapes and boxes of photographs and papers dating back more than half a century.

WSFA’s newsroom cabinets were filled from floor to ceiling with everything from pivotal moments like those from the Civil Rights era of the 1960s to scenes of daily life in the downtown area through the years. There were local sports and children’s programs, even speeches by legislators and governors of decades past.

After much consideration, station management determined it wasn’t feasible for the massive number of delicate film reels and boxes of video to make the journey across town to our new home on Dexter Avenue. WSFA 12 News General Manager Mark Bunting, sensing the need to preserve what amounted to 65 years of Alabama’s history, picked up the phone and called ADAH’s Georgia Ann Hudson.

“I told her I had a treasure trove of materials at the station but nowhere to put them in our new facility,” Bunting explained. “She and her boss, Steve Murray, were very eager to help, and we worked together to create our partnership.”

Murry, who serves as ADAH’s director, said archivists had long suspected that the WSFA studios held valuable content for historical preservation, and his department jumped at the opportunity to add to its collection when the phone call came in late 2019.

“It was one of those kind of chilling moments...where the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you see these closets after closets of tapes and films,” Murray explained. “Just the opportunity to take something off the shelf and see a label...related to the Civil Rights movement or to other major public events and Alabama’s life and history really made you, made me appreciate the value of what was there.”

When they were finished, ADAH employees had filled nearly 500 boxes. Murray considers it “a goldmine” for researchers and K-12 teachers who want to tell stories of the state and the South, as well as the general public “who are now the owners of this material.”

These are some of the nearly 500 boxes the Alabama Department of Archives and History filled...
These are some of the nearly 500 boxes the Alabama Department of Archives and History filled with historic film reels and videos during their visit to the old WSFA studios in October and November of 2019.(Source: WSFA 12 News)

“Watching the archivists sort through everything we had was a wonderful experience,” Bunting recalled. “The gleam in their eyes was reminiscent of the look children have when seeing their Christmas toys for the first time.”

WSFA has sought to tell the story of Alabamians for nearly 70 years, and ADAH has sought to preserve such stories for more than a century. It’s a relationship built on common ground that’s only grown with the passage of time.

“We’ve worked together many times over the years,” Murray said, “but when we began having a conversation with Mark [Bunting] about the possibility of this incredible film and tape archive coming to our collections, it really took that relationship to a different place and gave us an opportunity to work collaboratively to preserve an incredible visual record of life in Alabama in the second half of the 20th Century.”

Asked what makes the collection so special, Murray wasted no time in answering. “It’s something that we don’t know of existing anywhere else,” he said, “because in some cases, this film and tape is the only visual record of some of these events. And it’s certainly the only record that involves the audio, the opportunity to hear people from the past speaking to us.”

To say the collection is massive would be a gross understatement. This is the largest donation of historical footage ever received by ADAH and includes more than 7,000 audiovisual items in a variety of formats, as well as WSFA scrapbooks, photographs, negatives, correspondences with viewers and officials, and even newsletters.

“We are intimidated by this collection, to be honest with you, because it is huge,” admitted ADAH Digital Assets Coordinator Meredith McDonough, “and because it is unlike anything we have.”

Intimidated but undeterred, McDonough says ADAH is excited despite the challenges ahead, which “are just much greater even than the most complicated collections we have so far.”

“We lack the tools needed to digitize or even view this kind of material,” McDonough explained while looking into some of the boxes. “A lot of these formats rely on obsolete equipment that’s really difficult to acquire and maintain.”

Some film and tape pieces have become delicate, meaning time and the elements are taking a toll on the ability to recover what’s on them. ADAH is working with outside vendors who specialize in archival audiovisual digitization to help process the collection and to deal with “the unique challenges of these older formats, especially things that are in poor physical condition,” McDonough said.

As part of the undertaking, ADAH is processing “test batches” of film at this point. It will take years to fully process the boxes, but a team of archivists is well into the process. So far, about 15 hours of film has been digitized, which equates to just 30 items in the 7,000-item collection.

A sampling of the content is available now in the Alabama Audiovisual Collection within the ADAH Digital Collections. When regular digitization of the footage begins in mid-2022, new content will be uploaded quarterly.

Among the film topics preserved so far are:

  • News conferences with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from 1964
  • Footage from the Freedom Riders in Montgomery in 1961
  • Civil Rights demonstrations in Montgomery and Selma from 1965
  • Original footage of Gov. George C. Wallace making his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the University of Alabama in 1963
  • Video of President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson visiting the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in 1962
  • WSFA special reports on the death of Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1983

“So, drop in the bucket, but we’re making progress,” McDonough explained.

Under the terms of WSFA 12 News’ donation agreement, ownership and copyright on the materials were transferred to the ADAH for the benefit of the citizens of the state through use in museum exhibitions, K-12 classrooms, and other educational products. WSFA 12 News retains permission to broadcast and publish the content of the collection after it is digitized.

No monetary payment was made in exchange for the collection.

“This partnership is truly a win-win for WSFA, Alabama Department of Archives and History, the State of Alabama and the River Region,” Bunting said.

ADAH Frequently Asked Questions about this collection


How can I see the footage? The WSFA collection consists of a wide range of audiovisual formats, many of which are fragile and must be viewed on obsolete equipment. Because of these special handling requirements, public access to the physical items will not be available. Instead, selected footage from the collection will be digitized and placed online. This process will last many years, and the work will be completed by vendors specializing in archival audiovisual digitization.

A sampling of the content is available now in the Alabama Audiovisual Collection within the ADAH Digital Collections. When regular digitization of the footage begins in mid-2022, new content will be uploaded quarterly.

Will the entire contents of the collection be posted online?

While the entire collection will be preserved and properly stored, not everything will be posted online. For example, segments depicting highly sensitive or graphic content (like auto accidents or crime scenes) may be omitted from the digital collections, and programs produced by WSFA’s network partners or other entities may be subject to copyright restrictions. There could also be times when the original item has deteriorated so badly that the footage is not recoverable. (This is a common problem with magnetic media such as video tape.)

Will I be able to request footage that’s not online?

Yes, reproduction orders for specific footage not appearing online will be accepted in mid-2022. At that time, instructions for submitting orders will be available on the Alabama Audiovisual Collection page. Fees will apply.

Will I be able to search for footage of a particular person, place, or event?

Two options for searching the collection will be available in mid-2022:

• A database of all audiovisual material in the collection will be searchable based on the information recorded on labels and notes accompanying the items. The database will reside on the ADAH’s website, with a link provided on the Alabama Audiovisual Collection page.

• As items are digitized, they will be tagged with keywords used by the ADAH for all of its digital collections. These keywords can be searched from within the ADAH Digital Collections.

Why can’t I find footage of a particular person, place, or event?

With thousands of items in the collection, it will take time for the ADAH to catalog, research, and digitize the content. Even after that process is complete, there are other reasons footage may not be found:

• Labels and notes accompanying the films and videos may be incomplete, incorrect, or indecipherable, making it difficult to identify locations, dates, and names.

• After footage aired on television, the film or video may have deteriorated or been lost, discarded, or given away over the years.

• The footage may have never existed. Not all events or subjects were recorded by the station.


How can I get a copy of footage from the collection?

Copies of footage from the Alabama Audiovisual Collection may be purchased by submitting the ADAH Digitization and Reproduction Order Form. Reproduction orders for footage not appearing online will be accepted in mid-2022. Instructions and fee information will be made available at that time.

May I use this footage in my documentary / website / classroom / media publication?

Yes, but a WSFA Permission Form must be submitted and approved by the ADAH prior to use.

What is the cost for using footage?

While there is a fee to acquire high-resolution video files, other applicable fees vary depending on the intended use of the content. There is no charge for not‐for‐profit or educational uses, but commercial use of the footage is subject to a reproduction rights fee. (Regardless of the nature of use, a WSFA Permission Form must first be submitted and approved by the ADAH.) For more information, contact Meredith McDonough (, 334-353- 5442).

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