History lives on at SF State television archive

Alex Cherian reviews historical programming. Photo by Jocelyn McMahon-Babalis.

Powerful images and historic events come to life in the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. The collection includes more than 4,000 hours of film and video depicting programming produced from 1939 to 2005. See news, documentaries and programs from KRON, KPIX, KQED and more.

By Jocelyn McMahon-Babalis

Early broadcast television relied solely on film to document history. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, stations began shifting from film reels, which were hefty and time-consuming to handle, to video, the most efficient method of documentation at the time. No longer needed, hundreds of pounds of historical film reels were tucked away – never to be seen again.

Film archivist Alex Cherian spends his days on the fourth floor of the San Francisco State University library sorting through this discarded plastic, searching for local footage of historical significance. Cherian takes hours painstakingly cleaning, repairing and splicing the film before deciding whether to add it to the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive.

Before immigrating in 2007, Cherian, an English native, was unaware of the film archive. “When I got over to here (San Francisco) I found the news, film and documentary collection of the television archive at San Francisco State, and nothing was being done with it, so I volunteered my services,” he said.

After dedicating his time, Cherian was finally hired part time to catalog the modern history collection.

Since he began at San Francisco State, Cherian has added hundreds of historical moments to the archive – everything from the Beatles waving their first farewell to San Francisco in 1965, to the 1971 Stanford anti-Vietnam rallies, to the heated debate between Harvey Milk and John Briggs over gay rights in 1978. The unique footage has been converted solely by Cherian to digital files that are available to the public online.

The footage that, to his surprise, most influenced him was that of the Black Panthers. Cherian says that prior to discovering this film collection, he had associated only violent images with the Black Panther Party.

“It’s the cliché that’s been given out to associate with the Black Panthers, that image of African-Americans marching into the capitol with guns, but that is not the case,” he said.

Cherian uses his clips to teach students in ethnic studies courses about the positive influences of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers’ efforts to improve conditions for African-American communities in the Bay Area.

While he says his work is tedious, and sometimes downright dull, Cherian says he feels that by uncovering this footage he is offering insight to moments that can reach individuals on a very personal level.

“People call me up all the time and say that they just saw themselves or a family member on television,” he says. “They tell me how personal it feels now that they can hear it and see it.”

Emily Rogers was inspired when she saw the community efforts of her deceased father, Adam Roberts, for the first time on the archive site.

“Now I know the work of my father and others was not in vain,” she said of the KRON-TV video from 1969 entitled “Hunters Point: A View From the Hill,” which addressed the poverty and violence surrounding the Hunters Point neighborhood at the time.

“Thank you for allowing an opportunity for me to hear his voice both physically and metaphorically for the first time in 37 years. His voice sound is familiar to me again. There is still much work to be done. Be inspired.” She signed her online comment, “Daughter of a Soldier.”

In an interview with Minneapolis radio station KFAI in February 2013, Cherian explained just how great the emotional impact of this forgotten film could be.

“There was a man on a film I uncovered a few days ago, ‘The New Urban Tribe,’ that documents the Indian occupation of Alcatraz. This man was told ‘Indians aren’t good with their brains, Indians are only good with their hands’ … Even though the film was made nearly 40 years ago, I related instantly to his experience. With my background, I was told I wouldn’t even make it to college … Watching our film can give a new perception to people. When you start to become emotional about history, you start to become involved in it.”

The San Francisco State news archive holds more than 4,000 hours of local news and is constantly receiving film donations from broadcasters, production companies and individuals from around the Bay Area.

“It doesn’t matter how much footage I process and what it is, I am always finding something new that I can relate to and hopefully other people will relate to as well,” said Cherian, who hopes the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive will continue to be supported by the university and that funding will escalate so he can devote himself to the project full time.

Jocelyn McMahon-Babalis, a freelance writer, is a student at San Francisco State University who has focused on feature writing, arts and entertainment and photography.