Chicago Verité: Media Burn video archive preserves Windy City history

Screenshot from "Studs in a Soapbox" (courtesy of Media Burn)

Most college students grew up around camcorders and YouTube, but there was a time when no one outside of the major networks was able to inexpensively shoot video or easily broadcast it. On Thursday, May 6th, the Fund for Innovative Television (FITV) gave a screening at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center of documentary clips from their expansive archive of tapes from early expeditions into independent television. FITV founder Tom Weinberg, executive director Sara Chapman, and UofC film professor Judy Hoffman led an informal and democratic discussion in the spirit of the original videos. The two-hour event was well received by the audience, who indulged Weinberg and Hoffman’s request for interruption with enthusiastic questions.

In 2003, FITV started the Media Burn archive, a not-for-profit that works both to preserve quickly degrading tapes and to share their invaluable and unique footage with the world through a free website ( with a large selection of documentary video. In a modest basement on the Northwest Side, a 6,000-plus video archive spans three decades, the entire country, and beyond. Most of these tapes come from Weinberg’s work with public television to broadcast non-traditional documentary video in programs such as “The 90s,” a national show that assembled short clips to capture the new decade, and “Image Union,” a weekly show that began in 1972 and still takes submissions of short films for its program every Saturday night. The advent of independent television came with the invention of the Sony Video Portapak, a relatively inexpensive and portable device that freed the medium from the major stations. Weinberg and Hoffman spoke with nostalgia as they remembered the time of video revolution, when they were, as Weinberg put it, “turning the cameras around on the media.”

The screening began with a lighthearted clip of Muddy Waters performing at the old Checkerboard Lounge in 1981. But the presentation quickly moved on to more politically charged work, such as “The World’s Largest TV Show” and “Four More Years,” which, respectively, covered the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. A team of videographers was able to get onto the floors of the conventions in order to interview both the attendees and the media outlets that were covering them, as well as to document the emotionally intense anti-war demonstrations being staged outside. Other notable clips included Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel (who donated his own footage to Media Burn).

Though Weinberg and Hoffman certainly have personal investment in the project–many of their own tapes are in the collection–they strongly advocate the use of the footage for historical research. The videos are primary sources that speak to a history ignored by the popular media. For instance, Media Burn screened “Jane Byrne’s Easter at Cabrini” from 1981, in which Byrne, the first and only female mayor of Chicago, defeated in 1983 by Harold Washington, attended a rally at Cabrini Green as part of her campaign to clean up the public housing development, an area notorious for gang activity, crime, and violence.

She was conspicuously out of place, awkwardly singing as she received the words to a hymn through her earpiece, and causing a good deal of dissatisfaction within the crowd. No mainstream media attended; Media Burn has the only video record of the event.

The objective of Media Burn is difficult to describe because their purpose is not in a specific mission, but in video itself. The grainy image, the shaky shot, the disfigured audio–aspects that our technology-savvy generation might condemn as signs of “low quality”–are essential to the aesthetic, social, and cultural mission of independent television. The videos were not shot under a major network. No extra lighting was used. They had no narrators in their documentaries, presenting only what Weinberg calls a “video scrapbook.”

We, like the original independent television makers of the seventies, are in a time of major technological change, with the internet as a tool for the spread of information and video. Media Burn has taken advantage of this progress by making available to the public their sometimes political, always captivating mixture of Chicago history, Americana, and the quotidian.

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