By Caroline Lewis
PopUp Archive is a startup that uses speech recognition technology to automatically transcribe and tag audio recordings. Click on a word in the transcript and you can instantly jump to that part of the recording. Co-founder Anne Wootton is contagiously excited about the potential of the technology, but if you’ve never thought about it before, it takes a minute to think of what you could do with it.
Start by searching the term “boycott” on PopUp Archive. You’ll find a wide swath of entertaining of historical artifacts – recordings covering everything from the Montgomery bus boycotts to the Google bus boycotts.
One of the first that comes up is a 2004 radio piece on “the end of books as we know them” (“The cause? Technology!”), wherein someone opines that if Amazon wasn’t so darn convenient, “I would so boycott them.”
Then there’s a 1960 recording that brings down to earth the now legendary sit-ins to end racial segregation in America. A reverend speaking at the University of Illinois begins with a candid acknowledgement that students are only human: after a couple of successful sit-ins, they became distracted by parties and graduation plans and had to put their activism on hold. If you’ve ever tried to keep up the momentum of a social movement, student or otherwise, it’s the kind of thing you’ll definitely be able to relate to. But it’s probably not the kind of commentary you’ll find in history books.
Not all searches on PopUp Archive turn up plentiful results, and the site, still in beta, is somewhat clunky to use if you’re looking for something specific. Right now, it’s a serendipitous lost-and-found for sound.
PopUp Archive’s best work is happening behind the scenes.
Sure, the website has some interesting segments of Crosscurrents from the KALW, one of the NPR affiliates in San Francisco, but that’s only because PopUp Archive is helping that station build an internal archive that lets them instantly log tape and easily pull up relevant segments and interviews from past shows.
PopUp Archive has also become home to an enviable collection of classic Studs Terkel interviews, featuring hundreds of the radio legend’s conversations with people like boxer Muhammad Ali and author Maya Angelou. But that’s because the team is partnering with Chicago radio station WFMT and the Chicago History Museum to create “the first ever comprehensive, interactive Studs Terkel Radio Archive.”
Anne Wootton, the co-founder of PopUp Archive, describes speech recognition technology as the bridge we need between text-based search engines and the vast amount of audio and video content we’re creating. In other words, automatically transcribing everything is a way for us to easily search and find all the knowledge and culture contained within those recordings. That’s still more of a vision than a reality, but she’s not the only one trying it out. On Youtube, some videos already have the interactive transcripts PopUp Archive uses, which allow viewers to jump around in the video by clicking different words in the transcript.
Wootton’s vision is not far off.