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A vinyl bonanza: Thousands of free albums scooped up at giveaway

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/21/2023 Jim Morrison

NORFOLK — When Mark Cunningham, his wife, and his teen sons arrived at the WHRO building on Saturday, it was 5 a.m. and still dark. They’d driven south from their home in Silver Spring, Md., the night before to make a weekend out of a scavenger hunt for vintage vinyl.

To create space for a newsroom that's grown to 10 journalists, the station was giving away tens of thousands of albums, mostly vinyl going back 50 years. Cunningham, a collector with about 1,000 albums and an aficionado of the sound made when needle hits platter, was the first in line.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he said.

The vinyl boom in the digital age

When the station announced the giveaway, the response revealed how wacky for wax music fans have become. The number of free ticket takers soared past 700 and then 800, so the station capped the event at 1,000.

It added a golden ticket, giving early entry to about 100 people who donated $75 to the public media station. They got two hours to browse. Those with free tickets were granted entry 75 at a time and given 30 minutes of express scavenging.

The tickets were as hot as the bootleg recordings of a Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen concert in the days before digital.

Bert Schmidt, the station’s chief executive, and Barry Graham, the on-air host of a folk music show, said they heard from long-lost friends and people they didn’t know were friends looking to score a slot.

“I heard from somebody I hadn't talked to since the 1980s. I'm not exaggerating,” Graham said. “I heard from people I barely knew in high school. 'Hey, man. can you hook me up?' ”

Schmidt said the station reached out to music stores and a few other places to gauge interest in acquiring the collection. There was none. They offered albums for a donation during a pledge drive. The response was lukewarm. He didn’t want to ditch them in a dumpster, so the station posted a notice on social media. “Among the LPs are classic recordings, some very rare and valuable, especially those featuring great opera singers of the past,” the post teased.

“It blew up to our surprise,” said Schmidt who described himself as “not a music guy” who hasn't had a turntable in years.

Staffers at the radio station spent a week unpacking boxes and roughly separating the albums onto tables labeled jazz, easy listening, folk and country, pop, opera, comedy, classical, alternative, and soundtrack.

Dwight Davis, who helped set up the sale, has been one of the station's classical on-air hosts since 1983. He long ago moved to a digital library.

“Which would one rather do? Come in with a stack of vinyl and cue them all up. Or sit at the console, push a button, and bring up the same music? It’s an old technology device,” he said. “It’s great at home if you want to do it, but we simply have moved beyond that.”

Graham, who retired from teaching in 2016 and has been at the station for 38 years, was not surprised by the reaction. “When I taught school, my kids were talking about Record Store Day. And they would talk to me about getting in line for some of these records store deals at like four o’clock in the morning,” he said. “So I kind of had a feeling.”

To say the collection was eclectic is an understatement. There were classics, especially jazz and classical ones, but there were also oddball offerings like “Big Hits from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” sung by The New Christy Minstrels with Arthur Treacher, and “Dancing Discotheque, The Exciting Dance Idea from France That You Can Do at Home.”

Some who came were collectors. A few were resellers. Others were browsers, willing to try something they didn't know. The most popular offerings were in the jazz, easy listening, and folk and country aisles. Most people adhered to a cap of 50 items.

Bob Jones, a retired teacher who called himself a collector and a seller, was in the jazz boxes looking for gems. He grabbed albums by John Coltrane and Gene Ammons. Vintage vinyl, he said, might sell for anywhere from $10 to $100.

Kurt Akers, 48, brought his son, Brody, 18, after introducing him to the ritual of the turntable at Christmas. “I told him a long time ago there's no experience like listening to 'Dark Side of the Moon.' on vinyl,” he said. “It was just something that he had to experience in his lifetime. Those are albums that were produced for that medium at that time.”

He bought his son a turntable for Christmas. The first album played was the Pink Floyd classic. At the free-for-all, Brody picked up some Broadway classics, including Carol Channing singing “Hello Dolly.”

The day was a family affair for Scott McMahan, 47, and his 13-year-old daughter. McMahan, a Virginia Beach songwriter who has released an Americana album, was down the aisle from country and folk, flipping through easy listening. He had picked up a Ray Charles Singers album and one by Mason Williams.

“This is a chance to check out stuff we don’t know, to experiment, and explore new things,” he said.

Exploring the unfamiliar was the theme for Stephen Moberly, 49. He had plucked an album of Canadian bossa nova, a steel drums disc, some songs of Ireland, and albums by Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald. Vinyl is the medium of his youth. “It's fun,” he said. “It's the ritual of it. Hanging out and listening to records. With the sleeve, it's an entire package. You don't get that with a download.”

Others were focused on longtime passions. David Johnson, 76, didn’t have much competition in the classical section where he was being selective, looking for “stuff I don’t have, which is not easy.” He had three Leonard Bernstein collections and a German release of recordings featuring the songs of Franz Xaver Gruber, an Austrian composer who died in 1863 and is best known for writing the music to “Silent Night.”

The allure of album covers attracted a few. Eliza Noe, 24, was looking for anything interesting. “But I’m a sucker for really nice cover art,” she said. She snatched a “The Glory That Was Gershwin” album with a rainbow swoosh cover to add to a bag that included a Harry Gruber album titled “Cocktail Time” with another vibrant cover. “ ‘My Fair Lady’ is on it, and that’s where my name came from, so I thought that was interesting,” she added.

Cunningham was among those who made the donation to enter first. Two hours later, he and his family had several full bags, including Coltrane albums that had been a target. “It’s really exciting,” he said.

Would all of them go into his collection, or might some land on the hot vintage vinyl market? “Most likely in my personal collection,” he said, pausing. “I have to say it depends upon whether or not there’s space, and that’s in short supply.”


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