A fortune in vinyl: Thousands of free albums collected in giveaways


Norfolk – When Mark Cunningham, his wife and teenage sons arrived in WHRO On Saturday, it was five o’clock in the morning and it was still dark. They had driven south from their home in Silver Spring, Maryland, the night before for a weekend scavenger hunt for vintage vinyl.

To create space for a newsroom that grew to 10 journalists, the station was giving away tens of thousands of albums, mostly vinyl dating back 50 years. Cunningham, a collector of about 1,000 albums and an aficionado of the sound made when the needle strikes a plate, was first in line.

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

The vinyl boom in the digital age

When the station announced the giveaway, the response revealed just how ridiculous Wax fans were. The number of free ticket holders rose to over 700 and then 800, so the station capped the event at 1,000.

It added a golden ticket, which granted early admission to about 100 people who donated $75 to the Public Information Station. They have two hours to browse. Those with free tickets were given 75 entries each time and given 30 minutes of quick scanning.

Tickets were as hot as bootleg recordings of the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen concerts in the days before digital.

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

“I heard from someone I haven’t spoken to since the ’80s. I’m not exaggerating,” Graham said. “I heard from people I barely knew in high school, ‘Oh man. Can you hook me up?’”

Schmitt said the station reached out to music stores and a few other venues to gauge interest in acquiring the collection. There was none. They offered albums for donation during the pledge drive. The response was lukewarm. He didn’t want to throw it away in a trash can, so the station posted a notice on social media. “Among classical recording LPs, some are very rare and valuable, especially those featuring great opera singers from the past,” the post reads.

“It surprised us,” said Schmidt, who described himself as “not a music guy” and hadn’t had a turntable in years.

The staff at the radio station spent a week unpacking boxes and roughly separating the albums into tables themed jazz, easy listening, folk and country, pop, opera, comedy, classical, alternative, and soundtracks.

Dwight Davis, who helped start the sale, has been one of the station’s classic hosts on the air since 1983. And long ago he transitioned to a digital library.

“What would one like best? Come up with a pile of vinyl and take it all in. Or sit at the console, push a button, and make the same music? It’s an old techie,” he said. “It’s great at home if you want to do it, but we simply We got through it.”

Graham, who retired from teaching in 2016 and has been at the station for 38 years, was not surprised by the reaction. “When I was in school, my kids would talk about record store day. And they would talk to me about standing in line for some of these record 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, mainly jazz and classical, but there were also quirky shows like “Big Hits from Chitty Chitty Bang Band”, sung by The New Christy Minstrels with Arthur Treacher, and “Dancing Discotheque, The Exciting Dance Idea from France That You” It can be done at home.”

Some of those who came were collectors. It was a few sellers. Others were surfers, willing to try something they didn’t know. The most popular shows were jazz, easy listening, folk and country tracks. Most people stick to a 50-item cap.

Bob Jones, a retired teacher who called himself a collector and salesman, was in jazz boxes looking for gems. He is credited with albums by John Coltrane and Gene Ammons. He said that antique vinyl might sell for anywhere from $10 to $100.

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

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

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

“This is an opportunity to check things we don’t know, to try them out, to explore new things,” he said.

Exploring the unfamiliar was the subject of Stephen Moberly, 49. He had picked up an album of Canadian bossa nova, a steel drum disc, some songs from Ireland, and albums by Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald. Vinyl is the medium of his youth. “It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a ritual of it. Hanging out and listening to records. With the sleeves, it’s a complete package. You can’t have that with a download.”

Others focused on long feelings. David Johnson, 76, didn’t have much competition in the classic section as he was eclectic, looking for “things I don’t have, and it’s not easy.” He had three collections of Leonard Bernstein and a German edition of the recordings featuring the songs of Franz Xaver Gruber, the Austrian composer who died in 1863 and is best known for writing the music for Silent Night.

The allure of the album covers attracted few. Eliza Noe, 24, has been looking for anything interesting. “But I’m really in love with the beautiful cover art,” she said. I grabbed The Glory That Was Gershwin’s rainbow cover album to add to the bag that included Harry Gruber’s “Cocktail Time” album along with another vibrant cover. She added, “The song ‘My Fair Lady’ comes out, hence my name, so I thought that was interesting.”

Cunningham was among those who donated entry first. Two hours later, he and his family had several bags full, including Coltrane’s target albums. “It’s really exciting,” he said.

Will each of them go to his collection, or might some land in the hot old vinyl market? “Probably in my personal collection,” he paused. “I have to say it depends on whether or not there is space, and that is in short supply.”

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