Intro from Jay Allison: Welcome to Paul Tough's topic. I'm very glad Paul agreed to join us as a Special Guest, even though he warned me he might run out of things to say about radio and have to talk about journalism and writing and communicating in general. No problem. One idea behind this site is to get some cross-current, some breeze through the windows. Indeed, some people say that public radio can be stuffy. I'm a big fan of Paul's site, openletters.net, and of his general effort to sort out personal narrative and journalism. Another thing: my daughter wrote a letter for Open Letters. Lillie showed me Paul's edits. They were perfectly thoughtful, out-of-your-face and helpful, not just for a twelve-year-old, but for anyone. In considering good editors to be Guests here -- people with a track record in radio, writing, the internet, and encouraging new voices -- Paul's name came first to mind. He wrote something to start things off, a "nonifesto" he called it, and he'll be here soon to post it.
Paul Tough’s Nonifesto
About this “nonifesto” thing: please allow me to explain. It’s not like I have a big anti-manifesto to post: no more rules, smash the radio-industrial complex, microphones for the masses. Not at all. My reluctance in writing something manifesto-like is merely a symptom of the anxiety I feel following Scott Carrier, who is an actual radio producer, and a great and innovative one. I am not a radio producer, not really, and so in Scott’s footsteps, I’d feel silly trying to give advice or sound wise, or even astute. Instead, out of necessity, I’m going to try to define my job here differently than he did: as a radio listener, rather than as a radio creator.
As I explained to Jay in those paragraphs he quoted for my bio, I started working in radio at a young age, doing interviews for “Anybody Home?,” a weekly kids’ show broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I believe I am still the only twelve-year-old ever to interview Chaka Khan. After doing a couple dozen interviews, I became one of the show’s two rotating underage co-hosts, which meant I got to do the top-ten countdown every other week. Back in the early eighties, that meant a lot of intros to Hall and Oates songs. I was very enthusiastic about “Maneater,” as I recall.
The program was cancelled in 1983, and then I didn’t have much to do with radio for about a decade. In the early nineties, though, I met David Isay and Ira Glass, through different circumstances, and they started to change my mind about radio and what it could do.
I met Ira by phone in 1992, I think, and we got to be friends, and he started sending me tapes of “The Wild Room,” a weekly local show that he was doing with Gary Covino in Chicago. I remember one that had a long segment of clips from the Clarence Thomas hearings played over a hip-hop beat. That was pretty cool. Another episode, a piece by Ira about a haircut, was a real masterpiece of personal story-telling, and I listened to it over and over.
I met Dave Isay through Rose Ortiz, a bartender at the International Bar on First Avenue in New York, which Dave and I were both frequenting back in 1992. He gave me a tape of Ghetto Life 101, which also kind of blew my mind. It was flawlessly produced, another masterpiece of narrative — but it was also defiantly democratic, in that it was created by two kids who were way, way outside the corridors of media power.
Getting to know Ira and Dave and their work got me interested in radio again, and eventually led to me working for This American Life, in various capacities, and recording a few stories for them. I’m still a contributing editor there.
A lot of what I’ve liked in public radio over the past decade has seemed to follow from those pieces by Dave and Ira that I listened to on cassette: journalism that emphasizes story-telling, that showcases a broad and surprising array of voices, and that uses imaginative and entertaining production styles.
The last thing I heard that I loved, that has all of those qualities, was this show, which This American Life ran a couple of months ago. I listened to it on tape last week, driving around Milford doing errands. I rushed through the aisles at the Stop and Shop, eager to get back in the car.
So I like radio because it’s democratic (or at least it can be), and because it’s so well-suited for narrative story-telling. The other thing I like about the radio is that it’s random. When I listen to the radio these days, I usually stay away from public radio, or at least the national kind, and instead I flip around, trying to find something interesting, or at least different. What excites me the most about the flipping approach is the possibility of finding something new and surprising in an unexpected place.
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My favorite piece of writing on that subject is by a zine writer named Iggy Scam. In his zine, Scam, he wrote this beautiful description of his repeated mysterious encounters with an underground radio station in Miami. When I worked at This American Life, we put it on the air as part of a show about the mystery of radio. You can listen to it, along with a great set-up by Ira, here. (Iggy’s piece is about seven minutes in, but I’d suggest that you listen from the very beginning.)
Since my CBC days, I’ve only done a few radio pieces, all for This American Life. The first one I did was an interview with Catherine Chalmers, a Soho artist who raised little animals, and then took photographs of them eating one another. It’s in this show. I also co-hosted this hour with Ira, about obsession; in it I interviewed an artist named Liza Lou, about beading, and also a former girlfriend, about the number two and its role in her life and our relationship. The main reason that Jay asked me to be this month’s guest, though, probably has less to do with my radio work, and more to do with my work as the editor of Open Letters, a currently dormant online magazine that published a daily dose of first-person writing, in the form of personal letters.
One of the questions I hope we’ll be able to discuss in this topic, and elsewhere on these boards, is whether any of the letters in our archives would benefit from being turned into radio pieces. I think it’s happening to one of them already — a letter by Paul Maliszewski is going to be on “Savvy Traveler” soon, I think. But perhaps some of the other letters archived on our site would work well if they were put through the Transom process. Suggestions welcome.
The other question that I’d like to bring up is something that was on my mind a lot when Open Letters was publishing regularly. In order to find material to publish, I pursued a lot of writers that I liked, but just as the Transom is doing, I invited submissions from the public, as well. What I found was maybe not too surprising: the batting average for the public submissions was quite low — I got hundreds that I couldn’t use, and often felt like I wasn’t able to respond to them helpfully (or on time).
One of the things that surprised me the most about reader reaction to Open Letters is that readers liked it best when we published someone they’d never heard of. We’d publish sublime pieces by established writers, and readers took them in stride. But whenever we ran rawer stuff, from teenagers and weirdos and drug addicts, readers responded with great enthusiasm.
I’m sure that’s one of the things that draws people to the Transom, as well: the chance to hear an authentic voice, before it’s put through the media meat-grinder. My experience as an editor, though, is that it’s very hard to make that work — it’s hard to find unprocessed voices that are coherent and honest and clear. I’m guessing that Jay and the other producers at the Transom are finding that true as well.
So that’s another thing I’d like to talk about — how to make that process work well, how to help the Transom people find new and different voices, and how to help make those voices effective on the air.
I’m also here to answer any questions anyone might have, to comment on new pieces as they go up, and to help the contributors and potential contributors as much as possible. Just ask. I’m glad Jay invited me to stop in.