The Transom Review

Volume 1/Issue 8

Sarah Vowell

July 1st, 2001 | (Edited by Carol Wasserman)

Sarah Vowell

I’m so happy Sarah is here. She gives me faith every time I hear her, because she’s so much herself and not anyone else. In the sometimes droning world of public radio, this helps.

Sarah wasn’t sure what we wanted her to write here; I just looked back at my email in response to her question, and now it feels like an introduction, so here:

“I read your book Radio On a long time ago, and I thought you were saying things that public radio needed to hear. You managed to say them in a way that was both wise-ass and authoritative. Then, Barrett told me about you on the radio in Montana and how you did great work even though you didn’t sound at all like radio people were supposed to. Then I heard your work and loved it. That piece about your father and the canon, that’s brilliant. And I sat in the audience in San Francisco when you held the attention of the whole place, just standing there talking. You’re exactly what Transom likes: a lover and critic of radio, and a practitioner. You’re a happy enthusiast and you’re crabby. You write well. That’s for starters. I don’t want to direct your “manifesto” at all, but it could talk about listening, what you like and don’t like, the difference between critiquing and making, story structure, humor, vocal style, working on TAL, differences between writing for print and for radio (that would be interesting) and I don’t know what else.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarah Vowell’s “Manifesto Thing.” Jay A

The Manifesto Thing

I do a fair share of readings around the country and most of the people who show up to hear me are public radio listeners who know me from This American Life. Sometimes they come up to me afterwards and talk about how much they love public radio, how they can’t live without public radio, how public radio is like air to them. And then, if I’m selling books, those are the people who never buy my second book, the one of mostly This American Life stories, because they got that one from the pledge drive. So they buy my first book, called “Radio On,” a diary of listening to the radio in 1995, and I feel really sorry for them when I’m signing it because I know they’re going to get home and be so disappointed reading a practitioner of their beloved public radio calling their beloved public radio hosts words like “devil” or “vampire.” And not in a good way either.

I got into the public radio racket by accident. It never occurred to me to write for radio. I wanted to write about radio. I wanted to write about radio for two reasons. The first reason is that I’d grown up in Bozeman, Montana with a marvelous college station called KGLT that more or less formed my complete world view, a station where I learned about rock & roll, became a truly miserable excuse for a newscaster and a not too terrible DJ, and made lifelong radio-freak friends (including Barrett Golding, whom I like to think of as my radio Yoda.) The other reason I wanted to write about radio was the fact no one else was. After the Republicans took over the Congress in 1994 and the freshmen representatives started calling themselves the “dittohead caucus” in homage to their spiritual leader, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, I thought radio was exerting this enormous influence on American life. And unlike movies or books or music or television, there weren’t any critics writing about what was on it, which meant nobody was really holding radio responsible for its drivel or celebrating its greatness. Radio felt like a big secret.

Secrets, I soon found out, aren’t always interesting. Listening to the radio every day for an entire year was a prison sentence. It was the most depressing, annoying, debilitating project I have ever undertaken, and I have a master’s degree in art history. Besides the fact that radio in general is crap, 1995 in particular wasn’t the most upbeat year. That was the era of welfare mothers and the Oklahoma City bombing and the Million Man March and flying out of LAX on the day the Unabomber was threatening to blow it up. Basically, talk radio was evil, rock & roll was starting to take a dive from which it hasn’t recovered, and NPR was like a pompous old bore you’re seated next to at a 365-day dinner party.

The one nice thing about that project was that when there were bright spots, they were very bright indeed. And, except for the Neil Young songs, the great moments were almost always on public radio. I listened to the CBC’s “Sunday Morning” every week and I latched onto its host, Ian Brown. He was really smart and really funny and he had this touching habit of actually caring about his country. Unfortunately, that country was Canada, but still. He did all the hosting duties from interviewing farmers in Manitoba to grappling with a million other topics from books to Bosnia. But my favorite part was his weekly personal essay. I think that was the first time I really had a model for how to write a personal essay for the radio. Unlike the hosts of American public radio programs, who seemed like they just showed up for work in between the kind of Georgetown cocktail parties where all they talked about was what a hick Bill Clinton was, Brown seemed like a real human being, the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. (It’s true–the guy can really hold his liquor.) By real human being I mean a modern, all-over-the-place citizen of the world. He wrote about what he cared about. One week it was hockey, the next he might be asking since when did sweaters start costing so much?

My favorite Brown essay of all time was rendered on the eve of the Quebec referendum. Quebec was voting on whether or not to remain part of Canada. He made a heartfelt if desperate argument for sticking together, for being a nation. Recalling his childhood as an Anglo in francophone Montreal, he said, “I spoke English and French. I had English and French friends. I lived there. It was my home and my family. It is also the foundation, the distinct foundation of my memory. The countryside, the testicle-clenching winters with the electricity down, the odd, thrilling trip to the Forum to play in a peewee hockey championship, various people’ Those were some elements of ‘My Quebec’ if you’ll pardon the expression. Now, a group of people, the forty-six or forty-eight or fifty-two percent of the people of Quebec, want to take away that part of my history – But what can I do? Should I beg? Should I implore Quebeckers, my old neighbors, not to cut out of my head and my chest the idea and the ideal that for me is the essence of this country, a decent moral dream?”

Brown was talking to his countrymen. (No one down here was doing anything remotely like that on the radio. Just the opposite. That same year, I once flipped the On switch and the first thing I heard was an AM talk show host suggest that the government should hire all the welfare mothers to shoot down all the illegal immigrants at the border.) This only occurs to me now, years later, but I think hearing that Ian Brown commentary gave me permission to get cracking on my real life’s work–to talk to my country about what my country is like. It was my first inkling that patriotism didn’t have to be creepy, that it could be expressed with humor and ambiguity and include all the silly minor details by someone you would actually want to know.

Lucky for me, during my year of radio hell, I met this guy in Chicago who co-hosted my favorite local show “The Wild Room” on WBEZ. He was starting a new public radio show featuring writing and documentaries focused on a theme. And that man was Ira Glass. And that show became This American Life. I wrote about Ira a couple times, bumped into him around town. Once, at a dinner five years ago, I started telling him a story about this letter I got from a fan of the punk band the Fastbacks thanking me for mentioning the band in a book review I had written for a local paper and how the fan had enclosed a complicated book he’d compiled of statistics about the band, my favorite being the page labeled “Fastbacks Drummer Pie Chart.” After I stopped talking all Ira said was, “I can loan you a tape recorder.” What he meant was: Hey, do a story for the radio. And that’s how that began. Since then, Ira has hired me to write stories or make documentaries about everything from the legacy of Jacksonian Indian removal policy to the overwhelming number of Christmas songs in which Santa Claus is a slut. Now that I think about it, I now get paid to be Ian Brown, only shorter and without all the hockey.

Looking at Brown’s thoughts on Quebec again right now, on the page, I think they still resonate. But there was something about hearing that on the radio, hearing it in his voice, that made it all the cliche’d but true things they say about radio-that it’s more intimate, more personal, the closest thing to ESP. And the only place on the radio you’re allowed to talk like that is public radio. (Of course, you get paid in public radio money, which I have come to believe is a dwindling pile of Confederate cash they keep in a vault at Peach State Public Radio.)

So as a listener myself, I can understand how listeners get so attached to the people on public radio. I guess my favorite person on public radio–aside from Ira of course, of course–is Terry Gross. I listen to “Fresh Air” every day, and I find myself noticing these weird little things about her. Unlike a self-absorbed first person storyteller like me, Terry Gross is a more opaque, more mysterious person. But just as change falls into sofa cushions, these little biographical tidbits do slip out. I think she might be worried about Alzheimer’s, because she mentions forgetfulness a lot. Or I know that when she cooks chicken, she’s very mindful of salmonella. Anyway, she’s this beloved part of my life and I like how her mind works. And when I meet a public radio listener who wants to talk about public radio, I always find that a good save is to ask, “Did you hear Terry Gross interview XYZ the other day? Remember that part when he revealed blah-blah-blah?”

In between this line and the one above it you can please insert 36 hours where I tried to figure out why “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” are the only shows on American public radio I truly love. But it’s like defining jazz or something–all the words to describe it describe the other kinds of music too. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the emotional tenor of those shows–not too square but not too hip, irreverent and reverent all at once, brainy while not dismissing the importance of dumb fun. Or maybe Ira and Terry just sound like they give a damn. The driving force behind their best interviews is simply, “Wow, I really like that thing you did.”

Or maybe it’s that they’re both inherently democratic, speaking in the same tone of voice to everyone, be they relief workers or comedians. They don’t segue from the serious interview to the frivolous commentator by screwing their voices into that condescending tone that means, “And now, folks, I’d like to introduce our little freak.”

If I step back from everything I’ve just written I can see it as an argument for personality over substance, the kind of shallow thing that’s supposed to turn Edward R. Murrow over in his grave. But as I understand it, the mission of public broadcasting is to cover the beat of life itself. And life can be tough to take. When Terry Gross is talking to someone about breast cancer or genital mutilation or some other horrific thing I might turn off on any other show, I’ll go along with her. Or, like every other notable male practitioner of public radio (someone should look into this peculiar trend), Ira is obsessed with prisons and prisoners. Me, I’m not in love with lockup, but I will stick with Ira and his prison shows because I know I’ll find out something that’s surprising or moving or funny or all three.

Because as Dante before us knew, when you go to hell, the only way to stand it is if that nice chap Virgil’s showing you around. Then again, if the Inferno were written now, I think the fifth circle would be called “Pledge Drive.”

My question(s) to the discussion group, as makers or consumers of public radio, is this – does public radio coast on its reputation? Clearly, the people who like it like it because it is not dumb. But is that enough? I’m not talking about content per se. For example, the other day, one NPR news program covered the ramifications of Senator Jeffords’s defection as well as an Alaskan couple struggling with their small birch syrup business. Those are good parameters for the kind of stories that should be included. But I don’t remember being moved or surprised or entertained. Something’s missing. Am I alone in thinking this? Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs? And if that’s the case, is it just about money? At the risk of sounding like a Republican, is it Washington syndrome? While I believe in the wisdom of a strong central government, I think where journalism’s concerned I prefer states’ rights. How else do you explain that the sparkier programs are produced elsewhere–Marketplace in LA, TAL in Chicago, Fresh Air in Philadelphia, the Next Big Thing in New York? Is it structural? Can we make a moratorium on beginning every damn report with three seconds of ambient sound? And what other public broadcasting cliches’ need tossing out?

Would I be asking these questions about newspapers, about magazines, about TV? No, because I don’t expect much out of those genres anymore. I’ve settled in to just enjoying being pleasantly surprised when a TV show is good, when a magazine runs a lovely article. But I still believe in public radio’s potential. Because it’s the one mass medium that’s still crafted almost entirely by true believers.

About Sarah Vowell

Author and social observer Sarah Vowell is best known for her monologues and documentaries for public radio’s This American Life. A contributing editor for the program since 1996, she has written about everything from her father’s homemade cannon and her obsession with the Godfather films to the New Hampshire primary and her Cherokee ancestors’ forced march on the Trail of Tears. She has been a staple of TAL’s popular live shows around the country, for which The New York Times has commended her “funny querulous voice and shrewd comic delivery.” Thanks to her first book, “Radio On: A Listener’s Diary” (St. Martin’s Press), Newsweek made her its Rookie of the Year for nonfiction in 1997, calling her “a cranky stylist with talent to burn.” Reviewing her second book, the essay collection “Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World” (Simon & Schuster), People Magazine said, “Wise, witty and refreshingly warm-hearted, Vowell’s essays on American history, pop culture and her own family reveal the bonds holding together a great, if occasionally weird, nation.”

As a critic and reporter, Vowell’s writing has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including Esquire, GQ, Artforum, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Spin and McSweeney‘s. As a columnist, she has covered education for Time; American culture for; and pop music for the San Francisco Weekly, for which she won a 1996 Music Journalism Award. She has taught writing and art history at Sarah Lawrence College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago respectively.

A native of Oklahoma and Montana, and a long-time resident of Chicago, Vowell currently lives in New York City.

144 Comments on “Sarah Vowell”

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Radio by accident

    It was so strange seeing your photo on the home page of Transom and then read, not hear, your words. I’ll cope. I’ve read through all of the various parts of your Manifesto Thing, but what leaps out at me is here, in Part 1, when you say you got into "the public radio racket by accident." Which is why I’m responding — or is it posting? — now rather than at a discursive "later."
    I agree with you about both the racket and the accident. And so I agree with you, too, about radio being a big secret. Nobody *wants* to go into radio. It’s the janitorial department of the glamour industry — we’re off in the basement somewhere right next to the furnace.
    And yet all kinds of people — not just Kookie, Rush and Ollie, but others like Terry Gross and Ira Glass and (God help us!) Mr. Adventures in Music — end up in a padded room with a mic pointed at their faces. We are all, in our various ways, victims of this Bermuda Triangle.
    I must confess, at this point, that I am very early on in my dreams of being a radio producer. Coming out of print editorial and classical music, I find the combination of word and sound enthralling.
    Part of me longs to do the glorious documentary, where I can put my prose and my smarts on prominent (well…) display. But it is this sense of "radio by accident" — the reason, indeed, why so many people got into radio in the first place — that really enthralls me about the medium.
    And so, I find myself somewhat torn. Public radio sounds so often like books on tape — everything is "just so" and that appeals to me in the same way that a scored piece of music appeals to me. But when something prompts Terry Gross to burst out laughing — that’s when radio drives me nuts (in the best sense of the word).
    Which leads me, I guess, to my question: where do you think the line is drawn (if that’s the right image) between the spontaneous and the contrived in this hallowed medium? The minute we hit the mixing board, the spontaneous is, per force, out the window, just as a Beatle recording from 1966 on reflects a musical performance that could never happen in "real time". And yet, in our contrivance, we attempt to recreate, capture, preserve the aura of spontaneity.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Sarah, I think you actually answered most of your own questions. I personally feel that Public Radio is coasting on it’s reputation and surviving
    i despite
    its reputation. As discussed earlier in ‘Talk’, NPR comes off as elitist, and "Elitism, WOW!" isn’t a great ad campaign to drum up listeners (and people who strive to be on public radio start out as listeners). While I still don’t think that PR listeners are elitist at all (or for the most part, anyway), I think that perhaps the management behind NPR and at most of the Big PR stations are very elitist. Which brings me to:

    >Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs?

    Is it a matter of the right people applying? Had you not fallen into Public Radio on accident, and had no radio reputation other than that as an author (maybe a Fresh Air appearance or 2), do you think you could get a job with All Things Considered, or Morning Edition? Here’s a bit from a help wanted ad on my local NPR/PRI affiliate’s website (for a "NEWS PRODUCER/ ATC HOST"):
    >…News producers work under the direction of the KWMU News Director and Program Director and must meet KWMU’s standard of NPR-style reporting, requiring excellent, conversational on-air delivery and the ability to professionally operate a broadcast console. Qualifications include: Must have at least two years experience in reporting. Public radio reporting experience desirable. Professional on-air delivery required. Must have at least one year host/news anchor experience. College degree or equivalent combination of education and experience required…

    I’m certainly not going to apply… I wouldn’t want to work in an environment that spawned that ad. It says "educated", not smart, intelligent, or witty (3 of the many things college will not teach you). It says "experience" and "professional" multiple times, but not funny, interesting, or innovative.

    Ok, here are 3 questions I meant to ask Sedaris last night, but I wound up feeling ill before I could make it through the line to have him sign my copy of "Fraud" (I didn’t have time to go home and get a Sedaris’ book, or preferably "The New Tastes of Texas" cookbook). #1 What are the 3 most important changes Public Radio would make today, were it entirely up to you. #2 Ann Magnuson Vs. Julia Sweeney, who would win. #3 Can you give me Sarah Vowell’s phone number and/or put in a good word for me?

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    In response to Andy Night and his help-wanted ad, I would say, Andy, that it was an ad for a news producer, which is a fairly technical job and for which they’d surely need to hire a pro. I’m not against professionalism. On the contrary, it is my fondest hope that someone would say of me, "That Sarah Vowell–she’s a real pro." If a person is interested in doing stories and getting them on their local public radio station, they shouldn’t apply for a job. They should just start writing things or making tapes or volunteering and making a nuisance out of themselves to the people at the station who have the jobs. That’s how I started writing for magazines–by writing things for really small, really broke publications and just faxing them already penned items on spec. (It’s what the art critic Jerry Saltz calls "guerilla faxing.")

  • Tony Kahn says:
    Listeners log in . . .

    Sarah, welcome.

    For the last two days I’ve been at my 35th College reunion enjoying one of the true advantages of being short – you can read the name tags before you establish eye-contact. You never have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings.

    Most of my classmates are strangers — those that know me from the radio, though, have been using it as an excuse to tell me what they think about public radio. They refer to it generically, by the way, as NPR or even PBS, but they include fans of your work, The World, ATC, Fresh Air, Prairie Home Companion, etc. Nine times out of ten what they want to talk about is not the content of the shows, but the style of the presentation — the relationships between the hosts and the guests and the respect the programming shows for the listener’s intelligence. It reminded me of what you wrote in your Manifesto Thing.

    >If I step back from everything I’ve just written I can see it as an argument for personality over substance . . .

    It’s rare to hear from listeners, like this, about the spirit of public radio rather than any specific product. And, for me, at least, it’s a lot more stimulating to get comments on what I’m trying to do in general (stimulate a listener’s imagination and add to their experience) than on something I’ve already done ("Your biased anti-Israeli interview with that Palestinian pig sickened me and all self-respecting civilized human beings," e.g.).

    Anyway, one couple from San Diego — he’s a businessman, she’s a kindergarden teacher — were talking about Terry Gross. Much as they loved her, they said they’d been feeling she was showing less interest in her subjects. I asked them what they meant. Something in her tone? "Well," the guy said, "the thing that really pulls me into an interview is the flow. The feeling she’s taking a real interest in the person, so the unexpected can happen. Maybe she’s just been doing it too long."

    I don’t agree with that, but it made me wonder — how long is too long to be on the air in public radio doing the same thing. How much of re-envigorating public radio requires not only shipping new blood in, but shipping old blood out? I know a Hungarian lady who says marriages should be renewed every three years or allowed to expire. It keeps the relationship imperiled and fresh. Should there be a statue of limitations on occupying the same job before or behind the mic? Seems to me that when Susan Stamberg went from public radio’s best host to public radio’s best special correspondent, she did a rare and envigorating thing, for herself and for NPR.

    If you have the chance, let me know what you think.

    Tony Kahn

  • Andy Knight says:

    >For example, the other day, one NPR news program covered the ramifications of Senator Jeffords’s defection as well as an Alaskan couple struggling with their small birch syrup business… …But I don’t remember being moved or surprised or entertained. Something’s missing.

    So which NPR news program isn’t using news producers? You want them to move/surprise/entertain you, but you don’t mind the fact that they aren’t looking for staff to move/surprise/entertain you?

    "Professional" is fine when it comes to operating the broadcast console, or when it comes to work ethic but what I don’t like about "Professional" is that it’s used in the line "Professional on-air delivery required." I doubt this is to weed out people who would deliver the news from the bottom of a bottle or those who may feel compelled to imitate Daffy Duck at any moment. The implication I see is that they want you to have the stereotypical "radio voice", which I don’t think should be "required".

    Luckily we have non-NPR/PRI public radio stations in the area that don’t require a professional on-air delivery. These stations survive through pledges without the benefit of Morning Edition, Fresh Air, or Car Talk. They don’t have help from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They have a place for those of us with odd voices (and in one case, no voice at all) and/or odd ideas.

  • Tony Kahn says:
    What’s "professional on-air delivery?"

    >they want you to have the stereotypical "radio voice", which I don’t think should be "required".

    Andy, I heard something once as a kid I have been trying to make sense of ever since: "There are no rules here, until they’re broken."

    As applied to hiring hosts through industry ads and personnel offices, at least, I think it means — "We’d be happy with someone with real personality, but since there’s no accounting for uniqueness and originality, let’s officially rule them out."

    As Sarah said, persistence is perhaps the greatest quality a person with talent can have to get in the door of a radio station. From what I’ve seen, most personnel offices exist to keep people out, not to bring them in. If you do everything by the rules, you can’t be fired for not following orders. Besides, even though job openings are posted, the people actually doing the hiring may already know whom they really want. Often, it’s someone they’ve already worked with. Makes sense — what usually prevails in day-to-day production is chaos, crisis, and panic. You want people you already know you can work with under conditions like that.

    People are delighted when they find themselves with someone who’s new, fresh, totally different, and a hit. Hell, they’ll even be happy to take credit for it. But hits have to prove themselves — from the inside. And the best way to get in is often by doing an end run around the personnel office.

  • cheryl says:
    mind meets matter

    i have some radio questions for you but i can’t post until later.
    wanted to tell you that i saw and admired you one night on conan o brian when they had some obnoxious sexual innuendo show going complete w/ stereotypical "bimbo" and then they’re like, "and now here’s an author of a book."

    i thought, oh great, who would want to walk out into that sleazy mess and try to talk about a book or anything quasi-serious. but then you walked out and didn’t punch anyone in the face. i thought you not only handled the situation well, but just yr presence made the rest of the show sit up straighter that night.


  • Ira Glass says:
    Not in love with prisons.

    Or prisoners. I just think prisons aren’t covered enough – or in the right way – by other media. I think it’s one of the defining facts of this period in America, the skyrocketing rise in prison population. I think someday we’ll look back on this period and try to understand all the ways the country changed because of the now two million people we decided to incarcerate. I think it’s something that’s only half-understood. That’s all.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Tony–I’m either the wrong or the perfect person to talk about "how long is too long" because I’ve yet to stick with anything my entire life. "I see we’ve done some dabbling, " a woman who was interviewing me for a job once told me. I have thus far quit: classical music; French lit; art history; being a museum curator; being an archivist; running a gallery; being an art critic; being a rock critic; about eight towns; countless apartments; and nine novels in the last month alone. I don’t know much about the pitfalls of sticking it out. This American Life is the longest I’ve stuck with anything. I will say though, that my dabbling has fueled my radio work, and that the radio practitioners I admire are kind of all over the place and bounce around between subjects and tone. On the other hand, some weeks I read Robert Christgau–who’s still writing about pop records for like the fiftieth straight year, or I hear Dan Schorr on the radio, who’s covering his, what, twentieth presidential administration, and I wonder how they do it. I’d like to think that I keep bouncing around because I! Love! Life! but I think the truth is that I get bored easily. The truth is, that we want to grow old with the broadcasters we love and we want the ones we don’t like to call it a day. Last night I was watching Letterman, whom I adore, and there was this part where he was just talking about an employee there who distracted him when he was preparing for the show because she said that apples made her mouth itch. And I was laughing out loud, partly because it was funny, but partly because I know and love him as a character, as a persona and I knew what lines like that mean in his world. Part of the pleasure came from the familiarity.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    I think we’re agreeing here: What all good people want is perhaps to re-define "professional." To update what that word means. Being prepared and trustworthy and hard-working are good, being predicatable and robotic and close-minded are not.

  • Grace Kline says:
    this is a bit roundabout–if you’re in a hurry, just read the last 2 paragraphs.

    This has probably been noticed before, (but it goes along with Sarah’s “and now a word from our little freak” comment so nicely):

    One of my biggest complaints about run-of-the-mill public radio is that there are very few unexpected revelations in your average NPR news story. It’s like point / counterpoint all the time: Specific Example from Citizen with a Problem offset by Government Man Explaining Policy That Affects Said Citizen.

    In the worst moments, it can feel like any expression of personality by the interview subjects has been edited in for a bit of “local color,”—and in so doing, the reporter inadvertently writes off the person’s viewpoint as “wacky!” That’s only in the very worst cases though. More often, you just get lulled into complacency by this flow of information, and if you’re asked to explain what you just heard 20 minutes later, you’re lucky if you can spit out a few misquoted sound bites.

    I love it when something interrupts the flow—like Terry Gross practically giggling over Colin Blunstone from the Zombies, or Ira Glass checking the library of congress for “bully books” after talking about such books with a first grader, or even when the feed screws up in the middle of a report (like it did on WNYC this morning). It reminds us that there are actually people making this really awesome radio that we love and cannot live without—it doesn’t just filter down to us from God on high.

    So can I toss into this receipe you guys seem to be devising for the uber-radio-professional that s/he not be afraid to let the seams show a bit? (and let me clarify—I don’t mean that I want them to be a shoddy producer, that is lame—I just want a human behind the microphone—prime example, davy rothbart on the TAL neighbors show—that was great!)

  • cw says:
    sarah asks/cw answers

    My question(s) to the discussion group, as makers or consumers of public radio, is this–Does public radio coast on its reputation?


    Clearly, the people who like it like it because it is not dumb. But is that enough?


    I’m not talking about content per se. For example, the other day, one NPR news program covered the ramifications of Senator Jeffords’s defection as well as an Alaskan couple struggling with their small birch syrup business. Those are good parameters for the kind of stories that should be included. But I don’t remember being moved or surprised or entertained. Something’s missing. Am I alone in thinking this?

    no. there’s a reason that sat night live successfully and easily parodies npr dead-on when most of their other skits suck

    Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs? And if that’s the case, is it just about money?

    i do not know. possibly.

    it is probably because people get in a stale groove from working too long hours. when no producer is able to take sufficient time aside to read, write, twiddle their thumbs, get bored, let time pass and random new thoughts occur b/c they’re suffering under constant "contentitis" b/c they’re slamming a 40 plus work week plus a family life.

    many things could be solved by a 20-30 hour work week. human bodies and brains are just so pushable. no sleep, no brain work. no rest, no time to engage in art, extreme backyard wrestling and other things that give one new perspectives on things

    now i have to go home b/c we have flooding here. more later. much ambient music needs to be tossed out, yes.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Ambient music to de-flood by

    Have we been coasting? A question that might be reasonably applied to any person or institution or corporation that follows anything that resembles a "formula." I think early on Sarah spoke of "five seconds of ambient sound" — a little thing that is supposed to say "You are there." The five seconds of ambient sound was probably started in a moment of genius. (European streets always sound so different from 7th Ave., and what conveys that better than the sound of a moped whisking by?) I guess that the coasting comes in when we throw in five seconds of ambient sound because that is, quite simply, what we do *nowadays*. (I seem to remember Glenn Gould in one of his radio pieces — roughly 50 minutes long — including an ambient track of crashing waves throughout the entire work. Enough ambience to get your feet wet! But then, the program was about the people of New Foundland, and they’re never far from the water. Sorry, CW, I wasn’t thinking about your flood!)
    One other thing to throw into the mix: do we do the five seconds mindlessly ("formulaic" in the worst sense) or because we think that our audience has come to expect hearing that little bit? A piece about a bombing will invariably start with a woman crying or the sound of a siren.
    All potentially true, but not necessarily illuminating. One of the things I love about Sarah’s work is her mental leap between two seemingly incongruous facts which she then joins together in her dry, intelligent way. Aha! I think, as a listener, as these two things become inseparable in my own mind.
    It could be said that Sarah is similarly following a formula — her leap of intellect could, in the wrong crowd, be seen as being as knee-jerk as the crying voice in the story of death and destruction. I want Sarah to make those leaps, express that perspective that is singular to her. As with anything "formulaic," I even expect it of her.
    Just as, in a news story about a bombing, I expect the five seconds of ambient suffering to put me "there."
    Nowhere in the discussion thus far has anyone mentioned the issue of "genre" in radio. Sarah seeking commonality between Ira and Terry suggests, at least, that her sense of "radio-ness" does not necessarily care to distinguish between different programming "needs." I am in favor of blurring such fine lines myself — "nonfiction" can mean a whole hell of a lot more than just news. Still, my instinct is to treat the Terry interview as something entirely other from the Ira interview.
    Which maybe leads us back to the cult of personality — but hey! Marx wasn’t right about *everything*.

  • Eric Nuzum says:
    My two cents

    I have to weigh in on this "talent issue"… This may get a bit long, so I apologize in advance.

    I approach this from two different perspectives: One, as a creative person who had to force his way into public radio; and two, as someone who—at this point in their career—does all the hiring of the programming staff at a fairly large public radio station.

    The bottom line: I would donate one of my kidneys to science today if it meant that I would have an eager, passionate candidate in every applicant pool for positions.

    If all of you are talented, interested people who can’t get your foot in the door at your public radio station … where are you when I’m hiring staff?

    Here is a typical story—me. I’m 34, and the program director at WKSU-FM in Kent. I have a programming staff of 17 people and hire 1 to 2 positions a year. I came into public radio when I was 19 and have worked in the industry on and off ever since. I have never worked in commercial radio or had any academic training in radio, journalism, or production. I’ve learned everything by being nosey and struggling through it myself.

    I got my first job by agreeing to baby sit taped programming over a Thanksgiving weekend. I hated going to my aunt’s house, so I volunteered to help out. My only experience was one year working at the student station next door.

    The station didn’t burn down or go off the air that weekend, so I was rewarded with a permanent position on the station staff: watching the tapes roll during a weekly repeat of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on Sunday mornings. I worked for two hours a week, and that was all I did.

    I did that for over a year before I did anything else.

    Today, whenever an eager or interested person calls, writes, or walks through the door, I tell them that story. While it may be extreme, it makes a point. Most people who walk up to me want to start out picking music for their own program or covering news stories and have them on the air that same week. It is very narcissistic. When I suggest that the need to take time to learn to do silly things like learn to write, operate equipment, or learn the basics of journalistic ethics before they take on big, regular projects—they usually glaze over and don’t come back a second time.

    However, occasionally one does. When someone does, they learn a lot (usually fairly quickly) and they eventually become an important part of our team.

    It is worth pointing out that even though my station, and many others, have tough professional standards that require time and experience to get a full time job, we do work with people who walk through the doors. We get a lot of solicitations for people to do commentaries. We have a process set up for them, and if they follow through we will assign them a producer and several make it all the way to air—with little to no experience. If you have a modicum of talent or interest, you can make it. However, more than 3/4 of those who approach us never take the time to correct an edit or do a second draft.

    Further, when we do have full time programming positions, I rarely hear from anyone outside our industry that puts in a serious effort to apply. All we ask is a resume, audition tape (yes, we have hired people who recorded their tape with a Radio Shack toss away) and some sense of a burning passion to work in public radio. In my current hiring process, my current favorite candidate is a girl with no radio experience and who graduated college less than two years before with a journalism degree. She’s way head of other people with ten to fifteen years experience IN PUBLIC RADIO because she is a “diamond in the rough” who sent a huge portfolio of her work and a passionate cover letter detailing her love for public radio. She went out of her way to make sure I knew how badly and passionately she wants that job. I wish there were one of her in every candidate pool for every job—because those are the people I’d hire. More work, but the pay off is much higher.

    So basically, my point is that if you are interested in working at your local public radio station, then do it. There is tons of opportunity out there. Like everything else, you have to pursue it—it won’t come to you. Nothing worth having comes easily.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Career Counseling Are Us. Available for Motivational Speaking Engagements.

    We got several emails this week, as we do every week, asking how to start, what to do, where to get a break, if we have training available, if we have internships, jobs, etc. All good questions.

    But, as people above have said, the nice thing about this line of work is: Talent, passion, and commitment to service are actually valued in public radio (most of the time), and if you’re also persistent and self-starting and willing to work for a dime… how can you not succeed?

    The variable would seem to be talent. What’s my TRUE talent? Am I developing it?

    Am I stalling?

    What do I really want to do right now and what’s really stopping me?

  • paul tough says:
    professional on-air delivery

    Andy Knight writes,

    Luckily we have non-NPR/PRI public radio stations in the area that don’t require a professional on-air delivery. These stations survive through pledges without the benefit of Morning Edition, Fresh Air, or Car Talk. They don’t have help from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They have a place for those of us with odd voices (and in one case, no voice at all) and/or odd ideas.

    Where are these stations you speak of, Knight? And who is this announcer with no voice? On KHUM in Arcata, California, there’s a radio host named Digital Dan, a Vietnam veteran who lost his voice in the war (I can’t quite remember how) who hosts his show using a speech synthesizer. He spins records, he types, the computer talks. It’s eerie and excellent. Is that who you’re referring to?

    Sarah, I loved your manifesto thing. You’re inspirational, as always — a sentiment that I trust gives you the major creeps.

    My two cents on the professionalism issue: my favorite recent radio-listening experience happened in April, when I was in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, on a Sunday night. A local station there has a weekly bluegrass show, but the week I was there the regular host was out playing with his band, so a local woman was filling in. She was having a hell of a time — cutting up, talking to the technician (we couldn’t hear his responses), making jokes at the expense of the absent host (which of course I couldn’t follow), talking effusively and extemporaneously and at length about the supermarket in town that was the show’s main sponsor.

    Later on the same trip, I was listening to the Friendly Neighbor Radio Show, in Logan, West Virginia, and heard this sponsorship announcement (I taped it, and transcribed later):

    "And this here portion’s been made possible by the Radio Shack, ain’t it? That’s right, them good ol’ young’uns up there. If you need some electronics, just go by and see ‘em. That’s right."

    and a minute later:

    "Remember now, when you get ready for one of these electronic merchandise, you won’t find a better place to buy ’em than Radio Shack, right there in Logan."

    I’ve been accused of fetishizing non-professionals in the past, so maybe that’s all I’m doing here. But one way to create a better public-radio system ten years down the road might be to start pouring more of those Confederate dollars into local radio stations around the country (like Jay’s, say).

  • Necee Regis says:
    Just Your Typical NPR Junkie

    Love this site, it makes me think about what I’m listening to, rather than just listening.

    Is NPR coasting? Well, perhaps, but I still think it’s worth my time, and that fresh voices occasionally penetrate the system and surprise me. But often I feel I’m just the audience for some huge promo machine. I hear the same person interviewed on Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Diane Rhemes (sp?) etc. etc. Are there really so few things to talk about? I agree with Sarah’s assessment that the most interesting stories/programs are often being produced outside of Washington.

    With the exception of Scott Simon Why has no one mentioned him? He’s an example of someone with personality AND substance. (His snorting laugh alone puts him in a radio category all his own.) I love when he and Daniel Pinkwater read children’s books–and I don’t even have kids. Plus, his commentaries and interviews are particularly good. I remember weeping after his piece about Laura Nyro’s death and later laughing as he interacted with Jonathan Winters (and listening AGAIN when it was repeated later in the day). And did you hear him this morning with the ex-military woman who has recently become a nun? "Where is the food better?" he deadpanned–her sincere answer proving no sense of humor exists in either establishment.

    And hi to Tony. I read most of your comments but was too busy to respond. I was interested in your college reunion friend’s comment re: Terry Gross. How long has she been on the air? For years–ten, fifteen?– I was a devoted, fanatic fan. Then, for about the past five years, I can barely listen. Has she lost interest or have I? Sometimes I think it’s the guests she chooses. I’m more interested in writers or people involved with current events and politics. I am not much interested in movie stars, producers, and the endless minutia involved in some TV hit. Perhaps it’s just hard to fill all that time. (And in all these years I can remember only two or three interviews with visual artists, they fall off the charts) I say this and then I’ll occasionally listen & be delighted. Like this week when she was interviewing a scientist from Harvard about mosquitos. She asked the question I would have, "So what do you do in the middle of the night when you hear that buzzing?" Terrific.

    As someone in love with radio, and experimenting with writing for it, I’m happy to have found this site. I recorded a piece in Miami this winter at my friend Gustavo’s recording studio, and when we finished he said, "Sounds like radio." Uh oh, I thought, maybe that’s a BAD thing (like those Saturday Night Live skits…..) Listen & learn.

    Sarah, I think someone asked you about the difference in writing for radio & for print. Any comments?


  • Andy Knight says:

    Paul, the main non-npr/pri PR station in the area (St. Louis) is KDHX. It has the guy with no voice. I think his show is "Wanderings In The Night" but I couldn’t swear to that. I happened to tune in during his first night on the air, and though I was intrigued by the host I’m not a fan of trip-hop and/or techno and was too tired to stick around and find out more about him or his show. He uses the type-to-talk method, too.

    The majority of KDHX’s programming is taken up by music shows (usually a comb. of music and talk). It has talk programming during the morning drive-time and at 7pm daily. Check out the program schedule… with shows with names like "Fishing with Dynamite", can you really go wrong? They have a live stream, of course (can’t say the same for our local NPR/PRI guys)

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    We keep skirting around this issue of personality and none of us are ever going to know what to do with it. Because, the Godfather be damned, I am constantly aware of how personal everything is. This morning, I watched the aftermath coverage of the McVeigh execution on MSNBC–the testimony of the ten journalist witnessed, as well as that of the victim’s families who witnessed in Terse Hate. Usually, if there’s an important story, I’ll get at least three or four angles–NY, Washington Post, PR, wire service reports through my Interned server, Peter Jennings, Koppel maybe. But this morning, when all the reporters filed past the mike to give their version of events, or when the victims did the same…I know it’s this huge solemn national event, but as a storyteller I couldn’t help but compare the various speakers. And it was a microcasm of the way stories are told. Among the reporters, there were the just-fine ones and then there was the reporter from Fox News (I know, I know) but he was the only one who made me feel anything. He reported what he saw, but he knew how to talk, how to use his voice, how to be a person. And among the victims–trust me, I feel horrible critiquing their delivery–there was the mother of the four-year-old who did an astonishing job of conveying what this meant to her, what it was like to be in that room, and how she needed to see it. She said that for over a year after the bombing, that she kept looking for her daughter in the faces of all the little blond girls who crossed her path. She doesn’t owe us anything. But I feel like writing her a letter saying, "I’ll remember you, and I’ll remember your daughter." Because I will. And it’s because of what she said and the way that she said it.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    uh, when I posted the above message, I hit "check spelling" by mistake and the machine changed all the words it didn’t like. but i’m trying not to take that personally.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    what i wrote was:

    We keep skirting around this issue of personality and none of us are ever going to know what to do with it. Because, the Godfather be damned, I am constantly aware of how personal everything is. This morning, I watched the aftermath coverage of the McVeigh execution on MSNBC–the testimony of the ten journalist witnesses, as well as that of the victim’s families who witnessed in Terre Haute. Usually, if there’s an important story, I’ll get at least three or four angles–NYT, Washington Post, NPR, wire service reports through my Internet server, Peter Jennings, Koppel maybe. But this morning, when all the reporters filed past the mike to give their version of events, or when the victims did the same…I know it’s this huge solemn national event, but as a storyteller I couldn’t help but compare the various speakers. And it was a microcasm of the way stories are told. Among the reporters, there were the just-fine ones and then there was the reporter from Fox News (I know, I know) but he was the only one who made me feel anything. He reported what he saw, but he knew how to talk, how to use his voice, how to be a person. And among the victims–trust me, I feel horrible critiquing their delivery–there was the mother of the four-year-old who did an astonishing job of conveying what this meant to her, what it was like to be in that room, and how she needed to see it. She said that for over a year after the bombing, that she kept looking for her daughter in the faces of all the little blond girls who crossed her path. She doesn’t owe us anything. But I feel like writing her a letter saying, "I’ll remember you, and I’ll remember your daughter." Because I will. And it’s because of what she said and the way that she said it.

  • Andy Knight says:

    tee hee… Interned… I’m wired for Flanders. Sarah, you may wanna delete some of those extra duplicate posts.

  • cw says:
    the reason people get accused of being in love w/ prisons is…advancing issues led declines!

    people get accused of being in love I/prisons

    I/I when they’re one of the few covering it, it really stands out.
    thus they get remembered for it/and boss. labeled for it.
    anytime anyone does something slightly on-conventional they are in danger of that becoming their business card/ or reputation.

    also everyone is uncomfortable that a lot of their tax dollars go to hole people who smoke pot up in hell holes for the rest of their lives and they don’t want to be reminded of their culpability/or part they personally play in the process. reminded too often that is. they want to be reminded occasionally so they can feel a little guilty but then go back to reading their magazine instead of having to actually write their congress person or anything

    so when someone (bra, anyone) keeps reminding us that prisons contain human beings, we must attack that person (bra/bad bra/love that prison ira/wish he could be in one prob. ira/prob dresses up in those stripes and looks at himself in the mirror ira, etc) b/c he makes us feel uncomfortable.

    no one gets accused of being "in love" with the dow jones industrial,
    or whatever it’s called. and ("let’s do the numbers"/advancing issues led declines)– it’s more omnipresent on npr and just as "accurate" or "scientific" a measurement of our country’s "condition" (economic and otherwise) as what’s going on in the prison population (let’s do the numbers/how many people in america own stocks and how many have or have had some contact with the penal/justice system?).

    i think prisons should be covered as much as say, alaska, or more than. b/c more people live in prisons than live in alaska. they should get as much coverage as a state, plus half more (i’m being gracious here w/ my percentages) b/c of the fact that so many people who are in them don’t need to be. that’s why they get alaska PLUS.

    you’re gonna say i’m in love with prisons,
    (i’m not/but my cousin was in one and he’s not either /and a good friend of mine who’s too retarded to read this bulletin board but is currently stuck in one in alabama is not in love with them either/

    though then again i have been arrested and i DID recently ride in the backseat of a police car (say, last week) and i DID go to a craft show at a prison rodeo (say, last month) and now i’m writing this (say, NOW) so i guess i am "in love with prisons"/

    though in my own defense let me say that i have STILL had more contact with "advancing issues led declines" than prisons or the penal system. say EVERY DAY at least TWICE a DAY whenever and wherever i encounter the "news".

    and i own no stocks. so what’s overcovered?


  • cw says:
    i didn’t call ira "bra"/transom spellcheck did

    also I/I means because, as in ‘b’ ‘/’ ‘c’

  • Jay Allison says:
    Bad Spell Checker. BAD.

    I’ll tidy up a bit and remove duplicate posts. But maybe not all, because they’re kind of cute.

    Josh, do you think we should disappear the Spell Checker?

  • Grace Kline says:
    all the news that’s not news (this should be the slogan for most UPN or Fox news shows)

    What you say about the Fox news reporter being the only one who made you feel anything actually makes a lot of sense to me. Because what is Fox news but a story hour (or half hour, i guess) backed up with actual footage? they’re usually so crap because they tell the same stories day after day, with interchangeable characters and situations. [when you watch fox news, you're not looking for a serious discussion of the issues--you want to hear stories about what's going on in your world.] Reporting that sort of thing day in day out is bound to hone your storytelling skills, right? You have to be interesting if you’re doing a news show at 10 that’s up against Law and Order. But when there’s actually something monumental to report, you know how to cut right down to the human moments.

    I don’t mean to make a huge overarching defense of commercial news reporting, but there’s a place for everything, and you shouldn’t feel bad for appreciating the good bits of what can be a terribly reductive thing (admittedly, sometimes dangerously so).

    [on the spellchecker: maybe you could teach it the word "ira"--it's really disturbing to read "bra" as a person's name so many times...]

  • Jay Allison says:
    Just Spelling?

    I am compelled to note the speller checker’s correction of Terre Haute to Terse Hate.

  • cw says:
    where i come from bra is no insult when it’s spelled "brah"

    as in "hey brah, wussup?"

    actually there is a whole segment of society known in these parts simply as "hey brahs." when confronted w/ one of life’s more astounding mysteries, they ask: "dang, brah, why?"


  • Joshua Barlow says:
    Speel Cjeck ;-)

    I’m beginning to get the impression the spell check, the way it’s set up currently, is more trouble than it’s worth – though I must admit the dada enthusiast in me sees unlimited potential.

    I want as many opinions as I can get, but…

    Let’s move that part of the discussion over here:
    Joshua Barlow "About" June 11, 2001 01:43pm

  • Ian Brown says:
    excellence shoots, but so often hits the post


    So great to come upon your writing unexpectedly, for which I have Paul Tough to thank this time.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d say one other thing public radio still does well, no matter how earnest and self-important it can be at its worst (and I’ve produced enough of that stuff to know), is this: it still doesn’t take advertising. (Many radio shows here at the CBC don’t even have sponsors, at least so far.) This habit doesn’t guarantee good radio, of course, any more than commercials guarantee bad radio per se. But being free of a commercial agenda does mean that producers and writers and reporters have the opportunity to think about stories without thinking about ratings or about which sponsors will be offended. Not taking money for what you do means you can–not that you will, but that you can–exist outside the official information agenda and the approved news feed. Then the producers and writers can pay attention to what truly interests them, as opposed to what is supposed to interest them, or what other people and powers tell them should interest them. It’s the difference between what the Fox reporter said about McVeigh’s demise and what all the other reporters said, and maybe it comes from being on the margins, in the zone where the usual rules don’t have to apply. It’s the difference between great work, on the one hand, and merely keeping up with the informational Joneses, which constitutes so much of what is published and broadcast. A senior executive here at the CBC once told me he was changing a show that had 95 percent audience-approval ratings because, he said, "when you have 95 percent approval, you ARE the status quo. And public radio is not supposed to be the status quo."

    True, you can hear and read good stuff anywhere, if you’re lucky or at least catholic in your media consumption. But publishers have to sell books, and newspapers get involved in readership wars, while commercial radio and TV stations have to prove their desirability to advertisers no less than twice a year. So while the fact that a radio station is public isn’t a guarantee that it will produce original work (original, Vowellian work is simply rare, no matter where you listen), at least it can mean one less impediment (the need to be popular) to good work slipping through to grateful (ever so grateful!) listeners.

    What really troubles me, though, is that this idea, and this ideal, of the commercial-free venture is one that fewer and fewer people seem capable of grasping, never mind agreeing or disagreeing with. Or am I just being a crank? Maybe I am just being a crank.

    In any event I add only this: I trust you’ve seen the updated second edition of Total Hockey, the Official Encyclopaedia of the National Hockey League. All you need to know about hockey, including the reason why one player, Earl Walsh, was nicknamed "Flat." It was because he lived in one.

  • Andy Knight says:

    > …or at least catholic in your media consumption.

    say what, canuck? I’m in a massively Catholic area, which is probably why I’ve never heard that phrase. What does it mean? I have a few guesses…

    -reformed crank

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Before I respond to all you thinkers, I came across this yesterday. I finally got around to reading the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report on the Florida election in its entirety. It has nothing to do with radio, but all you documentary heads might want to check out the chapters with eyewitness testimony. Breathtaking. My favorite comes from the section devoted to "Access to Precincts for Individuals with Disabilities." One wheelchair-bound Dr. Frederick Shotz of Broward County told the commission that he "had to use his upper body to lift himself up to get up the steps in order for him access his polling place. Once he was inside the polling place, he was not given a wheelchair accessible polling booth. Once again, he had to use his arms to lift himself up to see the ballot and, while balancing on his arms, simultaneously attempt to cast his ballot. He testified that an individual using a wheelchair who did not have the same upper body strength could not have accessed his polling place. He also stated that his polling place did not provide curbside voting and described curbside voting as a ‘wonderful fantasy that never came true.’"

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    radio versus everything else

    In response to Necee’s question about writing for radio v. writing for print, my short answer is that I try to write like I talk either way. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I’m so much more manipulative on the radio. I know how to use my voice to make you feel a certain way. And that’s not writing–that’s acting. I get tired of acting sometimes. Which is why it’s nice to be able to go back to the cold old page. Also, real time is an unforgiving medium. I still maintain a little academic streak, and any time I read something on the air or out loud, I have to cut back on the abstract, thinky bits. Like I have to read a story out loud in front of an audience this week and I had to lop it off by half, to prune it of its dull information and, sometimes, its very point. Those things, for you the listener, are bonuses–the listener doesn’t get as much filler, the listener gets to feel more. Readers are more patient. Either that or they just skim the boring parts.

    As a consumer, I’m more fascinated by the difference between radio and TV. Have you ever noticed how people who only get their news from the radio don’t ever recognize anyone? They point at a TV and ask, "Who’s that?" and it’s a picture of OJ or something. The thing that makes radio a better place to tell stories–that it’s more focused, that it’s more elegant, that it’s more about words are, I find, disadvantages in the political sphere, in the sense of trying to ferret it out what the hell one’s government is REALLY up to and what a politician MEANS versus what he’s just said. Radio can’t give you their beady little eyes or their smirking winks.

  • Necee Regis says:
    words vs pictures

    I listen to the news on the radio, for content, and then try to catch the tv news for the visuals. (For the reasons Sarah mentions.)For some reason I can listen endlessly to the radio, creating pictures in my mind, but have a hard time concentrating when I sit in front of the tv. I don’t have the patience for PBS news, I think "Hurry up!" The speeding up of visual media has changed my ability to listen while I watch.

  • Tony Kahn says:

    Necee, hi. What you said reminded me of an interview Terry did once with a herpetologist who had spent sixteen years studying a small population of rattlesnakes in the wild. This guy was really into these vipers and, at Terry’s prompting, was talking about the differences in their personalities. I remember his talking about one snake in particular, an older female and clearly some kind of genius, who had invented a new way of hunting. Instead of waiting outside a rodent’s lair and grabbing it "to go," not an easy trick, this rattler liked to climb to the top of a tree, take her sweet time, and drop on squirrels from above. Fascinating stuff. Then Terry took her patented leap from the fascinating to the profound — realizing what a great observer this guy was of snake behavior, she asked him how he thought snakes perceived the world. In other words, she asked him to take us "inside" the snake’s head. And he did — describing the ways he thought snake perception, based on "tasting the world" with their tongues, was probably far more "chemical," than visual or auditory, that every moment for them probably had the richness and palpability that we experience once in a blue moon, like when we inhale a freshly mown meadow after the rain. First case of trans-species mind-travel I ever experienced.

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    the best things in life

    Comrade Brown’s wistful recall of a time when people valued commercial-free endeavors–like, oh, education (I love this new crop of college presidents who describe themselves as a "CEO") reminded me that I had a few things to say about cheap pleasures. Though, before I do, I found myself alarmed by this news that there are programs on the CBC with no sponsorship at all. I mean, on my little hometown station even Kim from Pony–a DJ from a tiny town who spun Dean Martin and Mel Torme records–had underwriters. On my local NPR affiliate, WNYC, when there’s not a sponsorship spot, there’s a spot about how nice it would have been if this very spot could have been advertising YOUR business.

    In general, though, I feel creepy discussing the funding of public radio because I’m on the money-taking side of the biz, not the money-making. That said:

    My guiding principle as a behind-the-scenes person on TAL has been one sentence I once read that (new and former NPR muckety muck) Jay Kernis once told some writer about public radio. What he said was that every aspect of the form could be exploited for meaning. And by meaning, I have taken that to mean: jokes. Every aspect of the form can be exploited to make the person who is paying attention smile. The best way I know how to do this is with music. It doesn’t cost anymore to play witty instrumental music than it does to play generic instrumental music. On TAL, we do a 59-second instrumental break in the middle of the program called the I.D. break. And if you’ve been paying attention, or if your station doesn’t just play a Car Talk promo over it instead, you will notice that it is usually a little joke about the theme. Sometimes it’s obvious: "Begin the Beguine" on the show about "First Days," "Let’s Get Lost" on "You Are Here," that kind of thing. (Though my own personal favorite was for our show on "Germs." The I.D. break was a Bob Wills rag. Germs, rag–get it?) There is no reason to do this other than it’s fun. It’s funny. It guides us. I’ve noticed "Fresh Air" does this too. The other day, when interviewing the expert on genetically engineered produce, the outro music was "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off." (You know, "potato/potato.") And was it just me or after Terry’s last interview with Paul Mazursky, did they play a mazurka?

    One way this principle needs to be implemented more is during pledge drive. So that’s the breaks, we have to beg for cash. But do we have to do it in the most soul-deadening way possible? If I had to look back on my twenty or so favorite things TAL has done, I bet at least four of them would be our pledge drive shenanigans. Remember that wonderful one where Ira interviews the "Friends" producer about how to make public radio more likable and she says that Nina Totenberg should start using words like "judgy"? I loved that. We can turn pledge drive into programming on a wider scale. Can’t we? This should be the motto: EXPLOIT FOR MEANING! Or, as Spaulding Gray once told writer Fred Rochlin, "Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry."

  • Tony Kahn says:

    >I am compelled to note the speller checker’s correction of Terre Haute to Terse Hate.

    Jay — then there’s the editing ageing brings — maybe my favorite kind. My 96 year old mother thinks the show I’ve been contributing to lately, "The Savvy Traveler" is called "The Savage Unraveller."

  • Tony Kahn says:

    >The thing that makes radio a better place to tell stories–that it’s more focused, that it’s more elegant, that it’s more about words are, I find, disadvantages in the political sphere, in the sense of trying to ferret it out what the hell one’s government is REALLY up to and what a politician MEANS versus what he’s just said. Radio can’t give you their beady little eyes or their smirking winks.

    Sarah, at The World, we’ve got two monitors hanging like papayas from the ceiling, tuned to CNN with the sound off, so we can see the guys we’re covering on the radio. I’ve noticed that the only times eyes here in the office actually look up to watch is when there are commercials strumming the old sex-and-violence chords, when something blonde flashes by in a g-string or when President Bush is speaking to camera. In that case, it’s not to follow his words so much as to watch how hard he seems to find it to pronounce them. In other words, it’s a spectator sport. TV can give you important clues to a poltician’s body language and blink-rate, (the faster the blink, the bigger the whopper), but mostly what it provides is the image — usually misleading or far less informative than what radio news gives you — that Americans are using as THEIR reference point. In other words, you’re not seeing more of the story or the politician when you see them on TV, you’re merely seeing what other people are seeing. Which, in itself, is valuable information.

    And this is especially true of the States. In other countries, TV news images have different meanings and carry different symbolic weight. I remember once seeing the evening news in Paris covering a statement by the President. It was pretty obvious from the shaky cams and the bad audio that the TV newsmen were not getting the front row seats — they were going to the print journalists. What TV viewers were seeing, in a sense, was an image of the relative insignificance of TV news reporting in their own culture.

  • Necee Regis says:

    I wish my tv were more like a papaya. tony, did you just get back from Mexico, or are you wishing you were there?

    Less fundraising/more jokes/sign me up. Perhaps underwriting spots should be required in limerick form.

  • Ian Brown says:

    Some producers who loved radio talk/
    At fund-raising did finally balk/
    So they made jokes for cash/
    The result was a smash/
    But they’re still not allowed to say "Falk!"

  • Carol Wasserman says:
    Limericks: My Personal Experience With The Form

    For what they claimed were reasons of taste, management chose not to use some limericks I wrote for fundraising here at our little station on Nantucket.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Now that you are all mocking me and my pledge drive hopes and dreams with your rhymes–you know Ian Brown must have a big important project he’s supposed to be working on if he’s spending time writing limericks for us–I think we should move on to the grave topic of pledge drive incentive gifts. My favorite? Pacifica in Berkeley once gave to donors a tape of a speech by Aristide!!!!! Now that’s what I call showmanship. It was probably in French too.

  • Andy Knight says:

    "For the love of KWMU" gave away 1 night stays at local B&B’s and flowers ’round Valentines Day. Not bad, but not nearly as good as a TAL tattoo. When are we going to have some more fun incentives? Like a TAL tattoo (a real one this time), a David Sedaris ashtray, flask, or Zippo, a can of Terry Gross Lysol, a Sarah Vowell tin lunch box (trust me on this, Sarah) or recorder (plastic clarinet). A box of Jay Allison blank tapes or Paul Tough’s Ream of Paper would be cool, too. David Rakoff SlimFast, anyone? A picture of Peter Sagal autographed by Michael Feldman or vice versa? An "I brake for Snigda Prakash" bumper sticker? A "Click and Clack playing poker(with dogs)" lithograph? A Velvet Keillor? An Ira Glass action figure?

  • gb says:
    i have pledge drive incentives to thank…

    back when i was in 5th or 6th grade, my mom got a book of harper’s index lists when our local staion, wvtf in southwest va., ran out of the ever-popular npr coffee mugs. i read that thing to pieces (so funny, even though i was quite in the dark on the whole iran contra thing that kept coming up). that was the best pledge gift ever.

    i don’t know why i’m thinking of this now. possibly because wnyc has been running these sort-of funny little harper’s index style blurbs–like, cost of coffee and bagel from a vendor: $2; cost of a cab home in the rain: $6; cost of a metrocard: $63–the benefits of these things are transient, but the benefits of wync…priceless? okay, so that’s a credit card commercial, but still… at least they’re doing something creative with it.

    i always try to hold off pledging until i hear something on-air that makes me laugh, or at least reminds me why i love npr (without hitting me over the head by saying, "don’t you just love npr? the way we do x, y, and z? don’t you? don’t you?"). my question, for those who know–do different stations pay attention to who pledges how much when?

  • gb says:
    wait, to clarify

    i didn’t mean to say that iran contra was funny. i meant that i only understood the really obviously joke-y bits of harpers index.

  • Necee Regis says:

    My friend Kathy swears that in the mid-80’s she made a pledge to WGBH in Boston when Janice Grey offered to strip on the air (in the studio) She especially liked the idea that the offer was made & no one could verify it. She just had to call & pledge.

    Somehow WBUR in Boston fund raises one hour a day, a different hour each day, and thay raise the same ammount of $$ as when they whine all day long.

  • cw says:
    at wtul here your pledge buys actual airtime/npr needs to take another angle/hit at talk radio

    at tulane’s college radio station, wtul, during their annual marathon(and this might be standard w/ other college radio stations as well, dunno) your pledge $ buys actual airtime.

    say for $50 they’ll play the whole b-side of yr favorite record or $100 gets you both sides of a long jello biafra rant broadcast throughout an area you know would least care to hear it. it’s yr pick. it’s fun b/c it’s participatory.
    you pay to program basically, in almost real-time.

    i was driving through rural GA and ALA last week and heard i think
    it is called the art bell show. here’s how participatory this a.m.
    maverick is. he has listeners looking on his website while he broadcasts a related story (about big foot in this case, and a guy who is scared he’s going to jail b/c he recently shot a big foot couple in some bushes somewhere) and the listeners/viewers look on his site as he says, "no. bigfoot didn’t look like mugshot #3. more like #2, but their hair was redder."

    also this art bell guy did this bit: "okay everybody look at your webcam and concentrate hard on bending this spoon. we’ll have the whole mindforce of the nation bending here. wait! didja see that? who would’ve thought? folks at home, are you seeing this? the spoon STRAIGHTENED ever so slightly. some weird stuff folks…."

    after hearing this guy and hearing how popular he is it made me think about old fashioned call in shows, swap shops that they air here in rural louisiana, etc. still and radio for the blind, where they read what’s on sale at schwegmann’s grocery.

    seems there is a programming niche somewhere between klick and klack, larry king, and art bell. not talk radio or controlled talk radio or faux talk radio. but maybe radio talk or something. two people having a real conversation would be good. an unmediated one. not like novak style or liberal vs. conservative. more like how harper’s does the roundtables sometimes and an editor jumps in occasionally, w/o being overbearing.

    or maybe this would be better taped ahead of time and edited w/ no voice from a terry grossesque figure ever. it could be two kids arguing one week. two art snobs outsnobbing each other another week. a parent-teacher conference taped one week. a high govt official getting his hair cut and chewing the fat w/ the presidential barber. but w/o the experience being narrated/mediated by a "professsional explainer"

    people are sick of professional explainers

  • Andy Knight says:

    Hey, gb, if you capitalize the pronoun "I", I bet you wouldn’t have paragraphs completely in
    i italics.
    Though it is nice to see Ziggy’s influence on society in action.

    I certainly can’t speak for
    b all
    public radio stations, but I know for a fact that my local NPR/PRI keeps detailed pledge data. Most times they even tell us how much money it takes to broadcast each show. Sometimes they’ll tell us that during the last pledge drive, Prairie Home Comp. collected $z in pledges, so for this drive they are setting the goal at 1.25 x $z. Sometimes they use one show as competition for another. They’ll pit the Sav. Trav. fans against the Splendid Table fans and then pit the TAL fans against the Sav. Trav. fans.

    I think that in the follow up to Ira harassing the guy in Starbucks pledge drive, he mentions how well that had worked. I’m feeling far too lazy to confirm this or gather the details right now. (By the way, IMHO the guy in Starbucks
    i deserved
    to be harassed simply because he was a guy
    i in Starbucks

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:

    cw: I’m visiting here in China and was listening to that exact Art Bell show over the internet.

    My partner and I live in northern California. We ended up having to make our own electricity, and cannot get telephone service up our road. Because of mountain interference (those dang mountains!) television reception is bad.

    We rely on the radio for news, music, and company. We play tapes and CDs, make our own music, and talk a lot. He travels out of town on business and when I’m alone, I’m still never alone.

    I love sitting every morning with NPR on, drinking coffee and watching the sun come up. At night, I have a short wave radio with a sleep button, so I can fall asleep listening to the BBC or Taiwan or Cuba. I love sitting up in the bed with the radio and a pile of books, listening to music or talk shows from around the world.

    I found a Los Angeles station with radio dramas and I love to listen to Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger and Jack Benny. I love to listen to Art Bell (when I can stay up that late).

    For me, radio is vibrant and entertaining (Garrison Keillor excepted). I don’t miss TV news; if I want it badly enough, I can turn on the fuzzy reception TV and get a Sacramento station. I don’t know when news went so badly into infotainment. It’s not even good infotainment. I’d rather read the National Enquirer. My friends ask, "Why do you read that crap?" I tell them it’s the literary equivalent of television.

    I love radio, I love how I can have it on and it doesn’t stop all activity the way the TV does. I feel I understand more when I listen or read. Watching is too passive and doesnt’ require effort from me.

    I wish NPR and PRI were better. I wonder if they think they’re second-best, the poor cousin of TV? It seems like they’re trying to act like an interesting non-visual version of TV, instead of trying to do something more well-suited to only themselves.

    With my unusual life-style, I think TV is the second-best, poor cousin of radio.

  • paul tough says:
    pledge driving

    Sarah, didn’t you once deliver pledge-drive pizzas?

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    pledge drive pizzas

    I forgot about that. Ira has delivered pizzas to donors at least a couple of times, in Chicago and Boston. I went with him the first time. No offense to our listeners, but I went with him because I worried about him. (I’m paranoid about strangers, partly because I’m a small-town, medieval person, and partly because of a spate of really disturbing letters I once got for about a year that included these resourceful collages that managed to somehow threaten both my person and my credit rating at the same time.) So Ira was driving all over Chicago at midnight on a Friday to random strangers’ homes. They were all very sweet public radio fans of course. It was really, really fun and the people were really, really nice. I think they enjoyed having Ira in their homes for a minute in person. Because his voice is in their living rooms so much. And even though they paid for the privilege, every time he’d ring the bell with a pizza there was this feeling of "Hi! I brought you something!" This goes back to our ongoing theme of the personal. People always respond to that. Though if any local hosts thought of trying this idea, my only advice would be to try to show up at the folks’ homes BEFORE 3 a.m. Right around 2:30 I think the whole sheen of it wears off for them.

  • Craig S. Thom says:
    Commercial free?

    Public radio is only free of commercials if one toys with the definitions. They read what the companies want them to read because the companies are paying them. If NPR has no commercials, neither does Paul Harvey.

    Andy, "catholic" means "of broad interest" or "all-encompassing". The big ‘C’ Catholic Church was established to round up all the various Christian sects, but that was a long time ago.

  • Andy Knight says:

    (Thanks Craig. I wasn’t even close.)

    Sarah, what’s in store for your next book? I was thinking half of it could be about your move, with your boyfriend, to France… but I’ve heard somewhere that somebody already took that idea. What will the next book do to bring us closer to understanding "Sarah"… to finding that "Sarah" within ourselves and within others? Have you at least written a good story for the next "Poultry Slam"? (Ira, you can say it’s dead all you want, but somehow, someday, the chickens shall rise ‘gain)

  • cw says:
    art bell plays in china?

    do you think art bell is better than npr celia?

  • Si Sikes says:

    First, I love radio. Fell in love as a dj at 150 watt station and while I lived in Africa, listening to VOA, BBC, RFI, and other shortwave broadcasts. The old Grundig is still keeping me in touch.

    At Red River Radio (based in Shreveport, Louisiana) we’re basically revamping much of what we do. You still find the old stalwarts, which we realize are important to many listeners. But we’re creating new things too, like starting two online ventures created and produced by our listeners. While details are still preliminary at this point, most of the stuff will make it on the air in some fashion. We want new voices (of all ages and backgrounds); it’s working already. And it needs be done elsewhere.

    As a "professional" in the business, I look forward to the day when conversations with my fellow colleagues center more on topics like the above (and other things discussed here), and not.."oh wow! you carry Car Talk!? that’s freakin amazing" or "yeah, we added a repeat of Prairie Home Companion. We’re pretty stoked."

    Just my three cents. Look forward to continued discussion.

  • cw says:
    zz top writes in to say they wuv art bell

  • Adam Giblin says:
    Other David Bowie Songs

    Public Radio is hardly getting a spanking here. Now, Public Radio, you get up, and get yourself outside, and cut me a switch.

    Being inclusive is a lot different than talking about it. If you are genuine, your listeners will know it. They know bullshit when they hear it to. I’m not only talking about the pompous quarter; the new-cool-school needs to make sure it doesn’t fall into the same trap.

    For many, public radio has seemed like a club; and by definition a club has members and non-members. It’s not a club. It’s not a holier-and-smarter-than-thow secret society that for fifty bucks you can call yourself a member of. It’s radio. It’s just funded a little differently. At Red River Radio, we don’t call the folks who give money to the network "members," we call them just what they are, "contributing listeners." We are ultimately responsible to them. That’s why we work hard every day. Some people feel it’s worth paying for. To think about coasting is an insult to them.

    What can we do? Just keep trying to give them "the good stuff." Thank you TAL. Thank you Susan Stamberg. Thank you funny English guy (not Jordan Goodman) on the Marketplace Morning Report, (sorry dude, I can’t remember your name.) Thank you for making me think about this this afternoon Sarah.

    As long as we remember what it is we’re doing (making good sounds, hopefully), and who we’re doing it for (well, I know "the listeners" is a bit nebulous; I think if YOU like it, you can safely expect others to) public radio’s Golden Years are ahead. sorry

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    Money, pledges, getting your money’s worth

    cw: as I said in my post above, I was listening to Art Bell on the internet. He has live internet feed. China only has Chinese radio stations.

    In Sacramento, they have a pledge drive around Valentine’s Day where they mail or deliver Whitman’s Sampler Chocolates on or before Valentine’s. The lowest pledge you can make is $50 I believe. It’s very popular, and they always run out of chocolates before the drive is over.

    I was startled to hear them mention that NPR now charges stations for the programs according to how big a population their station serves, not according to how much it costs them, or how many people actually call in to pledge. That struck me as not-quite-right.

    I remember after I pledged one time I was feeling pretty good. We were in the middle of the Clinton scandal and Larry Flynt had announced he was going to scare up some dirt on Republicans. NPR evidently had a news black-out on that one. Not one mention of that. I felt like they were censoring the news, and then not telling us they were censoring the news. I felt bad that I had pledged money to them; I felt like I was ripped off somehow.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Cecilia done wroted:
    > I was startled to hear them mention that NPR now charges stations for the programs according to how big a population their station serves, not according to how much it costs them, or how many people actually call in to pledge. That struck me as not-quite-right.

    Maybe it’s just my liberal bias (not to be confused with my libertarian boxer-briefs), but it sounds right on target to me. NPR has a list of expenses that is quite staggering… equipment, foreign corespondents, coffee cups… If they used a flat rate to cover the expenses
    i not
    covered by grants and corporate donations, that rate would be far too high for stations serving the vast, rural gaps between most non-coastal cities. Maybe they could collect enough to pay the rate, but what budget is left for local programming (not to mention the high quality PRI shows, like "Says You!" (natch, Tony))? Should NPR/PRI based Public Radio exist only for areas with large city-sized populations? God, I hope not.

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    God Bless Our Mobile Home

    Well, I thought it was just weird, is all. What if the projected percentage of the population of Sacramento doesn’t call in to pledge? That seems to put even more heat on the local station.

    What about San Francisco that has KQED and KALW? Are they both charged according to the population, or do they have a percentage split of the population? I heard that KALW is doesn’t very well with their pledge drive right now…

    And when you’re displeased with NPR, what’s the best way to communicate that? Holding back pledges hurts the local station. But NPR doesn’t respond to any of my e-mails. I felt ripped off when they didn’t run anything on the Larry Flynt item.

    I think this website is a great way to let public radio know they are getting in a rut.

    I like TAL and Sarah’s work. Also Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and Car Talk.

  • Joshua Barlow says:
    A Brief Defense of NPR News

    I recall the Larry Flynt story and NPR’s coverage of it, because I was working there at the time. They actually did make a few mentions of the Mr Flynt’s offer to pay money for personal dirt on the GOP leadership. They also made it a point, unlike much of the media, to treat it for what it was – a brief sidebar about a porn tycoon who wanted to reveal the hypocracy in american politics.

    While the Flynt story was actually very funny because you could kind of picture all these aging senators just sweating bullets every time they heard the words, "this just in…" on the Fox News Channel – It was not the main story taking place. There was a president being impeached, and an entire country struggling to understand the legal issues and constitutional mechanisms that were allowing this happen.

    Was NPR’s decision to downplay Flynt’s proposal about good taste? I don’t think so, because the very evidence presented in the case against President Clinton left very little room for any network to avoid bad taste. The whole case was bad taste. NPR did, however, make a choice not to (where they had room not to) engage in sensationalistic forms of journalism where the most outrageous story gets the front page, and the most informed and concise coverage gets pushed back to page C14. I found that during that whole painful saga, NPR’s coverage was among the best… or least insulting, depending on how you look at it.

    As far as the rest of the time, NPR News can defend itself. I haven’t always agreed with their editorial decisions. I just thought that the case you mentioned was one where they had actually done the right thing. I’d like to see more of that sensibility employed across the board… NPR included.

    As far as complaining to NPR – I think there needs to be more of that as well. They have an Ombudsman now – separate from any program, whose job it is to contend with public concern about programming:

    There is also the option af a flaming tote bag filled with doggy-doo to get their attention.

    Did I mention why I left?

  • Eric Nuzum says:

    This hardly seems worth mentioning here, but a lof of people have mentioned it.

    NPR doesn’t charged based on the population of the listening area, never has. A few years ago NPR changed its funding structure so that you would pay for All Things Considered and Morning Edition based on the number of people your station had as listeners to the shows, and other programs (CarTalk, Rewind, etc…) are billed on a flat tiered rate based on a station’s budget.

    If that system is unfair to anyone, it appears to be the mega-successful stations–who seem to be the only ones complaining about it. Under this system, if someone has a small station, their rates for the programming can be a fraction of their big brethren’s.

  • Si Sikes says:
    Other "sized" stations affected too

    With the new pricing structure, the amount of money we sent to NPR for Morning Edition and All Things Considered alone increased by 98%. That’s quite a few coffee mugs. And yes, we made our displeasure with the pricing structure known.

  • Tony Kahn says:

    Andy, you wrote:

    >what budget is left for local programming (not to mention the high quality PRI shows, like "Says You!" (natch, Tony))?

    Thanks for the compliment. "Says You" is actually a WGBH co-production distributed by NPR. "The World," my main employer, is a BBC co-production distributed by PRI. "Savvy Traveler," a third show I sometimes produce for, is an M(for Minnesota)PR production distributed by — care to guess? — PRI. Whereby hangs a tail. Despite the competition among different networks and distributors in public radio, the borders are porous. And as for name recognition? Forget it. Most people I run into not working in radio refer to all public radio content either as NPR or PBS. (A creative variation I once heard was "NPRI" !) And people in public radio can get confused, too. Not to mention idosyncratic. Some stations carrying The World, which opens with five minutes of BBC World Service news, run NPR news instead. I’m not certain this is totally kosher, but station independence and/or orneryness is also crucial to keeping public radio public radio and I don’t think it’s a huge source of concern, internally.

    Lately, of course, all stations, fiefs and principalities in public radio are united on one thing. Fund raising. There again, there is a mish-mash of approaches and pitches. Sometimes a station uses fundraising during and tagged to a particular show as a way of judging the show’s listener appeal. Sometimes you hear an NPR personality pitching for a local station or a PRI host pitching for their show in particular. Does the listener take notice of the brand? I doubt it. About the only thing listeners do, in general, is object to fundrasing. That’s a whole other can of worms, but I do wonder why it’s so fashionable to complain about being pitched to? It’s not a philosophical objection to listener sponsorship, but an objection to fundraising as programming. Most of the discussion about fundraising rarely rises above bitching and moaning about how boring or irritating fundraising is. I get hit with that a lot from friends. It’s the one topic where, I think, public radion listeners in general have decided not to use their intelligence.

  • Andy Knight says:

    >"Says You" is actually a WGBH co-production distributed by NPR

    I blame the drinking. No, really, I was thinking "the World", then for some reason I badly second guessed myself. (that’s how Regis gets ya) I knew you lived in the Bizarro universe where up was down, left was right and PRI had News, but I doubted my memory.

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    the bitch fad

    Tony, I think you’re right. It is fashionable to complain about being pitched to. But I think some fads are justified. I mean, the Sopranos IS a good show. And the level of discourse in about 85% of the pitching is sometimes sub-human. I guess that’s a function of length. The drives go on long enough that everybody who works at the station gets roped into on-air pitching. But some people are behind-the-scenes talents for a reason. Here’s the thing–the solution to good fundraising is the same thing for good journalism, being a good dinner party guest, being a good member of a panel discussion, being a good talk show guest, being a good teacher, being a good date, being a good best man, being a good salesman, being a good preacher, etc.: TELL A STORY. "Please call please call please call here’s the number please call it costs so much" is not a story. I don’t think people would mind nearly as much if the people pitching just told stories about why we need cash. If every person who works at the station has to go on the air, every person who goes on the air should show up with a prepared list of anecdotes, remembrances, analogies, one-liners, whatever.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    At the risk that someone might burst into flames if he or she isn’t able to share their thoughts on pledge drive–THIS TOPIC IS BRINGING OUT THE WORST IN ALL OF US–I think we should move on to another topic. I was thinking we could talk about special projects. You know, those one-hour or half-hour (usually documentary) specials the network preempts programming to run. Or special, in-depth series. I’ll give you an example: My local station, WNYC just ran a one hour documentary (maybe your station ran it too) about New York City and its waterways. The thing was kind of unwieldy, had no narrative thrust whatsoever–just bounced around between seemingly random pieces of tape. But I learned a lot. And it made me more interested in my town. I know these kind of things are costly–though they’re eligible I’m guessing for more outside, grant-type funding–but do you think there should be more work like this preempting more regular programming, or breaking the format of the regular shows? Like Joe Richman’s diary series are always fascinating. Special subject matter seems like a way for radio producers to collaborate with workers outside the public radio sphere–people like historians or scientists or social workers or teachers. Which would break up the monotony of always sounding like ourselves. Also, it might re-invigorate, say, reporters who’ve been on the beat for a while if, once a year, they get to take three months to work towards something more grand that they really care about. (Like you know who’s a great reporter? Claudio Sanchez. Wouldn’t you like to hear Claudio Sanchez be given an hour to really shine?)

    I think a nice model for this is ABC’s "Nightline." (That’s the show with Ted Koppel, for you Bury-Your-Television types.) On Friday nights, they air special projects–like a documentary hanging out at the Fulton Fish Market. They carve out time two or three or four times a month do shake up their format. Tonight, if you’re reading this on Friday, is a piece by the king of special projects, Robert Krulwich. (That’s right, you know him from NPR.) I subscribe to the Nightline daily email reminder, which I suggest to all my friends, even if they don’t watch Nightline. I find producer Leroy Sievers’ emails kind of inspiring in the middle of the day, just knowing someone else out there is working hard, trying to make something. Anyway, here’s his email about Krulwich’s project that airs tonight:

    At Nightline, we pride ourselves on asking the Big Questions, looking at
    the Big Issues, covering the Big Stories. So it was only a matter of time
    until we turned to tonight’s Big Question: What did cavemen and women
    really wear?

    Now, I’m sure that virtually all of you think that you know the answer.
    Furs, right? The evidence is everywhere: The Flintstones, The Clan of the
    Cave Bear movies and others like that, and, most important for a whole
    generation of young boys, that poster of Raquel Welch from the movie "One
    Million Years B.C." What more evidence would you need?

    Now, we all knew that cavefolks really didn’t wear fur bikinis like Raquel
    did, but that whole idea is pretty embedded in our conception of our
    forebears. After all, what else was there? They got up, went out and
    killed something large and furry, ate what they could, and wore the rest.
    Not a pretty image when you stop and think about it, but what was the

    Well, Robert Krulwich has found a remarkable woman who found evidence that
    will rock our images. In fact, museum displays, not to mention scientific
    thinking, have already begun to change. And it’s no coincidence that she
    worked for a time in the fashion industry. Now archaeologists and
    anthropologists had been looking at the same evidence for years. And they
    all reached the same conclusions. But this woman, and a friend of hers
    nicknamed Conan the Archaeologist, looked at that evidence, and noticed
    something that everyone else had missed. And what they saw is challenging
    all of the conventional wisdom.

    Now this being a report by Robert Krulwich, it won’t be that simple. No
    discussion of this issue would be complete without wondering about the
    weight of a woolly mammoth coat, Sid Caesar’s historical accuracy, and what
    about the Paleolithic bunnies? Where do they fit in to all this? We’ll try
    to answer all of these questions, and have a little fun at the same time.
    And who knows, it may make you look at that Raquel poster in a whole
    different way. Or not.

    Have a good weekend.

    Friday, June 15, 2001

    Leroy Sievers
    Executive Producer
    Nightline Offices
    Washington, D.C.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Email Stories

    Another Nightline Daily Email fan!

    I love them. I save them. They are often better than the stories they billboard. I want Leroy to be a Special Guest here.

    Not to move too far from your good questions, but allow me to post one of his best, in my opinion. I was down there editing one of those Friday Specials, while Leroy was in Rwanda with a crew and the tape coming back made you freeze with horror.


    >TONIGHT’S SUBJECT: He was a top soldier, the commander of the United
    Nations’ force in Rwanda. But he was ordered to stand by and not intervene
    when genocide killed almost a million people, and the experience destroyed


    >The Rwanda-Zaire border. 1994. We were making our way deeper into Camp
    Cholera. At least that’s what the journalists called it. It wasn’t a
    camp. Just thousands — 50,000, 100,000, we never really knew — of
    people lying head to toe in a lava field. These were big, sharp lava
    rocks. Some people had a straw sleeping mat. Others a thin blanket. But
    most were just lying on the rocks. But the cholera part was true.
    Disease was ravaging these people. Many of them were already dead. The
    rest were dying.

    >There were no paths, no roads, to get toward the center of the "camp" –
    you just had to step over the people. I’m not particularly graceful, but
    I was trying my best not to step on anyone, not to disturb them. For
    those who were alive, I didn’t want to make their last moments any worse.
    For the dead, I didn’t want to disturb their peace. All of us in the
    "Nightline" team were picking our way deeper into the nightmare. Refugee
    camps have a sound all their own. It’s a sort of dull roar of human
    misery. It sounded the same in Rwanda as it did in Kosovo or Somalia.
    But the smell. That’s what you can never get across on TV. The smell of
    death. It overpowers you.

    >I was last in line; our correspondent, my fellow producer, and the camera
    crew were ahead of me. I was literally straddling a woman, waiting for the
    others to move on. I didn’t have the courage at that point to look down to
    see if she was alive or dead. Then I felt something on my foot. I looked
    down and saw a small boy. He looked to be about 5, which meant he was
    probably 10. Malnutrition will do that. He was lying on his back, and had
    thrown his arm up over his head. His fingers had gotten tangled in my
    bootlaces. I looked down at him, and as I looked in his eyes, I saw the
    light go out. And he died. A stranger’s face, my face, was the last thing
    he saw. And all I could do was shake my foot to free my laces from his
    fingers, and then move on to catch up to my team.

    >It was five years before I could tell that story. We had gone in to
    Rwanda thinking that we could handle anything. At that point in my
    career, I had been in a dozen wars, natural disasters, you name it. We
    all thought we were as tough as they come. We were wrong. Within the
    first day or so, I think each of us had broken down. We were having food
    flown in. We finally told them to just send beer and wine. We would
    trade the beer to the French Foreign Legion troops holding the airport for
    their rations. But after a day or two, I stopped eating entirely.
    Instead, I would sit in front of my tent at night and drink a whole bottle
    of wine, hoping that the alcohol would kill the pain. But for all the
    peace it brought, I might as well have been drinking water.

    >We were covering the end of the Rwandan genocide. Rwanda had two primary
    ethnic groups. One set out to wipe the other out. But this wasn’t a war
    fought with smart bombs. This was machetes and clubs and knives. Almost a
    million people were killed by hand — genocide the old-fashioned way.
    Then that group was driven out of the country, and they drove all of their
    own people with them. So the killers were in the camps too. You could
    see them. Some had the remnants of military uniforms. Others had the
    swagger of men who have killed and found that they liked it. You could see
    that in their eyes. We stayed away from them.

    >There had been a U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda. The commander, a
    Canadian, had pleaded for enough troops to stop the genocide. But no one
    would listen to him. No one wanted to get involved. Rwanda wasn’t part of
    anyone’s national interests. He was told to remain neutral. To not take
    sides. And then finally, the troops were pulled out. The genocide
    continued. The commander, destined to be Canada’s top soldier, was
    destroyed by his experiences. He was found on a park bench in Canada,
    blind drunk, screaming for someone to kill him. I know why. I know what
    his nightmares look like.

    >We’ll tell his story tonight. It asks a question that makes people
    uncomfortable: Don’t we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to
    intervene? To save those who can’t save themselves? It’s an incredibly
    powerful show. But I have to admit that when I first screened it in the
    edit room, it was all I could do to stay and keep watching. Looking at the
    pictures again brought back that smell, those sounds. I was amazed at what
    power the pictures had over me. Trying to drag me back into the nightmare.

    >But I don’t need pictures to take me back there. I have a guide. Every
    night, when I lie down in my big bed in my nice suburban house, and I
    close my eyes to sleep, that little boy comes to me and tugs on my
    bootlaces. And every night he asks me why we let this happen, and I have
    no answer. And every night I pray that it will be the last time that he
    comes for me.

    >But I know better.

    >Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001

    >Leroy Sievers
    >Executive Producer
    >Nightline Offices
    >Washington, D.C.

  • paul tough says:
    Leroy’s dispatches.

    Where do we sign up?

  • Jay Allison says:
    At the Nightline Website

    Leroy writes most of them, but other producers Tom Bettag, Richard Harris (formerly of NPR), Sara Just, et. al. take turns too.

    Their dispatches are some of the best behind-the-scenes journalism stories anywhere, and on a daily basis to boot. They aren’t just promos (which would have been the obvious choice for a daily email) but they talk about how journalists think and the choices they make and what determines what gets on the air.

    I like the ones that begin: we don’t know what we’re going to produce today (read: in a few hours), but we’re deciding between A, B, and C. I think they’re happiest when it’s like that. It’s a team that thrives under pressure.

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    Jon Langford has a nice story

    It’s at:

    about his friends’ favorite Joey Ramone songs. You’ll remember Jon from the Waco Brothers and ye olde Mekons.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Yeah, I heard that on the radio today– I’ve been waiting for some good Ramone tributes on NPR, Jon definitely delivered. One thing that threw me a bit was the intro. He talks about turning back the clock and buying the Ramone’s first album, then we hear Sedated. Odd choice.

    (Oh, Sarah- Re: Jake’s music choices. Yer just not going to be happy until Penguin Cafe Orchestra is in every story, are you? ;-Þ )

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    Listen to Brian’s story

    That reminds me, if you haven’t already, go to the Transom home page and listen to Jake’s story about his friend Brian. It’s worth hearing. Not just because of the final product, but also for the democratic (read "cheap") means of production–just a guy with a mini disc recorder and a laptop and some Transom editing advice. And a dream.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    A voice speaks a thousand pictures…

    before or after folks respond to your question about long specials, could you say something about the photograph of you on the transom home page?

    Do you like it?
    What are you saying with it?

    Was it hard to choose just one? and if you had to put up at least 3 more photos, what would those look like?

    (and I too vote for a Sarah Vowell lunch box)

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    Concerning Special Programs

    Joshua and Eric, thank you for addressing remarks about some things I brought up.

    Sarah, I think I’d like some special programs. Radio shines when it tells stories and creates atmosphere. I love it when it sneaks up and educates me, too.

    I’m travelling and having some wonderful experiences. The world is a big place and people really are wonderful. It’s alarming to me that so many Americans do not travel or bother to learn another language. I wish there could be a show that travelled around the world for us Americans who don’t get out much; a show that brought those sweet, average people to us and helped us understand how much we are different and how much we are alike.

    David Sedaris’s pieces about life in France are something like what I have in mind. He sees the French, he sees the Americans in France, he brings us with him as observers.

    I would love to introduce the American radio audience to the people I have met here in China. But it would be very hard–I think reporters or people with tape recorders would have a hard time. Ultimately, the only thing *I* could say to people is how China and its people changed me, and that’s not really what people want to hear.

    I wish there were some good, political specials someone would do. We have such an interesting president. So to speak.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    The key to it all:

    b more vacation!
    If Americans had more vacation they’d travel farther and more often and would have a deeper world view. We would more obviously appreciate varied programming, and would get it. People in other countries would fear us less for our ignorance. We could hold the responsibility of our military and other domination more confidently. Perhaps our leaders wouldn’t be reduced to gloating nervously, ignoring the millions looking up at us from below.

    b In America we have media experiences instead of travel.
    So yes, I think specials are important. They’re like the weekend away for the longer, wider perspective.

  • Bryn Perkins says:
    cover here or cover there?

    Cecilia, I agree: more Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Rather than echo your remarks, here’s an example and a question.

    My previous Czech teacher, Petr, has a new job here in Prague. Perhaps you’ve heard about the German reparations for Czech WWII labor? Czechs who were forced to work during WWII for German companies are finally being paid, after decades behind the iron curtain and years of legal wrangling.

    But there’s a catch. There isn’t enough money for all the victims to be paid a meaningful amount. It has to be doled out according to hardship. Which people really suffered? Those that worked in a arms factory in an another country? Those that worked in a German office in Prague?

    This is Petr’s job. He listens all day as people in their seventies and older come before him and tell their stories. He sits with his degree in history and his twenty-something years as they speak with amazing detail of events half a century ago. Then he helps decide if they suffered enough to get part of the reparations.

    I think this would make an interesting story. But, there are obvious problems for American radio. There’s a language barrier; much of the tape would need to be translated and re-read. There is a lot of history that is common knowledge here in the Czech Republic, but might need to be explained to an American audience. And there are no Americans involved.

    Should a story like this, which has really nothing to do with the US, preempt a regular program that is carefully designed to address the wants and needs of American public radio listeners?

  • Necee Regis says:

    <<Should a story like this, which has really nothing to do with the US, preempt a regular program that is carefully designed to address the wants and needs of American public radio listeners?>>

    Bryn, it seems to me that the STORIES these people would tell–with "amazing detail of events half a century ago"– would transcend nationality & speak to anyone. I suppose the rest would depend on how the narrative was put together, the tone, how it flowed, etc. But listening to stories can be gripping, like, I just heard a whole lot of letters read from service men & women from the Civil War to the present. They just pulled me in. I think that sitting with a book would not be as engaging. But that’s the mysterious power of radio.

  • Andy Knight says:

    > …could you say something about the photograph of you on the transom home page?

    Sarah, have you considered the title of your next book?
    i Sarah Vowell and the Velvet Hump
    has a certain ring to it. Take that, Harry Potter!

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Cecilia and Nannette–I was reading your posts and theoretically agreeing with you, even though I’m one of those rubes who think there’s no place more interesting than the U.S. (Though in my defence, I came to my nationalism from visiting a boatload of other countries and learning three foreign languages. That Dutch really comes in handy, by the way.) Then I got to Bryn’s post and I realized, doesn’t matter. A good story’s a good story. There are great stories in China because there are great people in China, just like there are boring stories from China because there are boring people in China. (Odds are, there are MORE boring people in China when you think about it population-wise.) But a situation where a young guy has to judge the suffering of his elders who have been through something he couldn’t begin to conceive? I’m in.

  • cw says:
    more vacation yes and less "work" hours make jack/jill a less duller boy/girl /history quiz

    nannette speaks to an important issue i keep trying to cram down everyone’s throat who i am near

    americans work more than ever since say pre labor law and have no mandatory vacation policy like they do in other countries.

    what does a worker drone have to say about anything, caught as they are in constant sleep-deprived "survival mode"?

    interesting article i read recently discussed the decline of leisure time in u.s. as being reflected in our language/word choice.
    for example, that people use "downtime" to refer to their lives away from work is insidious example, he argues, of our increasing tendency to i.d. ourselves as workers first, people second. it’s not "leisure" time’s downtime. work is real-time. everything else is fake/non-important time.

    quick history quiz on 30 hr workweek in us.
    what year did it pass along in congress and what president vetoed it and why?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    who’s boring? (an actual question)

    Sarah, I agree that there’s no place as interesting -or as boring- as the U.S.
    Would you be as good a writer if you hadn’t looked around so much? would you see so much now?
    or maybe during those years abroad, when language limitations prevented you from eeking out the nuances for the subtle joke here and there, all that pent up point of view was getting ready to roll…

    Some of the people I might have considered boring 20 or more years ago are fascinating to me now. "HOW CAN THEY STAND IT?" I’m anxious to know. Collectively we’ve agreed that the most interesting stories revolve around boy meets girl etc. etc. struggle for job, success, etc.

    But we don’t have much tradition of stories of the other end of life. So people don’t even bother trying to tell the story of their endings. We don’t have much vocabulary for loss at whatever age. So people just shut up, do the usual, and appear boring. Or maybe people are only boring in groups.
    Or what do you mean by boring?

    I hope you’re still writing in 10, 20 & 50 years. That will be something to look forward to!

    cw, where was that article?
    Bryn, I think that story is important whether or not the U.S. is involved. And actually we were and are connected to those events.

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    Connecting the Mosquito Bites

    Bryn yes, what a gripping story that would be.

    I’d like to re-phrase my thoughts up there: yes, I’d like to hear more specials. I’d like the specials to be about a subject that enriches and broadens us (like people and experiences from outside our "normal" lives). I’d like a political special that could uncover something juicy (perhaps) and somehow not be trapped in the label of "partisan."

    I’d love to hear Claudio Sanchez shine for an hour.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Specials. Really Specials.

    There’s this idea I’ve been hyping lately. It’s for public radio to take itself seriously as A National Treasure — a self-referential descriptor of which it is fond — and really step up to the plate.

    One way to do this would be (let’s dream for a minute) to invite the truly exceptional people in this country to come collaborate with us. We turn over the airways to our great minds and hearts, the best communicators in all sorts of endeavor. We say…okay, we know something about radio, but you know about science, law, art, business, medicine, etc. etc. Let’s get together and make something. You’ll be our Resident Fellow for a while. We want you to teach us. Push us and we’ll push you. We’ll both be on the line.

    I think of “Making The Music” with Wynton Marsalis. That had brilliant moments and it was because of the struggle between NPR and Wynton. From what I know of the behind-the-scenes action, Wynton pushed and you could hear it. He made NPR sound different. He didn’t stick to the standard template. He chafed under it. On our stations-by-the-sea, we’re airing the series these days and in a recent episode Wynton gave the NPR Executive Producer credit and said “…and we aren’t getting along too well right now.” I loved that. It admitted it was an abrasive process. And in the scraping they got to something new underneath.

    It may be a time in public radio when the best way to change is to invite the right people to come in enthusiastically, and help change us.

    (here’s a question for Sarah or anyone… who would be on your list?)

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    Dreaming Big

    I’d like a special with Walter Cronkite. I spent all of those years with him giving news reports, when only later I found out he is a very wise and interesting man. He got started in radio, right? I think he has something to give to radio now, or at least something to nudge radio back to the greatness it had.

  • Jake Warga says:
    Stepping back…

    I produced "When Brian Took His Life" featured on the home page. Sarah directed me to this chat board as mine has slowed a bit. I wanted to reflect on Leroy Severs trip to Rwanda in which he wrote:

    I"We’ll tell his story tonight. It asks a question that makes people uncomfortable: Don’t we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to
    intervene? To save those who can’t save themselves?”>

    I interviewed my friend one night knowing that he would kill himself someday. He had tried, and I recorded in response to his efforts. Now he’s dead. I helped burry him, I took the mattress he died on to the dump. The odor will haunt me forever. It’s the photographer’s burning-building-crisis: do you photograph the building or go in and help? I knew I could not change him, and I am comfortable with that. But I understand a bit more what it’s like to be outside a burning building with a camera…(a microphone).

    Rwanda is a tale needed to be told, and I wonder if PR did the horrors justice. I have a huge photo-book, showing such horrors of mankind; Rwanda is just one thin chapter in it. Pictures have eyes, radio has statistics. And if told right, like in Leroy’s letter, we the listeners, can picture in our own minds those closing eyes. Which is more graphic? Eyes or ears–sharp pictures, or the well escorted imagination?

  • Jake Warga says:

    Please change PR to NPR in the above.

  • Tony Kahn says:

    Jay, a contribution to your idea, which is excellent. I’d like to produce a series of portraits and conversations with the kinds of Americans who, if they were Japanese, would be considered living treasures and who, for their accomplishments and wisdom and power to convey and exemplify the culture, would be bowed to so deeply your forehead would smack the ground. (All I need is the major funding.)

    I’ve been considering doing these portraits either for "The World" or "Savvy Traveler" — because what these individuals have done for American culture has affected the world and because their lives are journeys. People of great accomplishment have traveled a long road learning how to do what they do well and seeing their world and culture change around them. I would look for these "national treasures" of ours not only in all the obvious places — the arts, the sciences, politics — but in the trades, on the local level, even in the world of crime. The only criteria — that they are masters of what they do, that they have lived long enough to experience a lot about how people and societies change and what kind of accomplishments truly make a difference in human lives, and who have something they can teach us about the process or meaning of what they do. Ideally, they should also be of an advanced age and still productive and, obviously, the power of their personality, talent, vision has to translate effectively to radio.

    A great candidate on all counts — and someone I’ll be interviewing soon — is Al Hirschfeld, the 97 year old theater caricaturist for the New York Times (the fellow who hides the name of his daughter "Nina" in his exquisite line drawings.) Al is still at work, on deadline, a magnificent raconteur, a master of his art, and a man who has lived at the heart of American popular culture, the most influential culture in the world, virtually since its inception at the start of the 20th century. He has been a friend, observer, and critic of virtually every major modern American and European artist, has hosted some of the century’s most influential makers and thinkers in his home, and even helped invent the Reuben Sandwich. (Talk about lasting effects!)

    What a guy like Al could do to push public radio’s envelope, I don’t know. But I’ll definitely ask him.

  • cw says:
    a good storytelling tonight

    everybody interested in how to tell a good story/how to sequence it should check out this documentary a friend of mine edited that’s airing tonight. i think they did a good job of not letting a politcal hot button become a political polemic. they let story drive it

    it’s the tale of a
    weird kid who fights the power b/c what he learned in scouting taught him to and he winds up fighting the scouts themselves.
    and lots of straight men adult scouts agree and join him (xcept it took a child to lead them, weird). plus find out where thousands of american men have been hiding their emotional lives all this time– in scouting. who knew?

    a good story. let me know what you think.


  • cw says:
    gee whiz/if any producers are concerned about censorship or want to read something hateful

    check out the discussion going on at pbs right now. so many rich people threatening not to give their yearly $20. blah blah blah

  • cw says:

    i’ll look for that article.
    i found a pile of magazines called "civilization" on top of someone’s garbage and brought them home. i think library of congress might put it out. it may have been in one of those. i’ll peek later and let you know.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    Yes, specials. A treasure showing treasures

    Probably everyone has a favorite master teacher or character who’d be a candidate. Other ideas:

    The LISTENERS – when people express deep appreciation for someone in their lives, invariably it was a listener (acceptor, appreciator) Maybe the moment they remember was when their uncle winked at them across a room of older relatives.

    LISTENING (within traditions, the tranformative power of, physical aspects, etc. etc. I imagine something that could be used academically. Could include some linguistic analysis of what we listen for to determine whether someone’s good or bad, snooty or nice.)

    The PRODUCERS (like maybe the Looker (Hooker?) book on NPR only different. What actually goes into producing what’s on and what’s not on.

    The BACKSTORIES like the Rwanda email.
    Didn’t objectivity start with the wire services? It’s handy, but it holds its own lie: that this is the only way to report/think/feel about the world. So let’s hear the backstories.

    And how bout rotating production teams between wildly different shows for Sat. specials. Like, I don’t know, On the Media produces car talk, Car Talk produces a Lost and Found Sound. Daniel Zwerdling, Scott Simon do a game show… Don’t shoot me, this is just brainstorming. Just warming up. You got better ideas?

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    You people are so upstanding. So high-minded. You are such public broadcasting types you police yourselves with your outcry for more learnin’. One thing I like about the Krulwich ABC reports is how they explain or even redeem the more eccentric corners. Did anyone see his hip hop series? Square white guy reporter follows rap stars around trying to figure out why so many people care so much about hip hop, admitting that he doesn’t get it, but throwing himself into their world trying to understand. And he got things that an in-the-know correspondent from Vibe wouldn’t have. I like that model of hearing from the experts–the national treasures as Jay says. I like this idea, Jay. But I only like it if the correspondent or producer in charge of the experts doesn’t know that much about the treasure’s field. I think the learning curve for projects like that is more interesting. When Krulwich did his series on cutting edge science, you really got feeling that you were learning about string theory along with him, that you were there in the room and it was all happening in real time. I never thought about it before, but I think that fish out of water feeling is why I become more and more drawn to writing stories or making documentaries about American history. I didn’t study it in college, just kind of grew up with a history buff dad and read a few books for fun. So I don’t come to that subject with any profound well of knowledge. Just eleventh grade American history and a lifelong interest. So the listener/reader can learn things along with me. Also, I think the experts know so much that they can sometimes be bad at explaining things unless a helpful bystander is standing by to ask them what the hell they’re talking about or to ferret through various research to glean the best wisdom. When I was working on my Trail of Tears documentary I discovered this surprising, actually shocking, fact: There was no coherent, easy to understand written narrative of that event for a popular audience in existence. It had been written about, but only by historians who didn’t take the time to explain the story to people who knew nothing of its chronology, or by partisans on both sides of the story. I never found one consistent, entirely useful telling of what happened. The history of it was incredibly complicated, so I understand why. But I think there’s a real place for the general reporter to learn things on behalf of the general audience. I’ve been working toward something about Salem and the witch trials. In the last few days, I’ve read six or so books, all with entirely different view points, central ideas, verdicts, etc. And I have to believe that there’s something useful in a person who has no personal stake in the history of Salem–as opposed to an academic who specializes in the topic–picking and choosing between the conclusions and theories that make sense. You know?

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Not knowing what we produce

    Sarah: I like your support of Bob Krulwich. I don’t watch much TV — and I call myself American! — apart from the Sopranos and really twiddle over to the commercial channels.
    One of the things I remember — and this is looking long ago, during the early days of Bosnia — is a kind of audience setting that Krulwich set up with Bosnian Muslims and Croats, in which he showed just how close the two cultures really were. The prime example, as I remember, was language. We learned along with him; he didn’t pretend to know everything.
    The beauty that Krulwich brings — and another one who is capable of it is Paul Solomon of the Newshour — is the capacity for metaphor. Solomon explaining economics in terms of Ken and Barbie dolls, for instance. Images, in that case, or ideas that translate the incomprehensible into something we can wrap our teeny little brains around.
    Which leads me to the Jay’s extraordinary people and Tony’s national treasure model. What is the threshold for "extraordinary"? Or, to put it another way, why did the Japanese government pick this shakuhachi player over that one as a "national treasure"?
    As a folklorist, I would argue that, first and foremost, it was because *someone else* wanted to tell their story. For extraordinary characters, we could pluck three from this discussion right now — Sarah, Tony, and Jay — and present them as national treasures for how they have informed us, given us new glasses to see better, made us think about things we haven’t thought about before.
    And without doing any disservice to any of these three most laudable individuals, the fact is that we are always surrounded by people who have unusual lives ("extraordinary" doesn’t just mean "really, really, really good") that deserve at once the telling and the retelling. How does that piano teacher on the floor below cope with juvenile scales all day — now there’s ambient sound for you.
    In the "extraordinary people / national treasure" scheme, in other words, it’s the story that these people inspire in another person (the actual storyteller or, in our world, "producer") that makes them extraordinary. So the storyteller, in the very choice of subject, becomes part of the story.
    What if Tony were to nominate Al Hirschfeld as Candidate #1 for National Treasure — but Jay were to do the piece blind? No info from Tony — except maybe a telephone number — no background. Let Jay discover for himself — and in the course of his discovery share what he learns with the reader / listener (interesting, by the way, that Tony should pick a visual artist for radio).

  • Cecilia Kuhn says:
    Upstanding, Upgetting

    Sarah said this:

    You people are so upstanding. So high-minded. You are such public broadcasting types you police yourselves with your outcry for more learnin’.

    What do you mean by that?

    Does it look like we’re policing ourselves?

    I hear the smile in your writing, so I’m not taking offense, or anything. I’m just not sure I know what you mean.

    When I try to interpret that, I’m thinking we’re holding ourselves back (and we’re holding radio back) by only asking for edifying and educational programs.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    us people

    it’s that dreaded "you people" phrase
    like "those people" it packs a distancing ouch unless delivered with a smile, as in
    I like that guy, Jackson Braider, and his ideas.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Yeah, kidding, kidding. I just found it interesting when mentioning special programs it was automatically assumed that they would be more serious than silly. More and more, I become a bigger fan of silliness. One of the traps of public broadcasting is its greatest asset–its seriousness. It’s a field that attracts socially responsibile individuals. Which, again, is great. But I would hope that the definition of social value could be extended. I don’t know how to put this…Serious trumps funny all the time. It happens a lot even on This American Life–the big emotional story usually wins out over the inclusion of the funny trifle. Because big emotional stories seem more important. But I think lightness serves a huge social function. The social weight of, say, David Sedaris, is equal to that of Nina Totenberg. I never thought about this much until recently. Sedaris and I did this totally frivolous project for Esquire where we wrote each other letters about movies. It was fun. I didn’t really think much beyond that. Then the magazine got this letter from a guy whose father, sister (and dog!) had all just died and he was buried in grief as well as caring for his elderly mother. He said that he read our little piffle article and laughed and that he hadn’t heard the sound of his own laugh in a long time. Honestly, that was the first time I ever felt like anything I was doing was serving some abstract purpose. And it made me think about the function of silliness in my own life. I’d be a crazier, more depressed person without David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. One thing I get tired of though, is segmenting my life–my late night comedy watcher side and my keeping-track-of-the-Supreme Court side. The nice thing about someone like Krulwich–and I think Ira is like this too–is that you can be your whole self with them. Your jokey, life’s absurd self and your educationally virtuous self. It’s what I was trying to get at talking about Ian Brown’s work about 92 messages ago.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    yeah yeah, this is why we love you guys

    and the fact that you can talk about the social value of silliness at 6 something a.m. is very inspiring. Truly.

    I loved what you did on Chicago. Did you do the same on NYC? Could you do a boxed set on American cities? Market them here in Europe too…

  • Joshua Barlow says:
    Along for the Ride… & others

    This series was originally conceived as it’s own 1hr program and spent quite some time in development before they decided to downsize and make it a monthly feature on Weekend All Things Considered.

    I suppose this is a means of "piloting" a concept before commiting the resources needed for a regular series. What I’m curious about is whether or not this method actually supports wholly original programming, or just increases the assets of already established shows that don’t need to be championed by the networks.

  • Tony Kahn says:
    Serious vs Silly

    Another great match you’re proposing there, Sarah, the enduring value of serious vs silly propramming. Which has more legs and more heart? I can hear the arguments:

    "Write a show that makes ‘em laugh, it runs a month; write a show that makes ‘em cry, it runs a year. Write a show that makes ‘em laugh and cry, it runs forever."

    "Yeah, so how come they sell more smiley faces than those twin masks of comedy and tragedy?"

    For me the best stories are a mix of the two — the silly and the serious — as are the best people, and the best lives. Try going to a memorial service or two (or ten or twelve as I have, the last few years) and listen to the stories people tell of the deceased. When we go, we all become three anecdotes in the memories of the people who knew us, anecdotes about something we said or did that made a difference to the teller or embodied something of our substance. Anecdotes about something we probably would be completely surprised had any impact at all — because our idea of our own significance is so ridiculously subjective and out of whack with everybody else’s reality.

    What’s wonderful for me about so many of these anecdotes is that they’re often a mix of the silly and the profound. Here’s one I heard recently about a young woman who died of cancer from her oldest friend: "One weekend she came to visit and we talked about everything but how sick she was. Two days after she left I was going through my dresser and I noticed that, without telling me, she had darned all my old socks."

    All my gurus giggled. And no one strived harder for an outward propriety and solemnity than Mark Twain, the only guy (next to Woody Allen) who can make me laugh out loud.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    That reminds me…

    Tony’s point about memorial services is a great one. I went to one not so long ago for the father of someone I used to work with. Though he was a respectable lawyer — I know, I know: "oxymoron" — what each and every one of his old friends talked about was how much the guy loved the New York Giants (the football team; there was another team for those of us with longer memories). Anyway, after the service, Janie, my longtime colleague, took me aside and said, "My father loved football??!!"

    Which brings me to a point about Tony and his interviews. My sense is that he doesn’t mask his incredulity. In other words, there is no implication in his questioning of "I know the answer to this already." A thing he shares with Terry Gross — not, to my ears, his beloved Christopher Lydon but we can argue about that somewhere else.

    And that, in the realm of wild string theory, brings me to a question about one of the few instances in which I have heard Sarah reporting: the story about Al Gore in New Hampshire and the gross misrepresentation of his statements by the likes of Ceci Connolly. I can’t even remember the exact content — perhaps Ms. Vowell would care to remind those with swiss (or is it Swiss?) cheese for brains what Gore said and what Ceci and her ilk "reported" he said — but it was not unlike the "father of the internet" ruse.

    Sarah, this struck me as one of those rare instances where you attempted to adhere to genre on TAL — reporting as opposed to, say, commentary. There are all kinds of forms on radio — essays and commentaries, reviews and interviews, Q&A, "objective" reporting, and the like (personal experience narratives, documentaries, etc. etc.)

    In retrospect, what really struck me — and maybe this element disappeared in one of my formerly-known-as-brain-cell cells — was that you didn’t address something to Gore. "C’mon, Al, don’t let them suckerpunch you like that. Stand up in your earthtones and proclaim the truth!"

    And that, in deeper retrospect, maybe was the real story: how (and why) Gore chose not to confront the issue of his veracity. What was it about him that shied away from addressing such misconceptions?

    I wonder if such thoughts weren’t lurking somewhere when you first prepared the piece and what became of them if they did. Did you feel yourself hemmed in by what you thought was "reporting" though your mandate as consigliare (did I spell that right?) must have allowed you broader leeway?

    Empty minds want to know!

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    New Hampshire

    Jackson–That New Hampshire story was one of my best reporting experiences. (I guess it was pretty straight. I actually do a fair number of largely third person pieces of reporting and criticism. Nobody ever notices those pieces though. Once you get pegged as first person that’s what people expect and remember. I noticed this recently when I did an interview with a newspaper reporter, with whom I talked about the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, David Foster Wallace, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, Howard Cosell, Fluxus and Dada, etc. for over an hour and then I read her piece and it was all about how I only talk about myself. Whatever.) For those of you who didn’t hear the piece–and it’s up on the TAL web site on the show called "Primary" from earlyish 2000–it was about media literacy students at Concord High School, how they invited the candidates in the NH Primary to speak at their school, and then planned to track the relationship between the media coverage of these appearances at their school versus what they actually witnessed. When Gore spoke, he told a story about a toxic waste site in Tennessee that came to his attention because a teenager wrote him a letter. Then, when he mentioned holding the first Congressional hearings on that and Love Canal, he was misquoted by both the Wash Post and NYTimes as saying he was the first person to discover Love Canal, which snowballed into anti-Gore jokes on Sam and Cokie, Chris Matthews and a Letterman top ten list making fun of the things Gore takes credit for ("Gave mankind fire"). Anyway, the structure of the piece was fairly traditional. I narrated, but only as a way to usher the listener through interviews with the media literacy teacher and her students. Partly because it was a story about how stories are told. So when you’re getting that meta, I think the simpler the format, the better. But mostly, the teacher was such a genius, such a surprising, profound speaker, and the students were so charmingly outraged and articulate, it didn’t call for a lot of whistles and bells where I’m concerned. Though I always thought that keeping myself out of the story had a nice little mindfuck element for the listener. Since the story is about how stories are affected by who’s telling them, there’s an implicit challenge to the listener of the story that I’m telling to question me and my methods.

    As for your question about why doesn’t Gore defend himself, that’s an interesting one. Though I think the answer is pretty prosaic–he doesn’t defend himself because no politician responds directly to attack unless it’s absolutely necessary. Because bringing it up would only give the story a wider circulation. This is Power 101–by addressing the attacks of your opponents head-on, you give them power. Ignore them, and they are denied a voice.

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    graveyard humor

    Tony–Regarding what you said about the best funeral speakers, I think that’s so true. Yesterday, I had jury duty. From the vibe I picked up around the jury room, I may have been the only one there dying to serve. (And alas, I was sent home without a chance to spin the wheels of justice.) But the clerk in charge of the jurors, an Irish cop type, with the dryest sense of humor, acted more like a master of ceremonies than an officer of the court. And every time he made a wisecrack about how there were still issues of "Jury Pool News" available for our reading pleasure, or how the convicted felons could go to a back room to be excused from duty so they didn’t have to raise their hands in front of everybody else, you could just feel the tension being eased a little. Because it’s a very tense room, the criminal courts jury room in Manhattan. So, so much of living is just bland drudgery. I don’t think life has to be fun, fun, fun 24/7, but gee, it sure is nice when there are people generous enough to relieve the monotony. It’s like psychological volunteer work.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Re: cw’s earlier post

    Thanks for the heads-up, cw. It’s not airing in my town until tomorrow night, I’ll be sure to set the vcr. I thought that perhaps our station passed on it like they passed on the ‘controversial’ show a few years back regarding gay kids in school (perhaps a precursor to today’s Straight/Gay Alliance programs, which are now pretty commonplace). Hopefully this is a sign that our station is finally growing up… either that or they felt compelled to carry it because it’s an episode of POV. I fear the latter, 11pm on a Friday night isn’t exactly the best of timeslots (midwest TV equivalent of midnight on the Coasts).

    That POV board is nuts (and far too slow to waste much time there). It’s hard to keep from jumping into the fray, but nothing posted there is going to change a bigot’s mind.

  • Rick Karr says:
    Along for the Ride

    A point of clarification: Along for the Ride was conceived as "the new ‘Anthem’" — mostly by Melissa Giraud and Alice Winkler — after that show was cancelled by NPR management. Kevin Klose told us to "reinvent" the show at one hour and with one host. There were two proposals: a one-hour version of what we’d been doing … and AFTR. Because what we’d been doing had been seen as a failure, the AFTR proposal won out.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Mr. Karr, I definitely want to hear more from you here. Basically, picture me laying on a bed on my stomach with my legs bent at the knees, feet ensconced in bright-colored thick-cotton socks, crossed in the air and waving slightly, my chin resting playfully on the backs of my crossed hands while I purr "tell me
    i e-ver-y-thing

    On second thought, don’t picture it, just tell me everything. I don’t want to buy the socks.

  • Joshua Barlow says:
    Anthem >>> AFTR

    I remember being introduced to Anthem in 1998 and feeling it was a great change for NPR’s cultural programming. Not only was it appealing to younger audiences, but it was also eclectic and gave room to get to know the people behind the music.

    Aside from the weekly musical guests (pop, country, blues, jazz..), there were thoughtful excursions into – new theatre – zines – poetry… It seemed like NPR was finally reaching out, not only to people under 30, but to people of all ages who were just looking for something fresh and contemporary.

    I remember when Anthem was cancelled, a lot of people I talked to at NPR said, as Rick mentioned, it was because the 2hr format was too long and hard to sell. I thought the format was just right, but I’m not a marketing expert. It just felt like NPR was backing down from trying to expand it’s cultural audience base and abandoning a good show in the process. I remember pointing friends to the Anthem web site – they would listen for a bit and ask me, "Is this really NPR?" A lot of us were awaiting the resurrection of Anthem (in some form or another), but it never happened. Big shame, and missed opportunity.

    AFTR, as I recall from it’s audience testing, was originally supposed to be it’s own show – but was instead turned into a monthly feature of an already secure program. Like I said in an earlier message, it feels like, rather than committing to a new series, this limited debut method is how NPR is testing the waters for new programming ideas. I’m not sure if this is a bold enough means if they expect anything of significance to happen as far as expanding their audience.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    I, too, was miffed by the cancellation of the enjoyable Anthem. And it’s astonishing that, given the embarrassingly small number of new shows NPR develops, that they would ditch such a promising, ambitious upstart after–what was it? a year? It’s one thing for television networks to pull the plug on good work (like the wonderful "Sports Night" which you can now watch on Comedy Central) without giving them time to nurture an audience. TV gets to pick and choose from oodles of new pilots year after year. For them, there’s always another show. That is simply not the case in the time warp of public radio. You could listen to NPR affiliates every day and at least six or seven hours of programming would be the same shows with the same voices as twenty, even thirty years ago. I don’t think everything needs to be new, new, new or younger, younger, younger all the time, but it is curious that all commercial media–books, music, TV, etc. are fueled by novelty. Not just by making new things, but by the old standbys trying to keep up with the whippersnappers. Not so on public radio and television. Are we on the tenure system? Is it the audience’s fault? Does the complacency of the programmers reflect the complacency of the audience? Is the audience happy with the same old same old year after year? Seems so. I think it comes from the paradox of public broadcasting–people expect so little from it. All they want and expect is that their intelligence is not insulted. Because their intelligence is insulted so many many times a day by everyone else–advertisers first and foremost. They want that brown rice feeling from public broadcasting. Nobody expects brown rice to shine.

  • Jay Allison says:

    >Nobody expects brown rice to shine.

    If you’re an artist, you could imagine this as an opportunity. You get a gallery full of interested people and very few paintings on the walls. If you hang a good one, people are taken by surprise: "LOOK, the brown rice is SHINING!"

    (does the rice work within the gallery metaphor? I don’t think so. Should I bother to hold down the delete button and start over? Naaah. It’s just the Internet.)

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    Memorial Moments, The Series

    plz stick with the brown rice. Lord knows what else could get put up on a canvas for effect

    you’ve moved on, but I want to stick in more kudos for Sarah re: the meta level reporting on Al Gore and the truth. (Her curry dish?) I wish more people had heard that! What would it take for that sort of thing to get picked up and further reported elsewhere? It was an example of reporting in a place we don’t expect it; is that why we didn’t see it elsewhere?
    Meanwhile, in a place we do expect reporting, what would you call the following? Back when Dukakis was in a similar "what’s wrong with him?" spot, at the end of an interview at the end of the race, Mr. Koppel said, quite brutally to Mr. D "You just don’t get it, do you?" Was that an example of good interviewing and reporting? That kind of moment makes me appreciate brown rice. (Evenso, your Nightline notes have pretty much convinced me to get a television again after 4 years.)

    –I wonder whether an invisible dietary point system is at work in public radio. During the week, Mom and Dad and the help supply the dinnertime fare of so many vegetables and rice. Then the arts and commentary are dessert and spices.

    Leftover points get to be spent on This American Life and Says You! on the weekend.

    If we got jambalaya and enticing, varied hot stuff all week, maybe we’d want something blander on the weekend. A little apple strudel with whipped cream, maybe.

    (Ooops, it’s 6:30 p.m. in Munich. and you can see what happens when I have no ATC to keep me company in the kitchen.)
    –Anyway, the fact that Anthem was cancelled and that the 3 Commentaries haven’t made it to air is depressing and probably knocks my metaphors into the dishwater.

  • Joe Richman says:
    Let’s Make a List

    Some shows that NPR dropped within a year:
    Heat (with John Hockenberry)

    Some shows that NPR passed on:
    Garrison Keillor
    This American Life

    Others additions?
    Or maybe a list of great reporters and producers that NPR let get away?

  • Ian Brown says:
    Is dacquoise just a fancy name for cheesecake?

    I have to take a few moments away from the enormous project I’m working on (and that was due two weeks ago) to say that you can’t have your dacquoise without eating your brown rice too.

    The reason public radio is the subject of this (and so much other) debate is that it is often so damn good. It’s so good so often, in fact, we begin to ask why why it isn’t good all the time (especially as it belongs, theoretically, to us, to the public, which we assume is the reason it’s so damn good as often as it is.)

    But that’s ridiculous. No matter where it shows up, great work is as rare as pennies in a pig. I mean, you get your dacquoises, but you get your brown rice too. In fact, you get a fair weight of stinkin’ cheese, too. But I still maintain excellence shows up more often in public radio because…and this harkens back to message 58, and Craig Thom’s contention that public radio doesn’t have commercials only if you toy with the definition of comnmercials (I would say the exact obverse is true, that public radio has commercials only if you toy with the definition of what a commercial is)…because no one owns public radio, except the public. You can debate and debate the ups and downs and ins and outs of public radio, but if you forget this central point, all will be lost.

    I give example now. For years I’ve been suggesting a radio show that in my mind I call The Reading and Writing and Fishing Hour. Originally (I am ashamed to say) I thought of it as a show for men. (I later realized it didn’t have to be gender-parochial.) As I imagined the show, it consisted of an hour or two of late-night talk, centered around a host but amongst a large and roving and changing cast of talkers, all sitting in an imaginary kitchen, all talking about three related subjects: a book they’d read, some music they’d heard, and fishing. Though the fishing segment was deliberately mislabelled, because by fishing I meant any physical experience, as long as it took you out of yourself the way books and music can. The interesting challenge each show for the host, I thought, would be to get from the book to the music to the fishing, and back again. My theory was they they would always connect up, because they always do, which is why people read and listen and fish.

    Now, I admit this was a loose and woolly thing, this "concept." Even here at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation many programmers got a wan look and backed away when I suggested this idea in the smoking room. (And this is a place where all kinds of bizarre ideas have made it on-air. On Sunday Morning, we once experimented with what we called "raw radio"–two minute excerpts of live radio pulled off tape or off satellites, in the original Russian, say, or in Mandarin from somewhere in China. We wanted our listeners to hear the sound of that language pouring out of their radios the way it poured out in its home country. A terrible, terrible idea! And why? Because no one could understand anything that was being said! I tell myself now: it was an experiment. I tell myself: listeners like to hear the occasional mistake on radio, even the big, conceptual kind.)

    But at least here at commercial free CBC radio my idea got a listen. When I suggested the same idea to commercial radio stations…that was even more interesting. Because I always got exactly the same reaction. The commercial radio guys said: "Well, that’s a great idea, a radio show for guys, but do guys buy books? No. So who’s gonna advertise books? Ya see, Ian, you gotta design the show around product placements. Because unless you have ads, you have no show. So first off you gotta drop the books part. Now, a show about fishing…actually fishing, here in Ontario…that might work…"

    I figure if I followed the logic of commercial radio programmers, and designed a show around what men will buy, I’d end up with a show called Tits ‘n’ Hitler. That would probably be the most successful male radio show in history.

    My point is what? Well, it’s like Liebling said: freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. At bottom, all media reflect the interests of their owners. Commercial radio is owned by advertisers–by mattress salesmen and bankers and what have you, and the on-air "product" generally reflects the interests of those owners (Buy more mattresses!) Public radio may by quitely endorsed and tastefully underwritten by corporations here and there, but it’s owned, economically and politically, by the public. By all of us. Hence this discussion, the brown rice and the dacquoises, the mediocrity and the surprising degree of excellence.

  • Andy Knight says:

    So, this Tits ‘n’ Hitler show… when’s that on?

    (ps. Guys are the great untapped market when it comes to selling books. We buy ‘em, but most of us (though probably not most of us here) find one or 2 ‘safe’ authors and never stray. Publishers could have used your manly-artsy show to finally target men with different authors. They could have used it to tell us all of the new authors coming out with books about cars, fishing, killin’ stuff, or all of the above (Red Green). You could have been a pioneer!(though you probably would have wanted to use a pen name)

    –outta time, didn’t even have a chance to check the spelling on nom de plume

  • Sarah Vowell says:
    Tits ‘n’ Hitler

    That is the best title I ever heard, Brown. (Though "raw radio"–Jesus, we would even have shot down that crackpot idea back in art school.) By making the rather baldly true statement that excellence tis so rare in all things, including public radio, Mr. Spoilsport, are you not breaking the rules of our little electronic utopia? What are you, some kind of foreigner? We’re just doing a little dreaming here, pretending one corner of our world could be better, though everyone in it is overworked and underpaid and doing a fine enough job besides. I just like to think of this discussion board as a kind of Martha Stewart Living for radio. We just flip past pretty pictures, telling ourselves we’ll spiff up the living room, then dropping the magazine on the floor to take a nap on the dusty couch…Anyway, I like the books and music and fishing idea. Of course, you’d be at the mercy of your guests. To make it work, they’d have to be interesting. What were you going to do in the third week when you’d gone through all six interesting Canadians?

  • Jay Allison says:
    Men and Fish and Women

    Ian, are you happy in Canada?

    Do you ever think of moving to…. oh i don’t know….. Woods Hole??

    Where we fish. And are willing to talk about it, even metaphorically, on the radio. Every day.

  • Rick Karr says:

    Another point of clarification: Anthem was on the air from early January, 1997, through the end of September, 1999, although many shows the last two months were re-runs. I think some early AFTR work was done then — certainly the decision to use the AFTR model was made. Was the two-hour format hard to sell? WBEZ, KQED, WHYY and a dozen or so other stations who took it up front must’ve bought, as did the two dozen or so others who picked us up. Dunno. I wasn’t selling the show, in so many words. We were not perfect. Sometimes we weren’t even very good. Sometimes. The AFTR model — incubate as a show segment, expand when audience has developed — always seemed sound to me. Sarah: Yeah, it’s tenure, after a fashion. I think it’s a valid way of pro- tecting the integrity of public institutions I’ve known some brilliant, inspiring professors in my day. I’ve also known some losers. Ian: I think I’d actually have listened to your radio from around the world show, but then again I listen to the Conet Project "Numbers Stations" CDs for fun. Your words are inspiring — it seems to me the CBC’s gaping maw must spur real creativity now and again. Plus you have a public that seems more engaged with civil society than ours. Finally: I’m new here. Can someone tell me if Andy is a bot? –R

  • Tony Kahn says:

    I wonder if I could focus this a little. Seems to me, of late, more and more public radio insiders are checking in here and, down the halls where I work and lurk, anyway, people are starting to refer to "Transom" with a kind of savvy twang. (Three times today, out of the blue, once outside the cafeteria, once by the Frontline office, once at The World) I’m not sure what if anything that implies, other than that people like new features on the landscape and something to grab at when the ground sways. ‘Cause most of the talk around my halls these days is about how uncertain everything about public radio is, from the vision to the funding. At GBH you can hear the money tide scraping the sand as it recedes. Maybe people who care about public radio are wondering if we’ve got any bright ideas. So, as long as we’re here saying hi to each other, and people are noticing, what is it we’d really like to see change and feel we can work toward as a group? Anything? Are there problems we can do more than mull over? Any of us in a position to re-tool how new ideas can get into the system? (We all know the reasons good stuff doesn’t make it to the air, but can we cook up new, cheaper, more guerrillero-type ways that it can?)

    Most things get done because the right people run into each other at the right time. So, nu?

    Life is a camel bazaar. We see Abdul walking along the stalls and suddenly get this idea Abdul would be the perfect guy to help us with. So, what does this league of Abduls want to do?

  • Jay Allison says:
    Okay, then, here’s one…

    I’ve been growing this for a few weeks, trying to attract bees. I was going to open another topic on Transom for it, but Sarah seems content to have us all crowded into her room, so here goes.

    (Actually, I’ll post it here, but open another topic too, so things don’t become so fragmented that we become disoriented and afraid.)


    Interested Stations Group

    An idea is emerging from a group of stations wanting to encourage new radio through flexible and creative formatting and distribution. The concept brings interested stations together with like-minded stations, and brings producers together with all stations in the group. The idea is to provide good homes to good work, and to increase opportunities for that work and its makers.

    One example. At WCAI and WNAN, we keep open a flexible four-hour weekly slot (called “Arts & Ideas") every Sunday from 7-11. I host/curate it live or live-to-AudioVault and weave in independent productions, limited series from the networks or stations, local interviews and stories, audio art, drama, international work, comedy, lots of documentary, material from and our own listeners. New and different radio. Whatever seems exciting that week. Good stuff, that’s the only criterion. As host, I can make a comfortable nest for all this work and the very unusualness is the selling point. It doesn’t sound like everything else. It breaks the drone.

    In a recent fund-drive (we’re a brand new station), this Sunday night slot out-performed some days of Morning Edition. This was a big surprise to everyone, but good evidence of the audience’s wish for something different, but still compatible with an overall public radio sensibility.

    A loose affiliation of stations has several advantages. We’re calling it: The Interested Stations Group.

    The basic ante is this: Each interested station commits to providing weekly flexible time in the schedule. The time will be at reasonable hours, i.e. not 2am. Stations will fill the time with a changing menu of good work of their choosing, stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This means specials, limited series, pilot projects, and so on. This work is generated locally or nationally or internationally, by independents or fellow stations or citizens. In fact, many stations are already doing this, so it may simply be a matter of identifying ourselves to each other and seeing what we can do together.

    Each station determines locally how to plan those hours – it needn’t represent a lot of work — a single hosted program, special slots for limited series, curated anthologies, whatever. We compare notes on good ideas.

    Producers will know that these stations are the ones to join forces with or to appeal to. This is an attractive notion to funders, incidentally.

    Stations in the Group and associated producers exchange work among themselves, bypassing the usual distributors.

    Stations and producers collaborate on projects, e.g. several stations plan local series on Affordable Housing, and air material from fellow stations in the ISG examining novel solutions in other parts of the country.

    The ISG maintains a website to: give notice of available work, coordinate program sharing, share reviews of programming, host discussion boards, eventually keep audio files for downloading and exchange, etc. is willing to set up such pages on its servers.

    Reaction so far is that this is a powerful concept. The mere FACT of such an alliance opens doors and creates a more enlivened atmosphere for creative people wanting to find new ways to tell stories on public radio. Each station has authority over its air-time, but takes advantage all the producers, artists, and other stations out there. Public radio becomes a TRUE NETWORK, using the talent and broad representation on the ground, unlike the current model with national production/distribution entities feeding local consumers. In this model, new work is given a number of likely, flexible outlets, which encourages more such work. A creative coalition emerges to refresh us all and make life better. The sun rises.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Ian’ s okay — it’s just he’s from overseas

    So much fun, so much time (Jay, it’s a good idea to let hosts malinger for a month on this beat).

    Tony, talking about the money tide, was probably at the same meeting as I this morning. (The long and short of it, for those unable to attend, was television).

    And I like this league of Abduls — it takes me back to songwriters’ nights in NYC where the fun was in the chatter.

    Problems began when people actually played their songs — the bonhommie and conversation evicerated (sp? No, I won’t try spellcheck) when the words "Song on the floor" rang through the apartment.

    Because, speaking of spellcheck, what we *hear* as listeners is not necessarily what we *say* as writers and producers. I wonder if not a great, great deal of how we examine the work of others might be summed up as differing points of view, different measures and frames of experience, different missions. For example, there was Tony Kahn’s series about blacklisting. I love Tony’s writing and his voice, but I couldn’t get my head around certain theatricalities in the production.

    In a wash of liberal quaky knees, of course, I *know* that Tony had his reasons for using those dramatic / narrative devices. But I wonder, as the Zenistas might have it, if my failure to connect with Tony’s series was the result of the expectation I brought as a listener to the work. I expected pure non-fiction memoire and there was this something else that didn’t meet my expectation. (I apologize, Tony)

    So I go back to the songwriters’ group experience. Perhaps there are certain elements that are common to all good songs (yeah, right!). In that particular scene, though, anything with the least hint of commercial writing (like, for example, a bridge) was immediately suspect. And if anyone in the songwriters’ group actually got something like a record deal, one could see the angst ripping through those less fortunate.

    And from that experience, I posit my anxieties about this venture here. Tony asks what does this league of Abduls want to do; Ian Brown (whom Sarah drew to my attention in the fabulous Canadians episode of TAL) suggests either "Books, Music and Fishing" or "Tits ‘n’ Hitler."

    It seems to me that this is an ideal place to talk about anything but THE WORK (read that as coming from a former artsy-fartsy songwriter who vowed never to use such words as "love" or "soul" in his oeuvre). We can talk about the "biz," wildly hypothetical plots and pilots, managerial machinations, aesthetics in broad brushstrokes (or did I mean "bold brushstrokes"?).

    And I think, somewhere in all of this, we want to be taken seriously — even when we simply want to be funny or entertaining. After all. what we are all talking about here at heart is *public radio*.

    I’ve lost my thread somewhere in this — but as Jay says, hey, this is the internet!

    Maybe, to wend my way back to Tony’s question about what this league of Abduls wants to do, we need to make the world take *public radio* as seriously as we do.

    Here’s my idea: Let’s make radio as expensive to produce as TV, then the likes of CPB will not necessarily turn initial thoughts to funding the first 6000 hours of Ken Burns’ next project ("Mao as I feel very deeply you should know him" is just the working title). Fewer moving parts, sure, which means that the writing has to be meatier, the ideas richer, the voices better than TV — if only to justify the living wage we deserve from our industry.

    Those agreeing to this petition can sign here:

  • Carol Wasserman says:

    Public radio has always felt like the lecture hall of the world’s greatest free university. You still need to get yourself dressed and down to the library to do the reading, but you can show up for the talks in your jammies. Which is a great convenience.

    But public radio has no sense of humor. With a few blessed notable exceptions, no one is filling in the hole left behind by Bob and Ray. By Stan Freeberg. By Fran Leibowitz, she of the Writer’s Block That Ate Manhattan.

    As for Ian Brown’s Raw Radio, I long ago discovered the value of listening to broadcasts in languages I do not speak (admittedly that is a pretty comprehensive list – thank god I at least have a mother tongue). Writing is a lonely business, and I find the sound of another human voice cheerful in the morning as I’m typing away in solitude. But unless that cheerful voice is completely unintelligible to me, I find myself listening instead of thinking and typing. Arabic is my particular favorite for this purpose. Finnish is good. Romance languages tend to distract me – I find myself making wild guesses about content based on what I remember from a little high school French and Latin.

    I love radio. I don’t quite understand the undercurrent of self-loathing in our conversation here of late. I think we could be more amusing, more dependably silly. But other than that, we are, as Sarah pointed out early on, the only mass media created by True Believers. With a commitment to an open democracy of voices. Our fanatical purity of heart must count for something.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Jay–As a This American Lifer, I feel the need to slap some meaningful scoring music under your last message. Because this four-hour flexible spot sounds like an actual (if small) solution. Plus I like the Stalinist ring of the name "The Interested Stations Group."

    One of my favorite places in New York is the Museum of Television and Radio. I think one of the lovable things about it is that it is an archive of broadcasting–i.e., it saves all these programs that were meant to go out into the ether and then be forgotten. And I like going there and checking out things that happened before I was born, or things that I’m too young to remember. It’s where I watched "An American Family," for example, that kind of thing. I wonder if there’s a place each week, in your four hours, to resurrect some lost classic of documentary or commentary from the vault. And maybe the reporter/writer/subject even could come on and talk about it, what it was like making it or what the story meant to the person, etc. Like you know there’s some killer Alex Chadwick piece in the dustbin of history that us young pups never heard and us old dogs barely remember. Or, in the history-repeats-itself realm (my favorite 45 when I was a kid was this record with this booming voice that kept yelling HISTORYYYYYYY REPEATSSSSSSS ITSELFFFFFFFFFF! that recounted all the spooky correspondences between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations, but I digress), there are reportorial episodes of the past that could shed light on events of the day. For example, doesn’t it seem like we’re backtracking into the Carter administration right now, in which the two most glaring problems are an energy crisis and the (even more fucked up than usual) Middle East? This is the kind of thing where the more elderly correspondents out there might have something to say, not to mention illuminating tape in the vault. And, since we’ve been joined by our neighbors to the North, there must be oodles of great old stuff from the CBC, not to mention the BBC that we never heard here. (I would, fuddy duddy that I am, try to make sure most of the content is actually in English.) As NBC used to promote their summer re-runs, "If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you."

  • Necee Regis says:

    I like Sarah’s idea about resurrecting old tapes from the vault & listening to them in relation to what we’re hearing today. There’s a weekly newspaper in Provincetown that prints clips from stories going back 50 years. It’s amazing to see that some of the same issues are still being discussed at town meeting. Of course on radio you may have to keep these very short to avoid the War of the Worlds effect when someone tunes in after the intro. (The Israelis are bombing Lebanon?! The Martians are here?!)

    Also, I think what makes Jay’s programming ideas sound interesting is the word "flexible." As in any endeavor, the more things get bogged down in formulas and market research etc etc the more pre-packaged things are, the more they become dull & predictable. And loose a sense of humor too.

    (A short digression in reference to the Museum of Television & Radio. Does anyone else remember a TV show from the late 60’s called Hotdog? It had Woody Allen, Ruth Buzzy & Jonathan Winters as guests. It was a 1/2 hr Sat. morning kids show & extremely funny. I need to get to the Museum to see if I can find it.)

    BTW, a dacquoise is a meringue made with ground nuts,and is used as a layer between a cake or buttercream. It has no relation at all to cheesecake.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Spin off of the ISG

    There are so many interesting threads here, I spun off the Interested Stations Group thing into another topic. If you have ideas about it, please post. Here’s the link:
    Interested Stations Group Topic
    (in the "About Transom" folder)

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

    Sarah: Your thoughts on this week’s TAL — "Kids Say the Darndest Things" was, I think, the theme. I confess that I was particularly troubled by the story of the mother whose husband’s brain was shrinking away.

    I had quite liked what she was saying — how does a child cope with a dying father? How does a wife cope with both a dying husband and a knowing child? Good questions, deep questions.

    So what does she go do? She brings out a tape recorder, for God’s sake, and records her child’s moments of deepest intimacy and openness. And then she presents them on national radio.

    Agog. Good, solid Anglo-Saxon to describe my first reaction to what she was doing. Of course, she didn’t have to get a waiver from her kid (which she would have had to sign herself — so much for kids’ rights!). It seemed so exploitational, so over-the-top in its unneccessity. She had gone for a good four or five minutes paraphrasing him. Suddenly, she bursts forth in this act of, well, betrayal.

    Of course, it is not a cheery subject — even with her effort to pick up the tone ("It’s not doom and gloom around the house. No, the little boy and I have a lot of good times" — and that, if memory serves, is the moment she introduces her tape recorder.)

    I feel a spring pop out of my head when I think about it.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    I believe the show was called "Kid Logic," and was supposed to be about how kids look at the world. Which the story you’re referring to certainly has at its heart–that the kid started thinking that babies are born when someone dies so he starts hating babies. I was actually thinking about that this weekend. I was in the Old Burying Point cemetary in Salem. One of the Mayflower pilgrims is buried there between his two wives. And I had forgotten about this, but when I was a kid we used to go put flowers on my grandmother’s grave. My grandfather buried four wives. And his first wife is buried next to my grandmother. I think that woman was the first person I ever hated. She died about forty years before I was born, but I remember kicking at her grave I was so disturbed that my grandfather had been married before. I see your point about the exploitation in that story. Maybe it is bad parenting. On the other hand, I really think that the tape of that story is going to mean a lot to the little boy someday. My sister sent me a tape of my grandfather talking to some local woman about a shootout he witnessed as a child. I hadn’t heard his voice in six years, and we weren’t getting along so well when he died. Just hearing his voice–I’d forgotten what a funny old coot he was, what a flirt. He was just teasing the woman in the most adorable way, ma’aming her. But he could have been cussing her out for all I care–it was just thrilling to hear his very voice. Or when I did that Trail of Tears story, I talked to my uncle. Well, my uncle died right after that. Our last conversation is on tape. There is inherent value to documentation–sentimental value I guess. Broadcasting said documentation to a million people is of course the real question. Have you seen this new HBO show Six Feet Under? I quite like it, and the question of the first episode was this–Is the public display of grief an embarrassment? Shouldn’t people be able to publicly display this hurt when someone you love–coincidentally, in the show, it’s the father–dies? At its heart, the story of the little boy is just how much he loves his father. And I don’t think it’s terribly wrong to go public with that.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Personal Memory vs. Public Display

    I see your point, too. As we’ve learned from all those lost and found tapes and sounds, there is something gravitational about these things. Even as I was appalled — not that I am the Grand Marshall of the PC Parade, mind you — I couldn’t drag my attention away. The beauty of righteous indignation is that it cannot admit mitigating circumstances. (Has TAL considered a program on righteous indignation, btw? Right up there with "Get Over It" in possibilities)

    Still, while the boy may very well profit from the existence of the tape, the curious beauty of the lost and found tape from our standpoint is the disconnect between the creation of the tape and our encounter with it. Like your fondness for HISTORYYYYYYY REPEATTTSSSSSSS ITSELFFFFFFFF (don’t you just love all caps as expressive device?): Sure it has continuity in *your* life, but from my standpoint, it has the classic smell of a period piece.

    I guess what I am wandering around toward is this: boundaries and dignity. If I had picked up that little cassette of the boy and mother chatting about the father in the street, there would have been no continuity between the origin of the tape and my experience of it. It’s not unlike looking at all the posed stiffs in "Wisconsin Death Trip" or "Sleeping Beauties."

    But with the mother presenting it on national radio, suddenly we get a certain kind of exhibitionism that taints the dignity of the boy’s kid logic.

    In some places, there is a dignity in overt grief — the old women hired to wail and moan at funerals, for example. Of course, part of the display is the display of wealth — look at all the pros he hired for his mom. How nice!

    (Not to mention Tony Soprano’s response to well-wishers at his mother’s funeral; not to mention Carm’s little home truth session at the party afterward)

    I dunno. I’ve got to get back to work.

  • Andy Knight says:

    I felt that Kid Logic, as Sarah mentioned TAL often does, dumped the funny for the tearjerker. It started out great… my friend’s dad is the toothfairy, the white man, ghosts that speak in coughs, kids who know that their wishes don’t come true, but are compelled to make sure (the box/imagination story). Rather than stay in that vein, it shifts to MLK’s death and heads further downhill from there. Life of the party turned party killer, all in the space of an hour. This is why I don’t invite Ira over for BBQ.

    Other recent TAL ravings: Fathers Day (I initially skipped it because I thought is was going to be a repeat): I love Ian’s story. What a friggin’ gem. Prom: My new "least favorite" episode. What was the old least favorite? I don’t think I had one– sorry.

  • cw says:
    jumping in late on jackson’s overt grief a little late

    what is "overt grief"? the phrase itself bugs me.

    i missed this week’s tal but now i’m curious to hear if i find this piece you are discussing "exploitative" or not

    i frequently work with people who are not aware of how they will be interpreted by many people who read/hear their voices. the "subjects" are smart, but high-minded magazine readers or public radio listeners will prob. think they are dumb b/c they sniff glue or something. the listener/reader will reduce them to a single can of glue. the "subject" will have a sense of humor but many people will think they’re just brain dead. so what is my responsibility there?

    i call this the rorschach blot effect. people come up to me or email me what they think about a certain thing/piece/essay or whatever i did and interpret it in some often wildly different way than the people involved in the initial piece (or i, or an editor, or whoever) would have (exactly/only/merely/singularly) interpreted it. the reader listener will say hey i loved that frog you made when it really was an apple pie. well what can you do? nothing.

    as a writer, you’re resp. for how you frame something and what you choose, but you can’t go around worrying all the time about controlling how people will interpret something. then you wouldn’t do anything.

    also i do a lot of work w/ people who aren’t able to give informed consent, as you talk about in this tal story case. half the planet would say i was exploiting, half would say i’m giving them an opportunity they would not otherwise have to be heard/read about.

    for ex., i’m doing some work on several pieces about individuals with mental retardation now and have also done some in the past. the parents and siblings of retarded individuals have starkly different ideas of what is and isn’t exploitive or appropriate. people want to argue still about whether we say "developmentally disabled" or "mentally retarded"/ some of the mr people are more modern and intelligent than their guardians or caretakers. some caretakers feel their MR offspring should be seen and not heard etc. i actually had an argument recently with a mother of a MR adult child/son/adult whatever who didn’t want him going to this picnic b/c she thought MR people in groups are "depressing" (also, a "spectacle"). so her son didn’t get to go to the picnic.

    and, gulp, anglo hates to have to look at anything MR for an instant.
    always think anything that has to do with MR that isn’t hugs and special olympics is "exploitation" b/c it forces them to look AT MR instead of politely away (as they were taught, not to stare). some MR people have obnoxious voices and drippy noses. so what? they will sound stupid and look disgusting to many people. these people will find them tragic and think i’m jerry springer or morton downey junior. i do not care.

    now for the record i have to say that i have worked in the MR community and for the MR community and have a MR sibling so no one on this board will be shocked b/c i said some MR people are assholes like everybody else. (yeah, all my best friends are MR, etc., ha)
    to say many MR people are irritating assholes–this is heresy in many MR "positive representation" circles (much like in the large scale gay community many want all gay men and women to be better than upstanding so straight people will accept them.) the similar thing going about MR people is sit up straight as possible, shut up, behave, talk nice, "pass", the "mainstreaming" movement, and please be a productive citizen, contribute to the GNP to earn your place on the planet.

    so i think about the line btwn exploitation and giving voice/venue a lot, but i tend to side w/ giving voice. someone will always cry "exploitation" when something makes them sweat.

    so now i need to shut up and go listen to the tal piece in question and see if it makes me sweat or if those chicago folks have just taken it too far this time. also i’m not anglo, so i’ll speak for my own xceptionally narrow demographic of one.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    re: "Overt Grief"

    By "overt grief," I meant the wailing and moaning done by a group of hired professional grievers — a popular thing, my ancient folklore texts tell me, among the Mediterranean peoples. I also meant anything other than the quiet sniffing into the handkerchief — witness the Palestinian and Israeli funerals we’ve seen of late.

    I am a victim, of course, of the northern European tradition — muted, ennobling grief and suffering. And maybe that is (or was) an aspect of my response to the "Kid Logic" story. And maybe that tradition of muted grief is why psychoanalysis was invented in Austria as opposed to, say, Malta.

    Of course, the powerless need a voice — best of all, their own. I’m glad the kid can talk to his mom. I’m glad she can talk about the terrible thing her husband suffers, her son suffers, she suffers. Perhaps, upon reflection, if she had built the entire piece around the tape recordings of her talks with her son rather than shifting to it in the middle, it would have done two things:

    a) made the kid himself — rather than her interpretation of his thoughts and words — more a part of the story

    b) not made the transition from her voice to his voice so jarring

    As I said in my original posting, I had been engrossed by the piece up to the introduction of the tape. And then, as I also said, a spring popped.

  • Joei says:
    Contains quotes from the recent TAL, so if you haven’t listened yet…

    Hi. I’m just a listener and a huge TAL fan, but I can’t help but butt in here.

    I was glad to read Jackson Braider’s post. I’d been bothered by the ending to that story as well. I think, for me, the trouble was not that the mother taped her son or even that she was airing that tape on public radio. I guess it just sounded a little too much (to me) like she was interviewing him–not quite grilling him, but, well, sometimes you listen to an interview and it’s clear that the interviewer is definitely looking for a specific answer or theme or *something*
    and I had that sense here…which, when taken in the context of a little boy just about to go to sleep (who later says, "can we hang up now? can we turn that thing off?") being "interviewed" about his dying father, it gets you (me) thinking less about the sadly beautiful story we’re hearing and more about the making of that
    story and wondering if maybe the child didn’t really want to talk about it right then. You know? I think if the questions were coming from him I would’ve felt better.

    But then, maybe *that* (him trusting and confiding and initiating a discussion, then having it broadcast) would be very big violation of intimacy/trust.

    Having said all that, I don’t mean to imply that what I heard was a violation of trust, or that there’s some bad parenting going on (after listening to the story it’s hard to draw that conclusion–it’s clearly an act of love). And since the clip of them talking
    is short, I don’t know that he didn’t initiate the discussion and if I heard the surrounding tape I would certainly have a clearer sense of things. Although, that might be beside the point. I guess it was just the first time that my surprise during a TAL story was not about a narrative turn it took, but an editorial one.

    Also, I’m interested in all the radio people’s thoughts on this.


  • Jay Allison says:
    The Sarah

    You probably know this, but there are also ongoing discussions of This American Life which you can access through their site .

    I want to remind you that there are only a few days left of the official guestship of the precious Sarah Vowell. Use them wisely!

    On July 4th, appropriately, we will be posting a remarkable document in print and audio. It is a spoken radio manifesto from Studs Terkel, spanning most of this century and on into the future. It was created for with help from Sydney Lewis.

    If you love radio and you’re not inspired by it, you should seek counseling.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    Last minute follow up

    Isn’t being on television a bizarre experience? How do you relate to a television vs. radio audience?
    and, in case you missed the questions, could you comment on:
    Your time abroad, how it’s affected your writing and your life…
    Your photograph here, what it "says," how pictures vs. radio "say."

  • Carol Wasserman says:
    I’m All Ears

    One of the things which has been making me the teeniest bit anxious lately is the fear that writing radio will ruin any talent for print which I brought in with me when I came.

    You were a journalist first. And in spite of your genius for making great radio, you continue to write breathtakingly muscular prose for magazines and other places where old-fashioned narrative – complete with adjectives and subordinate clauses of all sorts – is still admired.


  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Gee, ladies, a late-breaking rally of personal questions. As I am here to serve you, here goes:


    Being on TV: I have only been on a particular kind of TV, late night talk shows of which I am a fan (Letterman once, Conan a few times). I love television, but I have no interest in being on television per se. I would only go on a show I actually watch. I just really love those two particular programs and those two hosts, as well as their staffs. (I just did a reading with a couple of Conan writers and I was kind of blown away by their confidence.) Anyway, the first time was frightening. But it’s not that different from interviews I myself have done with people I admire. Like I once interviewed Elvis Costello when he was working on a record in the LA recording studio where Sinatra recorded "Strangers in the Night" and the whole time, I’m talking to him, we’re even kind of arguing after a while, I’m still thinking to myself, "I’m sitting here talking to Elvis Costello." So I think being an interviewer had prepared me more than anything. Especially Letterman, who I think is just one of the keystones of my world view. I just don’t think the influence of his sensibility on this country can be underestimated. I mean, I have spent more time listening to him than to my own parents. And there was a moment when I made him laugh and I think it was maybe the most satisfying laugh I ever got. Because he’s cheered me up so many times for so many years and I feel like I owe him. I love going on Conan. That’s more relaxing. I think of him as a peer and kindred spirit and he’s also this huge history buff, so I think he likes talking to me about Lincoln and Eisenhower and indulging in that side of himself. The guy is the biggest Lincoln buff alive. I’m kind of fascinated by his audience more than my own. Like, the people who come to my readings are pretty much all public radio people. So if I make an Alan Greenspan joke it’s not much of a stretch for them to laugh. They think about Alan Greenspan almost every day. And they’re just generally quick to laugh, public radio audiences. "My little suckers," I call them. (They also love to be verbally abused for their public radio geekdom and/or kneejerk liberal predictability.) I like the challenge of trying to be myself and tell my kind of jokes to a general, comedy audience full of tourists and college kids who enjoy Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s poop jokes. If I can win over the poop humor fans with Civil War wisecracks, it’s a real victory.

    "My time abroad": Oh, well I was just a normal foreign exchange student college kid at the University of Leiden for five minutes. But it did make me want to be a writer. Because the Dutch speak flawless English, but I noticed they never really got me. And before I went there, I hadn’t noticed how much of the joy of my life is talking and being understood. And speaking in the vernacular. All my metaphors, all my favorite words and phrases and dialects are American. I like Huck Finn talk and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

    photo: I don’t know, you have to have a photo. It’s like the law or something. Photography is a job just like writing is a job, so I just went to a really good one for once. Her name is Marian Ettlinger and she does a lot of writers. It’s her specialty to make squeamish bookworms comfortable through such a grueling yucky process. Then my editor and I just chose the best one. I’m not trying to "say" anything with it. The only thing I want to "say" is, "Here’s that photo you wanted, Transom/Simon & Schuster/Esquire contributor’s page/Ann Arbor Summerfest."

    Carol: The only real drawback I think from moving between verbal and print media is punctuation. I’m working on another book right now, and there are so many things I want to say that I have to normalize on the page because I do not think in complete, fluid sentences. I seem to think in stopgaps and asides. Which the listener doesn’t notice. But the reader, I think, becomes antsy when there are too many dashes and parentheses. So that is a constant battle–(dash!) trying to retain my casual, late twentieth century (it’s where I’m from), American girl cadences, but without driving the reader crazy with a bunch of marks all over the place. Also, I love the word "and." And I start too many sentences with the word "and." Again, no one notices out loud because that’s normative speech. But do that too much on the page and it’s distracting and stupid.

    My, I’m sure this is fascinating.

  • Andy Knight says:

    Sarah, you’ve got to swing through town before your next book. I know a guy who’ll paint your picture on a hubcap for $20 (price includes hubcap). An interesting character: former early-years pro-wrestler Wayne St.Wayne walks up and down the shops of Grand and sells vinyl records, hubcaps, coffee cups, bowls, shelving, bookends and more upon which he’s painted. Melting cups, trolley cars, landmark buildings, statues, fountains, faces, insects, animals, and the Bride of Frankenstein are all his usual subjects but he is more than willing to do something a bit more special for a lil’ more cash or some "vegetation"(his code word, not mine).

  • Andy Knight says:

    Is there anywhere to find your Tour dates, Sarah? Washington Square Arts doesn’t have anything past April 2001.

  • Sarah Vowell says:

    Steven Barclay Agency does I think, though I couldn’t find them there either. Here’s the latest info:

    Sarah Vowell dates 2001-2002


    September 3, 2001 – Bumbershoot (with Dave Eggers)
    September, 23-24, 2001 – CenterStage, San Rafael
    October 23, 2001 – Olympia, WA (with David Sedaris)
    October 26, 2001 – Univ. of North Carolina, Asheville with D. Rakoff
    November 9, 2001 – Lisner Auditorium, Washington, DC (w/ Sedaris)
    November 10, 2001 – Buffalo


    January 25, 2002 – Vanderbilt (w/Eggers)
    January 29, 2002 – Feb 2 – Dallas
    March 14, 2002 – Pierce College, Puyallup, WA
    March 25, 2002 – Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures w/D. Rakoff
    April 4, 2002 – Austin, TX (w/ David Sedaris)
    April 13, 2002 – Winston Salem, NC (SECCA) w/ Rakoff
    April 19, 2002 – Escondido, CA (with Sedaris)
    April 29, 2002 – Berkeley with Rakoff and Sedaris
    May 3, 2002 – Northeastern University, Boston – Reading Rakoff

  • Andy Knight says:

    …and, of course, July 26 with Neal Pollack & others.

    Barclay was the first place I went, since they are pretty good about Sedaris’ and Glass’ schedules. Rakoff is missing an "appearances" page, too. (Five days in Dallas and not a one in StL? I’m revoking your invitation to my birthday party, so there.)

  • Jay Allison says:
    Great Month

    Sarah, you have been so darn…. special. thank you.

    Studs has just appeared in his topic, and I’m sure you’ll like reading and hearing him.

    This topic will continue to be yours forever, and I hope you will find time to drop by occassionally, robed in your new status as Guest Emeritus, to loft profundities from the dais.

  • Joshua Barlow says:
    Sarah Vowell Review

    We have just posted the Sarah Vowell edition of The Transom Review:

    Read highlights from Sarah Vowell’s Topic – either online, or as a downloadable, print ready PDF. Take one down, pass it around…

  • eve worth says:
    Met you two weeks ago

    At the Marin JCC. I was the one in the front row with my hand (and the hand of my husband) always up. I thought your writing and your reading exceptionally moving, regarding New York just now. So glad I could finally see you in person. Have been a fan since you wrote about Frank prior to his death. Glad to see you’re here too.

  • eve worth says:

    And no, I don’t think you’re coasting, but a shorter work week would help us all. Especially now. Did anyone fix the spell checker yet?

  • Obligatory 911 essay

    I’m still waiting for the hyper-intellectual-punk-patriot view on America’s current scariness… Have there been any recent Sarah Vowell sighting on the web?

  • Andy Knight says:

    Sarah’s latest, The Partly Cloudy Patiot, is available nationwide. Of course she’s snubbing St. Louis again, so I won’t go into details about just how danged good the book is.

    I want to go on Nightline and do a story called "Why Does She Hate Us?"… either that, or UpClose could do "Good Book, Mean Lady." Take the bait! Take it!