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Tony Kahn

Intro from Jay Allison: I encountered Tony Kahn through the radio. First, through his personal documentary series "Blacklisted," and then, as the curious and engaged host of "The World", and more recently, as an uncannily clever panelist on "Says You." Clearly, a talented fellow in all directions. When we were starting up our new public radio stations WCAI & WNAN here on the Cape & Islands, I asked for advice from many people I didn't really know. Including Tony. Mostly, when you ask people you don't really know for advice, you get the pro forma kind. Not from Tony. This is a portion of what he wrote: Let the listeners broadcast to the station. Set up kiosks, recording sites, microphones in various public places where residents and visitors can tape performances, read original work and favorite passages from literature, criticize and comment on local politics and programming, offer tips and suggestions for things to do, places to see, etc. The trick, I imagine, is in picking the sites and the subjects. You can't have microphones sprouting like wild asparagus, but good locations might be inside libraries, outside churches, near supermarket check-out counters, parks . . . That should make it clear why Tony was a natural choice for Special Guest here, and I'm very happy he accepted our invitation. His radio memoir follows.

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Under the Influence – Reflections of a Lifelong Radio Junky

Tony Kahn
05.04.01

Early Years

One of my earliest memories is of a red hot radio image from a newscast. It’s 1951 and I’m listening to the big RCA console in our Beverly Hills living room tell us that President Truman has just fired General McArthur. No one’s explained what “fired” means, but I figure they strapped this poor guy in a chair, touched a match to his pants and burned him alive. I wonder how my parents can be so happy.

Months later we’re living in the mountains of Cuernavaca, Mexico to escape the FBI and the red scare in the United States. I still don’t understand politics or a word of Spanish, but every night our short wave radio soothes my homesickness with Gene Autry shows and cowboy music from Texas. Daytime, the air is full of Mexican radio, pouring from public loudspeakers: ten mambo tunes in constant rotation and informational programs on how to keep from getting ringworm: wear shoes. It tunes me in, too, to my new life.

Five years later, I’m back in the US and radio is my secret vice. Schooldays, I play the role of a literate kid in a book-loving family, but every Saturday morning, under the cover of doing homework, I stay in bed and press my ear to a battery sucking cherry-red Sylvania portable to hear WKBR (Manchester, N.H.’s) Top 40 countdown. Two versions of “Young Love,” one by Tab Hunter, the other by Jimmy Dean, battle for number one. Rock and Roll!

Formative Years

In 1960, halfway through high school, I get tapped to be WKBR‘s school correspondent. It’s my first look at the landscape behind the microphone. What open skies! I start off writing reports; next thing I know, they let me rip and read UPI wire copy for the hourly news and do my own engineering. Making radio is like working a loom, with tasks for the eye, the ear, the mind, the hand.

And the heart. Radio is my best way to reach my old man. As his world narrows (he’s a blacklisted writer with a painful cardiac condition) he spends a lot of time listening to a little transistor radio he carries everywhere. He calls it his “ear to the cosmos” and I’m on it! Sunday evenings we hang out in his bedroom listening to the Stan Freeberg Comedy Show on CBS. Freeberg is a magician. He takes you from an interview with an abominable snowman in Nepal to the inside of a helicopter lowering a two-ton maraschino cherry on top of the world’s largest sundae. My father and I lie next to each other on his bed, laughing.

In 1962 I go to Harvard and it’s a chilly, abstract place, but WHRB, the college FM station, is a community, a workshop, and my home. I spend every spare hour there, collaborating on radio. Soon after the start of my sophomore year the Sunday bells of Memorial Church ring on Friday and a circle of students in Harvard Yard surround a kid with a portable radio. Kennedy has been shot. For the next forty eight hours I live at WHRB, covering the aftermath of the assassination and making my connection with history. To keep our coverage focused and uninterrupted, our station manager drops all commercials. This makes the evening network news – turns out we’re the first (ad-supported) station in the country to do so. Shows you how far away public radio still was.

The Best Thing About TV

It’s the late ’60s and FM radio and I go through heavy changes. I tune in, turn-on and drop out of grad school in New York; FM gets hip and locks its signal on London and British rock. I’m also in range of WBAI, an amazing independent station. Radio rock and listener-supported talk become my main source of images, ideas and impressions of the world. It’s radio that tells me that RFK and Martin Luther King have been shot, that the inner cities are burning, that love is all you need, that my draft number is 354 and I won’t have to choose between living in Canada, protesting in prison or fighting in Vietnam. Radio — and only radio — gives me the big picture. TV is simply not a factor.

Then, for about fifteen years, TV is. I wind up in Boston writing, producing, and appearing on public television. I love the exposure and the bigger audiences, but I realize something odd about TV. What I put on screen and what people actually see are different. “You know, that funny bit you did where you wore a green tie?” (Green tie? What green tie?). “That report you did on that car mechanic who looked like my Uncle Eddie?” (Uncle Eddie?)

TV images are like Rorschachs, full of unconscious process. And if people do see what’s really there, they don’t remember all that much. “I loved that NOVA you did. Something about blood.” (Some-thing? It had interviews and animations on the discovery of the circulatory system, the abilities of red cells and white cells, the architecture of arterioles and capillaries, the blood factors that can diagnose illness, solve crimes!) “Something about blood?” “Yeah, and the narrator sounded like a nice guy.”

I realize that unless the pictures and the sound support each other perfectly, cognitive dissonance sets in and the viewer is . . . gone. And if the story isn’t clearly told in the sound track, with words, effects, and music, the show itself is a goner no matter how great it looks. There is another big difference, I discover, between radio and TV. Radio makes its audience aware of itself. If someone hears something I did on the radio, they remember not only what I said but what they thought and felt at the time. With TV, it’s easy to lose a sense not only of what’s there, but who’s watching. I realize that the best thing about TV is radio.

Choosing an Epidemic

And for the last fifteen years, public radio is where I’ve been. And what a great time to be there. In the last two decades we’ve seen public radio mature and go mainstream as the voice of a thoughtful, passionately curious, inspired, story-swapping America — original, warm, expressive and smart as hell. Like any success, we’ve also seen it get maybe a little too smug for its own good, and maybe a little too slow on the draw. In fact, I think we’re at a turning point. Public radio is middle-aged and it’s got to figure out how to rejuvenate itself with new technologies and new voices. That’s its biggest opportunity and biggest threat in years.

Transom.org is part of the process of trying to keep public radio fresh. I’m excited that Jay Allison has asked me to hang out here for the next month to lend an ear and a hand to any of you working on telling radio stories. For me, telling good stories is what it’s all about. I have only two criteria – a story succeeds when a) people stop to listen and b) they then rush off to tell the story to someone else. Good stories are like viruses – they use people to spread. I want to help keep the epidemic going.

Let’s talk.
Tony Kahn

<2>Conversation With Tony Kahn: On Stories

Tony asked: “What are your criteria for good stories? What stories have you heard that wouldn’t let you go? Can you explain why? What did you learn from it you can share as good advice – or inspiration for the rest of us?”

Nannette 05.05.01

My criteria: strong, specific personal images and revelations that can be extrapolated to my own and others’ experiences.

Personal Questions, Personal Experience- Tony Kahn 05.07.01

I agree. If the story we hear isn’t an experience for us, it doesn’t stick. What makes it an experience? It gives us something solid, real, relevant to respond to. For me, a memorable story offers a real person in action, or the kind of sensory details I can remember or imagine from my own experience. There are a zillion ways to do this right, of course, and a zillion ways to do it wrong, but, in general, abstract ideas about life, generalizations of any kind, lose my attention on the radio, and anything that shows me something in action tends to keep my focus. Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns, actions and events rather than concepts, and it’ll snap to attention.

I remember, a few years ago, when I was writing the script for my docu-drama on the Hollywood Blacklist, “Blacklisted,” I asked myself, how in God’s name and I going to squeeze fifteen years of personal history, national politics, and family trauma in three different countries into three hours and say something that listeners can follow and connect with? The question kept me in a panic for months. Finally, it occurred to me that whatever I put in had to be an action. Something had to be happening to somebody at every moment and one thing had to lead directly to another. Maybe that meant I wouldn’t ever be able to “step back” and put the whole story in some bigger historical context, but if the actions I chose were right and showed real people behaving in a real way, listeners would be able to understand the broader issues and be able to imagine what they themselves might have done. So, in the whole series, you never hear a single discussion about the meaning or the significance of the Hollywood Blacklist or speculations on the reasons people took the sides that they did, but you do get a vivid experience of the fear people felt, the lies they told themselves and each other, the gutsy ways they stood up for what was right, and maybe even the awful “ordinariness” of those times, and how they could happen all over again, to you or me.

This “abstract” vs. “real experience” business is something I think about daily. I work on a news show. Often the only way to cover a story quickly is by generalizations — “this development occurred today and here is what experts and politicians said it means,” — but if you don’t show how the story played out in the life of some individual you can visualize and even imagine could be you, you don’t remember much about it. And doing that right takes a lot more time.

Blacklisted- Jay Allison 05.07.01

As I remember it, the entire Blacklisted series was action. In fact, as much as I really admired it, I recall feeling somewhat overwhelmed at times by the density of action, perhaps compounded by the reverb effect. I’d like to hear it again. Is it available? Would you do it any differently now? Did you get significant response from people who were involved?

On Technique and Trauma- Tony Kahn 05.07.01

You can get Blacklisted through audible.com as a stereo .mp3 download (their format) or as a series of cassettes via Lodestone:

LodesTone
Telephone: 800.411.MIND
www.LodesTone-Media.com

As for doing it differently now, that’s so tough to answer for me, still. I did it originally to answer some very personal questions for myself. I had gone through that nightmare as a kid and I needed to understand it as an adult and a father and to understand what the adults at the time were really experiencing. (You know what kids are like – if anything goes wrong in the family, they think it’s their fault or a problem they ought to be able to solve. Not a great way to make sense of politics and red scares.) Luckily, I had plenty of documentary material to give me a feeling for what my parents and others never dared reveal to a kid at the time. Once I’d finished understanding and telling their story, I felt done with it and wanted to move on. It was therapeutic and hard to imagine repeating or re-doing some other way. If I were to try to tell it today, it would be a different story.

Technically, I was working with a lot of elements — what was said on the media at the time (real recordings from the National Archives), what people were writing in their letters and diaries, the denunciations people were sending to the FBI that I discovered in my father’s FBI files years later, reconstructed and dramatized conversations and political rallies, and people’s unspoken thoughts and monologues. I tried to find ways of setting them off from each other in terms of stereo placement, EQ, etc. that people could follow easily and understand at once. Also, to keep the drama from ever feeling like it was locked in the studio, I made sure that there was real ambience for every scene, whether it was an office, FBI headquarters, cafe in Mexico, or a train station in Budapest. I recorded backgrounds in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, relying on commercial SFX libraries only when I couldn’t get the sound on location myself. I recorded the cast wherever and whenever they were free, usually in Los Angeles or New York and never together, so all the scenes between them were created in the editing. It was one of those experiences that made me appreciate the difference between good actors and great ones, like Carroll O’Connor, Eli Wallach and Stockard Channing, who could give you the feeling they were responding directly to another character, when it was only me reading the character’s lines into their headphones. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have changed any of the elements, but I might have tried to pull them together on fewer trips.

Did I get significant response from people who were involved? Yes, but interestingly, not much. I heard a lot from people who had either never known about the Blacklist and were amazed it had happened in America or from people who felt they’d gone through something similar because of other kinds of discrimination, like racism, or homophobia, or nationalist feelings, that had targeted them. It gave me a very good feeling that I’d find enough points in common with my story to make it a story about them, too. Maybe the people who had been through the Blacklist itself preferred not to have to relive the harder parts.

Remembering Blacklisted – Carol Wasserman 05.14.01

Blacklisted’ was the first public radio show I ever heard talked about, out in the street, by people I had not known to be public radio listeners. It was an audacious act, making radio out of our parents’ nightmares, the ones which we had been forbidden to acknowledge or discuss. For those of us from a certain time and place in history, what we remember most about our childhoods is how scared the grown-ups were. And how formless the fear seemed, because no one dared discuss its specifics with us. Too much information could be dangerous.

So it surprised me to learn how many of us had been warned to keep quiet. And how grateful, now, so many people were for the bravery and generosity of Tony Kahn. Who dared to break our parents’ silence. And in doing so gave us permission to share notes. Speak openly about things which we knew to be forbidden. Things which would cause the world to end, were they to be talked about in public. On the street. On the radio.

I don’t think anyone I heard talking about the series ever wrote to thank you. I didn’t write – I was much too shy. I’m sorry.

But there were many people profoundly affected by your work.

Silence and Fear – Tony Kahn 05.15.01

Carol, thanks. Silence is such a big part of people’s stories. It is the language of fear, sometimes. It took me forty years to penetrate some of the silences I grew up with to tell my parents’ story; some of my earliest memories, in fact, are of the crushing weight of things not said and fears not shared. I heard from a lot of people after “Blacklisted” aired who had their own stories to tell about the silences they grew up with. One woman sent me an image from her own life I never forgot. She was working class Irish and her uncle had been a union organizer in the ’30s. When the Red Scare began no one in the family would talk about him. One day she discovered a picture of him, in a newspaper article describing a strike he had led for shoe workers in Lowell, Mass, hidden under a lace doily on top of the television set. It hadn’t been forgotten there — she noticed someone dusted it regularly.

Losing Faith- Nannette 05.09.01

Why didn’t you lose faith in people, basic communications and the media?

Keeping Faith- Tony Kahn 05.10.01

My brother Jim is three years older. We went through the blacklist period side by side. He fought it every second, struck back at every insult, had a fist fight with the next door kid who called us dirty communists, has challenged anyone’s right to brand him ever since. I became more the quiet observer, the accommodate wherever possible, the kid whose best survival strategy was silence. I asked Jim once why we responded so differently to the same circumstances – different temperaments? He said something that I never forgot. “Tony, I was six when the blacklist started, you were three. I remember happy times when Dad and I took walks together and he had time to show me wonderful things before they threw us out of the garden. All you ever knew was the fear and the silence. I had an Eden I wanted to get back to. You didn’t.”

I never lost faith in people, I guess, because I never had much of it to begin with. I didn’t challenge the media because I had never seen it lose its conscience; like nighttime, I took the darkness for granted.

What I did learn from the period, looking back, seeing neighbors and friends turn away from us or other blacklisted people was that most people scare easily, that the difference between people who can stand up to fear and those who can’t is totally unpredictable (you don’t know how you’re going to handle a major threat to your economic survival or a moral crisis until it happens; you can hope you’ll live by your principles, but you don’t know) and that the kind of character it takes not to inform on others to save your skin is extremely rare all over the world and probably something you’re born with and virtually impossible to teach.

My father happened to be an honest man. He just was. He wouldn’t even ask for a loan he desperately needed without saying what a bad credit risk he was. He never thought he was being brave by standing up for his political principles. He just knew he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. I’ll never know whether I inherited that trait until I face a similar crisis. (I went through the blacklist not as a father with a family to support, but as a kid, and that’s a huge difference.) What I think I tried to suggest in Blacklisted was that when things go bad, most people behave badly. Our best defense as a society is to try to spot the political tendencies that can lead to terror before they go too far, because once the terror arrives, the talking stops and the silence begins.

What Have You Heard Lately?- Tony Kahn 05.08.01

Let me repeat my original question. What makes a story memorable for you? Better yet, what have you heard RECENTLY on public radio you couldn’t wait to tell someone else? And when you did, how did you describe it?

The Execution Tapes – Andy Knight 05.08.01

The Execution Tapes really got me – they blew me away. I had expected and imagined it to be cold and clinical, which it was, but hearing the reality of it all still managed to surprise me.

The Holding Power of Surprise – Tony Kahn 05.08.01

Andy – thanks for joining the conversation. Next to the sheer impact of real, well-chosen details, the stuff of real life, surprise is what holds me to a story. The kind of surprise when the story takes a different direction from the one I expected. The sort of thing that brings me up against my expectations, the limits of my imagination, my blind spots.

This American Life does that all the time. They start out and tell you a very interesting story with a clear narrative line, absorbing all by itself, distinctive, quirky, unique, often about someone getting one of their first serious insights into adult life. And then, just when you think you know where it’s going, the story takes a turn and uncovers another, surprising layer of the narrator’s life or the relationship he/she’s describing. Now THAT’s masterful. A direct laying on of hands to your mind. A surprise that opens your imagination like a flower.

Voice – cw 05.08.01

There’s a DJ on WWOZ here in New Orleans who is either an old man or an old woman. His voice cracks when he talks and he gets very excited about what he’s just played, quoting from liner notes and personal recollection of live performances from 50 years ago. He has genuine, as opposed to contrived or self conscious, enthusiasm. He tells stories, and the stories aren’t always interesting, but the way his voice breaks with joy is. Real enthusiasm makes for good radio.

Emperor of the Universe Ernie K. Doe used to go on WTUL here in New Orleans drunk. He
would scream over the albums he was playing, “Burn, Doe, burn! Burn K-Doe, burn!” I could listen for hours.

In the category of memorable radio, I might even place Dr. Laura. She delivers a product known as moral certitude. She takes control of the callers/questioners/pilgrims by psychologically berating them within the first two minutes, wresting control ruthlessly and quickly. Too bad “Dr.” Laura is a dangerous bluffing liar. Her schtick makes for outrageously good radio at times.

Behind the Voice – Tony Kahn 05.08.01

cw – what a brilliant response to the sheer character that comes in a voice. Just terrific! Reminds me that the voice is a vital organ that just happens to hang outside your body. But it carries all the warmth and vitality of your character. Only the best actors in the world can disguise what the real message in the tone and the timber of their voice is. Actually, even they can’t. What they do is master what’s inside them so that their voice DOES reflect it.

The really great voices, the memorable ones we respond to, always carry a message apart from the words they speak. It’s the emotional undercurrent, the feeling behind the words.

Dinner Parties- Nannette 05.09.01

To me the best radio, like the best film, involves some kind of culture clash, a cross-cultural encounter in the broadest sense.

Listening to a good host, like yourself, I feel as though I’ve been invited to a dinner party. I like that you do all the planning and cooking, and I just show up with a few flowers.

The Host’s Job – Tony Kahn 05.10.01

I love your remark (about culture clash). It broadens what I was trying to get at by the element of surprise, the turns a story can take that kick our mind into high gear. And that can, maybe paradoxically, make you feel closer to the material because of its “strangeness.” On “The World” we’re always on the look out for stories that show the ways people interpret or experience the same things differently. It broadens the sense of your own possibilities.

My favorite interviews are with guests who come to the studio. We get to share the same space. The eye contact, the body language, the shared oxygen really help the spirit of collaboration. And for me, the best interviews come from collaboration, getting someone to explain what they’re talking about in terms that feel like a real lived-in experience to you. When things work just right (as they so rarely do!) I feel like I’m a guest at a great party myself.

Identity and Persona – Jay Allison 05.10.01

Tony, I’d be interested in your take on Identity or Persona on the radio. I’ve heard you in various contexts, and while it’s always YOU, the manner is obviously different between, say, “Says You” and “The World.”

Your adjustment may be as simple as dressing differently for a formal function or casual party, but do you ever find your persona bumping into your personality? Do you change that “single person” you’re talking to? Do you improvise the same way in both contexts? Do you have any context on the radio where you’d improvise so thoroughly that there’s actual risk of ending up someplace strange and unfamiliar?

cw was talking about this. I think on public radio, you mostly know how it will end. Nothing too unexpected will occur. The host will see to that. There’s a script, some kind of script, somewhere. Sure, we want to know how the story will end, but know it probably won’t go careening off into new territory.

I think this is an advantage that Howard Stern & Co. hold. You aren’t sure what will happen, how strange it will get (although, now, their extremity is becoming as mundane as our decorum).

Brecht used to talk about this, how he wanted the vital unpredictability of the sporting event to enter the theatre, for the play to move outside the lines. But, even with that intention, the formality of the theatre held fast.

Splitting – Tony Kahn 05.10.01

Jay, I did a theater exercise years ago, in my twenties, that scared the hell out of me. The director had two people sit beside me, one at either ear. He asked them to conduct different conversations with me at the same time. My task was to keep both conversations going simultaneously. I looked straight ahead, let my mind sort of split in two, and plunged in. What a trip! I succeeded wonderfully — and it left me, aside from the exhilaration, with virtually no memory of the experience whatsoever. The two simultaneous conversations ended up having no substance for me at all.

I learned that I have an ability to split my mind (and aspects of my personality) in two but if it gets out of hand, the price I pay is huge – I don’t end up being there at all. Like most people, I have to divide up parts of myself at work, conduct an interview with someone on the phone, say, while the producer on the other side of the studio glass is saying (or shouting) something else in my ear, read through briefing notes on one story we’re going to cover while listening to someone else tell me about another, be a news host on one show and a quiz show panelist on the other, or, challenge someone I happen to agree with in an interview to make room for an opposing point of view. We’re all chameleons that way; I think civilization probably depends on it. But what I try to do is make sure I am genuinely interested in whatever I’m doing. And for that I’ve got an iron-clad test: at the end of the day, can I remember it clearly? So, I try to be there for each “side” of myself. If I am, I’ll also be at my most relaxed, and that, for me, is my most creative/generous/humorous state.

Good Stories – Viki Merrick 05.11.01

I am normally a rather rambunctious individual but REALLY good stories make me quiet. Tell me a good story and I have nothing to say. For a while.

The first story that jumped to my mind in response to your question was the Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael Baronowski. After I heard the final cut I had to go home and debrief, cutting vegetables, alone. Three hours later I couldn’t shut up about it.

Your “memoir” had a similar effect on me. You wrote it carefully but it was not overly produced, not a lot of filters.

I was captivated by Carmen Delzell’s Off the Bus – it scared the bejeesus out of me. Unadorned, you can’t look away or make up explanations. I like looking under the dust ruffle – seeing how MUCH dust, how many boxes filled with what oddities. Hearing about things I have never done, felt, owned or dared. It’s the stories of the undersides of people that fill me up, steal my words and leave me still.

The Importance of Response – Tony Kahn 05.11.01

Viki, thank you. I am awed by the responses I’ve been getting from thoughtful, honest, eloquent lovers of good radio, like you.

One of the things I’ve appreciated – deeply – from being a guest here is how little people like me who are on the air hear from people who listen. Sure, we get compliments and criticisms on specific things we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, but not a peep about what happens when radio really connects — the ripples it sets off in people’s minds, and the depths they take it to in their own lives. A good piece of provocative radio, whatever kind, is the start of a conversation, but radio provides very little air space to the listener, to keep the conversation going and growing. There ought to be a show, call it “Follow Up” or whatever you like, that gives us a chance to hear what thoughts and stories and memories have been generated on the other side of the microphone. And not just in sound bites, or as part of one call-in on-air brawl, but respectfully produced. In a sense, this is what the internet does in an on-going discussion like this.

Studs Terkel and the Abstraction Generalization – Harriet Reisen 05.12.01

I’ve been listening to Studs Terkel’s collection of interviews from his radio archives beginning in the 50’s. I’m struck by the extent to which they are abstract. He reveals very little biographical information in the intros to people such as Buckminster Fuller, Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The beginnings of the interviews are “personal” only insofar as they characterize the mind-set of the guests in their answers to questions from Terkel such as (to Fuller) “are you an optimist about the future?” and (to Singer) “would you say you’re a mystic?”

After that, Studs takes the interviews into cultural, political, and philosophical realms, asking Parker what she thinks of the beat poets (they won’t last) and Baldwin to expand on his title “Nobody Knows My Name”(“Americans know more about Europeans than white people know about me and their other Negro “‘kissing cousins'”). Daniel Ellsberg is asked nothing and says nothing about how he accomplished the theft of the Pentagon Papers and its personal consequences; he talks only about free speech and his bet that the American people wouldn’t stand for the Vietnam War knowing the truth the papers contained. Margaret Mead thinks the media personalization of events such as the (then recent) JFK assassination has the potential to make people care about the fate of every human being. Studs and I.B. Singer discuss Studs’ thought that “without passion there can be no compassion” like a couple of sophomores late at night in a dorm.

What makes these interviews so compelling despite their lack of narrative or anecdotes? Every one of Studs’ people (many now long dead) seems to be right in the car with you. I know that’s a clichŽ about radio but it’s often not true: for instance, in the case of authors on book tours (while their weary minds are back at home) mouthing their selling points while the interviewer (who’s listening to the producer, or counting down to the next segment) picks another question from the list supplied by the researcher and delivers it in pearly tones or in character as a wise guy, say.

If you hadn’t raised the question of abstraction and the need for the particular I don’t think I would have noticed how philosophical Studs’ interviews are. What’s his secret?

The Relationship of Interview to Story – Tony Kahn 05.12.01

Studs’ pieces are interviews, not stories, except in the broadest sense. Take all his interviews together and you get the outlines of the “big story” I think he tries to tell in a lot of what he does, on air and on the page – the story of Americans, high and low, artists and tradespeople, politicians and common citizens, wrestling with the spirit of America. In the interviews, Studs does – maybe better than anyone else alive – what Chris Lydon did on the Connection, be the spark, the stoker, the empath or the inciter to bring out the guest’s passion for his subject. Studs is the perfect collaborator, helping you bring out the best possible expression of what you think or feel about something. Listen to how often he encourages a guest by playing back to him or her, as if for the sake of clarification, a slight variation of what they just said. They respond with enthusiasm, partly because he’s agreeing with them, I suppose, but also because he’s offered a slight adjustment (call it a “re-write”) that gets them even deeper into or thinking more sharply about what they’re discussing. And you’re right — this kind of stuff is as compelling as any good story. You KNOW how I felt about The Connection and how I put it on my list of “if I had only one show I could listen to day in and day out on a desert island . . .”

Maybe what makes Studs’ interviews feel as satisfying as more traditional “story” material is that, like a good narrative that grabs you and that you immediately want to re-tell to somebody else, they, too, are full of actions and revealing details – only in this case the actions are thoughts expressed with passion, opinions that wrestle with issues in your own life, and sparks of character that kindle your own sense of being alive.

Studs Terkel – Bill McKibben 05.17.01

Can I tell a Studs Terkel story? Not much of a story, but it illustrated something, at least to me. I was on my first book tour, seven or eight cities out, endlessly mouthing the same chunkettes of prose, when I washed up in Chicago. And I went on Studs’ show – this would have been 1989, fairly near the end of his run, I think – and all of a sudden everything changed. Here was the most famous guy I met that whole month, unless you count the folk on, say, the Today show who are famous without being important, and here was also the guy who had worked the hardest to understand the book. Who had picked out records from his collection for the intros to each segment (am I right in remembering this show went on for an hour?) And in return he got – well, he got a hell of a lot more out of me than anyone else did, that’s for sure. He was truly there, not half there. That’s what I like about Lydon too, truth be told. In a cynical age, engagement really bumps up all the levels on the control board (or something–radio metaphors are not my forte).

Studs – Tony Kahn 05.18.01

Bill, thanks for the memory. Reminds me of my one encounter with Studs. I’d gone to Chicago to record some promos with him for “Blacklisted,” which he’d been kind enough to agree to. I’d scheduled twenty minutes with him. He gave me two hours and lunch.

The topic of the Blacklist was a major piece of American history for him and, if something matters to him, he doesn’t just talk about it, he brings it back to life. And he LISTENS with an energy that’s a little superhuman. I’ve got proof — about halfway through our time together I noticed his hearing aids were giving him a lot of trouble — and he still heard everything.

The Unspoken True Stories – Tony Kahn 05.15.011

Carol, I notice from your earlier postings in the Inside-Out discussion group that getting to people’s real, unspoken stories is important to you. Personally, I think that finding those unspoken stories is maybe the single most valuable discovery a person can make. What you said got me to thinking about that and I wrote something to you there. Let me repeat some of it here:

How do you get people who are not accomplished story tellers to find their own true story? What are the clues/criteria to go hunting for as a producer when you find someone who might be a likely subject? So much of what we hear on the air, it seems to me, are the kinds of stories that – or lack of a better phrase – “know where they’re going.” The story teller, whether it’s the producer or the subject, seem to be firmly at the helm, steering the story to shore. I have no objection to that – story telling is an art, and being in control of your materials gives you wonderful opportunities to make the trip – and the view along the way – stunning. But how many stories do we hear that are acts of a deeper kind of discovery, where the story teller is also in the process of trying to find out where the story is going, what the real story is? Do people who are less experienced story tellers give us, as producers, more of an opportunity to explore the kinds of stories that people are, in a sense, telling for the very first time? I suppose you could say successful therapy does a similar thing. You “break through” to an understanding of the real story you never told before — to yourself and to someone else – about yourself. Anyway, this all leads up to a question for me as a producer. “Does everyone,” as you sometimes hear it said, “have a story?” And, if they do, how do you get it out of them? Have you ever considered doing an episode of Inside-Out where you try to explore the idea that everyone has a story to tell they, maybe, have never told themselves before? It’s an idea I’m exploring myself. I wonder how you’d go about it.

Getting the Real Stories – Robin Amer 05.16.01

When Ira Glass came (to Brown University) and critiqued our show he played us a five or six minute story he did for All Things Considered a few years back about a “Dead Animal Man,” a man who the Washington DC sanitation department pays to go around and collect dead animals. (road kill, dead pets). At a certain point in the story, there’s a clip of Ira asking him how his job had changed the way he views animals. When the man responded that his view hadn’t changed, there is first a pause, and then Ira saying “Oh COME ON!” in disbelief. The conversation continues from there, with Ira and the man talking casually, laughing, discussing how the man is a grim reaper or an angel for these animals, depending on how you look at it. Very funny piece! And this in the middle of an otherwise standardly formal ATC format.

First is the issue of change. I think it’s ok to go into an interview not entirely sure of what you’re going to get or what the person’s going to say, but, as Ira told us, it’s not a story if nothing or no one changes. So asking questions about change, asking them to consider and compare before and after is a good place to start. Ira said that when he and his staff meet and consider pieces for their show that’s one of the first things they ask themselves: who changed? This is incredibly important for character driven pieces.

Second is the idea of being a real person on tape/during an interview. The first few interviews I did (not to say I’m totally over this!) I think I would accept what people said pretty uncritically, without pushing the envelope too far. I treated the interview with great formality, and was little intimidated by the process and unable to actually respond like a real person would in a conversation. I never would have responded to someone the way Ira was able to do, with skeptical humor that provoked an interesting response. But I think this is especially valuable, being able to react to what you hear in an interview or in the course of a story with incredulity and skepticism, and reacting realistically, because the interview will sound more genuine and you will probably get more interesting subject matter.

The Silence Before the Story – Tony Kahn – 05.17.01

Sometimes, as you suggest, the best thing an interviewer can do is play back the speaker to himself. When you restate what the subject said, tweaking it a little in the direction you want it to go you can often get a level deeper. For one thing, the speaker appreciates that you have been listening, and may feel more at ease, for another, they may hear something they haven’t been listening to in their own words and rethink it, re-feel it, explore it further. Studs Terkel is a master at this. Sometimes, you can say nothing at all and it’ll help. Let me offer an example:

I was interviewing someone about a very painful period in her marriage, something I knew she had talked about before. She described the sadness, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was at a loss for what to ask her that I hadn’t already asked that might get us to the next level. So, pretty much by default, I ended up saying — nothing. She finished her account then stopped and looked at me for my next question. I looked back at her, I hope with respect, certainly without any further demands of her, and just let the silence continue. The tension that started to build was the first genuine emotion I think either of us had felt so far and, a few seconds later, she started to talk, partly, no doubt, to cover the embarrassing silence, but from a much deeper place. Her story came to life, memorably, with emotions experienced, it felt to me, as if for the first time.

I wish I could say I discovered a technique there I could use effectively again and again. No such luck. Every interview is different.

Production Quotas – Carol Wasserman 05.23.01

Tony, I would like to know how you come up with something to say, week in and week out, year after year. How do you become a long-distance runner?

The Slipstream – Tony Kahn 05.23.01

Carol, what an intriguing image. It suggests an answer for me, too. “Find the slipstream and let it carry you along.” In other words, do what you already do so well – appreciate the things other people are passionate about or deeply involved with and let that inspire you.

When you let people know what it is you find exciting about them they usually give you even more — unless they’re totally bent out of shape. And because people are so wonderfully idiosyncratic, you’re probably always going to find them a lot more surprising, intriguing and stimulating than you find yourself.

The stuff I do that I’m happiest about is almost always a kind of collage, an arrangement of great moments other people give me. The most creative thing I do is edit.

In The Dark Heart of Chat Journalism – John Jacobsen 05.27.01

Tony – I consider you an avid explorer of the information flow. You are the headlights driving down Alpha Road, the early adopter – Dr. Livingston searching for the source of denial. So, as you approach the end of this month’s exploration, what can you report from this uncharted medium of public communication? How do you describe the land of chat journalism?

And Mr. Stanley Wants to Know….Jay Allison 05.27.01

And while you’re at it, Tony, I wouldn’t mind some pithy musings on the state of public radio. What it’s doing well, what it needs to try. If we are the “news source of record” how do we also take wild chances, invent new things? Surely we’re not too mature…

The Horse-Drawn Laptop – Tony Kahn 05.27.01

John, it’s funny you give me credit for being an early adapter. Right now I’m in rural Cape Cod, working on my wife Harriet’s horse-drawn Toshiba laptop from the mid-’90s. But you’ve cracked my big secret. As my friend Judy Stoia says, “Kiddo, the truth is you’re a gearhead.” Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to technology. Not as an engineer – I still have no good image for what electricity is – but as someone drawn, as if sheer magnetism, to tubes, wires, and their combined promise of reaching the whole world at once. I was eleven when I returned to the States and my first television set, a black and white RCA that smelled like burned toast and produced a nearly constant stream of static. You could always find me in some vaguely obscene arrangement with my nose up its innards, fiddling with tubes and knobs, trying to make it work. Computers, for me, were a dream come true, a way of being in charge of a world directly responsive to my touch and, increasingly in contact with anyone else around the world, to whatever degree felt comfortable.

I discovered, as soon as communication became part of the powers of a personal computer, that I was as shy on line as I was in person. Once (I swear! Only once!) two lady friends of mine and I logged on to Compuserve as a 21 year old woman named Melody to see what would happen in a free-for-all-chat-room and that was plenty. So, for me, spending a month like this on-line has been a big step forward exploring the kinds of connections I can make. Since I tend to do most of my thinking in conversation rather than in isolation, it’s also been a way of exploring some ideas about radio and trying to be more explicit and conscious of the things I usually do by instinct. The one area where I feel I haven’t had time to explore this on-line business at Transom is in making the discussion more interactive. I’d hoped we’d have time to try out some production experiments like uploading some raw tapes of an interview and exchanging ideas and edits on line. Unfortunately, the month has gone by too quickly. But I’m just getting started.

And Those Pithy Musing You Asked For – Tony Kahn 05.28.01

I’m glad you didn’t ask for great ideas. Even if I had them, they wouldn’t matter. Great ideas are like tadpoles in the piranha pond of life. We’ve probably all been to enough brain storming sessions to know that great ideas rarely make it to maturity. The main thing that makes a person or an institution change is a crisis and I don’t think we’re in a crisis yet. As long as the old way of doing things works and is tolerable, it’ll stay in place.

Actually, great leadership and a great idea together can sometimes work big changes, if the timing’s right. I’m thinking in particular of what Geraldine Laybourne did years ago at Nickelodeon, when she changed it from an undistinguished children’s cable channel to the most exciting and original brand in broadcasting. She was terrific at inspiring creative people and a genius at setting the right limitations. She offered a $20,000 budget and a day or two of studio time to anyone on staff — anyone! — who had an idea for a kid’s show they wanted to pilot. People in their twenties, not that far from being kids themselves, came up with neat, inexpensive dramas and game shows that were just the kinds of things kids naturally responded to — lots of silliness, lots of messy goop, tons of mayhem and sass. It gave Nickelodeon a whole new energy and identity. It set an example for how to imbue an operation with new life that even Geraldine hasn’t been able to repeat.

For me, though, the moral is she stopped talking about what to do and just did whatever she could afford at the time. From that came the stuff that got used and refined. I see similar energy and ideas coming from efforts like Transom a lot sooner than from NPR. So, whatever the state of public programming is, I’m betting on something interesting and inspiring coming from your neck of the woods and young producers than from the “establishment.” Not that I’m against experience and guidance – some of my best friends are middle-aged, but, you know…..

Hasta Luego – Tony Kahn 05.31.01

A dear friend of mine, Jayne Chamberlin, once said, “My, Tony, how the time flies when I do the talking!”

I hope that’s not too relevant here, but this past month has sped by for me. I’m grateful to all of you for that – for your comments and questions (and to the lurkers for not flaming me) on a wide range of topics from the art of listening, to the techniques of interviewing, to the power of silence at the heart of good radio stories. I hope I’ve given back some of the energy and thoughtfulness you’ve offered me. I’m especially grateful for the chance to put words to some of the things that make working in radio for me such a fascinating process day to day – and nowadays in particular.

A thousand years from now they’re probably going to be digging up the remains of our culture. Chances are nothing will be left of public radio by then but broken coffee mugs with mysterious markings like “All Things Considered”, “The World”, and “Fresh Air”, and I’m betting archeologists are going to mistake them for religious artifacts belonging to the “priestly class”. A part of me, though, has this sneaky suspicion that radio is the most enduring medium of all, the most human, the one best able to communicate our need to be in touch, and that people 300 generations from now will still be wrestling with the best ways to get each other’s ear and rejoicing when they do. In any event, having the chance to do that myself has been the luckiest break in my life.

If you’re interesting in continuing our conversation here, feel free to check in. I’ll be around and eager to hear from you. In fact, in the true public radio spirit of roping listeners, how about this for an offer: one free three-cassette copy of “Blacklisted” for the person (other than me) who leaves message #150!

Hasta Luego,
Tony

Tony, Don’t Go….Jay Allison 06.03.01

You have been so kindly here, each posting a promptly delivered, useful, engaging little parable. I said at the station the other day I want you just to be around for advice on anything…say, a pie recipe or getting my motorcycle started.

And indeed, all Transom visitors will be glad to know that Tony has agreed to be a Guest Emeritus and hang out in his topic and wherever else he’s needed – in our common quest for perfect crust and carburation.

(Matching grant: a Transom T-shirt too for an eloquent Message #150)

A Note to Sarah Vowell – Tony Kahn 06.04.01

Thanks, Jay. In my rush out the door, I neglected to clean my desk for Sarah Vowell, your next guest and one of the most delightful voices and sensibilities in public radio. Sarah, if you’re listening, feel free to toss anything you don’t need. Especially the reading glasses. I suspect you’re too young to know this from experience, but the need for reading glasses coincides exactly with your inability to remember where you left anything.

Tony

Tony Kahn

About
Tony Kahn

Tony Kahn brings many award-winning talents to his duties on The World, the PRI/BBC international news magazine produced at WGBH in Boston. Kahn serves as alternate host and special correspondent and writes, produces and hosts "Tony Kahn's Journal." A regular feature of The World, "Tony Kahn's Journal" looks beyond the headlines to explore cultural, political and scientific topics of importance, often using as a focal point remarkable individuals whose stories offer a unique perspective on the issue. The World is heard by more than one million and a quarter listeners each week on public radio stations across the country, as well as in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. Kahn has written, produced, narrated and hosted more than 50 radio and television programs and series for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), Nickelodeon, A&E, Monitor Radio, and Boston television stations WGBH and WCVB. He was most recently acclaimed for his public radio series Blacklisted, which chronicled the Hollywood blacklisting of his screenwriter father Gordon Kahn during the McCarthy era. In addition to his work with The World, Kahn is a regular panelist on WGBH/NPR's weekly witty word game show, Says You! He has been a regular commentator for Public Radio International's Marketplace and NPR's Morning Edition. Kahn's broadcast work has received 12 New England Emmys, a National Emmy nomination, six Gold Medals of the New York International Festival, an Ohio State Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award for Feature Reporting, the A.I.R. Radio Award for Radio Interviewing, and the Grand Award for Radio Drama from the New York International Festival. Several of his documentaries have been screened at film festivals throughout the US; other works, including three plays and five screenplays, have received notable recognition. In addition, Kahn has received a Writer's Guild of America Screenwriting Fellowship. Prior to his work in broadcasting, Kahn was a Russian scholar and translator and published four books of translations of Russian poetry, biography and fiction. He graduated Magna cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University and holds a Master's Degree in Slavic Studies from Columbia University. Listen to Tony's "Box-O-Phobia" in MP3 or Real Audio G2 Listen to Tony's "Here's Looking at You" in MP3 Listen to Tony's "Harvard 25th Anniversary" in MP3

Comments

  • Jay Allison

    5.03.01

    Welcome, Tony…

    I encountered Tony Kahn through the radio. First, through his personal documentary series "Blacklisted," and then, as the curious and engaged host of "The World", and more recently, as an uncannily clever panelist on "Says You."

    Clearly, a talented fellow in all directions.

    When we were starting up our new public radio stations WCAI & WNAN here on the Cape & Islands, I asked for advice from many people I didn’t really know. Including Tony. Mostly, when you ask people you don’t really know for advice, you get the pro forma kind.

    Not from Tony.

    This is a portion of what he wrote:

    >Let the listeners broadcast to the station. Set up kiosks, recording sites, microphones in various public places where residents and visitors can tape performances, read original work and favorite passages from literature, criticize and comment on local politics and programming, offer tips and suggestions for things to do, places to see, etc. The trick, I imagine, is in picking the sites and the subjects. You can’t have microphones sprouting like wild asparagus, but good locations might be inside libraries, outside churches, near supermarket check-out counters, parks . . . Some topics that might elicit interesting/usable comments and convey a sense of local color and atmosphere could be:
    >
    >-your biggest worry this week,
    >
    >-a beautiful or reprehensible thing you just saw,
    >
    >-your favorite view, place to take a walk or be at sunset or in a storm,
    >
    >-the most irritating noise in the area,
    >
    >-what you’d like to hear again that you missed or enjoyed on public radio,
    >
    >-special questions of the week regarding the news, recent public events, current programming, etc.
    >
    >I’d love to hear listener comments on local and national programs air not just on the shows they’re addressed to, as part of some specific "listener’s mailbag," but between programs, in some imaginative formats, so you can think of public radio programming as a totality, as part of an ongoing conversation between programs and their listeners.
    >
    >Apropos of nothing, I also am a big fan of "process" pieces, reports and stories that illustrate how something happens, how an institution really works, the details of how people go about their business. One of the most unforgettable pieces of public radio programming I ever heard (it not only had "driveway potential," it had a "kitchen component" – after staying in my parked car to hear it, I rushed into the kitchen to tell my wife about it) was about how to design and run your own restaurant. I think it was an eight or nine part series on ATC that followed a Chicago couple through their failed attempt to make their restaurant dream come true. Process is incredibly radio-visual; the images it makes you conjure, like those of any great story, seem to stay with you forever. It’s part of the core content of public radio and I’d love to see it applied to local events, local personalities, local ventures. Show how a local piece of legislation or town business passes, how a fisherman fishes, how a cop does his beat, how a retailer hires and prepares for the summer rush, how a teacher prepares for her class, how the local medical service handles an emergency, etc. It could be a nice dynamic way of letting the community experience itself – as a series of people and processes…

    That should make it clear why Tony was a natural choice for Special Guest here, and I’m very happy he accepted our invitation. His Radio Memoir follows.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.04.01

    Under the Influence – Reflections of a Lifelong Radio Junky pt.1

    One of my earliest memories is of a red hot radio image from a newscast. It’s 1951 and I’m listening to the big RCA console in our Beverly Hills living room tell us that President Truman has just fired General McArthur. No one’s explained what "fired" means, but I figure they strapped this poor guy in a chair, touched a match to his pants and burned him alive. I wonder how my parents can be so happy.

    Months later we’re living in the mountains of Cuernavaca, Mexico to escape the FBI and the red scare in the United States. I still don’t understand politics or a word of Spanish, but every night our short wave radio soothes my homesickness with Gene Autry shows and cowboy music from Texas. Daytime, the air is full of Mexican radio, pouring from public loudspeakers: ten mambo tunes in constant rotation and informational programs on how to keep from getting ringworm: wear shoes. It tunes me in, too, to my new life.

    Five years later, I’m back in the US and radio is my secret vice. Schooldays, I play the role of a literate kid in a book-loving family, but every Saturday morning, under the cover of doing homework, I stay in bed and press my ear to a battery sucking cherry-red Sylvania portable to hear WKBR (Manchester, N.H.’s) Top 40 countdown. Two versions of “Young Love,” one by Tab Hunter, the other by Jimmy Dean, battle for number one. Rock and Roll!

    In 1960, halfway through high school, I get tapped to be WKBR’s school correspondent. It’s my first look at the landscape behind the microphone. What open skies! I start off writing reports; next thing I know, they let me rip and read UPI wire copy for the hourly news and do my own engineering. Making radio is like working a loom, with tasks for the eye, the ear, the mind, the hand. And the heart. Radio is my best way to reach my old man. As his world narrows (he’s a blacklisted writer with a painful cardiac condition) he spends a lot of time listening to a little transistor radio he carries everywhere. He calls it his “ear to the cosmos” and I’m on it! Sunday evenings we hang out in his bedroom listening to the Stan Freeberg Comedy Show on CBS. Freeberg is a magician. He takes you from an interview with an abominable snowman in Nepal to the inside of a helicopter lowering a two-ton maraschino cherry on top of the world’s largest sundae. My father and I lie next to each other on his bed, laughing.

    In 1962 I go to Harvard and it’s a chilly, abstract place, but WHRB, the college FM station, is a community, a workshop, and my home. I spend every spare hour there, collaborating on radio. Soon after the start of my sophomore year the Sunday bells of Memorial Church ring on Friday and a circle of students in Harvard Yard surround a kid with a portable radio. Kennedy has been shot. For the next forty eight hours I live at WHRB, covering the aftermath of the assassination and making my connection with history. To keep our coverage focused and uninterrupted, our station manager drops all commercials. This makes the evening network news – turns out we’re the first (ad-supported) station in the country to do so. Shows you how far away public radio still was.

    more…

  • Tony Kahn

    5.04.01

    Under the Influence – Reflections of a Lifelong Radio Junky pt.2

    It’s the late ‘60s and FM radio and I go through heavy changes. I tune in, turn-on and drop out of grad school in New York; FM gets hip and locks its signal on London and British rock. I’m also in range of WBAI, an amazing independent station. Radio rock and listener-supported talk become my main source of images, ideas and impressions of the world. It’s radio that tells me that RFK and Martin Luther King have been shot, that the inner cities are burning, that love is all you need, that my draft number is 354 and I won’t have to choose between living in Canada, protesting in prison or fighting in Vietnam. Radio — and only radio — gives me the big picture. TV is simply not a factor.

    Then, for about fifteen years, TV is. I wind up in Boston writing, producing, and appearing on public television. I love the exposure and the bigger audiences, but I realize something odd about TV. What I put on screen and what people actually see are different. “You know, that funny bit you did where you wore a green tie?” (Green tie? What green tie?). “That report you did on that car mechanic who looked like my Uncle Eddie?” (Uncle Eddie?)

    TV images are like Rorschachs, full of unconscious process. And if people do see what’s really there, they don’t remember all that much. “I loved that NOVA you did. Something about blood.” (Some-thing? It had interviews and animations on the discovery of the circulatory system, the abilities of red cells and white cells, the architecture of arterioles and capillaries, the blood factors that can diagnose illness, solve crimes!) “Something about blood?” “Yeah, and the narrator sounded like a nice guy.”

    I realize that unless the pictures and the sound support each other perfectly, cognitive dissonance sets in and the viewer is . . . gone. And if the story isn’t clearly told in the sound track, with words, effects, and music, the show itself is a goner no matter how great it looks. There is another big difference, I discover, between radio and TV. Radio makes its audience aware of itself. If someone hears something I did on the radio, they remember not only what I said but what they thought and felt at the time. With TV, it’s easy to lose a sense not only of what’s there, but who’s watching. I realize that the best thing about TV is radio.

    And for the last fifteen years, public radio is where I’ve been. And what a great time to be there. In the last two decades we’ve seen public radio mature and go mainstream as the voice of a thoughtful, passionately curious, inspired, story-swapping America — original, warm, expressive and smart as hell. Like any success, we’ve also seen it get maybe a little too smug for its own good, and maybe a little too slow on the draw. In fact, I think we’re at a turning point. Public radio is middle-aged and it’s got to figure out how to rejuvenate itself with new technologies and new voices. That’s its biggest opportunity and biggest threat in years.

    Transom.org is part of the process of trying to keep public radio fresh. I’m excited that Jay Allison has asked me to hang out here for the next month to lend an ear and a hand to any of you working on telling radio stories. For me, telling good stories is what it’s all about. I have only two criteria – a story succeeds when a) people stop to listen and b) they then rush off to tell the story to someone else. Good stories are like viruses – they use people to spread. I want to help keep the epidemic going.

    Maybe a way to kick the discussion off is to ask you a question. What are your criteria for good stories? What stories have you heard that wouldn’t let you go? Can you explain why? What did you learn from it you can share as good advice – or inspiration for the rest of us?

    Let’s talk.

    Tony Kahn

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.06.01

    Whew!

    whoa! Mr. Kahn, That was quite a magic carpet tour!
    You started with someone possibly being burned alive, following that with an escape to foreign mountains.
    You introduced us to radio as clandestine vice on the one hand and magic connector on the other…
    Then you threw in a short social history of our times, with a view of our attempts to tell each other about it, and finally, just by the way, you provided a brilliant insight into how television fails.
    All this came after intriguing advice about how to make ‘how-to’ radio, a simple recipe for fascination…

    and then you stand up from the magic carpet, brush off a little sand, and politely ask some big questions about criteria for good stories we
    remember… as though we could just as quickly take you for a ride in another direction.

    Well, whatever the criteria are, I would say your 3-parter above meets
    them. To answer your question, maybe making strong enough, specific personal images and revelations that can be extrapolated to my own and others’ experiences is part of what grabs me. This has been discussed lots elsewhere… (where?)

    Because I know your voice I could hear you telling me the above. It sounded like a letter. Maybe that’s another necessity: it has to sound like a letter, or I have to be allowed to listen, as though it matters what I think and feel. The implication that I matter, as a listener, not just as a consumer or not at all, puts an optimistic twist on the saddest story. The assumption that we all matter offers a hope that allows me to keep listening to the radio when I would have to turn the television off.

    The first books were collections of letters, the first newsletters (and newspapers) were letters, I guess it would make sense that the clearest radio and web material would sound like a letter. The delivery here, at a public campfire with some time limits, makes it more exciting.

    Do you agree with part of this?

    And since you like process, I dare ask, how long did it take you to write the above?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.07.01

    Nannette, you raise some very personal questions, my favorite kind. Let me try to answer a couple of them.

    >maybe making strong enough, specific personal images and revelations that can be extrapolated to my own and others’ experiences is part of what grabs me.

    I agree. If the story we hear isn’t an experience for us, it doesn’t stick. What makes it an experience? It gives us something solid, real, relevant to respond to. For me, a memorable story offers a real person in action, or the kind of sensory details I can remember or imagine from my own experience. There are a zillion ways to do this right, of course, and a zillion ways to do it wrong, but, in general, abstract ideas about life, generalizations of any kind, lose my attention on the radio, and anything that shows me something in action tends to keep my focus. Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns, actions and events rather than concepts, and it’ll snap to attention.

    I remember, a few years ago, when I was writing the script for my docu-drama on the Hollywood Blacklist, "Blacklisted," I asked myself, how in God’s name and I going to squeeze fifteen years of personal history, national politics, and family trauma in three different countries into three hours and say something that listeners can follow and connect with? The question kept me in a panic for months. Finally, it occured to me that whatever I put in had to be an action. Something had to be happening to somebody at every moment and one thing had to lead directly to another. Maybe that meant I wouldn’t ever be able to "step back" and put the whole story in some bigger historical context, but if the actions I chose were right and showed real people behaving in a real way, listeners would be able to understand the broader issues and be able to imagine what they themselves might have done. So, in the whole series, you never hear a single discussion about the meaning or the significance of the Hollywood Blacklist or speculations on the reasons people took the sides that they did, but you do get a vivid experience of the fear people felt, the lies they told themselves and each other, the gutsy ways they stood up for what was right, and maybe even the awful "ordinariness" of those times, and how they could happen all over again, to you or me.

    This "abstract" vs "real experience" business is something I think about daily. I work on a news show. Often the only way to cover a story quickly is by generalizations — "this development occurred today and here is what experts and politicians said it means," — but if you don’t show how the story played out in the life of some individual you can visualize and even imagine could be you, you don’t remember much about it. And doing that right takes a lot more time.

    Speaking about time, you ask

    >how long did it take you to write the above ("reflections of a life-long radio junky")?

    A few days. I’m a control freak. I always try to make sure I know what I’m saying before I say it. This is sort of contradictory for me, because I also tend to do my best thinking when I’m having a conversation with somebody. Writing emails like this seems to be a kind of cross between the two which I’m getting to like. Anyway, I try to make my ideas concrete and that for me means finding ways of illustrating them in action. That takes time and editing. I also try to build in lots of time for re-writing. Watched pots don’t boil. I have to get away for hours from what I’m trying to say so I can hear what I’m really saying — fresh. One of my favorite remarks is from a public speaker who was caught unawares and had to speak off the cuff. "If I had more time," he apologized, "I’d be brief."

    One last comment. You say
    >Because I know your voice I could hear you telling me the above. It sounded like a letter. Maybe that’s another necessity: it has to sound like a letter, or I have to be allowed to listen, as though it matters what I think and feel.

    For what it’s worth, I always try to imagine a specific person I’m speaking to when I’m telling a story or narrating a piece. I mean very specific. My son. My wife. My oldest friend. Someone with whom I have a significant relationship. That sense of a relationship, I believe, is felt by the listener, it’s in the tone of your voice, and it reinforces your listener’s trust in their connection with you.

    Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Tony

  • Jay Allison

    5.07.01

    Verbs

    >Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns

    "BLACKLISTED" You’re right. It’s a much better title as a verb.

    As I remember it, that entire series was action. In fact, as much as I really admired it, I recall feeling somewhat overwhelmed at times by the density of action, perhaps compounded by the reverb effect. I’d like to hear it again. Is it available? Would you do it any differently now? Did you get significant response from people who were involved?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.07.01

    Jay — you can get Blacklisted through audible.com as a stereo .mp3 download (their format) or as a series of cassettes via Lodestone
    LodesTone
    Telephone: 800.411.MIND
    http://www.LodesTone-Media.com

    You can also check out the Blacklisted site http://www.weisbroth.com/blacklisted/

    (I’ll see if I can scrummage around for a personal copy. I’d love to have you hear it again.)

    >Would you do it any differently now?

    That’s so tough to answer for me, still. I did it originally to answer some very personal questions for myself. I had gone through that nightmare as a kid and I needed to understand it as an adult and a father and to understand what the adults at the time were really experiencing. (You know what kids are like — if anything goes wrong in the family, they think it’s their fault or a problem they ought to be able to solve. Not a great way to make sense of politics and red scares.) Luckily, I had plenty of documentary material to give me a feeling for what my parents and others never dared reveal to a kid at the time. Once I’d finished understanding and telling their story, I felt done with it and wanted to move on. It was therapeutic and hard to imagine repeating or re-doing some other way. If I were to try to tell it today, it would be a different story.

    Technically, I was working with a lot of elements — what was said on the media at the time (real recordings from the National Archives), what people were writing in their letters and diaries, the denunciations people were sending to the FBI that I discovered in my father’s FBI files years later, reconstructed and dramatized conversations and political rallies, and people’s unspoken thoughts and monologues. I tried to find ways of setting them off from each other in terms of stereo placement, EQ, etc. that people could follow easily and understand at once. Also, to keep the drama from ever feeling like it was locked in the studio, I made sure that there was real ambience for every scene, whether it was an office, FBI headquarters, cafe in Mexico, or a trainstation in Budapest. I recorded backgrounds in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, relying on commercial SFX libraries only when I couldn’t get the sound on location myself. I recorded the cast wherever and whenever they were free, usually in Los Angeles or New York and never together, so all the scenes between them were created in the editing. It was one of those experiences that made me appreciate the difference between good actors and great ones, like Carroll O’Connor, Eli Wallach and Stockard Channing, who could give you the feeling they were responding directly to another character, when it was only me reading the character’s lines into their headphones. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have changed any of the elements, but I might have tried to pull them together on fewer trips.

    >Did you get significant response from people who were involved?

    Yes, but interestingly, not much. I heard a lot from people who had either never known about the Blacklist and were amazed it had happened in America or from people who felt they’d gone through something similar because of other kinds of discrimination, like racism, or homophobia, or nationalist feelings, that had targeted them. It gave me a very good feeling that I’d find enough points in common with my story to make it a story about them, too. Maybe the people who had been through the Blacklist itself preferred not to have to relive the harder parts.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.08.01

    While I’m at it, let me repeat my original question. What makes a story memorable for you? Better yet, what have you heard RECENTLY on public radio you couldn’t wait to tell someone else? And when you did, how did you describe it?

    Call it a personal survey. It’s the kind of anecdotal information that helps me, as a producer, get a feeling for what I’m trying to do — connect with people’s experience and imagination. Maybe it’ll be helpful for other producers, too.

  • Andy Knight

    5.08.01

    Dang, I didn’t want to go first, especially with the answer I have.

    The Execution Tapes really got me– they blew me away. I had expected and imagined it to be cold and clinical, which it was, but hearing the reality of it all still managed to surprise me. David Isay and Ray Suarez did an amazing job. So did the man who narrated the first tape, telling us what he could see and hear and describing the looks on the faces of the spectators.

    I wanted to tell quite a few of my friends about tET, but I haven’t because I can’t really put into words
    i why
    they should listen to it. I don’t know how to sell this story to them. If any of them are lurking on the board, they should definately go HERE now!

    Other than that, TAL’s Harold, First Day, and Animals Die, People Ponder (especially the part with Clarence Hicks, who picks up dead animals for NY city) have really pulled me in.

  • cw

    5.08.01

    to the question/what makes good/memorable radio

    god radio 1.

    there’s a d. on wwoz here in new orleans who is either an old man or an old woman. about 5 years ago someone talked him/her into
    coming on as a guest on his show I/I of this person’s
    encyclopedic personal knowledge of jazz.
    his voice cracks when he talks and he/she gets
    very excited about what he/she just played, quoting
    from liner notes and personal recollection of having
    seen whatever artist it was he/she saw over 50 years
    ago live. I like him/her because he has genuine (as
    opposed to contrived or self conscious enthusiasm)
    and he/she doesn’t care how way-out he/she sounds.

    real enthusiasm. not often heard/makes for good
    radio. and he/she tells stories about shows he/she has
    seen and the stories aren’t always interesting, but the
    way his/her voice breaks with joy is.

    good radio 2.

    emperor of the universe ernie k. doe
    used to go on wtul here in new orleans drunk. he
    would scream over the albums he was playing "burn -doe
    burn! burn k-doe burn!" i could listen for hours
    and would often get on the phone and call people and
    say "That guy’s on again. Turn it on quick!"

    ultimately they took his show away, or took the dj
    whose show he shared with show away but while
    it/he lasted, it was good. it sounded new, different,
    and all together not-allowed.

    i like radio that sounds not-allowed. (for
    instance, i think i liked lost and sounds for that reason.
    most of it sounded like it was so good i should have to be
    sitting on an uncomfortable chair in a falling down
    art warehouse straining to listen to it over a boombox rigged to a p.a. instead of in my car on npr with the a.c. on)

    good radio 3.

    i suppose i like my radio
    unprocessed instead of like american cheese. i don’t like
    predigested news stories and often fight with them
    in the car out loud, inserting "shut up"s or "because
    you’re underwritten by the petrochemical industry anyway
    and gave everyone in destrahan cancer, bully for you"
    in the midst of the broadcast.

    if a story makes me shut my mouth instead of giving running commentary, it is "good" in my opinion. and prob. in the opinion of
    my unfortunate passenger.

    in this category of memorable radio, i might even place dr. laura. she delivers a product known as moral certitude/cetainty/definite answers to ambiguous situations/etc that doesn’t exist. she hypes it, drives it, then sells it in every show. ‘a’ is right, thus ‘b’ must be wrong. and this reasoning of "putting one’s foot down for the sake of putting one’s foot down" (her schtick)makes for hilariously memorable radio.

    she takes control of the questioner/pilgrim by
    psychologically berating them w/in the first 2
    minutes of their phone call. i find that memorable. wresting control like that so ruthlessly so quickly and so many people lining up
    for the pleasure of a quick and easy answer makes for outrageously good radio at times.

    too bad "dr." laura bad is also a dangerous bluffing liar. if you’re reading this, hi dr. laura! you suck! in purgatory you will have to listen to an eternity of yr own advice and then go try to implement it you big weird meanie.

    if i was a caller you’d call me a pervert then tell me to go get a life and you’re glad you’re not MY mother. and if i was listening i’d be transfixed perhaps for a moment

  • Tony Kahn

    5.08.01

    >I had expected and imagined it to be cold and clinical, which it was, but hearing the reality of it all still managed to surprise me.

    A. Knight — thanks for joining the conversation. I was reading what you said when one word jumped out at me — surprise. Next to the sheer impact of real, well-chosen details, the stuff of real life, surprise is what holds me to a story. The kind of surprise when the story takes a different direction from the one I expected. The sort of thing that brings me up against my expectations, the limits of my imagination, my blind spots.

    Let me tell you a quick story about something that happened to me at a party once. I’m at the cheese table when I see this block of pale, waxy cheese I can’t identify, next to a pile of crackers. I guess it must be one of those bland Norwegian cheeses I can live without, but I figure, what the hell, experiment, maybe I’ve got a more sophisticated palatte than I think. So I cut a small slice, lay the cheese on a wheat thin, take a bite — and nearly gag. It is THE most nauseating, fatty, cheese I’ve ever tasted! I grab a napkin and while no one is looking, spit out the half chewed cheese and the remains of the cracker it came with. The host of the party comes by at this point so I ask her, as politely as I can, "That cheese over there, the pale one, what kind is it?" "That?" she says, pointing at it, "That’s butter." Perfectly good butter, too, now that I think of it. But disgusting cheese. So much for the power of blinders. What an adventure to have them suddenly fall off! A good story teller can do that for you. Make you think cheese and hit you with butter.

    This American Life does that all the time. They start out and tell you a very interesting story with a clear narrative line, absorbing all by itself, distinctive, quirky, unique, often about someone getting one of their first serious insights into adult life. And then, just when you think you know where it’s going, the story takes a turn and uncovers another, surprising layer of the narrator’s life or the relationship he/she’s describing. Now THAT’s masterful. A direct laying on of hands to your mind. A surprise that opens your imagination like a flower.

    Sorry, if I’m all over the place responding to what you said, but I’m trying not to be too deliberate here, just laying out the impressions and memories your description set off.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.08.01

    cw — man, what a brilliant response to the sheer character that comes in a voice. Just terrific! Reminds me that the voice is a vital organ that just happens to hang outside your body. But it carries all the warmth and vitality of your character. Only the best actors in the world can disguise what the real message in the tone and the timber of their voice is. Actually, even they can’t. What they do is master what’s inside them so that their voice DOES reflect it.

    The really great voices, the memorable ones we respond to always carry a message apart from the words they speak. It’s the emotional undercurrent, the feeling behind the words.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.09.01

    Tony,
    Re: the experience of blacklisted
    Why didn’t you lose faith in people, basic communications and the media?

    And to answer your question, to me, the best radio, like the best films, involves some kind of culture clash, a cross-cultural encounter in the broadest sense.
    the first time I hear some people (David Sedaris comes to mind) I am delighted and fascinated "I can’t believe this is on the radio. I love that he said that."
    Later there’s a second stage of recognizing the person and being glad to hear him or her again. (Whatever happened to Daniel Pinkwater? I can still see him painting his NYC apartment or praying with his father…) I’ve been let in somewhere by these people. I’ve been trusted with a few cultural secrets.

    As far as listening to a host, like yourself, I feel as though I’ve been invited to a dinner party, and I enjoy meeting your subjects and guests vicariously. I like that you do all the planning and cooking, and I just show up with a few flowers now and then. I appreciate your being more gracious host than wise guy.

    Here in southern Germany for a few months, I’m still working on finding the great radio I’ve heard about. Searching for something to calm my nerves my first time driving on the autobahn, I came across Liane Hansen on NPR, of all things. With my American ears I recognized her approach as being friendly. Something about the low tones she used was getting her in closer to her subjects. But with my German ears, it seemed too casual, even presumptuous. I had to switch to classical music. I’m beginning to appreciate what a fine line you walk on the air.

  • Jay Allison

    5.10.01

    Identity

    Tony, I’d be interested in your take on Identity or Persona on the radio. I’ve heard you in various contexts, and while it’s always YOU, the manner is obviously different between, say, "Says You" and "The World."

    Your adjustment may be as simple as dressing differently for a formal function or casual party, but do you ever find your persona bumping into your personality? Do you change that "single person" you’re talking to? Do you improvise the same way in both contexts? Do you have any context on the radio where you’d improvise so thoroughly that there’s actual risk of ending up someplace strange and unfamiliar?

    CW was talking about some this. I think on public radio, you mostly know how it will end. Nothing too unexpected will occur. The host will see to that. There’s a script, some kind of script, somewhere. Sure, we want to know how the story will end, but know it probably won’t go careening off into new territory.

    I think this is an advantage that Howard Stern & Co. hold. You aren’t sure what will happen, how strange it will get (although, now, their extremity is becoming as mundane as our decorum).

    Brecht used to talk about this, how he wanted the vital unpredictability of the sporting event to enter the theatre, for the play to move outside the lines. But, even with that intention, the formality of the theatre held fast.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.10.01

    >the experience of blacklisted. Why didn’t you lose faith in people, basic communications and the media?

    My brother Jim, Nannette, is three years older. We went through the blacklist period side by side. He fought it every second, struck back at every insult, had a fist fight with the next door kid who called us dirty communists, has challenged anyone’s right to brand him ever since. I became more the quiet observer, the accomodater wherever possible, the kid whose best survival strategy was silence. I asked Jim once why we responded so differently to the same circumstances — different temperaments? He said something that I never forgot. "Tony, I was six when the blacklist started, you were three. I remember happy times when Dad and I took walks together and he had time to show me wonderful things before they threw us out of the garden. All you ever knew was the fear and the silence. I had an Eden I wanted to get back to. You didn’t."

    I never lost faith in people, I guess, because I never had much of it to begin with. I didn’t challenge the media because I had never seen it lose its conscience; like nighttime, I took the darkness for granted.

    What I did learn from the period, looking back, seeing neighbors and friends turn away from us or other blacklisted people was that most people scare easily, that the difference between people who can stand up to fear and those who can’t is totally unpredictable (you don’t know how you’re going to handle a major threat to your economic survival or a moral crisis until it happens; you can hope you’ll live by your principles, but you don’t know) and that the kind of character it takes not to inform on others to save your skin is extremely rare all over the world and probably something you’re born with and virtually impossible to teach.

    My father happened to be an honest man. He just was. He wouldn’t even ask for a loan he desperately needed without saying what a bad credit risk he was. He never thought he was being brave by standing up for his political principles. He just knew he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. I’ll never know whether I inherited that trait until I face a similar crisis. (I went through the blacklist not as a father with a family to support, but as a kid, and that’s a huge difference.) What I think I tried to suggest in Blacklisted was that when things go bad, most people behave badly. Our best defense as a society is to try to spot the political tendencies that can lead to terror before they go too far, because once the terror arrives, the talking stops and the silence begins.

    >to me, the best radio, like the best films, involves some kind of culture clash, a cross-cultural encounter in the broadest sense.

    I love your remark. It broadens what I was trying to get at by the element of surprise, the turns a story can take that kick our mind into high gear. And that can, maybe paradoxically, make you feel closer to the material because of its "strangeness." On "The World" we’re always on the look out for stories that show the ways people interpret or experience the same things differently. It broadens the sense of your own possibilities.

    >I enjoy meeting your subjects and guests vicariously. I like that you do all the planning and cooking, and I just show up with a few flowers now and then.

    My favorite interviews are with guests who come to the studio. We get to share the same space. The eye contact, the body language, the shared oxygen really help the spirit of collaboration. And for me, the best interviews come from collaboration, getting someone to explain what they’re talking about in terms that feel like a real lived-in experience to you. When things work just right (as they so rarely do!) I feel like I’m a guest at a great party myself.

    >Searching for something to calm my nerves my first time driving on the autobahn

    The last time I was on an autobahn the cars went by so fast I couldn’t tell what color they were. Talk about a test of the power of public radio to soothe the soul!

    I think I know what you mean when you say the German ear wants something less soothing. I think it’s true for Europeans in general — at least, that’s been my experience working with the BB World Service on "The World." Europeans know so much more about what’s out there, about history, about how easily a neighbor can go from an ally to an enemy or visa-versa. The sub text is so deep, they can read a lot between the lines of an official government communique or the latest diplomatic complication in Congo. We Americans need to have things translated for us into more human, personal terms to flesh out the picture. The way I used to put it, the BBC is like a beacon, it can turn a cool beam of light on a story anywhere in the world and people see what’s going on. American public radio is more like a campfire, where we like to swap personal stories and feel like we’re sharing the experience and the understanding.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.10.01

    >do you ever find your persona bumping into your personality? Do you change that "single person" you’re talking to? Do you improvise the same way in both contexts? Do you have any context on the radio where you’d improvise so thoroughly that there’s actual risk of ending up someplace strange and unfamiliar?

    Jay, I did a theater exercise years ago, in my twenties, that scared the hell out of me. The director had two people sit beside me, one at either ear. He asked them to conduct different conversations with me at the same time. My task was to keep both conversations going simulatenously. I looked straight ahead, let my mind sort of split in two, and plunged in. What a trip! I succeeded wonderfully — and it left me, aside from the exhilaration, with virtually no memory of the experience whatsoever. The two simultaneous conversations ended up having no substance for me at all.

    I learned that I have an ability to split my mind (and aspects of my personality) in two but if it gets out of hand, the price I pay is huge — I don’t end up being there at all. Like most people, I have to divide up parts of myself at work, conduct an interview with someone on the phone, say, while the producer on the other side of the studio glass is saying (or shouting) something else in my ear, read through briefing notes on one story we’re going to cover while listening to someone else tell me about another, be a news host on one show and a quiz show panelist on the other, or, challenge someone I happen to agree with in an interview to make room for an opposing point of view. We’re all cameleons that way; I think civilization probably depends on it. But what I try to do is make sure I am genuinely interested in whatever I’m doing. And for that I’ve got an iron-clad test: at the end of the day, can I remember it clearly? So, I try to be there for each "side" of myself. If I am, I’ll also be at my most relaxed, and that, for me, is my most creative/generous/humorous state.

    >I think on public radio, you mostly know how it will end. Nothing too unexpected will occur. The host will see to that.

    And that’s what we don’t want, right? Let me stick my neck out here. There are two public radio talk shows I listen to pretty regularly. The first, to my mind, is (or was) maybe the best show on public radio and the second is my least favorite. "The Connection" (when Christopher Lydon was host) and "Talk of the Nation." The difference was in the unpredictability and passion of the first and the predictability and too-sure intervening hand of the host in the second. Chris always invited guests to "The Connection" who didn’t just know a subject, they lived it. They came on with a book or a project or a talent that they had spent years of their lives on. What they brought with them and what Chris explored, was their intense and sometimes surprising RELATIONSHIP to something. "Talk of the Nation," on the other hand, is not about relationships, it’s about issues. It invites experts (and listeners) to exchange ideas and opinions and information on a topic and then, presumably, leave all that at the door when the show is over. The drama on that show comes from the balanced clash of opinions, not the ragged intensity of someone’s personal involvement.

    I can remember virtually every "Connection with Christopher Lydon" I heard. With "Talk of the Nation" I can remember the topic, but little else.

  • Viki Merrick

    5.11.01

    good stories ?

    The day you posted your "memoir" – I tried to respond to the " best stories" question but couldn’t really pull it together. By morning I realized why.

    I am normally a rather rambunctious individual but REALLY good stories make me quiet. I go in, lose my hat, coat, gloves and purse and come out just like you do after a matinee where it was raining when you went in and blindingly sunny when you come out. I have had more demerits in my life for talking too much, hours of detention, unfair numbers of written assignment penalties for talking out of turn (the tally on the blackboard once reached 97, next to my name alone), but tell me a good story and I have nothing to say. For a while.

    The first story that jumped to my mind in response to your question was the Vietnam Tapes of Lance COrporal Michael Baronowski. I work with Jay and watched the long back and forth of tape and transcript. When I heard the final cut, a colleague said at the end: C’mon, we gotta go tell them how great it was. So I jumped in my car in a stupor and got to Jay and Tina’s driveway and turned around and drove home. I was still in Vietnam, had to go home and debrief, cutting vegetables, alone. 3 hrs later I went back and couldn’t shut up about it.

    Your "memoir" had a similar effect on me. I was all quiet and too still to really type anything in this little box. Certainly your memoir did not carry the immediate gravity of "watching" the promise of Baronowski get stepped on like a cigarette butt. Nor was there anything that I could relate to specifically, but you made me eager to travel along. You wrote it carefully but it was not overly produced, not a lot of filters. So it’s not gravity or something that keeps me moving. It’s personal revealment, in whatever voice – first or third – that makes me, the listener, be you, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Just don’t try to trick me, any affected honesty and I am gone.

    I was captivated by Carmen Delzell’s Off the Bus – scared the begeesus out of me. Unadorned, you can’t look away or make up explanations. I like the stuff under the dust ruffle – how MUCH dust, how many boxes filled with what oddities that expose a being. And I like it best when it is something I have never done, felt, owned or dared.

    My son has baskets and containers of stuff in every space of his room ( I had to clean it today). I make him sift from time to time and I like to see what he never throws out. What’s left look like the bones of something, a story, what he’s evolving into. Right now there’s rocks that look like things or just beauty, rusty found bits, a cigar, a heart pendant with a ruby….nothing that makes serious sense to me. Ok what am I trying to say here? These things that stay with him, that he refuses to throw away, they aren’t on display like the leggos or the hockey cards or bottle caps, presents and beasts he keeps in view, those things will eventually be sifted out. He goes to Italy every summer and while he is away I look for him in his baskets of what he won’t throw away and I get quiet; or he can even be here and I help clean his room and find those things STILL there and it makes me quiet.
    It’s the stories of undersides of people that fill me up, steal my words and leave me still. Good gauge no? Never thought about it till you shared your criteria , so thanks.

  • Andy Knight

    5.11.01

    The Connection

    Tony, I’d never heard of The Connection. It’s not carried by local affiliate kwmu, nor is it carried by my streaming station of choice, wbez (ditto Says You!). So I streamed it in from Iowa City for the first time today to get an idea of the differences between it and TotN. What a small world– Robin Amer of Brown U’s Inside Out was one of the callers, talking about the Nostalgia episode. In the end, I wasn’t able to figure out what you meant. Now I want to hear what it was like with Christopher Lydon…

  • Tony Kahn

    5.11.01

    A. Knight — great, we’ve got an ongoing experiment here. You’ve never heard Chris, so that makes you the control group. Since he got fired, WBUR, the Boston station that produces the show, has been trying out a number of potential hosts, in two week guest-shots. I assume you heard one of them. I don’t think any of them so far offers the qualities I especially valued in Chris. So, you need to hear Chris. There are two ways I can think of.

    1) Go to http://www.theconnection.org. Unless they’ve liquidated Chris (it was a stormy parting of ways) they should have years’ worth of shows archived on real-audio. Find anything before, say, April 1 and it’s probably Chris hosting. (I happen to love his shows on science and math most, being a bit of a closet scientist, but he’s a poly-math, good on everything from literature to politics to music to history. Some of my favorite connections were on "The History of Zero," "Yeats," "The Poetry of the Bible," and "E=mc2, the Story of an Equation.")

    2) After leaving WBUR, Chris and his executive producer, Mary McGrath, set up http://www.christopherlydon.org as a platform for doing a version of The Connection on their own, an experiment in internet broadcasting probably years ahead of its time — and profitability. They’ve done several hours worth of programs with Chris hosting a guest, also available on realaudio.

    I would go for 1) myself. Maybe even tonight — just to refresh my memory of the energy of that show and because the shows reward a re-listen, if youre interested in the topic.

    Let me know what you think. When the news broke that Chris had been fired I was in LA, guest-hosting for "The Savvy Traveler." To my surprise, I had a tough time finding anyone to commiserate with. The show is carried on only about 70 stations and those who heard it outside of Boston thought it was too regional, too "Boston," (read "intellectual?") for their taste. If you find yourself in that camp, I’d especially love to hear from you. It goes to the question, for me, of what we mean by "intelligent" and "thoughtful" programming on public radio and what kinds of it we find tolerable.

    By the way, I know WBEZ doesn’t carry "Says You" and it’s killing me. It seems to me anyone who likes "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me" would aso enjoy "Says You." That’s what they call synergy, isn’t it? All the car dealers in Boston used to set up shop right next door to each other on Allston Avenue — it attracted more customers and was good for business. Don’t hesitate to share your preferences with the station — they listen.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.11.01

    Vicki,

    Thank YOU. I am awed by the responses I’ve been getting from thoughtful, honest, eloquent lovers of good radio, like you. Not to mention producers. What have you worked on with Jay? I’d love to hear how you translate your sense of the meaning of everyday things into stories.

    One of the things I’ve appreciated — deeply — from being a guest here this past week is how little people like me who are on the air hear from people who listen. Sure, we get compliments and criticisms on specific things we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, but not a peep about what happens when radio really connects — the ripples it sets off in people’s minds, and the depths they take it to in their own lives. A good piece of provocative radio, whatever kind, is the start of a conversation, but radio provides very little air space to the listener, to keep the conversation going and growing. There ought to be a show, call it "Follow Up" or whatever you like, that gives us a chance to hear what thoughts and stories and memories have been generated on the other side of the microphone. And not just in sound bites, or as part of one call-in on-air brawl, but respectfully produced. In a sense, this is what the internet does in an on-going discussion like this. Maybe transom.org can pilot something for broadcast based on the kinds of emails like yours it gets in forums like these.

    What you said about your son moved me. The timing was perfect. I have a 14 and a half year old son whose room is like a collage to chaos done in broken toys, discarded pizza boxes, unread books, gaping portable CD players, geological layers of dirty clothing and, somewhere, a bed. And that’s just the first coat. He’s provoked me, all right, but you remind me he’s also dying for a loving, creative response, something to show I’m really listening to his story. I’m going to listen harder. Thanks.

    A long time ago I did a commentary for Marketplace intended as a funny take on people’s attachment to their boxes — you know, the stuff we all have and we all haul with us, usually unopened, wherever we go — the momentos, boxed in cardboard, leaking their memories, like radioactivity, in the basement or the attic. I’ll see if I can upload it here as an .mp3 file, in case you want to listen. Hopefully it’ll give you a laugh.

    Box-O-Phobia
    MP3 | RealAudio G2

    One other thing you said intrigued me:

    >It’s personal revealment, in whatever voice – first or third – that makes me, the listener, be you, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Just don’t try to trick me, any affected honesty and I am gone.

    What lets you know someone’s not telling the truth?

    PS — Vicki, what were doing up at 2 am? Sifting through stuff for the stories they tell? They ought to invent some gizmo for your computer that lets you know which of your friends is still up in the middle of the night. Maybe a glowing red light on top of your monitor. I’m sure that whatever is keeping THEM up, they’d welcome a call and a schmooze.

  • Andy Knight

    5.11.01

    Ok, I’m heading over to http://www.theconnection.org now. From what you said, Chris may be right up my alley. I’m not a big TotN fan, except when it comes to Science Friday.

    I think it’s absurd for a station the size of WBEZ to go without the Connection and Says You. They don’t carry Savvy Traveller, Splendid Table, or On Your Health yet they play TAL 3 times a week?! As a station that distributes on both PRI and NPR, you’d think they’d have more support for ‘syndicated’ shows (other than just their own). I understand why they support local programming, but 3 shows in a row (3-1/2 hours worth of Eight Forty-Eight, Odyssey, and Worldview), every weekday, seems like overkill. They even push The World back to 7pm. Does Chicago have a 2nd NPR/PRI affiliate to fill in some of these gaps?

    That said, I don’t really care about WBEZ, I’m more interested in KWMU. I don’t know your feelings on the Dianne Rehm show, but I would sacrifice it in a second to have The Connection (even the current incarnation). Streaming would be great, too.

    You refreshed my memory a bit- I remember hearing about Chris being fired, something about ownership and/or pay demands on either ATC or Fresh Air(I doubt it was Fresh Air). I was standing in the kitchen at a local coffeehouse, trying to figure out what they were talking about. They kept mentioning Garrison, Ira, and Tom & Ray… talking about executive producers, ownership, distribution and salaries on Public Radio. I remember hearing the demands Chris made and thinking that it seemed obscene for a host of a local show to demand so much, even in Boston… I guess I had missed the part of the show where they really explained what The Connection is.

  • Jay Allison

    5.11.01

    Connection History

    A good backgrounder from Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix regarding the Connection Situation may be found at:

    http://12.11.184.13/boston/news_features/top/features/documents/01428102.htm

    It has this provocative title and lede…
    "Bobos in Radioland"
    The battle over The Connection illuminates what public radio has become: privatized, high-quality programming for the affluent, well-educated elite"

  • Viki Merrick

    5.11.01

    truth

    You ARE some gracious man – I was thinking today maybe I shouldn’t write at 2 am anymore – the mind wandering trying to connect events of the day, to the topic at hand. Dragging in the story of my son, in the light of day, suddenly seemed overly sentimental. But let’s say I was trying to figure you out – and free to roam your habitat – I would look in your night table drawer, not it’s surface. I’d look in the cubby holes of your desk, not necessarily the papers you were working on.

    "What lets you know someone’s not telling the truth? "

    Unfortunately, it’s a sensation, I start to feel squirmy , almost embarassed- either someone doth protest too much – or worse, I feel the hand of the producer. I’m not saying one can’t manipulate so the story is limpid, that’s fine, as long as it isn’t forced. How do you know when someone is lying to you? Unless you know the facts, you don’t know, you feel it. (This suddenly explains to me why I don’t often feel quiet or elevated when I leave live theatre….) So I guess truth must be subjective in a way. What did Keats say? Truth is beauty, beauty is truth.. well I can go with that. Beauty isn’t necessarily pretty – it can also be ferocious and raw even gruesome. I don’t know, you make me think too many things. I’ll answer more later aabout everyday things and stories.
    I am going outside now cause it’s so beautiful. and that’s the truth.

    ps. Please do try to get that marketplace piece – I would LOVE to hear it.
    Best, V

  • Tony Kahn

    5.11.01

    Dear A. Knight:

    You said

    >I remember hearing the demands Chris made and thinking that it seemed obscene for a host of a local show to demand so much, even in Boston…

    I’m not going to say what I think is fair, but the sums discussed suggested the kinds of expectations of profit that sounded more like a dot.com startup than public radio talking. For a while, the dot.com frenzy did seemed to affect a lot of people I know — I couldn’t go two steps without hearing talk of "transformative technologies" that would have public radio programs streaming out of the ionosphere and debut-ing on everything from your car’s GPS system to your bridgework anwhere on Earth. New programming would be churning out of NPR headquarters, individual public radio stations, and independent web-based producers by the bushel. We’re still hoping, but there’s a kind of hush that’s fallen across the halls. I asked Doug Berman, the executive producer of Car Talk the other day if he had any forecasts about new technologies and new programming opportunities. I figure he ought to know — he’s got two of the most popular shows in the system. "Well," he said, "everybody’s still got six or seven radios in their homes and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t think anything is going to replace them too fast. And, even with the best ideas in the world, it’s hard to get a new show going without the support of a station."
    Chris may be learning how right Doug is.

  • Harriet Reisen

    5.12.01

    Studs Terkel and the Abstraction Generalization

    >abstract ideas about life, generalizations of any kind, lose my attention on the radio, and anything that shows me something in action tends to keep my focus. Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns, actions and events rather than concepts, and it’ll snap to attention.

    I’ve been listening to Studs Terkel’s collection of interviews from his radio archives beginning in the 50’s. I’m struck by the extent to which they ARE abstract. He reveals very little biographical information in the intros to people such as Buckminster Fuller, Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The beginnings of the interviews are "personal" only insofar as they characterize the mind-set of the guests in their answers to questions from Terkel such as (to Fuller) "are you an optimist about the future?" and (to Singer) "would you say you’re a mystic?

    After that, Studs takes the interviews into cultural, political, and philosophical realms, asking Parker what she thinks of the beat poets (they won’t last) and Baldwin to expand on his title "Nobody Knows My Name"("Americans know more about Europeans than white people know about me and their other Negro "’kissing cousins’"). Daniel Ellsberg is asked nothing and says nothing about how he accomplished the theft of the Pentagon Papers and its personal consequences; he talks only about free speech and his bet that the American people wouldn’t stand for the Vietnam War knowing the truth the papers contained. Margaret Mead thinks the media personalization of events such as the (then recent) JFK assassination has the potential to make people care about the fate of every human being. Studs and I.B.Singer discuss Studs’ thought that "without passion there can be no compassion" like a couple of sophomores late at night in a dorm.

    What makes these interviews so compelling despite their lack of narrative or anecdotes? Every one of Studs’ people (many now long dead) seems to be right in the car with you. I know that’s a cliche about radio but it’s often not true: for instance, in the case of authors on book tours (while their weary minds are back at home) mouthing their selling points while the interviewer (who’s listening to the producer, or counting down to the next segment) picks another question from the list supplied by the researcher and delivers it in pearly tones or in character as a wise guy, say.

    If you hadn’t raised the question of abstraction and the need for the particular I don’t think I would have noticed how philosophical Studs’ interviews are. What’s his secret? Care to comment on one of my personal saints (another being you, of course)?

    Har

    PS. meet you in the kitchen at 5:30.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.12.01

    Har — they found us out. We work the same kitchen. I wonder what the better proof we’re married is — that we live together or that we disagree (but delightfully).

    In this case, I don’t think we disagree; I think we’re talking about different things. Studs’ pieces are interviews, not stories, except in the broadest sense. Take all his interviews together and you get the outlines of the "big story" I think he tries to tell in a lot of what he does, on air and on the page — the story of Americans, high and low, artists and tradespeople, politicians and common ciitizens, wrestling with the spirit of America. In the interviews, Studs does — maybe better than anyone else alive — what Chris Lydon did on the Connection, be the spark, the stoker, the empath or the inciter to bring out the guest’s passion for his subject. Stud is the perfect collaborator, helping you bring out the best possible expression of what you think or feel about something. Listen to how often he encourages a guest by playing back to him or her, as if for the sake of clarification, a slight variation of what they just said. They respond with enthusiasm, partly because he’s agreeing with them, I suppose, but also because he’s offered a slight adjustment (call it a "re-write") that gets them even deeper into or thinking more sharply about what they’re discussing. And you’re right — this kind of stuff is as compelling as any good story. You KNOW how I felt about The Connection and how I put it on my list of "if I had only one show I could listen to day in and day out on a desert island . . ."

    Maybe what makes Studs’ interviews feel as satisfying as more traditional "story" material is that, like a good narrative that grabs you and that you immediately want to re-tell to somebody else, they, too, are full of actions and revealing details — only in this case the actions are thoughts expressed with passion, opinions that wrestle with issues in your own life, and sparks of character that kindle your own sense of being alive.

    PS — Andrew and I will take out the garbage by Sunday afternoon. I promise!!

  • Andy Knight

    5.12.01

    Bobos and other…stuff

    > The battle over The Connection illuminates what public radio has become: privatized, high-quality programming for the affluent, well-educated elite

    Affluent, well-educated elite?! Ok, then why does it appeal to me and my friends? We are the getting-by, self/life-educated commoners. Public radio appeals to us for the tag-line reasons we hear every hour: In-Depth News, Intelligent Talk, and Great Entertainment. I don’t believe for an instant that this is programming for Bobos. I won’t bother going into detail backing-up my point of view, since in that article, Dan Kennedy didn’t bother backing-up his. He merely stated that Danny Schechter and David Brooks say NPR is for Bobos, and we should therefore consider it gospel. Forgive me if I don’t sign up for the choir.

    b Tony said:
    >Sure, we get compliments and criticisms on specific things we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, but not a peep about what happens when radio really connects — the ripples it sets off in people’s minds, and the depths they take it to in their own lives.

    I have a feeling that the reason you haven’t heard these peeps goes back to an old comedy standard… you never asked. I’m still working out my opinion about Connection Chris. I listened to 2 hours, and nearly tried calling in twice. I also found myself staring the RealPlayer rather than working on a huge pile of medical bills quite a few times, if that’s any indication. Don’t tell the Mayor.

    i -Andrew
    (who isn’t driving to Boston to take out trash)

  • Tony Kahn

    5.12.01

    Arthur, mum’s the word.

    Which Connections did you choose?

    Since you’re not in Boston, I’m guessing you may be unfamiliar with Danny Schechter’s early radio persona, "Danny Schecter, the News Dissector" on WBCN-FM. The station was a mecca of counter-culture programming in the late ’60s and early ’70s and Danny was the city’s pre-eminent anti-establishment radical voice. What was progressive criticism then may seem like old-fashioned Marxism now, but I give Danny credit for not budging on a major point about news broadcasting — there is no such thing as objective coverage. We deal with this daily on "The World." What is balanced coverage for a news story? And how do you justify centering the focus of a news story on what official sources say is happening rather than on what its impact is on normally unheard-from, media-unsavvy sources? It’s not a matter of the rich against the poor, but sometimes it sure looks like it. The trouble is it’s a lot easier to take the well-paved path for granted as the only way to go. But, think, how many non-white, non-educated, even elderly people do you hear from on TAL? How often do you hear one of the most gifted and signifcant speakers in the Western Hemisphere (no matter what you think of him), Fidel Castro, on ATC or The World? Do we assume they have less to say? Do we notice the silence?

    You’re right to suggest that it’s condescending to say The Connection is only for the privileged, because it’s high toned, but a lot of public radio really doesn’t reach out as far or down as deep as it used to into American life.

  • Joshua Barlow

    5.12.01

    Tony Kahn’s Box-O-Phobia

    >"A long time ago I did a commentary for Marketplace intended as a funny take on people’s attachment to their boxes — you know, the stuff we all have and we all haul with us, usually unopened, wherever we go — the momentos, boxed in cardboard, leaking their memories, like radioactivity, in the basement or the attic…"

    i As promised, Tony has given us a copy of his Box-O-Phobia commentary. Use the links below to listen:

    Tony Kahn’s Box-O-Phobia
    MP3 | RealAudio G2

    i Speaking as a recent immigrant to Massachussetts who is still living out of his Stackable Store-Alls, I’m deciding whether this piece inspires me to laugh or seek therapy.

  • Andy Knight

    5.12.01

    > Which Connections did you choose?

    West Wing and How to Use the English Language. West Wing could have done without the call-in format. Once Chris was done with the initial interview, the callers had nothing substantial to add. HtUtEL is where I kept picking up the phone to call in. Chris seemed to be in very familiar waters. I actually preferred the guest during that one. Richard Lederer, the new usage editor for the Random House Dictionary, was far more accepting of the continuing evolution of English and re-writing/erasing of the olde rules than Chris.

  • Harriet Reisen

    5.14.01

    megakikicycles

    Do you have any idea what this term means?

  • Janet Murray

    5.14.01

    Tony Kahn’s memories and memory

    Tony’s memories of how his radio life intertwined with his family life are very moving. As a fan of Tony’s from Boston who has recently moved to Atlanta, I was delighted to hear his voice as a panelist on his erudite NPR game show. I am also an admirer of his knowledge and memory and he’s the one I compete with for the answers when I play along at home. His wit is of course unrivaled.

  • cw

    5.14.01

    box o phobia/a letter from paul tough, on sorting

    if you like this box I phobia piece, go read pul tough’s meditative essay on sorting/parting with his stuff/baggage/humor etc., including sorting psychologically as well/such as sifting out the bad/good/best jokes from yr repertoire, etc.

    a letter from paul tough, on sorting
    http://www.openletters.net/000925/tough000928.html

    I like the sense of humor in toy khan’s piece. it made me think more about the rat lady on this American’s life neighbors show yesterday.
    she was hoarding both junk AND rats.

    then the buoyancy of kahn’s approach to this rough topic left me and i was resunk in the misery and despair of the rat lady. though then i thought maybe i’m just being a speciesist (sp?) by being so creeped out by the possibility of pet, free range rats

  • Tony Kahn

    5.14.01

    Harriet writes:

    >"megakikicycles."
    Do you have any idea what this term means?

    Why, yes, Harriet, it just so happens I do.

    "megakikicycles," as any beginning announcer can tell you, is the result of a terror-stricken attempt to correctly pronounce "megacycles" and "kilocycles" while giving your station’s long winded AM and FM frequencies your first time ever on the air. To be precise, your second time ever on the air. Your first time on the air, you didn’t realize the engineer had already turned your microphone on and, panicked at the sudden silence in your headphones, you shouted "I can’t hear a goddam thing!"

    I would normally refer you at this point to the passage in my radio memoirs for all the excruciating details, but I’m smart enough not to have written any.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.14.01

    Reply to Janet Murray

    Janet, with full disclosure and enormous fondness, I have to tell people you’re a dear friend and it’s been far too long since we’ve talked.

    In case other readers here don’t recognize your name, Janet is the author, among other books, of the groundbreaking "Hamlet on the Holodeck," the most thoughtful and provocative attempt so far to create the basic grammar-theory-and practice of story-telling on the internet and in interactive media. Janet, let me try to rope you in to this discussion — we’re trying, among other things, to explore what makes for memorable story-telling on public radio. If and when the internet and public radio work out a long-term, hopefully productive relationship, do you think the kinds of stories that get produced will change?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.14.01

    cw — what a fascinating, associative mind you have. You sent me off on a link to a personal story on a website hosted by someone known to be interested in turning letters into radio commentaries, all in response to a radio-broadcasted commentary I posted as an .mp3 to illustrate an earlier written reflection of mine that brought up other memories for you of a recent This American Life program still playing in your mind. Do you generally travel this freely among different media? And do the stories and reflections you get from them differ for you?

    I frankly find the ease with which I can have one link lead to another on the internet a little scary — if I get too involved I find that I’ve lost of track of my own inner voice, and don’t really know what I’m thinking.

    Tell me more . . .

    Tony

  • Carol Wasserman

    5.14.01

    Blacklisted

    "One of the things I’ve appreciated — deeply — from being a guest here this past week is how little people like me who are on the air hear from people who listen. Sure, we get compliments and criticism on specific things we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, but not a peep about what happens when radio really connects — the ripples it sets off in people’s minds, and the depths they take it to in their own lives."

    Blacklisted’ was the first public radio show I ever heard talked about, out in the street, by people I had not known to be public radio listeners. It was an audacious act, making radio out of our parents’ nightmares, the ones which we had been forbidden to acknowledge or discuss. For those of us from a certain time and place in history, what we remember most about our childhoods is how scared the grown-ups were. And how formless the fear seemed, because no one dared discuss its specifics with us. Too much information could be dangerous.

    So it surprised me to learn how many of us had been warned to keep quiet. And how grateful, now, so many people were for the bravery and generosity of Tony Kahn. Who dared to break our parents’ silence. And in doing so gave us permission to share notes. Speak openly about things which we knew to be forbidden. Things which would cause the world to end, were they to be talked about in public. On the street. On the radio.

    I don’t think anyone I heard talking about the series ever wrote to thank you. I didn’t write – I was much too shy. I’m sorry.

    But there were many people profoundly affected by your work.

  • kipi turok

    5.15.01

    GREAT – You deserve it.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.15.01

    Carol, thanks.

    Silence is such a big part of people’s stories. It is the language of fear, sometimes. It took me forty years to penetrate some of the silences I grew up with to tell my parents’ story; some of my earliest memories, in fact, are of the crushing weight of things not said and fears not shared. I heard from a lot of people after "Blacklisted" aired who had their own stories to tell about the silences they grew up with. One woman sent me an image from her own life I never forgot. She was working class Irish and her uncle had been a union organizer in the ’30s. When the Red Scare began no one in the family would talk about him. One day she discovered a picture of him, in a newspaper article describing a strike he had led for shoe workers in Lowell, Mass, hidden under a lace doily on top of the television set. It hadn’t been forgotten there — she noticed someone dusted it regularly.

    I notice from your earlier postings in the Inside-Out discussion group that getting to people’s real, unspoken stories is important to you. Personally, I think that finding those unspoken stories is maybe the single most valuable discovery a person can make. What you said got me to thinking about that and I wrote something to you there.

    Let me repeat some of it here:

    >How do you get people who are not accomplished story tellers to find their own true story? What are the clues/criteria to go hunting for as a producer when you find someone who might be a likely subject? So much of what we hear on the air, it seems to me, are the kinds of stories that — for lack of a better phrase — "know where they’re going." The story teller, whether it’s the producer or the subject, seem to be firmly at the helm, steering the story to shore. I have no objection to that — story telling is an art, and being in control of your materials gives you wonderful opportunities to make the trip — and the view along the way — stunning. But how many stories do we hear that are acts of a deeper kind of discovery, where the story teller is also in the process of trying to find out where the story is going, what the real story is? Do people who are less experienced story tellers give us, as producers, more of an opportunity to explore the kinds of stories that people are, in a sense, telling for the very first time? I suppose you could say successful therapy does a similar thing. You "break through" to an understanding of the real story you never told before — to yourself and to someone else — about yourself.
    Anyway, this all leads up to a question for me as a producer. "Does everyone," as you sometimes hear it said, "have a story?" And, if they do, how do you get it out of them? Have you ever considered doing an episode of Inside-Out where you try to explore the idea that everyone has a story to tell they, maybe, have never told themselves before? It’s an idea I’m exploring myself. I wonder how you’d go about it.

    I’d like to re-ask the question here. Does everyone out there have a story to tell? To make better sense of the question for myself, I’m thinking of doing a little experiment. Next time I’m free for an afternoon, maybe I should set up a little table (like NPR’s Alex Chadwick did, memorably, years ago) with a couple of microphones, and invite passersby to sit down and tell me "their story." I’d narrow the focus, of course (I’m still thinking this through) and provide some structure, but bascially, I’d explore the kinds of stories they carry around about themselves they’re trying to tell, maybe make sense of in a new way, maybe tell for the first time.

    If I come up with anything useful, I’ll upload some of the raw material here, maybe, and see what people think.

    Anyway, thanks again for speaking up. See what you got started?

  • Andy Knight

    5.15.01

    Tony, have you listened to TAL’s 24 Hours at the Golden Apple?

    The problem, or rather A problem with this come-one come-all approach is that the stories many people will have for you are private stories. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be willing to tell them to you or have them broadcast to the world, but they (and I) would want a touch of anonymity. Put me in a dark booth with you and have an engineer behind a sheet of glass and I’ll open up wide. But don’t subject me to eavesdropping passers by. Protect me from the judgment of the public… at least for a while.

    I strongly believe that everyone has a story to tell. I also believe some are unwilling and others are unable to tell their story.

  • cw

    5.15.01

    fascinating might not be the word (dis)associative perhaps

    I try to travel freely among ideas and let the media be secondary so as not to get tunnel vision. lately I have foot in about 3-4 media/medium worlds as well as my body in the real world. this might be why everything seems inter connected to me.

    but truly people in documentary film, painting, music composition, jazz studies, digital animation, and novel writing are all having the same discussion that we are here on transom, only in relation to their own particular media/mediums. how to communicate an idea effectively and gracefully is a big problem apparently in the arts and media and in life in general. so it’s hard NOT to see/hear/feel a connection.

    I try to not get interned head/which would be what you call losing track of your inner voice. I do get awl-mart head, however, at malls, grocery stores, and, increasingly, in crowds. it isn’t like losing inner me/mini me. it’s like getting beat up.

    sometimes the interned link-link-link gets like deja xu to me, if that answers your question. i try not to spend too much time in any one mediaspace. i think it’s bad for a person, though i don’t have a strong or credible argument why (yet).

    other than maybe it’s like weightlifting w/ one side of your body and then that side gets all gargantuan and the other side seems or is atrophied as a result/in comparison

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.15.01

    Just sign here…

    How fun! Could I ask something without breaking the mood here?

    I have difficulty picturing the person in a straw hat pausing to get the interviewees to sign release papers.

    How do you keep it from suddenly sounding like you’re selling insurance?

    How do you avoid losing the friendly rapport?

    Or can you cover yourself partially by talking about your intentions on tape and avoid the paper?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.15.01

    Nannette, Andy, CW –

    What you say about the art, the problems, and the tensions of conducting an interview or being interviewed all ring a bell with me. I’ve been interviewing people for thirty years and I’m still learning, still making mistakes, still somewhat mystified by what went right when it does. It’s interesting — the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee is central to news and public affairs and non-dramatic programming. It’s probably the main source of the raw material we use. And yet, aside from making up our own favorite list of interviewers, we don’t really talk about the process that much. I suppose I could come up with some pointers, general do’s and donts, but I don’t apply them consciously.

    Then, of course, there is the difference between interviewing-as-farming and interviewing-as-fishing.

    On "The World," for instance, you do a lot of interviewing-as-farming. That’s when you ask questions with the intention of picking the best possible replies from a source (a politician, government official, think-tank expert) with a very specific product. You go into this well-prepared, briefed on the issue you’re going to be discussing, the number of minutes in the newwshour you’re going to have for the interview, and, if it’s about a controversial issue, the arguments on the other side, which you may need to raise in the interest of fairness and balance. If you’re lucky, something far more spontaneous or revealing of who that person is or what’s really going on with them behind the facade may come up, but it’s rare. If it does come up, though, then you’re into interviewing-as-fishing. In interviewing-as-fishing you’re after something far more lively, beneath the surface. To catch it you’ve got to be very attentive and listening with your insides. In a sense, you’ve got to drop the agenda and, in a funny kind of way, go blank. The last thing you want to be at a time like that is clever or well-informed. In a sense, you’re trying to sense the emotion behind the words and let it come out.

    A long time ago, I was interviewing someone about a very painful period in her marriage, something I knew she had talked about before. She described the sadness, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was at a loss for what to ask her that I hadn’t already asked that might get us to the next level. So, pretty much by default, I ended up saying — nothing. She finished her account then stopped and looked at me for my next question. I looked back at her, I hope with respect, certainly without any further demands of her, and just let the silence continue. The tension that started to build was the first genuine emotion I think either of us had felt so far and, a few seconds later, she started to talk, partly, no doubt, to cover the embarrassing silence, but from a much deeper place. Her story came to life, memorably, with emotions experienced, it felt to me, as if for the first time.

    I wish I could say I discovered a technique there I could use effectively again and again. No such luck.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.17.01

    Message spillage

    By the way, if any of you are interested, some of our discussion on story telling and interviewing has spilled over to the Inside Out discussion. Check it out.

    And, please, feel free to open any other radio related cans of worms here.

  • Andy Knight

    5.17.01

    > And, please, feel free to open any other radio related cans of worms here.

    Ok, I’ve listened to quite a few more episodes of the Connection with Chris, and I’ve been listening to the 1 hour of it that is streamed from WSUI daily… and I’ve listened to some shows at christopherlydon.org. So here is my groundless opinion… The Connection should switch to PRI, who may actually promote the show to stations rather than let it die of NPR rot (the way PRI saved Whad’ya Know). Ray Suarez should probably be the host, making it more attractive to station managers. Lydon should lay the smackdown on Juan Williams and take over as host of TOTN. Juan should take over the Dianne Rehm Show… and No, the name shouldn’t be changed. Dianne should retire, she’s earned it. Can any of this happen? Of course not… unless, of course, it all somehow takes place through the magic of Pay-Per-View, orchestrated by Vince McMahon. I’d sign up for cable to see it.

  • Mary Ambrose

    5.17.01

    But some people appear much duller than they are!

    I completely agree with Tony Kahn that any good interview has some surprise about it…ususally emotional…But what I’ve found in my radio career is that a lot of regular folk just don’t realize how interesting they are and with a mike become self conscious and want to talk about things that make them sound smart, or hip or ‘something’ that is good to them.
    In fact when you listen rather hard to people they will tell you what is fascinating about them, but they won’t also recognize it. Our job as journalists is to really hear them. Not to just listen to the their tales, as Tony says,they may have said a thousand times…their party piece…their familiar complaint…because then people sound like drunks in a bar…but to hear the part that connects them to us, the part of them which is universal, profound and human. I think that makes great radio.

  • bill mckibben

    5.17.01

    Can I tell a Studs Terkel story? Not much of a story, but it illustrated something, at least to me. I was on my first book tour, seven or eight cities out, endlessly mouthing the same chunkettes of prose, when I washed up in Chicago. And I went on Studs’ show–this would have been 1989, fairly near the end of his run, I think–and all of a sudden everything changed. Here was the most famous guy I met that whole month, unless you count the folk on, say, the Today show who are famous without being important, and here was also the guy who had worked the hardest to understand the book. Who had picked out records from his collection for the intros to each segment (am I right in remembering this show went on for an hour?) And in return he got–well, he got a hell of a lot more out of me than anyone else did, that’s for sure. He was truly there, not half there. That’s what I like about Lydon too, truth be told. In a cynical age, engagement really bumps up all the levels on the control board (or something–radio metaphors are not my forte). Anyway, thanks for making me remember a really special afternoon.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.18.01

    Andy, you’ve given the Domino Theory new life; come to think of it, the theory might fit the politics of public radio better than it ever fit the politics of Southeast Asia. There are a lot of cross-overs in staff in public radio, and the flow keeps things fresh. "The World" thrives on emigrants from various posts at WBUR, "The Connection" got a decided energy from its distribution do-si-do with PRI, then NPR; I’m very grateful for the permeable membranes that let me host "The World" on PRI, be a panelist on "Says You" (on NPR), contribute to "Savvy Traveler" (from MPR). I’m hoping that the present crunch we’re all in, competing for funding and waiting to see what kinds of alliances and technologies work out, will keep public broadcasting safe for synergy. And open it even more. The day all public radio hosts and staff are held to the kinds of exclusivity contracts that sometimes prevail in commercial broadcasting would be a bad sign that either: a) Public radio had gotten too big and greedy or b) Public radio had gotten too small not to fight over everything.

    You write:

    >Can any of this happen? Of course not… unless, of course, it all somehow takes place through the magic of Pay-Per-View, orchestrated by Vince McMahon. I’d sign up for cable to see it.

    Actually, the recent death of XFL suggests that cable might want to consider a turn toward more connected-ness and cooperation in its own programming. I did a commentary once offering an idea for a cable show called "Here’s Looking at You" that could do just that. I’ll see if I can find and upload it . . .

    Here’s Looking at You
    MP3 | Real Audio G2

  • Tony Kahn

    5.18.01

    Bill, thanks for the memory. Reminds me of my one encounter with Studs. I’d gone to Chicago to record some promos with him for "Blacklisted," which he’d been kind enough to agree to. I’d scheduled twenty minutes with him. He gave me two hours and lunch.
    The topic of the Blacklist was a major piece of American history for him and, if something matters to him, he doesn’t just talk about it, he brings it back to life. And he LISTENS with an energy that’s a little superhuman. I’ve got proof — about halfway through our time together I noticed his hearing aids were giving him a lot of trouble — and he still heard everything.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.18.01

    faith in people

    Tony, I just wanted to quibble a bit about something you said many posts ago when I asked you why you didn’t lose faith in people.

    You said you didn’t lose it because you didn’t have it to begin with… you recognized that people scared easily and often behave badly when threatened.

    It seems to me that beyond that, you certainly have a lot of belief in people. I think your listeners and your interviewees sense it strongly. You must have something like faith in people. Why bother listen to them so intently otherwise?

    I take your comment to be very generous in the sense that you recognize that people in general have weaknesses, not just particular groups or kinds of people. Actually, I’m awed by that kind of generosity. And it gives me a kind of faith or hope in you -and in people.

    [man oh man it is tempting to go off topic, writing as I am during a visit to Germany…]

  • Joshua Barlow

    5.18.01

    Tony Kahn’s "Here’s Looking at You"

    MP3 | Real Audio G2

  • Tony Kahn

    5.20.01

    Nannette, thanks — you made me rethink what I said.

    Maybe it’s closer to the truth to say that I have faith in people’s desire to do right by others if they have a chance. Usually by the time things get out of hand and fear is rampant, as it was in the ’50s in America and at one time or another virtually everywhere else, it’s too late.

    I think it was Ben Franklin who said, "if you want to befriend an enemy, ask a favor of him." I susbscribe to that. I believe everyone feels a deep impulse to be helpful and a great satisfaction when they can make things better. I also believe this instinct is active from the get-go, even in the youngest children. Why do kids in dysfunctional families so often become dysfunctional? Partly because they’re dying to help — and they can’t. If they were indifferent, they might be able to escape with less damage. The opposite of love, after all, isn’t hate, it’s indifference and I think we have a far stronger impulse to love and be loved than to be indifferent. (As someone once joked, if people weren’t good at heart, there’d be far less cause to be neurotic.)

    I’ve compared notes over the years with people who grew up in families that were under the gun in one way or another. Almost without exception, and in spite of the attempt of their parents, through silence or denial, to spare the kids the bad news, the kids understood at a very young age that their families were in trouble and felt a deep sense of responsibility for it — assuming either it was their fault or their job to make things better. They were wrong to feel guilty, of course, and usually powerless to improve things, but, still, that sense of responsibility lingered. Like me, a lot of these people grew up taking what you might call a pre-emptive approach toward trouble. Knowing how bad things can get when people are scared or feeling threatened, they try to head the trouble off at the pass, and put others at ease. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but a part of me understands from experience how hard it is to get the best out of people when they’re embattled and yet how deep the good in them goes, so I try to respect the good part and put them at ease. Listening carefully is a sign of that respect. It comes naturally for me.

    Arthur Koestler (not a happy man, as we know) wrote a book called "The Ghost in the Machine." He thought world peace could come only if everyone on earth swallowed a pill that could stun "the crocodile part of their brains," the deep, instinctive parts that lust, hunger, hunt and rage. I think a better pill would be one that awakened our sense of empathy. If we were unable to deny the reality of how others feel and the reality of the consequences of our actions on their lives, we’d be better served. We’d also understand the importance of planing ahead, and addressing the needs of everyone, born and unborn, say, ten, twenty, thirty years from now rather than in just the next business quarter.

    Something I keep hearing from people from other countries is how unique Americans are — especially those born after World War II. They think We are the luckiest generation in the history of the world. We have never fought a war in our back yard, we have experienced none of the acute economic disasters that turn everyone you know hungry and poor virtually overnight. We simply don’t understand how fear and political manipulation can turn next door neighbors into sworn ethnic enemies or turn someone who baby-sat your kids one year into someone who wants your heart on a stick the next. (And not necessarily because they really hate you, but because they’re afraid that if they don’t act like it someone on their own side will think they’re a traitor and kill them). We have so little context for undestanding history, I’m told, for how bad things get out there, for what it’s like to be surrounded by nations that, at one time or another, either you conquered or conquered you. And then, add to that naivite, the fact that we’re the most influential culture in the world, and they throw up their hands in wonder and dread. About the only corrective I can think of, as one of those naive Americans, is to try to find people whose stories, when told well, can make some of our empathy come alive.

  • Carol Wasserman

    5.20.01

    Empathy and Ownership

    Tony’s important letter to us on the meaning and insistent morality of other people’s stories gives one the feeling of being shaken awake.

    I’d like to add something which I hear behind his words: we can and must listen; empathy is one of our fundamental ethical duties. But we must NEVER make the mistake of thinking that having listened, and heard, that we then KNOW or UNDERSTAND completely. We have only our own small experiences as tools for interpretation.

    We do no own the stories we hear, or inhabit their shadowy crowded back rooms.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.23.01

    Confession and Silence

    In the Inside-Out discussion forum we’ve been talking some about interviewing techniques and the power of silence to get people to spill the beans. The silence here the last few days has had a similar effect on me. I’m in the homestretch of my month as Jay’s guest and I’d hate to end up the only one talking. God knows what I might confess to!

    So let me open it up: if there’s anything you want to talk about regarding public radio producing or listening, in the strict or loosest sense, chip in. No topic too sacred, no opinion too subjective. And, most of all, for those of you who might be new to all of this, no question too simple to be raised. I’m guided here by the first — and last — question I ever asked in public in college. It was the first week of a science class in which the lecturer, a Nobel-prizewinner, had just described the early earth: lots of ocean, cooling continents, no life, and nothing but ammonia and sulphuric acid in the air. It struck me — no oxygen? No free hydrogen? So, where did all the water come from? I raised my hand and the professor told me the answer was so obvious even an idiot should know it. I was crushed. I learned about thirty years later nobody knows for sure. Some even say, it might be comets. Just so happens it was the kind of unanswered question experts back then didn’t even want to acknowledge. Moral for me? Anybody who attacks someone for ignorance is probably too scared to acknowledge his own.

  • Andy Knight

    5.23.01

    Tony, do you ever go on speaking tours? I know quite a few of your fellow NPR/PRI people do it quite a bit. Though it seems like your tour would be quite a bit more interactive than the rest. Of course you could always do interviews 50¢ while you’re on the road.

    Oh, and do you plan on dropping by from time to time once your month is up?

  • Carol Wasserman

    5.23.01

    Production Quotas

    Tony, I would like to know how you come up with something to say, week in and week out, year after year. How do you become a long-distance runner?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.23.01

    Thank you for another thoughtful posting. I think, as Viki Merrick pointed out, your posts are so great, they get people quiet. You are both unassuming and eloquent, and the combination is captivating.

    This might be too much of a jump, but…
    I’m still stuck on the ‘people getting along’ thing

    (Recently some of the encounters I’ve had include one with a ‘bully’ in front of our building and another with two ethnic groups arguing at the playground)

    It occurs to me that my busybody interventions and your work on the air might have something in common. They both involve empathy.

    Do we both have a certain number of seconds in which to make contact effectively? In just those few seconds you have to establish respect for all parties, sometimes using disarming familiarity. I can use eye contact and facial expressions. When I have any presence of mind, I go for the expression of feelings and true needs, because that’s where the common ground is.

    What do you use?

    In other words, the bullying boy’s first words to me were (roughly translated) "wadddya lookin’ at?"

    I’m thinking you might be up against some similar pressure from various directions when you go on the air…

    [If this is too wild or off topic, I expect you will handle this deftly as well…]

    Also, I’d love to hear any backstage near snafu example(s) of how things are handled between the various cultural groups and organizations working together in London and Boston. Or do you, all together, have a separate defined culture of ‘international public radio folks,’ with its own ways?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.23.01

    >Tony, do you ever go on speaking tours?

    Andy, my wife says that three of anything makes a "collection." So my yearly speaking engagements add up to something closer to a collection than a career. I enjoy doing it and — you’re right — I enjoy getting people to talk up and talk back, but I’m a lousy marketer, so when I do get asked, it’s often out of the blue. That way, I also don’t fall into a rut; the audiences are too different. The great thing about being in public radio is that your main expertise is being a thoughtful listener. So I can talk to the Mayor of Milwaukee’s Business Awards dinner about what makes for a compelling business news story, to a bunch of scientists about what seems intriguing to a lay person about chaos theory, or — and this one’s really hard — to a bunch of highschool juniors about how the Hollywood Blacklist is not just about the 1950s but about the pressures in their own lives they have to deal with all the time.

    >do you plan on dropping by from time to time once your month is up?

    You bet.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.23.01

    >How do you become a long-distance runner?

    Carol, what an intriguing image for keeping things interesting. It suggests an answer for me, too. "Find the slipstream and let it carry you along." In other words, do what you already do so well — appreciate the things other people are passionate about or deeply involved with and let that inspire you.

    When you let people know what it is you find exciting about them they usually give you even more — unless they’re totally bent out of shape. And because people are so wonderfully idiosyncratic, you’re probably always going to find them a lot more surprising, intriguing and stimulating than you find yourself.

    The stuff I do that I’m happiest about is almost always a kind of collage, an arrangement of great moments other people give me. The most creative thing I do is edit.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.23.01

    Nannette, you wrote

    >Do we . . . have a certain number of seconds in which to make contact effectively? . . . When I have any presence of mind, I go for the expression of feelings and true needs, because that’s where the common ground is.

    I think you put it perfectly. The problem is how do you get to that point FAST? How do you attain "instant" presence of mind? How do you leap into someone else’s situation without it’s being taken as an intrusion or an assault? Understanding that and having it happen are two different things, of course, or, to give it a more Zen phrasing, "if you can describe it, you’re not there." Whatever it takes, practice and luck have a lot more to do with it than careful planning and force of will.

    I’ll give you an example of something that happened to me. Probably the most memorable interchange I never recorded. I was in San Antonio, walking back from some awards dinner to my hotel near The Alamo at around 1 am. The streets were empty, except for me in my tuxedo and one very big, upset looking twenty-something young man in dungarees and a T-shirt. He came right up to me and said he needed eight dollars so he could buy enough gas to get him and his four children home. I didn’t have time to be scared. I didn’t have time to think at all. All I noticed, I remember, were that his biceps were huge and his eyes were burning right into mine. God knows why, but I was absolutely certain that the safest place for me to be right then was right with him. I touched his arm with one hand and dug in my pocket with the other. Luckily, I had a ten dollar bill there and I pressed it into his palm. He said he’d pay me back someday and walked away.

    The next morning I woke up to the local news. About 2 am that morning a passerby had been held up at the same corner by a single male in his twenties. When the passerby resisted, the man had pulled a gun and shot the guy, as he fled, in the ass.

    I know who the assailant was that night. But I’m still not entirely sure where the guy in tuxedo came from.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.24.01

    >do you, all together, [on The World] have a separate defined culture of ‘international public radio folks,’ with its own ways?

    Nannette, I forgot to answer this other question of yours. Sorry.

    The main difference day to day between the BBC World Service people on our staff and us natives is that they’re more polite than we are. It takes three years before a Brit will drop his guard with you and even then, the rawer emotions that bubble through do so . . . dimly. The day to day gentility and kindness under pressure in our office, which never stops amazing me, are qualities for which we are totally indebted to the British.

    There’s a more fundamental difference that we’ve had to negotiate (politely!) over the last five years and that’s in the way they (the BBC World service) and we (generic American public radio) tell a news story. The two broadcast traditions and the audiences each serves are not alike.

    The British are far more comfortable going straight to the political and policy issues behind the story than we are, and far more eager to keep the emotions involved to a minimum. They can take this dryer, more abstract approach because their audience knows its history and needs far less context to understand the impact of developments at home and abroad. We have a greater need to understand stories in terms of their impact on individuals. Call it participatory democracy as applied to the news, but we want to see how stories play out in the lives of other people, or how they flow from motivations we can understand in personal terms. An American reporter loves to start a story with a description or a quote from some individual in the thick of it — a Brit would generally like to do anything but. Making sense of these differences and working them out has been one of the real behind-the-scenes-adventures for me of working on "The World."

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.25.01

    Very interesting!
    I just met a radio and print journalist in Germany who is leaving the business after 20 some years because of what she calls its degeneration. She finds that the respect journalists used to be able to have for their subjects is gone. For example, after she interviewed an author and wrote it up, the editor added in details of the artist’s plastic surgery on various body parts.

    What’s your view of the business as a whole and public radio in particular? Is public radio immune to this trend? Where is the difference between investigative journalism and just mean spiritedness? Between helping people reveal something and outing the jerk in everyone just for (near literal) kicks?

    Given the tendency to self-righteously point the finger at easy targets, will things get better or worse with more web media traffic? Will the next equivalent of the McCarthy era be different because of the web?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.25.01

    Nannette — I read your email last night, after three hours at a Women in Film dinner in Boston. A wonderful organization (full disclosure — the Boston chapter was founded by my wife, Harriet Reisen), but the band was so noisy I couldn’t hear myself think. It reminded me of the ambient sound level of the restaurants I used to take my dates and friends to my in Manhattan when I was in graduate school. It was so loud all conversations had to be conducted in a shout, so everything you said took on this incredible aura of intensity and significance. And, of course, anything that needed to be expressed in a whisper or mulled over in silence never got said. No wonder people in a crowd act like animals. It’s too damn loud to feel like anything else. Anyway, sorry for the delay.

    You ask about objectivity and fairness in news reporting. My experience is that, like most fundamental values, they never exist in practice. Like one of those mathematical functions that approach zero but never reach it, the goal keeps receding as you progress. And like all values, they’re subjective. Or agreed to as a kind of convention for doing business. For instance, most of us start a story about a "major" statement from the President with a sound bite of the President making the statement. But who says the finished statement is the most significant place to begin? Isn’t it possible how it got made and who helped make it is just as telling? And how do you determine it’s "major?" In terms of its effect on whom or what? And who’s to say that the most significant development that day in terms of its impact on our lives has anything to do with a bunch of politicians who (judging from my experience, anyway) may be no more certain of what’s really happening or what it might lead to than anyone else?

    Of course, you can’t pursue questions like that if you’re going to produce a news show on schedule. And, given the chance, most of us would agree it’s better to be skeptical, that the so-called "truth" is really plural ("many truths"), not singular, and that the more complex a thing is, the more unpredictable its course is going to be. But we rarely say so openly or remind ourselves and our listeners of that and that I regret. Would it really hurt to say "The News — An Educated Guess’ instead of just "The News?"

    Public radio news is becoming the news source of record — the one listeners and newsmakers tend to trust the most. If anything, that increases the competitive pressure and the tendency to act definitive — and sound definitive fast. We spend a lot less time than we used to mulling things over. A public radio news editor I know was once cheered and chaired around the newsroom by his staff because they had scooped the TV networks that evening on a "big" story. Boy, did he have mixed feelings about that.

    I’m glad the internet is there. A friend of mine out West regularly sends me links to alternative news sources covering stories (often in poorer parts of the world) that a lot of news reporters and correspondents tend not to get to — or linger in. It’s tough to give these sources the time and attention they deserve, but they’re there . . . People say the internet will keep less mainstream voices and opinions alive. I hope so. But, as someone pointed out (actualy shouted out) to me last night at the Women in Film party, that’s what local television was supposed to do around the world, too. And most of those tv’s these days are tuned to the same satellite transmissions and the same mainstream shows . . .

  • Jay Allison

    5.25.01

    Jawbone

    I know the conversation has moved on and I apologize for the non sequitur, but I’d just like to express my appreciation for the dramatic rendering (in "Box-o-Phobia"…audio link earlier in this topic) by the grown man pleading with the Box Police as they take away his memorabilia:
    >"My Buffalo Jawbone! NO! It makes me popular with the new kids!!"

    (come to think of it, where is my buffalo jawbone…?)

  • Tony Kahn

    5.25.01

    >come to think of it, where is my buffalo jawbone…?

    Jay, you might check the box with your fourth grade arithmetic tests or in the back pocket of your 1952 Haloween bunny costume . . .

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.26.01

    Commentaries with Music

    http://stream.realimpact.net/rihurl.ram?file=realimpact/apm/200105.boxophobia.rm

    I was glad to be reminded about Boxophobia. I’d been avoiding it, –and, and — it was worse than I thought! I’m still trembling!

    Good use of music! But so much for your nice guy image!

    Here’s a question that will relate this to what Transom’s about:
    Where, besides Marketplace, could this air? Do commentaries with music air more easily or less easily?

    I’d like to hear about how you put this together. I imagine something with so many layers (so much time involved) must be a labor of love. (or something sicker, she said, shaking)

  • John Jacobsen

    5.27.01

    Field Report

    Tony — I consider you an avid explorer of the information flow: the first guy on computers, testing word processing software, playing with Groove share ware and now chat journalism. You are the headlights driving down Alpha Road, the early adopter looking for what doesn’t work and for what can’t be done that should — a Dr. Livingston searching for the source of denial.

    So, as you approach the end of this month’s exploration, what can you report from this uncharted medium of public communication? What’s it been like? How do you describe the land of chat journalism?

  • Jay Allison

    5.27.01

    more requests

    And while you’re at it, Tony, I wouldn’t mind some pithy musings on the state of public radio (though I know some are embedded back in the discussion already)… what it’s doing well, what it needs to try. If we are the "news source of record" how do we also take wild chances, invent new things? Surely we’re not too mature…

  • Harriet Reisen

    5.27.01

    Nannette. I’m happy "Box-o-phobia" struck a chord with you, even if it blew my cover as a nice guy.

    >Where, besides Marketplace, could this air?

    you ask. I’m sorry I don’t have a good answer for you, especially nowadays. Since I started working on "The World" five years ago, I have less contact with commentary editors than with commentators. I gather this is a good thing, since most commentators I know don’t have the greatest regard for their editors. I was lucky. At Marketplace I worked with a real gentleman and a mensch named JJ Yore. JJ was a magnificent editor; he was always a pleasure to work with and had the guts to try stuff that didn’t always fit the mold of Marketplace. Once he even aired a piece of mine about my 25th College Reunion that ran two minutes longer than the normal length and had only the most arguable connection with business. (I’ll see if I can upload it here, in case you’re interested.) But then one of the reasons that shows JJ edited and now executive produces, like "Marketplace" and "The Savvy Traveler" win Peabody Awards and keep growing is that he takes risks. When a format gets to be too comfortable a fit, he feels the need for another growth spurt.

    My sense is that it’s really tough for commentators out there. They get treated arbitrarily, paid next to nothing, and are subject to the kinds of whims of fashion (heavy regionalisms, obvious sentiments, and quirky mannerisms always being at a premium) that no story teller or artist can find encouraging. I’m relieved I now have a regular job. Then again, when I was free-lancing, I was more eager to innovate and maybe a little more in love with the process of production. And, as I say, I was very lucky with my editors. Generally, they let me do things my own way and were protective and forgiving of my missteps. (The one exception being someone formerly at NPR, who shall remain nameless, who consistently rejected my stuff because it sounded "too Jewish.")

    Before doing public radio commentaries, I did a lot of commercial voice-over work and production. My fondness for effects and lots of production may stem from that. But music and effects, it seems to me, should always play a complementary role to the words, to give you breathing room to consider what you’re hearing, to deepen but not force an emotion or a mood, and to suggest some other dimensions to what you’re talking about without grabbing the focus. For instance, if you’re creating the ambience for a scene on the street, make the background sounds real, and choose suggestive ones (like, maybe, a particular tune or, say, commercial message overheard from a radio), but don’t let the background take the listener’s main attention from whatever is in the foreground.

  • Harriet Reisen

    5.27.01

    John, it’s funny you give me credit for being an early adapter. Right now I’m in rural Cape Cod, working on my wife Harriet’s horse-drawn Toshiba laptop from the mid-’90s. But you’ve cracked my big secret. As my friend Judy Stoia says, "Kiddo, the truth is you’re a gearhead." Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to technology. Not as an engineer — I still have no good image for what electricity is — but as someone drawn, as if sheer magnetism, to tubes, wires, and their combined promise of reaching the whole world at once. I was eleven when I returned to the States and my first television set, a black and white RCA that smelled like burned toast and produced a nearly constant stream of static. You could always find me in some vaguely obscene arrangement with my nose up its innards, fiddling with tubes and knobs, tryng to make it work. Computers, for me, were a dream come true, a way of being in charge of a world directly responsive to my touch and, increasingly in contact with anyone else around the world, to whatever degree felt comfortable.

    I discovered, as soon as communication became part of the powers of a personal computer, that I was as shy on line as I was in person. Once (I swear! Only once!) two lady friends of mine and I logged on to Compuserve as a 21 year old woman named Melody to see what would happen in a free-for-all-chat-room and that was plenty. So, for me, spending a month like this on-line has been a big step forward exploring the kinds of connections I can make. Since I tend to do most of my thinking in coversation rather than in isolation, it’s also been a way of exploring some ideas about radio and trying to be more explicit and conscious of the things I usually do by instinct. The one area where I feel I haven’t had time to explore this on-line business at transom is in making the discussion more interactive. I’d hoped we’d have time to try out some production experiments like uploading some raw tapes of an interview and exchanging ideas and edits on line. Unfortunately, the month has gone by too quickly. But I’m just getting started.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.27.01

    Nannette — hope the message labelled "Harriet Reisen" didn’t confuse yiou. It came from me via her computer.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.27.01

    Melody, is that you?

    Yes, well, Another Cover Blown! I hope this means you and Harriet’ll come back soon.

    (& it’s so nice to know you can still find rural areas of Cape Cod dotted with horse-drawn laptops.)

  • John Jacobsen

    5.27.01

    An early changer or an early absorber?

    Is it early adapter or early adopter? There is logic for either, and these middle age ears can’t hear the nuance when it is spoken, and I don’t read the types of articles that print such terms… (note — the spell check did not like ‘adopter’)

    Do you find you get (and respond) to more postings on rainy, dank days?

  • Tony Kahn

    5.28.01

    John, what a difference a vowel makes. I don’t know which is the proper term, but I’d vote for both. I think an early "adopter" sees the technology as something that needs parenting, encouragement, support (till it turns against you at age 14). An early "adapter" sees the technology as an unstoppable force he has to adjust to. Maybe we’re seeing a term in the process of formation. Among other things, the early 21st century is a great time for amateur linguists. For every word that loses its original meaning or fades away (like "dialing" a number) there’s another that adopts/adapts to change.

  • Tony Kahn

    5.28.01

    >I wouldn’t mind some pithy musings on the state of public radio

    I’m glad you didn’t ask for great ideas. Even if I had them, they wouldn’t matter. Great ideas are like tadpoles in the pirranha pond of life. We’ve probably all been to enough brain storming sessions to know that great ideas rarely make it to maturity. The main thing that makes a person or an institution change is a crisis and I don’t think we’re in a crisis yet. As long as the old way of doing things works and is tolerable, it’ll stay in place.

    Actually, great leadership and a great idea together can sometimes work big changes, if the timing’s right. I’m thinking in particular of what Geraldine Laybourne did years ago at Nickelodeon, when she changed it from an undistinguished children’s cable channel to the most exciting and original brand in broadcasting. She was terrific at inspiring creative people and a genius at setting the right limitations. She offered a $20,000 budget and a day or two of studio time to anyone on staff — anyone! — who had an idea for a kid’s show they wanted to pilot. People in their twenties, not that far from being kids themselves, came up with neat, inexpensive dramas and game shows that were just the kinds of things kids naturally responded to — lots of silliness, lots of messy goop, tons of mayhem and sass. It gave Nickelodeon a whole new energy and identity. It set an example for how to imbue an operation with new life that even Geraldine hasn’t been able to repeat.

    For me, though, the moral is she stopped talking about what to do and just did whatever she could afford at the time. From that came the stuff that got used and refined. I see similar energy and ideas coming from efforts like transom a lot sooner than from NPR. So, whatever the state of public programming is, I’m betting on something interesting and inspiring coming from your neck of the woods and young producers than from the "establishment." Not rhat I’m against experience and guidance — some of my best friends are middle-aged, but, you know . . .

  • Joshua Barlow

    5.29.01

    Tony Kahn’s "Harvard 25th Anniversary"

    MP3 | Real Audio G2

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.30.01

    Tony Kahn’s "Harvard 25th Anniversary"

    Don’t Miss This One!

  • Tony Kahn

    5.30.01

    Nannette, I’m now eyeball to eyeball with my 35th anniversary, a week from today — and both of us are wearing reading glasses.

    At my 25th, I remember running into a guy celebrating his 50th. (This did not go into my piece.) "The big news for me," I told him, "is this amazing welcome we’re getting from each other and the college," I said, "How about for you?" "Well," he said, "one of us dropped dead at lunch yesterday." I scoured the papers that day and not a word. Either this guy had a good sense of humor or the Harvard publicity office is even better than I thought.

    Maybe I’ll bring a DAT to the reunion and do something on the difference a decade of personal/political history makes.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.30.01

    Short, Sweeping and Unforgettable

    Folks, don’t be fooled by the cheerful conversation here or the innocuous title. Please listen and tell me whether you’ve heard anything like it before. Tell me whether you’ve heard anything as important in the last month or more.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.30.01

    class -or something

    b Re: Harvard and public radio.
    Tony, for years, way way way in the back of my mind, I ruled out the idea of writing or working for public radio because I figured you had to be at least Ivy League and/or otherwise connected. In fact, this assumption was so deep, I didn’t even know I had made it. I never allowed myself to even imagine working in the field, eventhough it provided me near constant nourishment.

    And now, I’ve allowed myself the fantasy, but when I hear your sweeping piece and how you managed to wrap around grand and little observations of the kind and quantity I drown in, I think "yeah, it does take some pretty fancy smarts to pull that off."

    So what kind of people are in public radio? Most have been there for awhile, went to well-known schools…

    Does it matter at all in terms of how it works and what gets covered? Does it matter to people trying to get works on?

    Are Americans and public radio people more or less comfortable talking about these things than British or Europeans or others? [my style of asking the question being a separate aspect]

    I hope this brings us back around to the idea of transom, doesn’t it?

    (Are they going to kick us all out at midnight tomorrow? It’s been awhile since I’ve closed a place!}

  • Tony Kahn

    5.31.01

    Nannette, You ask

    >So what kind of people are in public radio?

    You know how they say fish can’t see the water they swim in? Well, your comment made me realize that just about everybody I know in public radio, from the producers to on-air hosts, have college degrees.

    I can think of ten things to attribute that to, from the training that a higher education — presumably — gives you in thinking logically and using words with precision to the tendency of cultural institutions to recruit their ranks from the educated elite. But if that situation persists, it’s the death warrant of public radio.

    Public radio needs producers with talent and intelligence, empathy and imagination — period. Those are qualities you’re born with and life refines. Harvard gave me a leg up, but it also gave me a four year late start at life. Whatever life-long interests I’ve developed I developed after Harvard and whatever skills I have I picked up on the job. Radio is not brain surgery; it’s not scholarship; it’s not a secret society; it had better not be elitist and it should be as humbled by what people without higher educations know as by what it, with all its sophistication, doesn’t. It so happens I am a quick study and a slow learner, so although I could talk a good game and going to college sure limbered my tongue, it took me years to realize how much I didn’t know and how important it was to listen.

    Still, I think the bias is there — all the more so for being unexamined, and you need to take it on. From what I sense about you, you have no choice in the matter, you’re persistent and in love with public radio. Keep at it, now more than ever. The trend in public radio is more and more to iron out differences with a bigger, better business model. I don’t know what that means it terms of what kinds of people it will want to recruit, but in this case bigger doesn’t mean better or more inclusive. In case you didn’t catch it, there was an article in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times about what’s happening on the West Coast.

    I’m including it here. Give it a look if you have a chance and let me know what you think.

    >Public Radio, Under the Influence

    > With tony commercials and concerns about ratings, nonprofit broadcasting is beginning to look a lot like the for-profit kind.

    >By SEAN MITCHELL

    > "From Minnesota Public Radio–from Los Angeles, this is ‘Marketplace.’ " For more than a year now, listeners of several local public radio stations, along with listeners across the nation, have heard this curious opening.

    > The unlikely geographical aggregate–from Minnesota … from Los Angeles–glances quickly off the ears of those tuning in to the distinctive half-hour business magazine aired daily on KCRW and KPCC (see box, Page 71) and once carried on KUSC, where it originated, for 10 years. But, in fact, those quickly forgotten opening credits bear some scrutiny. They are a signpost to the changing world of public radio, both in Los Angeles and beyond, where many things don’t sound the way they used to.

    > Whether this is good depends on whether you miss the idiosyncratic music and talk shows of a public radio realm where small was a virtue and the personal was political, or you welcome the more commercial-sounding future being mapped by ratings strategists, MBAs and a nonprofit mogul named William Kling, whose Minnesota Public Radio last year took control of Pasadena City College station KPCC as well as KUSC’s Marketplace Productions.

    > Public radio, once the province of obscure college FM stations and grown to cultural prominence on the back of the National Public Radio network, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, remains for many a salutary oasis of non-hit parade music and intelligent talk in the mostly conglomerate-controlled wasteland that is radio in general. Public radio’s audience has grown nationally from about 14 million listeners in 1990 to 22 million last year, and while that’s still small compared with what the commercial giants command, the public radio audience is disproportionately well-educated, influential and well-to-do–what high-end advertisers regard as a top demographic.

    > But the growth has come in part in response to the stepped-up financial challenge imposed by Newt Gingrich-era congressional cuts in federal funding for public broadcasting that pushed many listener-supported radio stations to seek programming with broader, more mainstream appeal designed by consultants. At the same time, they began soliciting increased corporate underwriting that has brought the unfamiliar sound of virtual commercials to all but the Pacifica Foundation’s independent-minded stations, which include Los Angeles’ KPFK. (Most public stations now have underwriting salesmen who, through commissions, can earn more than the on-air talent.)

    > In Los Angeles, the oasis of public radio is as wide as any place in America, with five major public stations on the left end of the FM dial, plus a couple of smaller ones. (New York has four major stations; Chicago, one.) But the competition among these stations to put up bigger audience numbers to qualify for Corp. for Public Broadcasting grants as well as attract local sponsorship has tightened in some cases the range of the voices and sounds once heard on their frequencies and altered their sensibilities. A lot is at stake here in the coming months as public radio proprietors everywhere look to Los Angeles for indications of what the future will be like for this distinguished medium.

    > Notably, KPCC has undergone a complete format change, from a mix of alternative music and talk to news and public affairs, following the model of Minnesota Public Radio’s successful St. Paul station, KNOW, plugging in many MPR-owned programs like "The Savvy Traveler," "The Splendid Table," "Marketplace" and "A Prairie Home Companion," transferred from KUSC, where it had been heard for 20 years. Again, modeled after the way it’s been done in Minnesota and only now being tried in Southern California, KPCC has begun building a professional news department (it currently has five reporters) to do local stories for segments pinched out of NPR news shows "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

    > Meanwhile, gone are such home-grown programs as "The Friday Night Blues Revue," with harmonica player John "Juke" Logan as host, and "The Sancho Show," the Saturday-night celebration of Chicano culture hosted for years by popular local professor Daniel A. Castro.

    > Classical KUSC, recovered from its earnest but misguided multicultural experiment of the early ’90s, has returned to the canon with a format, except for nighttime host Jim Svejda, that is so monotonous, it sounds as if it were programmed by robots. It’s no surprise to learn that this rotation of classical "hits" and canned commentary is the result of focus-group research aimed at reaching a consensus playlist that can be shared with stations in Denver and Boise. More startling is the fact that the Corp. for Public Broadcasting doled out an $850,000 grant to make it possible.

    > KCRW, still an influential powerhouse of talent in Santa Monica beaming a creative mix of cutting-edge music, smart talk and radio drama, nevertheless in recent years has added so many contests and promotional announcements as to risk sounding at times like a boutique Top 40 station. Nic Harcourt’s "Morning Becomes Eclectic" no doubt influences discriminating film and television producers, and Warren Olney and Harry Shearer are masters of the interview and political satire, respectively, but they are buffeted by a clatter of repetitive station IDs and hype that take the cool out of what has often been the coolest of stations.

    (continued in next message)

  • Tony Kahn

    5.31.01

    (LA Times article continued) . . .

    >"Public radio feels the same pressures as commercial radio," says Harcourt, who came to KCRW from a commercial station in upstate New York but grew up in England, he notes, on the noncommercial BBC. "You’re trying to attract listeners and build an audience."
    KCRW’s general manager, Ruth Seymour, known throughout public radio for her innovation, is also famous for suddenly yanking a program off the air if it does not pull its weight in pledges or sounds momentarily stale.

    >What’s been lost in public radio is disinterestedness, doing something just because you thought it was good and not to get the biggest numbers," says longtime public radio producer and host Larry Josephson, whose national programs have included "Bridges" and "Modern Times." "We’ve become a kinder, gentler form of commercial radio, with the same measures of success: ratings, income, Web hits and spot sales. And we’ve lost our soul in the process."
    Josephson has emerged as a defender of a lost faith, doing battle with a group he calls "the numbers Nazis," represented a little more than a week ago in Seattle at the annual Public Radio Conference by Richard Madden, the public broadcasting corporation’s vice president for radio. Madden, who along with National Public Radio President Kevin Klose, celebrated public radio’s spreading reach and ratings, told the assembled, "We must define success in a different way for a different time. We’re not a ‘smaller is better’ enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that kind of mind-set."
    It would appear no one is thinking that way at Minnesota Public Radio, which sent a shock wave through the system last year when its parent company, American Public Media Group, stepped in to acquire (via long-term lease) financially troubled KPCC’s powerful signal, setting up a new entity called Southern California Public Radio as its proxy. Whether this was a high-minded rescue or an aggressive step toward building a network that could rival NPR in scope depends on who you talk to. Representatives of MPR and SCPR are sensitive about the issue and insist on the independence and local goals of KPCC under the new management. Insiders, however, say that staffers at KPCC often refer to MPR as "the Mother Ship."

    >"Minnesota isn’t setting goals for the station," says Martha McPhee, chief operating officer of MPR. "The local board does that. We’re there to further the mission of public radio for an area of 14 million people who were not being well-served by the previous public station, which had a hodgepodge schedule. We see it as an opportunity to do something that we already know how to do, bringing national, international and local news to people."

    >People at KCRW are not so sanguine. Public radio colleagues have been asking Ruth Seymour how she’s holding up under the circumstances. "It’s because Bill Kling has such a fearsome reputation for swallowing anything in his path," she says, "it’s assumed he will swallow KCRW as well."

    >"KCRW is not on our mental map at all," assures Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which administers KPCC. Davis, formerly senior vice president for programming at NPR, downplays the competition between the two stations, claiming their audiences overlap by only a third. "I see us as complementary services. Our goal here is to be the best news and information station in the country."

    >"We know that Kling is not doing this altruistically," says another local station executive. "The question is, what does MPR take out of this?"

    >NPR’s Klose put his own spin on it when he said in an interview, "I think it’s a very good thing, Minnesota coming to KPCC. We want high-quality control of our assets–which is not to say KPCC wasn’t already a good station."

    >NPR, a network of some 640 member stations, actually owns none, while MPR owns more than 30 stations in the upper Midwest that form a distinct network within and parallel to NPR. The two entities are not, then, direct competitors except as producers of national programming in search of time-slots, but at least one insider describes that competition as "corporate hardball."
    It is widely believed that MPR’s move to Los Angeles, including the construction of a $3.5-million downtown production and news facility housing Marketplace Productions and KPCC’s news operation, is the reason NPR has announced plans to build a major West Coast production center in Culver City, the first outside NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

    >According to Klose, who denies that MPR’s presence here was a factor, the new facility will be ready in early 2002 and have a staff of 40 to 50 producers and reporters, reflecting the westward population shift and "the importance of California and the West to our audiences."

    >At KPCC, the numbers are going up, based on Arbitron ratings released a few weeks ago. KPCC’s weekly listenership for its new all-news and talk format jumped from 220,000 a year ago to 306,000, or almost 40%, while raising $586,000 in pledges, a 20% increase over the previous drive last fall. The most popular public station in L.A. is KUSC, with 422,000 metropolitan L.A. listeners a week, providing a twist perhaps on the old maxim–there are numbers in safety. "I hear from people that we’re not being as adventurous as we could be," says KUSC general manager Brenda Barnes. "But we’re in this as a public service. If we’re not serving a significant number of Americans, we’re not doing our job."

    >KCRW, meanwhile, saw a drop in its corresponding numbers, from 424,000 to 360,000, though the station raised an impressive $1.7 million in fund-drive pledges, a measure of the devotion of its audience.

    >Long Beach jazz station KLON jumped to 343,00 from 263,000 during the previous quarter, while politically charged KPFK clocked in at 170,000, up from 153,000.

    >KCSN, the Cal State Northridge station with a lesser signal and perhaps the most eclectic mix in the market of music, from classical to country, plus Rene Engel’s daily arts interview and NPR news, registered about 30,000 weekly listeners. (Engel, the station’s general manager, is leaving in July to become KLON’s program director.)

    >To the extent that Arbitron numbers are significant in public radio (opinions vary widely among managers), KPCC’s new format seems to be finding a greater acceptance than its previous, hand-tooled schedule. However, even its advocates point to the factor of adding "A Prairie Home Companion," one of public radio’s two most popular non-news programs ("Car Talk," which it also carries, is the other; both have national audiences of about 3 million).

    >The impact of the local news operation has been yet hard to measure, as the local inserts in "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" have been unremarkable, along with the increase in "jack-knifed big rig on the 210" traffic reports like those found everywhere else on the dial. The rest of each weekday is built around three lengthy middle-of-the-road talk shows, two of them local: "Talk of the City," with L.A. native Kitty Felde; NPR’s "Talk of the Nation"; and "Air Talk," hosted by KPCC fixture Larry Mantle.

    (concluded in next message)

  • Tony Kahn

    5.31.01

    LA Times Article Continued . . . .

    >It was Mantle who five years ago, during the first purge of music programs at the station under manager Rod Foster, said publicly that talk shows "provided a much more valuable service than playing CDs" and were "much more the mission of public broadcasting," a debatable presumption nonetheless clearly shared by his new bosses.
    Skeptics have questioned the difficulty of even defining local news in the disjointed megalopolis of L.A., let alone covering it effectively with a small radio staff. KCRW ignored local news entirely until prompted by the ’92 riots to create Warren Olney’s landmark program "Which Way, L.A.?," which continues to this day–though bumped from its original midday spot in the last year by Olney’s new national show, "To the Point," and reduced to half an hour, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

    >At KPFK, politically involved afternoon talk-show host Marc Cooper, also a regular contributor to the left-of-center magazine the Nation and last year voted "radio journalist of the year" by the Los Angeles Press Club, pulls no punches when discussing the new KPCC. "KPCC’s attempt to distinguish itself with local news coverage," says Cooper, "is a concept rather than a reality. Local news doesn’t mean a damn thing to the average listener. When you come to me and tell me you’re putting your focus on local news, I’ll tell you you’re from out of town."

    >Cooper, who derides KCRW equally as "a campfire for a Westside-based cultural elite," regards KPCC’s talk shows as "parochial and insipid," and adds, "At KPFK, we’re trying to fill the holes that these other folks have left open."
    Though some might dismiss Cooper as an ideologue, others would concede that KPFK’s coverage of last fall’s election was always interesting and that its lineup of informed afternoon talk hosts (including print journalists Jon Wiener, Joe Domanick and Suzi Weissman) offers a bracing antidote to the usual topic-of-the-day talk show drone.

    >However, KPFK has been beset by organizational turmoil. (Witness the recent controversial exit of the station’s venerable "Folkscene" program after 25 years and continuing listener protests over what they believe is programming censorship by KPFK parent Pacifica.) But the station has smoothed out a few rough edges and stands out as the only local station not peppered with corporate sponsorship promos, a trend that has undercut the original idea of public radio being financed primarily by the public.

    >"It’s disingenuous of the public stations to call themselves ‘commercial-free’ anymore," says Matt Wright, a former program host at KPCC who now produces radio commercials for a living. "The FCC has been looking the other way on things that the stations couldn’t have gotten away with 15 years ago."
    When Congress, alarmed by the supposed liberal bias of NPR, threatened to eliminate funding for public broadcasting in the mid-’90s, it also enacted "enhanced underwriting credits" that loosened FCC restrictions on how much a public radio corporate underwriter could go on about itself and its products beyond what was once simple name identification. Now are heard slogans ("At Fannie Mae, we’re in the American Dream business," "At GE we bring good things to life") not unlike those found on commercial radio and television.

    >"It’s become a place for image-laundering for the great corporations," observes Larry Josephson. "It’s a form of lobbying. A lot of these companies have PR problems."

    >NPR President Klose defends this. "We’re not 100% federally funded as we were 20 years ago," he says. "The money has to come from somewhere. In the marketplace of ideas, if someone wants to pay to get a corporate identity credit, I think they should be able to do so. It has not impinged on our public-service mission."
    Judy Jankowski, general manager of KLON, agrees that the money has to come from somewhere but believes "it should have an affinity for what you’re doing, be something of interest to the jazz listener. We do concert spots and other ads that provide information valuable to our listeners."

    >Jankowski has turned down some underwriters who’ve approached her, including cigarette maker Philip Morris. "I told them I didn’t think it was in the best interests of the station."
    Even before Congress started threatening to wipe out subsidies for public broadcasters, one person who figured out how to turn a profit in this nonprofit world was William Kling. The founder of Minnesota Public Radio, Kling, in the early 1980s, recognized the star potential of the man who would become public radio’s best-known personality, Garrison Keillor, then a local phenomenon in Minnesota. When NPR’s inside-the-Beltway executives balked at taking "A Prairie Home Companion" national, Kling went around them and started a rival distribution network, American Public Radio (now Public Radio International) to make Keillor available outside the Midwest. Then he finessed the tax laws in creating a for-profit company marketing Keillor’s hugely popular mystique and his quaint small-town dreamscape through T-shirts, mugs, tapes and other merchandise, with the result that Kling and Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio got rich, at least by public radio standards.

    >In 1998, Kling sold Rivertown Trading, MPR’s allied mail-order catalog business, to Dayton Hudson Corp., owners of Target, for $120 million, creating a self-sustaining endowment for MPR and pocketing what was reported to be $2.6 million himself.
    Kling’s unorthodox business model has made him a controversial figure in Minnesota, and at least once he replied to critics who questioned MPR’s relationship with its for-profit businesses with the statement, "No good deed goes unpunished."
    Rarely available to the press, he was traveling in Europe and not available to speak for this article. Others in public radio, some who requested anonymity, speak for him and about him.

    >Bill Buzenberg, a former NPR foreign correspondent and managing editor of NPR News whom Kling hired to run the MPR news division, says, "With L.A., we’re becoming multi-regional. Who knows if L.A. is the last place we go? Maybe if it works, there can be other stations down the road." Buzenberg also says, "I have no influence at KPCC on a day-to-day basis. I’m a consultant. You can’t run it long-distance."

    >Torey Malatia, general manager of Chicago’s powerful WBEZ and co-producer of Ira Glass’ "This American Life" (carried on 433 stations and distributed by PRI), says he too wonders if MPR’s Southern California foray is the mark of an expanding empire. "That’s a good question," Malatia says. "I’d say it’s certainly a first step, wouldn’t you?"

    >"I’ve known Bill Kling for 25 years," says Jim Russell, founder and general manager of Marketplace Productions, "and I know he’s been feared and admired, frankly because he’s accomplished so much more than anyone else. He’s an extraordinary entrepreneur." Russell repeats that MPR’s acquisition of "Marketplace" was mutually beneficial. MPR had the money to make additional investment in the show, while USC retains a name-only association with it. "It’s a situation that we courted and one that we wanted."

    >Another public radio producer who has watched Kling for years says, "What he wants to do is cover the Earth with his vision, but it’s more of a business vision than a creative vision."

    >The extent to which public radio, once regarded by many of its programmers as a "secular church," has become a business was very much in evidence in Seattle as panels buzzed with terms like "branding," "re-purposing," "strategic positioning" and "platforms," while marketing executives from ESPN, Oxygen Media and other for-profit companies offered tips from "the real world."
    A couple of public radio’s biggest stars, Glass and "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross, grumbled about such talk. "I keep hearing about ‘content distribution,"’ Gross said. "I don’t really like that term. To me it’s ‘programming."’

  • Tony Kahn

    5.31.01

    LA Times Article Concluded

    >Glass joked that the only platforms he wanted to talk about were platform shoes.

    >Noted producer Jay Allison, now a station manager in Woods Hole, Mass., said he worried that public radio was in trouble if in an effort to market its image, "its image becomes the substance."

    >"What I heard in Seattle that troubled me," KCRW’s Seymour says, "was this message of ‘Let’s do better what we already do well.’ That was shocking to me. It didn’t used to be this way.

    >"We used to talk about finding new programs and younger audiences and increasing diversity. Now, you’ve got stations trying to duplicate themselves and take over other stations. I’ve always said every station has its own song to sing. The question is, is it going to be your song or someone else’s?’

    >Almost 20 years ago, when "A Prairie Home Companion" was new to the nation, Garrison Keillor was asked what hopes he had for the program’s success.

    >Ironically, considering how things turned out, he answered, "The best thing that could happen would be for other people around the country to start shows just like it in their own towns, and those shows would eventually replace it."

    >Clearly it was a different public radio world in which such a thought was possible. But you wonder, even then, if he cleared that answer with his boss at Minnesota Public Radio.

    >* * *

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    5.31.01

    ?Listeners Active Re: Programming

    That’s a little depressing. To put in something about movement in another direction:
    Do you know anything about Jerry or Jerold Starr and George Gerbner and the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB) begun in 1999?

    They propose a trust which would make public broacasting’s funding as corporate-free as the Red Cross.

    http://www.cipbonline.org/trustMain.htm

    They recommend alternative series (currently 7 radio series) to chapters, who then recommend programming at their local stations.

    Thank you, Tony. Good night and happy summer from Germany.
    .

  • Tony Kahn

    5.31.01

    Hasta Luego . . .

    A dear friend of mine, Jayne Chamberlin, once said, "My, Tony, how the time flies when I do the talking!"

    I hope that’s not too relevant here, but this past month has sped by for me. I’m grateful to all of you for that — for your comments and questions (and to the lurkers for not flaming me) on a wide range of topics from the art of listening, to the techniques of interviewing, to the power of silence at the heart of good radio stories. I hope I’ve given back some of the energy and thoughtfulness you’ve offered me. I’m especially grateful for the chance to put words to some of the things that make working in radio for me such a fascinating process day to day — and nowadays in particular.

    A thousand years from now they’re probably going to be digging up the remains of our culture. Chances are nothing will be left of public radio by then but broken coffee mugs with mysterious markings like "All Things Considered," "The World," and "Fresh Air," and I’m betting archeologists are going to mistake them for religious artifacts belonging to the "priestly class." A part of me, though, has this sneaky suspicion that radio is the most enduring medium of all, the most human, the one best able to communicate our need to be in touch, and that people 300 generations from now will still be wrestling with the best ways to get each other’s ear and rejoicing when they do. In any event, having the chance to do that myself has been the luckiest break in my life.

    If you’re interesting in continuing our conversation here, feel free to check in. I’ll be around and eager to hear from you. In fact, in the true public radio spirit of roping listeners, how about this for an offer: one free three-cassette copy of "Blacklisted" for the person (other than me) who leaves message 150!

    Hasta Luego,

    Tony

  • Jay Allison

    6.03.01

    Yes, Tony, Don’t Go….

    You have been so kindly here, each posting a promptly delivered, useful, engaging little parable. I said at the station the other day I want you just to be around for advice on anything.. say, a pie recipe or getting my motorcycle started.

    And indeed, all Transom visitors will be glad to know that Tony has agreed to be a Guest Emeritus and hang out in his topic and wherever else he’s needed – in our common quest for perfect crust and carburetion.

    (matching grant: a Transom T-shirt too for an eloquent Message #150)

  • Tony Kahn

    6.04.01

    Thanks, Jay. In my rush out the door, I neglected to clean my desk for Sarah Vowell, your next guest and one of the most delightful voices and sensibilities in public radio. Sarah, if you’re listening, feel free to toss anything you don’t need. Especially the reading glasses. I suspect you’re too young to know this from experience, but the need for reading glasses coincides exactly with your inability to remember where you left anything.

    By the way, pies are not a specialty for me, but I make an excellent guacamole from a recipe entrusted to me by our Mexican maid, Simona. I think I am also the only person in America to follow and survive the recipe for "Mock Apple Pie" on the back of the box of Ritz Crackers. These are skills I am eager to pass on.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    6.04.01

    If Simona permits

    Please post the guacamole recipe.

    Unless you really think the mock apple pie is better.

    Susan Stamberg’s advice about the new radio stations was to make them about people helping others in their community, sharing recipes and such.

Comments are closed.