Volume 2/Issue 6
It’s no wonder that Corey was drawn to Mongolia. I once slept on his living room floor with his sled dogs in Bethel, Alaska. As I recall, there was one tree in the whole town. It was in Corey’s front yard by the dog house. He called it the Bethel National Forest. Like Mongolia, it was vast, frozen, dark, and barren up there… good radio country.
I’ve been anxious to hear what Corey’s trip was like. Below, he tells us. He’ll be around to answer your questions about radio in Mongolia, or about reliably newscasting for all these years. –Jay A
Getting the Hell Out: Toward New Radio in Mongolia
We Found Ourselves in Ulaanbaatar
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Sometimes you just have to get the hell out.
That’s pretty much the gist of what Ishmael has to say in the first chapter of Moby Dick, and it’s good advice, even today. I got the hell out of NPR for six months last year on a Knight International Press Fellowship to teach journalism and radio production in Mongolia, and while I didn’t come up with enough material for a 600-page novel, it gave me a lot to think about.
Why get out? Sometimes even the best job starts to feel stale. I like newscasting on All Things Considered, but it’s a long way from my roots as a radio reporter in rural Alaska. I got into radio first, and journalism second. I got into radio because I love stories, and news is just a subcategory of stories. I was influenced by six years of listening to Studs Terkel on WFMT in Chicago, but I didn’t find out about NPR until I’d actually started volunteering at KYUK in Bethel, Alaska. NPR was still a new-kid phenom in 1977, but lots of us quickly tried to apply its style at our local stations. I did commercial salmon-fishing stories in the business style of Robert Krulwich, stories on the aurora borealis in the scientific manner of Ira Flatow, and city-council politics a la Linda Wertheimer. I even did radio drama in multi-leveled imitation of Tom Lopez. I tried to cram sound into everything I did, sometimes drowning what I had to say in an ocean of ambience. It was fun. After working in Washington for 12 years, I missed it.
Why Mongolia? When I was 11, my mother gave me a copy of Harold Lamb’s Genghis Khan for Christmas. It was wonderful, as remote from anything I knew as Oz or Outer Space. I never forgot it. It came back to me a couple of years ago when I was writing some articles about NPR for the Encyclopedia of Radio. Sooner or later, everything I researched led back to Bill Siemering (see comments with Mongolia photos), the man who’d envisioned that NPR style that I’d been so enamored with when I first got started in radio. Bill now works for the Soros Foundation, planting public radio stations and public radio ideals in places as diverse as South Africa, Bulgaria and Ukraine. When I finally met Bill, he had a stack of photos from his most recent travels — in Mongolia. One of the photos showed a leathery guy in a steeple-topped cap, perched on a camel in a wintry desert. It showed me that the Mongolia of Genghis was still there. I had to go.
Bill told me about the Knight International Press Fellowships. The program bills itself as a journalistic Peace Corps, helping the growth of free media in developing democracies. It sends reporters to host countries for anywhere from 2 to 9 months and helps connect them with training programs. One of the program’s limitations is underlined by the fact that it’s called the Press fellowship, meaning its main experience has been with print journalists. That’s good, as far as it goes, but in countries with far-flung populations and low rates of literacy, radio can often go a lot farther. The International Center for Journalists, which administers the Knight Fellowships, is trying to add more broadcasters to its rolls.
My wife, Diana Derby, is a former production engineer for the Alaska Public Radio Network and Pacifica. Somehow, Mongolia didn’t seem implausible to her, or to my daughter Claire (but then Claire was 9 at the time). We applied, and in June of last year, we found ourselves in Ulaanbaatar.
Pretty Tape & Cheap Receivers
The capital of Mongolia is spread out on a plain surrounded by green hills, where Genghis (he’s called Chingis in Mongolian) and his successors held yearly encampments. Half its 700,000 people live in Soviet-style apartment blocks, while the rest are camped around the city in felt yurts, called gers. It got the name Ulaanbaatar, meaning “Red Hero,” following the 1921 revolution that made Mongolia the world’s second Communist country, after Russia. Since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991, the Socialist edifice has been crumbling, while Capitalism takes root in the cracks. Horsemen in long robes and boots herd their cattle in the streets, while young women pick their way through the rubble in miniskirts and the kind of stiletto heels that used to be imagined only in cheap detective novels.
The state of radio in Mongolia reflects all this. I did most of my teaching in dusty provincial towns where the Soros Foundation, USAID, and UNESCO are funding small FM stations, most of them with no more than a 100-watt transmitter. A typical station has about five staffers, including the station manager. Combination deejay/reporters work seven days a week for the equivalent of $25 to $35 a month. This is not good money even by Mongolian standards. The shortest joke in Mongolian is “I live on my salary.” Everybody moonlights, which exposes journalists to all kinds of temptations and conflicts of interest.
Bill Siemering has been working to get decent equipment into the stations, but many of them are still encumbered with ancient gear from Eastern Europe. The standard is a clunky Hungarian cassette deck, heavy as a Nagra, with the fidelity of a telephone answering machine. All this is left over from the Socialist system, when national radio was hard-wired into everyone’s apartment. You still see these cheap receivers hanging on hotel-room walls, the perfect symbols of totalitarian government. Since there’s no choice of stations, there’s no tuning knob, only a volume control. (I suppose if it were a perfect symbol, there’d be no volume knob either).
Because state-run radio had never really bothered with sound quality, no one at the independent stations was aware of it either. I spent a lot of time badgering my students into wearing headphones when they were recording and showing them how to set levels. I was reminded how much of our craft is really learned through apprenticeship. You learn by doing and by making mistakes. You learn faster when there’s someone to show you what to do.
I was also reminded that you have to listen to a lot of good stuff before you can set standards for yourself. I’d brought a lot of pretty tape with me, thinking that the great production would be apparent, even to people who spoke no English. That didn’t work, of course, because great radio is all about the sound illuminating the meaning. I had to start projects at each station that would produce Mongolian-language examples of what I wanted to demonstrate.
I also had the good luck to come by a “bad example” tape early in my travels. Old Time Socialist radio isn’t quite dead in Mongolia yet, especially in the still-Red provinces in the south and west. We visited one station in a town that was controlled by a local Communist boss. There were four reporters at the station, guys in their mid-fifties, who’d spent most of their careers under Communism and had no interest in doing things any other way. They read government news releases in authoritative voices, larded their copy with statistics and punctuated their stories with staticky actualities. Most of the day they sat in the studio, smoking and cracking jokes. They were masters at doing what people in totalitarian states do best, evading the Authorities. They gave me copies of their news programs, which I was able to use ever afterward as examples of what not to do. I did take care to cover up their identities. After all, they were guys my age. In another life, they could just as easily have been me.
Radio From The Rock
This craft of ours is a practical thing. If you’re like me, you don’t really learn anything unless you have to put it into practice the very next day. I tried to leave each station with a project or two that would force everyone to use the ideas and techniques we’d gone over in the workshops. At Dalanzadgad, in the south Gobi desert, we did a preview of the town’s upcoming Naadam festival. Naadam celebrates what Mongols call “the three manly sports,” archery, horseracing and wrestling. (Actually, women are pretty formidable competitors in the first categories, and the men are said to be afraid to let them into wrestling.) The program called for us to go out and record the twang of archers’ bows, the grunts of wrestlers, and the ululating howls of child jockeys as they pounded over the finish line in bareback horse races. We spent half a day in the desert, looking for the camp of the region’s best horse trader. We interviewed him in a cool, shadowy yurt, crowded with 16 members of his family, all silent as they passed around bowls of fermented mare’s milk.. He was a tall man of great modesty and delicacy. When our reporter asked him what he hoped for in the big race, he said he hoped he would come in second to Erdenejargal’s white stallion, which was the fastest in the neighborhood. He said he hoped nobody got hurt, and he wished that people would remember not to drink so much vodka.
In Dalanzadgad I heard a curious story from a man named Batbold. (Most Mongols use only one name). He was a former Communist official who’d become a silversmith after the collapse of the government, making traditional silver ornaments for saddles and bridles. He told me there was said to be a crescent-shaped cliff to the south of town, not far from the Chinese border, where, if you stood in exactly the right place, you could hear radio signals coming from the rock. We never got time to go there.
About halfway through my time in Mongolia, I began to see patterns emerging in the stories that people told me. People my age tended to talk nostalgically about Socialism. It was their youth, after all. They talked about how hard it had had been to make the transition to the market economy. People in their 20s and 30s talked about how strange it was to have been raised Red, but then tossed into the economic chaos when they should have been getting their first job. Some of them survived as smugglers and black marketeers. It was This Mongolian Life. It was Stud’s Terkel’s Working turned upside down. It was the stuff of radio documentaries.
I wrote a grant request to the Soros Foundation, proposing a nation-wide oral history project that would record people’s stories as they made it, or didn’t make it, through the great transition. I asked for minidisk recording kits, computers, editing software, and training money. In the end, Soros gave us enough to equip and train seven stations.
I get e-mails from time to time from Ganhuyag, my former translator. He tells me that the oral history project is going well, and that the stations are putting their new equipment to good use. I’d like to get back there sometime and see how things are going for myself. I’d like to go back and find out whether you really can hear radio voices in the rocks of that strange cliff.
Sometimes it pays to get the hell out. For one thing, I’ve always found that my reputation is enhanced when I’m away from my usual haunts for a while, whereas it tends to tarnish a bit when I’m present. For another, being away refreshed me and restored my enthusiasm for radio. Teaching something you know from long experience makes you look at that experience with new eyes. Teaching something that’s relatively new to you (like computer editing) makes you learn it with desperate alacrity.
The Knight International Press Fellowships are only one of the ways that you can go out and spread the gospel of good radio. If you’d like to find out more about the Knight program and others, check out the International Center for Journalists’ Web site at www.icfj.org. One caution: the Knight program doesn’t allow participants to file stories while they’re on the fellowship. It’s not designed to send reporters and producers to exotic locales where they can do their own thing. The ban on working forces you to concentrate on your teaching and your students, which is what this program is all about. It’s probably not necessary to add that the program is not designed to make you rich, either, although it does pay generous expenses and an honorarium. We did fine in Mongolia, where living expenses are cheap. We were a little short of cash for awhile when we got back, but that just meant I’ve had to put off fixing the muffler on my car. So far I’ve managed to evade the Authorities.
Maybe it’s time to unravel some of the strands that might be good discussion topics in the coming month. I’m obviously interested in the idea of getting away, whether it’s “lighting out for the territories,” like Huck Finn, or just doing something that demands a steeper learning curve at home. I’m curious about how we Americans regard the ideas of Experience and Adventure. I’m interested in storytelling, and how good storytelling works, especially on the radio. (I’m fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling: dramatic structure, suspense building, patterns, timing and the like.) I’m also interested in the mechanics of good teaching. I’d like to hear from people who teach practical skills, such as cooking, welding and radio production that can transcend themselves and become art.
About Corey Flintoff
Corey Flintoff has been a newscaster and reporter with NPR’s Washington, National, and Foreign Desks since 1990. Prior to joining NPR, Flintoff was executive producer for Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN), supervising the production of all news programming and hosting an evening newsmagazine. While at APRN, Flintoff filed freelance reports for NPR, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Monitor Radio, and the Associated Press. He won a 1989 Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Award for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Flintoff earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, both in English literature. Flintoff’s first radio experience was at a bilingual English-Yup’ik Eskimo station in Bethel, Alaska, where he learned enough Yup’ik to announce the station identification information. He has also been a novelist, dog-musher, and commercial herring fisherman.