Intro from Jay Allison: Ray Suarez once said that public radio is like Brigadoon. Everyone returns through the mist (indeed, we're still waiting for Ray). I remember feeling melancholy on hearing that Deborah Amos was leaving NPR. As listeners, we had come to rely on her voice, her steady presence especially in places where terrible things were happening. She was just plain trustworthy, maybe the most desirable quality in a news organization, and Deb stood for it. She was a loss to NPR and a coup for ABC. ABC has been very clever in this regard. Deb has not gone far away. She pops up on American Radio Works and you can hear her voice on Nightline and Frontline, the two most radio-like news/documentary programs out there. Why are they radio-like? They respect words. They understand story and let the images serve it. They steal talent from public radio. It's a treat to have her here on Transom. I hope you'll pick her brain mercilessly because she knows of many things at the mysterious intersection of sound and image. And the fact that she convinced her husband Rick Davis to come too is a real boon. Here's what Deb says about him:"His first job in television was to produce and direct Jack LaLanne when we was still a local guy and then he got into the t.v. bizz - in San Francisco - a foreign correspondent by 1979 - covering the Iranian revolution - we met in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon - we moved to the Middle east in 1984 - He's been everywhere - covered most important foreign stories in the last twenty years...always known as an excellent t.v. writer." Welcome to Deb Amos and Rick Davis. Here follows their joint Manifesto. By the way, I don't know if she remembers, but Deb bought the first radio piece I ever did. Made on a borrowed portable reel-to-reel. I got $75. Thrilling!
Television is Across the Room – Deborah Amos with Rick Davis
Deborah Amos, February 8, 2002
I’ve been off the NPR staff list for more than eight years. I still do some occasional radio work, a documentary a year, hosting American Radio Works, but I am an infrequent voice on the public radio airwaves these days. Still, not a week goes by when I don’t pick up the phone, calling for an interview in my television job, and someone hears my voice (not my name) and says, “I know you, I heard you on NPR!”
It’s a tribal thing, the public radio audience, and that’s one explanation for the long memories. But I think the more likely explanation is that I’ve been walking around inside their heads. They believe they know what I look like, who I am, and, if I’ve been any good at my craft, they have imagined every place I’ve been with a tape recorder. They have imagined what it smelled like and what the people ate for dinner. And when the situation was dangerous, they imagined the danger and they worried. Once, when I was in China after Tienamen Square, a public radio listener showed up from Seattle. He had booked a vacation in China when the Tienamen crisis began. He decided to come anyway. “I heard you on the radio and I figured if you were here then it was safe.” It was a little more responsibility than I wanted, but that is what listening to the radio is all about.
Listeners are our co-authors, our co-conspirators, they engage, they imagine and participate with us. It helps to explains those “wait in the driveway until the story is over” moments. Television doesn’t work that way and not just because you can’t watch it while you’re driving.
Radio storytelling is powerful because it engages people one on one, deep in the imagination. You can read the newspaper and at the same time listen to music. The television is across the room, past the coffee table, and is subject to all kinds of interruptions. Radio is right in your head. No Rules Here.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this before working at NPR. Like so many who came to work for NPR in the late 1970’s, I arrived at the “M” street offices more by accident than intent. I wasn’t an NPR listener, it wasn’t on my radar screen in St. Petersburg, Florida. In fact, back then I didn’t listen to the radio at all. In 1977 I was new to Washington D.C., a little lost, and had started graduate school because I couldn’t think of anything else to do after a job as a local television reporter in Florida became a pointless way to spend eight hours while the sun was shining. But I needed a job and NPR had an opening: director for the weekend news. I don’t remember a formal job interview, but I was given a piece of tape to edit for a test. It was a raw interview by Ira Flatow and I cut it as I remembered hearing it from the night before on “All Things Considered.” That was it. I was in.
There is an old joke at NPR, that the golden age of NPR ended six months before you got there. But I believe I did work in some of the golden age of National Public Radio. Almost everybody there wanted to experiment with the medium, find new ways to use sound, and when we weren’t working on radio piece, we were listening to radio pieces. I remember the first time hearing the Kitchen Sisters take old recordings and remix and edit them into something new and exciting. This was a sound collage, without script, that had the power to evoke emotion simply by juxtaposition and editing choices. I particularly remember standing still near by bedroom radio all alone, tearing and transfixed by a piece they did one Christmas with old scratchy recordings from World War II. Robert Krulwich was experimenting with theater and the news. He would invent characters, sometimes using mice, to explain the complexities of economics. Then there were the documentaries; Keith Talbot’s “The Selling Game,” used radio in a way I had never imagined before. Clearly, there were no rules here.
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We listened. We listened to everything we could, stereo documentaries produced at Sender Fries Berlin, news magazine programs from Canada. Some of it was god awful, boring, pretentious and ten minutes too long. But the point was there was permission to take risks. That is the definition of the Golden Age. And it didn’t matter back then that we seemed like the only ones listening. The audience was small and loyal, emphasis on small.
I always wanted to tell stories more than I wanted to report the news. I wanted to take a tape recorder to interesting places. A war in Beirut? Yeah, that’s a good one. A Palestinian uprising? Great idea. How about Afghanistan, the Russians have invaded there? You bet, a perfect place to gather sound and voices. And it always was because people had stories to tell, compelling stories, more powerful than any newspaper report could capture, more visual than any television dispatch could match.
Once, we were coming back to Mogadishu on a military C-130. The U.S. marines had landed in Somalia and producer Michael Sullivan and I had gathered tape in the Somali town of Bidoa. We were writing and editing on board, both of us with miner’s lights on our heads so we could see what we were doing, ear phones on so we could listen to the tape above the droning roar of the military. The interviews were roaming around in my head. It is that deep concentration, cutting tape, arranging the sound that set us apart from the other journalists on the plane.
After all this time away, I still feel part of that tribe, and after spending seventeen years of my professional life in public radio, those experiences shaped my views on journalism and writing, and what reporting is all about. I still think of myself as an NPR reporter working in commercial network television. (And when my TV bosses really want to insult a piece I’ve written, that’s how they see it, too.)
I work on a radio piece each year, using vacation time to do it. My producer and collaborator is my husband, a retired television correspondent [ed. Rick Davis, next up], and without ever talking about it, we seem to have the same sensibilities about producing radio. I’ve come to believe that the best radio is produced in collaboration. You need to talk out the best parts, make sure you get it all in, and have someone who will laugh when you’ve heard a piece of tape so often that you can perform a voice, the inflection, a moment that is priceless but is too inside for the audience.
Confessions of an EX Bubble Filler
Rick Davis, February 8, 2002
Radio writing is a craft I am trying to figure out late. It is another step on a path that goes back to failure. If there had been spell check on old Underwood typewriters, I would have been a newspaper reporter. You know. Is it I before E or E before I? That kind of stuff. I like to say the paper was just downsizing. By one?
So I had to find a place where you can fake your way with the spoken word. And me talk good. TELEVISION.
Now there is a writing skill in TV. I say it is a little like filling in the bubbles in cartoons. No. It is a lot like filling in the bubbles in cartoons. You know, those words above the drawings. Don’t think I am knocking cartoonists. Walt Kelly said more in one strip than a lot of writers do in a 300 page novel. But you need the pictures.
Now I know what a lot of you think about TV reporters. A bunch of bubble heads filling in the bubbles. But don’t tell me. I am a very sensitive person.
I have a friend—she is a veteran of television, radio, magazines, and books. She compares television writing to haiku. She is kind, but a little misguided.
Haiku? TV reporters know about those three lines and few syllables? Not many could tell the difference between T. S. Eliot and Robert Service.
A few years back this kind lady decided we should do radio documentaries together for National Public Radio. She shall remain nameless and thus blameless. Friends know it was an act of kindness to the elderly.
And so this attempt to learn the craft of radio writing began. First we returned to the Middle East and produced POLITICS OF MEMORY. We had worked there for many years and decided it was time for refresher courses in depression, violence, and corruption.
Other documentaries have followed and I am on a slow learning curve in radio writing. I am learning about the beauty and power of the spoken word. No pictures are available to help you fake it. In radio it is up to you, sisters and brothers.
I remember reading a line from Davia Nelson about radio allowing you to capture the smell of a place. I remember a day in Beirut–the scent of Jasmine and cordite blended in the warm air. I remember the smell of death a hundred yards away from Sabra and Shatilla–the hundreds of rotting bodies after a massacre. I remember the smells of too many refugee camps in too many countries.
I am also learning that the more beautiful and powerful the words–the more gently you must speak them. We all have heard the radio reporters who sound like Charlton Heston reading the Ten Commandments.
And with a little help from my friends I may be learning to write for radio.
There is more to say but —– the spel chek on mi cumpewter stopt.