Intro from Jay Allison: Dave Isay and his collaborators have made a singular mark on public radio documentary, not just by their excellent work and steadfast idealism, but by building national awareness that there even is such a thing as radio documentary. Chances are, if you know the actual title of a radio piece, it's probably one of Dave's: Ghetto Life 101, The Sunshine Hotel, Witness to an Execution. Dave realizes that radio is invisible and you can't touch it, so in order to make it more noticeable and palpable, he extends his projects online, in performance, photographs, books, film... all of which draw focus back to the public radio work from which they come. The Sound Portraits team is embarking on an ambitious new project, StoryCorps. Come read about their plans and ask them about their work. They are eager to share their knowledge and are especially inviting to those new to the medium.
A Sound Portraits Manifesto
Down at the bottom of any emails that come out of this office – next to our address and phone number – it says “Sound Portraits Productions… Documenting a Hidden America.” Silly as it sounds, that’s as accurate a manifesto as we’ve got, and one that’s served as a pretty good benchmark for us. When we feel we’ve succeeded it’s because we’ve managed to expose – truthfully, respectfully – the hidden, forgotten, or under-heard voices of America. And where and when we fail it’s because we’re short of this mark.
There’s no mystery to this concept and it’s certainly not one we take credit for coming up with. Many of our heroes have blazed the trail for us, people like Joseph Mitchell, the great New York journalist of salon-keepers and street preachers. And so many more: the great WPA photographers, like Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans; the radio and oral history dynamo Studs Terkel; and the meandering folk-life archivist extraordinaire, Alan Lomax, just to name a few. Theft being the highest form of flattery, the impulse for our documentary, Ghetto Life 101, was lifted directly from the pages of Alex Kotlowitz. Each through their own medium, these documentarians gave voice to the men and women living on the margins of American society. We strive to do the same, and have found radio an effective tool for doing so.
It helps that we’ve been blessed with some truly great characters along the way, people like Nathan Smith, the manager of the Sunshine Hotel, and Sylvia Rivera, the drag-queen activist. They’re at the heart of what we do. Perhaps you could derive some algorithm to define what makes someone a perfect personality for the radio – a dizzying calculation of voice, story, and circumstance – but we doubt it. More likely, it’s like the old adage about pornography: you just know it when you see it. As with a lot of things, the best advice is probably to just follow your heart.
That's how we came to be here.
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For over ten years, Sound Portraits has attempted to “give voice to the voiceless” by making audio documentaries. But recently, we’ve become interested in exploring a new way to carry out that mission.
This is our new nationwide initiative to instruct and inspire citizens to record high-quality audio interviews with family, friends, and community members.
The project is built on a few simple assumptions:
- Everybody has a story to tell, and that story deserves to be told with dignity.
- The lives of everyday people are as interesting and important as the lives of the rich and famous.
- Listening well is an important but underdeveloped skill.
- A microphone gives people the license to talk about difficult issues that might otherwise never be explored.
- Conducting honest and intimate interviews can result in positive change in people’s lives.
Basically, we will construct soundproof recording booths in public spaces (starting in New York’s Grand Central Station in November 2003) and put together easy-to-use digital recording kits for home use. Participants will keep one copy of the interview; a second will become part of a growing archive, which we hope will evolve into a unique and important repository for American stories. Although we are still in the beginning stages of this project, it has already gained a lot of momentum, and we’re really excited about it. For us, it is the logical outgrowth of the documentary work we’ve always done – making the case that anyone can do this work, and with remarkable results.
Here’s our dream: StoryCorps will engage communities, teach participants to become better listeners, foster intergenerational communication, and help Americans appreciate the dignity and strength in the stories they find all around them. And, with a little luck, StoryCorps will one day grow into an oral history of our nation.
Who We Are
Everyone here at Sound Portraits discovered radio in a slightly different way. Below are short bios, mixed with thoughts on the medium or just stuff in general. You are welcome to shoot questions to one of us in particular or to the whole bunch. We’ll be rotating the role of question-fielder over the next month, while the rest of us try to keep this boat afloat.
From Dave Isay
I’ve been doing radio since a year out of college – fell into it through a series of strange, wonderful, serendipitous events that happened over a 24-hour period, and never turned back. I was fortunate to get a CPB grant early on, so had the time to make stories that I could use to snag more CPB grants. I worked by myself in my apartment (un-showered in my underwear- a great indie tradition) for a long time and eventually formed a non-profit so I could get foundation money (only CPB gives to individuals, everyone else gives to non-profits). The Company started to grow & it’s the best thing that ever happened. Today we have a spiffy little office in Chinatown (better than Paris!) with a great group of folks working (hard) together…Feel blessed.
A couple of thoughts: Radio is great. Don’t talk about it, don’t analyze it- just do it. It’s not brain surgery; it’s not some precious high art that people should be snobby about- it’s just a great way to tell a (usually fairly linear) story. Probably the best medium for telling emotional stories. Just go out, find a great character and record.
I have a style, and it’s the way I like to work- it doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do a story, it’s just the way I do it. In my stories I like tape and hate narration. I try to zero-out narration as much as possible – although so far I’ve found it impossible to tell a 22-minute story without it.
A couple of other little thoughts/rules of thumb:
- It’s better to do an amazing/ meaningful little 2 minute story that comes from your heart than 10 half-hour programs that are just OK. CREATE GEMS, you won’t regret it.
- Fight for what you believe in. Trust your instincts and the instincts of people who’s aesthetics you trust. Just because someone is an NPR editor doesn’t mean they understand radio.
- Tell the truth (to your subject, and—of course—in your stories) and don’t take shortcuts.
- Doing radio right (from Howard Stern (his old stuff) to Amy Goodman) is serious, hard work. This is not a medium for goofballs or dilettantes. It’s a really tough way to earn a buck. (But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.)
- There’s no excuse for making poor recordings.
- Infuse passion, spirit, and life into everything you do.
From David Reville
As the most recent addition to the Sound Portraits team, I’m the least qualified to speak on behalf of the mission and vision of the organization. Beyond that, I’m not even here to produce radio; it’s my job to coordinate the efforts required to start and maintain the StoryCorps project you just read about. I came to SPP with a background gained developing and producing projects with faculty at Brown University’s Multimedia Lab and the Scholarly Technology Group, and with a personal connection to documentary work forged by a lifetime as a photographer. Even in the short two months I’ve been at Sound Portraits, though, I’ve observed the most dedicated craftspeople I’ve had the good fortune to work with. Feel free to ask questions about StoryCorps–we’re dying to talk about it. But please make the most of this opportunity to deeply investigate the radio work you can hear at the Sound Portraits web site (www.soundportraits.org). It is a personal inspiration to watch this team work together to develop these stories, and they sustain repeated play. Listen Carefully is the StoryCorps motto. We’re waiting to hear from you.
From Dave Miller
I spent two years in college trying to make film – and loving so many aspects of the storytelling and interviewing and collaborative process – before I realized two things: 1) I had no visual sense; and 2) I loved editing sound. Somehow it still took me a few more years to put these realizations together, and to make that giant leap of removing the picture altogether and just focusing on what had held my fascination from the very beginning: sound. My three years at Sound Portraits have only increased my love of storytelling in sound. Without F-stops to worry about, I’ve been free to explore the music of speech, the cadences and rhythms of voice, and radio’s inherent intimacy and immediacy – qualities that are certainly possible in visual media but that seem to come even more naturally to radio.
And now, after those three wonderful years at SPP, I’m embarking on the bitter-sweet process of saying goodbye to the organization that has basically taught me everything I know about making radio as I begin work on my idea for a new public radio show. It’s called Radio Tag, and the basic idea is to follow stories from person to person, place to place (and week after week), in a continuous narrative. I’m currently producing pilot episodes, and I look forward to sharing more with the Transom community as the project progresses.
From Karen Callahan
Two months ago I went to Texas with Matt Ozug to interview the families directly involved in the then-imminent execution of Delma Banks. Twenty-three years ago Delma was convicted of killing 16-year-old Wayne Whitehead. We spent six very long days driving around Texas and Mississippi (and a lil’ bit of Louisiana) talking with people about life and death, guilt and innocence. And in two separate interviews, Mrs. Banks and Mrs. Whitehead asked us, crying, how do you say good-bye to your son?
Those moments encapsulate everything in this job that is so hard it makes my stomach hurt. How can I possibly tell this story, do their stories justice? And how can I edit these hours down to the perfect 4 minutes? But a job isn’t a job if it doesn’t keep you up at night, paralyzed with fear, right? Ah, less than two years here and I’ve been brainwashed.
At Sound Portraits I’ve learned that it’s really, really hard to tell people’s stories in an honest way – and in a way that’s interesting to a passing listener. It’s hard to make the first phone call, it’s hard to sit in someone’s living room and ask them about their grief, and it’s so hard to whittle that tape down to a few moments. But it can be so incredible. And I thank my lucky stars that there are people here on Grand Street, and people out there on Transom, that believe that the paralyzing fear is worth it.
From Ruby Sheets
I cannot tell a lie – I became interested in radio because I have a cool voice. Enough people exclaimed, “Your voice should be on the radio!” that I started to believe them. When I got to college, I decided I would try this radio thing until I got bored with it. That hasn’t happened yet.
But as cool as my voice may be, I soon realized that it wasn’t the voice I was interested in getting on the air. It hit me one day when I was in the studio doing my live weekly Spanish language show – Pura Vida (Pure Life). My co-hosts alternated each week, members of the growing Mexican immigrant community of my college’s small midwestern town. They picked the music and introduced the songs while I worked the boards and kept conversation flowing. On that one day, I took a break from avoiding dead air and cueing up cds to sit back and watch my two co-hosts. These two men were in their element in a town that was anything but their element. They were taking requests and announcing dedications, dancing and singing, and sharing their stories. They were smiling, and laughing, and comfortable being themselves. And people were listening.
That’s when I knew that radio is a good, good thing. And that I would do my best to use it to give exposure to some people who may not get it otherwise and reach some people who may not hear it otherwise. With goals like that, there is no better place to land than Sound Portraits. The mutual respect people have here is humbling and inspiring and keeps me coming back. Their passion, their work, and they themselves are nothing less than pura vida.
From Matt Ozug
Throughout my childhood, my father would use the expression “step in shit” to describe strokes of incredible – usually blind – good fortune. It was a filthy and confusing way to grow up. I have no idea how he came up with this, but the phrase is unshakable in my mind. So, I can only describe the process of finding my way to Sound Portraits as a case of really “stepping in shit.”
There were some early warning signs – like an obsession with the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – but mostly I thank the good people at the Salt Center for Documentary Studies, in Portland, Maine for setting me on the right path. I enrolled at Salt largely on a whim – tickled from a short trip doing ‘ethnography’ on a Trappist monastery, I thought I’d explore the idea of doing documentary work. Through their passion for their calling, everyone at Salt quickly disabused me of any notion that this work could be a pet or side interest. Their work ethic was rivaled only by those they often document – the blueberry pickers and lobster-pot pullers of Maine.
At Sound Portraits, I continue to be amazed by the wild kinetic energy created by this same care for stories and subjects. To be a part of two groups of people so passionate and driven…well I’m very, very lucky.
…and not to stack the deck – but we’d especially like to encourage newcomers to write in with their thoughts or questions about how to actually make radio. There’s no better way to diversify what we hear on the radio than to shake up who’s making it.