The Transom Review

Volume 3/Issue 4

David Isay & Sound Portraits

July 1st, 2003 | (Edited by Sydney Lewis)
David Isay

Intro by 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.

Greetings from 176 Grand Street

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.

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.

StoryCorps
StoryCorps
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.

A more detailed description of this project is online at www.storycorps.org.

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

DAVID ISAY
David 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

DAVE MILLER
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

KAREN CALLAHAN
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

RUBY SHEETS
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

OZUG
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.
Finally…

…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.
Sincerely,

The Staff at Sound Portraits Productions
Documenting a Hidden America

A Conversation w/ Davis Isay and the Crew at Sound Portraits

Cold Story Sweat
bw
May 16, 2003 – #11
Have any of you woken up in the middle of the night yet in a cold sweat with the understanding that this story corps project could well end up taking over the rest of your lives??

I can’t get over the booth idea. It’s like something out of a great twilight zone episode. When will one be coming to New England?

Portraits And Kits
david reville
- May 16, 2003 – #13
Yep. The magnitude of the project has struck us all, I think…Seriously, though, there doesn’t seem to be a chance of StoryCorps swamping Sound Portraits. While the project at scale will require a bigger staff, and a larger budget than SPP currently runs on, Sound Portraits has a clear vision and will remain a radio production company first and foremost. Part of my job is insulating the rest of the company from the administrivia a project this size entails.

We’re not ready to say when we’ll build a StoryBooth outside of New York, but one of our dreams is to make one that travels…Beyond that, we hope to begin piloting a portable StoryKit (the components of which–a MiniDisc recorder, microphone, and instruction manual will be very familiar to most Transomites) for people who can’t get to a booth for any reason (distance, infirmity, scheduling conflicts). In fact that may be the way most people end up conducting a StoryCorps interview.

Booth Portrait
Sydney Lewis
May 20, 2003 – #18
Could someone describe the StoryBooth? What’s a person going to find when they enter, what will draw them to the booth? Culturally, we’re conditioned to be passive recipients of “entertainment.” Will there be suggestions of things for nervous/shy/flummoxed by mic people to tell stories about, assuming they’re brave enough to venture into the StoryBooth in the first place?

From Translucence To Talk
david reville
May 21, 2003 – #19
You can get an idea of what a typical StoryBooth will look like at http://www.storycorps.net/, although the picture is small. What you’re looking at is a compact soundbooth, sheathed in an exoskeleton of translucent material. The space between the booth and the shell houses necessary recording equipment, and supports speakers and video monitors that play back edited stories, and present information about the project.
Inside the booth is enough space for three people to sit comfortably, the interviewer and narrator, and a StoryCorps facilitator who’s job is to monitor and insure the quality of the recording, as well as to provide helpful advice to the participants. Dave and co. have lots of experience quickly training non-professional interviewers. We’ll have to train the facilitators to do that, and we have also developed an on-line “question generator” to help people start to think about the content they want to cover in their encounter.

As to pairing interviewers, we expect interviewers to select their own subjects (often these will be family members, friends, coworkers, but anything is possible). We are working hard not to program any particular agenda, rather to provide the means and observe what happens organically.

The NPR Step
bw
May 19, 2003 – #15
One thing that I have always been curious about is about how you work with npr – do they take sound portraits pieces “as is” or is it more complicated.

Polish And Sprint
David Isay
May 22, 2003 – #22
We’re lucky enough, after all these many years, to just work with single point-people in the network. So, for example, we work with Chris Turpin at ATC. When I bring pieces to him, they’ve been edited (by the best editor in the business by many football fields- Gary Covino), and listened to and vetted dozens of times by everyone here. By the time it gets to NPR we’re usually on draft 15 or 20. If Chris likes the piece, we’ll make whatever changes he suggests (he’s a smart guy and knows radio). If he doesn’t like the piece, we take it elsewhere. We’re really, really lucky. The worst thing in the world is an editor who makes a story worse- God that makes me insane. You have to trust your instincts (esp. if confirmed by people you trust) and fight like hell for getting the best piece you can on the air. I used to think of it as trying to run a very delicate and detailed sculpture through a very, very tough, mean nasty and not-too-bright defensive front line.

Ben For Ben
bw
May 22, 2003 – #23
I would love to have you say a few things about what it was like working with that cartoon genius Ben Katchor. the radio cartoons you two produced: http://www.hearingvoices.com/knipl.html…still blow me away – in fact the only bad thing I can say about them is that there are so few of them!! why’d you stop makin em??

Lonely Fun
David Isay
May 27, 2003 – #32
it was fun doing those cartoons, but they were a hell of a lot of work and was doing everything on my own back then… Was burning out and WESAT getting negative mail so we were cancelled after something like 13 episodes (although when we went off air got a torrent of amazing notes)… Ben is a genius. It was a lot of fun. Some people like them a lot, some people really don’t. I’d have to listen again to figure out what i think… My one and only foray into non-nonfiction radio.

Lost In Tape
Michael Sanders
May 19, 2003 – #17
I have tried to make recordings for a personal audio journal of my life…I feel confident that I can accumulate lots of information, but I am not sure how to create meaningful audio from it.

My question to those of you at Sound Portraits is what helps you to decide what audio segments assist you in creating a cohesive story without omitting important details.

Merciless With The Mound
David Miller
May 21, 2003 – #20
Michael Sanders’s post and question reminded me of “The World’s Longest Diary,” Dave I’s piece about Robert Shields. For decades, Shields basically spent so much time notating the passage of his life that he had no time or energy left for actually living…

As for the practical question of how to handle a mountain of tape, my best advice is to be ruthless. Zero in on the most moving (or most funny, or most surprising, or most whatever) parts and cut away the fat. Even the parts you like; if they don’t make sense in the narrative you’re working towards, get rid of them. Just keep cutting until out of your amorphous audio mound you have a definite shape. Don’t worry about the ratio of raw tape to cooked piece.

Here it seems like we cut and cut and cut until all of a sudden the last cut removes some bit of the story’s soul. So we add that part back — whatever it might be in this case (a laugh, another anecdote, a music post) — and we know we’re getting very close.

Down To Soul
Jay Allison
- May 21, 2003 – #21
Good advice about cutting fat until you hit muscle… or body down to soul.

I thought of that OCD piece of Dave’s too… and it reminded me a little of our “Quest” in Lost & Found Sound. We got a huge, unmanageable response. After the calls came in, it was like being in a mine filled with gems and only a little time. All we could do, finally, was grab the brightest ones and run to the surface to show them. I know we left some beautiful stories behind.

The big idea of StoryCorps is seductive, but it’s wise to start small.

Better To Move
Kim Green
May 22, 2003 – #25
My husband Hal and I are freelance radio producers in Nashville, TN… I’m particularly interested in Sound Portraits because I keep finding myself drawn to the little-or-no narration style of storytelling.

It didn’t take long for friends and acquaintances to start approaching us about helping out with doing family histories…I was hoping for some advice about how to get these friends started. Interviewing tips, etc. Also, how can I help them put together something with their mounds of tape without promising them 750 hours of my cheap freelance time?

Send To Tools!
David Isay
May 27, 2003 – #32
we do have our ten or whatever rules for doing interviews…As far as putting something together out of mounds of tape in a little time- can’t be done. Faster probably to teach them protools free and let them do it themselves.

Interviewing Jigsaw
IT
May 19, 2003 – #16
I’m fascinated by your plans to use novice interviewers for, and to foster intergenerational contact with, storycorps. Do you think that interviewers’ experiences will impact the interviews? Have you given any thought to matching interviewers and interviewees with similar life experiences, i.e. teens who are recent immigrants interviewing seniors who were themselves immigrants?

Could you talk a little more about the ways in which you plan to use the archive of stories you’ll accumulate?

Time Capsules And Kiosks
John Basile
May 23, 2003 – #27
When I think of [StoryCorps] success, I don’t think of an ATC mini-series or award-winning SPP documentaries. While these outcomes are more than likely, I rather appreciate the gift StoryCorps would grant each participant – a tangible time capsule to which they could return again and again. Does SPP have any idea what they’ll have to charge for these discs or rentals of the StoryKits? On a technical tip, what kind of CD recorder do you intend to use in the booths? Do you have a projection of how many kiosks you think you’ll have after your first year, or any long-term goals beyond what is mentioned on the site?

Bubbling Gravy For The Air
David Isay
May 27, 2003 – #32
You got it. StoryCorps’ primary mission is to create a meaningful experience for interviewer-interviewee pair. Any radio that comes out of it is gravy. And the model – each booth is paired with a local station that runs best stuff. Best of the best bubbles up nationally. StoryKit rental cost- we don’t know. Booth will probably be $10 for 40 minutes (to limit the cranks). Projections- scaled back considerably due to economy- at this point wouldn’t hazard a guess.

Isn’t It Hard To Walk?
Nannette
May 23, 2003 – #28
Do you have one foot in the tidy, respectable, grant-writing, management world, and another foot -or one or two ears- and your imagination… someplace else?

Green Lightning
David Isay
May 27, 2003 – #32
When fundraising basically I’m in not such a different head as when in production- it’s all about getting out there and making calls and meeting people. With hard work, once-in-a-while lightning strikes.

Where’s The “R” Word?
Davia
May 24, 2003 – #30
One of the many things I find so intriguing about this whole project is how scarce the word “radio” is in your description. Does a vision of radio come into it much for you?

I Just Want They Should Be Happy Talking
David Isay
May 27, 2003 – #32
…I don’t know how much stuff these booths will generate that’s good for bdcst, so I’m going to assume very little…as long as it’s good for the participants, I’m happy. That’s where my heads been lately- more into thinking about what projects do for subjects/collaborators than worrying about bdcst… Although I do love editing…

Who Wants To Hear About Uncle Otto’s Model T?
joni murphy
May 27, 2003 – #35
What will be done with these mountains of recordings that StoryCorps collects? There will be hundreds (thousands even) of hours of tape for the archive, but who will listen to it? Will people (other than family members) want to access this material?

I think the Transom forum is a good place to ask what people are interested in– I mean, if you’re reading this you’re obviously passionate about sound– but would you want to listen to the unedited 40-minute recordings of strangers?

This is something I know Sound Portraits people have struggled with — because there are legal/privacy issues and also organizational issues– but it’s still an question that trips me up. On the one hand, the possibility of finding story gems is so exciting…But there’s also a lot of potential/ probable boredom.

Flag System Will Save Us
David Isay
June 1, 2003 – #44
The #1 purpose of storycorps, by a long-shot is creating a meaningful experience for participants. If we get radio out of it, great. We’re going to figure out some system to flag the 1 out of 100 that’s worth listening to (should be easy to train facilitators- dealing with tapes that come in off kits will be more of a challenge)… even the 1 out of 1000 that’s been listened to and is deemed good enough to air will be cut to 5 minutes. We’re all about less is more- not to fear!…

“but would you want to listen to the unedited 40-minute recordings of strangers?”…hell no. (although i will say that sitting in on those sessions we’ve started doing for pilots is pretty profound and moving.)

,,,i don’t think the average long interview will be of interest outside of family and maybe a handful of others. our job is to help find the gold in the sand.

Popping The Clutch
danielferri
May 31, 2003 – #42
If creating the front porch community is the goal, then why the medium of radio? Are there other ways to present the interview that might better get the speakers heard and the community listening? Could local students edit them and print them on paper placemats for local restaurants for people to read while waiting for their meal? Could they be printed in a weekly column in the local paper? Is the purpose to give voice, is it to make radio, or is there some kind of hybrid pop-the-clutch-and-see-what-happens-next-kind-of-thing-deal which you are waiting to see appear?

Far And Wide
David Isay
June 1, 2003 – #44
same answer as above (wow- i guess the whole thing about this being
primarily experience for participants didn’t come through in our description)…as far as dissemination- as far and wide as possible- books, articles, placemats- whatever.. I’m a big fan of print + photos…

Loveless Baseline
Amy O’Leary
May 29, 2003 – #40
What happens when you need to interview someone that you feel not even kind of a baseline-humanity-connection to? What happens when you need to listen, but you just don’t feel the love?

No Love, No Fun
David Isay
June 1, 2003 – #44
our general rule at SPP is that we don’t do stories about people we dislike- so, thankfully, never have to deal with that problem. curious to hear what others have to say. i would find it very not fun.

Continue Casting Career
Kerry Seed
May 30, 2003 – #41
1. What inside you led to the development of StoryCorps? Are you planning to continue doing large-scale SPP projects a la Yiddish Radio? How will you find the energy and resources to manage both endeavors?

2. The StoryCorps concept makes me think of my own struggles in casting pieces. I’m a firm believer in scrapping characters if they are not captivating. How much will facilitators work on StoryCorps participants to pull the best-told version of life out of them?

3. You mentioned that you were fortunate to win CPB monies early in your career. With what type of story did you apply for funding? How long did it take you before you were airing longer pieces (9:00, 15:00, 22:00)?

Equal Ear Eccentric
David Isay
June 1, 2003 – #44
1-storycorps came out of youth portraits + also general shift in interest towards looking at how participating in projects can be of benefit to subjects. And yes- we will always devote at least 1/2 our time to radio docs. I think the 2 projects occupy very different parts of the brain, so should be able to pull it off.

2- Goes to above- it’s up to what the families want… It’s not our place to disrupt the experience. I think we’ll be playing it by ear- for example maybe if there’s a great subject we’ll invite him/her back for a straight-up interview.

3- First project was to do eccentric characters across the country. And those early pieces mostly ran on WATC which ran longer stories back then ( don’t listen to much radio and don’t know what situation is today)

The “R” Word Again
Kerry Seed
June 2, 2003 – #45
Dave, you mentioned that you don’t listen to a lot of radio. While I assume this is for lack of time, I’m wondering if you think not listening has affected the way you produce stories? If so, how?

CD Time
David Isay
June 22, 2003 – #64
yes, it’s lack of time. I listen to Democracy Now in the morning when I can and that’s about it at this point. I do, though, try to listen on CD to stuff that I hear is excellent for inspiration. So, for example, I got my hands on Alex Kotlowitz’s last series…This simple, new style he + his producer Amy have come up with is brilliant.

On Mics, Moats, Mobiles and Mandates
Rob Rosenthal
May 22, 2003 – #24
When I first heard about the [StoryCorps] project, I wondered how you were going to pull it off. It seemed a bit amorphous and unruly. Now, however, you’ve pared the idea down to something manageable, tangible, and doable. It’s genius — an oral history vox pop on a massive scale, bringing the mics to the people rather than sequestering them behind the moats that encircle public radio stations.

Somewhere along the line, I recall reading or talking to someone in the SP office about a mobile version of StoryCorps…I’m struck by the notion of a state-by-state approach — a StoryCorps Winnebago in every state. A collaboration between public radio, community radio, and state folklife centers, producers travel the state working with local libraries, historic societies, heritage councils, and festival presenters to get into the nooks and crannies of (as Kerouac put it) “the great bulge of America” following the blue highways.
Tape would be collected and used in the way you folks intend. But, with releases from participants, captivating, compelling, stellar radio pieces could be produced for local broadcast (and maybe national) — a clever and sparkling way to serve the mandate of localism, foster sense of place, and get people talking about the important stuff — their lives.

PubRadLib
Celine
May 31, 2003 – #43
I am struck by the parallel images of the traveling StoryCorps vehicle and the old fashioned Book Mobile. I see so many connections between public radio and public libraries–all that free information and inspiration for and by the people. I like the idea that the Story Mobile would house a collection of stories as well as the means to record them. I picture various headphone stations where you can listen to randomly playing stories, like overhearing conversations.

Listening Libraries
David Isay
June 1, 2003 – #44
YES! you got it… I really like that image (and yes- listening
Stations are a big part of the project!) i never made connection between libraries and public radio-excellent.

Wafts Of Tony And Tenn
Jackson
May 19, 2003 – #14
The Story Booth reminds me of two things: Tony Kahn’s “What’s Your Story?” featured here lo those many years ago and the Tennessee Williams piece that came up in Lost and Found Sound.

The Movable Point
david reville
June 4, 2003 – #51
The idea of a mobile booth has been kicking around the office from the very beginning. It seems more important (and more immanent) to us every day…I’m pretty sure that a 1-month stay in a small town or a neighborhood, or a stopover at a county fair or regional festival, would motivate communities to come out in droves. Our most dreamy scenario has the mobile booth (I’ve always pictured a tricked-out airstream trailer) pulling into a town where we’ve laid the groundwork with a local organization (NPR affiliated radio station, library, historical society, humanities council, or some combination of these) and lined up a group of coconspirators rooted there. After the booth takes off to the next destination, that organization could maintain an archive of the stories collected there, and the now highly trained and experienced facilitators could loan out StoryKits to people unable to participate previously, or people who want to do more, either with their original interviewee or with new people. Celine is right on point here. The mobile booth will display stories itself, but we really hope to leave something tangible behind, not just the means to make more recordings, but a place to experience those that have been made.

Jackson mentioned Tony Kahn’s “What’s Your Story?”…and it is certainly a key predecessor. We have also been looking closely at Alex Chadwick’s Interviews 50¢ which is a remarkable project, all the more so because it aired on broadcast TV!…Of course while both of these project engage regular folks in an intimate and low-pressure format, neither of the producers relinquishes the role of “interviewer”. It’s just an observation of one of the key differences between those projects and StoryCorps). Dave’s said repeatedly that StoryCorps is not about making radio. It may be a crackpot idea on its own terms…but it would be a truly ludicrous way to go about collecting material for broadcast…I recognize that makes it a strange thing to talk about on Transom, but you gotta believe us: of course we expect to find great stuff, just like you might when you approach any huge, unruly archive, but THAT IS NOT THE POINT.

Test Runners Vote Aye
Kalpana Krishnamurthy
June 2, 2003 – #46
A big thanks to the Sound Portrait folks for letting my Dad and I come in and participate in a test run of the Story Corps adventure.

I have no background in radio or media, or any other type of production. I don’t know if I asked the right questions of my Dad or if we got totally off track during our session. So I hear/read the posts loud and clear about how to make a 40 minute interview interesting…

At the same time, I think Story Corp hits it dead on: the lives of everyday people are as interesting and important as the lives of the rich and famous …It democratizes storytelling, cuz you don’t have to be a character or have survived a crazy event or lived through some dramatic time to be worthy of being recorded.
It was great for me to hear new stories, ask questions that I don’t get to ask everyday, and know that in the end I would have the recording to listen to and follow up with. But it was also a great experience for my Dad – who couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the weekend.

Soundacratic Oath
Matt Ozug
June 3, 2003 – #48
It’s so exciting to hear that your dad “couldn’t stop talking” about his StoryCorps experience. I think that the Hippocratic oath of StoryCorps states that people leave feeling like their story has been validated by the telling. Thank you for letting me share in the listening.
A couple of things: From my perspective, your lack of “background in radio or media” was totally to your advantage. You did your homework and thought about what kinds of stories you wanted to capture (And therefore, which questions to ask) You had the ‘inside scoop’ on your dad’s life that allowed you to get to the heart of things with greater precision than any seasoned interviewer.

Getting The Tape
Jackson
June 3, 2003 – #49
When an old man dies, a library burns down
I just got this line from Tony Kahn, when I asked him about what I should do to get tape of a long-time Broadway pit player who is getting a little short on memory. Get the tape was the other part of his answer.
…There are, for example, stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends…Much more difficult is the day-in-day-out… I’d love to hear thoughts on the story vs. pointless narration approach to the booth.
I know you dream of getting all stories. But what kind of stories are you planning to get?

180 Degrees Of The Unimaginable
david reville
June 4, 2003 – #50
…We can imagine all sorts of uses for the StoryBooth including (but not limited to!) the undirected family history collection we’ve spent a lot of time talking about, targeted oral histories, and collaborations with folklorists, etc. We talk about inviting back a great talker one of the facilitators has identified for a “Sound Portraits Interview” with one of the producers here. We expect that organizations hosting a booth might make use of the space/equipment to bring in people they want to get on tape for specific purposes as well. Our goal here is to build the most flexible thing we can, prepare for surprises, and to let the content take care of itself…

This is an audacious project. From the start we talked about it as “a national initiative,” … “an oral history of America.” There were at least two ways to start development: we could move cautiously, doing pilot interviews, researching historical antecedents, mocking up facilities and inviting people to try it out, or we could announce to the world we were going to open this big new thing in Grand Central Terminal in six months time (or less, originally 3+ months!). Of course we went for the grand gesture. That, to my mind, locked us into a design strategy both for the physical structure, and for the program itself, that embraces change over time. We have demanded multiple options at every stage. The space itself will have moveable furniture rather than custom built-ins. The equipment is off-the rack, not just to save money and time but to insure that we can switch things easily if something doesn’t work. The electronic back-end reservation system, story-tracker, database and metadata are component-based and flexible as well. This overarching philosophy guides nearly all of our decisions. I try to stay constantly aware that we are, most of the time, making assumptions that could turn out to be 180 degrees off, and to plan for alternatives I can’t even imagine.

Wring Out The Culture
Andrea Murray
June 16, 2003 – #59
I struggle with this: The increasing self-consciousness and media-awareness of interviewees. The first-person narrative has become the most esteemed storytelling mode in American media…

Anyway, people I encounter are becoming more and more aware of how they think The Media want them to sound – emotionally vulnerable, profound in a homespun way, quirky, etc. People trying to sound genuine, which is of course a total impossibility. They know when it’s good tape, but I wonder if the -listener- also knows they know. Y’know? ;-) And does it matter, in the end?

Maybe it’s a larger question about maintaining individual authenticity in a media-saturated culture. But it really bugs me.

The Laser-Beam Lock
David Isay
Jun 22, 2003 – #64
in my experience, it isn’t the case.. when you’re sitting and talking to people and have that laser-beam connection thing going, then they’re just them. the stuff we do, it’s about people who don’t care about or think about or want to be famous for the most part- so i think you get a very different sort of interview (for that and many other reasons) than you get on the reality shows…. also, 90% of the people we talk to don’t listen to public radio and 99.99% never heard of Sound Portraits (just about the national average). I will send potential subjects CDs of our stuff without hesitation- because they’ll be hearing interviews which are, i think, heartfelt and not self-conscious and hopefully whatever weird media signals they’ve gotten from elsewhere will get wiped out and they’ll pattern themselves after the interviews they hear in our stories.

Milton In The House
Sydney Lewis
June 19, 2003 – #61
Was listening to piece on and interview with Milton Rogovin last weekend, I believe it was, and there was discussion of the impact the process of being photographed had had on his subjects. He spoke of coming into homes and seeing portraits displayed on mantelpieces, a sign of their value, and one of his subjects described her mother’s excitement because Milton was coming to take their picture. Which reminded me of Kalpana relaying her experience in the storybooth and Matt being thrilled to hear that her father couldn’t stop talking about the experience.

Rogovin shoots in his community, has a relationship with the streets and the people he freeze-frames. He can hear and see the impact their shared experience has on at least some of his subjects. You (the collective you) place heavy weight on the value of the interviewer/interviewee experience. What happens after your subjects walk with their tape? Is there some follow-up so the tree fall is heard?

More About Them
David Isay
Jun 22, 2003 – #64
for the typical spp piece, as i’ve said many times, we think of the subjects as part of the ever growing sound portraits family and try to stay in their lives and keep them in ours (part of why milton is such a hero to us- the incredible longitudinal reach of his connections). With storycorps, we’re not going to be able to do that in the same way, but are focused on making it as personal we can (for example having facilitators call their subjects after the interview to talk about what happened) and hopefully the connection between the interviewer and interviewee will be the new bond that is made and strengthened through the years.

When Should You See?
Amy O’Leary
June 20, 2003 – #62
[At] the opening of the Milton Rogovin exhibit at the NY Historical Society there were several comments made…alluding to the interplay between sound and image.

As Jay wrote in his intro, one of the unique things about Sound Portraits, is the realization that “radio is invisible and you can’t touch it, so in order to make it more noticeable and palpable, [SP] extends [its] projects online, in performance, photographs, books, film… ”

Yet at the same time, one of the particularly penetrating qualities to radio is its ability to bring you a voice, and a story, in a way that is untainted by judgments that are often based on someone’s appearance.
Can someone talk to this? Are there times when you think it’s especially important for your subjects to be both heard and seen? Are there times when it’s easier to tell their story in only one medium?

Ah, Well, Er, Ah…
David Isay
Jun 22, 2003 – #65
i think stories should be told in the best way they can be told- and can be told in different media to a cool effect… milton’s story wasn’t a radio documentary to me- it was an audio tour and a book and snippets of sound that could be included in a 2-way with scott simon- so that was the way to go: always tell the story the best way it can be told (yes i realize this wasn’t your question).. ok let me try again: we have public premieres when we have a new radio piece , and there’s an ongoing debate about whether to put pictures (slide shows) with the sound… i guess i tend to go with the slideshow (others feel really strongly against) because i figure if people just want to go for the radio thing they can close their eyes(once again- that wasn’t your question).. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeing a picture of the person you’re hearing- i think it adds to the story- but I’ve run around lecturing for years about how you don’t have preconceived notions when you just hear peoples voices and how great that is.. So I guess I’m just confused… ok how’s this: we take pictures with stories.. the pictures present our subjects in a dignified way, as do our radio stories ( I hope).. They’re sort of like illustrations with a magazine article or the little glossy pages in the middle of a non-fiction book. I like book with pictures. if you feel like putting a picture with a radio story, you should. If you don’t you shouldn’t. That’s probably the rule I follow.

Layers Of Liking
Jay Allison
June 20, 2003 – #63
Dave wrote: our general rule at SPP is that we don’t do stories about people we dislike I’ve been thinking about this. Have you ever come to dislike someone in the course of documenting them? What did you do? Or, what would you do, theoretically?

People are not always what they seem, and the process of examining them under a microphone can reveal that. The discovery of layers of truth and contradiction tend to make a piece interesting. How does liking or not liking play into that process for you? Do you ever feel it might be a limitation to pre-exclude people you initially dislike? Is it possible that through the process of documenting them, you might come to like them? Does that thought interest you?

Simply Most
David Isay
Jun 22, 2003 – #65
i think my comment was a simplification (that’s a specialty).. i don’t love everyone we have in pieces- i just try not to do crucification / mock-people pieces (at least so far)- that doesn’t sound fun to me. A lot of the fun for me is the pleasure subjects get out of their own stories…There are people we do stories about or with who become huge pains in the ass; and others we get closer too… Since I basically like most people i think (especially ones that can help make stories better), there are very few i’d pre-exclude…

Conflicted
Bonnie Primbsch
June 25, 2003 – #67
At my station, I’m in the odd position of training-up new interviewers…For the book/author interviewers, this comes up now & then, this disliking of subject matter. A book sounds interesting, we book the interview–and then the interviewer reads the book & doesn’t like it. Most of the time, it’s a lovely exercise in expansive & generous consideration of another human being & their efforts–the interviewer finds something to enjoy about the book & focuses on that in the interview.

But one time, one of the newer interviewers, a salty 60’s pro-woman woman, got herself locked into interviewing an author…the material stuck in my interviewer’s craw…She tried to restrain herself, but she was like a testy cat with a twitching tail, slipped into being quarrelsome, and got into the thick of some obscure tangent when time was up, interview over, sort of halfway through an argument. It made for some pretty weird radio, & I never ran the interview.

Somewhere in there, there’s a lesson about channeling disagreement into lively discussion; but I think it involves being able to get past the strong feeling you have for your subject.

Which leads me to the warning about not letting our like/appreciation/love for the subject carry the treatment of our pieces, either.

In an interview, this is easy: throw in some devil’s advocate questions into the conversation, challenge your guest a little. But I’m just getting into more produced, character pieces, and I wonder if I’m letting my affection for most of my subjects get in the way of bringing out the strongest pieces I can. I’d be interested in hearing about how challenge/conflict/fly in the honey type stuff can be brought into a piece effectively. Is it easier when there’s no narration, no voiceover commentary?

Salty’s Good
David Isay
July 2, 2003 – #79
conflict and uncomfortable moments can make for the best radio (did anyone ever hear amy goodman on the air when pacifica was taken over by all those losers a few years ago?) – that salty interview could have been more interesting than others… conflict makes for good radio (maybe even the best radio)…

Peeking At The Poky
Daniel Costello
June 28, 2003 – #68
I’ve been doing some re-listening to older pieces on your web site, and I am interested in your process for getting interviewees for your projects…One I am thinking of specifically is Witness to an Execution…I have an idea for a story about a man who has been in prison since 1946 when he was 17, but I have no idea about how to approach him or the prison.

Dial
David Isay
July 2, 2003 – #79
just ask. really, that’s it. for witness, no one turned us down i don’t think and everyone thrilled to talk- no one had asked them before.. call the prison and ask, call the inmate and ask. that’s it- very simple.

The Irritated Quest
Nubar
June 28, 2003 – #70
In my work it’s also more fun working with subjects I like. It’s important, in part, because I need to connect with them in some way in order to produce photographs I care about. However, as I look back, I have the sense that though these stories have been more fun, I often learn more from people who are less like me, and even people I wouldn’t have a beer with. To push this further, I’m embarking on a short film in which I’ll be interviewing mostly people whose political points of view I find irritating. Why? Not to make fun of them, or slam them. But the country we live in is way more conservative than I am. And I don’t know anything about these people. What is a conservative republican anyway? I have no idea, except that I have strong feelings about how harmful their beliefs can be. So I guess it’s a quest toward understanding. I wonder whether you’ve thought about doing stories with people in this manner as well David.

Building Bridges On Solid Ground
David Isay
July 2, 2003 – #79
I have no problem doing stories with people I wouldn’t have a beer with- in fact, I was thinking about that a bit after having lunch with someone today who i did a story with when he was in a hospital for the criminally insane (i always liked him, but some others scared me) … plenty of people very different than me- the cool thing is when you get to see shared humanity with folks who are so different and build bridges through the documentary work. As long as you treat subjects with dignity, you’re on solid ground.

About David Isay

David Isay Picture
Dave Isay is the founder of Sound Portraits Productions. Over the past thirteen years his radio documentary and feature work has won almost every award in broadcasting including four Peabody Awards, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and two Livingston Awards for young journalists. David has also received the Prix Italia (Europe’s oldest and most distinguished broadcasting honor), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1994) and most recently a MacArthur Fellowship (2000).

He is the author (or co-author) of three books based on Sound Portraits radio stories: Holding On (W.W. Norton & Co., 1995); Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (Scribner, 1997); and Flophouse (Random House, 2000).


David Isay & Sound Portraits Links
Sound Portraits: www.soundportraits.org
Yiddish Radio Project: www.yiddishradioproject.org
Youth Portraits: www.youthportraits.org
StoryCorps: www.storycorps.net


90 Comments on “David Isay & Sound Portraits”

  • Jay Allison says:

    Intro by 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.

  • David Isay says:

    Greetings from 176 Grand Street

    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.

    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.

  • David Isay says:

    StoryCorps StoryCorps

    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.

    A more detailed description of this project is online at http://www.storycorps.org. You can give feedback there, or begin a new conversation here.

  • David Isay says:

    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.

  • David Isay says:
    DAVID ISAY

    David Isay

    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.

  • David Isay says:

    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 (http://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.

  • David Isay says:
    DAVE MILLER

    Dave Miller

    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.

  • David Isay says:
    KAREN CALLAHAN

    Karen Callahan

    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.

    RUBY SHEETS

    Ruby Sheets

    From Ruby Sheets

    I can not 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.

  • David Isay says:
    OZUG

    Matt Ozug

    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.

  • David Isay says:

    Finally…

    …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.

    Sincerely,

    The Staff at Sound Portraits Productions

    Documenting a Hidden America

  • bw says:
    I feel like Im addressing the justice league

    Its great that you all are here.

    Have any of you woken up in the middle of the night yet in a cold sweat with the understanding that this story corps project could well end up taking over the rest of your lives??

    I can’t get over the booth idea – Its like something out of a great twilight zone episode. When will one be coming to new england?

  • Mary McGrath says:
    Dave Miller

    Are you the Dave Miller who interned at The Connection in Boston? Send me your e-mail, I’d love to catch up.

  • Nightsweats, StoryCorps related…

    BW – Well, you sure get right to the point here!

    Yep. The magnitude of the project has struck us all, I think. And it does wake me up at night (when I can get to sleep at all…). On the other hand, the excitement StoryCorps generates is fuel for long days and sleepless nights.

    Seriously, though, there doesn’t seem to be a chance of StoryCorps swamping Sound Portraits. While the project at scale will require a bigger staff, and a larger budget than SPP currently runs on, Sound Portraits has a clear vision and will remain a radio production company first and foremost. Part of my job is insulating the rest of the company from the administrivia a project this size entails.

    We’re not ready to say when we’ll build a StoryBooth outside of New York, but one of our dreams is to make one that travels (I imagine a tricked-out soundproof airstream trailer making the rounds of county fairs, regional festivals, and backroads). Beyond that, we hope to begin piloting a portable StoryKit (the components of which–a MiniDisc recorder, microphone, and instruction manual will be very familiar to most Transomites) for people who can’t get to a booth for any reason (distance, infirmity, scheduling conflicts). In fact that may be the way most people end up conducting a StoryCorps interview.

  • Jackson says:
    The Story Booth reminds me…

    of two things: Tony Kahn’s "What’s Your Story?" featured here lo those many years ago and the Tennessee Williams piece that came up in Lost and Found Sound.

    Honorable antecedents, the pair of them.

    In practical/impractical ways:

    1) Will the story booth also generate passport photos?
    2) Will there be a time limit on each story?
    3) Will the story booth resemble a confessional — interviewer hidden behind a screen?
    4) And if so, have you thought about putting a story booth in St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

  • bw says:
    pkd story booth

    yes. The more I think about the story booth the more I realize that it is STRAIGHT out of Philip K. Dick -

    I can only hope that it eventually gets its own weekly radio program!

    Sound Portraits has always amazed me – ever since I heard all the way broken – way back when.

    One thing that I have always been curious about is about how you work with npr – do they take sound portraits pieces "as is"

    or is it more complicated.

  • IT says:
    Storycorps

    I’m fascinated by your plans to use novice interviewers for, and to foster intergenerational contact with, storycorps. Do you think that interviewers’ experiences will impact the interviews? Have you given any thought to matching interviewers and interviewees with similar life experiences, i.e. teens who are recent immigrants interviewing seniors who were themselves immigrants?

    Could you talk a little more about the ways in which you plan to use the archive of stories you’ll accumulate?

  • Michael Sanders says:
    Too Many Details, Not Enough Time

    I have tried to make recordings for a personal audio journal of my life. I find myself wanting to record practically every second of my day sine I now have the ability to carry a tape recorder to document all those moments that I might forget by the end of the day or when I look back at my life. My problem is that I do not know how to proceed to condense the audio segments so I do not create a gigantic mound of audiotape that I cannot feasibly listen to in a reasonable amount of time. I feel confident that I can accumulate lots of information, but I am not sure how to create meaningful audio from it.

    My question to those of you at Sound Portraits is what helps you to decide what audio segments assist you in creating a cohesive story without omitting important details? I know that there are hours of audio recorded for a story that may result in only a twenty-minute or less finished piece.

  • Sydney Lewis says:

    StoryCorps, yes! What a great notion. No idea how far along you are in the plans, but could someone describe the storybooth? What’s a person going to find when they enter, what will draw them to the booth? Culturally, we’re conditioned to be passive recipients of "entertainment." Will there be suggestions of things for nervous/shy/flummoxed by mic people to tell stories about, assuming they’re brave enough to venture into the storybooth in the first place? More questions to come. Head spinning just imagining the mechanics of this fabulous project.

  • Hello (again) from Grand Street

    I’ll let another someone talk to the questions about Sound Portraits’ working relationship with NPR, and to Michael Sanders’ editorial inquires (although those obviously play into questions about the use of the StoryCorps archive). More on StoryCorps here: first off, you can get an idea of what a typical StoryBooth will look like at http://www.storycorps.net/, although the picture is small. What you’re looking at is a compact soundbooth, sheathed in an exoskeleton of translucent material. The space between the booth and the shell houses necessary recording equipment, and supports speakers and video monitors that play back edited stories, and present information about the project.

    Inside the booth is enough space for three people to sit comfortably, the interviewer and narrator, and a StoryCorps facilitator who’s job is to monitor and insure the quality of the recording, as well as to provide helpful advice to the participants. Dave and co. have lots of experience quickly training non-professional interviewers. We’ll have to train the facilitators to do that, and we have also developed an on-line “question generator” to help people start to think about the content they want to cover in their encounter. It’s still a prototype, but maybe we’ll be able to let you all have at it later in the month.

    As to pairing interviewers, we expect interviewers to select their own subjects (often these will be family members, friends, coworkers, but anything is possible). We are working hard not to program any particular agenda, rather to provide the means and observe what happens organically. OK there were more questions, and I’ll try not to let stuff get lost…

  • David Miller says:
    Sorting through the audio mound

    Michael Sanders’s post and question reminded me of "The World’s Longest Diary," Dave I’s piece about Robert Shields. For decades, Shields basically spent so much time notating the passage of his life that he had no time or energy left for actually living. And certainly no spare moments to read the previous day’s (or month’s, or year’s) entries. Doing this kind of endeavor with audio makes my head spin!

    As for the practical question of how to handle a mountain of tape, my best advice is to be ruthless. Zero in on the most moving (or most funny, or most surprising, or most whatever) parts and cut away the fat. Even the parts you like; if they don’t make sense in the narrative you’re working towards, get rid of them. Just keep cutting until out of your amorphous audio mound you have a definite shape. Don’t worry about the ratio of raw tape to cooked piece.

    Here it seems like we cut and cut and cut until all of a sudden the last cut removes some bit of the story’s soul. So we add that part back — whatever it might be in this case (a laugh, another anecdote, a music post) — and we know we’re getting very close.

  • Jay Allison says:
    … what you wish for

    Good advice about cutting fat until you hit muscle… or body down to soul.

    I thought of that OCD piece of Dave’s too… and it reminded me a little of our "Quest" in Lost & Found Sound. We got a huge, unmanageable response. After the calls came in, it was like being in a mine filled with gems and only a little time. All we could do, finally, was grab the brightest ones and run to the surface to show them. I know we left some beautiful stories behind.

    The big idea of StoryCorps is seductive, but it’s wise to start small.

  • David Isay says:
    A couple of quick things

    1) The picture above makes me look like a serial killer. To the best of my
    knowledge, I’m not.
    2) bw- i like that justice league thing. who are you bw??? if folks could just say who they are and a little bit about themselves, that would be great
    3) Working with NPR- hmmm- if I tell you you I have to kill you (i retract #1 above) . We’re lucky enough, after all these many years, to just work with single point-people in the network. So, for example, we work with Chris Turpin at ATC. When I bring pieces to him, they’ve been edited (by the best editor in the business by many football fields- gary covino), and listened to and vetted dozens of times by everyone here. By the time it gets to NPR we’re usually on draft 15 or 20. If Chris likes the piece, we’ll make whatever changes he suggests (he’s a smart guy and knows radio). If he doesn’t like the piece, we take it elsewhere. We’re really, really lucky. The worst thing in the world is an editor who makes a story worse- God, that makes me insane. You have to trust your instincts (esp. if confirmed by people you trust) and fight like hell for getting the best piece you can on the air.. I used tothink of it as trying to run a very delicate and detailed sculpture through a very, very tough, mean nasty and not-too-bright defensive front line..
    4) Where are the folks from SALT (aka the coolest radio program in the country?) ?

    Thanks all for participating!
    d

  • bw says:
    making things worse!

    Dave – yes yes – there is nothing worse than having some one who is simply "in charge" take something that you have spent thousands of hours on and in less than fifteen minutes TOTALLY F#*K it up… in fact I think that this sort of thing could lead to serial killin.

    You are lucky indeed

    but you are also a radio genius!

    I would love to have you say a few things about what it was like working with that cartoon genius Ben Katchor

    the radio cartoons you two produced:
    http://www.hearingvoices.com/knipl.html

    …still blow me away – in fact the only bad thing I can say about them is that there are so few of them!! why’d you stop makin em??

  • Rob Rosenthal says:
    traveling storycorps

    Dave et al,

    I continue to marvel at the idea of StoryCorps (though the name still leaves me scratching my head — no I don’t have an alternative). When I first heard about the project, I wondered how you were going to pull it off. It seemed a bit amorphous and unruly. Now, however, you’ve pared the idea down to something manageable, tangible, and doable. It’s genius — an oral history vox pop on a massive scale bringing the mics to the people rather than sequestering them behind the moats that encircle public radio stations.

    Somewhere along the line, I recall reading or talking to someone in the SP office about a mobile version of StoryCorps. The idea was to send a lone Winnebago into the sunset to rural towns and hard to find places to broaden the reach of the project. I realize that you are in the testing phase, but please don’t lose sight of that idea. It, too, is brilliant.

    I’m struck by the notion of a state-by-state approach — a StoryCorps Winnebago in every state. A collaboration between public radio, community radio, and state folklife centers, producers travel the state working with local libraries, historic socities, heritage councils, and festival presenters to get into the nooks and crannies of (as Kerouac put it) "the great bulge of America" following the blue highways.

    Of course, we’d then end up with the mound of tape described above. But hey, what a great problem to have.

    Tape would be collected and used in the way you folks intend. But, with releases from participants, captivating, compelling, stellar radio pieces could be produced for local broadcast (and maybe national) — a clever and sparkling way to serve the mandate of localism, foster sense of place, and get people talking about the important stuff — their lives.

    Time to fetch my daughter from dance class.

    Cheers from Maine. Rob

  • Kim Green says:
    Training interviewers

    My husband Hal and I are freelance radio producers in Nashville, TN. We produced our first story a year ago this spring and have had a wonderful and agonizing time since. I’m particularly interested in Sound Portraits because I keep finding myself drawn to the little-or-no narration style of storytelling. Our two favorite (and I believe best) stories this past year have been five-minute pieces in this style. Nothing so fantastic or elaborate as "Ghetto 101", but exciting and fun all the same.

    It didn’t take long for friends and acquaintances to start approaching us about helping out with doing family histories. I’d like to help them – and since I do NOT have any experience training non-professional interviewers (I’m still learning the trade myself), I was hoping for some advice about how to get these friends started. Interviewing tips, etc.

    Also, how can I help them put together something with their mounds of tape without promising them 750 hours of my cheap freelance time?

    Thanks.

  • Kelsey Dilts says:
    i just have a few questions/comments . . .

    matt: are you able to further explain the "step in shit" phrase your dad used? is it good fortune because shit can be a fertilizer? that’s all i could come up with. I’m intrigued by this phrase.
    spp/storycorps: rob mentioned something about the name– is "storycorps" only a working name?
    i’m also behind the idea of the winnebagos–pad the inside down with the foamy baffling stuff & hit the road. i love the idea of interviews without discrimination. Both in the winnebago & with the freestanding stalls. *That’s* celebrating the ordinary. Anything I can do to help the project along or keep it going once it begins–I offer myself completely. My radio resume is slowly growing . . . growing up i thought NPR was boring–and associated it solely with classical music, but once I had access to better radio–heard voices & stories–i fell in love through listening less casually than I had been. I quickly packed my bags & enrolled in Salt. Since then, I any radio work I’ve done (& been paid for) has happened through luck & hard work. I’m still saving money to edit at home, but recording with reckless abandon.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:

    Dave Isay
    I think you look like Picasso with his intense eyes. (Maybe your ears are even more intense? It would be easier to tell if we were used to looking at our ears as part of our face…)
    Actually, when I first saw you and Dan Collison at the first Third Coast Festival I was a little surprised at how clean and collegiate you looked. I expected a grittier look, like your stories and characters.

    Do you have one foot in the tidy, respectable, grant-writing, management world, and another foot -or one or two ears- and your imagination… someplace else?

    I picture public radio as a party or picnic on a college campus. Most of the people are having a fun and interesting time, perhaps talking about national concerns, or telling an amusing story about a townie they saw that day. Meanwhile, some folks like yourself are conscious of those who didn’t feel invited; and they bring some unexpected guests…

  • Tracey Erin Smith says:
    Everyday hero’s

    Hi David and friends,

    With pleasure, I’ll introduce myself and thank you in advance for listening.
    I am Tracey from Tronto, Canada.
    I lead workshops called; "Writing, Directing and Staring in Your Own Life" and last week I submitted a proposal to do a documentary for CBC Radio 1, about a new course I’ll be teaching this July at Ryerson University called; "Performance as Personal Memoir." I’ll be working with a group of adult students, mostly in their 60’s and 70’s, to tell stories from their lives and then transform this material into a performance piece. Using any form of expression they choose; original poetry, storytelling, sound collage, singing etc.
    What got me all jazzed up was reading about "Story booths". It started me thinking about doing something like this in Canada. Or even on a smaller scale in the Jewish community here. And/or is there anything I can do up here to further your cause of listening as an act of love?

    Cheers,
    Tracey

  • Davia says:
    Bananas

    Hey Dave, And Cohorts, I’m weighing in with the pack. The S-Booth at Grand Central is genius. Wacky, but genius. Perhaps if Charles Kurault’s mobile home is in mothballs and available, that might be a choice for the first rolling prototype. One of the many things I find so intriguing about this whole project is how scarce the word "radio" is in your description. Does a vision of radio come into it much for you? I would also like to suggest the mall in the San Fernando Valley where I was Santa’s Helper as a prime location for one of your units. I hope the guy who played Santa is still around because he had a story alright. Joe Richman just told me a story about a story he read. When the started combing through the interviews from Ellis Island immigrants the most common word they found in all the oral histories was "banana". Somehow bananas seem to symbolize what they had heard of and longed to taste, what their relatives who had come to the US ahead of them wrote of, the promise, the exotic, the unknown, food… I wonder, years from now, when they’re going through the StoryCorps archives, what that word will be.

  • Davia says:
    Forgot to sign out, sorry..

    Awaiting my starter kit,
    Davia Nelson
    The Kitchen Sisters

  • David Isay says:
    thanks…

    all for the great comments- and apologies for not writing sooner…
    Will take them in order
    1)bw – it was fun doing those cartoons, but they were a hell of a lot of work and was doing everything on my own back then… Was burning out and WESAT getting negative mail so we were cancelled after something like 13 episodes (although when we went off air got a torrent of amazing notes)… Ben is a genius. It was a lot of fun. Some people like them a lot, some
    people really don’t. I’d have to listen again to figure out what i think… My one and only foray into non-nonfiction radio…
    2) Rob R- yup, that’s pretty much what we’re imagining. (did i mention how much i love SALT?)
    3) Kim- we do have our ten or whatever rules for doing interviews- I’m not at work now, but I’ll ask David R. to post them here.. As far as putting something together out of mounds of tape in a little time- can’t be done.. Faster probably to teach them protools free and let them do it themselves.
    4) Kelsey- great email.. Keep fighting the good fight.
    5) John- you got it. StoryCorps’ primary mission is to create a
    meaningful experience for interviewer-interviewee pair. Any radio that comes out of it is gravy. And the model (as per Rob)- each booth is paired with a local station which runs best stuff. Best of the best bubbles up nationally. StoryKit rental cost- we don’t know (right David?). Booth will probably be $10 for 40 minutes (to limit the cranks). David R. can comment on CD
    recorder. Projections- scaled back considerably due to economy- at this point wouldn’t hazard a guess. (I thank you on behalf of Lloyd for the homage).
    6) Nanette- glad that I come across as reasonably well-scrubbed- I’ve had my moments trust me.. when fundraising basically I’m in not such a different head as when in production- it’s all about getting out there and making calls and meeting people..With hard work, once-in-a-while lightning
    strikes.. We’ve been lucky enough to recently hire our first director of devlpt.- Steve Clair- who makes the process much more fun.. And thank you for the unexpected guests comment- i like that.
    7) tracey- sounds like you’re well on you’re well on the way to spreading the ‘listening=love’ gospel… anything we can do to help, let us know..
    8) Davia (is she THE BEST or what? ) everything radio I always try to downplay- so at the worst i’m right. I don’t know how much stuff these booths will generate that’s good for bdcst, so I’m going to assume very little. And like I said above, as long as it’s good for the participants, I’m happy. That’s where my heads been lately- more into thinking about what projects do for subjects/collaborators than worrying about bdcst… Although I do love editing…

    Keep ‘em coming!
    And thanks!
    d

  • bw says:
    kniplemails

    wow!

    those were amazing. And this is only after 14 episodes! Granted, I haven’t seen the hate mail but I would think that mail like this can only keep something on the air.

    Don’t you have fond memories of those days when you had to do everything youself?

    the best thing about the kniplemails is that almost everyone has their own interpretation of how to spell your audio cartoon hero’s name

  • joni murphy says:
    mountains and seas sound

    Hello!

    First of all I have to say that I miss all at Grand Street SO much (sniff), and second I’m glad that you guys are on transom talking about StoryCorps (horay).

    I’d like to ask about something that has come up allready in this discussion, that is: What will be done with these mountains of recordings that StoryCorps collects?
    This is something we talked about alot while I was at Sound Portraits (I was a humble intern by the grace of god), But I don’t think we ever reached a totally satisfying resolution.
    There will be hundreds (thousands even) of hours of tape for the archive, but who will listen to it? Will people (other than family members) want to access this material?
    I think the Transom forum is a good place to ask what people are interested in– I mean, if you’re reading this you’re obviously passionate about sound– but would you want to listen to the un-edited 40 minute recordings of strangers?

    This is something I know Sound Portraits people have struggled with — because there are legal/privacy issues and also organizational issues– but it’s still an question that trips me up.
    On the one hand, the possiblitiy of finding story gems is so exciting.
    For example, hearing an Alaskian man discribe almost freezing to death and having to eat one of his beloved huskys;
    or lisening to a mother and daughter uncover family secrets and learn about eachother as people and not just ‘family’.
    Or you know, something like that.

    But there’s also alot of potential/ probable boredom.

    I’m curious to know what people who worked on Lost and Found Sound think about this — because you probably confronted similar issues in your project.

    Or maybe the SPP crew has found some exciting solutions since I’ve been away.

    I’m asking partly for the sake of discussion, I hope asking won’t tie more knots. StoryCorps project creates some complex questions, and maybe Transom people have fresh minds and new perspectives?

    you know . . .

    always wondering . . .

    Take care radio compatriots–

    Joni Murphy (living the slow life way west)

  • helen woodward says:
    "but would you want to listen to the un-edited 40 minute recordings of strangers?"

    I have been thinking along the same lines as joni above: just how interesting will these 45 minutes of people’s lives be. I love the idea of story corps, but I wonder about it too.

    bw mentioned our sonic id project in his reporting from toronto at the radio art conference transmissions sans frontieres (which is interesting reading and listening, go visit there too!), in summary these are 30, 60 or 90 second pieces that air throughout the day on WCAI and WNAN and feature local people talking about local things, here is a link (they are really old ones, we are in process of updating APM’s website)

    http://www.atlantic.org/projects/cainan/sonic_id.html

    to give you an idea of what I am on about.

    Anyway to get to the point finally, we interview local people about life here on cape cod, to give our listeners a sense of this place that they live in. now, some of our interviewees can spout of some really interesting/engaging/funny stories in just a few minutes, (like the guy who wrestled a 137 lb tuna to shore in his underpants) no problem; but some people take a while to warm up, get over the mic fear, generally compose their thoughts, and strike upon soemthing that they are passionate about, and you find that an hour into the interview things are just starting to get interesting.

    Granted my interviewing technique isn’t the best as I feel bad as they back away from the mic and I blabber to fill in the pregnant pauses, but I am wondering will the fixed 45 minutes for the interviews affect the quality of the final archive.

    We have maybe 500 of these sonics so far, which seems proof enough that most everyone has interesting stories, and people do say the most profound things, but accessing them in a set time could be difficult.

    Just some thoughts about a very exciting project. I also wanted to applaud your work on death penalty cases, that I heard on ATC last night.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    generator

    Since a main focus of this project is on the subject/collaborator dynamic, it would be really interesting to see the question generator david r. mentioned posts back. I’d like to see how the project lays out the un-set agenda while at the same time fanning the flames of interesting, good, useful communication.

  • Jackson says:
    Helen, thanks!

    To all and sundry:

    This is a blast! Between StoryCorps and sonics, we have here the gamut of human expression as currently defined by radio.

    Accepting the fact that we are all talking about *radio* here, I want to throw out a few elements of the clock here:

    A story takes as long as a story takes, but a sonic ID really can’t run much longer than 60 secs, because that is as long as any NPR program feed will give you outside the news block.

    And yet StoryCorps — inspired no doubt and in no small part by our former prez’s AmeriCorps — seems to embrace a 45-min. frame. (Another clock to throw into the mix: Glenn Gould claimed he spent 52 mins listening to each 8 mins of recording.)

    How does StoryCorps envisage the difference between the on-air component and what they make available online? Different people work in different ways; different kinds of stories involve different ways of telling a story (for example, the Kitchen Sisters’ inclusion of "Witchita Lineman" in the L&FS story about Vietnamese nail groomers).

    I guess I wonder about the story that falls somehow in between: neither 60 secs. nor 45 mins. The web is an obvious outlet, but the web is not radio.

    Radio is the accident waiting to happen. Someone didn’t change stations after washing dishes. Can we make the audio on the web the same kind of experience?

  • bw says:
    on second glance

    David,

    you DO look like a serial killer!!!!!

  • Amy O'Leary says:
    The Love.

    Hello Sound Portraits & Everyone Here!
     
    So many things to ask!  I’ll just start with my most fundamental, if general, question.
     
    I’ve had to interview people who actively were trying to get me fired (and worse) before.  Probably an unusual situation. And yet, listening is love. I’m down with that. 

    I believe, I support, I proselytize. And most of the time it works incredibly well.  But, in truth, it also raises a problem for me. What happens when you need to interview someone that you feel not even kind of a baseline-humanity-connection to?  What happens when you need to listen, but you just don’t feel the love?
     
    Is the love a prerequisite, or an inevitable byproduct, of a good interview?
     
    Bonus question: Can you relate your answer to what you’re hoping for StoryCorps?
     
    With kindness & respect,
    Amy O’Leary
     
    (A Few Greetings.  Hello Matt Ozug!  Thanks again for your generosity of time and experience.  Rob Rosenthal! Looking forward to meeting you in September.)

  • Kerry Seed says:
    Dear Radio Killer…

    Hi Dave and the Gang,

    Thank you for engaging in this forum. It is very cool to have this opportunity to read so many people’s thoughts and your responses to them.

    A couple thoughts and questions:

    1. StoryCorps:
    What inside you led to the development of StoryCorps? Are you planning to continue doing large-scale SPP projects a la Yiddish Radio? How will you find the energy and resources to manage both endeavors?

    2. Casting pieces:
    The StoryCorps concept makes me think of my own struggles in casting pieces. I’m a firm believer in scrapping characters if they are not captivating. How much will facilitators work on StoryCorps participants to pull the best told version of life out of them?

    3. Starting out:You mentioned that you were fortunate to win CPB monies early in your career. With what type of story did you apply for funding? How long did it take you before you were airing longer pieces (9:00, 15:00, 22:00)?

    Thank you for all the great work over the years. Looking forward to a steady supply of it for years to come. Keep it up!

    Kerry…

  • danielferri says:
    curious about what you might see the interviews becoming

    I am struck by your goal of validating every person’s story by providing the opportunity for those stories to be told, but I am also struck by the question posted, “but would you want to listen to the un-edited 40 minute recordings of strangers?"

    I’d be very interested in knowing how much of your goal is in engaging the process of speaking and listening, verses producing a listenable product. Is the process of creating a community of tellers and listeners, (like a re-creation of the front porch) your major goal, or is the recorded pieces which come out of that process the goal? Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of setting up a sort of community street corner radio picture booth where people can go and tell snap shots of their lives, what a cool idea that is; but a photo is pretty complete thing, an un- edited interview is far from complete.

    I heard the Kitchen Sisters do a live interview this fall and while they are, and their interviewees were, brilliant people, hearing the interviews live helped me realize what great artists Davia and Nikki are, because the 90% shorter radio piece they would have created out of that interview would be much more compelling than the raw interview was. The Sisters are profoundly talented at producing radio pieces, but you need Teri Gross’s or Studs Terkel’s interviewing talents to produce great live interviews. Creating a produced radio piece and an interview are very different processes. One is an act of pruning, the other an act of proding. Either way, the interview needs a skilled person, to do the prodding or pruning in order to create something anyone other than a sound wonk or the interviewee’s relatives or would want to listen to. Where will the time come from for either to be done for each of your interviews, or is getting the voices on tape enough? I’m not criticizing the effort here, I am just curious about where you intend to go.

    If creating the front porch community, is the goal, then why the medium of radio? Are there other ways to present the interview that might better get the speakers heard and the community listening? Could local students edit them and print them on paper placemats for local restaurants for people to read while waiting for their meal? Could they be printed in a weekly column in the local paper? Is the purpose to give voice, is it to make radio, or is there some kind of hybrid pop-the-clutch-and-see-what-happens-next-kind-of-thing-deal which you are waiting to see appear?

    In either case, anything that helps people find their voice is to be applauded, so… clap, clap, clap.

    daniel jf

  • Celine says:
    Story Mobile

    I am struck by the parallel images of the traveling StoryCorps vehicle and the old fashioned Book Mobile. I see so many connections between public radio and public libraries–all that free information and inspiration for and by the people. I like the idea that the Story Mobile would house a collection of stories as well as the means to record them. I picture various headphone stations where you can listen to randomly playing stories, like overhearing conversations. I think a tour of the Story Mobile around the country should get great publicity…rock star status…people would mark their calendars with the date it is arriving in their town.

  • David Isay says:
    back at ya’

    bw (#34)- much happier memories not doing it myself- found the old days
    lonely.. it’s great to have colleagues!
    joni- WE MISS YOU!!!!! the #1 purpose of storycorps, by a long-shot is
    creating a meangful exeprience for participants.. if we get radio out of it, great.
    we’re going to figure out some system to flag the 1 out of 100 that’s worth
    listening to (should be easy to train facilitators- dealing with tapes that
    come in off kits will be more of a challenge)… even the 1 out of 1000 that’s
    been listened to and is deemed good enough to air will be cut to 5 minutes..
    we’re all about less is more- not to fear!
    helen: >"but would you want to listen to the un-edited 40 minute recordings
    of strangers?"
    as per above- hell no. (although i will say that sitting in on those
    sessions we’ve started doing for pilots is pretty profound and moving .. )
    sydney: we’re finding that letting people come up with their own questions
    and then append with question generator seems to turn the trick
    jackson: like i said above, i don’t think the average long interview will be
    of interest outside of family and maybe a handful ofothers. our job is to help
    find the gold in the sand..
    bw- (39)- agreed
    amy- our general rule at SPP is that we don’t do stories about people we
    dislike- so, thankfully, never have to deal with that problem. curious to hear
    what others have to say.. i would find it very not fun.
    kerry-
    1- storycorps came out of youth portraits + also generasl shift in
    interest towards looking at how participating in projects can be of benefit to
    subjects.. And yes- we will always devote at least 1/2 our time to radio docs.. I
    think the 2 projects occupy very different parts of the brain, so should be
    able to pull it off..
    2- Goes to above- it’s up to what the families want… It’s not our place
    to disrput the experience. I think we’ll be playing it by ear- for example
    maybe if there’s a great subject we’ll invite him/her back for a straight-up
    interview
    3- First project was to do eccentric characters across the country.. And
    those early pieces mostly ran on WATC which ran longer storiesback then (
    don’t listen to much radio and don’t know what situation is today)
    Thanks Kerry!
    daniel- same answer as above (wow- i guess the whole thing about this being
    primarily experience for participants didn’t come through in our description)..
    as far as dissemination- as far and wide as possible- books, articles,
    placemats- whatever.. im a big fan of print + photos…
    celine- YES! you got it… I really like that image (and yes- listening
    stations abig part of the project!) i never made connection between libraries and
    public radio- excellent..
    Thanks all!!!!

  • Kerry Seed says:
    You got your ears on?

    Hi Dave,

    You mentioned that you don’t listen to a lot of radio. While I assume this is for lack of time, I’m wondering if you think not listening has effected the way you produce stories? If so, how?

    Kerry…

  • Kalpana Krishnamurthy says:
    from inside the booth

    Hey all -

    A big thanks to the Sound Portrait folks for letting my Dad and I come in and participate in a test run of the Story Corps adventure. I got hooked up with Dave, Karen, Matt and the gang through a friend that’s a fellow radio documentarian. And since the person I wanted to interview was coming to NYC, we were able to set up a time for my Dad and I to come in on a rainy and sodden Saturday afternoon.

    I have no background in radio or media, or any other type of production. I don’t know if I asked the right questions of my Dad if we got totally off track during our session. So I hear/read the posts loud and clear about how to make a 40 minute interview interesting…

    At the same time, I think Story Corp hits it dead on: the lives of everyday people are as interesting and important as the lives of the rich and famous. For someone other than me to see the value in recording my father’s story — that’s the dopest part of this whole project. It democratizes storytelling, cuz you don’t have to be a character or have survived a crazy event or lived through some dramatic time to be worthy of being recorded.

    It was great for me to hear new stories, ask questions that I don’t get to ask everyday, and know that in the end I would have the recording to listen to and follow up with. But it was also a great experience for my Dad – who couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the weekend.

    Thanks to the Sound Portraits staff for making this experience possible.

    Kalpana

  • Daniel Costello says:
    Booth in Libraries?

    I think public libraries would be a great place for the Storycorps booth. My Main Branch public library here in Denver has a great cross-section of people from many types of backgrounds and incomes. What types of locations are you considering?

    Daniel

  • Matt Ozug says:
    Also Inside

    Kalpana – It’s so exciting to hear that your dad "couldn’t stop talking" about his StoryCorps experience. I think that the Hippocratic oath of StoryCorps states that people leave feeling like their story has been validated by the telling.
    Thank you for letting me share in the listening.

    A couple of things: From my perspective, your lack of "background in radio or media" was totally to your advantage. You did your homework and thought about what kinds of stories you wanted to capture (And therefor, which questions to ask) You had the ‘inside scoop’ on your dad’s life that allowed you to get to the heart of things with greater precision than any seasoned interviewer.

    What I’m interested in knowing – and hope you’ll share online, if you feel comfortable – is how the presence of the facilitator (me) altered the dynamic. How might have the interview been different if it was just you and your dad alone in a soundproof booth? Did you find yourself wishing I was more of a presence? Less? That I’d drop dead/disappear?
    You were a great interviewer, asked great questions, kept momentum…but is there a scenario in which you could imagine asking for help?

    Sorry to make you the on-line guinea pig, but there’s a clamor to hear more about how it felt to sit in your seat.

    Say Hi to your Dad for us.

    matt

  • Jackson says:
    When an old man dies, a library burns down

    I just got this line from Tony Kahn, when I asked him about what I should do to get tape of a long-time Broadway pit player who is getting a little short on memory. Get the tape was the other part of his answer.

    It seems to me that there are a couple of things at work — not just with my B’way guy, but in the general grain of things. There are, for example, stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. My B’way guy has great stories; many people have great stories. Often, they don’t even need editors with the skill of Mr. Isay or the Kitchen Sisters to speak.

    Fortunately, there are the Isays and the Kitchen Sisters to remind us that there are those stories to be heard.

    Much more difficult is the day-in-day-out. The ATC series about the disappearing trades in NYC provided a nice model — God knows the Broadway pit is changing, for example. Stories could be the hard currency here too, but there is other stuff — talking that has no beginning, middle, and end — that surely reflects decades of pursuit in a trade. I’d love to hear thoughts on the story vs. pointless narration approach to the booth.

    I guess one question about the story booth is this: Are you going to recruit story booth tellers? Is there a list of the kind of people you want to capture on tape before they all die off? You know, like Rockefeller Republicans. Ruth Benedict lo these decades ago warned us that radio would kill the spirit of the "folk". 70 years later, we see radio (though is what you’re doing really *radio*?) trying to preserve the "folk."

    I know you dream of getting all stories. But what kind of stories are you planning to get?

  • Firefighting at the library conflagration

    I’ll try to get to the backlog, but let me talk first to Jackson’s latest. The booth is a very flexible facility–we’ve tried not to think programmatically about it–and, as we’ve said above, this is really a separate project from Sound Portraits’ radio production work. We can imagine all sorts of uses for the StoryBooth including (but not limited to!) the undirected family history collection we’ve spent a lot of time talking about, targeted oral histories, and collaborations with folklorists, etc. We talk about inviting back a great talker one of the facilitators has identified for a "Sound Portraits Interview" with one of the producers here. We expect that organizations hosting a booth might make use of the space/equipment to bring in people they want to get on tape for specific purposes as well. Our goal here is to build the most flexible thing we can, prepare for surprises, and to let the content take care of itself. This is a fire fight that relies on citizens to identify the hot-spots. In a sense we’re creating a structure, an idea, probably not one as remarkable as Ben Franklin’s "volunteer fire brigades", but one that, like them, if it catches on, has the potential to stave off a kind of tragedy.

    It might make sense to talk a little about our design philosophy here. This is an audacious project . From the start we talked about it as "a national initiative" Dave invoked "an oral history of America" from day one. There were at least two ways to start development (although really only one choice, I realize now after three months of working with Dave): we could move cautiously, doing pilot interviews, researching historical antecedents, mocking up facilities and inviting people to try it out, or we could announce to the world we were going to open this big new thing in Grand Central Terminal in six months time (or less, originally 3+ months!). Of course we went for the grand gesture. That, to my mind, locked us into a design strategy both for the physical structure, and for the program itself, that embraces change over time. We have demanded multiple options at every stage. The space itself will have moveable furniture rather than custom built-ins. The equipment is off-the rack, not just to save money and time, but to insure that we can switch things easily if something doesn’t work. The electronic back-end reservation system, story-tracker, database and metadata are component-based and flexible as well. This overarching philosophy guides nearly all of our decisions. I try to stay constantly aware that we are, most of the time, making assumptions that could turn out to be 180 degrees off, and to plan for alternatives I can’t even imagine.

    More in a second…
    dmr.

  • StoryCorps ON THE ROAD

    Thanks for all the great comments on the mobile StoryBooth! As Rob notes, the idea of a mobile booth has been kicking around the office from the very beginning. It seems more important (and more immanent) to us every day. People, not least many of you who’ve posted here, are totally fired up about the idea, and that inspires us. I’m pretty sure that a 1 month stay in a small town or a neighborhood, or a stopover at a county fair or regional festival, would motivate communities to come out in droves. Our most dreamy scenario has the mobile booth (I’ve always pictured a tricked-out airstream trailer) pulling into a town where we’ve laid the groundwork with a local organization (NPR affiliated radio station, library, historical society, humanities council, or some combination of these) and lined up a group of coconspirators rooted there. After the booth takes off to the next destination, that organization could maintain an archive of the stories collected there, and the now highly trained and experienced facilitators could loan out StoryKits to people unable to participate previously, or people who want to do more, either with their original interviewee or with new people. Celine is right on point here. The mobile booth will display stories itself, but we really hope to leave something tangible behind, not just the means to make more recordings, but a place to experience those that have been made.

    Jackson mentioned Tony Kahn’s "What’s Your Story" early on in the thread, and it is certainly a key predecessor. We have also been looking closely at Alex Chadwick’s http://www.musarium.com/interviews50cents/?>Interviews 50¢ which is a remarkable project, all the more so because it aired on broadcast TV! (If you haven’t seen it, take a cruise over to the beautiful web exhibition linked above.) Of course while both of these project engage regular folks in an intimate and low-pressure format, neither of the producers relinquishes the role of "interviewer" (this _really_ isn’t a criticism; I love both of these projects, and find them immensely compelling. It’s just an observation of one of the key differences between those projects and StoryCorps). Dave’s said repeatedly that StoryCorps is not about making radio. It may be a crackpot idea on its own terms ("quite insane" was what Errol Morris wrote to Dave the other day) but it would be a truly ludicrous way to go about collecting material for broadcast. (And I say that knowing that I’m the one person who thinks it would be pretty cool to listen to tape after unedited tape of folks talking about their aunts, uncles and cousins, how they grew up in boring little towns, and all of it–as Joni implies, there are probably good legal and ethical reasons why that won’t be the way the public engages with StoryCorps content anyway–I love rooting around in other people’s attics, too.) Anyway I recognize that makes it a strange thing to talk about on Transom, but you gotta believe us: of course we expect to find great stuff, just like you might when you approach any huge, unruly archive, but THAT IS NOT THE POINT.

    ok, more soon. (no idea why apostrophes are not working, but believe me, I understand possessives!)
    defensively,
    dmr.

  • Lucy Raven says:
    shop talk?

    Dear David,

    Loved reading your thoughts on radio posted on transom.org. I wanted to let you know about an audio project I’ve been working on for about a year, an audio magazine called The Relay Project. I’m currently Associate Editor at BOMB Magazine and before magazine work, my background was (still is) as a visual artist. I’ve got one collaborator on Relay, Rebecca Gates, a musician.

    The idea is to produce a serial quarterly on CD, a type of curated radio or great mix tape, bringing together a dynamic combination of sounds accessible anywhere at any time, without needing an antenna or a computer. Each track will be authored by a different contributor, though the CD will be curated toward the whole, edited by our curiosity. Material include: interviews, stories, field recordings, virtual vacations, music, archival recordings…to name a few. We’ve been working on the project for about a year, getting close to the first release this summer.

    I’m a big fan of Sound Portraits, and was excited to read in the Times about your Grand Central project. Then I got the Milton Rogovin book in at BOMB, WOW. I was blown away. A lot of the work you’re doing and you outline in your manifesto is in line with the type of material we’d like to include in Relay, and I;ve been increasingly impressed with each of your projects I come across.

    While there are many facets to our project specifically "other" than radio, we have been working closely with Julie Shapiro from WBEZ and plan to have a presence at this year’s Third Coast festival.

    BOMB seems to be just down the street from you guys (we’re on Broadway b/t Prince and Houston) and I wonder if you might be free to meet for a post-work drink or coffee to talk shop a little.

    I look forward to hearing back from you when you get a moment, and again, greatly admire and appreciate your work.

    Best regards,
    Lucy Raven
    lucy@therelayproject.com

  • Party with Sound Portraits

    So, if you live in or near New York City, come to a party with Sound Portraits staff and friends. We’re hosting a fund-raiser to celebrate the opening of Milton Rogovin: The Forgotten Ones, an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society honoring photographer Milton Rogovin, and coinciding with the publication of the book Lucy just mentioned. The details follow:

    Thursday, June 19, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
    New-York Historical Society
    2 West 77th Street at Central Park West
    New York City

    It is a fund raiser, remember. For more info, or to reserve a space, visit our web site.

  • Jackson says:
    Speaking of serial CDs…

    For those who had even the least interest in folk music (singer/songwriter crap, acoustic music, AOR, MOR, DOA, "roadkill") in NYC over the past 20 years or so, there was Fast Folk. A recording/magazine intended to document the everyday work of singer/songwriters not only in the city, but all over the place. That’s just by the bye.

    I am glad to see the possible inclusion of folklorists here — from the Grimms on down, they have been scrambling to collect the "shattered fragments" (I think that was the image) of the ancient gems of civilization. From tale types to motifs, they certainly have developed a methodology for coping with vast arrays of narrative. A kind of longview crowd of people — they were originally looking to recover the roots of the Indoeuropean language groups (some are still looking).

    I am not going to ask about storage issues for all this narrative — does anyone else remember when 40meg was a lot of hard drive? But what will be the perameters of access — not the "who" can use it, but the "how" of searching and finding. Will we be seeing a reversion to tale types and the motif index? Who will decide when a story is a "coming of age" text as opposed to "the hare races the toad" kind of tale?

    I mean, get everything, but it will be nigh useless without a good index.

    BTW, has anybody thought about bringing Bruce Jackson of the University of Buffalo in on this? At the very least, he’s a funny bastard.

  • Tommy Trussell says:
    Link to Interviews 50 Cents

    I’m not sure what happened to David Reville’s entries a few posts back, but it didn’t work on my browser…. I dug into the code and extracted it:

    Interviews 50 Cents

    http://www.musarium.com/interviews50cents/

  • jake says:
    50 cent(s)

    Am I the only one who thought this was going to be "Chadwick interviews 50 Cent ? Perhaps as part of the new Day2Day L.A. gig: "So, Mr. Cent, on your album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’…"

  • Bonnie Primbsch says:

    Michael’s big audio diary–once I mourned the death of my journaling practice to a friend, and he passed along a bit of advice he got from somewhere or other, which I now offer to you–
    He said I should try just writing once sentence a day, a sentence that would capture the gem/essential nugget of the day. It was fun, it was a great writing tool, and it might help identify for yourself the bit of muscle down to which you want to trim.
    I did it for a goodly while before getting distracted again.
    (It’s been awhile since I’ve done it, myself. Time ot pick it back up!)

  • Jackson says:
    Gems versus necklaces

    Bonnie, I like what you’re saying, but it seems to me that there never really is a single nugget in a day. But in a time when so much of the planet has to be "on message" — maybe it’s up to pluralists to take back the night.

    And speaking of single sentence mode, I had to go through a writing exercise where we were required to write a sentence of 100 words, but we could only use words like "and" and "but" and other conjunctions, etc. once.

    One of the intriguing elements of the Story Booths notion is that these people — the people who tell the stories, the people who collect these stories, the people who annotate these stories — are looking actually at three very different phenomena. From the teller, it’s my memory. For the collector, it’s the individual’s story. For the annotator, it’s one story among many.

    I am not saying anybody is dreaming of the impossible here — the incredible personal experience narrative as opposed to unmitigated folk tradition, for instance — but the individual story can be both the singular gem and the entire necklace.

    How is the Story Booth going to capture *that*?

  • Andrea Murray says:
    Is anyone un-savvy?

    I struggle with this: The increasing self-consciousness and media-awareness of interviewees. The first-person narrative has become the most esteemed storytelling mode in American media – inspired, I’m guessing, by Sound Portraits genius work (which, alas, has unintentionally spawned massive copycatting.)

    Anyway, people I encounter are becoming more and more aware of how they think The Media want them to sound – emotionally vulnerable, profound in a homespun way, quirky, etc. People trying to sound genuine, which is of course a total impossibility. They know when it’s good tape, but I wonder if the -listener- also knows they know. Y’know? ;-) And does it matter, in the end?

    Maybe it’s a larger question about maintaining individual authenticity in a media-saturated culture. But it really bugs me. You?

    Thanks!

  • Jackson says:
    Savvy, unsavvy — haven’t we always been this way?

    When Alan and John Lomax freed Leadbelly, nobody questioned the intelligence of rescuing someone from Louisiana Death Row (was it?) to serve as chauffeur in Wilton, Conn.

    It’s a good thing for us that over the decades. ethnically-challenged individuals never thought to question the Lomaxes on their expectations of the freed chauffeur.

    Or maybe people among ethnic enclaves have been enthusiastic to accept, document, and submit to the great database oneness of individual discource.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    rogovin related

    Was listening to piece on and interview with Milton Rogovin last weekend, I believe it was, and there was discussion of the impact the process of being photographed had had on his subjects. He spoke of coming into homes and seeing portraits displayed on mantelpieces, a sign of their value, and one of his subjects described her mother’s excitement because Milton was coming to take their picture. Which reminded me of Kalpana relaying her experience in the storybooth and Matt being thrilled to hear that her father couldn’t stop talking about the experience.

    Rogovin shoots in his community, has a relationship with the streets and the people he freeze frames. He can hear and see the impact their shared experience has on at least some of his subjects. You (the collective you) place heavy weight on the value of the interviewer/interviewee experience. What happens after your subjects walk with their tape? Is there some follow-up so the tree fall is heard?

  • Amy O'Leary says:
    Sound vs. Image

    To follow up on Sydney’s note, and the opening of the Milton Rogovin exhibit at the NY Historical Society; there were several comments made last night alluding to the interplay between sound and image.

    As Jay wrote in his intro, one of the unique things about Sound Portraits, is the realization that "radio is invisible and you can’t touch it, so in order to make it more noticeable and palpable, [SP] extends [its] projects online, in performance, photographs, books, film… "

    Yet at the same time, one of the particularly penetrating qualities to radio is its ability to bring you a voice, and a story, in a way that is untainted by judgements that are often based on someone’s appearance.

    Can someone talk to this? Are there times when you think its especially important for your subjects to be both heard and seen? Are there times when it’s easier to tell their story in only one medium?

    Thank you,
    Amy O’Leary

  • Jay Allison says:
    liking, not liking

    Dave wrote:

    >our general rule at SPP is that we don’t do stories about people we dislike

    I’ve been thinking about this. Have you ever come to dislike someone in the course of documenting them? What did you do? Or, what would you do, theoretically?

    People are not always what they seem, and the process of examining them under a microphone can reveal that. The discovery of layers of truth and contradiction tend to make a piece interesting. How does liking or not liking play into that process for you? Do you ever feel it might be a limitation to pre-exclude people you initially dislike? Is it possible that through the process of documenting them, you might come to like them? Does that thought interest you?

  • David Isay says:
    im back…

    Apologies for my absence…. Things seem a little slow on here too- all you lurkers please write…. If you have any specific questions about stuff that happened in different stories blah blah speak now- i suspect our time here is soon to end.. OK, some answers:
    kerry#45- yes, it’s lack of time. I listen to Democracy Now in the morning when I can and that’s about it at this point. I do, though, try to listen on CD to stuff that I hear is excellent for inspiration.. So, for example, I got my hands on Alex Kotlowitz’s last series (i hear his new one is even better) and listened at the gym while punk’d played on the tv (great contrast). This simple, new style he + his producer Amy have come up with is brilliant (I think some of the material is on transom). I’m anxious to hear their new series on love.
    kalpana- thank you.. matt was really psyched as well.. your dad was storycorps subject #4 or #5- can’t tell you how helpul it was to have you in. thank you!!!!!
    jackson#49- yes for sure i have lists of oral histories i want to get done in the booth… after hours… with one of us doing the interviewing… then the booth is just a centrally located, comfortable 24-hour sound proof studio… im sort of quiet about that because i want to let it sink in that the main purpose is for people to talk to each other.. but, for example, if a great character comes in with his or her brother of kid ort whatever, we might invite them to come back to do a more directed sort of interview (directed towards getting a broadcastable story with a beginning middle and end) (ah i see david reville wrote the same thing- good!)
    bonnie- ooh i love that one sentence a day idea- so smart & useful & time effective!
    andrea- what a great question.. in my experience, it isn’t the case.. when you’re sitting and talking to people and have that laser-beam connection thing going, then they’re just them. the stuff we do, it’s about people who don’t care about or think about or want to be famous for the most part- so i think you get a very different sort of interview (for that and many other reasons) than you get on the reality shows…. also, 90% of the people we talk to don’t listen to public radio and 99.99% never heard of Sound Portraits (just about the national average).. I will send potential subjects CDs of our stuff without hesitation- because they’ll be hearing interviews which are, i think, heartfelt and not selfconscious and hopefully whatever weird media signals they’ve gotten from elsewhere will get wiped out and they’ll pattern themselves after the interviews they hear in our stories (does that make sense?)
    sydney- great question.. for the typical spp piece, as i’ve said many times, we think of the subjects as part of the ever growing sound portraits family and try to stay in their lives and keep them in ours (part of why milton is such a hero to us- the incredible longitutdianl reach of his connections).. With storycorps, we’re not going to be able to do that in the same way, but are focused on making it as personal we can (for example having facilitators call their subjects after the interview to talk about what happened) and hopefully the connection between the interveiwer and interviewee will be the new bond that is made and strengthened through the years
    amy- jesus too many good questions. im getting repetitive stress here…i think this one may be too hard to answer coherently…. let me think and come back to it and the other questions that follow….

    thanks all posters…
    for all the rest- don’t be shy- write!!!

    best,
    d

  • David Isay says:
    here we go again…

    amy- i think stories should be told in the best way they can be told- and can be told in different media to a cool effect… miltons story wasn’t a radio documentary to me- it was an audio tour and a book and snippets of sound that could be included in a 2-way with scott simon- so that was the way to go: always tell the story the best way it can be told (yes i realize this wasn’t your question).. ok let me try again: we have public premieres when we have a new radio piece , and there’s an ongoing debate about whether to put pictures (slide shows) with the sound… i guess i tend to go with the slideshow (others feel really strongly against) because i figure if people just want to go for the radio thing they can close their eyes(once again- that wasn’t your question).. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeing a picture of the person you’re hearing- i think it adds to the story- but I’ve run around lecturing for years about how you don’t have preconceived notions when you just hear peoples voices and how great that is.. So I guess I’m just confused… ok how’s this: we take pictures with stories.. the pictures present our subjects in a dignified way, as do our radio stories ( I hope).. They’re sort of like illustrations with a magazine article or the little glossy pages in the middle of a non-fiction book. I like book with pictures.. : if you feel like putting a picture with a radio story, you should. If you don’t you shouldn’t. That’s probably the rule I follow.
    jay- another great question.. i think my comment was a simplification (that’s a specialty).. i don’t love everyone we have in pieces- i just try not to do crucification / mock-people pieces (at least so far)- that doesn’t sound fun to me.. A lot of the fun for me is the pleasure subjects get out of their own stories…. There are people we do stories about or with who become huge pains in the ass; and others we get closer too… Since I basically like most people i think (especially ones that can help make stories better), there are very few i’d pre-exclude…

    keep ‘em coming!
    d

  • Jackson says:
    Another take on Jay’s question

    One part of what Jay’s asking — what to do when not liking the person on the business end of the mic. Back in print days, I was asked to do a story about an album dedicated to new guitar concertos. All was fine until I actually heard the pieces — each of which was miserable, but in its peculiar way.

    So, like any pro, I suddenly felt as if I were being asked to write a puff piece. What’s more, I felt as if the guitarist who recorded the album were trying to tell me what to write. Whose story is it, anyway?

    Which leads me back to the story booth. We all feel we’re the humble, honest conduits of another’s tales. But somewhere in there is a selection process, an editorial process, a mixing and production process. And what comes out at the other end is…

    So, whose story is it, anyway?

  • Bonnie Primbsch says:
    disliking your subject

    At my station, I’m in the odd position of training-up new interviewers, (though my experience isn’t that far ahead of theirs), and we wind up figuring how to conduct (live) interviews together. For the book/author interviewers, this comes up now & then, this disliking of subject matter. A book sounds interesting, we book the interview–and then the interviewer reads the book & doesn’t like it. Most of the time, it’s a lovely exercise in expansive & generous consideration of another human being & their efforts–the interviewer finds something to enjoy about the book & focuses on that in the interview.

    But one time, one of the newer interviewers, a salty 60’s pro-woman woman, got herself locked into interviewing an author about this thick, thick tome he had written, about how awful the white people are & always have been. Normally, they would have been in agreement about this. But the material stuck in my interviewer’s craw because she felt "Ugh I know already that we’ve been awful, where’s the hope here?" And because he wrote it with the conviction of someone who had *just figured this out*, who had discovered it for the whole world & was breakingthe bad news. To make matters worse, the guy turned out to have the dewiest, freshest youthful face (imagine Frodo) though he was actually 40, which for some reason was another slap at my interviewer’s experience & liberal education. Whatthe hell did *this* kid know?

    She tried to restrain heself, but she was like a testy cat with a twitching tail, slipped into being quarrelsome, and got into the thick of some obscure tangent when time was up, interview over, sort of halfway through an argument. It made for some pretty weird radio, & I never ran the interview.

    Somewhere in there, there’s a lesson about channeling disagreement into lively discussion; but I think it involves being able to get past the strong feeling you have for your subject.

    Which leads me to the warning about not letting our like/appreciation/love for the subject carry the treatment of our pieces, either.

    In an interview, this is easy: throw in some devil’s advocate questions into the conversation, challenge your guest a little. But I’m just getting into more produced, character pieces, and I wonder if I’m letting my affection for most of my subjects get in the way of bringing out the strongest pieces I can. I’d be interested in hearing about how challenge/conflict/fly in the honey type stuff can be brought into a piece effectively. Is it easier when there’s no narration, no voiceover commentary?

  • Daniel Costello says:
    Finding interviewees

    I’ve been doing some re-istening to older pieces on your web site, and I am interested in your process for getting interviewees for your projects. How do you find/contact them in the first place, how do you choose who you want to interview from those people, and then how do you get them to agree to an interview? One I am thinking of specifically is Witness to an Execution. I am amazed that you were able to get so many people from such an infamous prison to talk when the governor of that state was running for president. Were there a good number of people that you wanted to talk to who were reluctant or completely unwilling? Is there a tremendous amount of work in that area, particularly when dealing with a prison? Is there bureaucratic resistance? I have an idea for a story about a man who has been in prison since 1946 when he was 17, but I have no idea about how to approach him or the prison. Is it possible to record in prisons, and is it a long process to obtain permission? Daniel Costello

  • Andy Knight says:

    Another question re: Witness to an Execution.

    If I remember correctly, you had to jump over NPR and distribute this yourself. First, what did you use to replace the NPR distribution infrastructure? Second, how did you manage to get so many stations to cooperate?

  • Nubar says:
    Jay’s Question

    In my work it’s also more fun working with subjects I like. It’s important, in part, because I need to connect with them in some way in order to produce photographs I care about. However, as I look back, I have the sense that though these stories have been more fun, I often learn more from people who are less like me, and even people I wouldn”t have a beer with. To push this further, I’m embarking on a short film in which I’ll be interviewing mostly people whose political points of view I find irritating. Why? Not to make fun of them, or slam them. But the country we live in is way more conservative than I am. And I don’t know anything about these people. What is a conservative republican anyway? I have no idea, except that I have strong feelings about how harmful their beliefs can be. So I guess it’s a quest toward understanding. I wonder whether you’ve thought about doing stories with people in this manner as well David.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    idiot stance

    I’ve done a bunch of oral history interviews and I’m thinking on Bonnie’s concerns. I think it’s important to keep a crazy balancing act of distance and empathy going in the interview process whether you like or dislike the person. If you’re too in synch, it’s easy to fall into an agreeable conversation and lose the questioning edge –– in Nubar’s words, “the quest toward understanding.” It’s only human to want to be liked, and to want to like, but it’s not always useful in the interviewing process. I try to be a space alien idiot: I know nothing, help me understand…. I fail, but that’s what I’m going for.

    Where liking or not liking really enters in, though, is in a produced piece, whether audio, visual, or print-al. If you like too much, as Bonnie points out, the work can suffer softballitis. I don’t think it matters that much whether there’s narrative, voiceover or not in terms of easier or more difficult. It’s the choices you make that call that tune. You can underscore with whatever you layer in, and how you frame, but what you choose to use from the interviewee/subject is key.

  • Nubar says:
    Syd

    I understand what you mean when you ask people to help you understand something in the interview process. But I"m referring to the notion that we often work with subjects that are within our reach (or just outside our reach), subjects who represent the logical next step in our work. In these times, perhaps we should be casting out further than we are used to, at least in terms of subject matter and who we are engaging. Does this make any sense?

  • Jackson says:
    Softballitis…

    (Note: Nubar was writing just as I was writing and posted first. It’s not that I am ignoring him; I was just responding more directly to Sydney).

    I don’t think that’s a concern here. My sense is that the storybooth interviews and the Storycorps stuff do not entail what the President knew and when did he know it.

    How can you like a story "too much"? I personally think that the beautiful thing about all that is going to happen here is that a bunch of interviewing nutcases are going to go out into the world like a bunch of Margaret Meades and discover innumerable points of contact and connection. My guess is that if, in the scale of liking "too much" (is that like going native?), one discovers part of the story is actually told through one’s own lips, that is fascinatingly good, no?

  • Bonnie Primbsch says:
    What is a conservative republican anyway?

    Recently tried to get a show going between Mother Jones columnist George Packer on idealism in current conservative circles & someone from the local Republican party. I had to leave a message on the local Repub party machine asking if they’d like to participate–& they are such a foreign species to me that I wasn’t sure how to word my message. I have a funny feeling I sounded like: "uhh, you guys are black? And we’re doing a show about black people? SO I was wondering if you wanted to be on the show?"

    They didn’t call me back.

  • Jackson says:
    The Peter Principle in Interviewing

    There are people who have areas of expertise — science correspondents, say. We see them as translators (interpretive dancers, if you want) between different realms of human experience. And then there are people who don’t understand, but who really want to.

    Unless it’s a prosecutorial interview — "Herr Doktor Rumsfeld, please take the stand" — I think that in the main we are largely from the second bunch here. If I know your story, I have less reason to ask about it than if I don’t know your story. Something in your person (the hat, the fan, the inexplicable fondness for Procol Harum) has led me to glom onto you.

    Surely my task as interviewer and medium is to find out why.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    to jackson

    what I mean, really, is that when you get into too sympatico a mindset, it’s easy to start assuming you "get" what the other person is saying and that makes you less curious, because you’re so cosy.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    wide lens nubar

    Absolutely making sense, you are. We should cast our butts way far from where we stand, because it’s good for us, and makes us work harder and hopefully add more to the culture/news/wisdom pot. Some of us are lazy and go to the beach instead.

  • Jay Allison says:
    the Month

    We’re near the end of Sound Portraits Month here on Transom. I want to thank Dave and the Team for all their thoughtful and encouraging words, and their important work. Feel free to keep musing in their topic, and we welcome the SP team to continue dropping by as long as they like. Look for the downloadable Transom Review issue shortly.

  • David Isay says:
    one last post…

    Just wanted to respond to some of the final questions before we’re booted off here. Thanks all for participating.. Always remember: try to do good stuff, stuff you care about.. ….

    OK, let’s see what we’ve got..
    jackson/66- if the album sucked, that’s what you should write.
    bonnie/67- conflict and uncomfortable moments can make for the best radio (did anyone ever hear amy goodman on the air when pacifica was taken over by all those loosers a few years ago?) – that salty interview could have been more interesting than others.. conflict makes for good radio (maybe even the best radio)…
    Daniel- just ask. really, that’s it. for witness, no one turned us down i don’t think and everyone thrilled to talk- no one had asked them before.. call the prison and ask, call the inmate and ask. that’s it- very simple. good luck!
    Andy- Witness ran on NPR- it was another series called "Execution Tapes" that we jumped with. it’s kind of a long story, but i think if you go to the Current web site there’s probably an article about what happened.
    Nubar- Thanks for writing.. I have no problem doing stories with people I wouldn’t have a beer with- in fact, I was thinking about that a bit after having lunch with someone today who i did a story with when he was in a hospital for the criminally insane ( i always liked him, but some others scared me) … plenty of people very different than me- the cool thing is when you get to see shared humanity with folks who are so different and build bridges through the documentary work.. as long as you treat subjects with dignity, as you well know, you’re on solid ground.
    Syndey- All good points. But you have to be honest with your subjects.. If you’re going to slam them in your piece (i think ) you should let them know where you’re coming from. try not to lie. ever.

    and with that, i’ll say goodbye. and good luck. thanks everybody!!!
    all best,
    d

  • David Isay says:
    addendum

    oh yeah- one more thing. jay, transom- you are AWESOME. your passion and commitment and spirit blow me away. keep fighting the good fight- always!

    gratefully,
    dave (and i know i speak for the rest of the crew at SPP as well)

  • Daniel Costello says:
    Execution Tapes article

    Andy and anyone else interested:

    The article on the Execution Tapes is here:
    http://www.current.org/radio/radio0109execute.html

    Daniel Costello

  • Bridget Crawford says:
    I’m a gifted listener!
  • Bridget Crawford says:
    Volunteer Opportunities for the Gifted Listener?

    StoryCorp – what an incredible idea! Can I volunteer to help with this project? I’m sure financial support would be appreciated but unfortunately as a teacher and actor – what I have to donate will not accomplish much. However, the concept of storytelling as a medium capable of promoting social change along with granting some dignity to many deserving people who don’t frequently get it makes me want to donate my services at absolutely no charge! My own personal story is one of an actor who was drawn to the art of storytelling because it seemed to be the best way of validating the human experience. Disenchanted with the realm of commercial theatre and skeptical of the arrogant assumption that an actor or playwright can tell a story in a more profound way than the person who experienced it, I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of facilitating the telling of other peoples stories rather than telling them myself. So I’d love an opportunity to intern or volunteer on this project in whatever capacity possible. Who should I contact for more information?
    Thank you.
    Bridget Crawford
    flamebrain1@yahoo.com

  • Joe Orozco says:
    How are they doing today?

    I just finished reading "Our America" and was amazed at the frankness and power of it. I was wondering how and where LeAlan and Lloyd are today. Did Lloyd graduate from high school, go onto higher education? How did LeAlan do at Florida State. If you have the time I’d like to know as much about these two individual’s lives today as possible.

    I’d like to say thanks to everyone involved with this book for a powerful potrait of an America I haven’t seen.

    Joe Orozco

  • Maureen McNey says:
    Wonderful idea!

    I love this idea! My father is 78 with a heart condition, I am driving to Cleveland to see him and interview him on videotape. I thought it would be so important to have after he passed. I will ask all of the questions that the great-grandchildren would want to know. I have never met my grandparents and have seen only two pictures of them. I would of loved to hear their voices. I think what you are doing is admirable. A gift of love.

  • Kaui Trainer says:
    Hawaii

    We have such a diversified community here that it would be marvelous to have one of your "booths" here. Perhaps you could connect with a program out of University of Hawaii called the Oral History Project. With the history of the Pacific Islanders and their affection for "talk story", the plantation years, the annexation, the Pearl Harbour experience, the Hawaiian Rennaisance…there is so much that would be fantastic to hear and record. I would be very interested in finding out more about your project and how it could be duplicated in the islands. Mahalo nui loa me ka ha’aha’a,
    Kau’ilanimakanaonakupunaaloha Trainer

  • Aaron-Micheal Blackman says:
    Hey i read your book "Our America"

    Hey whats up well anyway i just finished reading your book i few minutes ago and when i couldn’t find the website at first and googled u guys so i hope dis is the right people. I just wanna say i think what you Lealan and Lloyd did is really tight. Im 13 and an African American to but i dont live in the ghetto or the hood i live in the suburbs and go to a private school. But i do go I have gone to some summer camps with the people from the ghetto and i kinda know what ur talkin about but not really because ive never actually been down in the ‘hood before. Any way i just wanted to congradulate Lealan and Loyd for what they did and what there still doin and hope they made it out of the ‘hood by now its the year 2005 March 17th and there probably 25 or 26 now so yeah i really hope they made it i was never there but i can tell its really bad i think i almost cried while i was readin the book cause i was thinkin about how bad it would be if my litlle brother died or if my parents weren’t as supportive as they were and just thinkin about it almost made cry so yeah i can’t actually imagine living it. but yeah i really hold school high on my list of important things and ur book just reinforces it so im just gonna keep trying to get learn more and more like i been doing well thats really all i got to say right now
    Peace out.
    -Aaron-Micheal Blackman
    Post Script
    if you get this e-mail me back sometime if at all possible cause you probably get lots of e-mails and i also kinda doubt the website is still used alot but i hope so bye

  • Herb Malsman says:
    Grand Central Station?

    Dear David,

    I’m looking forward to listening to your PRX "StoryCorps essays recorded in Grand Central Station." pieces. But, I would like to pass on a bit of info to you. If, when you call the terminal, "Grand Central Station" in the title, you are saying you recorded these pieces in the numerous subway "stations" beneath the facility…your title is correct. If however, you created these pieces within the main structure of Grand Central…it is properly called "Grand Central Terminal."

    Herb Malsman

  • sherry purdom says:
    A huge blue-grass Kentucky Thank You!

    Dave:

    I received a hand signed letter from you today for the StoryCorps participation. My grandmother, Helen Orene Smith Newsome, 97, and me, 41,(her granddaughter) Sherry Newsome Purdom, were able to be a part of American Heritage during StoryCorps visit to Murray, Kentucky.

    What a moving, emotional, and inspiring experience. Our family feels blessed that we now have granmother’s story recorded. We just finished copying 20 CD’s of her story that she is sending as Christmas gifts to her family. In addition to being blessed with this gift, it is a blessing that grandmother is still with us in perfect mind and body. She continuously wonders why she is still here….there are times I truly believe she feels all her loved ones are in Heaven without her and she feels left out of Heaven’s circle. A writer myself, she finally told me not long ago she knows why she is still here…"You’re going to tell my story!" What a compliment…I had already began the process when my childhood friend, illustrated the story "Aunt Jessie’s Magic Ketchup," a fictional book that focuses on the wonderful relationship my grandmother shared with my late Great Aunt Jessie, my grandfather’s sister. Published last December by Authorhouse, the book is my gift of authoring a fictional story of inspiration that they provided to me and people who never even knew them, but were equally experiencing the Kentucky hometown life that we all share! My grandfather and Aunt Jessie are now in Heaven. Through this book and Story Corps a seed has been planted with many of the great Kentucky childhood home experiences that truly define: "Home is not a place….it’s where your heart is1"

    Sending a huge blue-grass Kentucky Thank You for pioneering this project! Additionally, thanks for hand signing your letter that will be placed with our StoryCorps archival support information.

    Sincerely,
    Helen Orene Smith Newsome, 97
    Sherry Newsome Purdom, 41

  • Jay Allison says:
    Interview Question List

    As part of the Storycorps project on NPR, there’s a wonderful list of questions from a kid named Josh for his interview with his mother.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5285066

  • Michelle N says:
    WE LOVE YOU DAVE, PLEASE COME BACK !!!!!

    Dear Dave Isay,
    Please Come Back, We Just Love You So! I’m crying over you.

  • Michelle N says:
    Jay, That’s Very Nice….WOW!!!!!

    WOW, Nice Picture and Bio Jay.