Prostate Diaries

CROPPED-Prostate-Diaries

Intro from Jay Allison: If this piece were about blood or bones or lungs, it would have aired on NPR. But because it is about the prostate, and includes a talking penis, it presented problems for broadcast. There’s no equal time for body parts.Barrett Golding of Hearing Voices asked us if we at Transom would be interested. Yes. Cancer is cancer and it makes sense to talk about it openly and personally, wherever in the body it occurs. The piece also presents complex challenges of interest to radio producers. It is based on a stage presentation written by the patient himself, Jeff Metcalf, and performed by Paul Kiernan. It was recorded and produced for radio by the estimable Scott Carrier and Larry Massett. They are present on Transom to talk about this work, its style and content.

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About The Prostate Diaries:

From Jeff Metcalf

A man walks into a doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor says, “You look good. Your heart sounds strong, lungs are clear, urine sample is clean but this next part will be a bit uncomfortable. You want to drop your pants and bend over the table so I can do a digital exam of your prostate? You might feel a slight discomfort.” And, honest to God, I start to laugh because I’m thinking why the hell would anybody stick a digital camera up my ass? All seriousness aside, in 2004 I had a physical that would change my life in ways I could not have expected. I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling very healthy. Four days later, in a phone call to the doctor, I was told my PSA levels were high, very high. Like millions of men all over the world, I had no idea what that meant. I knew this… it couldn’t be good. The doctor’s voice cracked. He suggested that I get a biopsy and talk to my wife. I asked him if I had cancer and he said that he didn’t know but the biopsy would be definitive.

Jeff Metcalf and family
Jeff Metcalf and family

I was about to leave to teach a course in creative writing in Provence, France and then attend a theater conference in Croatia. I’d do the biopsy when I returned. Until then, I’d keep quiet. This was probably one of the most stupid things I’ve done in my entire married life. And there have been many.

While I was traveling abroad, I kept a diary about my feelings. My notes were dark and angry. On my return to the states I was invited to do a reading with several other authors at a venue called City Art. I brought a short story I’d written in Provence and three days of my diary notes that I somehow felt should be read in front of an audience. I was uncertain and uncomfortable about reading from the diary. It was too revealing… too close to the bone. I almost backed out, but didn’t.

The reading changed the course of my life. A director was in the audience and commissioned me to write a full-length play for a local theater. The play ran to sold out crowds every night. A Peabody Award winning journalist asked me to make a radio play about the experience and we did. And, a four-time Emmy award winning filmmaker who was also in the audience offered to make a DVD of the reading if I was interested. His father had died of prostate cancer. This meant something to him. We made the DVD. It is wild and crazy… unrehearsed… insulting to the medical community and almost every institution we hold sacred. It became, in a sense, the framework for the play.

A play about cancer with a talking penis, my mother-in-law and Death (with beautifully capped teeth) is not the play I wanted to write. And yet… here it is doing something important. “A Slight Discomfort” is putting the second leading cause of death for men onstage and bullying it around. It has sharp edges and can cut. And my health? I’ll say this: I’m in trouble. I’m in a knife fight with this psychotic disease. It ain’t over yet and the fat lady hasn’t sung. But every once in a while I can hear her warming her vocals up. She’s got a nice voice. I am still above ground and this is good. I like it here. I pay attention. I don’t miss anything.

From Scott Carrier

Paul Kiernan in Jeff Metcalf's 'A Slight Discomfort'
Paul Kiernan in Jeff Metcalf’s ‘A Slight Discomfort’

I’m not a theater buff or goer. I admit that the theater experience can be perhaps the most amazing art form. I have been blown away. But I have also been in the room of failure. And I have been the object of said failure. So I don’t go, very much.

I went to see Metcalf’s play because I think he writes about living in Salt Lake City as well as anyone ever has, and I thought it might be about living in Salt Lake City. I don’t think I even knew what it was about. I may not even have known he had cancer. I’d been kind of out of the loop for a few years.

It was a premier, an experiment for Metcalf and the Salt Lake Acting Company to see what the thing looked like on stage. I arrived twenty minutes early to find the theater already full, so I went downstairs to the over-flow seating where everybody was watching it on tv, but that was full as well, so I sat in the hallway on the floor and listened. I heard it as a radio play. A story about courage. It scared the hell out of me while making me laugh and then slapped me in the face. It wasn’t about Salt Lake City at all. It was about that thing most intimate and frightening to a man, the thing I can not even mention now. Metcalf wrote about it and confessed everything to all men, and women. And in the end he still had cancer. I was blown away. I told Metcalf we should do it for the radio, and he said yes in about a second.

From Larry Massett

When Scott Carrier told me he had a 90-minute tape of some guy talking about prostate cancer I promised to listen to it right away. Meaning, when hell froze over. Never mind the topic, the trouble was the length. Even if it could be cut to an hour, the rule is nobody listens to a single piece that long.

At some point, nonetheless, I decided to trot through the first five minutes, just so I could tell Scott why it would never work. To my surprise I was still listening at ten minutes, then twenty minutes, then… good grief, an hour and a half. Without pause, without a single moment of tedium. Here was a suspenseful story brilliantly told, moving and funny. An exception to the rule.

Trimming it to a HearingVoices hour was easy. The play opens with some noodling which, I guess, works to settle down a theatre audience. Radio wants to grab you by the throat in the first few minutes before you walk away.

The real question was the music. I’d broken the story into scenes — no doubt five to eight minutes each, the usual attention span for public radio. They’d need music to separate them, but what? Since it’s all one story, the music should be all of a piece too. Barrett Golding suggested I compose music, but what sprang to mind was a CD by the Romanian band Parazitii. Lord knows how something that obscure springs to mind, but it worked; I chopped up phrases and rhythms and processed them and made new music out of them. And the music seemed to work, not just as filler but as a constant presence. So from being a theatre piece it became a sort of radio opera.

From Barrett Golding

Once Larry finished producing, and our engineer, Robin Wise, did her usual mix magic, it was time to schedule the program in the weekly Hearing Voices from NPR series. NPR trusts us not to sully the airwaves of their member stations. Never before had we run anything by them, we’d just surgically bleeped a few sensitive terms. But this hour went beyond bleepablity. Some stations run us in the early morning. I wasn’t sure they wanted their listeners waking up to a Talking Penis. So I sent the show off to NPR.

NPR legal had problems with numerous parts, both linguistic and anatomical. Were “Slight Discomfort” aired in the Supreme Court set-aside “safe-harbor” hours (after 10 p.m.), less stations would have less issues. But HV stations air us at all times. My solution was to pull the program from our weekly series, and offer it as a special via PRX, with a “Warning: Sensitive Language” — and just one bleep, over a “bullshit.” I then called the good folks at this site to see if they’d spread the word. So here we are at Transom, public radio’s home for promising but problematic pieces.


Additional Support for this work provided by
National Endowment for the Arts logo

Larry Massett

About
Larry Massett

Larry Massett is co-founder of the documentary series SoundPrint. He produced the Armstrong award-winning series The Challenge of China and Japan for the Annenberg/CPB Global Understanding Project. He has won an American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Award. He was previously an editor at Science News Magazine and The Washingtonian, and authored the Whitney Museum’s Centennial Exhibit audio tour.

Jeff Metcalf

About
Jeff Metcalf

Jeff Metcalf has received fifteen teaching awards over his long career teaching literature and creative writing in Utah, including a Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education and a NCTE/UCTE Outstanding Educator Award. Currently Professor of English at the University of Utah, Jeff is a widely published writer of essays, drama, and fiction, with work appearing in Bloomsbury Review, Western Humanities Review, English Journal, and Salt Lake Magazine, and commissioned by the Salt Lake Acting Company. Jeff has a Bachelors in English and Masters in Education from the University of Utah.

Scott Carrier

About
Scott Carrier

Scott Carrier, author, photographer, professor, and radio producer; among the places to hear and read his works: This American Life, Harper's Magazine, NPR, Mother Jones, and Esquire. Scott was also the first Mentor for our Transom Online Workshop.

Barrett Golding

About
Barrett Golding

Barrett makes radio and web work. He is Fearless Leader of the Peabody Award-winning pubradio series Hearing Voices from NPR and a United States Artists Rasmuson Fellow in Media. He was General Manager of KGLT-Bozeman and an NPR Audio Engineer in DC. Other accolades include: the NFCB Silver Reel, the Scripps Howard Award for Journalism Excellence, the ABA Gavel Award, Harvestworks Artist-in-Residence, Montana Arts Council Fellowship, and grants from CPB, NEA, Rockefeller and Andy Warhol Foundations. He is a 35-year volunteer DJ/producer at kick-ass KGLT.

Paul Kiernan

About
Paul Kiernan

Paul Kiernan is a proud member of the Actor's Equity Association. He played Jeff in the world premier of A Slight Discomfort at the Salt Lake Acting Company. Paul received his MFA from Brandeis University. He spent 9 years as a performer, writer and director with the Walt Disney World Co. He has acted regionally across the country some favorite shows include Cyrano, 12th Night, Skin in Flames, Freedomland and Much Ado about Nothing. He can also be seen in film and television, favorites include; The HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, Disney's The Luck of the Irish and Little Secrets. As a playwright his work has been produced in Florida, Michigan, New York City and Boston. He is currently working on End Days with the Salt Lake Acting Company.

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  • beedge

    2.05.09

    Reply
    Cutting-Edge Radio

    Some notes on how close I came to crippling this piece:

    NPR sent back an annotated script highlighting phrases and some whole scenes needing removal, along with specific reasons why each needed extraction. (They also specifically stated we could not share either the annotations or the reasonings with the public or public radio stations — lawyers’ missions are to protect clients, not educate populace).

    The NPR lawyer told us he’d listened several times to the whole hour, and really liked it. He understood completely its educational, medical, and emotional value.

    Prudishness, by the way, was not the problem. That same week these same NPR folk had approved a "shit" on All Things Considered, and a "brick up your ass" on Fresh Air.

    Bottom line: the person who brought HV into NPR, their Director of Programming and Acquisitions, is someone we trust. And he trusts this NPR lawyer. So the suit gets our benefit-of-doubt.

    I then executively decided to cut the living crap out of the piece, so it could air. But before I unsheathed Pro Tools’ slicing knives, I thought I’d listen once more, so I’d know what I was butchering.

    The very first cut came at 3:30: During a rectal exam, Jeff joked, "Quick question, Doc? Both of your hands aren’t on my shoulders, are they?"

    Silly, so easily edited out, right? Wrong. See, Jeff had made it a goal to get a laugh out of this young, very serious M.D.. If I took out this line, subsequent much funnier ones would lose impact. The scene would diminish, as would upcoming scenes dependent on this one’s set-up. That’s what good art does, build grandiose stairways out of simple individual steps. I realized then I wasn’t cutting a thing.

    I enjoyed the rest of the hour, listening outside in the sun, then called Jeff to tell him what a grand story and structure he’d composed.

  • John Voci

    2.06.09

    Reply
    Amen

    As a prostate cancer survivor, Jeff’s story brought back many experiences as well as a few laughs and memories of the fear. A day does not pass without thinking about the disease and the impact that it’s had. Jeff’s story is one that needs to be told as one in six men will get this disease and, as Jeff states, we tend not to talk about it. So, thanks for speaking-up. I hope everyone will share this with other men.
    John Voci

  • EricaHeilman

    2.08.09

    Reply
    beautifully translated…

    I’ve just finished listening to the full story. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard before. I didn’t know til the end that Jeff and Paul performed this, and it struck me then how much it MIGHT have sounded like, well, a recording of a one man show. And it doesn’t. It’s such great RADIO.

    If I understand you right Barrett, you’re not able to state the reasons NPR wouldn’t air this story..but you’re able to say which were NOT the reasons? If it’s not prudishness…and if it’s not profanity…then what could be the reason? does it come down to the talking penis? Is there a secret talking penis rule at NPR?

    I think this story would be INHALED by anyone who has lived through a bout with cancer, or loves someone who has.

    Thanks thanks for sharing it here.

    erica heilman

  • beedge

    2.14.09

    Reply

    Pontificating Penises are definitely near top NPR’s unwritten list of un-broadcast-ables. Among the other utterances they wanted out:
    "The Boner Factor."
    "Scooping out your nuts…"
    "Honey…please, you’re humping the sideboard."

    Not to mention the entire scene of "a transrectal biopsy that requires you to cram a spring-loaded gun with a razor blade up my ass and slice some samples out of my prostate."

    The prob was not so much FCC law as station, and listener, sensibilities.

  • Rogi Riverstone

    3.08.09

    Reply
    Maybe NPR’s refusal is a compliment?
  • Rogi Riverstone

    3.08.09

    Reply
    Here’s the REST of what I tried to post! glitches…

    Larry Massett said, "the rule is nobody listens to a single piece that long." Yeah, well, KUNM has an hour call in show; the lines are always full when time runs out. They broadcast specials on Sunday mornings, and actually prefer 1/2 to 1 hr pieces — not to fill air, but because our listeners like hearing things in depth. We’ve run Radio Theatre, one of the LAST venues for original plays, for years and have no intentions of losing it, because it’s so appreciated. Every documentary I do for Sunday Specials is an hour: how should I discuss Native American Veterans with PTSD, brain injury or the lives of a single mom and her two developmentally and physically challenged daughters with the intimacy and focus on healing these subjects deserve if I don’t allow the listeners time to absorb the content? Maybe commercial radio and, more insidiously, TELEVISION, have so corrupted not the audience attention span, but the MINDSETS of PRODUCERS that the latter can no longer conceive of life as more than a sound bite and an Arbitron rating.

    There was a time in my life when I aspired to be "as good as NPR." When it comes to skill, technique, richness of sound and just plain quality of broadcast, that will always be true — unless NPR finally and totally loses its collective mind.

    But I came to community radio through KPFK. Ok, sure, sometimes it’s polemic, strident, some might even say paranoid and delusional, at times. It can be technically sloppy. It can be one-sided (but, after the invasion of Iraq, and NPR’s "coverage," well, speaking of "sloppy!"). But one thing about KPFK was that it was sincere, usually. I cut my teeth on sincere broadcasting, and that will always resonate with me. NPR’s self conscious quirky/cutesy tendencies sometimes make me want to slap Scott Simon with Leanne Hansen or is it the other way around?

    I’m a woman. I know the shock & awe of the stirruped nether regions. I also know a good rack (of lamb) when I see one. I also know a little about women’s liberation, pansexuality and the deformity of culture through unnatural gender roles.

    More men need to speak like this. ALL men, AND women, need to HEAR men speaking like this. If beltway dainty NPR can’t listen to this, that says something profound and frightening about NPR. ‘course, after eight years of an administration which treated everything honest, sincere and real in the world with contempt, I wonder if I can blame them for their timidity. Maybe things will lighten up for awhile now.

    If it were customary in our culture to speak of our bodies and their amusements and frailties with this sort of honesty, we wouldn’t live in a world of Seven Deadly Words. If we loved ourselves, nothing about our bodies would be "dirty." Messy, yes, and smelly and often sticky, but not dirty.

    They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Imagine: if we could speak openly about our bodies, how many men wouldn’t needlessly die of prostate cancer, or women of breast and ovarian cancer, because they were too "ashamed" and afraid to seek treatment?

    Isn’t it ironic that it is those who’ve nearly died of disease who often have the most healthy perspective on their bodies?

    Yeah, hot flashes, dude. Men THINK they’re tough. One hot flash, and that’s all over. Try losing a pregnancy. "Women are not afraid to talk about their bodies." Well, most of us don’t know what our genitals look like. Too many of us have never experienced orgasm. A lot of us don’t know what a clitoris is, and quite a few of us who DO know only know because the culture we live in expects us to cut it off. No, dude, you do NOT know a woman’s experience. Buying shoes is not hormonal; it’s a symptom of women’s feelings of powerlessness. But we do talk with each other, apparently, a lot more often than you dudes do about stuff that’s real.

    I’m going to leave this page, copy and paste the URL for this show and post it to the KUNM Ideas List, in hopes we might find a way to broadcast this, maybe as Radio Theatre. ‘course, people would probably like to get PAID to have this air on our station, and we don’t have a budget for either Sunday Specials or Radio Theatre, so it’s probably a moot point.

    The music was awesome!

    Don’t stop doing real radio, no matter how many rejections you get. You’re good at it.

  • Rogi Riverstone

    3.08.09

    Reply
    FOX tv airs Southpark

    THEY have a talking TURD! And it’s creepy, but it sounds a little like too much like the talking penis, for my tastes. It CAN’t be an actual FCC thing!

    Now, I’ve got to find out who said "Brick up the ass" on Fresh Air!

  • beedge

    3.09.09

    Reply
    FCC and PDs

    Rogi, it IS the FCC. And it’s the sensitivity of stations to what MIGHT be an FCC ruling.

    As you may know, FCC indecency fines the last few years have been more frequent, more expensive, and more incomprehensible. WFMU’s blog maintains an FCC watch of the their accusations and subsequent up-to Supreme Court battles.

    No lawyer, and certainly no station program director, can state definitely what is and isn’t FCC-safe. A single FCC fine, even if set aside later in court, can amass legal fees which could bring down a small station, or one financially unstable (ie, most of ’em).

    So stations PDs, often not a extremely adventurous bunch anyway, have for a decade(s) erred on side of caution. Why should they let one show bankrupt their station?

    This play-it-safe phenom is not just an NPR thing. It’s a community and university and Pacifica and NPR and public radio thing. Listen to any shock-jock comm-radio show: every morning you’ll hear them goad and push and stretch what’s allowed on radio — and make a good living out of it. Listen to pubradio and you’ll hear mostly safe.

    Even tho Prostate Diaries was featured on the front of PRX and of Transom and in both their newsletters, the only station to air it is KGLT-Bozeman, mainly cuz I do a volunteer show there. To be fair tho, I haven’t really marketed the hour as a special yet. I’ll send out a notice to stations and we’ll see if any step up.

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