Intro from Jay Allison: This is a story of co-workers who became friends and when their job wound down (with StoryCorps), they didn’t want to stop working together. So they formed an imaginative collective under the moniker “The Recollective” and began to make things. This is another of Transom’s Donor Fund projects and we admire the spirit of the thing. It’s a web/radio love song to the music of Buffalo, NY, but more than that, it’s a testament to directed collaborative creative energy, employing what they call “delicious breeze / kung fu grip.” These are all new producers and we’ll be hearing more from them. The Recollective - Nina Porzucki, Jeremy Helton, Whitney Henry-Lester, Chaela Herridge-Meyer, and Carl Scott - write about how they moved from an idea to a project, and what they want to do next.
In the Beginning
Three years ago Jeremy Helton, Whitney Henry-Lester, Chaela Herridge-Meyer, Carl Scott and I met in a basement in Brooklyn. We had been hired by the oral history project StoryCorps as “mobile facilitators,” which meant that for the next year we would be living on the road recording stories in an Airstream trailer. But that morning during orientation as I sat in my plastic chair and stared quietly at each stranger who I would be spending my next year with, I thought to myself, please, please, let us be friends.
When you live and work and socialize with the same people month after month you get to know them really well. I mean really well. Jeremy does a pigeon impression that will stop a flock of birds mid-flight. Carl has a penchant for the #2 value meal at Wendy’s. Whitney has a breakfast fetish. And Chaela is MacGyver with a knife. Give her a can and she’ll have it open for you in two seconds. But beyond the personal quirks we learned about each other over the course of that year, we realized the most amazing thing: we work really well together. Working day in and day out in the Airstream trailer we developed a strange symbiosis we call “delicious breeze/ kung fu grip.” Jeremy coined the term. Delicious breeze, is that easy going, letting things roll right off into the wind spirit; but kung fu grip is pinning things down, making sure that everything that needs to get done, does. Without delicious breeze wafting in, things are liable to get too tense, but if kung fu grip lets go than all might blow away. Somehow the five of us were able to maintain that balance. We worked and lived and socialized with each other, and a year later we were still on speaking terms. In fact, when we weren’t working on the road, we missed one another. And when the year was up we knew we would miss working together. So, we thought, why did it have to stop?
The Difference Between an Idea and a Project
While we were still on the road, we started meeting via Skype. On those first Skype calls we just bounced around ideas for projects. One of the ideas floating about was to do a series of musical stories about Buffalo, New York. Buffalo had been Jeremy, Chaela and Whitney’s first stop on the road and the place had made a deep impression on them. They were surprised at how many Buffalonians came into the StoryCorps booth to share stories about music. Buffalo, as it turns out, is a very musical town. Ani Difranco is from there. As was the legendary Rick James, who is buried in the local cemetery – his glossy headstone, etched with a photo of him jamming to the heavens, is a must see. Buffalo is also going through a painful depopulation and recession like many other rust belt towns. There are blocks of abandoned houses and churches; there’s an abandoned train station the size of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Talk to any Buffalonian and eventually the conversation will turn nostalgic, “Remember when?” There were so many stories waiting to be recorded. But the difference between an idea and a project was Jeremy Helton. He made that first call to WBFO in Buffalo, New York. He simply asked them, “We want to do a project in Buffalo can you help?” And amazingly they said yes. Of course they couldn’t pay us, but they could give us studio space and they’d let us use their equipment. And they might even air the finished stories. Frankly, we were shocked that they said yes. Thus the Buffalo Project was born. Lesson number one: Just ask.
Next we came up with a timeline and a very loose budget. We opened up a PayPal account and each put $100 bucks into the Buffalo Project Fund. This would pay for things like a hard drive, batteries, Xeroxes, an Internet domain name/website costs, and most project related costs. The rest would be up to us. At this point we were all in various stages of employment/unemployment. Some people were still working for StoryCorps, some of us were freelancing, some of us, well, one of us (me), was making a career out of watching the World Cup. Divvying up the project roles was dependent on finances and time. After many, many discussions about schedules and commitments and financial constraints, the schedule and project roles worked themselves out. Chaela and Jeremy would work on outreach and story ideas. Whitney and Carl would work on the website. I would head up post-production. We would all work on interviewing, recording and editing.
Jeremy met up with Chaela (who lives in Buffalo) in July 2010 and they spent a month on the ground talking and talking and talking to whomever they could find: local musicians, WBFO staff, reporters, community leaders, and librarians. They spent days in the library reading up on local Buffalo history. They went to local festivals, hung out in clubs, met people in their homes; they worked nonstop to find stories. In the end they pinpointed six stories. See and hear the final product here: therecollective.net/site
I’ve asked each member of the group to share a little a bit about one story:
“Casa Rico” from Jeremy
My favorite episode is Casa Rico. The episode offers the listener an audio-marinara of Italian-American stream-of-consciousness. It’s just a sample of what’s been bubbling up over the airwaves of Western New York for years.
The other reason I love Casa Rico is because of the whimsical way in which we found the storytellers. We first met Lenny Rico, the host and inheritor of the Casa Rico Show, at the Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival in Buffalo’s “Little Italy.” He was sitting under a tent across from the Tilt-A-Whirl. He was with a woman who he quickly introduced as his “third wife, Cindy.” Lenny was tall, thin with jet-black hair that I suspected was dyed. Cindy was tan, fit with curly, auburn hair. They looked to me like partners in crime and were using a cell phone to broadcast their show live from the festival.
Maybe it was the strains of Volare playing from some distant speakers or the replica of the Trevi Fountain in the parking lot down the street. Maybe it was Saint Anthony himself, but something told me we had a story.
“Colored Musicians Club” from Nina
There was no way we were leaving Buffalo without trying to capture a night at the Colored Musicians Club. The club began as an after hours joint for black musicians coming through town to play at the white clubs. After the paying job was done, the real music began upstairs in the club. You still have to buzz to get in. Every great that ever was, from Basie to Miles, played at CMC. However the club today is what most interested us. It is alive and well. Musicians come from all over the area to jam each week. Younger musicians are schooled by the old timers and you are as likely to hear a teenage horn player perform for the first time as you are to witness a legend blowing off steam in the after hours. The challenge was to capture the feeling of the club through both verité and interviews. We wanted it to sound loose and environmental. I would have loved to have spent weeks recording there. We had two nights.
“Rock n’ Roll Hotel” from Whitney
When I arrived in Buffalo, I had been traveling, without a place of my own for two years, and my emotional sanity had become completely dependent on the intermittent hospitality of strangers who shared a home cooked meal or even a few idle hours in a real home. When I learned that Susan and Marty’s home is essentially a free bed and breakfast for touring musicians, I knew that I had to record their story, despite knowing exactly what the story was.
Initially, I really didn’t want to use narration for Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel because I wanted the audio of being at their house to shine through in an atmospheric, verité way. But I really had no idea how that would happen until I sat down with the tape. I think I struggled in editing Susan and Marty because I loved what they were about so much that I couldn’t quite see that there really wasn’t a story there (no action). I started to toy with the idea of using narration to somehow include my own traveling story to convey why sharing a home with strangers is the coolest thing ever. I wrote pages of possible narration, and Nina even interviewed me on tape so I could work through my thoughts and say them out loud. Then it became a difficult balance between trying to tell the story in a coherent way while using my own voice (a work in progress) and not just emulating arts and culture stories from NPR.
While I love pieces that are told without narration, I do want to continue to seek my own voice in narrated pieces. Doing this piece taught me that narration can actually help the subjects’ voices shine, and finding my own style is something to keep working on. I loved sampling Susan and Marty’s amazing breakfast and hospitality, and I also hope I took away more than audio lessons in getting to know them.
“Gail and Emile” from Chaela
Back before this project was even a thought, we met Gail Lyons and Emile Latimer in Buffalo the summer of 2008. Gail came to record an interview wearing fabric with a pattern of Togolese money printed on it. I had just returned from spending several months in that sliver of West Africa. Gail and I started up a conversation, which led to a dear friendship. That summer Gail invited us to watch Emile – an illustrious drummer, who at 77 is still practicing every day – play with one of his many bands. While the younger musicians tired, Emile’s drumming just charged on – seemingly fueled by some deeper, intangible force, a life force plainly evident to anyone who meets Emile.
That evening in August 2008, Gail danced while Emile played. It’s impossible to describe Gail’s dancing to Emile’s drums. I can say that I left that night feeling electrified, and knowing that I would never forget that ecstatic scene.
In the late 1970’s, Gail and Emile met at the Black Dance Workshop and started a collaboration named Sounds And Echoes of Yemenja, which was dedicated to teaching West African dance and musical traditions in Buffalo. When we decided to return to Buffalo and record the series, we immediately thought of Gail and Emile’s collaboration over thirty years ago. It was the name of this collaboration, Sounds And Echoes that resonated with us when we decided to share the stories of peoples’ lives—and how they lived their lives with music. The spirit of this project, and the name, is a dedication to them.
“Blues Run the Game” from Nina
This is one of my favorite stories and it came about almost accidentally. One of our contacts, Jillian Mertz told Jeremy about the folk musician Jackson C. Frank. Frank was born in the Buffalo suburbs. He was a pretty tragic figure. When he was a child, he survived a fire at his school that killed many of his classmates. The accident haunted him for the rest of his life. He wrote melancholy ballads, which he played around town. Then, after receiving settlement money from the elementary school accident, he left Buffalo for Europe where he had some success as a folk artist. As Jillian recounted Frank’s story she suddenly started to talk about her father’s death and how Jackson C. Frank’s music had helped her through a really rough patch. That was the story.
“Mr. Polka Radio” from Jeremy
Buffalo is home to a large Polish population. We knew we wanted to tell a story about the Polish community. But wanting to tell a story and finding a story worth telling are two separate things.
We kept hearing about the Broadway Market, established in 1880; the market was supposedly the heart of Polonia in Buffalo. So, we headed to Buffalo’s East Side, recorders in hand, to capture the hustle and bustle of the market only to realize that the neighborhood had not seen much hustle or bustle for quite some time. A place that had been described to us in such rich detail didn’t really exist anymore and barring the use of a time machine, we were not going to be able to capture that energy with our recorders.
That’s when we found the next best thing to a time machine: a box of tape recordings of Stan “Stas” Jasinski’s Polka Beehive radio program. In the 121 years since the Broadway Market first opened its doors, the Polish community in Buffalo did what most immigrant communities do, spread out and moved to the suburbs. Stan’s show, with it’s personally produced jingles for local sponsors, broadcasts of national and international Polish news stories, and a heaping helping of Polka and traditional Polish music, painted a picture of the Polish community at the Broadway Market and beyond. Long after the Broadway Market stopped being the geographical center of the community, Stan’s show became a weekly gathering place where people came together to listen.
Mistakes Will Be Made
We had story ideas. We had interviews scheduled. Whitney and I traveled to Buffalo to meet Jeremy and Chaela to start production.
Let me just take a moment to talk about housing in Buffalo. As I wrote before, we were each living on a shoestring, semi-employed and making do on what I like to call the “MacArthur Ingenious Award” – unemployment. Chaela lived in Buffalo and her apartment became a hub for communal meals and meetings. Jeremy had found a room in an eccentric SRO teeming with radio-worthy characters. Whitney and I squatted across the street from Chaela’s in the Nickel City Co-op, a giant mansion that had been taken over by some urban pioneers, not quite “freegans,” but very free. They graciously fed us and let us take over an empty room where we slept on the floor on a futon mattress we had found in Chaela’s basement. This was low budget.
Transom knows from low budget.
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We had three weeks to interview and record. We assigned two producers to each story. Certain production parameters were decided as a group: there would be no parameters. This was an experiment. It was up to each producer to decide the form and length. We really had no idea what we were doing and that was the biggest blessing and perhaps the biggest curse.
After the three weeks, we left Buffalo and then began the grueling editing process. Between searching for jobs and trying to freelance we transcribed and edited when we could. It took six months! Each producer took the lead on editing one or two of the stories. This was a very collaborative and very informal process. At this point most of us were living in different cities. Only Carl and I lived in New York. This was hard. There were some hiccups as Carl can attest to.
When five people who do not live in the same geographic location decide to make radio work, the logistics of such a task become fraught with odd limitations. And while we made grand efforts to ensure that most of us were present in Buffalo when recording the work, it was impossible to keep us together for the post-production process. But I was ready. I hadn’t been able to be in Buffalo, so I would make sure that my input on the post-production phase was substantial. When the time came, I suggested we build an audio blog to share the work with each other and give feedback. And it worked. But not for long.
You see I was the person who both built and hosted the original site. And in case you don’t know, site hosting costs money. And at the very moment that I ran out of it, the yearlong hosting contract I had paid for ended. So the site went down. I was too embarrassed to reveal to my friends that I had let them down; that the slowing of our efforts to produce this work was solely my fault. But a funny thing happened. Nobody said anything. We just started sending mp3 emails of the edited pieces to the group and gathering feedback the “old fashioned way.” The original site had set forth a momentum of progress that not even a tragedy the size of the one I thought I had caused could stop. It was a grand lesson for me in group-dynamics. The power of the collective can be great enough to overpower any one person’s perceived shortcomings.
It was also a lesson in being “overly technical.” The simplest solution is often times the cheapest, most elegant and successful.
As Carl said, we passed edits back and forth over the Internet. We talked on the phone. Some people transcribed the tape and worked from a script, others just dug into the audio without transcribing. When Jeremy or Chaela or Whitney happened to be in New York, we would have intensive edit sessions in Carl’s Harlem apartment. We talked about tone, and debated whether a piece needed narration. I can honestly say that each story was worked on by all of us in some fashion. And throughout the course of the editing process, we cursed the many, many mistakes we’d made. But, we finished! We finished! And that was the biggest lesson of all: if we put our minds to something, if we worked at it a little bit everyday, if we really meant it, we could achieve it. This work is about making that first call. It’s about showing up with the recorder and the microphone. It’s about doing. Four of the pieces aired on WBFO in April the week before their fund drive.
One of the things that we were hoping to get out of this post on Transom is your honest, brutal feedback. Give it to us. We want to improve as producers and editors. We tried our best to workshop the pieces with each other but at a certain point, I’m sure you know how it is, you can no longer hear the piece that you’re producing. How do you know a piece is done? How do you even know something is worth being recorded? What makes a story a story worth telling? When does a piece merit narration? When is a piece better off without it? How have you collaborated effectively with a group? Has someone taken the lead on the project? We have a whole host of questions that we’d love to ask you, the radio experts! Join the discussion.
Our next project will be a southern-fried version of Sounds & Echoes that will take place in Savannah, GA. Our goal is to do another hyper-local episodic series there Spring 2012. We have started working on story ideas and reaching out to different community organizations. We also applied for fiscal sponsorship and started writing our very first grants. We hope to pitch the series to Georgia Public Broadcasting and would appreciate any help, advice, or support in realizing the project. You may contact us or even make a tax-deductible donation at our website: therecollective.net
We are so honored to be part of the Transom Donor Fund. Thank you for listening!
You can find the Sounds & Echoes site here: www.therecollective.net/site
About Jeremy Helton
Jeremy Helton is an artist and independent curator from Shelbyville, Tennessee. He is a co-founder of VOX Teen Newspaper in Atlanta, GA and has worked for New York-based Fresh Art, a non-profit organization, providing expanded personal and entrepreneurial opportunities to artists with special needs. Jeremy is currently enrolled at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
About Whitney Henry-Lester
Whitney Henry-Lester hails from the storied Catskill Mountains. Her curiosity has taken her from underground shooting ranges in NYC to equine videography in California to community radio in Ecuador. When not chasing her curiosity, she’s hiking mountains or making breakfast.
About Carl Scott
Carl Scott is an audiophile from Chicago, Illinois. He is also the creator of the anthropological hip-hop show, Rip and Rebind, which takes a broader look at hip-hop and those who gave birth to it. Most recently, Carl wrote and produced the hour-long documentary titled Still Swinging Still Classic: A Musical Biography of Pianist Hazel Scott for WNYC.
About Chaela Herridge-Meyer
Chaela Herridge-Meyer grew up in Olympia, Washington where she first became an advocate for Fair Trade practices. Chaela is currently producing an audio and photographic series for Jericho Road, an organization dedicated to helping refugee and low-income communities in Buffalo, NY.