Intro from Jay Allison: Public radio is good at giving us understandable, digestible bits of information and occasionally great stories. But it doesn’t provide many of the elliptical, mysterious, and poetic fragments of life as we actually experience it. David Weinberg is drawn to those uncoded audio moments, but didn’t have a context to present them. So he built randomtape.com. His selections are, well, random. But they stick with you, like the random imagery that ambushes us every day, like clean waving laundry in a grimy backyard, viewed from the window of a train rushing by. Listen to some of David’s favorite bits and read about his approach below.
About Random Tape
Apple, Orange, Banana, Scissors
In 2006 I attended the Third Coast festival for the first time. I was an aspiring radio producer but I hadn’t actually produced any stories yet. I signed up for the Radio Therapy session, which was basically a round table of radio producers who each played a little piece of tape or an excerpt from a project they were working on and then asked the group for advice.
One person played an excerpt from a documentary series about Shakespeare narrated by Sam Waterston aka Jack McCoy from Law & Order. Another producer played some tape from a profile of a compulsive hoarder and another played a piece about immigration. These were all serious stories with developed narrative structures. And then it was my turn. I played this:
(These voice messages were left on my friend Danny’s phone by his dad. They are two of my all-time favorites. We’ll never know how the second message ends. The machine cut Danny’s dad off mid-message.)
There were some chuckles at the beginning of the recording and then everyone got quiet and the silence hung in the room for a few seconds after the recording ended. No one in the room really knew what to do with it but truthfully I wasn’t really looking for advice on how to turn the tape into a story.
I felt like the story was already there in the tape. In the beginning there is something really funny about Danny’s dad’s exasperation. But then it takes this detour into a darker place. In the second voice message he is much calmer but the anger slowly creeps back into his voice. And then when he says, “You’re my son and I love you” it becomes tragic and pathetic. Even though you are only getting one side of the story that short piece of tape is a portrait of their relationship. I have no doubt that you could construct a narrative around this tape. You could interview Danny and his father about their relationship but I don’t think you need to. It’s all there in the tape.
I feel like at the heart of everything I produce I am basically saying, “Hey, look at this thing I found, it’s incredible!” Sometimes the thing is a big idea, or an interesting person and those are ideal subjects for radio stories. But a lot of times the things I love are strange and sometimes make me uncomfortable and wouldn’t fit into any of the existing shows on the radio. For whatever reason – whether it’s too risqué or not topical enough, maybe it doesn’t have a narrative arc, or didn’t seem convincing enough in my pitch – a lot of those moments never find a home on the radio. Moments like this one:
(Poppa Neutrino was the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a raft made of garbage. He built and lived on a total of 17 scrap rafts over the course of his life. This recording is an excerpt of an interview I did with Neutrino in 2008. In it he talks about his plans to start a floating orphanage. Neutrino passed away on January 23, 2011.)
I produced a feature story on Neutrino for WWOZ and this piece of tape didn’t make it into the final mix. I don’t even remember now why I couldn’t make it work but I loved it as a little moment on its own and after I cut it out I didn’t have anywhere to put it.
A Home For Orphaned Tape
Over the years I have built up this collection of moments and sounds that I haven’t figured out what to do with. My original solution was to publish a ‘zine. I called it Random Tape. I put ten recordings on a CD and made a little booklet on my typewriter. Each recording had a blurb or anecdote that accompanied it. The first track on the CD was the above recording of Danny’s dad. Instead of trying to tell a story I wanted to present a series of vignettes that created a portrait of Danny’s dad. This was one of them:
When we were in high school I came over to my friend Danny’s house to pick him up to go to the movies. While Danny was putting on his shoes by the front door he asked his younger sister if he could borrow twenty dollars. All of a sudden Danny’s dad came tearing into the room in a rage and started yelling at Danny: “How dare you ask your sister for money! That’s money I gave to her for her allowance! If you need money you come to me goddammit!”
I was terrified of the man. Danny was used to it though. He just looked at him and said, “Fine, can I borrow twenty bucks?”
Danny’s dad seemed to calm down a bit. “Just a minute,” he said and started walking upstairs where I assumed he was going to get a twenty from his bedroom. But I could see the top of the stairs from where I was standing and instead of taking a left into his own room he took a right into Danny’s 10-year-old brother’s room. I heard the door open and Danny’s dad said, “Hey Tony, do you have twenty dollars?”
I printed a few dozen copies and gave them out to friends. But issue #1 was the birth and death of Random Tape the zine.
Random Tape’s incarnation as a website happened totally by chance–randomly you might say. I received a small grant to produce a sound-mapping project in St. Louis. I decided to start by posting the sounds on tumblr to raise awareness for the project and encourage people to submit their own recordings. At some point I realized I had all this other tape that I loved but that didn’t work for the map because it wasn’t recorded in St. Louis. So I resurrected Random Tape as a website and voila, just what the world needs, another blog!
What’s Random, What’s not?
One time I was walking around a residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh and I came across a carnival barker shouting in the middle of the street. With him was a large shirtless man eating a light bulb. I stopped to watch and slowly more and more people gathered around. A woman came out of her house in her socks and stood on her porch with one hand on her hip and the other holding a cigarette. A man standing next to me held his daughter close to him as she watched with a mixture of wonder and fear. A group of deaf teenagers signed to each other, their hands echoing each other’s amazement. The shirtless man finished the bulb and held his head high smiling as a small drop of blood trickled down the corner of his mouth. For some reason I got choked up watching it. There was something magical about this spontaneous gathering of strangers standing in the road watching this performance. That’s what I want Random Tape to feel like.
We all have those moments in our lives where we are going about our daily routine and all of a sudden something completely unexpected happens and shakes us out of reality for a brief moment. This is what I’m trying to do on Random Tape.
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(My girlfriend recorded this gem while doing interviews for a radio story on the closing of the beloved Sugar Park Tavern in New Orleans.)
The great thing about using randomness as an organizing theme (if that makes any sense) is that I don’t have to worry about tone. As an independent producer, when I do a story it has to fit into the mold of the show it’s airing on. So a Marketplace story has to sound like Marketplace, or a piece for The World has to sound like The World. You can’t deviate too much from the way the rest of the show sounds. With RT not only can I make it sound like whatever I want, I can totally change the style from piece to piece. I can post strange sounds alongside vintage radio smut or poetry. The door is wide open. You are just as likely to hear a teenage girl alone in her room pondering big existential questions as you are to hear legendary pitchman Don West hollering about sports cards:
(This is an excerpt from an audio diary entry by Auburn Ingram who was sixteen at the time she made this recording. In this clip Auburn ruminates on the infinite vastness of space and how totally stinkin’ cool that is. Auburn’s recordings are part of an ongoing story project I started in collaboration with the non-profit organization College Bound.)
(If you ever did any late night channel surfing between 1993 and 2001 you probably came across the legendary pitchman Don West hollering about sports cards and Beanie Babies. A friend of mine made a CD of some of the best Don West television moments and this is but a taste.)
Don’t get me wrong; I love narrative. I love a good story more than almost anything in the world. But sometimes a single moment does it for me. A lot of the tape I love isn’t part of a story or some bigger picture. It’s a scene, or an image, or even just a sound that I find oddly moving:
(This is the song of the barge, bobbing on the river near Hopeville.)
A well-known radio producer once told me that all the tape from his unfinished stories haunts him. I feel the same way. After consulting the internet, I decided that posting those bits of ghost tape to a website would be much easier than hiring a priest to come out to my studio and perform an exorcism on my hard drive.
Get on fire!
(I recorded this fiery sermon from a Christian radio station in West Virginia.)
The Sound of the Future
(This is the sound of hundreds of electronic slot machines on the floor of Lumiere Casino.)
Right now I am working on turning RT into a micro-podcast. Each episode will be super short, probably around a minute, and will sound something like this:
I would also like to start taking submissions. So if you have any tape that’s been creeping around in your attic or causing your walls to bleed send it my way and I will happily [pod]cast out your demons. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have some tape you would like to submit.
RT is still in its infancy. It will change and grow over time as I experiment with the form. I’m sure there will be pieces I produce that I will look back on and scratch my head and wonder what the hell I was thinking but that’s fine. I’m used to that feeling.
In the meantime I go about my week making recordings and producing stories and when I come across those small spontaneous moments and strange sounds wandering randomly through the world I gather them up and give them a home.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Night
(When you have sleep apnea you almost suffocate in your sleep over and over again throughout the night. This is the terrifying sound of my friend Chewie in his sleep.)
You can subscribe to the Random Tape podcast by searching for Random Tape in iTunes or paste this RSS feed into your reader: http://randomtape.libsyn.com/rss.
And you can find lots more Random Tape at randomtape.com.