Radio Ballad

“The radio ballad is an audio documentary format created by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Charles Parker in 1958. It combines four elements of sound: songs, instrumental music, sound effects, and, most importantly, the recorded voices of those who are the subjects of the documentary.”
— Radio ballad, Wikipedia

Radio journalists use music to tell stories. But occasionally a journalist’s story makes music: A brand-new song is commissioned for, or inspired by, a public radio piece.

What follows is a recent history of the “Radio Ballad”…

[Note: This article was originally titled “Story-Music.”]

“Stochasticity” by Human Mammals, for Radiolab

After hearing an episode of Radiolab, the Higher Mammals manufactured this musical attempt to tackle the difficult topic of Stochasticity:

“McLaughlin Groove” by Andrew WK, for Fair Game


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Faith Salle, host of the PRI series Fair Game, asked Andrew W.K. (of Jackass “We Want Fun” fame) to create this short burst of manic-musical-media-crit. It’s based on snippets from the news show, The McLaughlin Group. In Wikipedia-ease:

Singer Andrew WK has recorded a 47-second song called “McLaughlin Groove” based on dialogue between McLaughlin and Buchanan on the topics of the untimely death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Carl Sandburg’s ‘Fog’ and the prediction of a Chinese moon-landing.

Listen to “McLaughlin Groove”

Artist Scott Bateman animated the Fair Game radio segment:

“The Lord God Bird” by Sufjan Stevens, for Long Haul Productions

The king and queen of Radio Ballad are Dan Collison & Elizabeth Meister of Long Haul Productions. Their Song+Stories series commissioned some great tunes, then married that music with their storytelling style. Listen to how elegantly this original Sufjan Stevens song helps propel their NPR piece:

Listen to “Brinkley, Ark., Embraces ‘The Lord God Bird'”
Listen to “Radio Ballad”

A YouTuber made this video of it using Discovery News footage:

“Canal to the Moon” by Dave Hill & Nancy Updike, for This American Life

TAL’s Nancy Updike teamed with musician Dave Hill to create this accompaniment to the episode Stories Pitched by Our Parents. When Nancy heard the history of the Erie Canal, it made her want to sing:

Listen to “Canal to the Moon”

The song prompted this “Dance Canal (Lunar Version)” by Deaf Country and Molly Bennett:

“My Water’s On Fire Tonight” by Studio 20, for ProPublica

NYU’s Studio 20 J-grad students worked with a ProPublica investigative team to produce this explainer of natural gas extraction techniques:

“Moth Music” by Jeff Rice, for Hearing Voices

No lyrics in this one, and the musicians are all moths. Jeff Rice produced this piece for Hearing Voices and NPR Day to Day:

Listen to “The Strange Beauty of Moth Music”
Listen to “Radio Ballad”

Jeff, with Choir, also produced this story-musical experiment:

Listen to “Making Male Gnats Dance”
Listen to “Radio Ballad”

“Good Radiation” by Cadamole, a Public Radio Rap

It wasn’t a particular radio piece but all of pubradio that inspired this Cadamole rap (Adam Cole, featuring J. Sullivan):

“Ain’t Banned on Transom” by The Sweatpants, for Transom

Sweatpants logoWe at Transom had some musical love sent our way by X-rated rappers, The Sweatpants featuring MC Davy (Davy Rothbart, founder of FOUND Magazine):

Listen to “Ain’t Banned on Transom”

Papa Razzi and the Photogs made Transom’s Founder the subject of their song “Jay Allison Is a Storytelling Genius Guy.” Among the other Papa Razzi-praised pubradio peeps: “Scott Carrier Is a Nice Writer Man,” “Nancy Updike, I Like You Because You’re Great,” “Sarah Vowell, A-E-I-O-U,” and “Jonathan Goldstein Wrote His Own Bible! Wow!” Their CD is The Life of This Legendary American Music Man Is Quite Good, Yes.

“Political People” by Greg Keeler, for Hearing Voices

In the early 1990s Hearing Voices commissioned poet/prof Greg Keeler to write songs for each of three NPR All Things Considered segments about Montana politics. Day to Day reran this one in 2008:

Listen to “A Strange Political Song: Why People Care”
Listen to “Radio Ballad”

Radiolab Remix

As often happens when discussing innovative audio, we return to Radiolab: this time their Radiolab Remixed Contest (run via Indaba Music). Among the entries is this gem, “Vertigo”, by sketch lightly & daimyo:

“Behaves So Strangely”, for Radiolab

And we’ll leave you with the La Guardia High School Chorus and Robert Apostle. They were assembled for the Radiolab episode Musical Language to interpret Psychology of Music professor Diana Deutsch’s Audio Illusions, specifically “Sometimes Behaves So Strangely”:


As we find more Radio Ballads we’ll add them to this list, such as:

Listen to “Call Me Out My Name”
Listen to “Radio Ballad”

I learned to write feature stories by listening to country music. The songs were filled with stories, characters and emotions that grabbed the listener’s heart. I wanted my stories to have the same impact. I guess it’s fitting that I’m using those lessons to write a song. I received a commission from WBEZ, the NPR affiliate in Chicago, to write a song about racial code words for the station’s series on race relations.
—Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs, “How I Wrote Call Me Out My Name”

And this NPR story on the “Inspiration Behind ‘I Drive Your Truck'”

NPR HOST: Two years ago, songwriter Connie Harrington heard a radio interview with Paul Monti. His son Jared was killed in Afghanistan, and he talked about how he drove Jared’s truck to remember him.

Harrington was inspired by Monti’s story and, with two co-writers, turned it into a song recorded by singer Lee Brice. Last month, “I Drive Your Truck” vaulted to number one on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.

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