The Fighter Pilot

Michael McGee, Lt. Col., United States Air Force, Retired (Photo by Kathy Tu)

Intro from Jay Allison: This piece comes from a student in the Transom Story Workshop Fall 2013. For many of the participants, this is the first radio work they’ve ever made, which is not an excuse but a cause for amazement. In their two months in Woods Hole, under the guidance of Rob Rosenthal & Sarah Reynolds and the Transom Team (along with renowned visiting teachers like, this time: Jonathan Harris, Ira Glass, and Andrea Seabrook), they learn the skills of recording, interviewing, structuring, editing, writing, voicing, mixing, etc. etc… while creating work for broadcast. The fun part is not that they just learn the rules, but that they also break them creatively. The harmony in these groups, as they help one another, is inspiring. We asked students to write about their challenges and what they did to surmount or circumvent them. They share their own vulnerability in order to help others, which is part of the wonder of these workshops.

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Listen to “The Fighter Pilot”

About “The Fighter Pilot”

I didn’t initially set out to make this a sound rich piece. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I wanted to produce a piece that was deceptively simple: a well-crafted, personal narrative that was quiet by design. Why? Probably because I’m uneasy with silence and wanted to tackle it head on. What better way to do it, right? There’s no radio without some radio therapy involved.

Enter retired Lt. Col. Mike McGee (and his voice). I found Mike through his aviation art website and he agreed to talk to me (and take me to see a real F-15 fighter jet… I also walked around on top of it with glee). When Mike first told me the story that makes up the second part of my piece, I instantly saw the movie playing in my head and heard the accompanying sounds (e.g. the count down, the explosions, the drums, etc). That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to tell.

But there was a problem. It’s almost impossible to produce a story about war without getting into the morality of war. I didn’t want to get into it, though, and neither did Mike. But without it, all I had was a generic war story. After some agonizing hours and days trying to figure out what my “reflection” moment was going to be, I just chucked it all out. I was going to try something different. I was going to bring the listener into a fighter pilot’s cockpit or die trying. Just kidding… but really.

And it turned out better than I ever dreamed it could, thanks to everyone at Transom. My advice to producers is nothing new:

  1. challenge yourself,
  2. be ready to abandon your preexisting ideas of what you’re going to make, and
  3. try something new.

It’s so easy to tell someone to do these things, but so hard to actually do them. Advice doesn’t make things any easier; in most cases, you just know ahead of time that it’s going to be hard. Like Rob Rosenthal says, “Life is hard. Radio is harder.”

Okay, but honestly I really didn’t think I would end up producing a piece that was so… honestly difficult. I’m so glad I did.

Kathy’s Sonic ID

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Listen to “Kathy’s Sonic ID”

I spent a lot of time interviewing Mike because going into the interview, I didn’t yet know what story of his I was going to tell. One of the things he told me about was training at Otis Air National Guard Base and sometimes being able to do a vertical takeoff, something you can’t really do in combat. The way he talked about seeing the Cape fall away was just so special, kind of a Superman point of view.

Listen to More Pieces from this Story Workshop Class

Kathy Tu

About
Kathy Tu

Kathy Tu spent most of her life in Los Angeles before heading east to Boston for law school. She's now back in LA (but so willing to move and/or travel) and starting a new life as an independent radio producer and web developer. She is also a huge Anaheim Ducks fan, both the professional hockey team and the Disney movies. You can find more of Kathy's work at PRX and on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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