Intro from Jay Allison: It's rare we take the time to listen to hour-long radio stories anymore, but I hope you'll listen to this one, maybe twice. It's an epic journey, a coming of age story, and a portrait of this country--big-hearted, wild, innocent, and wise. I co-produced it, but the credit goes to Andrew Forsthoefel, a first-time radio producer, who set out at age 23 to walk across America, East to West, 4000 miles, with a sign on him that said, "Walking to Listen." Eventually, he showed up here in Woods Hole. Andrew didn't intend to make a radio story--he just wanted to listen to people. You'll hear in Andrew's interviews his quality of attention. He is a magnet for stories and for the desire to connect. This hour is culled down from 85 hours, an epic task in itself. Andrew has written extensive notes on his process that might be helpful for anyone undertaking a sprawling project. Transom is also collaborating with our friends at Cowbird as Andrew maps his journey, steadily adding new entries in the coming weeks. We hope you'll listen, and ask questions.
People in the Piece (in order of appearance)
About “Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man”
I decided to walk across the country for several reasons. Producing an hour-long radio essay about it was not one of them. When I left home, I had no idea what would become of the tape I hoped to record.
At the beginning of the walk, I thought it would be a good idea to have a focus question for the interviews. The question was about transformation: what does it mean to you and when have you experienced it? I was at a transformative time in my own life, so that question seemed right.
The cuts really were making the piece stronger. I found that the constraints inherent in radio can actually release the power of a story. In cutting every unnecessary detail and many of the almost-necessary ones, the most important moments can shine a little brighter.
I quickly abandoned the idea, though. It seemed too contrived or constraining. Instead, I just started talking to people about their lives and, sometimes, what their lives had taught them. I’d ask people about the idea of home, aloneness, family, love, death, all sorts of stuff.
I thought people would be resistant to being interviewed. Not so. The vast majority wanted to be heard, and they didn’t mind the recorder. Nearly every time, they had something they wanted to share. I was wearing a sign that said “Walking to Listen” and there was no shortage of people to listen to.
Trial by Fire
Producing this piece has been a big learning process for me. Before this, I’d had zero experience with projects destined for radio. So the thought of diving into 85 hours of tape, and learning to work in Pro Tools was kind of daunting. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with all of it.
Jay suggested we go ahead and start by putting together an hour-long radio essay and take it from there. We quickly established that the angle would be “advice for a young man,” because if you cut to the heart of it, that’s what the walk was all about for me. We wanted it to be slow, to reflect the pace of walking.
Transom believes in slow radio.
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I’ve learned a good bit about interviewing and producing for radio in all stages of this project. Here are four of the big takeaways:
Accept, nay, embrace murder:
How do you fit a year’s worth of experience into an hour-long radio essay? Well, you don’t. Stories will be lost, little gems thrown away, entire chapters you once thought monumentally important axed. Embracing editing (murdering your darlings) was the first step in creating this piece.
Early on in production I realized the cuts really were making the piece stronger. I found that the constraints inherent in radio can actually release the power of a story. In cutting every unnecessary detail and many of the almost-necessary ones, the most important moments can shine a little brighter.
Don’t think too much just go:
There were a lot of different angles we could have taken with this story, so many it was overwhelming almost to the point of paralysis. Going forward – blindly, it felt at times – with faith proved a useful tactic.
It wasn’t different from walking across the country. Just go.
Find a collaborator, no question:
For a while, there was a part of me that wanted to produce this piece by myself. Luckily, I didn’t have the experience or technical skills to do so. And I was too close to it.
Make yourself vulnerable:
I found that being vulnerable in interviews – that is, sharing some of my story or perspective – created an honesty that built trust and sort of dissolved the whole subject–interviewer dichotomy altogether. It may not suit some forms of storytelling, but for this, it made sense.
I chose to maintain vulnerability in the piece, too. Having asked so much of the people I recorded, putting myself under the microscope seemed only fair, and it makes everything much more real. That was the hope, at least.
Many thanks to you for listening, and a huge thank you to:
Jay Allison, Viki Merrick, Melissa Allison, Samantha Broun, Rob Rosenthal, Sarah Reynolds, and Sydney Lewis for helping to make this piece a reality; Hugh Birmingham at Coffee Obsession for giving me a job that kept me sane throughout the production process; all of the people I met while walking, both in the piece and not, for co-creating this hour with me; and my family: Dad, Caitlin, Luke, and especially Mom. I couldn’t have done this without you.
- More stories from Andrew’s walk on Cowbird.
- This American Life aired a version of “Walking.”
- Andrew’s Walking to Listen blog.
- A map of the route Andrew took on his walk.
- Andrew’s presentation at his alma mater St. Andrew’s School.
- Blog post from Karie Fugett in Foley, Alabama, one of the many people Andrew spoke to on his walk across the country.
Thank you to Matthias Bossi, Carla Kihlstedt, and Jon Evans for the original music they composed for this piece. Thanks also to Mark Orton and Ben Goldberg of Tin Hat. You can find more of their music at: