Volume 1/Issue 6
About Tony Kahn
Tony Kahn brings many award-winning talents to his duties on The World, the PRI/BBC international news magazine produced at WGBH in Boston. Kahn serves as alternate host and special correspondent and writes, produces and hosts “Tony Kahn’s Journal.” A regular feature of The World, “Tony Kahn’s Journal” looks beyond the headlines to explore cultural, political and scientific topics of importance, often using as a focal point remarkable individuals whose stories offer a unique perspective on the issue. The World is heard by more than one million and a quarter listeners each week on public radio stations across the country, as well as in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.
Kahn has written, produced, narrated and hosted more than 50 radio and television programs and series for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), Nickelodeon, A&E, Monitor Radio, and Boston television stations WGBH and WCVB. He was most recently acclaimed for his public radio series Blacklisted, which chronicled the Hollywood blacklisting of his screenwriter father Gordon Kahn during the McCarthy era.
In addition to his work with The World, Kahn is a regular panelist on WGBH/NPR’s weekly witty word game show, Says You! He has been a regular commentator for Public Radio International’s Marketplace and NPR’s Morning Edition.
Kahn’s broadcast work has received 12 New England Emmys, a National Emmy nomination, six Gold Medals of the New York International Festival, an Ohio State Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award for Feature Reporting, the A.I.R. Radio Award for Radio Interviewing, and the Grand Award for Radio Drama from the New York International Festival. Several of his documentaries have been screened at film festivals throughout the US; other works, including three plays and five screenplays, have received notable recognition. In addition, Kahn has received a Writer’s Guild of America Screenwriting Fellowship.
Prior to his work in broadcasting, Kahn was a Russian scholar and translator and published four books of translations of Russian poetry, biography and fiction. He graduated Magna cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University and holds a Master’s Degree in Slavic Studies from Columbia University.
I encountered Tony Kahn through the radio. First, through his personal documentary series “Blacklisted,” and then, as the curious and engaged host of “The World”, and more recently, as an uncannily clever panelist on “Says You.” Clearly, a talented fellow in all directions.
When we were starting up our new public radio stations WCAI & WNAN here on the Cape & Islands, I asked for advice from many people I didn’t really know. Including Tony. Mostly, when you ask people you don’t really know for advice, you get the pro forma kind. Not from Tony.
This is a portion of what he wrote:
Let the listeners broadcast to the station. Set up kiosks, recording sites, microphones in various public places where residents and visitors can tape performances, read original work and favorite passages from literature, criticize and comment on local politics and programming, offer tips and suggestions for things to do, places to see, etc. The trick, I imagine, is in picking the sites and the subjects. You can’t have microphones sprouting like wild asparagus, but good locations might be inside libraries, outside churches, near supermarket check-out counters, parks . . . Some topics that might elicit interesting/usable comments and convey a sense of local color and atmosphere could be:
- your biggest worry this week,
- a beautiful or reprehensible thing you just saw,
- your favorite view, place to take a walk or be at sunset or in a storm,
- the most irritating noise in the area,
- what you’d like to hear again that you missed or enjoyed on public radio,
- special questions of the week regarding the news, recent public events, current programming, etc.
I’d love to hear listener comments on local and national programs air not just on the shows they’re addressed to, as part of some specific “listener’s mailbag,” but between programs, in some imaginative formats, so you can think of public radio programming as a totality, as part of an ongoing conversation between programs and their listeners.Apropos of nothing, I also am a big fan of “process” pieces, reports and stories that illustrate how something happens, how an institution really works, the details of how people go about their business. One of the most unforgettable pieces of public radio programming I ever heard (it not only had “driveway potential,” it had a “kitchen component” – after staying in my parked car to hear it, I rushed into the kitchen to tell my wife about it) was about how to design and run your own restaurant. I think it was an eight or nine part series on ATC that followed a Chicago couple through their failed attempt to make their restaurant dream come true. Process is incredibly radio-visual; the images it makes you conjure, like those of any great story, seem to stay with you forever. It’s part of the core content of public radio and I’d love to see it applied to local events, local personalities, local ventures. Show how a local piece of legislation or town business passes, how a fisherman fishes, how a cop does his beat, how a retailer hires and prepares for the summer rush, how a teacher prepares for her class, how the local medical service handles an emergency, etc. It could be a nice dynamic way of letting the community experience itself – as a series of people and processes.
That should make it clear why Tony was a natural choice for Special Guest here, and I’m very happy he accepted our invitation. His radio memoir follows.
One of my earliest memories is of a red hot radio image from a newscast. It’s 1951 and I’m listening to the big RCA console in our Beverly Hills living room tell us that President Truman has just fired General McArthur. No one’s explained what “fired” means, but I figure they strapped this poor guy in a chair, touched a match to his pants and burned him alive. I wonder how my parents can be so happy.
Months later we’re living in the mountains of Cuernavaca, Mexico to escape the FBI and the red scare in the United States. I still don’t understand politics or a word of Spanish, but every night our short wave radio soothes my homesickness with Gene Autry shows and cowboy music from Texas. Daytime, the air is full of Mexican radio, pouring from public loudspeakers: ten mambo tunes in constant rotation and informational programs on how to keep from getting ringworm: wear shoes. It tunes me in, too, to my new life.
Five years later, I’m back in the US and radio is my secret vice. Schooldays, I play the role of a literate kid in a book-loving family, but every Saturday morning, under the cover of doing homework, I stay in bed and press my ear to a battery sucking cherry-red Sylvania portable to hear WKBR (Manchester, N.H.’s) Top 40 countdown. Two versions of “Young Love,” one by Tab Hunter, the other by Jimmy Dean, battle for number one. Rock and Roll!
In 1960, halfway through high school, I get tapped to be WKBR‘s school correspondent. It’s my first look at the landscape behind the microphone. What open skies! I start off writing reports; next thing I know, they let me rip and read UPI wire copy for the hourly news and do my own engineering. Making radio is like working a loom, with tasks for the eye, the ear, the mind, the hand.
And the heart. Radio is my best way to reach my old man. As his world narrows (he’s a blacklisted writer with a painful cardiac condition) he spends a lot of time listening to a little transistor radio he carries everywhere. He calls it his “ear to the cosmos” and I’m on it! Sunday evenings we hang out in his bedroom listening to the Stan Freeberg Comedy Show on CBS. Freeberg is a magician. He takes you from an interview with an abominable snowman in Nepal to the inside of a helicopter lowering a two-ton maraschino cherry on top of the world’s largest sundae. My father and I lie next to each other on his bed, laughing.
In 1962 I go to Harvard and it’s a chilly, abstract place, but WHRB, the college FM station, is a community, a workshop, and my home. I spend every spare hour there, collaborating on radio. Soon after the start of my sophomore year the Sunday bells of Memorial Church ring on Friday and a circle of students in Harvard Yard surround a kid with a portable radio. Kennedy has been shot. For the next forty eight hours I live at WHRB, covering the aftermath of the assassination and making my connection with history. To keep our coverage focused and uninterrupted, our station manager drops all commercials. This makes the evening network news – turns out we’re the first (ad-supported) station in the country to do so. Shows you how far away public radio still was.
It’s the late Ô60s and FM radio and I go through heavy changes. I tune in, turn-on and drop out of grad school in New York; FM gets hip and locks its signal on London and British rock. I’m also in range of WBAI, an amazing independent station. Radio rock and listener-supported talk become my main source of images, ideas and impressions of the world. It’s radio that tells me that RFK and Martin Luther King have been shot, that the inner cities are burning, that love is all you need, that my draft number is 354 and I won’t have to choose between living in Canada, protesting in prison or fighting in Vietnam. Radio — and only radio — gives me the big picture. TV is simply not a factor.
Then, for about fifteen years, TV is. I wind up in Boston writing, producing, and appearing on public television. I love the exposure and the bigger audiences, but I realize something odd about TV. What I put on screen and what people actually see are different. “You know, that funny bit you did where you wore a green tie?” (Green tie? What green tie?). “That report you did on that car mechanic who looked like my Uncle Eddie?” (Uncle Eddie?)
TV images are like Rorschachs, full of unconscious process. And if people do see what’s really there, they don’t remember all that much. “I loved that NOVA you did. Something about blood.” (Some-thing? It had interviews and animations on the discovery of the circulatory system, the abilities of red cells and white cells, the architecture of arterioles and capillaries, the blood factors that can diagnose illness, solve crimes!) “Something about blood?” “Yeah, and the narrator sounded like a nice guy.”
I realize that unless the pictures and the sound support each other perfectly, cognitive dissonance sets in and the viewer is . . . gone. And if the story isn’t clearly told in the sound track, with words, effects, and music, the show itself is a goner no matter how great it looks. There is another big difference, I discover, between radio and TV. Radio makes its audience aware of itself. If someone hears something I did on the radio, they remember not only what I said but what they thought and felt at the time. With TV, it’s easy to lose a sense not only of what’s there, but who’s watching. I realize that the best thing about TV is radio.
And for the last fifteen years, public radio is where I’ve been. And what a great time to be there. In the last two decades we’ve seen public radio mature and go mainstream as the voice of a thoughtful, passionately curious, inspired, story-swapping America — original, warm, expressive and smart as hell. Like any success, we’ve also seen it get maybe a little too smug for its own good, and maybe a little too slow on the draw. In fact, I think we’re at a turning point. Public radio is middle-aged and it’s got to figure out how to rejuvenate itself with new technologies and new voices. That’s its biggest opportunity and biggest threat in years.
Transom.org is part of the process of trying to keep public radio fresh. I’m excited that Jay Allison has asked me to hang out here for the next month to lend an ear and a hand to any of you working on telling radio stories. For me, telling good stories is what it’s all about. I have only two criteria – a story succeeds when a) people stop to listen and b) they then rush off to tell the story to someone else. Good stories are like viruses – they use people to spread. I want to help keep the epidemic going.
Conversation With Tony Kahn: On Stories
Tony asked: “What are your criteria for good stories? What stories have you heard that wouldn’t let you go? Can you explain why? What did you learn from it you can share as good advice – or inspiration for the rest of us?”
My criteria: strong, specific personal images and revelations that can be extrapolated to my own and others’ experiences.
Personal Questions, Personal Experience
Tony Kahn 05.07.01
I agree. If the story we hear isn’t an experience for us, it doesn’t stick. What makes it an experience? It gives us something solid, real, relevant to respond to. For me, a memorable story offers a real person in action, or the kind of sensory details I can remember or imagine from my own experience. There are a zillion ways to do this right, of course, and a zillion ways to do it wrong, but, in general, abstract ideas about life, generalizations of any kind, lose my attention on the radio, and anything that shows me something in action tends to keep my focus. Give my imagination a steady diet of verbs, rather than nouns, actions and events rather than concepts, and it’ll snap to attention.
I remember, a few years ago, when I was writing the script for my docu-drama on the Hollywood Blacklist, “Blacklisted,” I asked myself, how in God’s name and I going to squeeze fifteen years of personal history, national politics, and family trauma in three different countries into three hours and say something that listeners can follow and connect with? The question kept me in a panic for months. Finally, it occurred to me that whatever I put in had to be an action. Something had to be happening to somebody at every moment and one thing had to lead directly to another. Maybe that meant I wouldn’t ever be able to “step back” and put the whole story in some bigger historical context, but if the actions I chose were right and showed real people behaving in a real way, listeners would be able to understand the broader issues and be able to imagine what they themselves might have done. So, in the whole series, you never hear a single discussion about the meaning or the significance of the Hollywood Blacklist or speculations on the reasons people took the sides that they did, but you do get a vivid experience of the fear people felt, the lies they told themselves and each other, the gutsy ways they stood up for what was right, and maybe even the awful “ordinariness” of those times, and how they could happen all over again, to you or me.
This “abstract” vs. “real experience” business is something I think about daily. I work on a news show. Often the only way to cover a story quickly is by generalizations — “this development occurred today and here is what experts and politicians said it means,” — but if you don’t show how the story played out in the life of some individual you can visualize and even imagine could be you, you don’t remember much about it. And doing that right takes a lot more time.
Jay Allison 05.07.01
As I remember it, the entire Blacklisted series was action. In fact, as much as I really admired it, I recall feeling somewhat overwhelmed at times by the density of action, perhaps compounded by the reverb effect. I’d like to hear it again. Is it available? Would you do it any differently now? Did you get significant response from people who were involved?
On Technique and Trauma
Tony Kahn 05.07.01
You can get Blacklisted through audible.com as a stereo .mp3 download (their format) or as a series of cassettes via Lodestone:
You can also check out the Blacklisted site
www.weisbroth.com/blacklisted [Site no longer exists]
As for doing it differently now, that’s so tough to answer for me, still. I did it originally to answer some very personal questions for myself. I had gone through that nightmare as a kid and I needed to understand it as an adult and a father and to understand what the adults at the time were really experiencing. (You know what kids are like – if anything goes wrong in the family, they think it’s their fault or a problem they ought to be able to solve. Not a great way to make sense of politics and red scares.) Luckily, I had plenty of documentary material to give me a feeling for what my parents and others never dared reveal to a kid at the time. Once I’d finished understanding and telling their story, I felt done with it and wanted to move on. It was therapeutic and hard to imagine repeating or re-doing some other way. If I were to try to tell it today, it would be a different story.
Technically, I was working with a lot of elements — what was said on the media at the time (real recordings from the National Archives), what people were writing in their letters and diaries, the denunciations people were sending to the FBI that I discovered in my father’s FBI files years later, reconstructed and dramatized conversations and political rallies, and people’s unspoken thoughts and monologues. I tried to find ways of setting them off from each other in terms of stereo placement, EQ, etc. that people could follow easily and understand at once. Also, to keep the drama from ever feeling like it was locked in the studio, I made sure that there was real ambience for every scene, whether it was an office, FBI headquarters, cafe in Mexico, or a train station in Budapest. I recorded backgrounds in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, relying on commercial SFX libraries only when I couldn’t get the sound on location myself. I recorded the cast wherever and whenever they were free, usually in Los Angeles or New York and never together, so all the scenes between them were created in the editing. It was one of those experiences that made me appreciate the difference between good actors and great ones, like Carroll O’Connor, Eli Wallach and Stockard Channing, who could give you the feeling they were responding directly to another character, when it was only me reading the character’s lines into their headphones. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have changed any of the elements, but I might have tried to pull them together on fewer trips.
Did I get significant response from people who were involved? Yes, but interestingly, not much. I heard a lot from people who had either never known about the Blacklist and were amazed it had happened in America or from people who felt they’d gone through something similar because of other kinds of discrimination, like racism, or homophobia, or nationalist feelings, that had targeted them. It gave me a very good feeling that I’d find enough points in common with my story to make it a story about them, too. Maybe the people who had been through the Blacklist itself preferred not to have to relive the harder parts.
Carol Wasserman 05.14.01
Blacklisted’ was the first public radio show I ever heard talked about, out in the street, by people I had not known to be public radio listeners. It was an audacious act, making radio out of our parents’ nightmares, the ones which we had been forbidden to acknowledge or discuss. For those of us from a certain time and place in history, what we remember most about our childhoods is how scared the grown-ups were. And how formless the fear seemed, because no one dared discuss its specifics with us. Too much information could be dangerous.
So it surprised me to learn how many of us had been warned to keep quiet. And how grateful, now, so many people were for the bravery and generosity of Tony Kahn. Who dared to break our parents’ silence. And in doing so gave us permission to share notes. Speak openly about things which we knew to be forbidden. Things which would cause the world to end, were they to be talked about in public. On the street. On the radio.
I don’t think anyone I heard talking about the series ever wrote to thank you. I didn’t write – I was much too shy. I’m sorry.
But there were many people profoundly affected by your work.
Silence and Fear
Tony Kahn 05.15.01
Carol, thanks. Silence is such a big part of people’s stories. It is the language of fear, sometimes. It took me forty years to penetrate some of the silences I grew up with to tell my parents’ story; some of my earliest memories, in fact, are of the crushing weight of things not said and fears not shared. I heard from a lot of people after “Blacklisted” aired who had their own stories to tell about the silences they grew up with. One woman sent me an image from her own life I never forgot. She was working class Irish and her uncle had been a union organizer in the ’30s. When the Red Scare began no one in the family would talk about him. One day she discovered a picture of him, in a newspaper article describing a strike he had led for shoe workers in Lowell, Mass, hidden under a lace doily on top of the television set. It hadn’t been forgotten there — she noticed someone dusted it regularly.
Why didn’t you lose faith in people, basic communications and the media?
Tony Kahn 05.10.01
My brother Jim is three years older. We went through the blacklist period side by side. He fought it every second, struck back at every insult, had a fist fight with the next door kid who called us dirty communists, has challenged anyone’s right to brand him ever since. I became more the quiet observer, the accommodate wherever possible, the kid whose best survival strategy was silence. I asked Jim once why we responded so differently to the same circumstances – different temperaments? He said something that I never forgot. “Tony, I was six when the blacklist started, you were three. I remember happy times when Dad and I took walks together and he had time to show me wonderful things before they threw us out of the garden. All you ever knew was the fear and the silence. I had an Eden I wanted to get back to. You didn’t.”
I never lost faith in people, I guess, because I never had much of it to begin with. I didn’t challenge the media because I had never seen it lose its conscience; like nighttime, I took the darkness for granted.
What I did learn from the period, looking back, seeing neighbors and friends turn away from us or other blacklisted people was that most people scare easily, that the difference between people who can stand up to fear and those who can’t is totally unpredictable (you don’t know how you’re going to handle a major threat to your economic survival or a moral crisis until it happens; you can hope you’ll live by your principles, but you don’t know) and that the kind of character it takes not to inform on others to save your skin is extremely rare all over the world and probably something you’re born with and virtually impossible to teach.
My father happened to be an honest man. He just was. He wouldn’t even ask for a loan he desperately needed without saying what a bad credit risk he was. He never thought he was being brave by standing up for his political principles. He just knew he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. I’ll never know whether I inherited that trait until I face a similar crisis. (I went through the blacklist not as a father with a family to support, but as a kid, and that’s a huge difference.) What I think I tried to suggest in Blacklisted was that when things go bad, most people behave badly. Our best defense as a society is to try to spot the political tendencies that can lead to terror before they go too far, because once the terror arrives, the talking stops and the silence begins.
What Have You Heard Lately?
Tony Kahn 05.08.01
Let me repeat my original question. What makes a story memorable for you? Better yet, what have you heard RECENTLY on public radio you couldn’t wait to tell someone else? And when you did, how did you describe it?
The Execution Tapes
Andy Knight 05.08.01
The Execution Tapes really got me – they blew me away. I had expected and imagined it to be cold and clinical, which it was, but hearing the reality of it all still managed to surprise me.
The Holding Power of Surprise
Tony Kahn 05.08.01
Andy – thanks for joining the conversation. Next to the sheer impact of real, well-chosen details, the stuff of real life, surprise is what holds me to a story. The kind of surprise when the story takes a different direction from the one I expected. The sort of thing that brings me up against my expectations, the limits of my imagination, my blind spots.
This American Life does that all the time. They start out and tell you a very interesting story with a clear narrative line, absorbing all by itself, distinctive, quirky, unique, often about someone getting one of their first serious insights into adult life. And then, just when you think you know where it’s going, the story takes a turn and uncovers another, surprising layer of the narrator’s life or the relationship he/she’s describing. Now THAT’s masterful. A direct laying on of hands to your mind. A surprise that opens your imagination like a flower.
There’s a DJ on WWOZ here in New Orleans who is either an old man or an old woman. His voice cracks when he talks and he gets very excited about what he’s just played, quoting from liner notes and personal recollection of live performances from 50 years ago. He has genuine, as opposed to contrived or self conscious, enthusiasm. He tells stories, and the stories aren’t always interesting, but the way his voice breaks with joy is. Real enthusiasm makes for good radio.
Emperor of the Universe Ernie K. Doe used to go on WTUL here in New Orleans drunk. He
would scream over the albums he was playing, “Burn, Doe, burn! Burn K-Doe, burn!” I could listen for hours.
In the category of memorable radio, I might even place Dr. Laura. She delivers a product known as moral certitude. She takes control of the callers/questioners/pilgrims by psychologically berating them within the first two minutes, wresting control ruthlessly and quickly. Too bad “Dr.” Laura is a dangerous bluffing liar. Her schtick makes for outrageously good radio at times.
Behind the Voice
Tony Kahn 05.08.01
cw – what a brilliant response to the sheer character that comes in a voice. Just terrific! Reminds me that the voice is a vital organ that just happens to hang outside your body. But it carries all the warmth and vitality of your character. Only the best actors in the world can disguise what the real message in the tone and the timber of their voice is. Actually, even they can’t. What they do is master what’s inside them so that their voice DOES reflect it.
The really great voices, the memorable ones we respond to, always carry a message apart from the words they speak. It’s the emotional undercurrent, the feeling behind the words.
To me the best radio, like the best film, involves some kind of culture clash, a cross-cultural encounter in the broadest sense.
Listening to a good host, like yourself, I feel as though I’ve been invited to a dinner party. I like that you do all the planning and cooking, and I just show up with a few flowers.
The Host’s Job
Tony Kahn 05.10.01
I love your remark (about culture clash). It broadens what I was trying to get at by the element of surprise, the turns a story can take that kick our mind into high gear. And that can, maybe paradoxically, make you feel closer to the material because of its “strangeness.” On “The World” we’re always on the look out for stories that show the ways people interpret or experience the same things differently. It broadens the sense of your own possibilities.
My favorite interviews are with guests who come to the studio. We get to share the same space. The eye contact, the body language, the shared oxygen really help the spirit of collaboration. And for me, the best interviews come from collaboration, getting someone to explain what they’re talking about in terms that feel like a real lived-in experience to you. When things work just right (as they so rarely do!) I feel like I’m a guest at a great party myself.
Identity and Persona
Jay Allison 05.10.01
Tony, I’d be interested in your take on Identity or Persona on the radio. I’ve heard you in various contexts, and while it’s always YOU, the manner is obviously different between, say, “Says You” and “The World.”
Your adjustment may be as simple as dressing differently for a formal function or casual party, but do you ever find your persona bumping into your personality? Do you change that “single person” you’re talking to? Do you improvise the same way in both contexts? Do you have any context on the radio where you’d improvise so thoroughly that there’s actual risk of ending up someplace strange and unfamiliar?
cw was talking about this. I think on public radio, you mostly know how it will end. Nothing too unexpected will occur. The host will see to that. There’s a script, some kind of script, somewhere. Sure, we want to know how the story will end, but know it probably won’t go careening off into new territory.
I think this is an advantage that Howard Stern & Co. hold. You aren’t sure what will happen, how strange it will get (although, now, their extremity is becoming as mundane as our decorum).
Brecht used to talk about this, how he wanted the vital unpredictability of the sporting event to enter the theatre, for the play to move outside the lines. But, even with that intention, the formality of the theatre held fast.
Tony Kahn 05.10.01
Jay, I did a theater exercise years ago, in my twenties, that scared the hell out of me. The director had two people sit beside me, one at either ear. He asked them to conduct different conversations with me at the same time. My task was to keep both conversations going simultaneously. I looked straight ahead, let my mind sort of split in two, and plunged in. What a trip! I succeeded wonderfully — and it left me, aside from the exhilaration, with virtually no memory of the experience whatsoever. The two simultaneous conversations ended up having no substance for me at all.
I learned that I have an ability to split my mind (and aspects of my personality) in two but if it gets out of hand, the price I pay is huge – I don’t end up being there at all. Like most people, I have to divide up parts of myself at work, conduct an interview with someone on the phone, say, while the producer on the other side of the studio glass is saying (or shouting) something else in my ear, read through briefing notes on one story we’re going to cover while listening to someone else tell me about another, be a news host on one show and a quiz show panelist on the other, or, challenge someone I happen to agree with in an interview to make room for an opposing point of view. We’re all chameleons that way; I think civilization probably depends on it. But what I try to do is make sure I am genuinely interested in whatever I’m doing. And for that I’ve got an iron-clad test: at the end of the day, can I remember it clearly? So, I try to be there for each “side” of myself. If I am, I’ll also be at my most relaxed, and that, for me, is my most creative/generous/humorous state.
Viki Merrick 05.11.01
I am normally a rather rambunctious individual but REALLY good stories make me quiet. Tell me a good story and I have nothing to say. For a while.
The first story that jumped to my mind in response to your question was the Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael Baronowski. After I heard the final cut I had to go home and debrief, cutting vegetables, alone. Three hours later I couldn’t shut up about it.
Your “memoir” had a similar effect on me. You wrote it carefully but it was not overly produced, not a lot of filters.
I was captivated by Carmen Delzell’s Off the Bus – it scared the bejeesus out of me. Unadorned, you can’t look away or make up explanations. I like looking under the dust ruffle – seeing how MUCH dust, how many boxes filled with what oddities. Hearing about things I have never done, felt, owned or dared. It’s the stories of the undersides of people that fill me up, steal my words and leave me still.
The Importance of Response
Tony Kahn 05.11.01
Viki, thank you. I am awed by the responses I’ve been getting from thoughtful, honest, eloquent lovers of good radio, like you.
One of the things I’ve appreciated – deeply – from being a guest here is how little people like me who are on the air hear from people who listen. Sure, we get compliments and criticisms on specific things we’ve said or done or failed to say or do, but not a peep about what happens when radio really connects — the ripples it sets off in people’s minds, and the depths they take it to in their own lives. A good piece of provocative radio, whatever kind, is the start of a conversation, but radio provides very little air space to the listener, to keep the conversation going and growing. There ought to be a show, call it “Follow Up” or whatever you like, that gives us a chance to hear what thoughts and stories and memories have been generated on the other side of the microphone. And not just in sound bites, or as part of one call-in on-air brawl, but respectfully produced. In a sense, this is what the internet does in an on-going discussion like this.
Studs Terkel and the Abstraction Generalization
Harriet Reisen 05.12.01
I’ve been listening to Studs Terkel’s collection of interviews from his radio archives beginning in the 50′s. I’m struck by the extent to which they are abstract. He reveals very little biographical information in the intros to people such as Buckminster Fuller, Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The beginnings of the interviews are “personal” only insofar as they characterize the mind-set of the guests in their answers to questions from Terkel such as (to Fuller) “are you an optimist about the future?” and (to Singer) “would you say you’re a mystic?”
After that, Studs takes the interviews into cultural, political, and philosophical realms, asking Parker what she thinks of the beat poets (they won’t last) and Baldwin to expand on his title “Nobody Knows My Name”(“Americans know more about Europeans than white people know about me and their other Negro “‘kissing cousins’”). Daniel Ellsberg is asked nothing and says nothing about how he accomplished the theft of the Pentagon Papers and its personal consequences; he talks only about free speech and his bet that the American people wouldn’t stand for the Vietnam War knowing the truth the papers contained. Margaret Mead thinks the media personalization of events such as the (then recent) JFK assassination has the potential to make people care about the fate of every human being. Studs and I.B. Singer discuss Studs’ thought that “without passion there can be no compassion” like a couple of sophomores late at night in a dorm.
What makes these interviews so compelling despite their lack of narrative or anecdotes? Every one of Studs’ people (many now long dead) seems to be right in the car with you. I know that’s a clichŽ about radio but it’s often not true: for instance, in the case of authors on book tours (while their weary minds are back at home) mouthing their selling points while the interviewer (who’s listening to the producer, or counting down to the next segment) picks another question from the list supplied by the researcher and delivers it in pearly tones or in character as a wise guy, say.
If you hadn’t raised the question of abstraction and the need for the particular I don’t think I would have noticed how philosophical Studs’ interviews are. What’s his secret?
The Relationship of Interview to Story
Tony Kahn 05.12.01
Studs’ pieces are interviews, not stories, except in the broadest sense. Take all his interviews together and you get the outlines of the “big story” I think he tries to tell in a lot of what he does, on air and on the page – the story of Americans, high and low, artists and tradespeople, politicians and common citizens, wrestling with the spirit of America. In the interviews, Studs does – maybe better than anyone else alive – what Chris Lydon did on the Connection, be the spark, the stoker, the empath or the inciter to bring out the guest’s passion for his subject. Studs is the perfect collaborator, helping you bring out the best possible expression of what you think or feel about something. Listen to how often he encourages a guest by playing back to him or her, as if for the sake of clarification, a slight variation of what they just said. They respond with enthusiasm, partly because he’s agreeing with them, I suppose, but also because he’s offered a slight adjustment (call it a “re-write”) that gets them even deeper into or thinking more sharply about what they’re discussing. And you’re right — this kind of stuff is as compelling as any good story. You KNOW how I felt about The Connection and how I put it on my list of “if I had only one show I could listen to day in and day out on a desert island . . .”
Maybe what makes Studs’ interviews feel as satisfying as more traditional “story” material is that, like a good narrative that grabs you and that you immediately want to re-tell to somebody else, they, too, are full of actions and revealing details – only in this case the actions are thoughts expressed with passion, opinions that wrestle with issues in your own life, and sparks of character that kindle your own sense of being alive.
Bill McKibben 05.17.01
Can I tell a Studs Terkel story? Not much of a story, but it illustrated something, at least to me. I was on my first book tour, seven or eight cities out, endlessly mouthing the same chunkettes of prose, when I washed up in Chicago. And I went on Studs’ show – this would have been 1989, fairly near the end of his run, I think – and all of a sudden everything changed. Here was the most famous guy I met that whole month, unless you count the folk on, say, the Today show who are famous without being important, and here was also the guy who had worked the hardest to understand the book. Who had picked out records from his collection for the intros to each segment (am I right in remembering this show went on for an hour?) And in return he got – well, he got a hell of a lot more out of me than anyone else did, that’s for sure. He was truly there, not half there. That’s what I like about Lydon too, truth be told. In a cynical age, engagement really bumps up all the levels on the control board (or something–radio metaphors are not my forte).
Tony Kahn 05.18.01
Bill, thanks for the memory. Reminds me of my one encounter with Studs. I’d gone to Chicago to record some promos with him for “Blacklisted,” which he’d been kind enough to agree to. I’d scheduled twenty minutes with him. He gave me two hours and lunch.
The topic of the Blacklist was a major piece of American history for him and, if something matters to him, he doesn’t just talk about it, he brings it back to life. And he LISTENS with an energy that’s a little superhuman. I’ve got proof — about halfway through our time together I noticed his hearing aids were giving him a lot of trouble — and he still heard everything.
The Unspoken True Stories
Tony Kahn 05.15.011
Carol, I notice from your earlier postings in the Inside-Out discussion group that getting to people’s real, unspoken stories is important to you. Personally, I think that finding those unspoken stories is maybe the single most valuable discovery a person can make. What you said got me to thinking about that and I wrote something to you there. Let me repeat some of it here:
How do you get people who are not accomplished story tellers to find their own true story? What are the clues/criteria to go hunting for as a producer when you find someone who might be a likely subject? So much of what we hear on the air, it seems to me, are the kinds of stories that – or lack of a better phrase – “know where they’re going.” The story teller, whether it’s the producer or the subject, seem to be firmly at the helm, steering the story to shore. I have no objection to that – story telling is an art, and being in control of your materials gives you wonderful opportunities to make the trip – and the view along the way – stunning. But how many stories do we hear that are acts of a deeper kind of discovery, where the story teller is also in the process of trying to find out where the story is going, what the real story is? Do people who are less experienced story tellers give us, as producers, more of an opportunity to explore the kinds of stories that people are, in a sense, telling for the very first time? I suppose you could say successful therapy does a similar thing. You “break through” to an understanding of the real story you never told before — to yourself and to someone else – about yourself. Anyway, this all leads up to a question for me as a producer. “Does everyone,” as you sometimes hear it said, “have a story?” And, if they do, how do you get it out of them? Have you ever considered doing an episode of Inside-Out where you try to explore the idea that everyone has a story to tell they, maybe, have never told themselves before? It’s an idea I’m exploring myself. I wonder how you’d go about it.
Getting the Real Stories
Robin Amer 05.16.01
When Ira Glass came (to Brown University) and critiqued our show he played us a five or six minute story he did for All Things Considered a few years back about a “Dead Animal Man,” a man who the Washington DC sanitation department pays to go around and collect dead animals. (road kill, dead pets). At a certain point in the story, there’s a clip of Ira asking him how his job had changed the way he views animals. When the man responded that his view hadn’t changed, there is first a pause, and then Ira saying “Oh COME ON!” in disbelief. The conversation continues from there, with Ira and the man talking casually, laughing, discussing how the man is a grim reaper or an angel for these animals, depending on how you look at it. Very funny piece! And this in the middle of an otherwise standardly formal ATC format.
First is the issue of change. I think it’s ok to go into an interview not entirely sure of what you’re going to get or what the person’s going to say, but, as Ira told us, it’s not a story if nothing or no one changes. So asking questions about change, asking them to consider and compare before and after is a good place to start. Ira said that when he and his staff meet and consider pieces for their show that’s one of the first things they ask themselves: who changed? This is incredibly important for character driven pieces.
Second is the idea of being a real person on tape/during an interview. The first few interviews I did (not to say I’m totally over this!) I think I would accept what people said pretty uncritically, without pushing the envelope too far. I treated the interview with great formality, and was little intimidated by the process and unable to actually respond like a real person would in a conversation. I never would have responded to someone the way Ira was able to do, with skeptical humor that provoked an interesting response. But I think this is especially valuable, being able to react to what you hear in an interview or in the course of a story with incredulity and skepticism, and reacting realistically, because the interview will sound more genuine and you will probably get more interesting subject matter.
The Silence Before the Story
Tony Kahn – 05.17.01
Sometimes, as you suggest, the best thing an interviewer can do is play back the speaker to himself. When you restate what the subject said, tweaking it a little in the direction you want it to go you can often get a level deeper. For one thing, the speaker appreciates that you have been listening, and may feel more at ease, for another, they may hear something they haven’t been listening to in their own words and rethink it, re-feel it, explore it further. Studs Terkel is a master at this. Sometimes, you can say nothing at all and it’ll help. Let me offer an example:
I was interviewing someone about a very painful period in her marriage, something I knew she had talked about before. She described the sadness, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was at a loss for what to ask her that I hadn’t already asked that might get us to the next level. So, pretty much by default, I ended up saying — nothing. She finished her account then stopped and looked at me for my next question. I looked back at her, I hope with respect, certainly without any further demands of her, and just let the silence continue. The tension that started to build was the first genuine emotion I think either of us had felt so far and, a few seconds later, she started to talk, partly, no doubt, to cover the embarrassing silence, but from a much deeper place. Her story came to life, memorably, with emotions experienced, it felt to me, as if for the first time.
I wish I could say I discovered a technique there I could use effectively again and again. No such luck. Every interview is different.
Carol Wasserman 05.23.01
Tony, I would like to know how you come up with something to say, week in and week out, year after year. How do you become a long-distance runner?
Tony Kahn 05.23.01
Carol, what an intriguing image. It suggests an answer for me, too. “Find the slipstream and let it carry you along.” In other words, do what you already do so well – appreciate the things other people are passionate about or deeply involved with and let that inspire you.
When you let people know what it is you find exciting about them they usually give you even more — unless they’re totally bent out of shape. And because people are so wonderfully idiosyncratic, you’re probably always going to find them a lot more surprising, intriguing and stimulating than you find yourself.
The stuff I do that I’m happiest about is almost always a kind of collage, an arrangement of great moments other people give me. The most creative thing I do is edit.
In The Dark Heart of Chat Journalism
John Jacobsen 05.27.01
Tony – I consider you an avid explorer of the information flow. You are the headlights driving down Alpha Road, the early adopter – Dr. Livingston searching for the source of denial. So, as you approach the end of this month’s exploration, what can you report from this uncharted medium of public communication? How do you describe the land of chat journalism?
And Mr. Stanley Wants to Know….
Jay Allison 05.27.01
And while you’re at it, Tony, I wouldn’t mind some pithy musings on the state of public radio. What it’s doing well, what it needs to try. If we are the “news source of record” how do we also take wild chances, invent new things? Surely we’re not too mature…
The Horse-Drawn Laptop
Tony Kahn 05.27.01
John, it’s funny you give me credit for being an early adapter. Right now I’m in rural Cape Cod, working on my wife Harriet’s horse-drawn Toshiba laptop from the mid-’90s. But you’ve cracked my big secret. As my friend Judy Stoia says, “Kiddo, the truth is you’re a gearhead.” Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to technology. Not as an engineer – I still have no good image for what electricity is – but as someone drawn, as if sheer magnetism, to tubes, wires, and their combined promise of reaching the whole world at once. I was eleven when I returned to the States and my first television set, a black and white RCA that smelled like burned toast and produced a nearly constant stream of static. You could always find me in some vaguely obscene arrangement with my nose up its innards, fiddling with tubes and knobs, trying to make it work. Computers, for me, were a dream come true, a way of being in charge of a world directly responsive to my touch and, increasingly in contact with anyone else around the world, to whatever degree felt comfortable.
I discovered, as soon as communication became part of the powers of a personal computer, that I was as shy on line as I was in person. Once (I swear! Only once!) two lady friends of mine and I logged on to Compuserve as a 21 year old woman named Melody to see what would happen in a free-for-all-chat-room and that was plenty. So, for me, spending a month like this on-line has been a big step forward exploring the kinds of connections I can make. Since I tend to do most of my thinking in conversation rather than in isolation, it’s also been a way of exploring some ideas about radio and trying to be more explicit and conscious of the things I usually do by instinct. The one area where I feel I haven’t had time to explore this on-line business at Transom is in making the discussion more interactive. I’d hoped we’d have time to try out some production experiments like uploading some raw tapes of an interview and exchanging ideas and edits on line. Unfortunately, the month has gone by too quickly. But I’m just getting started.
And Those Pithy Musing You Asked For
Tony Kahn 05.28.01
I’m glad you didn’t ask for great ideas. Even if I had them, they wouldn’t matter. Great ideas are like tadpoles in the piranha pond of life. We’ve probably all been to enough brain storming sessions to know that great ideas rarely make it to maturity. The main thing that makes a person or an institution change is a crisis and I don’t think we’re in a crisis yet. As long as the old way of doing things works and is tolerable, it’ll stay in place.
Actually, great leadership and a great idea together can sometimes work big changes, if the timing’s right. I’m thinking in particular of what Geraldine Laybourne did years ago at Nickelodeon, when she changed it from an undistinguished children’s cable channel to the most exciting and original brand in broadcasting. She was terrific at inspiring creative people and a genius at setting the right limitations. She offered a $20,000 budget and a day or two of studio time to anyone on staff — anyone! — who had an idea for a kid’s show they wanted to pilot. People in their twenties, not that far from being kids themselves, came up with neat, inexpensive dramas and game shows that were just the kinds of things kids naturally responded to — lots of silliness, lots of messy goop, tons of mayhem and sass. It gave Nickelodeon a whole new energy and identity. It set an example for how to imbue an operation with new life that even Geraldine hasn’t been able to repeat.
For me, though, the moral is she stopped talking about what to do and just did whatever she could afford at the time. From that came the stuff that got used and refined. I see similar energy and ideas coming from efforts like Transom a lot sooner than from NPR. So, whatever the state of public programming is, I’m betting on something interesting and inspiring coming from your neck of the woods and young producers than from the “establishment.” Not that I’m against experience and guidance – some of my best friends are middle-aged, but, you know…..
Tony Kahn 05.31.01
A dear friend of mine, Jayne Chamberlin, once said, “My, Tony, how the time flies when I do the talking!”
I hope that’s not too relevant here, but this past month has sped by for me. I’m grateful to all of you for that – for your comments and questions (and to the lurkers for not flaming me) on a wide range of topics from the art of listening, to the techniques of interviewing, to the power of silence at the heart of good radio stories. I hope I’ve given back some of the energy and thoughtfulness you’ve offered me. I’m especially grateful for the chance to put words to some of the things that make working in radio for me such a fascinating process day to day – and nowadays in particular.
A thousand years from now they’re probably going to be digging up the remains of our culture. Chances are nothing will be left of public radio by then but broken coffee mugs with mysterious markings like “All Things Considered”, “The World”, and “Fresh Air”, and I’m betting archeologists are going to mistake them for religious artifacts belonging to the “priestly class”. A part of me, though, has this sneaky suspicion that radio is the most enduring medium of all, the most human, the one best able to communicate our need to be in touch, and that people 300 generations from now will still be wrestling with the best ways to get each other’s ear and rejoicing when they do. In any event, having the chance to do that myself has been the luckiest break in my life.
If you’re interesting in continuing our conversation here, feel free to check in. I’ll be around and eager to hear from you. In fact, in the true public radio spirit of roping listeners, how about this for an offer: one free three-cassette copy of “Blacklisted” for the person (other than me) who leaves message #150!
Tony, Don’t Go….
Jay Allison 06.03.01
You have been so kindly here, each posting a promptly delivered, useful, engaging little parable. I said at the station the other day I want you just to be around for advice on anything…say, a pie recipe or getting my motorcycle started.
And indeed, all Transom visitors will be glad to know that Tony has agreed to be a Guest Emeritus and hang out in his topic and wherever else he’s needed – in our common quest for perfect crust and carburation.
(Matching grant: a Transom T-shirt too for an eloquent Message #150)
A Note to Sarah Vowell
Tony Kahn 06.04.01
Thanks, Jay. In my rush out the door, I neglected to clean my desk for Sarah Vowell, your next guest and one of the most delightful voices and sensibilities in public radio. Sarah, if you’re listening, feel free to toss anything you don’t need. Especially the reading glasses. I suspect you’re too young to know this from experience, but the need for reading glasses coincides exactly with your inability to remember where you left anything.