Volume 1/Issue 8
I’m so happy Sarah is here. She gives me faith every time I hear her, because she’s so much herself and not anyone else. In the sometimes droning world of public radio, this helps.
Sarah wasn’t sure what we wanted her to write here; I just looked back at my email in response to her question, and now it feels like an introduction, so here:
“I read your book Radio On a long time ago, and I thought you were saying things that public radio needed to hear. You managed to say them in a way that was both wise-ass and authoritative. Then, Barrett told me about you on the radio in Montana and how you did great work even though you didn’t sound at all like radio people were supposed to. Then I heard your work and loved it. That piece about your father and the canon, that’s brilliant. And I sat in the audience in San Francisco when you held the attention of the whole place, just standing there talking. You’re exactly what Transom likes: a lover and critic of radio, and a practitioner. You’re a happy enthusiast and you’re crabby. You write well. That’s for starters. I don’t want to direct your “manifesto” at all, but it could talk about listening, what you like and don’t like, the difference between critiquing and making, story structure, humor, vocal style, working on TAL, differences between writing for print and for radio (that would be interesting) and I don’t know what else.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarah Vowell’s “Manifesto Thing.”
The Manifesto Thing
Sarah Vowell 06.06.01
I do a fair share of readings around the country and most of the people who show up to hear me are public radio listeners who know me from This American Life. Sometimes they come up to me afterwards and talk about how much they love public radio, how they can’t live without public radio, how public radio is like air to them. And then, if I’m selling books, those are the people who never buy my second book, the one of mostly This American Life stories, because they got that one from the pledge drive. So they buy my first book, called “Radio On,” a diary of listening to the radio in 1995, and I feel really sorry for them when I’m signing it because I know they’re going to get home and be so disappointed reading a practitioner of their beloved public radio calling their beloved public radio hosts words like “devil” or “vampire.” And not in a good way either.
I got into the public radio racket by accident. It never occurred to me to write for radio. I wanted to write about radio. I wanted to write about radio for two reasons. The first reason is that I’d grown up in Bozeman, Montana with a marvelous college station called KGLT that more or less formed my complete world view, a station where I learned about rock & roll, became a truly miserable excuse for a newscaster and a not too terrible DJ, and made lifelong radio-freak friends (including Barrett Golding, whom I like to think of as my radio Yoda.) The other reason I wanted to write about radio was the fact no one else was. After the Republicans took over the Congress in 1994 and the freshmen representatives started calling themselves the “dittohead caucus” in homage to their spiritual leader, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, I thought radio was exerting this enormous influence on American life. And unlike movies or books or music or television, there weren’t any critics writing about what was on it, which meant nobody was really holding radio responsible for its drivel or celebrating its greatness. Radio felt like a big secret.
Secrets, I soon found out, aren’t always interesting. Listening to the radio every day for an entire year was a prison sentence. It was the most depressing, annoying, debilitating project I have ever undertaken, and I have a master’s degree in art history. Besides the fact that radio in general is crap, 1995 in particular wasn’t the most upbeat year. That was the era of welfare mothers and the Oklahoma City bombing and the Million Man March and flying out of LAX on the day the Unabomber was threatening to blow it up. Basically, talk radio was evil, rock & roll was starting to take a dive from which it hasn’t recovered, and NPR was like a pompous old bore you’re seated next to at a 365-day dinner party.
The one nice thing about that project was that when there were bright spots, they were very bright indeed. And, except for the Neil Young songs, the great moments were almost always on public radio. I listened to the CBC’s “Sunday Morning” every week and I latched onto its host, Ian Brown. He was really smart and really funny and he had this touching habit of actually caring about his country. Unfortunately, that country was Canada, but still. He did all the hosting duties from interviewing farmers in Manitoba to grappling with a million other topics from books to Bosnia. But my favorite part was his weekly personal essay. I think that was the first time I really had a model for how to write a personal essay for the radio. Unlike the hosts of American public radio programs, who seemed like they just showed up for work in between the kind of Georgetown cocktail parties where all they talked about was what a hick Bill Clinton was, Brown seemed like a real human being, the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. (It’s true–the guy can really hold his liquor.) By real human being I mean a modern, all-over-the-place citizen of the world. He wrote about what he cared about. One week it was hockey, the next he might be asking since when did sweaters start costing so much?
My favorite Brown essay of all time was rendered on the eve of the Quebec referendum. Quebec was voting on whether or not to remain part of Canada. He made a heartfelt if desperate argument for sticking together, for being a nation. Recalling his childhood as an Anglo in francophone Montreal, he said, “I spoke English and French. I had English and French friends. I lived there. It was my home and my family. It is also the foundation, the distinct foundation of my memory. The countryside, the testicle-clenching winters with the electricity down, the odd, thrilling trip to the Forum to play in a peewee hockey championship, various people’ Those were some elements of ‘My Quebec’ if you’ll pardon the expression. Now, a group of people, the forty-six or forty-eight or fifty-two percent of the people of Quebec, want to take away that part of my history – But what can I do? Should I beg? Should I implore Quebeckers, my old neighbors, not to cut out of my head and my chest the idea and the ideal that for me is the essence of this country, a decent moral dream?”
Brown was talking to his countrymen. (No one down here was doing anything remotely like that on the radio. Just the opposite. That same year, I once flipped the On switch and the first thing I heard was an AM talk show host suggest that the government should hire all the welfare mothers to shoot down all the illegal immigrants at the border.) This only occurs to me now, years later, but I think hearing that Ian Brown commentary gave me permission to get cracking on my real life’s work–to talk to my country about what my country is like. It was my first inkling that patriotism didn’t have to be creepy, that it could be expressed with humor and ambiguity and include all the silly minor details by someone you would actually want to know.
Lucky for me, during my year of radio hell, I met this guy in Chicago who co-hosted my favorite local show “The Wild Room” on WBEZ. He was starting a new public radio show featuring writing and documentaries focused on a theme. And that man was Ira Glass. And that show became This American Life. I wrote about Ira a couple times, bumped into him around town. Once, at a dinner five years ago, I started telling him a story about this letter I got from a fan of the punk band the Fastbacks thanking me for mentioning the band in a book review I had written for a local paper and how the fan had enclosed a complicated book he’d compiled of statistics about the band, my favorite being the page labeled “Fastbacks Drummer Pie Chart.” After I stopped talking all Ira said was, “I can loan you a tape recorder.” What he meant was: Hey, do a story for the radio. And that’s how that began. Since then, Ira has hired me to write stories or make documentaries about everything from the legacy of Jacksonian Indian removal policy to the overwhelming number of Christmas songs in which Santa Claus is a slut. Now that I think about it, I now get paid to be Ian Brown, only shorter and without all the hockey.
Looking at Brown’s thoughts on Quebec again right now, on the page, I think they still resonate. But there was something about hearing that on the radio, hearing it in his voice, that made it all the cliche’d but true things they say about radio-that it’s more intimate, more personal, the closest thing to ESP. And the only place on the radio you’re allowed to talk like that is public radio. (Of course, you get paid in public radio money, which I have come to believe is a dwindling pile of Confederate cash they keep in a vault at Peach State Public Radio.)
So as a listener myself, I can understand how listeners get so attached to the people on public radio. I guess my favorite person on public radio–aside from Ira of course, of course–is Terry Gross. I listen to “Fresh Air” every day, and I find myself noticing these weird little things about her. Unlike a self-absorbed first person storyteller like me, Terry Gross is a more opaque, more mysterious person. But just as change falls into sofa cushions, these little biographical tidbits do slip out. I think she might be worried about Alzheimer’s, because she mentions forgetfulness a lot. Or I know that when she cooks chicken, she’s very mindful of salmonella. Anyway, she’s this beloved part of my life and I like how her mind works. And when I meet a public radio listener who wants to talk about public radio, I always find that a good save is to ask, “Did you hear Terry Gross interview XYZ the other day? Remember that part when he revealed blah-blah-blah?”
In between this line and the one above it you can please insert 36 hours where I tried to figure out why “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” are the only shows on American public radio I truly love. But it’s like defining jazz or something–all the words to describe it describe the other kinds of music too. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the emotional tenor of those shows–not too square but not too hip, irreverent and reverent all at once, brainy while not dismissing the importance of dumb fun. Or maybe Ira and Terry just sound like they give a damn. The driving force behind their best interviews is simply, “Wow, I really like that thing you did.”
Or maybe it’s that they’re both inherently democratic, speaking in the same tone of voice to everyone, be they relief workers or comedians. They don’t segue from the serious interview to the frivolous commentator by screwing their voices into that condescending tone that means, “And now, folks, I’d like to introduce our little freak.”
If I step back from everything I’ve just written I can see it as an argument for personality over substance, the kind of shallow thing that’s supposed to turn Edward R. Murrow over in his grave. But as I understand it, the mission of public broadcasting is to cover the beat of life itself. And life can be tough to take. When Terry Gross is talking to someone about breast cancer or genital mutilation or some other horrific thing I might turn off on any other show, I’ll go along with her. Or, like every other notable male practitioner of public radio (someone should look into this peculiar trend), Ira is obsessed with prisons and prisoners. Me, I’m not in love with lockup, but I will stick with Ira and his prison shows because I know I’ll find out something that’s surprising or moving or funny or all three.
Because as Dante before us knew, when you go to hell, the only way to stand it is if that nice chap Virgil’s showing you around. Then again, if the Inferno were written now, I think the fifth circle would be called “Pledge Drive.”
My question(s) to the discussion group, as makers or consumers of public radio, is this – does public radio coast on its reputation? Clearly, the people who like it like it because it is not dumb. But is that enough? I’m not talking about content per se. For example, the other day, one NPR news program covered the ramifications of Senator Jeffords’s defection as well as an Alaskan couple struggling with their small birch syrup business. Those are good parameters for the kind of stories that should be included. But I don’t remember being moved or surprised or entertained. Something’s missing. Am I alone in thinking this? Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs? And if that’s the case, is it just about money? At the risk of sounding like a Republican, is it Washington syndrome? While I believe in the wisdom of a strong central government, I think where journalism’s concerned I prefer states’ rights. How else do you explain that the sparkier programs are produced elsewhere–Marketplace in LA, TAL in Chicago, Fresh Air in Philadelphia, the Next Big Thing in New York? Is it structural? Can we make a moratorium on beginning every damn report with three seconds of ambient sound? And what other public broadcasting cliches’ need tossing out?
Would I be asking these questions about newspapers, about magazines, about TV? No, because I don’t expect much out of those genres anymore. I’ve settled in to just enjoying being pleasantly surprised when a TV show is good, when a magazine runs a lovely article. But I still believe in public radio’s potential. Because it’s the one mass medium that’s still crafted almost entirely by true believers.
The True Believers Gather For A Little Chat
The Janitor’s Closet
Jackson Braider 06.06.01
I agree with you about radio being a big secret. Nobody wants to go into radio. It’s the janitorial department of the glamour industry — we’re off in the basement somewhere right next to the furnace.
Andy Knight 06.07.01
“Elitism, WOW!” isn’t a great ad campaign to drum up listeners, and people who strive to be on public radio start out as listeners. While I still don’t think that PR listeners are elitist I think that the management behind NPR and at most of the Big PR stations are very elitist. Which brings me to:
Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs?
Is it a matter of the right people applying? Had you not fallen into Public Radio on accident, and had no radio reputation other than that as an author (maybe a Fresh Air appearance or two), do you think you could get a job with All Things Considered or Morning Edition? Here’s a bit from a help wanted ad on my local NPR/PRI affiliate’s website (for a “NEWS PRODUCER/ ATC HOST”):
…News producers work under the direction of the KWMU News Director and Program Director and must meet KWMU’s standard of NPR-style reporting, requiring excellent, conversational on-air delivery and the ability to professionally operate a broadcast console. Qualifications include: Must have at least two years experience in reporting. Public radio reporting experience desirable. Professional on-air delivery required. Must have at least one year host/news anchor experience. College degree or equivalent combination of education and experience required…
I’m certainly not going to apply… I wouldn’t want to work in an environment that spawned that ad. It says “educated”, not smart, intelligent, or witty (three of the many things college will not teach you). It says “experience” and “professional” multiple times, but not funny, interesting, or innovative.
Sarah Vowell 06.06.01
In response to Andy Night and his help-wanted ad, I would say, Andy, that it was an ad for a news producer, which is a fairly technical job and for which they’d surely need to hire a pro. I’m not against professionalism. On the contrary, it is my fondest hope that someone would say of me, “That Sarah Vowell–she’s a real pro.” If a person is interested in doing stories and getting them on their local public radio station, they shouldn’t apply for a job. They should just start writing things or making tapes or volunteering and making a nuisance out of themselves to the people at the station who have the jobs. That’s how I started writing for magazines – by writing things for really small, really broke publications and just faxing them already penned items on spec. (It’s what the art critic Jerry Saltz calls “guerrilla faxing.”)
Andy Knight 06.07.01
“Professional” is fine when it comes to operating the broadcast console, or when it comes to work ethic but what I don’t like about “Professional” is that it’s used in the line “Professional on-air delivery required.” I doubt this is to weed out people who would deliver the news from the bottom of a bottle or those who may feel compelled to imitate Daffy Duck at any moment. The implication I see is that they want you to have the stereotypical “radio voice”, which I don’t think should be “required”.
What’s “Professional On-Air Delivery?”
Tony Kahn 06.08.01
Andy, I heard something once as a kid I have been trying to make sense of ever since: “There are no rules here, until they’re broken.”
As applied to hiring hosts through industry ads and personnel offices, at least, I think it means – “We’d be happy with someone with real personality, but since there’s no accounting for uniqueness and originality, let’s officially rule them out.”
As Sarah said, persistence is perhaps the greatest quality a person with talent can have to get in the door of a radio station. From what I’ve seen, most personnel offices exist to keep people out, not to bring them in. If you do everything by the rules, you can’t be fired for not following orders. Besides, even though job openings are posted, the people actually doing the hiring may already know whom they really want. Often, it’s someone they’ve already worked with. Makes sense – what usually prevails in day-to-day production is chaos, crisis, and panic. You want people you already know you can work with under conditions like that.
People are delighted when they find themselves with someone who’s new, fresh, totally different, and a hit. Hell, they’ll even be happy to take credit for it. But hits have to prove themselves – from the inside. And the best way to get in is often by doing an end run around the personnel office.
Not In Love With Prisons
Ira Glass 06.08.01
Or prisoners. I just think prisons aren’t covered enough – or in the right way – by other media. I think it’s one of the defining facts of this period in America, the skyrocketing rise in prison population. I think someday we’ll look back on this period and try to understand all the ways the country changed because of the now two million people we decided to incarcerate. I think it’s something that’s only half-understood. That’s all.
Sarah Vowell 06.08.
Tony–I’m either the wrong or the perfect person to talk about “how long is too long” because I’ve yet to stick with anything my entire life. “I see we’ve done some dabbling, ” a woman who was interviewing me for a job once told me. I have thus far quit: classical music; French lit; art history; being a museum curator; being an archivist; running a gallery; being an art critic; being a rock critic; about eight towns; countless apartments; and nine novels in the last month alone. I don’t know much about the pitfalls of sticking it out. This American Life is the longest I’ve stuck with anything. I will say though, that my dabbling has fueled my radio work, and that the radio practitioners I admire are kind of all over the place and bounce around between subjects and tone. On the other hand, some weeks I read Robert Christgau–who’s still writing about pop records for like the fiftieth straight year, or I hear Dan Schorr on the radio, who’s covering his, what, twentieth presidential administration, and I wonder how they do it. I’d like to think that I keep bouncing around because I! Love! Life! but I think the truth is that I get bored easily. The truth is, that we want to grow old with the broadcasters we love and we want the ones we don’t like to call it a day. Last night I was watching Letterman, whom I adore, and there was this part where he was just talking about an employee there who distracted him when he was preparing for the show because she said that apples made her mouth itch. And I was laughing out loud, partly because it was funny, but partly because I know and love him as a character, as a persona and I knew what lines like that mean in his world. Part of the pleasure came from the familiarity.
I think we’re agreeing here: What all good people want is perhaps to re-define “professional.” To update what that word means. Being prepared and trustworthy and hard-working are good, being predictable and robotic and close-minded are not.
The Guy Who Does The Hiring Explains It All
Eric Nuzum 06.09.01
I have to weigh in on this “talent issue”. I approach this from two different perspectives: one, as a creative person who had to force his way into public radio; and two, as someone who – at this point in his career – does all the hiring of the programming staff at a fairly large public radio station.
The bottom line: I would donate one of my kidneys to science today if it meant that I would have an eager, passionate candidate in every applicant pool for positions. If all of you are talented, interested people who can’t get your foot in the door at your public radio station – where are you when I’m hiring staff?
Here is a typical story – me. I’m 34, and the program director at WKSU-FM in Kent. I have a programming staff of 17 people and hire 1 to 2 positions a year. I came into public radio when I was 19 and have worked in the industry on and off ever since. I have never worked in commercial radio or had any academic training in radio, journalism, or production. I’ve learned everything by being nosy and struggling through it myself.
I got my first job by agreeing to baby sit taped programming over a Thanksgiving weekend. I hated going to my aunt’s house, so I volunteered to help out. My only experience was one year working at the student station next door. The station didn’t burn down or go off the air that weekend, so I was rewarded with a permanent position on the station staff: watching the tapes roll during a weekly repeat of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on Sunday mornings. I worked for two hours a week, and that was all I did.
I did that for over a year before I did anything else.
Today, whenever an eager or interested person calls, writes, or walks through the door, I tell them that story. While it may be extreme, it makes a point. Most people who walk up to me want to start out picking music for their own program or covering news stories and have them on the air that same week. It is very narcissistic. When I suggest that the need to take time to learn to do silly things like learn to write, operate equipment, or learn the basics of journalistic ethics before they take on big, regular projects – they usually glaze over and don’t come back a second time.
However, occasionally one does. When someone does, they learn a lot (usually fairly quickly) and they eventually become an important part of our team.
It is worth pointing out that even though my station, and many others, have tough professional standards that require time and experience to get a full time job, we do work with people who walk through the doors. We get a lot of solicitations for people to do commentaries. We have a process set up for them, and if they follow through we will assign them a producer and several make it all the way to air – with little to no experience. If you have a modicum of talent or interest, you can make it. However, more than 3/4 of those who approach us never take the time to correct an edit or do a second draft.
Further, when we do have full time programming positions, I rarely hear from anyone outside our industry that puts in a serious effort to apply. All we ask is a resume, audition tape (yes, we have hired people who recorded their tape with a Radio Shack toss away) and some sense of a burning passion to work in public radio. In my current hiring process, my current favorite candidate is a girl with no radio experience and who graduated college less than two years before with a journalism degree. She’s way head of other people with ten to fifteen years experience IN PUBLIC RADIO because she is a “diamond in the rough” who sent a huge portfolio of her work and a passionate cover letter detailing her love for public radio. She went out of her way to make sure I knew how badly and passionately she wants that job. I wish there were one of her in every candidate pool for every job – because those are the people I’d hire. More work, but the pay off is much higher.
So basically, my point is that if you are interested in working at your local public radio station, then do it. There is tons of opportunity out there. Like everything else, you have to pursue it – it won’t come to you. Nothing worth having comes easily.
Career Counseling R Us – Available For Motivational Speaking Engagements
Jay Allison 06.09.01
We got several emails this week, as we do every week, asking how to start, what to do, where to get a break, if we have training available, if we have internships, jobs, etc. All good questions. But, as people above have said, the nice thing about this line of work is: talent, passion, and commitment to service are actually valued in public radio (most of the time), and if you’re also persistent and self-starting and willing to work for a dime… how can you not succeed?
The variable would seem to be talent.
What’s my TRUE talent? Am I developing it?
Am I stalling?
What do I really want to do right now and what’s really stopping me?
Professional On-Air Delivery: Digital Dan
Paul Tough 06.09.01
On KHUM in Arcata, California, there’s a radio host named Digital Dan, a Vietnam veteran who lost his voice in the war, who hosts his show using a speech synthesizer. He spins records, he types, the computer talks. It’s eerie and excellent.
Sarah, I loved your manifesto thing. You’re inspirational, as always — a sentiment that I trust gives you the major creeps.
My two cents on the professionalism issue: my favorite recent radio-listening experience happened in April, when I was in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, on a Sunday night. A local station there has a weekly bluegrass show, but the week I was there the regular host was out playing with his band, so a local woman was filling in. She was having a hell of a time – cutting up, talking to the technician (we couldn’t hear his responses), making jokes at the expense of the absent host, talking effusively and extemporaneously and at length about the supermarket in town that was the show’s main sponsor. Later on the same trip, I was listening to the Friendly Neighbor Radio Show, in Logan, West Virginia, and heard this sponsorship announcement: “And this here portion’s been made possible by the Radio Shack, ain’t it? That’s right, them good ol’ young’uns up there. If you need some electronics, just go by and see ‘em. That’s right.” And a minute later: “Remember now, when you get ready for one of these electronic merchandise, you won’t find a better place to buy ‘em than Radio Shack, right there in Logan.”
I’ve been accused of fetishizing non-professionals, so maybe that’s all I’m doing here. But one way to create a better public-radio system ten years down the road might be to start pouring more of those Confederate dollars into local radio stations around the country (like Jay’s, say).
The Writing Thing
Neece Regis 06.09.11
I recorded a piece at my friend Gustavo’s recording studio, and when we finished he said, “Sounds like radio.” Uh oh, I thought, maybe that’s a BAD thing (like those Saturday Night Live skits…..) Sarah, I think someone asked you about the difference in writing for radio and for print. Any comments?
Skirting The Issue of Personality
Sarah Vowell 06.11.01
We keep skirting around this issue of personality and none of us are ever going to know what to do with it. Because, the Godfather be damned, I am constantly aware of how personal everything is. This morning, I watched the aftermath coverage of the McVeigh execution on MSNBC–the testimony of the ten journalist witnesses, as well as that of the victim’s families who witnessed in Terre Haute. Usually, if there’s an important story, I’ll get at least three or four angles–NYT, Washington Post, NPR, wire service reports through my Internet server, Peter Jennings, Koppel maybe. But this morning, when all the reporters filed past the mike to give their version of events, or when the victims did the same…I know it’s this huge solemn national event, but as a storyteller I couldn’t help but compare the various speakers. And it was a microcosm of the way stories are told. Among the reporters, there were the just-fine ones and then there was the reporter from Fox News (I know, I know) but he was the only one who made me feel anything. He reported what he saw, but he knew how to talk, how to use his voice, how to be a person. And among the victims–trust me, I feel horrible critiquing their delivery–there was the mother of the four-year-old who did an astonishing job of conveying what this meant to her, what it was like to be in that room, and how she needed to see it. She said that for over a year after the bombing, that she kept looking for her daughter in the faces of all the little blond girls who crossed her path. She doesn’t owe us anything. But I feel like writing her a letter saying, “I’ll remember you, and I’ll remember your daughter.” Because I will. And it’s because of what she said and the way that she said it.
Why It Looks Like We Love Prisons
I think prisons should be covered as much as say, Alaska, or more than. Because more people live in prisons than live in Alaska.
Excellence Shoots, But So Often Hits The Post
Ian Brown 06.11.01
At the risk of stating the obvious, I’d say one other thing public radio still does well, no matter how earnest and self-important it can be at its worst (and I’ve produced enough of that stuff to know), is this: it still doesn’t take advertising. (Many radio shows here at the CBC don’t even have sponsors, at least so far.) This habit doesn’t guarantee good radio, of course, any more than commercials guarantee bad radio per se. But being free of a commercial agenda does mean that producers and writers and reporters have the opportunity to think about stories without thinking about ratings or about which sponsors will be offended. Not taking money for what you do means you can–not that you will, but that you can–exist outside the official information agenda and the approved news feed. Then the producers and writers can pay attention to what truly interests them, as opposed to what is supposed to interest them, or what other people and powers tell them should interest them. It’s the difference between what the Fox reporter said about McVeigh’s demise and what all the other reporters said, and maybe it comes from being on the margins, in the zone where the usual rules don’t have to apply. It’s the difference between great work, on the one hand, and merely keeping up with the informational Joneses, which constitutes so much of what is published and broadcast. A senior executive here at the CBC once told me he was changing a show that had 95 percent audience-approval ratings because, he said, “when you have 95 percent approval, you ARE the status quo. And public radio is not supposed to be the status quo.”
True, you can hear and read good stuff anywhere, if you’re lucky or at least catholic in your media consumption. But publishers have to sell books, and newspapers get involved in readership wars, while commercial radio and TV stations have to prove their desirability to advertisers no less than twice a year. So while the fact that a radio station is public isn’t a guarantee that it will produce original work (original, Vowellian work is simply rare, no matter where you listen), at least it can mean one less impediment (the need to be popular) to good work slipping through to grateful (ever so grateful!) listeners.
What really troubles me, though, is that this idea, and this ideal, of the commercial-free venture is one that fewer and fewer people seem capable of grasping, never mind agreeing or disagreeing with.
Or am I just being a crank?
Radio vs. Everything Else
Sarah Vowell 06.11.01
Before I respond to all you thinkers, I came across this yesterday. I finally got around to reading the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report on the Florida election in its entirety. It has nothing to do with radio, but all you documentary heads might want to check out the chapters with eyewitness testimony. Breathtaking. My favorite comes from the section devoted to “Access to Precincts for Individuals with Disabilities.” One wheelchair-bound Dr. Frederick Shotz of Broward County told the commission that he “had to use his upper body to lift himself up to get up the steps in order for him access his polling place. Once he was inside the polling place, he was not given a wheelchair accessible polling booth. Once again, he had to use his arms to lift himself up to see the ballot and, while balancing on his arms, simultaneously attempt to cast his ballot. He testified that an individual using a wheelchair who did not have the same upper body strength could not have accessed his polling place. He also stated that his polling place did not provide curbside voting and described curbside voting as a ‘wonderful fantasy that never came true.’”
In response to Necee’s question about writing for radio v. writing for print, my short answer is that I try to write like I talk either way. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I’m so much more manipulative on the radio. I know how to use my voice to make you feel a certain way. And that’s not writing–that’s acting. I get tired of acting sometimes. Which is why it’s nice to be able to go back to the cold old page. Also, real time is an unforgiving medium. I still maintain a little academic streak, and any time I read something on the air or out loud, I have to cut back on the abstract, thinky bits. Like I have to read a story out loud in front of an audience this week and I had to lop it off by half, to prune it of its dull information and, sometimes, its very point. Those things, for you the listener, are bonuses–the listener doesn’t get as much filler, the listener gets to feel more. Readers are more patient. Either that or they just skim the boring parts.
As a consumer, I’m more fascinated by the difference between radio and TV. Have you ever noticed how people who only get their news from the radio don’t ever recognize anyone? They point at a TV and ask, “Who’s that?” and it’s a picture of OJ or something. The thing that makes radio a better place to tell stories–that it’s more focused, that it’s more elegant, that it’s more about words are, I find, disadvantages in the political sphere, in the sense of trying to ferret it out what the hell one’s government is REALLY up to and what a politician MEANS versus what he’s just said. Radio can’t give you their beady little eyes or their smirking winks.
The Best Things In Life
Sarah Vowell 06.12.01
Comrade Brown’s wistful recall of a time when people valued commercial-free endeavors – like, oh, education (I love this new crop of college presidents who describe themselves as a “CEO”) reminded me that I had a few things to say about cheap pleasures. Though, before I do, I found myself alarmed by this news that there are programs on the CBC with no sponsorship at all. I mean, on my little hometown station even Kim from Pony – a DJ from a tiny town who spun Dean Martin and Mel Torme records – had underwriters. On my local NPR affiliate, WNYC, when there’s not a sponsorship spot, there’s a spot about how nice it would have been if this very spot could have been advertising YOUR business. In general, though, I feel creepy discussing the funding of public radio because I’m on the money-taking side of the biz, not the money-making. That said:
My guiding principle as a behind-the-scenes person on TAL has been one sentence I once read that (new and former NPR muckety muck) Jay Kernis once told some writer about public radio. What he said was that every aspect of the form could be exploited for meaning. And by meaning, I have taken that to mean: jokes. Every aspect of the form can be exploited to make the person who is paying attention smile. The best way I know how to do this is with music. It doesn’t cost anymore to play witty instrumental music than it does to play generic instrumental music. On TAL, we do a 59-second instrumental break in the middle of the program called the I.D. break. And if you’ve been paying attention, or if your station doesn’t just play a Car Talk promo over it instead, you will notice that it is usually a little joke about the theme. Sometimes it’s obvious: “Begin the Beguine” on the show about “First Days,” “Let’s Get Lost” on “You Are Here,” that kind of thing. (Though my own personal favorite was for our show on “Germs.” The I.D. break was a Bob Wills rag. Germs, rag–get it?) There is no reason to do this other than it’s fun. It’s funny. It guides us. I’ve noticed “Fresh Air” does this too. The other day, when interviewing the expert on genetically engineered produce, the outro music was “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” (You know, “potato/potato.”) And was it just me or after Terry’s last interview with Paul Mazursky, did they play a mazurka?
One way this principle needs to be implemented more is during pledge drive. So that’s the breaks, we have to beg for cash. But do we have to do it in the most soul-deadening way possible? If I had to look back on my twenty or so favorite things TAL has done, I bet at least four of them would be our pledge drive shenanigans. Remember that wonderful one where Ira interviews the “Friends” producer about how to make public radio more likable and she says that Nina Totenberg should start using words like “judgy”? I loved that. We can turn pledge drive into programming on a wider scale. Can’t we? This should be the motto: EXPLOIT FOR MEANING! Or, as Spaulding Gray once told writer Fred Rochlin, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry.”
The Hanging Papayas
Tony Kahn 06.12.01
The thing that makes radio a better place to tell stories–that it’s more focused, that it’s more elegant, that it’s more about words are, I find, disadvantages in the political sphere, in the sense of trying to ferret it out what the hell one’s government is REALLY up to and what a politician MEANS versus what he’s just said. Radio can’t give you their beady little eyes or their smirking winks.
Sarah, at The World, we’ve got two monitors hanging like papayas from the ceiling, tuned to CNN with the sound off, so we can see the guys we’re covering on the radio. I’ve noticed that the only times eyes here in the office actually look up to watch is when there are commercials strumming the old sex-and-violence chords, when something blonde flashes by in a g-string or when President Bush is speaking to camera. In that case, it’s not to follow his words so much as to watch how hard he seems to find it to pronounce them. In other words, it’s a spectator sport. TV can give you important clues to a politician’s body language and blink-rate, (the faster the blink, the bigger the whopper), but mostly what it provides is the image — usually misleading or far less informative than what radio news gives you — that Americans are using as THEIR reference point. In other words, you’re not seeing more of the story or the politician when you see them on TV, you’re merely seeing what other people are seeing. Which, in itself, is valuable information.
And this is especially true of the States. In other countries, TV news images have different meanings and carry different symbolic weight. I remember once seeing the evening news in Paris covering a statement by the President. It was pretty obvious from the shaky cams and the bad audio that the TV newsmen were not getting the front row seats — they were going to the print journalists. What TV viewers were seeing, in a sense, was an image of the relative insignificance of TV news reporting in their own culture.
Neece Regis 06.12.01
Less fundraising/more jokes/sign me up. Perhaps underwriting spots should be required in limerick form.
Ian Brown 06.12.01
Some producers who loved radio talk/
At fund-raising did finally balk/
So they made jokes for cash/
The result was a smash/
But they’re still not allowed to say “Falk!”
Limericks: My Own Personal Experience With The Form
Carol Wasserman 06.12.01
For what they claimed were reasons of taste, management chose not to use some limericks I wrote for fundraising here at our little station on Nantucket.
Wise Guys, Eh?
Sarah Vowell 06.12.01
Now that you are all mocking me and my pledge drive hopes and dreams with your rhymes – you know Ian Brown must have a big important project he’s supposed to be working on if he’s spending time writing limericks for us – I think we should move on to the grave topic of pledge drive incentive gifts. My favorite? Pacifica in Berkeley once gave to donors a tape of a speech by Aristide!!!!! Now that’s what I call showmanship. It was probably in French too.
Paul Tough 06.13.01
Sarah, didn’t you once deliver pledge-drive pizzas?
Guarding Mr. Glass
Sarah Vowell 06.13.01
I forgot about that. Ira has delivered pizzas to donors at least a couple of times, in Chicago and Boston. I went with him the first time. No offense to our listeners, but I went with him because I worried about him. (I’m paranoid about strangers, partly because I’m a small-town, medieval person, and partly because of a spate of really disturbing letters I once got for about a year that included these resourceful collages that managed to somehow threaten both my person and my credit rating at the same time.) So Ira was driving all over Chicago at midnight on a Friday to random strangers’ homes. They were all very sweet public radio fans of course. It was really, really fun and the people were really, really nice. I think they enjoyed having Ira in their homes for a minute in person. Because his voice is in their living rooms so much. And even though they paid for the privilege, every time he’d ring the bell with a pizza there was this feeling of “Hi! I brought you something!” This goes back to our ongoing theme of the personal. People always respond to that. Though if any local hosts thought of trying this idea, my only advice would be to try to show up at the folks’ homes BEFORE 3 a.m. Right around 2:30 I think the whole sheen of it wears off for them.
LET’S MOVE ON: SPECIAL PROJECTS
Sarah Vowell 06.15.01
At the risk that someone might burst into flames if he or she isn’t able to share their thoughts on pledge drive – THIS TOPIC IS BRINGING OUT THE WORST IN ALL OF US – I think we should move on to another topic. I was thinking we could talk about special projects. You know, those one-hour or half-hour (usually documentary) specials the network preempts programming to run. Or special, in-depth series. I’ll give you an example: My local station, WNYC just ran a one hour documentary (maybe your station ran it too) about New York City and its waterways. The thing was kind of unwieldy, had no narrative thrust whatsoever–just bounced around between seemingly random pieces of tape. But I learned a lot. And it made me more interested in my town. I know these kind of things are costly–though they’re eligible I’m guessing for more outside, grant-type funding–but do you think there should be more work like this preempting more regular programming, or breaking the format of the regular shows? Like Joe Richman’s diary series are always fascinating. Special subject matter seems like a way for radio producers to collaborate with workers outside the public radio sphere–people like historians or scientists or social workers or teachers. Which would break up the monotony of always sounding like ourselves. Also, it might re-invigorate, say, reporters who’ve been on the beat for a while if, once a year, they get to take three months to work towards something more grand that they really care about. (Like you know who’s a great reporter? Claudio Sanchez. Wouldn’t you like to hear Claudio Sanchez be given an hour to really shine?)
I think a nice model for this is ABC’s “Nightline.” (That’s the show with Ted Koppel, for you Bury-Your-Television types.) On Friday nights, they air special projects–like a documentary hanging out at the Fulton Fish Market. They carve out time two or three or four times a month do shake up their format. Tonight, if you’re reading this on Friday, is a piece by the king of special projects, Robert Krulwich. (That’s right, you know him from NPR.) I subscribe to the Nightline daily email reminder, which I suggest to all my friends, even if they don’t watch Nightline. I find producer Leroy Sievers’ emails kind of inspiring in the middle of the day, just knowing someone else out there is working hard, trying to make something. Anyway, here’s his email about Krulwich’s project that airs tonight:
At Nightline, we pride ourselves on asking the Big Questions, looking at
the Big Issues, covering the Big Stories. So it was only a matter of time
until we turned to tonight’s Big Question: What did cavemen and women
Now, I’m sure that virtually all of you think that you know the answer.
Furs, right? The evidence is everywhere: The Flintstones, The Clan of the
Cave Bear movies and others like that, and, most important for a whole
generation of young boys, that poster of Raquel Welch from the movie “One
Million Years B.C.” What more evidence would you need?
Now, we all knew that cavefolks really didn’t wear fur bikinis like Raquel
did, but that whole idea is pretty embedded in our conception of our
forebears. After all, what else was there? They got up, went out and
killed something large and furry, ate what they could, and wore the rest.
Not a pretty image when you stop and think about it, but what was the
Well, Robert Krulwich has found a remarkable woman who found evidence that
will rock our images. In fact, museum displays, not to mention scientific
thinking, have already begun to change. And it’s no coincidence that she
worked for a time in the fashion industry. Now archaeologists and
anthropologists had been looking at the same evidence for years. And they
all reached the same conclusions. But this woman, and a friend of hers
nicknamed Conan the Archaeologist, looked at that evidence, and noticed
something that everyone else had missed. And what they saw is challenging
all of the conventional wisdom.
Now this being a report by Robert Krulwich, it won’t be that simple. No
discussion of this issue would be complete without wondering about the
weight of a woolly mammoth coat, Sid Caesar’s historical accuracy, and what
about the Paleolithic bunnies? Where do they fit in to all this? We’ll try
to answer all of these questions, and have a little fun at the same time.
And who knows, it may make you look at that Raquel poster in a whole
different way. Or not.
Have a good weekend.
Friday, June 15, 2001
The Nightline Daily Email
Jay Allison 06.15.01
Another Nightline Daily Email fan!
I love them. I save them. They are often better than the stories they billboard. I want Leroy to be a Special Guest here.
Not to move too far from your good questions, but allow me to post one of his best, in my opinion. I was down there editing one of those Friday Specials, while Leroy was in Rwanda with a crew and the tape coming back made you freeze with horror.
TONIGHT’S SUBJECT: He was a top soldier, the commander of the United Nations’ force in Rwanda. But he was ordered to stand by and not intervene
when genocide killed almost a million people, and the experience destroyed
The Rwanda-Zaire border. 1994. We were making our way deeper into Camp Cholera. At least that’s what the journalists called it. It wasn’t a
camp. Just thousands — 50,000, 100,000, we never really knew — of
people lying head to toe in a lava field. These were big, sharp lava
rocks. Some people had a straw sleeping mat. Others a thin blanket. But
most were just lying on the rocks. But the cholera part was true.
Disease was ravaging these people. Many of them were already dead. The
rest were dying.
There were no paths, no roads, to get toward the center of the “camp” — you just had to step over the people. I’m not particularly graceful, but
I was trying my best not to step on anyone, not to disturb them. For
those who were alive, I didn’t want to make their last moments any worse.
For the dead, I didn’t want to disturb their peace. All of us in the
“Nightline” team were picking our way deeper into the nightmare. Refugee
camps have a sound all their own. It’s a sort of dull roar of human
misery. It sounded the same in Rwanda as it did in Kosovo or Somalia.
But the smell. That’s what you can never get across on TV. The smell of
death. It overpowers you.
I was last in line; our correspondent, my fellow producer, and the camera crew were ahead of me. I was literally straddling a woman, waiting for the
others to move on. I didn’t have the courage at that point to look down to
see if she was alive or dead. Then I felt something on my foot. I looked
down and saw a small boy. He looked to be about 5, which meant he was
probably 10. Malnutrition will do that. He was lying on his back, and had
thrown his arm up over his head. His fingers had gotten tangled in my
bootlaces. I looked down at him, and as I looked in his eyes, I saw the
light go out. And he died. A stranger’s face, my face, was the last thing
he saw. And all I could do was shake my foot to free my laces from his
fingers, and then move on to catch up to my team.
It was five years before I could tell that story. We had gone in to Rwanda thinking that we could handle anything. At that point in my
career, I had been in a dozen wars, natural disasters, you name it. We
all thought we were as tough as they come. We were wrong. Within the
first day or so, I think each of us had broken down. We were having food
flown in. We finally told them to just send beer and wine. We would
trade the beer to the French Foreign Legion troops holding the airport for
their rations. But after a day or two, I stopped eating entirely.
Instead, I would sit in front of my tent at night and drink a whole bottle
of wine, hoping that the alcohol would kill the pain. But for all the
peace it brought, I might as well have been drinking water.
We were covering the end of the Rwandan genocide. Rwanda had two primary ethnic groups. One set out to wipe the other out. But this wasn’t a war
fought with smart bombs. This was machetes and clubs and knives. Almost a
million people were killed by hand — genocide the old-fashioned way.
Then that group was driven out of the country, and they drove all of their
own people with them. So the killers were in the camps too. You could
see them. Some had the remnants of military uniforms. Others had the
swagger of men who have killed and found that they liked it. You could see
that in their eyes. We stayed away from them.
There had been a U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda. The commander, a Canadian, had pleaded for enough troops to stop the genocide. But no one
would listen to him. No one wanted to get involved. Rwanda wasn’t part of
anyone’s national interests. He was told to remain neutral. To not take
sides. And then finally, the troops were pulled out. The genocide
continued. The commander, destined to be Canada’s top soldier, was
destroyed by his experiences. He was found on a park bench in Canada,
blind drunk, screaming for someone to kill him. I know why. I know what
his nightmares look like.
We’ll tell his story tonight. It asks a question that makes people uncomfortable: Don’t we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to
intervene? To save those who can’t save themselves? It’s an incredibly
powerful show. But I have to admit that when I first screened it in the
edit room, it was all I could do to stay and keep watching. Looking at the
pictures again brought back that smell, those sounds. I was amazed at what
power the pictures had over me. Trying to drag me back into the nightmare.
But I don’t need pictures to take me back there. I have a guide. Every night, when I lie down in my big bed in my nice suburban house, and I
close my eyes to sleep, that little boy comes to me and tugs on my
bootlaces. And every night he asks me why we let this happen, and I have
no answer. And every night I pray that it will be the last time that he
comes for me.
But I know better.
Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001
Leroy Sievers Executive Producer Nightline Offices Washington, D.C.
Paul Tough 06.16.01
Where do we sign up?
At The Nightline Website
Jay Allison 06.16.01
Leroy writes most of them, but other producers Tom Bettag, Richard Harris (formerly of NPR), Sara Just, et. al. take turns too.
Their dispatches are some of the best behind-the-scenes journalism stories anywhere, and on a daily basis to boot. They aren’t just promos (which would have been the obvious choice for a daily email) but they talk about how journalists think and the choices they make and what determines what gets on the air.
I like the ones that begin: we don’t know what we’re going to produce today (read: in a few hours), but we’re deciding between A, B, and C. I think they’re happiest when it’s like that. It’s a team that thrives under pressure.
Listen To Brian’s Story
Sarah Vowell 06.17.01
That reminds me, if you haven’t already, go to the Transom home page and listen to Jake’s story about his friend Brian. It’s worth hearing. Not just because of the final product, but also for the democratic (read “cheap”) means of production–just a guy with a mini disc recorder and a laptop and some Transom editing advice. And a dream.
Concerning Special Programs
Cecilia Kuhn 06.18.01
Sarah, I think I’d like some special programs. I wish there could be a show that traveled around the world for us Americans who don’t get out much; a show that brought those sweet, average people to us and helped us understand how much we are different and how much we are alike.
If Americans had more vacation they’d travel farther and more often and would have a deeper world view. People in other countries would fear us less for our ignorance. We could hold the responsibility of our military and other domination more confidently.
Cover Here or Cover There?
Bryn Perkins 06.18.01
Cecilia, I agree: more Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Rather than echo your remarks, here’s an example and a question.
My previous Czech teacher, Petr, has a new job here in Prague. Perhaps you’ve heard about the German reparations for Czech WWII labor? Czechs who were forced to work during WWII for German companies are finally being paid, after decades behind the iron curtain and years of legal wrangling.
But there’s a catch. There isn’t enough money for all the victims to be paid a meaningful amount. It has to be doled out according to hardship. Which people really suffered? Those that worked in a arms factory in an another country? Those that worked in a German office in Prague?
This is Petr’s job. He listens all day as people in their seventies and older come before him and tell their stories. He sits with his degree in history and his twenty-something years as they speak with amazing detail of events half a century ago. Then he helps decide if they suffered enough to get part of the reparations.
I think this would make an interesting story. But, there are obvious problems for American radio. There’s a language barrier; much of the tape would need to be translated and re-read. There is a lot of history that is common knowledge here in the Czech Republic, but might need to be explained to an American audience. And there are no Americans involved.
Should a story like this, which has really nothing to do with the US, preempt a regular program that is carefully designed to address the wants and needs of American public radio listeners?
What Doesn’t Matter
Sarah Vowell 06.18.01
Cecilia and Nannette–I was reading your posts and theoretically agreeing with you, even though I’m one of those rubes who think there’s no place more interesting than the U.S. (Though in my defense, I came to my nationalism from visiting a boatload of other countries and learning three foreign languages. That Dutch really comes in handy, by the way.) Then I got to Bryn’s post and I realized, doesn’t matter. A good story’s a good story. There are great stories in China because there are great people in China, just like there are boring stories from China because there are boring people in China. (Odds are, there are MORE boring people in China when you think about it population-wise.) But a situation where a young guy has to judge the suffering of his elders who have been through something he couldn’t begin to conceive? I’m in.
Specials. Really Specials.
Jay Allison 06.18.01
There’s this idea I’ve been hyping lately. It’s for public radio to take itself seriously as A National Treasure – a self-referential descriptor of which it is fond – and really step up to the plate.
One way to do this would be (let’s dream for a minute) to invite the truly exceptional people in this country to come collaborate with us. We turn over the airways to our great minds and hearts, the best communicators in all sorts of endeavor. We say okay, we know something about radio, but you know about science, law, art, business, medicine, etc. etc. Let’s get together and make something. You’ll be our Resident Fellow for a while. We want you to teach us. Push us and we’ll push you. We’ll both be on the line.
I think of “Making The Music” with Wynton Marsalis. That had brilliant moments and it was because of the struggle between NPR and Wynton. From what I know of the behind-the-scenes action, Wynton pushed and you could hear it. He made NPR sound different. He didn’t stick to the standard template. He chafed under it. On our stations-by-the-sea, we’re airing the series these days and in a recent episode Wynton gave the NPR Executive Producer credit and said “and we aren’t getting along too well right now.” I loved that. It admitted it was an abrasive process. And in the scraping they got to something new underneath.
It may be a time in public radio when the best way to change is to invite the right people to come in enthusiastically, and help change us.
(Here ‘s a question for Sarah or anyone who would be on your list?)
Cecilia Kuhn 06.18.01
Walter Cronkite. He got started in radio, right? I think he has something to give to radio now, or at least something to nudge radio back to the greatness it had.
Living Treasures and The Reuben Sandwich
Tony Kahn 06.19.01
Jay, a contribution to your idea, which is excellent: I’d like to produce a series of portraits and conversations with the kinds of Americans who, if they were Japanese, would be considered living treasures and who, for their accomplishments and wisdom and power to convey and exemplify the culture, would be bowed to so deeply your forehead would smack the ground. (All I need is the major funding.)
I’ve been considering doing these portraits either for “The World” or “Savvy Traveler” I would look for these “national treasures” of ours not only in all the obvious places – the arts, the sciences, politics – but in the trades, on the local level, even in the world of crime. The only criteria – that they are masters of what they do, that they have lived long enough to experience a lot about how people and societies change and what kind of accomplishments truly make a difference in human lives. Ideally, they should also be of an advanced age and still productive and, obviously, the power of their personality, talent, vision has to translate effectively to radio.
A great candidate on all counts – and someone I’ll be interviewing soon – is Al Hirschfeld, the 97 year old theater caricaturist for the New York Times (the fellow who hides the name of his daughter “Nina” in his exquisite line drawings.) Al is still at work, on deadline, a magnificent raconteur, a master of his art, and a man who has lived at the heart of American popular culture, the most influential culture in the world, virtually since its inception at the start of the 20th century. He has been a friend, observer, and critic of virtually every major modern American and European artist, has hosted some of the century’s most influential makers and thinkers in his home, and even helped invent the Reuben Sandwich. (Talk about lasting effects!)
Sarah Vowell 06.19.01
You people are so upstanding. So high-minded. You are such public broadcasting types you police yourselves with your outcry for more learnin’. One thing I like about the Krulwich ABC reports is how they explain or even redeem the more eccentric corners. Did anyone see his hip hop series? Square white guy reporter follows rap stars around trying to figure out why so many people care so much about hip hop, admitting that he doesn’t get it, but throwing himself into their world trying to understand. And he got things that an in-the-know correspondent from Vibe wouldn’t have. I like that model of hearing from the experts–the national treasures as Jay says. I like this idea, Jay. But I only like it if the correspondent or producer in charge of the experts doesn’t know that much about the treasure’s field. I think the learning curve for projects like that is more interesting. When Krulwich did his series on cutting edge science, you really got feeling that you were learning about string theory along with him, that you were there in the room and it was all happening in real time. I never thought about it before, but I think that fish out of water feeling is why I become more and more drawn to writing stories or making documentaries about American history. I didn’t study it in college, just kind of grew up with a history buff dad and read a few books for fun. So I don’t come to that subject with any profound well of knowledge. Just eleventh grade American history and a lifelong interest. So the listener/reader can learn things along with me. Also, I think the experts know so much that they can sometimes be bad at explaining things unless a helpful bystander is standing by to ask them what the hell they’re talking about or to ferret through various research to glean the best wisdom. When I was working on my Trail of Tears documentary I discovered this surprising, actually shocking, fact: There was no coherent, easy to understand written narrative of that event for a popular audience in existence. It had been written about, but only by historians who didn’t take the time to explain the story to people who knew nothing of its chronology, or by partisans on both sides of the story. I never found one consistent, entirely useful telling of what happened. The history of it was incredibly complicated, so I understand why. But I think there’s a real place for the general reporter to learn things on behalf of the general audience. I’ve been working toward something about Salem and the witch trials. In the last few days, I’ve read six or so books, all with entirely different view points, central ideas, verdicts, etc. And I have to believe that there’s something useful in a person who has no personal stake in the history of Salem–as opposed to an academic who specializes in the topic–picking and choosing between the conclusions and theories that make sense. You know?
Knowing Nothing About What We Produce
Jackson Braider 06.19.01
About Jay’s Extraordinary People and Tony’s National Treasures model: what is the threshold for “extraordinary”? Or, to put it another way, why did the Japanese government pick this shakuhachi player over that one as a “national treasure”?
As a folklorist, I would argue that, first and foremost, it was because *someone else* wanted to tell their story. But we are always surrounded by people who have unusual lives (“extraordinary” doesn’t just mean “really, really, really good”) that deserve at once the telling and the retelling. How does that piano teacher on the floor below cope with juvenile scales all day — now there’s ambient sound for you.
In the Extraordinary People/National treasure scheme, in other words, it’s the story that these people inspire (in the producer) that makes them extraordinary. The storyteller, in the very choice of subject, becomes part of the story.
What if Tony were to nominate Al Hirschfeld as Candidate #1 for National Treasure – but Jay were to do the piece blind? No info from Tony except maybe a telephone number – no background. Let Jay discover for himself – and in the course of his discovery share what he learns. (Interesting, by the way, that Tony should pick a visual artist for radio).
Cecilia Kuhn 06.20.01
Sarah, does it look like we’re policing ourselves? Holding ourselves back (and holding radio back) by only asking for edifying and educational programs?
The Social Function of Silly
Sarah Vowell 06.20.01
Yeah, kidding, kidding. I just found it interesting when mentioning special programs it was automatically assumed that they would be more serious than silly. More and more, I become a bigger fan of silliness. One of the traps of public broadcasting is its greatest asset- its seriousness. It’s a field that attracts socially responsible individuals. Which, again, is great. But I would hope that the definition of social value could be extended. I don’t know how to put this… Serious trumps funny all the time. It happens a lot even on This American Life – the big emotional story usually wins out over the inclusion of the funny trifle. Because big emotional stories seem more important. But I think lightness serves a huge social function. The social weight of, say, David Sedaris, is equal to that of Nina Totenberg. I never thought about this much until recently. Sedaris and I did this totally frivolous project for Esquire where we wrote each other letters about movies. It was fun. I didn’t really think much beyond that. Then the magazine got this letter from a guy whose father, sister (and dog!) had all just died and he was buried in grief as well as caring for his elderly mother. He said that he read our little piffle article and laughed and that he hadn’t heard the sound of his own laugh in a long time. Honestly, that was the first time I ever felt like anything I was doing was serving some abstract purpose. And it made me think about the function of silliness in my own life. I’d be a crazier, more depressed person without David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. One thing I get tired of though, is segmenting my life – my late night comedy watcher side and my keeping-track-of-the-Supreme Court side. The nice thing about someone like Krulwich – and I think Ira is like this too – is that you can be your whole self with them. Your jokey, life’s absurd self and your educationally virtuous self. It’s what I was trying to get at talking about Ian Brown’s work about 92 messages ago.
We All Become Three Anecdotes
Tony Kahn 06.20.01
Another great match you’re proposing there, Sarah, the enduring value of serious vs. silly programming. Which has more legs and more heart? I can hear the arguments:
“Write a show that makes ‘em laugh, it runs a month; write a show that makes ‘em cry, it runs a year. Write a show that makes ‘em laugh and cry, it runs forever.”
“Yeah, so how come they sell more smiley faces than those twin masks of comedy and tragedy?”
For me the best stories are a mix of the two – the silly and the serious – as are the best people, and the best lives. Try going to a memorial service and listen to the stories people tell of the deceased. When we go, we all become three anecdotes in the memories of the people who knew us. Anecdotes about something we probably would be completely surprised had any impact at all – because our idea of our own significance is so ridiculously subjective and out of whack with everybody else’s reality.
No one strived harder for an outward propriety and solemnity than Mark Twain, the only guy (next to Woody Allen) who can make me laugh out loud.
The Father of the Internet
Jackson Braider 06.20.01
One of the few instances in which I have heard Sarah reporting was her story about Al Gore in New Hampshire and the gross misrepresentation of his statements by the likes of Ceci Connolly. I can’t remember the exact content, but it was not unlike the “father of the internet” ruse.
Sarah, this struck me as one of those rare instances where you attempted to adhere to genre on TAL — reporting as opposed to, say, commentary. In retrospect, what really struck me was that you didn’t address something to Gore. “C’mon, Al, don’t let them sucker-punch you like that. Stand up in your earthtones and proclaim the truth!”
And that, in deeper retrospect, maybe was the real story: how (and why) Gore chose not to confront the issue of his veracity. What was it about him that shied away from addressing such misconceptions?
I wonder if such thoughts weren’t lurking somewhere when you first prepared the piece and what became of them if they did.
Sarah Vowell 06.21.01
That New Hampshire story was one of my best reporting experiences. (I guess it was pretty straight. I actually do a fair number of largely third person pieces of reporting and criticism. Nobody ever notices those pieces though. Once you get pegged as first person that’s what people expect and remember. I noticed this recently when I did an interview with a newspaper reporter, with whom I talked about the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, David Foster Wallace, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, Howard Cosell, Fluxus and Dada, etc. for over an hour and then I read her piece and it was all about how I only talk about myself. Whatever.) For those of you who didn’t hear the piece–and it’s up on the TAL web site on the show called “Primary” from earlyish 2000–it was about media literacy students at Concord High School, how they invited the candidates in the NH Primary to speak at their school, and then planned to track the relationship between the media coverage of these appearances at their school versus what they actually witnessed. When Gore spoke, he told a story about a toxic waste site in Tennessee that came to his attention because a teenager wrote him a letter. Then, when he mentioned holding the first Congressional hearings on that and Love Canal, he was misquoted by both the Wash Post and NYTimes as saying he was the first person to discover Love Canal, which snowballed into anti-Gore jokes on Sam and Cokie, Chris Matthews and a Letterman top ten list making fun of the things Gore takes credit for (“Gave mankind fire”). Anyway, the structure of the piece was fairly traditional. I narrated, but only as a way to usher the listener through interviews with the media literacy teacher and her students. Partly because it was a story about how stories are told. So when you’re getting that meta, I think the simpler the format, the better. But mostly, the teacher was such a genius, such a surprising, profound speaker, and the students were so charmingly outraged and articulate, it didn’t call for a lot of whistles and bells where I’m concerned. Though I always thought that keeping myself out of the story had a nice little mindfuck element for the listener. Since the story is about how stories are affected by who’s telling them, there’s an implicit challenge to the listener of the story that I’m telling to question me and my methods.
As for your question about why doesn’t Gore defend himself, that’s an interesting one. Though I think the answer is pretty prosaic–he doesn’t defend himself because no politician responds directly to attack unless it’s absolutely necessary. Because bringing it up would only give the story a wider circulation. This is Power 101 – by addressing the attacks of your opponents head-on, you give them power. Ignore them, and they are denied a voice.
Sarah Vowell 06.21.01
Tony – Regarding what you said about the best funeral speakers, I think that’s so true. Yesterday, I had jury duty. From the vibe I picked up around the jury room, I may have been the only one there dying to serve. (And alas, I was sent home without a chance to spin the wheels of justice.) But the clerk in charge of the jurors, an Irish cop type, with the driest sense of humor, acted more like a master of ceremonies than an officer of the court. And every time he made a wisecrack about how there were still issues of “Jury Pool News” available for our reading pleasure, or how the convicted felons could go to a back room to be excused from duty so they didn’t have to raise their hands in front of everybody else, you could just feel the tension being eased a little. Because it’s a very tense room, the criminal courts jury room in Manhattan. So, so much of living is just bland drudgery. I don’t think life has to be fun, fun, fun 24/7, but gee, it sure is nice when there are people generous enough to relieve the monotony. It’s like psychological volunteer work.
Anthem > AFTR
Joshua Barlow 06.22.01
I remember being introduced to Anthem in 1998 and feeling it was a great change for NPR’s cultural programming. Not only was it appealing to younger audiences, but it was also eclectic and gave room to get to know the people behind the music. Aside from the weekly musical guests (pop, country, blues, jazz..), there were thoughtful excursions into new theater, zines, poetry. It seemed like NPR was finally reaching out, not only to people under 30, but to people of all ages who were just looking for something fresh and contemporary.
I remember when Anthem was canceled, a lot of people I talked to at NPR said it was because the 2 hour format was too long and hard to sell. I thought the format was just right, but I’m not a marketing expert. It just felt like NPR was backing down from trying to expand it’s cultural audience base and abandoning a good show in the process. A lot of us were awaiting the resurrection of Anthem (in some form or another), but it never happened. Big shame, and missed opportunity.
AFTR, as I recall from it’s audience testing, was originally supposed to be it’s own show – but was instead turned into a monthly feature of an already secure program. Rather than committing to a new series, this limited debut method is how NPR is testing the waters for new programming ideas. I’m not sure if this is a bold enough means if they expect anything of significance to happen as far as expanding their audience.
The Tenure Track
Sarah Vowell 06.22.01
I, too, was miffed by the cancellation of the enjoyable Anthem. And it’s astonishing that, given the embarrassingly small number of new shows NPR develops, that they would ditch such a promising, ambitious upstart after – what was it? A year? It’s one thing for television networks to pull the plug on good work (like the wonderful “Sports Night” which you can now watch on Comedy Central) without giving them time to nurture an audience. TV gets to pick and choose from oodles of new pilots year after year. For them, there’s always another show. That is simply not the case in the time warp of public radio. You could listen to NPR affiliates every day and at least six or seven hours of programming would be the same shows with the same voices as twenty, even thirty years ago. I don’t think everything needs to be new, new, new or younger, younger, younger all the time, but it is curious that all commercial media – books, music, TV, etc. are fueled by novelty. Not just by making new things, but by the old standbys trying to keep up with the whippersnappers. Not so on public radio and television. Are we on the tenure system? Is it the audience’s fault? Does the complacency of the programmers reflect the complacency of the audience? Is the audience happy with the same old same old year after year? Seems so. I think it comes from the paradox of public broadcasting – people expect so little from it. All they want and expect is that their intelligence is not insulted. Because their intelligence is insulted so many many times a day by everyone else – advertisers first and foremost. They want that brown rice feeling from public broadcasting. Nobody expects brown rice to shine.
The Brown Rice
Jay Allison 06.22.01
If you’re an artist, you could imagine this as an opportunity. You get a gallery full of interested people and very few paintings on the walls. If you hang a good one, people are taken by surprise: “LOOK, the brown rice is SHINING!”
(Does the rice work within the gallery metaphor? I don’t think so. Should I bother to hold down the delete button and start over? Naaah. It’s just the Internet.)
Let’s Make A List
Joe Richman 06.22.01
Some shows that NPR dropped within a year:
Heat (with John Hockenberry)
Some shows that NPR passed on:
This American Life
It Means Cheesecake
Ian Brown 06.22.01
I have to take a few moments away from the enormous project I’m working on (and that was due two weeks ago) to say that you can’t have your dacquoise without eating your brown rice too.
The reason public radio is the subject of this (and so much other) debate is that it is often so damn good. It’s so good so often, in fact, we begin to ask why it isn’t good all the time (especially as it belongs, theoretically, to us, to the public, which we assume is the reason it’s so damn good as often as it is.)
But that’s ridiculous. No matter where it shows up, great work is as rare as pennies in a pig. I mean, you get your dacquoises, but you get your brown rice too. In fact, you get a fair weight of stinkin’ cheese, too. But I still maintain excellence shows up more often in public radio because…and this harkens back to Craig Thom’s contention that public radio doesn’t have commercials only if you toy with the definition of commercials (I would say the exact obverse is true, that public radio has commercials only if you toy with the definition of what a commercial is)…because no one owns public radio, except the public. You can debate and debate the ups and downs and ins and outs of public radio, but if you forget this central point, all will be lost.
I give example now. For years I’ve been suggesting a radio show that in my mind I call The Reading and Writing and Fishing Hour. Originally (I am ashamed to say) I thought of it as a show for men. (I later realized it didn’t have to be gender-parochial.) As I imagined the show, it consisted of an hour or two of late-night talk, centered around a host but amongst a large and roving and changing cast of talkers, all sitting in an imaginary kitchen, all talking about three related subjects: a book they’d read, some music they’d heard, and fishing. Though the fishing segment was deliberately mislabeled, because by fishing I meant any physical experience, as long as it took you out of yourself the way books and music can. The interesting challenge each show for the host, I thought, would be to get from the book to the music to the fishing, and back again. My theory was they would always connect up, because they always do, which is why people read and listen and fish.
Now, I admit this was a loose and woolly thing, this “concept.” Even here at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation many programmers got a wan look and backed away when I suggested this idea in the smoking room. (And this is a place where all kinds of bizarre ideas have made it on-air. On Sunday Morning, we once experimented with what we called “raw radio”–two minute excerpts of live radio pulled off tape or off satellites, in the original Russian, say, or in Mandarin from somewhere in China. We wanted our listeners to hear the sound of that language pouring out of their radios the way it poured out in its home country. A terrible, terrible idea! And why? Because no one could understand anything that was being said! I tell myself now: it was an experiment. I tell myself: listeners like to hear the occasional mistake on radio, even the big, conceptual kind.)
But at least here at commercial free CBC radio my idea got a listen. When I suggested the same idea to commercial radio stations…that was even more interesting. Because I always got exactly the same reaction. The commercial radio guys said: “Well, that’s a great idea, a radio show for guys, but do guys buy books? No. So who’s gonna advertise books? Ya see, Ian, you gotta design the show around product placements. Because unless you have ads, you have no show. So first off you gotta drop the books part. Now, a show about fishing…actually fishing, here in Ontario…that might work…”
I figure if I followed the logic of commercial radio programmers, and designed a show around what men will buy, I’d end up with a show called Tits ‘n’ Hitler. That would probably be the most successful male radio show in history.
My point is what? Well, it’s like Liebling said: freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. At bottom, all media reflect the interests of their owners. Commercial radio is owned by advertisers – by mattress salesmen and bankers and what have you, and the on-air “product” generally reflects the interests of those owners (Buy more mattresses!) Public radio may by quietly endorsed and tastefully underwritten by corporations here and there, but it’s owned, economically and politically, by the public. By all of us. Hence this discussion, the brown rice and the dacquoises, the mediocrity and the surprising degree of excellence.
Tits ‘n’ Hitler
Sarah Vowell 06.22.01
That is the best title I ever heard, Brown. (Though “raw radio”- Jesus, we would even have shot down that crackpot idea back in art school.) By making the rather baldly true statement that excellence tis so rare in all things, including public radio, Mr. Spoilsport, are you not breaking the rules of our little electronic utopia? What are you, some kind of foreigner? We’re just doing a little dreaming here, pretending one corner of our world could be better, though everyone in it is overworked and underpaid and doing a fine enough job besides. I just like to think of this discussion board as a kind of Martha Stewart Living for radio. We just flip past pretty pictures, telling ourselves we’ll spiff up the living room, then dropping the magazine on the floor to take a nap on the dusty couch…Anyway, I like the books and music and fishing idea. Of course, you’d be at the mercy of your guests. To make it work, they’d have to be interesting. What were you going to do in the third week when you’d gone through all six interesting Canadians?
Men and Fish and Women
Jay Allison 06.22.01
Ian, are you happy in Canada?
Do you ever think of moving to…. oh I don’t know….. Woods Hole??
Where we fish. And are willing to talk about it, even metaphorically, on the radio. Every day.
Rick Karr 06.22.01
A point of clarification: Anthem was on the air from early January, 1997, through the end of September, 1999, although many shows during the last two months were re-runs. I think some early AFTR work was done then – certainly the decision to use the AFTR model was made.
Was the two-hour format hard to sell? WBEZ, KQED, WHYY and a dozen or so other stations who took it up front must’ve bought, as did the two dozen or so others who picked us up. Dunno. I wasn’t selling the show. We were not perfect. Sometimes we weren’t even very good. Sometimes. The AFTR model – incubate as a show segment, expand when audience has developed – always seemed sound to me.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s tenure, after a fashion. I think it’s a valid way of protecting the integrity of public institutions I’ve known some brilliant, inspiring professors in my day. I’ve also known some losers.
Tony Kahn 06.22.01
Most of the talk around my halls these days is about how uncertain everything about public radio is, from the vision to the funding. At ‘GBH you can hear the money tide scraping the sand as it recedes. Maybe people who care about public radio are wondering if we’ve got any bright ideas. So, as long as we’re here saying hi to each other, and people are noticing, what is it we’d really like to see change and feel we can work toward as a group? Anything? Are there problems we can do more than mull over? Any of us in a position to re-tool how new ideas can get into the system? (We all know the reasons good stuff doesn’t make it to the air, but can we cook up new, cheaper, more guerrillero-type ways that it can?)
Most things get done because the right people run into each other at the right time. So, nu?
Interested Stations Group
Jay Allison 06.22.01
I’ve been growing this for a few weeks, trying to attract bees. I was going to open another topic on Transom for it, but Sarah seems content to have us all crowded into her room, so here goes.
(Actually, I’ll post it here, but open another topic too, so things don’t become so fragmented that we become disoriented and afraid.)
Interested Stations Group
Jay Allison, WCAI/WNAN
An idea is emerging from a group of stations wanting to encourage new radio through flexible and creative formatting and distribution. The concept brings interested stations together with like-minded stations, and brings producers together with all stations in the group. The idea is to provide good homes to good work, and to increase opportunities for that work and its makers.
One example. At WCAI and WNAN, we keep open a flexible four-hour weekly slot (called “Arts & Ideas”) every Sunday from 7-11. I host/curate it live or live-to-AudioVault and weave in independent productions, limited series from the networks or stations, local interviews and stories, audio art, drama, international work, comedy, lots of documentary, material from Transom.org and our own listeners. New and different radio. Whatever seems exciting that week. Good stuff, that’s the only criterion. As host, I can make a comfortable nest for all this work and the very unusualness is the selling point. It doesn’t sound like everything else. It breaks the drone.
In a recent fund-drive (we’re a brand new station), this Sunday night slot out-performed some days of Morning Edition. This was a big surprise to everyone, but good evidence of the audience’s wish for something different, but still compatible with an overall public radio sensibility.
A loose affiliation of stations has several advantages. We’re calling it: The Interested Stations Group.
The basic ante is this: Each interested station commits to providing weekly flexible time in the schedule. The time will be at reasonable hours, i.e. not 2am. Stations will fill the time with a changing menu of good work of their choosing, stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else. This means specials, limited series, pilot projects, and so on. This work is generated locally or nationally or internationally, by independents or fellow stations or citizens. In fact, many stations are already doing this, so it may simply be a matter of identifying ourselves to each other and seeing what we can do together.
Each station determines locally how to plan those hours – it needn’t represent a lot of labor — a single hosted program, special slots for limited series, curated anthologies, whatever. We compare notes on good ideas.
Producers will know that these stations are the ones to join forces with or to appeal to. This is an attractive notion to funders, incidentally.
Stations in the Group and associated producers exchange work among themselves, bypassing the usual distributors, but including network-produced specials in the mix.
Stations and producers collaborate on projects, e.g. several stations plan local series on Affordable Housing, and air material from fellow stations in the ISG examining novel solutions in other parts of the country.
The ISG maintains a website to: give notice of available work, coordinate program sharing, post reviews of programming, host discussion boards, eventually keep audio files for downloading and exchange, etc. Transom.org is willing to pilot such pages on its servers.
Eventually, stations and producers could place MP3s on the site for other stations (or listeners) to download. Such an arrangement could follow an Amazon.com model, with material reviewed by users, rating systems, database organization, “if you liked X, you might try Y.” Accounts could be created for debiting and crediting on a per-download basis. Local hosts create their own programs, pulling down material from an a la carte national menu. Of course, this whole thing can be wide open to listeners too.
Reaction so far is that this is a powerful concept. The mere FACT of such an alliance opens doors and creates a more enlivened atmosphere for creative people wanting to find new ways to tell stories on public radio. Each station has authority over its air-time, but takes advantage all the producers, artists, and other stations out there. Public radio becomes a TRUE NETWORK, using the talent and broad representation on the ground, unlike the current model with national production/distribution entities feeding local consumers. In this model, new work is given a number of likely, flexible outlets, which encourages more such work. A creative coalition emerges to refresh us all and make life better. The sun rises.
Jackson Braider 06.22.01
Tony, talking about the money tide, was probably at the same meeting as I this morning. (The long and short of it, for those unable to attend, was television). We need to make the world take public radio as seriously as we do.
Here’s my idea: Let’s make radio as expensive to produce as TV, then the likes of CPB will not necessarily turn initial thoughts to funding the first 6000 hours of Ken Burns’ next project (“Mao As I Feel Very Deeply You Should Know Him” is just the working title). The writing has to be meatier, the ideas richer, the voices better than TV – if only to justify the living wage we deserve from our industry. Those agreeing to this petition can sign here….
Fanatics Need Love Too
Carol Wasserman 06.22.01
Public radio has always felt like the lecture hall of the world’s greatest free university. You still need to get yourself dressed and down to the library to do the reading, but you can show up for the talks in your jammies. Which is a great convenience.
I love radio. I don’t quite understand the undercurrent of self-loathing in our conversation here of late. I think we could be more amusing, more dependably silly. But other than that, we are, as Sarah pointed out early on, the only mass media created by True Believers. With a commitment to an open democracy of voices. Our fanatical purity of heart must count for something.
Sounds Like A Plan
Sarah Vowell 06.23.01
Jay–As a This American Lifer, I feel the need to slap some meaningful scoring music under your last message. Because this four-hour flexible spot sounds like an actual (if small) solution. Plus I like the Stalinist ring of the name “The Interested Stations Group.”
One of my favorite places in New York is the Museum of Television and Radio. I think one of the lovable things about it is that it is an archive of broadcasting–i.e., it saves all these programs that were meant to go out into the ether and then be forgotten. And I like going there and checking out things that happened before I was born, or things that I’m too young to remember. It’s where I watched “An American Family,” for example, that kind of thing. I wonder if there’s a place each week, in your four hours, to resurrect some lost classic of documentary or commentary from the vault. And maybe the reporter/writer/subject even could come on and talk about it, what it was like making it or what the story meant to the person, etc. Like you know there’s some killer Alex Chadwick piece in the dustbin of history that us young pups never heard and us old dogs barely remember. Or, in the history-repeats-itself realm (my favorite 45 when I was a kid was this record with this booming voice that kept yelling HISTORYYYYYYY REPEATSSSSSSS ITSELFFFFFFFFFF! that recounted all the spooky correspondences between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations, but I digress), there are reportorial episodes of the past that could shed light on events of the day. For example, doesn’t it seem like we’re backtracking into the Carter administration right now, in which the two most glaring problems are an energy crisis and the (even more fucked up than usual) Middle East? This is the kind of thing where the more elderly correspondents out there might have something to say, not to mention illuminating tape in the vault. And, since we’ve been joined by our neighbors to the North, there must be oodles of great old stuff from the CBC, not to mention the BBC that we never heard here. (I would, fuddy duddy that I am, try to make sure most of the content is actually in English.) As NBC used to promote their summer re-runs, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”
Neece Regis 06.23.01
What makes Jay’s programming ideas sound interesting is the word “flexible.” As in any endeavor, the more things get bogged down in formulas and market research, the more pre-packaged things are, the more they become dull & predictable. And lose a sense of humor too.
BTW, a dacquoise is a meringue made with ground nuts, and is used as a layer between a cake or buttercream. It has no relation at all to cheesecake.
For More On The Interested Stations Group
Jay Allison 06.23.01
I spun off the Interested Stations Group thing into another topic. If you have ideas about it, please post them to the Interested Stations Group Topic in the About Transom folder on this site.
Quick Questions Before You Go
How do you relate to a television vs. radio audience?
How has your time abroad affected your writing and your life?
Your photograph here: what does it say?
Staying in Shape for Radio
Carol Wasserman 06.29.01
One of the things which has been making me the teeniest bit anxious lately is the fear that writing radio will ruin any talent for print which I brought in with me when I came.
You were a journalist first. And in spite of your genius for making great radio, you continue to write breathtakingly muscular prose for magazines and other places where old-fashioned narrative – complete with adjectives and subordinate clauses of all sorts – is still admired.
Sarah Vowell 06.29.01
Gee, ladies, a late-breaking rally of personal questions. As I am here to serve you, here goes:
Nannette: Being on TV: I have only been on a particular kind of TV, late night talk shows of which I am a fan (Letterman once, Conan a few times). I love television, but I have no interest in being on television per se. I would only go on a show I actually watch. I just really love those two particular programs and those two hosts, as well as their staffs. (I just did a reading with a couple of Conan writers and I was kind of blown away by their confidence.) Anyway, the first time was frightening. But it’s not that different from interviews I myself have done with people I admire. Like I once interviewed Elvis Costello when he was working on a record in the LA recording studio where Sinatra recorded “Strangers in the Night” and the whole time, I’m talking to him, we’re even kind of arguing after a while, I’m still thinking to myself, “I’m sitting here talking to Elvis Costello.” So I think being an interviewer had prepared me more than anything. Especially Letterman, who I think is just one of the keystones of my world view. I just don’t think the influence of his sensibility on this country can be underestimated. I mean, I have spent more time listening to him than to my own parents. And there was a moment when I made him laugh and I think it was maybe the most satisfying laugh I ever got. Because he’s cheered me up so many times for so many years and I feel like I owe him. I love going on Conan. That’s more relaxing. I think of him as a peer and kindred spirit and he’s also this huge history buff, so I think he likes talking to me about Lincoln and Eisenhower and indulging in that side of himself. The guy is the biggest Lincoln buff alive. I’m kind of fascinated by his audience more than my own. Like, the people who come to my readings are pretty much all public radio people. So if I make an Alan Greenspan joke it’s not much of a stretch for them to laugh. They think about Alan Greenspan almost every day. And they’re just generally quick to laugh, public radio audiences. “My little suckers,” I call them. (They also love to be verbally abused for their public radio geekdom and/or kneejerk liberal predictability.) I like the challenge of trying to be myself and tell my kind of jokes to a general, comedy audience full of tourists and college kids who enjoy Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s poop jokes. If I can win over the poop humor fans with Civil War wisecracks, it’s a real victory.
“My time abroad”: Oh, well I was just a normal foreign exchange student college kid at the University of Leiden for five minutes. But it did make me want to be a writer. Because the Dutch speak flawless English, but I noticed they never really got me. And before I went there, I hadn’t noticed how much of the joy of my life is talking and being understood. And speaking in the vernacular. All my metaphors, all my favorite words and phrases and dialects are American. I like Huck Finn talk and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
photo: I don’t know, you have to have a photo. It’s like the law or something. Photography is a job just like writing is a job, so I just went to a really good one for once. Her name is Marian Ettlinger and she does a lot of writers. It’s her specialty to make squeamish bookworms comfortable through such a grueling yucky process. Then my editor and I just chose the best one. I’m not trying to “say” anything with it. The only thing I want to “say” is, “Here’s that photo you wanted, Transom/Simon & Schuster/Esquire contributor’s page/Ann Arbor Summerfest.”
Carol: The only real drawback I think from moving between verbal and print media is punctuation. I’m working on another book right now, and there are so many things I want to say that I have to normalize on the page because I do not think in complete, fluid sentences. I seem to think in stopgaps and asides. Which the listener doesn’t notice. But the reader, I think, becomes antsy when there are too many dashes and parentheses. So that is a constant battle–(dash!) trying to retain my casual, late twentieth century (it’s where I’m from), American girl cadences, but without driving the reader crazy with a bunch of marks all over the place. Also, I love the word “and.” And I start too many sentences with the word “and.” Again, no one notices out loud because that’s normative speech. But do that too much on the page and it’s distracting and stupid.
My, I’m sure this is fascinating.
Jay Allison 07.04.01
Sarah, you have been so darn…. special. Thank you.
This topic will continue to be yours forever, and I hope you will find time to drop by occasionally, robed in your new status as Guest Emeritus, to loft profundities from the dais.