Volume 2/Issue 9
Of course, it isn’t “us,” it’s Robert. His simple narrative lesson is that he tells stories like himself. He did it on the radio and now he does it on TV. –Jay A
Robert Krulwich’s Manifesto
My broadcast career began early, in the bathtub. I was four, maybe five, and I remember that if I positioned myself just right, I could see, in the chrome that encircled the faucet on the other end of the tub, a fractured reflection of myself.
That image, my face by the faucet, was the trigger. The instant I saw myself I was “on the air”, which meant I would ball my left hand into a fist (the microphone), lower my voice as low as it would go, and with intense excitement I would, out loud (but not too out loud lest somebody notice), start telling short, vivid stories about my day to an audience of….well, of one: me.
I was in heaven. It wasn’t just that I found myself so endlessly fascinating. What I really liked was hearing my life narrated in that VERY IMPORTANT tone that newscasters used to narrate everything: the rich voice, the this-just-in excitement, and the authoritative sign off: I called myself, why I don’t know, maybe I was listening to Spanish radio, “Don Roberto” – (“This is Don Roberto reporting”). I could go on and on in the tub till my toes got all wrinkly.
The years passed.
I went to high school in New York, college at Oberlin in Ohio, law school at Columbia and after a summer at a mid Manhattan law firm where it occurred to me I was going to be a terrible lawyer, I asked myself “Is there anything else I can do? Anything?” And, by the way, it would be nice if I loved doing it. And somewhere deep in my reptile brain, the cub reporter in the tub raised his hand and said, “How about journalism? You were great at that!”
So I listened to my inner Don Roberto and decided to try it in real life. My parents, naturally, were horrified. Worse, no one in broadcasting wanted me. I went from radio station to radio station from Connecticut to Washington, D.C. until, because I happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time — it was a couch on East 62nd Street–I got a barely paying, temporary, one-time-only job at Pacifica, the left wing network of five subsistence public stations.
That was in 1974.
Since then I’ve been at Rolling Stone Magazine, NPR (near the beginning), public television, the BBC, ESPN, CBS television, and now ABC television, trying to recapture my glory days in warm-water broadcasting, which leads me to this, my kick-off essay:
WHY I LOVE RADIO (and TV)
with the obliging subtitle:
BECAUSE IT MAKES ME FEEL SO, SO GOOD
AND SO, SO BAD
AND FROM HOUR TO HOUR I NEVER KNOW WHICH.
Since most of you (this being Transom) are either contemplating, or are knee deep or up your necks in radio, what follows may be very familiar. But seeing it written down, knowing that someone else suffered and swooned just as you have, can be comforting and, for a few of you, evidence that you are not the only ones who are seriously insane.
PART ONE: What Makes Me Feel Good About Radio (and TV)
Good Thing Number 1
What I love (and also fear) is sitting down to a blank page with a maze of words and sounds, the raw stuff I have gathered as a reporter, and thinking: Now how do I do this?
The fact that I have done this before (at this point, thousands of times before) gives me no great advantage. Each story has its own, very specific, idiosyncratic logic, its own internal music. If I go wrong–I always go wrong, sometimes a little wrong, sometimes WAY wrong–it is not me who notices first. The tape notices. The voices, the sounds, make it very clear they are uncomfortable. They don’t like each other’s company, not in THIS way, and it is almost like I can hear them complaining, “No….no…” This all but invisible conversation (try explaining it to another human) is so deeply mysterious and so personal and so unerring, as much as I hate (really hate) losing my way, I love the process of finding my way back. Happily, because I have done this for a long time, I have a hunch (not always, and not when there is a hard deadline and not when I’ve had too little sleep and I am exhausted) that somehow or other, I will figure it out. I will make it make sense.
Good Thing Number Two
I also like the happy accidents, the startling moments when, for whatever reason, you put X next to Y where it wasn’t meant to be, you roll tape and ooooohhh… it stands up and says “We LIKE this!” Something deep down starts to tingle.
Good Thing Number Three
I still like it when something I have written down, something that has lain on a page or a screen is suddenly given breath and comes alive. It’s a Gepetto thing: I’ve got this idea in my head. I have built it carefully. I have tried to love it into being, but the moment when I first hear it stir, when it animates, when the first paragraph or the first moment comes spooling into being, the voices, sounds, narration all flowing, even now, thousands of stories later, I am still slightly amazed.
Good Thing Number Four
And, of course, I love when I am good. I love discovering that I have left an image, an idea, a new connection in tens of thousands of heads and that in some of those heads the message stuck. Most of the time radio and tv stories flow by in a blur. People hear but don’t remember, but when I’m good, days after the broadcast, a person across from me in a bus might say, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who was talking about….” –there’s always a pause here while they try to be sure they’ve got the right reporter, the right story–but if they go on to describe, even roughly, what I actually said, this is so rare and so wonderful, I feel like doing a little jig of joy.
PART TWO: What Makes Me Feel Bad About Radio (and tv)
Bad Thing Number One
…Not being able to start, not having the faintest idea which moment should lead, having six notions, all okay but none good enough; no wind at my back, no energy, having six to ten bad ideas balled up on the floor and I have to file in less than two hours.
Bad Thing Number Two
…Not having the time, the talent or the wit to tell the story as I felt it in all its subtle colors and suspecting that I will not, ever, have such talent and what was I thinking when I decided to do this for a living instead of valet parking or some vocation more suitable to my actual abilities…
Bad Thing Number Three
The fact that in the end you do this work alone. True, when it works that is YOU, indisputably you, talking on the radio and that is good, but when you are stuck, when you can’t find your voice, you are the only one who can rescue yourself and if your muse is out of the building, there is no feeling quite so lonely.
Bad Thing Number Four
…and finally, those occasions when you finish a piece of work very sure that what you have written is true and beautiful and then it goes on the air and you wait for the congratulatory call, the applause, the admiring glance and instead you get nothing but indifference and looks that seem uncomfortably close to pity.
That makes me very, very unhappy.
The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line is that that you can do this for years, decades even, and it doesn’t get any easier, it doesn’t get more predictable, it keeps being lonely and every so often it makes you very, very happy or very, very sad. You never know which.
Transom asked me to annotate some of these audio clips (archived NPR stories courtesy of the Museum of Radio & Television).
As I recall, “You’re Losing Your Hold Over Me” comes from the early 1980′s, about 8 or 9 years after the first big oil shock of 1973. It was part of a package we did describing how the USA was in the midst of a profound retro-engineering effort that had significantly changed our patterns of energy use… To introduce the package, we decided to begin with a radio musical.
At the time, somebody was trying to create another Woodstock Reunion, a 24 hour continuous rock concert of peace, love, etc., so I decided to do the same thing. Noah Adams found the instrumental that becomes the melodic line of Your Losing Your Hold Over Me. I have no idea where he got it–he sent it on the land line from D.C. to NYC. Manoli, our engineer, gave me the music. I wrote the lyrics one morning in Riverside Park. I sent them to Jo Miglino, NPR’s top Florida correspondent at the time who had a wonderful voice. We did the duet, Jo and I, long distance, with telephones in our ears (as I recall; this may be fantasy) and Manoli and I designed the crowd scenes, the applause, the reverb and all that.
Today, I’m guessing, we would be stopped by the Legal Department, by the Politically Correct police who would allow an NPR correspondent to make fun of people with silly accents, and we’d be lambasted by a hunk of the audience who would object to the tone, the style, and probably, the joy. But say what you will about a piece like this, in listening to it just now, what I most like about it is that three letter word: joy. Sometimes it’s just fun to let go completely— All these years (20 plus!) later, I still feel the deep, deep pleasure of singing my heart out with Jo. Sigh:
Gladys Tardiban called me at the office to tell me her tale: how she and “The Bronx Ladies” were pouncing on helpless grocers all over New York. She knew she was bad. She liked being bad. I asked her (and a friend) to come in, talk; Poor Bob the grocer I called on the phone. The whole thing fell together very quickly. This is a celebration of evil:
I haven’t heard these yet, but here’s what I remember. In the early 80′s…81, 84, I don’t recall, a friend of mine, Lawrence Weschler, told me that there was this guy, a doctor, who was laid up at Montifiore Hospital in the Bronx and was an extraordinary story teller, who’s case studies of patients with neurological disorders had appeared in the New York Review of Books. Weschler showed me a manuscript. I was amazed. So for several weeks, in the late afternoons, I would visit Oliver — who was suffering some difficulty with his leg — and sit with my tape recorder at this bedside. We talked for hours. It was like he was telling me bedtime stories. This is the result: