Enter the White Stripes
Though I feel this may not be the right forum in which to admit this, I don’t know very much about public radio. I’ve never really listened to it, much, except for classical music programming in the car with my parents. I’ve got attention problems that require all information to come accompanied by images or, if they’re on the printed page, I need to turn the stereo on, and maybe also the television, and it doesn’t hurt if I can be dribbling a basketball with one hand, too.
In addition, and maybe because of the attention problems,
I have no head for technology. I can hook up a VCR,
I can turn on a computer, I can drive a car, but if you’re
looking for specifics that go beyond “that thing, you
know, the thing with the thing?” you’re talking to the
wrong person. I don’t retain. I am frightened of math.
I still don’t think I’m downloading mp3s correctly.
I know nothing at all about sound equipment.
So I was an unlikely candidate to pitch a story to National Public Radio, to have it accepted, and a few months later, to hear myself on Morning Edition but holy cow, that’s just what happened.
And if I can do it, there is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON ON EARTH WHY YOU CANNOT, and that’s what I hope this little narrative-essay-guide-troubleshooting-glimpse-at-the-nervous-breakdown-that-was-my-first-radio-piece will help you realize: Between your own common sense and resources readily available (such as the brain trust that is Transom), you have all the skills you need to make your public radio dreams come true.
HOW TO COME UP WITH A STORY IDEA
Oh good lord. I have no idea. And in fact, when I wander over to the Tools Talk Beginner board, I find more often than not that the “How do you get your ideas?” question is greeted with a lot of, “Well, you just have to figure that out for yourself” which is totally unhelpful but tragically true.
The way I see it, there are several different kinds of radio pieces one could put together.
- straight interview, one on one
- journalistic piece, made up of interviews, sound clips, some unbiased reporter-ish narration
- narrative piece, made up of interviews, sound clips, and your own feelings
- storytelling, personal accounts, readings
The type of piece I decided to pitch was of the journalistic variety, even though in the beginning I didn’t know it was going to be, so
Wait, see? Already, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Well, the easiest place for me to start turned out to be what was on the tip of my brain at that very moment: I was going through an obsession with the White Stripes, a garage rock band from Detroit, Michigan. They were coming into New York to play four sold-out shows at the Bowery Ballroom, and I didn’t have tickets, because I had been crazy sick with the flu and I swear those shows sold out in like 20 minutes which is just ridiculous. So I was complaining to a friend of mine, and she said, “Well, I know their publicist. Why don’t you tell her you want to do an interview with the band?”
“An interview for what, though?” I asked.
“Um, how about NPR?” she suggested.
I laughed, and then realized I really really wanted to
So I got in touch with the publicist. She wrote back saying that NPR was something Jack and Meg would “love” to do. And then she asked an important question: “What show?” I had no idea. Whoops.
But in any case, what you choose, especially for your first interview or narrative piece, should be something that you are passionate about, knowledgeable about, and comfortable with. The White Stripes made sense for me because I was a huge fan of their music, and had a pretty wide base of facts from which to draw for topics. Which leads me to my next subcategory:
Ticket for the White Stripes at the Bowery Ballroom
HOW DO I FIGURE OUT WHAT I WANT TO SAY ABOUT MY SUBJECT?
And, more importantly: should I know exactly what the piece is that I want to put together, and go around with a laminated list of questions, but risk missing something spontaneous? Or should I just show up totally unprepared, but ready to jump on anything that might come out of my subject’s mouth?
I had done a bunch of research on the web to find out what themes were repeated in other interviews with the band, I had thought about the current climate in the music industry and where the White Stripes fit into that, and I had drawn on a lot of those questions any rabid fan wants to ask and tried to turn them into “journalism.” I didn’t know a lot about journalism at all, frankly. I just had a bunch of questions.
If you’re working independently, without an editor, I would expect you’ve got a lot more leeway here. Mostly because the shape of your piece doesn’t need to be dictated by a predetermined “hook” or “peg” or someone else’s idea, and you can do a lot more detective work of your own to poke around and find the story that YOU want to tell.
PITCHING or HOW TO B.S. IN AN ARTICULATE FASHION
As much as I’d like to pretend I would have done a radio piece just for the kicks of doing a radio piece, let’s face it, there’s something nice about having someplace for the piece to go. Increases the urgency, if you will. Gets the juices flowing.
I think this is key: find yourself a bunch of editors at a bunch of different places, and pitch to them all, adjusting the angle to fit their show. Do you need to have “contacts” to get in the door? No. Sure, it helps, but the most important thing is persistence. Don’t be discouraged by your status as a “nobody”. Everyone else started there, too.
Plus, you can look at it like this: there are 24 hours of radio time to fill, every day, everywhere. You are providing them with content. THEY NEED YOU.
So after talking to the publicist, I pitched my White Stripes piece to a billion people. I talked to Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Studio 360 (a local show here in NYC), I even tried Marketplace. I came up with a lot of nothing, and started getting nervous. And then, if I recall correctly, the fabulous Jay Allison came up with the idea of pitching to the Cultural Desk – just a big, wide open catch-all for culture.
My eventual email to Sharon Ball, an editor at the Cultural Desk, went like this:
My name is Whitney Pastorek, and I’m a writer here in New York. I’m working on some radio pieces with the help of Jay Allison over at Transom.org, and I’m wondering if Morning Edition would be interested in one (or more) of them.
I have the chance to interview the White Stripes, an independent garage-rock band from Detroit, when they come in town in April. I’m hoping to talk to them about their stance against “selling out” and their dedication to staying true to their roots (for example, they turned down a 7-figure deal with The Gap last fall– why?). With bands like The Strokes pulling down major TV exposure and national radio play, I’m curious why the White Stripes seem so casual about not having– or wanting– any of that.
Is this something you’d be up for? If you’ve got questions, please let me know. I’m currently half-delirious with flu, so I might not be as articulate as I could be, but I’d love to give this a shot.
Note the blatant name-drop. That’s key. If you’ve got one – use it. No shame in that. Note the abundance of information in the body paragraph – good to give some background on what you’re talking about. Note the somewhat insightful question already included – shows you’ve done your homework. Note the reference to the flu. I was, like, on my deathbed. Anyway.
Sharon emailed me right back. She said she was interested, and I should call her, which I did, and that’s when it began: I talked as fast as I could for as long as I could, trying to get in as much information about the White Stripes as possible.
I also had to talk my way around the fact that I had no experience at all whatsoever, which was very, very challenging and, ultimately, unconvincing.
But for some reason, she took the story. I think she liked the band, actually. She accepted it on “spec”, which means I would have to turn in a project and have it picked up by a show in order to get paid, but I wasn’t doing this for the money.
Holy crap: SHE TOOK THE STORY! I AM GOING TO INTERVIEW THE WHITE STRIPES!!
Part 2: Enter the White Stripes, Part 2
w/ notes from Jeff Towne
Meg of The White Stripes
Photo: Whitney Pastorek
So I’m sitting there at my desk at work, and I’m trying really hard to contain myself as I talk with Sharon, and when she accepts the piece and we schedule a “phone session I hang up the phone and only sort of whoop really loudly, and my co-worker only sort of hides his disdain for my using the office to arrange projects that don’t have to do with my actual paying job, but whatever! I am a real journalist now, and I am doing a phone session!
What’s a phone session?
The phone session is where Sharon and I brainstorm ideas about the piece and start shaping the line of questioning and so forth. I’ve got about two weeks before the White Stripes are going to be in NYC, and so I assume I will use that time to really hone my journalistic skills, but for the time being I set up this sort of outline of subjects I’m interested in:
- Why did the band turn down this huge Gap ad campaign?
- What does “selling out mean?
- They just recently switched labels, from Jack’s own indie label to a larger British conglomerate – does THAT mean they sold out? (I would later find out that the big Brit label was just for European distribution – research, research)
- How calculated is the band’s image, and why THIS image?
- What do they think about the whole mp3 battle?
- They were recently on Letterman – what does that opportunity mean?
- Talk about the themes of the music (oh, good grief, Whitney.)
- Who are their influences? How do they pick the covers they play? (again, people, NO JOURNALISM TRAINING)
- This last bullet point on my list says, “skills Ð simply complex . I have no idea what that means.
I go over all of this with Sharon, and she’s got these super smart things to say. First of all, she’s so not interested in the issue of “selling out, but way more concerned with their image, the “world they’ve created, and the sort of burgeoning Detroit rock community. She also really wants Jack to bring his guitar and mentions something about this being a “performance chat, which I took to be a style of NPR piece that I didn’t really know about, and then she says, “Great. So this should be about 6 and a half minutes, scene/studio, call Stacey and set up some studio time. Bye! Good lord.
Ok, so once I’d scheduled studio time (Stacey: “How long do you need? Me: “Twenty minutes? Stacey: “It comes in blocks of an hour. Me: “Oh. One of those, then, please. Stacey: “DAT or minidisk? Me: “Oh, hell, Stacey, why don’t you just pick for me, hm? ), I got to work on my battle plan for the interview itself.
World’s greatest invention: Google. I typed in “White Stripes and started clicking through the links. Luckily, they are the source of a great deal of fascination for the media (even before I busted the story wide open on NPR) and so there were a number of little blurby pieces and fan sites and longer interviews from before they became so famous that they no longer gave interviews. I used those to sort of get a sense for what the band would want to talk about, as well as what I thought had already been run into the ground.
And as luck would have it, the day before I was scheduled to interview them the band did an in-studio spot at KRock, the local angry-15-year-old-boy station here in NYC; since I listen to the angry-15-year-old-boy station while at work, I was sitting there Googling these guys when they started talking on air. The DJs asked a number of buffoonish questions and also managed to comment on Meg’s breasts — and so that turned out to be pretty useful. I came away armed with a couple good ideas following up on some of the things Jack said, the knowledge that Jack was suffering from bronchitis at the moment, and a warning not to mention Meg’s breasts.
I decided to write out a bunch of topics and questions on two facing pages of a notebook. I left lots of space between each one, in case one question led me to a follow-up that I needed to jot down and come back to. I also pulled a couple interesting clips from other magazines because I wanted to hear the band’s opinion on specific things that had been said about them in the past. I made sure everything was laid out as neatly and clearly as possible, because I know how easily I just abandon things like notebooks in important situations and I thought maybe having everything written VERY CAREFULLY would help remind my brain to focus on the issue at hand and not just start drooling on Jack and in the end, I ended up with two pages that looked like this:
Click Image for Full View
And so, armed only with some fragile ideas (and one of my freshman students from NYU, whose job it was to pat my arm and smile reassuringly whenever I opened my mouth), I headed off to the NPR Bureau (the NPR Bureau!) to meet the band.
“HI, I’M WHITNEY. WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT?”
Let it be said that I do not look my age. In fact, I look a good five years younger than I am, and occasionally act even younger than that. When I walk into the NPR Bureau, the guy at the front desk does a bit of a double take. Then again, I might have been so spastic at that point that he was just reacting to my occasional random fits of giggling. I meet with the engineer, a woman named Manoli Weatherell, and she does less of a double take, and then walks me into the studio.
The room is about the size of a standard bedroom (in NYC), with a big table in the center and microphones popping up all over the place. The walls have that egg-crate padding stuff on them, and there’s a number of things I feel like I should perhaps not touch. On the other side of a glass wall is the control booth, where Manoli says she is going to sit, and like 7000 tape and CD and minidisk decks and lots of blinking lights. There is actually an “on air sign. My freshman assistant, Slaney, and I look at each other with big stoopid sloppy grins on our faces, and head back to the lobby to wait.
The entrance of the White Stripes is not accompanied by trumpets or seraphim or even an entourage, really – just Jack and Meg and the publicist and the manager. All of whom give me that same sort of look of disbelief but shake my hand and play along anyway, and then we all go into the studio. No pleasantries, no idle banter to get me used to talking to my favorite band in the entire universe – this interview is happening NOW.
The White Stripes at a Pier on the West Side, 08/2001
Click Image for Full View.
Photo: Whitney Pastorek
HOW TO INTERVIEW YOUR FAVORITE BAND IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE, or, STOP STARING, WOMAN! THIS IS FOR NPR!
I opened by trying to sound all professional, but I think that went away really, really fast. I started asking questions, and Jack was very forthcoming, and I just sort of tried to follow his lead. I’d been skeptical going in – of the whole humility thing, this “oh, we never expected any of this line that I’d kept reading in all of their press – and so when he launched right into that, I tried to sort of pick my way around it, but the fact is, he was quite persuasive and I was somewhat preoccupied with having these people “like me. Also, the publicist and the manager were sitting on the other side of the glass window, not smiling. Luckily, Manoli WAS smiling, and nodding, and making encouraging gestures with her hands, and Slaney was doing her job well, too, so I pressed on.
I can’t believe I let myself get preoccupied with being LIKED, by the way. I mean, I must have watched “Almost Famous nine times before going in there. Anyway.
So I’m not sure if I got to all my questions. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to care about that, though, and instead just let the discussion go wherever it was going to go. And actually, we hit a good number of the things I wanted to know. A lot of times, I could tell Jack had been asked the same question a million times – but I couldn’t feel bad about that because my first question was “What do you want to talk about but never get asked? and he didn’t really have an answer. My friend Matt – an even bigger Stripes fan than me – sent me an email that said all he wanted out of this interview was for me to “get Meg to talk, which I tried to do (and actually, I think at one point I accidentally asked about her breasts) but she doesn’t really talk, at all, so I abandoned that, too. I asked Jack to play his guitar, which he did a little of but couldn’t really sing at all because of the bronchitis so that stopped pretty quick. And when I got to the end and I sort of ran out of stuff to say, anyway, I let Slaney ask a question, which was fun. And then we wrapped it up, and we shook hands again, and Jack didn’t make out with me, and we all went home. Slaney and I started giggling again. It felt pretty damn good.
Going back and listening to the tapes later, it would seem that I very much let the band dictate the direction of the conversation. I’m still not sure if that’s ok.
But there was one question I simply did not want to ask, which would come back and bite me in the ass: were you guys married?
I knew the answer – yes. The White Stripes were married. In fact, it’s not hard to find evidence of that fact, if you look hard enough or talk to the right people. In Detroit, apparently, it’s not even an issue. But the national press had made such a big deal out of this – for those who don’t know, Jack and Meg claim to be brother and sister – that I knew it was probably my “job as a “journalist” to go down that road and try and get as much info out of them as I could. I didn’t do it for two reasons: first, that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. It didn’t seem like the most important part to me, not more important than their effect on immediate pop culture, or Jack’s contributions to smaller bands in his hometown, or even the sort of vague class issues that undercut the idea of white kids from the suburbs playing the music of blacks from the poor South. And second: I didn’t want to piss them off. So I didn’t ask anything about it.
If you listen to the final product, though, the subject very much gets brought up. I’ll get to that when I talk about editing.
I think that’s a good example, though, of how important it is to cast a wide net in an interview, because you never know what’s going to pop out the other end when you get right down to it. I’m glad I asked a lot about their image and tried to sort of get Jack to admit to it all being an act, because that worked well with the direction I ended up going. I don’t think I could have predicted how this thing would turn out, but the tape I got was perfect.
So that makes me wonder how much you can really plan ahead for this sort of thing, huh?
Notes From TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne
Although this isn’t per-se a techie “Tools” thing, let me jump in, because I interview lots of musicians…
You did the right thing by researching the band on the web, or magazines, or any resources you can find. It’s sometimes charming to just have a na•ve chat with someone, just getting to know the interviewee as real person, apart from any fame or artistic pretensions, but when interviewing a band, you must be all set with some well-thought out questions, or you’ll be at great risk for getting nothing but some mumbling and a few platitudes about how everything just was totally natural, it just came out that way.
You do want to read other interviews, to know a bit about their background, about the references in their songs, about their inspirations, not to just ask the same questions again, but to get the next step down the pike, to get at their obsession with renaissance architecture, or the X-men, or the cosmic relevance of a chili-dog. And sometimes, even if the question has been asked and answered a hundred times, you just have to do it again to get it on tape. It’s a bit of show-offy bravado, but I’ve found that flinging a really obscure fact about the band into the interview right at the top goes a long way toward getting some real answers, as folks perk up, realizing that they aren’t about to endure another session with some reporter who got assigned this beat, and will just ask the top-10 generic questions.
That being said, you have to be ready to follow threads that are unexpectedly loosened, don’t stick to your questions just because you happened to formulate them in a way that would win you points in debate club. I try to listen to a band’s recordings repeatedly and read bios or interviews or press kits then write out a list of questions. Not just topics, but real questions, in a logical order. Then I don’t try to memorize them, but know them, so when it comes to the interview, I’ll hold the paper, but try not to look at it, unless I need a song name, or some specific quote I need to be exact about. Then, I let the interview flow where it flows, and just double check the notes before the end to make sure I didn’t leave out anything I really wanted to ask.
When working on the final production, you will be very thankful that you remembered to ask a few specific questions about specific songs. This is radio, and you are going to want to cut to music, and it’s much better if the answers set up the tunes now and then! It’s great to get the final word on truth and honesty, but the story about being out of coffee and writing the lyrics to “Caffeinational Debt” is better radio.
Remember, this is going to be edited. It’s good to have too much. Very often, the best answers come at the very end, sometimes the second or third time the same question has been asked (in a slightly different form if you know it’s there, but they just didn’t say it right.) And don’t underestimate the power of the uncomfortable pause, still point the microphone at them as if they had more to add.
These are things that improve with experience, as one gets used to interviewing, but it is good to remember that you have the safety-net of not being live on the air, you can always cut out the parts that go badly.
~ Jeff Towne
Working w/ an editor and piecing it all together.
Part 3: Enter the White Stripes, Part 3
The White Stripes source material
Photo: Whitney Pastorek
Once I stopped glowing, I had to face a certain reality: I had interviewed the White Stripes, and it had been an amazing experience – but now I had an hour of digital tape staring me in the face. And I had no idea what to do with it. Nor did I have any way to listen to the interview, since it was on DAT.
Luckily, I worked at NYU’s theater school, and the sound design department had one sitting around. I borrowed it (“Just for a week!” I told them) and put it on my living room floor.
The steps I took to get from the tape of the interview to a script:
1. Listen to the tape. Cringe at my annoying voice and even more annoying stupid questions.
2. Listen to the tape again, this time jotting down non-stop notes on a legal pad. Do not pause the tape at any point, just write as fast as I can. End up with insightful information such as “Ha! He mentioned Zeppelin!”
3. Begin to pull out segments that might be useful. Spend a lot of time rewinding and fast-forwarding, trying to scribble down every single word. Note start/end time of each quote.
4. Slap a bunch of random thoughts into a Word document, along with the transcripted quote sections, and send to Sharon Ball, my editor.
All this took place between April 7th, when I interviewed them, and April 16th. During that time, I think I listened to that DAT tape twenty times. And going back to read those random thoughts, some of them are pretty good, I think. One section says:
But the discussion of trickery and manipulation raises another interesting contradiction: for a band that so vehemently insists that they never expected or wanted any of this, they are incredibly media savvy. Jack has a laundry list of topics he mentions whenever possible – childhood, the blues, storytelling, and of course, the name of the band – and if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he had this interviewing stuff scripted.
Something else that got included in this initial script explosion was a series of transcripts compiled by Athena Desai, an NPR employee, who had been dispatched by Sharon to attend a White Stripes show in DC and interview some fans. This hadn’t even occurred to me as a necessity, but I would use a lot of her work in the final thing. She sent two full minidisks of drunk teenagers screaming things like, “MEG’S REALLY HOT!!” and some short clips of the concert itself.
Sharon and I had another phone session after I sent the Word document over, and she gave me some more quick suggestions (“Make Meg a section in the piece, or drop her in? Comic relief?Point/counterpoint?”), and then said to get to work on an actual script.
So, having no earthly idea what I was doing, I sat down to do just that. I slapped a structure together, I cut and pasted like crazy, and I sent her a three page thing that ranged from ok (“The White Stripes are a bit of a mystery to any pop culture junkie: a two-person band that came out of nowhere to become not only a critical darling but the kind of group that can sell out four shows in New York City in two hours.”) to just plain dippy (“The music’s confusingness is strongly rooted in both 1930′s delta blues and the rock bands of the seventies, with a little grunge thrown in for good measure.”). What’s interesting about looking back at that first script, though, is how many of the interview quotes I pulled ended up in the final thing. I’m not sure if that’s because I nailed it the first time or I’m just really lazy and hated that damn DAT player.
Sharon’s response to that script was, “Really good start! I’ll call you later.”
And then I didn’t hear from her or anyone else for two weeks.
Here is where this story takes a little detour. Turns out I’d wandered into the “restructuring” of NPR’s Cultural Desk, and as I was sitting at home grumbling about being neglected, more than half of the department that had accepted my piece was being laid off. The final exodus wouldn’t happen until later in the summer, but I think the chaos had started at this point, and Sharon was obviously dealing with a lot of stuff that made me and my silly rock band piece a low priority. I haven’t spoken to her since, and I do hope she’s doing well wherever she is – because she ended up doing me a huge, huge favor. Rather than letting me get lost in the shuffle, she had the presence of mind to pass me on to another editor.
I’m sitting at home biting my nails about how no one seems to want to call me back (but sort of glad I don’t have to touch the DAT, which is still in the middle of my living room floor, covered in legal pads). And then I sort of give up, and realize this may never happen.
On May 30th, over a month since I’d last heard from anyone, I get a call from Alyne Ellis, who says that Sharon has passed the story to her, and she’s my new editor, and I should send her my script. Feeling fairly confident about my “really good!” piece of journalism, I email it away. And Alyne’s response is, “I think we have a lot of work to do here. You’re almost completely on the wrong track.”
Not only that, but if this piece is going to go on Morning Edition, which is the plan, it’s going to have to happen on June 7th, which is the day after the MTV Movie Awards and a live television performance by the White Stripes. Alyne has decided that’s the “peg”, or reason for the piece to be broadcast, and so my deadline is now IN ONE WEEK. I call my mom and cry.
Whitney’s Interview Notes
(Click Images for Full View)
I don’t know how to write a script. I don’t know how to edit sound. I don’t even know how to get the sound off the damn DAT player, for crying out loud. I spring into action. First step: email Jay Allison and check the Transom Tools column for salvation. I am told I need to buy an MBox. I do not know what this is, but I go online and search for it and find one and buy it and have it shipped overnight. Apparently, this device will allow me to input any kind of sound directly into my computer and let it be edited by ProTools. Great. I install it and sort of read the instructions and notice a pesky one: sound should not be edited directly on my hard drive, because it will cause fragmentation. I need a separate hard drive. Great. I go buy one. I’m not even sure what I’m buying (and if you’re keeping track, I’ve spent quite a bit of money at this point), but I plug it in and it lights up in a comforting blue color, and I try to play with a ProTools tutorial for like 5 minutes but then I freak out and figure I’ll just figure it out as I go along. Or something.
All the while, Alyne and I are editing. We are going back and forth like crazy, her fixing one word here, cutting two there, having me read the script to her over the phone as though it were real-time. We make changes like going from “The White Stripes give few interviews, but there’s a reason they gave this one,” to, “The White Stripes give few interviews, but SAY there’s a reason they gave this one.” She is very concerned that I did not ask the White Stripes about their marriage or lack thereof (told you this would come back at me), and we go about finding creative ways to get around that. I am no longer doing much of anything at my day job. We go through three versions in one day. Alyne is a genius, and handles my total inexperience in the best way possible: by ignoring it. Her advice and guidance are invaluable, and also a pain in the ass, because why won’t this woman just leave me alone? Just let me be mediocre already! I don’t wanna be on public radio anymore! Waaaaah!
Alyne says I need to have tape from the MTV Movie Awards. Luckily, they taped the show over the weekend, and so I tell MTV to send me a copy. I can do this, just call up MTV and ask for things, because I work for NPR. Then, Alyne says I have to have an expert. What’s an expert? An expert is someone other than me, who can lend an expert opinion. Who do I know who is an expert? I call Rolling Stone. I ask for Joel Levy, Senior Editor. I can do this. I work for NPR. Joel Levy says he can maybe get me someone, and then I remember that I KNOW someone who works for Rolling Stone, a young man named Rob Sheffield, who I met because his girlfriend at the time is in a theater company with – oh, never mind. I know Rob Sheffield. I get his phone number from my friend Emma and I call him. Can he meet me the very next day at the NPR Bureau to be interviewed about the White Stripes? Sure! So the next day, I’m back at the Bureau! I’m interviewing Rob Sheffield! I’m back on the floor with the DAT, making notes on the exhausted legal pad! I’m revising the script! It is now June 4th!
Drunk on power, I am a bit taken aback when the videotape MTV sends me is of the three-quarter variety, something I’ve never seen before. But this is not a problem: did I mention I worked at NYU? I march over to the film department and hassle GAs until one of them finally hauls out a three-quarter machine and transfers the sound to DAT for me. Jesus, more DAT. But I am unfazed! It is June 5th! I haven’t slept in 48 hours!
At home, I am MBoxing like crazy. I have bought the wrong cables from Radio Shack, but thanks to the amp cord from my guitar (and by transferring all the minidisk tracks to DAT before feeding them into the MBox), I press on. The tape from the White Stripes interview is in! The tape from Rob’s interview (which went really well, thank you) is in! I am going through the minidisks that Athena sent me of the concert! I am pulling out choice quotes! I am trying to find good cuts of the live music to use under my narration of the quotes! I am doing a hell of a job! I am cutting and pasting again but this time with sound, zooming in to look at tiny lines that mean breaths or snaps or “um”s or whatever, and moving things around so that it sounds like people said things all in one sentence when in reality they said them half an hour apart. I cut my clips for the interview and from that point on, whenever I read the script to Alyne, I play her the real sound off my computer. I have not been to my day job since Tuesday! It is Thursday morning, and the final version of the script is done! I have not slept in three days, but thank god for World Cup Soccer, which refreshes me at 3:30 am when I am thinking about making a break for the Canadian border where they will never find me!
The afternoon of Thursday, June 6th, I am sent to the Bureau for the last time, to do the mix and the “tracking” (“tracking,” I soon learn, means “recording narration”– this was explained to me after an aborted late-night attempt to record my vocals in my closet) with Manoli Weatherell, the greatest sound engineer of all time. We schedule a two hour block of time. Recording the narration is cake, I’m a natural (except for how I keep giggling), but then we sit down to mix this thing, and we spend four hours there, not two, moving things up and down by tiny, tiny degrees, lining up beats in the music with beats in the interviews, fixing the levels on this and that and the other thingÉ and finally, glorious god, it is finished. Manoli has worked crazy overtime for me, and I love her for it, and it is 6pm on the day before the piece is scheduled to air, and it is PERFECT.
Manoli gets on the phone with NPR in Washington to announce that we are upfeeding the piece. This is so exciting! Someone else in the Bureau has come in to listen and been amazed at the brilliance of it all! We are going to upload it and -
“What do you mean, it’s not on the schedule?” Manoli says, into the phone.
So. The piece eventually aired the following Tuesday, and it was a great, great moment in my life. My mother called me immediately afterwards, a huge smile in her voice. Long-lost high school classmates emailed to say they’d been startled awake by my voice on their clock radios. A guy I used to be in love with heard it but didn’t bother to get in touch and I had to hear it third-hand, jerk. I walked a recording of the piece over to the White Stripes’s publicist and was thrilled to hear that they’d “loved it.” And two months later, I returned the faithful DAT player to the sound department, who honestly had forgotten where it was.
And have I done any radio since? No. Alyne lost her job in the Cultural Desk restructuring nightmare shortly after this piece aired (which I think is a crime, but no one’s asking me), and I lost my job at NYU, in large part because I hadn’t done much of anything there in weeks. But I’m getting back after it now , and I asked for a new microphone for Christmas. I have high hopes that this was not a one-time miracle occurrence and that it really is a “beginning”.
Now. Understanding that the above may not be the most useful of information (did you like all those exclamation points?) I present to you an interview conducted the other day between Alyne Ellis and myself, in which she offers calm, rational tidbits and reflections. It’s 4am, as I wrap this up – I’ve stayed up for old times’ sake and to try and get back into the mindset of my surreal public radio experience. This is important historical documentation, you know. I hope it proves useful. I hope some of the rest of this has been useful, too. And that you will all get off your asses and make radio now.