Intro from Jay Allison: One woman's personal account from behind bars.
Mark is the News Director at KJZZ in Phoenix. In his job this is not an everyday sort of piece. He said:
“Carrie is a friend of a friend here, and I had seen the letters when Carrie was still in jail and I asked my friend if Carrie would be willing to share her story, to read the letters to tape when she got out. I didn’t really know Carrie at all prior to that, but got to know her fairly well during the process of making this radio piece and I think that happens to many journalists when they dig deeply into a rather personal story. You know going beyond the hard news, talking head stories of the daily news grind. You sort of start to seek out interesting and moving stories to tell. And then, whether this is good or not I don’t know, you start to root for the people you’ve come to know.”
Mark produced this piece a couple of months ago for local air on KJZZ. We liked the material, but had some questions about the use of music in production. You can read our email exchange on the subject, and you can also listen to the
original piece (sorry: no longer on KJZZ’s website) to note the differences, if you are a true zealot.
“It was interesting because not knowing her really at all, she was very open and willing to share these letters. I mean there was always a little bit of hesitancy, but by and large she was very forthcoming and kept our recording appointments to a ‘T’, and I started to wonder, I mean, whether going through this process, which was obviously uncomfortable, was somehow cathartic for her. If in letting other people, even if it was a radio audience full of anonymous people, know about her problem, that she would somehow have more people pulling for her. It almost felt to me like this was like a trip to the dentists for her. She didn’t really want to do it, knew it would be uncomfortable, but felt like she needed to share these letters, that she would be better for it in the end.”
If you listen to this piece, we urge you to keep listening to the end. Also, please note that there are a few references that are adult in nature and not particularly appetizing.
Jail Lexicon & Letter Samples
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Editorial Email Exchange
RE: use of music in “Carrie’s Letters from Jail”
Sometimes, with permission, we include backstage email exchanges on Transom.org, believing that for a site dedicated to editorial process, the email trail is sometimes the best way to get at it. This begins after Mark initially directed us to a URL at KJZZ to hear the original version of the piece.
We’re certainly interested. Would you be willing to work editorially with me at all on a version for transom.org?
I’d like to work with you on Jail Mail. I’d also love to talk with you at some point about what direction you think you want to take it, and whether broadcast on transom.org precludes me from pitching the story to other programs.
Mark, mainly I’m interested in discussing the use of music, its advantages and disadvantages, and if we determine that music is the way to go, whether the music you chose serves the material best.
I liked the material a lot, but sometimes felt lost in time, and found the boundaries BETWEEN letters to be a bit vague. Do you have a transcript of the piece? I would not anticipate wanting major changes, but might want to suggest some edits.
I’m not crazy about the title. It seems a little flip, less substantive than the piece itself. (Indeed, that was part of my problem with the music too…and that it seem to direct the emotions too obviously.)
We’d need to get permissions from the writer, and also some background on her (photo, etc.) for the site. I’d hope she’d be interested in getting this material to a wide audience. It carries a strong message.
Transom.org certainly does NOT prevent you from pitching to other programs–in fact we URGE you too and we’ll help–but it has to appear on the Transom FIRST and give a credit to Transom on the air. After a week on Transom exclusively, you are free to place it anywhere else. Check our “Acquisition Agreement.”
To get going, I think we’d need a copy (DAT or CD) of the piece, plus a copy of the unmixed readings and a transcript. It’d be nice if we could put this up next month.
let me know what you think… We can talk soon, if this sounds generally agreeable.
Please do what you will. And let me know how I can help. And I’m working on some pics and Carries permission, which I feel sure is a given. Did the CD arrive?
yes! thank you. We’re just going to jump in and make a first editorial pass with our suggestions for your reaction. Response here has been that the material and reading are solid, but that the intro sets up the wrong expectation and the music continues that expectation. The piece feels much quieter and simpler to us, but we will seek your judgement before we go forward. We can always link to the original piece too, as comparison may be interesting and the transom site is about process, after all.
This sounds great. And I think all of the comments you make are right on the dot. I will be very honest about my use of music. I want to evoke strong emotion in the people who listen to these types of pieces and I think well-chosen music can take the content further, even very strong content, further than it can go on its own. Ira always tells me ‘use music like basil… sprinkle on lots and lots.’ Maybe I over-spiced in this instance. Call me sentimental, but after bumping a long for ten years in lots and lots of hard news, I want to make some touching, emotionally meaningful radio. Having said that,I work very, very hard not to become emotionally attached to my work so that I’m as subjective as possible during the editing process… having said THAT I can also say that I’m almost always dissatisfied with my stuff, and crave really good edits.
Looking forward to talking. Regards, mark
Re. Music as basil….
Ira and I disagree on this. He has made a stylistic choice, and in a way it’s a “branded” choice for his program, to use non-organic production music to create mood… note I say MOOD, not EMOTION. He and the TAL team are *masters* of the technique, and it’s not as simple as it sounds. In fact, they’ve done it so well, it’s almost a cliche. It’s the first choice you’d make if you doing a parody of their show.
Now, when I hear a producer trying to create MOOD in a documentary with music, I think: “This American Life.” (Curse them, they’ve ruined it for all of us!)
When I hear a producer trying to manipulate my EMOTIONS in a documentary through music, I rebel. I don’t like being told by music what to feel. (there are exceptions… like dramatic material within a documentary, etc…. and lord knows, sometimes you’re just not able to resist.) On the other hand, I often don’t mind if music is leading me through a story in an organic, integral way if it’s motivated, i.e. music that has a CONNECTION to the story or serves a structural function.
I think musical chapter breaks (from letter to letter) might be justifiable in this piece, but underlaid mood music is not, because it gets in her face.
Let me rationalize another way. If Carrie had created this piece directly for radio, if she had a hand in picking the music, I’d feel differently. But these are letters. They existed before the radio piece. She’s reading them. It’s the PRODUCER’S choice, not hers, to embellish her words. I find that intrusive.
The other option is to use music that she actually REFERS TO in her writing. Did she ever do that? That could provide an organic motivation.
I think these letters are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need basil. As good as it is, Basil isn’t always good on everything.
But, hey, it’s a matter of taste.
thanks and I’m looking forward to this. I hope the editorial comments are useful and I appreciate your openness and enthusiasm.