After 8 years working as a journalist writing Joseph Mitchell styled pieces for the Chicago Reader, Neal Pollack decided he wanted a bit of a career change. And so with the help of Dave Eggers, the author of the best seller A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius and the driving force behind the literary journal McSweeney‘s where many of the pieces in Neal’s book first appeared, Neal published his first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. The deal was this… McSweeney’s would front the money to print the book, and all profits after printing costs would go directly to Neal. But it also meant that besides the help of McSweeney’s one part-time employee and an intern, Neal was completely responsible for promotion of the book. There would be no advertisements, no agents, no promotion department to push the work on bookstores… and so, Neal took to the road…
This piece arrived as an email pitch from Jonathan Menjivar in Fullerton, California. Since Transom.org didn’t fully exist yet and we needed material to get it cranked up, we helped him out. Our idea is that we’ll try to help sometimes if we can find the money and we’re excited by the idea. Most of the time, we’ll just take your work as you send it, because you’re so darned good.
This is Jonathan’s first ever radio piece, his first encounter with whole process — interviewing, editing, scripting, narrating, etc. etc. He was kind enough to let us inside his process and, if you’re new to this too, you may find it instructive. Read his email chronicle of the piece — from the pitch, to the road, to the production, to the tech notes.
Jonathan followed Neal Pollack (the first author published by McSweeney’s Press) on his book tour… which traveled to bars, punk clubs, a Venice Beach “weight lifting demonstration,” Neal’s hotel room in Vegas, and his parent’s house, among other stops.
The piece itself is still a work-in-progress, with some fat parts, some rough mixes. We intend to complete it for broadcast as part of the “Hearing Voices” series, and its final form will depend on its final broadcast home.
But we wanted to put it here on Transom.org at this point in its life. It is a picaresque tale, a bit longer than what would likely end up on the radio. You can listen to it in chapters. There are bonus sidebars. You can read Jonathan’s email and listen along the way. It’s an Internet kind of thing. It will be interesting to see how it evolves into radio.
Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2000 09:19:41 PDT
Dear Folks at The Transom,
I know you guys aren’t quite up and running yet but I have an idea for a piece that is somewhat time sensitive and so I’d like to see about getting it underway. I am a completely amateur radio reporter with very little experience. I’ve been volunteering at KCRW since February and I had an idea for a short story that I think would work great on…
A hitherto private email exchange, made open in the public interest, we hope.
NOTE: We debated about whether or not to include this. Finally, we thought that since this site is about the Transom, after all, it was proper of us to look at the journey across it. The following email exchange is that.
This piece is one of our first, so the rules that govern it (particularly our ability to support Jonathan’s meager expenses and to help develop the piece) are special because we wanted to seed the site with new work from a new producer, and well, what else were we going to do?
Nothing in this email should be, I don’t know, thought of as policy or cited as anything official. Jonathan, particularly, is being quite obliging by revealing his part of the process. It was a private communication, and we’re making it public because we imagine it might be useful to someone somewhere someday.
Dear Folks at The Transom,
I know you guys aren’t quite up an running yet but I have an idea for a piece on All Things Considered that is somewhat time sensitive and so I’d like to see about getting it underway. I am a completely amateur radio reporter with very little experience. I’ve been volunteering at KCRW since February and am currently talking with Julie Snyder about a story of mine that may run on This American Life.
But in the meantime I had an idea for a short story that I think would work great on All Things Considered. Neal Pollack, author extraordinaire has just released his first book and will soon swing through Southern California as part of his nationwide book tour. Pollack’s book, “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature,” is the first published by McSweeneys Books, a segment of Dave Eggers literary venture that has brought us the fantastic literary journal Timothy McSweeneys Quarterly Concern literary journal.
In true McSweeneys style, the release of Pollack’s book is breaking barriers. McSweeneys is spending no money to advertise the book relying instead on a small ad in the latest issue of McSweeneys and their website, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, to promote the book. Printed for speeds sake in Iceland where McSweeneys is regularly printed, Pollack’s book is being sold in a gorgeous hardcover edition complete with a built-in ribbon bookmarker for a mere $16. Eggers is also taking a revolutionary approach in that he is taking zero of the profits for the book, all of which will be forwarded directly to Pollack.
But where the story really lies is in Pollack himself. “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature” is a hilarious parody of several ego-inflated authors from Gore Vidal to Hunter S. Thompson. Parts of the story will involve recordings of Neal’s readings during his book tour. And this is where I think it really gets interesting. Neal’s book tour is…well different. Thus far it has included stops at many a bar in these fine United States as well as a sandwich eating contest and here in Southern California will include a stop at Venice Beach for a “weight lifting demonstration.” I will be attending all four events here in Southern California taping Neal’s readings and conducting interviews both with him and audience members who show up to witness the wild man in action. If Neal can help me make the connection, I may interview Eggers as well.
I know All Things Considered is seeking pieces for its “Changing Face of America” series and I think a piece on an author who is breaking barriers in the publishing world and promoting his book following the indie-rock model will prove funny and interesting. I’ve contacted Neal about it already and he is very excited about the possibility of appearing on All Things Considered.
I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.
Very interesting, Jonathan.
We’re busy being born here, but maybe we can work something out. It’s probably best to talk rather than email because I don’t know if I could stand to write all those conditional clauses.
I want to hear more about what you want to do, how you’d do it, and what you need.
I’ll call you or you call me.
After I received your email today I gave Neal a call. He’s basically given me free reign to follow him around while he’s here and record, record, record. So I think the nature of the piece really depends on what sort of things happen and what kind of moments I can get on tape. I would love to do a piece that strayed away from a standard NPR piece. We can talk about ways you think the piece should go and where other than the transom might be a good place for the story to call home.
Have you done any of this sort of radio work before? how about other kinds of work? Not that it really matters, I just wonder.
I’m still extremely new at this. Though i decided about two years ago I wanted to work in public radio I didn’t start volunteering at KCRW until this year and didn’t get a tape recorder until this summer. Like I said, I’m currently working on a piece for TAL so I’ve been schooled in their method of contructing a narrative. I’m still conducting interviews for that piece and will start writing the script soon. I’ve been learning digital editing as well working with one of the producers of “Good Food” at KCRW. I can tell you that I’ve read nearly all I could get my hands concerning radio production. Other than that there’s just stuff I did in school. I was an American Studies major and wrote lots of stuff for classes and the Student Association Newletter I edited.
Give me a sense of reality here, so I know the options.
– What gear do you have besides the cassette recorder – Do you have access to any facility that can dub for you…say, putting keepers on DAT? – Where were you thinking of editing? – Do you know how to edit?
Often, in this sort of situation with my old “Life Stories” series, The Jonathan Character will select the good parts and draft a script which we’ll edit together. Then the Jay Figure gets all the elements in hand and does the final mix here.
But this is kind of a pilot for Transom.org and I have no need to cleave to old ways. We could also try to find you a place to work in LA (NPR’s Bureau? KCRW? a friend’s studio/workstation? I also have some contacts I could work, linkages I could try to make)
So, our choices range from me trying to find you a place to work in LA to sending the whole mess to me and working long distance. Or in between. Anything is possible, but I need to be careful of time and money.
p.s. You might want to try the free version of ProTools (Mac or PC) which should be available any day now at www.protools.com.
I’ve been waiting for weeks now to see that free version of protools become a reality. Thanks for letting me know about it though.
Well, I let Neal know about the conversation you and I had about the direction the story should go in. Here is what he had to say…
>"That sounds like a great idea. I am highly in favor of true
>documentary work, and I hate the standard NPR voice. Please feel
>free to take any and all artistic liberties.
>"However, I must warn you: When I am not on stage, my work largely
>involves bickering with my wife Regina about fascinating topics such
>as "who farted?" If that's what you want, that's what you'll get.
>That said, life in L.A. should be interesting the four days I'm in
>town, and you're more than welcome to come with us to Las Vegas
>afterward as well."
Joking about fart jokes aside, I think it’ll be great to capture Neal as everyday man and contrast that with his onstage persona and make for some interesting radio. Like I said before, he’s a funny and entertaining enough fellow to carry the piece.
Also, I’m in the process of trying to borrow the necessary equipment from KCRW to close mic Neal and be out of his way at the same time. I should have no problems securing that stuff but I’ll let you know if I need you to make my plea more legitimate.
I’ll keep you up to date with any other details should they arise.
I’m in. What do you need?
If you can somehow manage to scrape up the funds so I can go to Vegas with Neal I would be eternally indebted to you. I’d need money for one night’s hotel stay and either the short flight back to L.A or bus fare. If you give me the go ahead I will give you the cheapest quote I can find which hopefully won’t include traveling with chickens in small cages, which I am not sure ever happens in reality but is always the marker for economy travel in bad films. I think I’m ok in the equipment department.
sounds plausible. Give me a quote. Save the chicken line in case you narrate.
In honor of the above advice.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
All right, here’s the options…
Lodging: Stardust (Where Neal is staying): $80.00 Stratosphere: $49.00 Algiers: $55.00
Flight Back: $80-90
Greyhound Back: $33.00
I don’t know about you, but it makes more sense to me to go with the combination of the higher priced hotel and taking the bus back than staying somewhere different than Neal and wasting the money on the flight. The long bus ride back may give me the time to sit back and assess the madness of being on tour w/ Neal. And I think Greyhound has a strict no-chicken policy.
Bingo. do it.
And it makes me feel like some kind of cut-rate, internet Ben Bradlee. Get on that Greyhound, son, and GET THAT STORY…. I say, pointing to the far horizon.
If you end up feeling there’s a narrative story in there, which includes your perspective, be sure to use the tape recorder (on buses, for example) to record your own thoughts. In fact, we might use that actual tape, but even if we don’t, it’s useful to have the notes.
Just close-mic yourself and keep an audio journal.
This sounds fantastic. All parties involved seem to be very excited. I talked to Neal this evening and he’s very excited that I’ll be following him to Las Vegas. He was also very excited about the idea of having that second tape recorder you mentioned. Please forgive me for the use of the phrase “very excited” three times in one email…no other one seems to fit.
very excited and anxious to get underway,
How very exciting indeed!
We’ll talk soon, in an excited way!
Reports from the Road
We agreed that having Jonathan send back email reports from the road might be useful in structuring the piece later on. Judge for yourself.
I like the way you write about this. I think you write like an honest reporter of events, with your own sensibility appropriately inserted.
I think you should keep writing — maybe in emails to me — about everything you saw or noticed or think. Your impressions of the whole experience, of Neal, of his co-horts and fans, of the crowds and events… everything.
I am beginning to suspect it will become our narrative thread, between bursts of Neal, who I imagine bursting, though I have never met him.
Fear not, I have a feeling this is going to be good.
Trust me, though you have never met me.
p.s. Did you get the Cub Reporter’s Kit yet? Check your mail. It’s a Sony TCD-5M cassette recorder, an Electro-Voice re-50 mic w/ short cable, some cassettes and a long cable…but not a boom/stand. It would be too heavy. You can rent one, or even buy one from radio shack. But why do you need it? To record his act? You can also tape your mic to the stand that’s already at the location. A stand is useless for general interviewing. You can make a boom from a long stick and use Gaffer’s tape on the mic.
All right, first report. Last night was an open mic event at this bar called Club Mesa. We met up at this sushi restaurant and had dinner with Neal’s wife Regina and “Commie Girl,” a columnist from the OC Weekly who helped Neal plan parts of his L.A. tour. Stories of the road and journey thus far were shared and recorded at the dinner table. Neal dived into the topic of how difficult this whole McSweeneys book publishing thing really is, that despite the appeal of doing it via this indie method, it definitely has its drawbacks. Basically the fact that seeing as how McSweeneys has never published a book before they don’t know what they’re doing in a lot of ways and Neal and Regina are having to just eat the cost of things right now and hope that the money comes rolling in later. I’ll get him to go into that topic in depth later.
So Neal literally sells the books out of the back of his car. He’s got a box full of books and a backpack and change is made out of his wallet. Last night he sold 8 books. And this was supposedly not a disappointment. Neal thought the reading went well. He relied on some of his more bawdry material for the bar crowd. “I Have Slept with 500 Women” was the biggest hit of the night. I have some fan reaction as well…people who approached Neal timidly and expressed their joy with his work.
But it was a bar, it was loud and we had little time except for when we stepped into the “smoking room” to talk in an environment that any assemblance of quiet. I’m not sure how all of this material will work out in the editing process, I know it’s nearly impossible to edit when there is background noise. Don’t worry though, I’ll make sure we have some moments where we can have some actual quiet sit down interviews. Some of the next events will include more normal book store type events and so the recordings should be clearer and less chaotic. Neal is great though Jay, everything I would’ve imagined and a great subject. Even though I’m slightly intimidated to be doing a story on this scale, having it be about Neal makes me confident it’ll turn out well.
If you want to talk I’m at work until 3 today. After that I’ll be in and out of the house today and tomorrow.
Night #2: Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena…
Met up with Neal and Regina and Neal’s brother-in-law in the parking lot of Vroman’s. They asked me if I had been in the store yet which I had not. Apparently the day had been one of gentility for them complete with lunch at a country club and a trip to the Huntington Gardens.
Vroman’s was the cap…no,no…the fine wig that completed their image as genteel gentleman and ladies. A bookstore where Neal remarked their were more items on sale than books. Neal’s reading took place in this room full of cards, stationary books, and stamps. Next door was the children’s room full of stuffed animals and toys where Neal said he wished he was reading. The place stunk of cinnamon potpouri and needless to say was no Club Mesa.
The bookstore employee in charge of helping out Neal warned him that book collectors were expected to show up and that rumors were flying around that Neal was really Dave Eggers (A reporter for the San Diego Tribune made this mistake a couple of weeks ago and had a nasty response written to him by Neal’s mom…details at nealpollack.com). One of those book collector types in glasses and a neatly buttoned-shirt even asked me, “I’ve heard that Neal Pollack is actually Dave Eggers. Is that true?” I just told him Neal was right there and he should ask him himself. It was a strange scene to witness. Like some grown-up twisted version of a comic book or a G.I. Joe figurine collector, except, not as normal as those guys.
The reading began and Neal read the introduction to his book. Lots of smiles and small laughs, but not quite enough to suit Neal. He also read “An Interview w/ My Sister Who is a Lesbian” with Stacy Keenan, former child star from “My Two Dads.” Apparently they had met at the Sundance film festival where Neal was on assignment to get into as many parties as he could. Looking to spark things up, Neal began walking around the room, picking items off the shelves and describing how much he liked them, giving detailed descriptions of these awful cheesy scenes and mentioning how much they retailed for. The stamp section also fell victim to Neal as he described one stamp with an image of an overweight women with her jacket open as “The happy prostitute.”
A question and answer session followed with Neal using a puppet from the kids room next door to answer questions as Dave Eggers. More questions were asked of Dave than Neal and each time, Neal performed a spot on impression of Dave answering questions and detailing how he had been transformed into a puppet after a reading in New Orleans and had to spend the rest of the tour with Neal’s hand up his ass or in a drawer. Eggers gets mentioned so much and I wonder if Neal ever gets irritated. That yeah it’s great to be working as part of the McSweeneys family and publishing the book in this manner, but in the end, there’s this giant shadow of Eggers over him. Neal signed the about 30 books that were purchased, writing funny, specific lines in each one and then wearing the puppet to sign the books as Dave Eggers. Neal suggested Stacy and his brother-in-law sign books. Stacy signed almost everyone’s book with, “Stacy Keenan: Neal’s sister who is a lesbian.” Neal’s brother-in-law signed three.
I’m not sure that this crowd, a supposed more literate and educated crowd got the work much more than the crowd at Club Mesa did. There were more nods and smiles this time around, but you have to wonder if people are partly into Neal because of the McSweeneys connection and the marker of hipness attached to that instead of the plain fact that he wrote this really funny book full of this intelligent criticism of the world that Vroman’s stood for. Neal says he doesn’t care if people get it at this point, he doesn’t have time to worry about that.
Neal wants me to follow him to Arizona with him and meet his parents. He’s reading at his old high school with his mom. It would surely make for an interesting addition to the story. I have enough money with the check you sent to cover the $90 flight back but I’d want to get your approval before I spent you money that way.
Day #3…Venice Beach, CA
Though I have come to expect it at this point, I’m still amazed at how fly by the seat of your pants this whole tour is planned out. I told Regina how remarkable it was that all of these readings have turned out so different, different audiences, different levels of readiness. And she said yes, they’ve all been different. And it’s making Neal really tired. It’s like a six week long improv show with little room to stop and take a breath. Not only are they doing their work on their own, but the tour is so much of an experiment that I sort of imagining them collapsing when it’s all over in a week.
So at Venice, Neal met up with another person he had met via e-mail who was helping him with this portion of the tour. She had promised to deliver a weightlifter for a demonstration and deliver she did. At first it seemed a little scary. No weightlifter was willing. The guy responsible for monitoring the weightlifting area was unsure what Neal was all about, saw my recording equipment and started saying that we needed a permit to be in the area. With a total of about 3 people there for the reading at the time it was scheduled to start, things did not look good.
Neal ensured the Venice employee we were all completely harmless, a weightlifter was found, and about 25 people showed up. Neal did his now standard intro, “My name is Neal Pollack. I’m the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, the inaugural book from McSweeneys press.” Weightlifting ensued along with discussion of technique and accompaniment was provided by King Kukelele, a local ukulele player and performance artist who has attended all of Neal’s readings so far. Neal asked if there were any questions and a black homeless man in the crowd asked, “I wanna know where my forty acres and a mule is at” and started heckling Neal accusing him of writing a book full of white supremacy. Neal diffused the situation and the reading began.
He read from “My Life at Sea” and the crowd as always is the case was all smiles. Neal asked at one point if anyone had any water and a homeless stoner kid in the audience quickly dashed off and returned with a bottle of water within one short minute. Neal offered to pay for the water, but the guy refused. After the reading was over, Neal insisted and the guy asked for $1 for the water and $10 for the pot he was going to buy. Neal gave him a dollar and Regina gave him one more. The fellow who had earlier been accusing Neal of being a racist sat at the front of the audience smiling wide the entire reading and thanking Neal at the end for making him laugh so much his side hurt.
Neal says these are the kind of people he hangs out with all the time, the sort of people he calls friends in Chicago. And I believe him. More and more it is becoming apparent that Neal is not some wild Neal Cassidy type figure but just a really nice intelligent guy who is trying to do some good in this world. It sounds so cheesy to say but it’s true. The whole point of the book is too lampoon bad journalism and I know it’s because Neal cares, and wants people written about in an intelligent and honest way.
Oh yeah…he sold about 20 books and unless he can convince the people at the next bookstore reading to lend him a box, he’s only got three for the reading in Vegas. We’ll see what happens.
Tonight is a reading in Santa Monica and then it’s off to Vegas tomorrow. Tempe is Mon. night and Scottsdale on Tues afternoon. I’ll be out of contact email-wise on those days. But I’ll keep writing these daily reports as if I were sending them to you on email.
I’ve attached a sound file…part of the thing at Venice just to give you an idea of what’s going on. I have no idea if this will be used but it might give you an idea of what’s going on. The sound quality is bad cause I have some problem with the sound program I haven’t been able to figure out. The tapes themselves sound clear. Let me know what you think.
All right I’ve got time for one more report before we take off today…
Last night was really just a standard reading. It took place in Midnight Special, this lefty independent bookstore that is one of the few interesting places left on the largely corporate 3rd St. Promenade. The evening opened with some friends of Neal’s performing a parody of 50’s advice manuals. They were very well dressed conservative women claiming to be the authors of a book entitled, “How to Marry the Man of Your Dreams” or something like that. Even with the dangerous inclusion of domestic abuse jokes the piece was clever enough to work well.
Neal than took the podium with a copy of Rolling Stone in hand. Neal drew everyone’s attention to the cover of the mag which featured a manly looking Al Gore with a larger than the average crotch. “It is Easy to Take a lover in Cuba” and “The Burden of Internet Celebrity” by request. A question and answer session was dominated by planted hecklers, one who asked Neal “Survivor” related questions and Shilo, the woman I first met at Club Mesa accused him of impregnating her.
But the interesting part of the evening came afterwards at the party that was supposed to occur at this very L.A. restaurant “More” just a few blocks from Midnight Special. Dana, who had set up both the event at Venice Beach and in Santa Monica had miscalculated exactly how long the reading would last and hadn’t booked a room until 10:00, nearly half an hour after we were there. While waiting in line for ice cream, Neal called his Mom and Dad and told them for the first time that I would be coming along. And so, according to the pattern of Neal’s life that has become apparent at this point, we stood outside. Stood outside eating a cheese plate and garlic-soaked olives. Not at all glamorous I tell you.
Once inside, we cleared out the birthday party full of Banana Republic well to do L.A. types and enjoyed some drinks. The highlight of the event, radio story-wise, came when Neal invited these fans at the party to bring their instruments into the restaurant. They had been and the reading in Venice and had told Neal about their band. So with an acoustic guitar and small drum in hand, “We Are Scientists” performed a modified version of their song “Mothra Vs. We Are Scientists” with a rocking version of “Neal Pollack Vs. We Are Scientists.” It is going in the story in some manner, I guarantee. And oh yeah, then Christopher Penn showed up and sang some songs with the band. Crazy stuff I tell you.
All right off to Vegas. And yeah, I wouldn’t mind narrating the story…it should be fun.
Well, I have returned safely from the wilds of the Southwest unscathed but with a damn good story. There are far too many details to lay out here. Don’t worry, I kept recording, kept writing.
Las Vegas was all it should be, Neal running around like an excited child and concerned father at the same time. After two 99 cent margaritas Neal’s reading in his hotel room almost resulted in him taking his clothes off. Regina stopped him and instead only a shirt came off. The four other people in the room didn’t seem to mind at all.
We had lots of discussions in the long car rides to Vegas and Phoenix and Neal and Regina engaged in the type of fights that come after 2 months on the road together.
Monday and Tuesday was the big homecoming, meeting Neal’s parents and friends and returning to his alma mater, Saguaro High. The kids he spoke to in classes were extremely enthralled and many books were sold.
I also met tons of people who are anxious to hear my story when it’s done. I know transom.org will have its own publicity machine but I can guarantee a big audience will come from the wacky assemblage of people that are McSweeneys fans.
Now comes the real work. I have a real idea how the piece will work but things should really come to life in the next week as I log the tape. Can you send me a sample script? I have a vague idea of what they’re supposed to look like, but if there is an established format, I’d like to work within that.
Thank you again and again Jay. I had the time of my life…really.
If you have any concerns at this point, please let me know.
I have a vague idea about the beginning and ending. Basically the way I perceived Neal in the beginning and then discovering who he was and what he was really all about. And I think I wrote the end of the script at the airport waiting for my plane home after talking to Neal’s dad Bernie who basically thinks the book is no big deal. Neal’s parents put me up when I was in Phoenix so the money you already sent me was enough to cover all the costs of the trip.
NOTE: After Jonathan got back from Arizona, we talked about production. How to dub, log, edit, structure, mix, the whole world of digital audio workstations and software, etc. Jonathan was brand new to all of it. I wondered if he’d like to write about what it’s like entering this world, naked. He wrote back….
>I'd be willing to write a piece about digital editing. I'm no expert, but I suppose that's the perspective you're looking for. There are lots of bits about digital editing out there that I sought out myself, but still...I had this feeling before I dove into things myself that it was simple and required little investment, which I suppose is true if you're doing basic single track pieces. I know that those articles were written like a lot of things on the web about public radio tend to be in an effort to democratize public radio and make it more accesible to new voices, which is something that inspired and excited me and I fully appreciate. But I can't help but feel it was misleading in some way. That in order to create pieces that will sound like the things you hear on the air, you've got to be willing to invest some time and money and really know what you're doing before you tackle it. Maybe I'm just being a little too picky about the details but it does make sense right? Maybe I just found a perspective for the piece...
>urg. Guilty. you're absolutely right. Because people like me are zealots, we want to believe in the idea of a nation full of untold stories and in the power of having those stories shared. (Even as I write that, I still believe it.) So, we send out an invitation. We make it sound like it's fun and important and pretty easy. But we leave off the fine print. We forget to mention that YOU have to be a little bit of a zealot too.
>Welcome to the club.
When I heard Neal was coming to town, it sounded like a good idea: stick a microphone in his face and follow him around for a couple of days. From his writing I could tell he was going to be funny and engaging and I knew something at least slightly interesting was bound to happen. Neal said yes, Jay said it sounded interesting and before I knew it, I was recording the story. Neal said I had to come to all of four of his Southern California readings. Then he said, I should come to Las Vegas with him. I said yes to which he said, “You should really come to Phoenix and meet my parents too.” So I did.
What resulted was a little more than 23 hours of raw tape, all of which had to be logged. A total of 136 pages which didn’t include the parts where I recorded Neal reading from his book which I left out since they were already in print in his book. While doing research myself about how radio stories were put together, logging tape always sounded like it was the most tortuous but necessary part of the process, something akin to pulling out a near mouthful of perfectly fine teeth to make way for dentures. But it was then, sifting through the words as they ran through my ears and onto the page that a picture of the story that might one day be first became apparent.
I should also say that I did very little standard interviewing while I was taping. I didn’t have to. I had read every review and article about Neal and had lots of general questions prepared, but Neal likes to talk, and each day he was meeting people like Commie Girl, Dana, and his parents who had lots of questions of their own about how the tour was going. So I just sort followed him around and let others ask the questions for me, interjecting here and there when I needed details. The only material in the story that was generated by any real question and answer period is the scene in the car on the way to Las Vegas where Neal and Regina are talking about McSweeney’s and Neal’s place and affect on literature. It was a product of the fact that I’m still really new at this and haven’t developed my own working style yet and the fact that each day I spent with Neal he was really busy just trying to get the event together. But it ended up giving the story a different feel. Neal sounds like he’s talking to friends rather than a reporter because he is. It lets him reveal facts about the tour in a way that I hope stays with the flow of the more verite parts of the story. That being said, I don’t have any idea whether it’s a good way to work, it’s probably not. But it worked for this story.
Once I had logged the tape, it was clear that the story had grown into something much larger than the 5-7 minute feature piece I initially envisioned. I had enough material to take the story 5 or 6 different ways and I chose what I thought was both the easiest and best way to tell the story. Using a chronological structure gave it a more interesting diary-like feel and also conveniently split what was a whirlwind week into these nice, smaller individual stories. I wanted to give a sense of what it felt like to be Neal on tour as it happened; make listeners feel the chaotic nature of the tour at those times when it seemed like it was on the brink of falling apart and also let the audience in how little Neal seemed bothered when it didn’t seem to work out. I also had some reporting to do to ensure the story made sense to people who had no idea what Neal or McSweeney’s was about. Finding a way to do that subtly, a way that might also give me an avenue to say some of the things I had noticed about Neal’s tour was the biggest difficulty I encountered in putting the story together. I’m still not quite sure whether it works the way I intended it to or if it was the best way to present the story.
The whole time I was recording in situations that were less than ideal, in bars and at the beach with lots of wind blowing. I was scared that it would be completely uneditable. Some of it almost was. The nature of this story meant that I sort of had to record it in this manner, but trust me, do whatever you can to disregard my example. Read up on all of the technical articles about recording you can get your hands on (like Jay’s on this site) and practice until using your equipment comes as naturally as reaching to scratch an itch. If at all possible, record in quiet situations. When you sit down to edit it will make you much happier.
But even with all of the setbacks my recording situation had placed on me, I can say that ProTools can work magic. I did my editing on an iMac. I had done little sound editing before I began the story. What I had done was watch one of the producers of Good Food, our local food show at KCRW, as she edited pieces for the show. That show is edited using a different sound editing program but it’s basically the same concept no matter what program or platform you’re using. If you can, find someone who can show you the basics too. It’s one thing to read about digital editing but actually watching someone in action who has the skills down is invaluable.
ProTools looks intimidating because it is. I still don’t know what half the functions are for. And because the manual is written with music production in mind, seeking out answers there is even more scary. But do it. Read the manual, the answers are there. Like anything else, it requires lots of time just playing around with all the different functions before it becomes second nature. Find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you as well, and once you do, don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Take this excerpt from an email exchange between Jay and I for example:
>What's the best method for putting sound underneath narration? I
>was just lowering the gain on that section and doing crossfades to
>make the transition smoother but is there a better way?
>Regarding volume and fades, you need to put the tracks in "volume
>automation" mode and you can record fades while you play (using the
>mouse like a mixer fader, one track at a time), or by drawing the
>fades in Volume view, pulling the volume graph line up and down.
After that email from Jay, things made SO much more sense. Though figuring out things on your own has its merits, ask when you need to. I put together the first version of the story using the method I described in the email with disastrous results. It sounded awful and did some pretty permanent damage to the sound files. Permanent enough that when I wanted to revise the story, I had to go back and redo about 50% of the work I had done putting the story together the first time around.
Know this fact as well. You will probably get frustrated. Listening to the same piece of audio over and over again as you try and make an edit sound natural will do that to a person. Going into this process of putting together the story, I thought that because I knew how to tell a story and report in print, I’d have no problems applying those skills to doing a radio story. On the contrary, doing my first radio story felt more difficult than any of the serious academic work I had spent the last couple years of my life doing. I had to really bathe myself in sound, sort of learn to swim in it, before I felt comfortable enough to use it effectively as a storytelling tool. But doing a radio story can be incredibly fun, I feel like I had the experience of a lifetime doing this one. Hearing the end product, and then realizing that other people might as well…there’s really no other feeling that can compare.
Thinking it useful, we’re going to start giving process and tech information for each piece. You can post follow-up questions in the discussion board.
In the field, Jonathan used an Audio-Technica AT835b mic and a Marantz PMD 222 cassette recorder he bought on Ebay. He recorded his narration on the same gear, under a homemade blanket tent. He got free version of ProTools running on his Imac and bought a Acomdata external FireWire hard drive to hold the session and audio files.
He did all the production himself, with some email advice from us. He sent rough mixes along the way for comment. We received the final version here and found it needed some level fixes. We didn’t do any re-mixes (That’s all Jonathan), but we did even out the levels, give it a dose of compression at about Ð6 with the WAVES L1 Ultramaximizer (fabulous dynamics tool, a plug-in for ProTools), some light EQ for intelligibility (roll-off below 75 hz and slight boost at 3500), and made a few more cuts here and there to get it under 30 minutes.
This piece was created with help from HearingVoices.