Death Qualified

Intro from Jay Allison: As with all shows on Transom, there are two things to talk about here… the piece itself and how it was made. Regarding the former, using the death penalty is one of the fundamental choices a society makes. We are all implicated in it, and no one more than the jurors themselves. This piece is important for that simple reason: Any of us might find ourselves with this decision before us, and who among us has prepared? On the latter, Alison made this piece the grassroots way… from cobbling up old gear to do the interview, to narrating in the closet with the winter clothes, to taking a crash course in digital editing and mp3 file transfer on deadline. She had help from Steve Young and Josh Barlow, and I hope they’ll all talk about the process, as it would be instructive.

Listen to “Death Qualified”

Notes From Allison Freeland

I’ve worked on a lot of stories about changes in people’s lives. This story happened during changes in my own. Close to two years ago I left the life of a radio reporter in Vermont and went to work in public relations at a start-up company in North Carolina. It was there I heard Amy talk about being on a death penalty jury in North Carolina. The case concerned a 17-year-old boy with a gun, and a 16-year-old victim. His guilt wasn’t in question, but his punishment was. By the time Amy’s story turned into a Transom submission, the technology job was over, and my family was moving back to New England. I made the last audio edits late at night, sitting on a porch chair in an empty kitchen with the moving truck in the driveway. A few hours later, the Internet connection was turned off.

Johnston County Courthouse
Johnston County Courthouse

It took a while for me to focus on this story, because I had stopped thinking of myself as a reporter. Nevertheless, Amy and I worked together, and I was curious about her experience. She invited me to her house after the trial was over, and as an afterthought I brought along my old radio equipment. By the time I realized she was telling an unusual tale with unusual genuineness, it was too late to go back and set up with the attention to detail I should have. It was just two of us sitting at a kitchen table, with me periodically waving my fingers to remind Amy to hold the microphone closer to her mouth. I felt there was only one take, and I didn”t want to interrupt. I hoped the tape recorder was working.

Death Qualified

After I listened to the tape, I mentioned it to a former public radio editor of mine named Steve Young. His enthusiasm for the material helped me snap back into reporter mode. I put together a rough piece and submitted it to Transom using the only radio voice I remembered, that of a news reporter. Jay Allison worked with me several times to flesh out the more accurate voice of co-workers talking. Then came the technology hurdles as I was rusty with my radio skills, and had no access to familiar equipment. With support from Josh Barlow at Transom, I went through a one-day, crash course in multitrack editing and the use of free conversion and ftp software. After a final, late-night edit, I submitted the piece to Transom and locked the door on the North Carolina house. When someone asks what I’ll do next, the word radio comes to mind.


I recorded Amy on my Sony D8, using a Beyerdynamic Mic that I bought while working as a radio reporter. The mic jack has never fit the Sony well, and I get terrible static if the plug moves. The headphones were something inexpensive I picked up at Radio Shack. I bought a USB audio interface called Waveterminal U2A in order to load the sound from my DAT recorder into my computer. My computer is a Dell Latitude laptop. I loaded the sound bites into Cool Edit Pro, and did multitrack editing. After downloading free software from, I used Cdex to convert my wav file to MP3, and then used LeechFTP to transfer it to Transom.

Being on deadline is not the ideal time to learn how to edit and mix sound at home, but it was certainly motivating. My husband figured out how to get the sound from the D8 recorder into the computer. I recorded my tracks facing into the winter coat closet. Editing for the first time on a PC meant that I wasted hours saving tracks in the wrong format, losing tracks completely, and not being able to move them about as freely as I wished.

Additional support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project
with funding from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
The National Endowment for the Arts

Alison Freeland

Alison Freeland

When I look back at the span of college courses I took decades ago, they are eclipsed by the brief time I wrote news broadcasts for the college radio station, and the stories I covered for an alternative city newspaper during my senior year. Since then, I've worked in various ways to tell other people's stories. I'm a long-time freelancer in print and audio, author of a few non-fiction books, and ghost writer of articles and speeches. The freelance life is unsettling in many ways, but has accommodated the raising of two children and a family life that has always struck me as non-negotiable.


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  • Jay Allison


    Death Qualified

    As with all shows on Transom, there are two things to talk about here… the piece itself and how it was made.

    Regarding the former, using the death penalty is one of the fundamental choices a society makes. We are all implicated in it, and no one more than the jurors themselves. This piece is important for that simple reason: Any of us might find ourselves with this decision before us, and who among us has prepared?

    On the latter, Alison made this piece the grassroots way… from cobbling up old gear to do the interview, to narrating in the closet with the winter clothes, to taking a crash course in digital editing and mp3 file transfer on deadline. She had help from Steve Young and Josh Barlow, and I hope they’ll all talk about the process, as it would be instructive.

  • Lisa Peakes


    "Death Qualified" – What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

    Simple luck is not the reason why this piece made it here. The narrative is crucial to the piece, and Alison’s strong writing and tempered but easy-sounding delivery provide that. Most of all, the piece was actualized because Alison gave focus to something besides workplace productivity.

    It seems that one of Transom’s major reasons for being is to reveal the profound in the mundane – the deeply touching thoughts and feelings that occur in so many commonplace moments, but are "lost" because most folks are occupied with the "business" of life.

    Most people also probably don’t pack a Beyerdynamic and a D-8.

    Is it luck that the subject is clearly on mike and very comfortably paced? I wonder whether subject’s pauses are all natural or added. A contrived pause can be a great aid to letting a thought sink in.

    Thanks, Alison and Transom

  • Rich A.


    Transom house style

    This is the second Transom piece I’ve heard that producers say they’ve recorded narration in closets. The main result of recording this way is a piece that sounds as if it were recorded in a closet. Who is advising producers to do this? Is this Jay Allison’s idea? Recording in the closet is becoming the Transom house style of radio narration. Jay, listen, have you checked out the superior acoustics of the walk-in kitchen pantry? And, of course, many singers prefer the shower. Personally, I prefer the basement.

    Alison, you’ve produced a 15-plus minute news piece with one source. This isn’t news. It’s a lengthy audio visit with a chatty neighbor who’s had an interesting experience. A few other interviews with jurors in the case, other court participants, the defendant himself, defendant’s friends, would give this piece more depth.

  • Steve Young



    I’m intrigued by Mr. A’s assumption that what goes on Transom has to be "news" and that a news story must be a series of sound bites from multiple sources. Such roundtable after-the-fact crime stories appear routinely — day after day, in fact — on TV shows like Justice Files and NBC’s Dateline during which a juror may make a cameo appearance. A juror talking in-depth and with some emotion about the deliberative process is an extremely rare event.

    As for the closet issue, it would be nice if every home was outfitted with a sound-proof studio but unfortunately that’s not the case. Alison has almost always recorded her stories at home — including several for NPR. When she worked for me in Vermont, she lived in the boons, two and a half hours from the Burlington studios.

    Finally, I’d like to suggest that critics avoid sarcasm in this forum. Sarcasm — as ML King once said about violence — is a monologue that stifles dialogue.

  • Rich Alcott


    Sarcasm? What sarcasm?

    Lighten up, Steve.

    I don’t much care for the sound of voices recorded in closets. It sounds a little muffled and the visual I get from listening to voices recorded that way is distracting. The camphor smell is palpable.

    So this is not a "news" piece then.

    It’s a documented conversation with someone who had an interesting experience.

    Mr. Young reminds us that the producer has aired her work on NPR. She has had good success in the past and I wish her the best of luck in the future. She’ll find her market again.

    I understand this is the stroke section, however, the piece remains one-sided. It’s the subject talking and then it’s the producer talking about what the subject said.

    If the producer’s intention was to produce a one-sided piece, then she has succeeded.

  • Alison Freeland


    Transom House Style

    Apologies for being a little absent from this discussion. I’m moving and using a friend’s computer to check in. It was quite difficult to figure out how to present this piece as I have done NPR news spots in the past. This encounter was quite different for me: it was a friend, not a news source, it was a narration that I stumbled upon, not a news story I was chasing, and I didn’t have access to equipment and resources that I had when I worked in radio. For that reason, I chose to try a different voice from the news reporter tone, to tell you up front it was a friend in an office situation, not a news story, and finally, not to find a public radio station where I could record, but to keep it a home production. My intent was not to make it a news story about the death penalty in North Carolina, in which case I would have found multiple sources as Rich Alcott suggests.

    If you can truly smell the camphor and you didn’t find Amy’s account engaging. If you were more aware of missing multiple sources than being interested in her story, then the piece most definitely failed for you. I’m curious how it works for others. The news vrs narration issue is an interesting one. Alison

  • chelsea merz



    Hi there,

    This piece is so compelling and it unfolds in such a nice way. Your description of Amy’s maternal presence in the office is a great way of establishing the story–particularly the tissues she keeps on hand for those who breakdown in the marketing meetings. That is a wonderful moment–a moment that is reiterated in an entirely different context when the jurors breakdown. The ongoing contrast of the lightweight and the weighty elegantly underscores Amy’s conflict –or possibly lack of conflict.

    For example,there’s a moment when Amy says that this was the hardest decision she ever made–the hardest thing she’s been through since her father’s death. You could have cut it right there and it would have been a profound moment but instead you let her continue and she goes on about how this is right up there with getting married–and that comment really changes the mood. That’s such an interesting comparison. If you had omitted the marriage bit you would have left us with a clean, accessible comparison—voting for the death penalty, her father’s death. However, that she also equates these moments with deciding to get married—well that sort-of reveals how she interprets things. All these moments are life changing but they’re life changing is such radically different ways. In the end this passage helps me understand a lot: how and why she changed her mind and her response about leaving your emotions out of it.

    What things did you wrestle with in editing this piece? Sometimes stories leave you wondering ‘what did he/she leave out?’ This piece doesn’t and with a subject like this there are so many ways one could feel that way. It does leave you wondering a lot about the death penalty, the judicial system and about Amy. If you have time it would be interesting to hear how you collaborated with Steve Young, Jay Allison, and Josh Barlow on editing and producing this story. And could you discuss writing the script too? It was so natural.

    (Sorry if this obstructs the ‘news’ debate but the story works for me.)

    Many thanks, Chelsea

  • Sydney Lewis



    Me, I didn’t mind that "Death Qualified" wasn’t a news piece…it wasn’t masquerading as one. Interviews with others would have given this piece a different depth, yes, but I was grateful for the focus on one person’s experience. I had no idea what to expect, always a nice place to be sitting.

    I’m opposed to the death penalty and, as this piece informed me, I’d never qualify to sit on such a jury. Hearing about an experience I can never have is truly intriguing.

    The narration carried the piece gracefully. I was never confused, always felt in capable hands and was fed enough additional detail to make Amy’s character and her juror experience graspable.

    Alison, I’m curious about any hard choices in terms of material that was difficult to set aside, or last minute changes — as you’re building the piece certain parts seem crucial, then suddenly you realize no, they’re scaffolding and can now be dismantled. Or was this pretty clear-cut for you from the start?

    A few things I wondered about…"I expect this will change my life" rang loud in my ears and so at the end, I kind of wondered…and did it? Maybe that’s me wanting a tidiness that’s fake, but the sentence lingers….

    Amy’s saying after she didn’t question herself, and her statement that sometimes she finds herself thinking about the defendant were places were I wanted a little more probing, less passive recounting. Given the enormity of the decision to take a life, to say someone must die, it felt a little evasive not to put more weight on what it’s like for her to live with that decision. Even if it amounted to Amy not being able or willing to deeply address it…Her thinking that he’d probably appeal made me feel her discomfort (or project discomfort on her). I also couldn’t help but wonder how she felt about helping the last juror make the switch for the death penalty. But maybe you had all that and chose not to include it.

    Thanks for this interesting insight into what can’t help but be an emotional roller coaster, no matter Amy’s advice.

  • Steve Young



    Both Jay and Chelsea asked me to discuss my part in the editorial process. Actually, the smartest thing I did was to step aside and get out of Jay and Alison’s way. When Alison first brought this tape to my attention (as a friend) I was uncertain how or even if she should use her encounter with Amy as part of the story. I’m so thoroughly NPR-ized my first instinct was to cut the piece by two-thirds and leave Alison’s first-person voice out of it. We went through that process in an initial edit but both of us felt that it was wrong. We were right that it was wrong. In my opinion Jay used Alison’s first-person voice appropriately.

    One last word about Rich’s "one-sided" comments. Who would he suggest is the "other side"? A juror who didn’t struggle over the decision? Someone who wasn’t death-qualified? His argument reminds me of an example of "balance" used as part of an ethics seminar I attended at the Poynter Institute. A certain TV station aired a documentary of a woman going through the process of agonizing over and then finally having an abortion. It was an emotionally wrenching, riveting piece but the station managers decided it was too one-sided. So at the tail end of the story they tacked on a piece of tape of a Catholic archbishop saying that abortion is immoral and wrong. The seminar leader pointed out that this was an example of mistaking "balance" for "fairness." I agree. In my opinion there is no "other side" to Amy’s personal experience as a juror.

  • beedge


    missing something

    either i am or this piece is missing something. listened twice and both times i was with it up to the point she sez "This is gonna change my life." what a great preface. i’m thinking, "yeh, and listening to this story is gonna change my life a little too." but that preface was kinda a promise, and that promise wasn’t kept. not much that followed was particularly riveting, or even surprising, and certainly not life-changing, for me, and maybe even for the subject. the best pieces of tape were buried in just-ok bits and engulfed by oft-unneeded&interrupting narration.

    I do not profess the Ira Glass Universal Radio Rule of Mandatory Revelation, but you’ve gotta admit that Rule does elicit some great radio. the producer was right to pursue this story. an intervu w/ a Death-Qualified (great show title, btw) jurist has great potential. but w/o a really surprising twist or three, and maybe even a few ThisAmerLife-like Mandatory Revelations, this story might be better at <five rather than &gt>fifteen minutes.

    msr. alcott’s (above) characterization of the piece as a "visit with a chatty neighbor" is not that far off (nor is his description of Transom/Talk/Shows as a "stroke section"). there’s a slight Transom trend to turn these discussions into documentary. nothing wrong with that, except many of the conversations simply aren’t (for me) that captivating: DukeSt, Turkey Tail, even going all the back to the BookTalk shows .

    all were good show ideas, but none hounded the subject until they coughed up some gut-wrenching/soul-revealing hunk of verbal viscera. this conversation/story approach can work well tho, when the tapes is there and the producer gives it the right touch.

    one excellent example is a past Transom called Golf Balls by Matt Lieber. such a simple story; such an elegant presentation. Another I.Glass rule is that something has to happen or change every 45seconds. Matt has shaved that down to 30seconds. even at those accelerated change-rates, much of what happens is unexpected. and he wraps it all up in about 2:30.

    how?: terse, imagistic writing; judicious editing; and simple, elegant mixing. w/in the first sentences of narration he’s already established images in our head, and a direction to the action. there’s no fat here, yet this short show isn’t rushed; in fact it’s leisurely. and that siren/conversation ambience at the end is damn near musical.

    on the local station where i volunteer DJ (KGLT-Bozeman), we often mix spoken-word shows in amongst the music. when i’m making my own shows, i kinda make a mental deal w/ the listener: that i’ll try to make my show as good as the music it replaces. not all my pieces come out that way. but trying to get them there helps. all the elements of great music go into great radio: lyricism, emotion, rhythm, drama, subtlety, profundity, surprise. i guess that’s what i ask of all producers, even those starting out at Transom: endeavor to make your work as good as music.

  • Jay Allison


    Well, as good as GOOD music…

    These are helpful critiques. Praise is nice; critiques are useful. Transom isn’t dedicated to nice; it’s dedicated to useful. The "strokes" thing is not what we’re interested in.

    Barrett, I think some of the pieces you mentioned above do better on the radio than in this "showcase" format. The downside of intentional listening on the Internet is that it creates an inherent expectation. You are carving out time for an experience, rather than driving along and having an experience surprise you. I agree that Amy’s statement "it would change my life" extends that expectation, and it is not met. I understand how this can be seen as a failing. I can also understand the unfulfilled desire for "gut-wrenching/soul-revealing" tape, etc., and the impatience with the longer, conversational approach. On the other hand, what’s interesting to me is how, indeed, the story tends to be rather ordinary and that life (of the living) wasn’t changed, that this monumental decision had an arbitrary quality, was governed by peer pressure, was left behind. In the end, that was the revelation for me.

    Pieces like this, or Duke Street, and some of Bookcases, don’t have epiphanies, but are slices of experience, conversational. Maybe they are vaguely frustrating, leave you with questions, don’t adhere to rules of narrative arc or contain Hot Tape. but in a medium where everything you hear is fully packaged (packaged well, like TAL, or packaged reliably like a lot of public radio, or just packaged like crap like most other radio), I’m grateful for the odd, elliptical, unfinished moment on the air, especially from people who don’t talk like Broadcasters

    That doesn’t, of course, take away an appetite for tight, poetic work like "Golf Balls" or the remarkable stories of TAL or the thoughtful reporting of NPR.

    On the notion of "house style," we try hard not to have one. In fact, that’s the point of the place. I’m not clear, Rich A., on how you hear it running through all the pieces here. Can you describe? As for closet-micing, could you really tell it was a closet? I found it quite clear and "professional" sounding, not closet-y at all. The point of mentioning it is not to crow about how bad it sounds, but to point out that it’s fully possible to for an average citizen to craft work for national radio broadcast (the same can’t be said for TV) and that’s what Transom is here for.

    Finally, pieces here are often IN PROCESS. Many are made by people (sometimes first-timers) whose skills are still being developed and the pieces themselves are sometimes still evolving. Many of them go on to be broadcast after some more editorial work. Your critiques assist that process.

  • Rich Alcott


    Raw revealed truth

    Actually, Jay, I didn’t say I heard it running through ALL the pieces here. What I said was, "This is the second Transom piece I’ve heard that producers say they’ve recorded narration in closets." Which would mean that I heard it in two stories. "Buffalo Turkey Tail" was where I first noticed the closet effect and then "Death Qualified." Two.

    Alison Freeland’s sound is somewhat less closet-identified than Andy Raskin’s. Maybe she’s got better (or more) clothes hanging in there. Or a more polished microphone approach. But she’s still in there, no?

    And I’m not saying you have to record your stuff in a professional studio, either. I haven’t been inside one for years now, and I’m plenty happy with the sound I’m getting.

    I agree with Jay Allison when he says Alison’s technique results in clarity and professionalism. Quibbles about closets aside, I admire her narrative style, her modulation, the way her unaccented broadcast English contrasts with Amy’s regionalism.

    I think the piece at 15-plus downbeat minutes may require a bit more of a time commitment than many listeners are willing to give to it, either on a Web site or riding down the road listening to the car radio. And I like the way Jay makes a distinction between Internet listening and radio listening, between conscious and spontaneous observation.

    That being said, I can certainly hear Alison’s original voice and Amy’s sensibility and I can feel a respect for the writing of the piece.

    "Death Qualified" is a slice, albeit a sensational slice, dealing with a controversial issue. Many people have strong opinions about crime and punishment, capital punishment and local residents who assume the responsibility to pass judgment as jurors on those whose behavior puts them on the wrong side of the law.

    There’s a separate point I want to make about what I perceive as a fallacy, which is the trying too hard to perhaps slavishly imitate the radio gospel according to Ira, who, as we all know, can do no wrong. Personally, I prefer Jack Benny on the radio and Jean Shepard was a hell of a storyteller, too. But without question, emulating the successful style of a widely syndicated, popular program is a method of improving one’s technique. But to my way of thinking, a journalist or broadcaster with any kind of integrity should consider striving after an approach of his or her own. You have to find your own voice, your own way to get over. Otherwise, I think, what is the point?

    I like the flowing rhythms of every day speech and conversation and the way people impart information to one another through call and response, wit, native intelligence.

    I like naturalness. How often in your every day life do you experience raw revealed truth? And then, how do you talk about it?

    What might "Death Qualified" be like if the artificialities of the radio mode were softened and Alison’s and Amy’s voices were heard as they were when the interview was recorded, two friends together, talking together, about this thing Amy had just experienced?

  • kimberly kinchen



    I was fascinated by Amy’s story, but I wasn’t interested in Allison’s narration. First, there was something grating there – the voice still trying to escape from the news feature style. (And that is a public radio thing that I can’t stand, that news feature voice, you know the one I’m talking about?) And, sometimes, often, a tendency to explain too much, rather than creating transitions or filling in narrative gaps. For this piece, I really would rather have heard 99% Amy, a la Sound Portraits, with an almost nonexistent narration. Or (see below) include Allison herself in the piece more.

    Also, while listening I found myself wondering (and I haven’t reread Allison’s intro so maybe she mentioned this) if this was mostly Amy telling her story at that kitchen table, or if it was Allison asking questions along the way, and what questions those were. Almost like more could have been pulled out of Amy’s story and she herself could have made some of the observations or explanations that Allison ends up putting in.

    There were points were I thought Allison might laugh into a more TAl-style approach, placing herself and her own relationship being Death Qualified into the piece. But then she withdrew into the sort of over-narrated style. It ended up feeling as if she wasn’t sure which way she wanted to have it. Is this about Amy, or is this about Amy and Allison’s reaction to Amy’s experience and her own stance on the death penalty? At times it seemed to hover in between, and I wanted it to go one way or the other.

    This is one of those stories, though, that just needs to be told. Personally, 15 minutes was too little – Gimme an hour or so….

    And for Rich A – its not that Ira or TAL can do no wrong (I think Dave Isay gets the do-no-wrong award) – there are certainly TAL segments that just irritate the hell out of me, for one reason or another – but i keep listening, and when TAL does right, which is most of the time, they do right so well that I don’t care about the less than satisfying bits.

  • Jay Allison



    Transom appreciates the time taken to make these thoughtful comments. T-shirts are in order.

    The range of reaction here is interesting, and I’m wondering how the producer can incorporate it usefully. Some people like Alison’s simple spoken style, others think it’s too "featury" and want less. Some want the piece much shorter, some much longer. Some are fascinated by the story, others left cold. Sometimes the closet-recording is a problem, sometimes not. Many want to hear people speaking naturally, in their "own" voices, but… what exactly does that mean and how do you do it?

    My explanation for this range of reaction is that this piece straddles a line and hasn’t fully allied itself with an existing style. Its genesis was with Alison, a former news producer. The first version of the piece she sent (we should probably post it) was quite dry in tone, much more distanced. There was no reference to Alison even knowing Amy. To my ear, that piece had a strong disconnect between the interviewee and the narrator, and ignored the origins of the story, which were relevant to the way Amy was speaking. Alison and I worked together on a somewhat different approach: a co-worker’s story, told by a former journalist, implicating both in the re-telling… which, indeed, is the way it happened.

    So we edited the piece to recognize that reality. This required a shift in tone (often difficult for Alison; she can talk about that). She found a voice she hadn’t really used before, now in a kind of hybrid piece – using her journalistic approach in a non-journalistic setting, and trying to simply "tell." I found this interesting, mostly because it was a style I hadn’t really heard before (if there’s a Transom House Style, that’s what we hope it is – something that fits the material and that maybe you haven’t heard before), but I wonder if it becomes neither fish nor fowl in a media environment which creates in us a limited set of expectations.

    That said, the issue of using the first-person is always loaded, and this piece dances a bit around it, not fully committing. A problem or not? Some say yes; some say no.

    Can you hear this airing on an existing public radio vehicle? If not, what would have to change and why? What if this piece, just as it is, came on the radio some evening… would you feel it was unjustified in being there and wish you’d spent the time listening to an existing public radio program instead? I’m trying to get at how we might imagine public radio with all sorts of ways of talking and telling, many that now don’t currently fit, or that bring forth a wide range of reaction, like this one.

  • kimberly kinchen



    uh, that "laugh into" my last post should have been "launch into"…

  • Jay Allison



    I liked it the other way.

  • kimberly kinchen



    you’re jay, and you’re responsible for transom, and therefore in my book you can have it any way you like

    me, I don’t care about mic noise and the ambient noise of the closet narration, and chances are if the story is pulling me along the way it is supposed to, in the end I’m really not going to care about those sorts of things. The little scratches and pops of vinyl don’t really get to me, either. But if the rhythm is off, thats what I notice. And in this piece, yeah, it doesn’t commit one way or the other, how you said it, jay, and for me, that is a problem in really having a satisfying listen for these ears.

    I could absolutely hear this on existing public radio, as is. And if something like this was out there, if I heard it in passing, I’d still be irritated by the narration, but I’d be mighty glad to hear it anyway. I’ve heard plenty of stuff out there that seems a worthy story, but it gets mashed up like watery potatoes (with no butter or anything) in some beige notion of production values. This isn’t watered down. I think Allison just needs to choose which way she wants to have it.

    I’m a relatively new convert to transom, and as for the house style, I guess, I’m not sure what it is or if it exists. the one piece in recent transom history that I really, really , really liked a lot and does seem to stretch the pr format is the peace corps withdrawal piece. It could have felt really all over the place and I just kept listening to hear what was next, what was next, what was next….

  • Alison


    Pauses, what was missing, and voice

    I’ve been reading reactions to the piece with interest, as well as collecting reactions that haven’t ended up on Transom. To address a few of the issues that have come up…

    Amy naturally paused in between her own sentences. She was thinking hard, and I didn’t want to rush her. I didn’t add any pauses to her speech, but in fact shortened many of them. When I edited the tracks together, Jay suggested that I shorten several of the pauses between Amy and me. Fractions of a second made a difference, and after a while I could hear the rhythm Jay was talking about.

    Some have wondered if I left out things Amy talked about. I didn’t. I tried to take the least interesting of what she said–facts about the case–and put them into my narration. Other than that, you are hearing everything she said that day. As I mentioned, Amy and I never discussed the case again.

    I had a hard time making my voice less professional. Part was how long I worked to have a professional delivery when I was doing news. It was difficult to peel it away. I was also reluctant to fall into what can become a self-indulgent cadence of first person narration. This piece wasn’t about me at all except that I felt privileged Amy trusted me enough to tell me what happened.

    In order to get my narration less polished, I spoke closer to the mic, and tried not to emphasize anything for dramatic effect. I wanted Amy’s story to speak for itself, and I tried to stay out of it except to provide details to make the complicated court case more understandable.

    Some have said the piece doesn’t deliver on Amy’s statement "I expect this will change my life." I wonder if some listeners are uncomfortable because Amy did not become a death penalty opponent after this experience?

    When I asked Amy to tell me her story, I didn’t know if she had voted for the death penalty or not, and I didn’t know if the case had changed her beliefs. The listener finds out in the same sequence I did.

    The most startling aspect of Amy’s story to me was the peer pressure in the jury deliberation room. I find the image chilling.

    I lived for many years in the northeast, and was educated in a liberal environment. The prevailing feeling of the people I lived and worked around was anti-death penalty. Then I had an opportunity to live in the South, and to be around far more conservative thinking than I was accustomed to. When I met someone who was on a death penalty case because she supported the death penalty, I was fascinated. When she agreed to tell me what happened, I felt I was being let in on an experience that was from a different world than my own. That is the heart of this piece in my thinking.

    I think Jay may be right that the result is neither entirely first person, nor entirely third person narrative. It would be nice to think there is a way to sit neatly in the middle, because the truth of the story is that, that is where I was sitting. Alison

  • Steve Young


    Life changing

    I want to echo Alison’s question about whether people were disappointed that Amy’s story didn’t end with her converting to an anti-death penalty position. I think it’s worth exploring for a couple of reasons. First, such conversions are in the news and in the air right now. Second, when Alison first played me the tape, I was somewhat surprised that Amy’s story didn’t end with a conversion. As a story, such a change would have wrapped up the story in a nice neat bow. But I believe her story is still important in a subtler but no less profound way. Amy was "death qualified" because of her religious and cultural beliefs, beliefs that, as Alison points out above, are clearly shared by a large majority of Americans. America as a nation is still very much "death qualified." Amy’s experience may not have overturned her upbringing and beliefs but it certainly shook her up. Unlike most of us, she came face to face with it; she pulled the switch, so to speak, and her description of the process was both chilling and all too human. Her parting advice wasn’t "abolish the death penalty" but "keep your emotions out of the courtroom," a coping strategy that belies her own experience in the jury room. We may not have gotten a Hollywood ending but we did get a human one.

  • kimberly kinchen



    God, no, I was not disappointed, in fact, that is the center of what I liked about this piece. Yes, it was a surprise, and I was actually thinking, wow, because I did expect that conversion. But I didn’t get the conversion. It would have made me feel better, I suppose, ya know, in that way of affirming one’s own beliefs, but that would have been far easier on me as a listener, too. And radio shouldn’t always or even most often be easy on its listeners.

    So now I’m realizing I never really said what I do like about this piece. And what I like is that it doesn’t provide the comforting story. You can tell its not a piece in which a producer was looking for a particular subject that would tell a story the she wanted to hear or that she thought her listeners would want to hear (for example, the conversion story), but instead, a story found a producer and the producer had to tell the story.

  • Sydney Lewis




    I wasn’t disappointed that she didn’t convert to an anti-death penalty stance and I wasn’t looking for a Hollywood ending, just a deeper one. I wanted more about what she felt after the experience was over. She thought it would change her life, did it or not, did that surprise her or not, did she learn something about herself or not? Just more under the surface. You included the sentence about this probably changing her life so I felt set up to expect some more reflective words down the road, otherwise, why leave such a loud sentence in? You bring us very close to her experience in the jury room. I think the piece would have bebenefitedrom our being as close to her after she left that room. I’m not saying this piece was unsatisfying, just for me, missing an ingredient that might have tasted real good.
    I liked your narration just fine!

  • Viki Merrick


    how big to qualify ?

    I think if I were in my car or washing windows when I heard Death-Qualified I would have felt more engaged in terms of a listening experience – but in the "safety" of my computer, it was more an intellectual experience.
    As far as Alison’s delivery or tone – I think it was quite fine – perfectly suitable to the story- it wasn’t newsy (wasn’t supposed to be) wasn’t cold (wasn’t supposed to be) BUT because of the friendship/colleague set-up at the beginning, there is implied priviledge or intimacy so I expected the narrator’s content to be more revealing. Beyond paraphrasing the in between bits of Amy’s story I think if you either mentioned your own thoughts about what Amy was experiencing, knowing her, like MORE of how hard she was thinking or how careful or whatever was in or out of character as you did perfectly in the beginning of the piece, it might have buttressed your presence as friend/narrator rather than on-the-fence play-by-play commentator. I don’t think you can play both 1st and 3rd – not even in Sunday soft ball.

    As a Northeasterner or liberal or whatevah, I was impressed by Amy’s deliberation, shocked by her adherence to "the law" as being the answer to all things and FREAKED out by the peer pressure thing. Would I have caved in to the death penalty for a million comparitively stupid reasons like wanting to go home to my kids at last or not wanting to be the one to dead-lock the decision? That’s changed a part of my life right now, put a different slant on some things. Sure as shit I will never find myself in Amy’s shoes. She told us it’s changed her life – she carries that decision around with her – it will ever surface in her "normal" day-to-day life, wafting up to disturb the pleasure of kissing her kids at the bus stop or picking out artichokes or something. How big does it have to be to qualify for "life-changing"? I don’t think life-changing experience need be as obvious as marriage or death or other larger events in life. I think Amy’s delivery was so simple, so unencumbered and mostly, so seemingly resiliant that it may SOUND like it wasn’t life-changing. I don’t think, as portrayed, that she would belabor the effect.

    Which brings me to Barret’s comments about revelations – sometimes, as much as I love TAL, there are by now, moments when I think: here it comes…when listening. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good revelation but I also love to meet people or simply hear about something that I will unlikely ever encounter (and if I do then I will recognize it). I especially like that experience on the radio as much as in a book. Referencing Turkey Tail and Book Cases are perfect examples of that. They are portraits, unusual angles of a person that allow you to wander around in them. Sometimes the narrative is terse, as in Chelsea Merz’ s case, just enough to place you a little closer to the window without breaking it. Sometimes you need to ride along to get the whole picture like we did with Andy Raskin. In these cases, I don’t need a revelation as long as the view keeps growing – I’m happy. thoroughly enjoyed myself, glad to be on the planet – can’t that be enough sometimes?
    ok I’m done.

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