Only Us Down Here

Intro from Jay Allison: One of the few documentarians allowed at Ground Zero in the months since September 11th is the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. His Studio Manager, Susan Jenkins, found a way in too and has been gathering stories on tape from workers at the site. Hers is one of the only oral records made in that vanishing place. Transom, in collaboration with the Open Studio Project, has been working with Susan on this piece as an observance of the six month mark. (see the notes and photos on the Show Page). We think of it this way: The workers at Ground Zero are performing a profound and terrible job on behalf of all Americans. Hearing their witness is a small way to share their burden.

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Constuction Workers at Ground Zero
Construction Workers at Ground Zero Photo © Joel Meyerowitz

Normally, in construction you begin with nothing and end with something. Here things are happening in reverse; it is a community in the throes of unmaking. Everyone works towards a disassembling from day one to the end, which is a new beginning. They’re all just trying to get to that beginning–to the clean slate, the point where there’s nothing left, except their memory, which is in itself a pile to excavate and clear. It seems to me the workers continue to think subconsciously of this as a rescue effort. To rescue the dead is unfathomable, but to leave them buried leaves families without consolation. They are the laborers of the missing, for those who miss. These workers have the most elevated of all jobs in the world, because they are ultimately the only ones who can convey the city from a state of loss and emptiness to a state of resolution and grace.

The first time I got in there, in November, it was night time, and I was escorted by a machine supervisor who I met in the food tent. He said to me…’you want to meet a crane operator? C’mon, I’ll introduce you.’

The voices you hear on this edit are all members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and they work for different subcontractors at the site. New York’s Locals are 14 and 15, but some of the workers at ground zero are from out-of-state or Canadian locals. They operate or maintain backhoes, cranes, and excavators, which are machines on tracks with a single hydraulic arm onto which any number of implements can be fitted, such as a shovel or bucket. There are dozens of them at ground zero, nearly all fitted with an attachment called a grappler, which is a claw-like piece that picks with a scissoring action, like if you press the base of your palms together and curl and spread your fingers, then clasp your hands. It is the excavator that is used to move and sift debris to look for remains. The engineers operate these machines like extensions of their own body, with a kind of grace and fluidity that is mesmerizing when you see so many of them in one place.

Badge
Access Badge Photo: Susan Jenkins

This whole project started when I decided to interview my boss, photographer Joel Meyerowitz, about his process and experiences in becoming the city’s Ground Zero photographer. I set out to document the documentor, but Joel had such great stories of things and people and little events that happened day in and day out inside this hidden world in the middle of Manhattan. He painted a picture of the community there that nobody else was talking about–not the newspaper, not television, and not on the radio. So I decided to get in myself, to find the storytellers and collect stories of what this place is like. I wrote a proposal to Ken Jackson, the President of the NY Historical Society and a former professor of mine at Columbia, and offered to donate an archive of taped interviews with workers in exchange for institutional credentials. Eventually I got a restricted-zone badge, which allowed me to come and go from the site without restriction or escort.

My access to the site was unique among broadcast journalists, as far as I can tell. Like Joel, I carried the same badge as the workers, allowing unlimited passage whenever I wanted to be there. I returned frequently over several weeks between mid-November and early January and kept talking to people, trying to get a sense of who they were and what they could convey about this place. Mostly, though, I just tried to listen.

Tech Notes

Hardhat

I used a Sony TCD-5M bought last summer on Ebay and a new Sennheiser MD-40 cardioid mic. Occasionally I supplemented this with a Transom-provided Tram wireless lavaliere, which I would wear on myself, turned off, until I needed to pin it on someone. I started out with some big headphones but as soon as I was wearing a hardhat I had to find something that would stay on my ears when slid around the back of my head. I tried a pair of consumer Sony padded stereo phones, but finally settled on a $10 pair of Maxell ear-wrap walkman phones.


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

Susan Jenkins

About
Susan Jenkins

Susan Jenkins is a writer and photographer, and currently is dipping into radio. She recently received a degree in Art History after working for several years on the dark side in business and technology. Her work has appeared in "The Columbia Observer," "Transom Review," and the "Philadelphia City Paper." She has performed original work for "The Moth" story slams. She is at work on her first novel, a tale about a house with termites. She hails from Philadelphia but has made New York her home for quite some time. Susan has also been the Studio Manager for the photographer Joel Meyerowitz since 1997.

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  • Jay Allison

    3.03.02

    Reply
    Construction Workers at Ground Zero

    One of the few documentarians allowed at Ground Zero in the months since September 11th is the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. His Studio Manager, Susan Jenkins, found a way in too and has been gathering stories on tape from workers at the site. Hers is one of the only oral records made in that vanishing place. Transom, in collaboration with the Open Studio Project, has been working with Susan on this piece as an observance of the six month mark. (see the notes and photos on the Show Page).

    We think of it this way: The workers at Ground Zero are performing a profound and terrible job on behalf of all Americans. Hearing their witness is a small way to share their burden.

  • stacy abramson

    3.04.02

    Reply
    executive producer at large, WNYC Radio

    This piece just blew me away. Its chilling and beautiful… I’m completely blown away and just wanted to write to say that.
    S

  • Jake Warga

    3.05.02

    Reply
    Archeology of tragedy

    Well, I’ve listened to it twice now and the topic moves me, it moves any person, especially an American. What a great opportunity you had. It would be nice to see it with a slide show of photos form Joel, to both see and hear. Might be a good multi-media moment. Not so much photos of the people, but of the machinery, some focus like that.

    My only criticism is that, perhaps in great anticipation, I found the whole story rather numb. Narration, description, and interviews. Maybe that was how everyone was feeling at the time, but it never went beyond the surface, so to speak. People described with fatigue, but little feeling. It felt like you were on the perimeter, circling with great trepidation, sticking the mic in for a feel, then retreating. I’d like to know when the wireless was used, like a remote camera into the deep seas, into the pit. I know it’s hard to interview a New Yorker, and my sympathies go out for that, but I felt no transformation of character. But people were numb, probably tired of talking to reporters and friends about what they’re doing–and that’s precisely what you captured, so good work on feeling, with a mic, the pulse of a construction site in reverse, a horrible archeology of humanity. Keep at it.

  • jonathan menjivar

    3.05.02

    Reply
    I don’t about all that

    I think it’s a little early to be asking for transformation of character. Particularly from people who haven’t had a chance to step away from the reality of what happened six months ago like the rest of us can.

    I liked it numb. To add any other type of narration…to try and make sense of it in any after the fact way…I just think it would come out crass. It’s just like it’s there. Like the construction workers are holding out their hands and saying, "Look at this. No, don’t turn away…look."

    Susan, there are bits, little glimpses that both you and the workers give us that made me think, "shit…it really is just as awful as I imagined." And I had forgotten about that feeling. When you say something about walking into the pit and feeling like you could disappear I’m reminded how much in danger these stories are of disappearing.

    It sounds like you were in deep enough to get all the gory details but it’s so much more effective to leave those out and have the construction workers reiterate that those of us who aren’t there doing their jobs are never going to understand. Emotion over detail. It’s like this one piece by Nancy Updike that I love where she says, "I don’t know if I can convey on the radio…" and in doing so conveys her point exactly. It’s good when radio can take you by the shoulders, slap you around and tell you, "think about this for a minute." Your piece does that…for a full nine minutes.

    It is only them who’ll understand but I’m thankful for the opportunity to be reminded.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.06.02

    Reply
    Numbness and denial

    I am so pleased that people are responding to the piece–and in very different ways.

    It does convey a sense of numbness. I think it’s important, because that was the reality in all directions. There are more lighthearted moments that weren’t included and more angry ones, and more gory ones as well (one of the drafts darkly focused much more on the toil of finding bodies and body parts) but they were all part of a kind of stuckness, and their volatility produced an awkward sense of the place, or distracted from it, in a way that occludes the experience or makes it more one-dimensional. It sounded better to me when it seemed like listeners would be enticed into the water rather than spritzed by it.

    After 2 months of interviewing I myself felt the frustration of "no transformation of character." Because most of the workers down there have been there since the beginning, and are working incredibly long hours, in a way they haven’t moved much beyond the emotional state of the first weeks…incorporating it instead so that it has become the norm. As one of them says…"our lives have changed" but he can’t really say how…yet.

    My hope is to spend some more time with some of the same people later this year when they have moved off of working at the site and are returning to "normal" the way the rest of us have been trying to do, to see if that change has come more into focus.

    One thing that interests me is to examine my own numbness, and that of folks here in general. We did such a good job of following Giuliani’s advice to move on with our lives and get back to normal that I almost feel like people as a whole never allowed themselves to really grieve. I’m not speaking of anyone directly affected so much as the average citizen, who didn’t work downtown, who didn’t know anyone there, who didn’t lose a job or close a business, and who basically has the same exact life they had before. I wonder if we didn’t assimilate the experience too fast in our effort to be patriotic, to keep the economy going, to do our part. I wonder if the effect is a kind of forgetting or if it’s more subconscious. I sometimes think about the stages of grief and wonder if the larger society is still in denial mode.

    Helpful comments–Thanks.

  • Viki Merrick

    3.06.02

    Reply
    NUMB?

    I am somewhat nonplussed at the word "numb" being used to describe this piece. I listened to it many times and every single time I was struck by the exquisite complexity of the simple tenderness expressed by these guys. the tough guys. pushed or placed beyond where they ever imagined. It’s nearly inexpressible.

    This is not a portrait piece where "transformation of character" might occur. Also, the construction worker’s reality hasn’t changed yet, as Jonathan pointed out, maybe a few less body parts turning up in the rubble – but it is a rubble unlike any other, with a very long memory.

    Now I will contradict myself and say that even within the very small bites, I found an intensely clear sense of character in each man. The guy that opens, he’s eating, what, a pastrami sandwich, and when he’s finished swallowing he talks about not wanting to hurt a dead firefighter any more than he’s already been hurt. At that moment, his mission, so eloquently expressed, is as vital and close to the surface as his need to eat and get back to the job. The "surface" has never been so upside down before, so NOT delineated, so transformed.

  • Jay Allison

    3.07.02

    Reply
    From the NIGHTLINE Daily Email

    Date: Thu, 07 Mar 2002 09:48:37 -0800
    Subject: NIGHTLINE: The Photographer
    To: "Nightline Mailing List"
    From: Nightline List-Unsubscribe:
    Reply-To: Nightline

    TONIGHT’S SUBJECT: In the days after the September 11th attacks, a
    photographer grew concerned that there would be no record of what was
    happening at Ground Zero. He kept going down there, and kept getting
    turned away. Finally, he was sort of adopted by the fire fighters and
    other workers, and created an amazing record of the aftermath of the
    attacks. But beyond his photos, it’s his stories of what he saw that make
    his record so phenomenal.

    —-

    It’s hard to believe that it’s only been six months. The actual six-month
    anniversary is next Monday. But there are times when it feels like it was
    years ago, at least to me. Those images have been burned into our minds,
    but when you stop and think about it, we don’t see them very often any
    more. ABC News has a policy of only showing stills of the buildings on
    fire and collapsing, we feel that we just shouldn’t keep showing the video
    over and over again. But in some ways, at least some of the images are
    fading in our memories under the healing effects of time.

    Joel Meyerowitz, a well-known photographer, was concerned that, if left
    only to our memories, those images would be lost forever. In the early
    days, the police would not allow anyone to take pictures of Ground Zero,
    declaring it a crime scene. As I said above, he was finally able to talk
    his way in, armed with a box camera, similar to what the early
    photographers used around the time of the Civil War, and about as
    portable. He went down there day after day after day. His pictures, even
    though we think we have seen about all there is to see, are truly
    striking. I know a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but
    it is really the stories that accompany the pictures that make tonight’s
    broadcast so special. It’s the small moments. A cloud of butterflies
    around the firefighters as they find the body of a fallen comrade. But
    what the picture of that moment didn’t show? One of the firefighters
    turned to the other, indicating the butterflies, and said "Souls." Robert
    Krulwich will introduce you to Joel, his pictures, and his stories,
    tonight. It is truly a very moving broadcast.

    I also want to let you know that next Monday, the actual six-month
    anniversary, we will re-air the special 45-minute report on Ground Zero
    that Ted did more than a month ago. So for all of you who wrote in
    afterwards, consider this ample warning to set your VCRs. We’ll be
    updating the broadcast with the special lighting ceremony that night, two
    columns of light over the skyline to symbolize the lost towers. We
    couldn’t think of a better way to mark the anniversary than to show again
    the men and women that are painstakingly going through the rubble in an
    effort to preserve the memory, and the dignity, of those who were lost.

    Tomorrow night, Ted will anchor a 90-minute town meeting, "Homeland
    Security: At Any Cost" from Queens, New York. Ted will be talking to the
    audience about all of the issues raised by the new security practices, the
    detainees, the military tribunals, and what we can and should do to
    protect our country and preserve what it stands for. It should be a lively
    night.

    For those of you keeping count, we’ve received almost nine thousand emails
    of support, and again, my thanks to all of you who have written.

    Thursday, March 7, 2002

    Leroy Sievers and the Nightline Staff
    Nightline Offices
    Washington, D.C.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.07.02

    Reply
    what I meant by numb was…

    Numb may be too imprecise. What is numb but a lack of feeling…not a lack of a particular feeling. There’s a passion to having a mission, and I certainly think that comes across in the piece. When I said numb I was feeling around for the word to describe the kind of blindness you have to how an experience changes you until significant time has passed.

    I think part of being on a mission, or having a mission, is focusing only on what’s important to that mission, and minimizing the self-examination part–missions are outward and selfless, while self-reflection is the opposite. To work down there you really have to turn off the inward-looking part of your brain. It’s not really a conscious choice for that matter, when it comes in the form of a disaster like this.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.07.02

    Reply

    Susan, your writing struck me as so thoughtful and moving, I guess I didn’t think the actual piece could add much. But of course it took us much closer.
    I keep hearing the man say "you can’t talk about it with people who haven’t been here," but this piece let him talk to us out here and it works. I don’t think I’ll forget about finding someone and not wanting to hurt him any more… and about taking them home…

    I just wish someone could be there with a microphone for all the victims and survivors in the world as thoughtfully, to neutralize revenge lust.

    I thought some of the written intro is key: the dates and the way you earned access/trust over time. I think the tone Jake was talking about fits with a long-term relationship. You’re intimate with the people and place and a little tired. Your tone and the lack of attempt to summarize the awe sounds respectful to me. That same tone could be misinterpreted as nonchalant if we thought you visited only once or twice to "report" the state of affairs.

    thank you, Susan. The Nightline email made me really miss having a television tonight. But now you’ve filled me up with enough to think about. thanks.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.08.02

    Reply
    Tra la la

    Hi Nannette, thank you for your thoughtful response. I do want the piece to convey the sense of time spent there…both mine and the listeners. The part at the end where I say "At this point I think I’ll call it a day" still bothers me a little bit because it could convey the sense of having been there only one day. The way we have it now doesn’t leave you with that feeling as much. Before we had it just "I think I’ll call it a day" and not only did it sound (to me) like only one day but it also sounded really flip relative to the weight of the piece. Like, "Tra la la, I think I’ll call it a day." Ouch.

    I am really looking forward to seeing the Nightline piece tonight. First of all, because it’s a whole program about my boss! and second because Robert Krulwich is one of my favorite people in broadcasting. I’ll be watching on my roommate’s 15" ’cause I’m one of those "bury your TV types" at the moment (natch ms V).

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.08.02

    Reply

    sigh. what to do? put jeans over my nightgown and head to a tv bar?

    Re: tra la la: The host intro (and outro?) could set up the scene okay, don’t you think? I understood it, having read your words and the details… I did wonder about dating the segments, but of course that would be too much. Maybe mentioning the number of visits or the (impressive?) length of that last visit? or just saying you’re tired?

    It think it’s astounding how often someone’s being tired gets misinterpreted as aloofness (or anger or something) unless it’s identified.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.08.02

    Reply
    jeans?

    So what happened? (I just want to know how you got the jeans over your head).

    The piece does depend on an intro, definately.

    Tired: yet when the guy says it on tape, it doesn’t sound like an excuse.

  • chelsea merz

    3.08.02

    Reply
    Tra la la

    I like "At this point I think I’ll call it a day " because it reinforces the point of the piece: they are stuck down there. It doesn’t sound at all glib –it’s the truth–you do get to go home, as listeners we get to leave too. You are left with the beep, beep, beep of the construction site–the sliver of moon, the image of Artie asleep in his crane, the reality that the day for them is neverending.

  • Jay Allison

    3.09.02

    Reply
    Notice of Broadcast…. and questions

    WNYC in New York will be airing this piece during Morning Edition on Monday, March 11th.

    We at Transom are interested in backstage process — what governs subject selection, journalistic choice, technical solution, unraveling of story, and decisions about what gets on the air.

    In regard to that last, we thought we might have a discussion relating to this piece.

    While WNYC has chosen to air it on the 11th, NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered passed on it, and their reasons provide fodder.

    ATC felt it didn’t have a strong enough narrative curve. ME felt the speakers had to be identified by a narrator. or by saying their own names and what they did. Both programs liked the piece, but these issues compelled them to pass.

    Regarding ATC’s issue, the response was that the piece was a portrait, not a story — a montage, a series of flashed images, creating a sense of a place and time through the eyes of those who work there. Some things in life organize well in story form; some don’t.

    Regarding ME’s issue, the response was that a post-produced narrative presence would have intruded on the time/place, and that editing the workers so they said their names before their comments would have felt unnatural. Also, the reporter, Susan Jenkins, felt they’d be uncomfortable with individual IDs. They were working at a mass grave; they felt their common task was more important than their individual identity.

    ….so, some questions: Is narrative necessary? Is collage a legitimate journalistic tool for a piece of this length? Is a piece compromised when we don’t know who is talking? Would this piece have felt inconsistent with the editorial style ATC or ME? Is that good or bad? What do these decisions say about the ways we want to communicate and want our audiences to hear? How do they relate to risk or breaking the mold or the distinctive qualities of radio journalism?

    We’re inviting NPR staff and editors to join this discussion and I hope they will. This is in no way a Sour Grapes conversation, but a concrete opportunity to talk about the sound, style and editorial sensibility of public radio. We don’t do this often enough in the open, between NPR and its independent producers. Editorial choices and policies often happen incrementally, even imperceptibly, and have a governing effect on what we hear. As producers, both inside and outside, it makes good sense for us all to talk about these things, to help us be conscious of our choices and their effect.

    NOTE: NPR Online is making a link to this piece as part of their six-month anniversary coverage

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.11.02

    Reply
    awe…

    I depend on public radio for so much.
    I deeply appreciate the respect for listeners that makes editors and producers mindful of things like careful narrative.
    On the other hand, I depend on pri and npr for a variety of listening experiences and information that sometimes can’t be delivered that way. When I got to hear Scott Simon read poetry the first weekend after Sept. 11, or when I heard some musical parody a while ago, it hit the spot. I didn’t confuse the pieces with news stories. Either the host alerted me to the difference, or it was obvious.

    I really like the collage because it offered another experience where narrative and logical explanations can only go so far. It was a little like traveling and meeting strangers who tell you touching, amazing things without telling you their names. They tell you the real, the poetic truth *Because They Don’t Have To* give their names. They’re not representing a family or a company at that moment.

    The experience of listening to the collage was like being awed by pictures that are grander than portraits of individuals. When I think of the most memorable photographs –say the raising of the flag— I figure I would have had a much different, less moving, experience if text of names and details had appeared as predominantly as the photo
    each time they’d been published.

    What if there’d been a big headline "Sailor Joe Smith Kissed Nurse Betty Jones at Time Square To Celebrate the end of WWII" accompanying the famous sweeping kiss photo? It would have taken away from the power of the image to capture the collective emotion, I think.

    What if names were listed after the fact?

  • Jake Warga

    3.11.02

    Reply
    March 11th

    Just went to the exhibit of Meyerowitz photos at the Museum of London. A few Americans, one wrote in the guest book asking why she came all the way to London to see them from Arizona. Are they not shown in the states, or was she looking for a reason to visit this congested town? Another American in the cafe said she doesn’t want to see them, just not interested. Another gallery in town had AP news photos of the day on display, shocking, but still structural in nature. That is, few portraits, mostly rubble and little people with hardhats in the distance. One awkward photo had about 6 workers gathered like a little league photo, half smiling uncomfortably. It was good to see the photos–I felt privledged to have head them speak as well. I wanted to write Transom.org on the wall, but you just don’t express yourself individually here. So thanks for the words as well.

    The museum connected the display with another series of photos of London from the 1940’s Blitz–drawing parallels. b/w images of twisted rubble, tube stations exposed thru the holes. The idea, I think, was to show that London knows what Americans went through.

    What hit me most was leaving the museum as the exit overlooks a large construction site, the noise deafening, again, little men in hard-hats and green vests–but unlike the photos inside, they were accomplished mainly at smoking and doing nothing.

    (how come spell check doesn’t know London or Transom.org?)

  • Cindi Deutschman

    3.11.02

    Reply
    radio producer/wpsu-fm

    Jay– I appreciate you notifying the newslink about this discussion. I just listened to the piece and am shocked that NPR passed on the opportunity to air it nationally. Shocked, but not surprised, as it is my opinion that NPR tends only to embrace innovation when it originates within its own walls. It is absurd to suggest a traditional narrative thread and standard radio introductions. This is not a story, it’s an experience. We are being brought closer to "the pit" than we otherwise would get. Individual names and jobs are immaterial. Narrative thread is beside the point. To suggest making this conform to a traditional approach is to suggest tearing its guts out. As to the length… If anything, I want to hear MORE from these men (are there any women?). 9 mins felt rather short, considering the magnitude. I do think the ending sort of trailed off. And while I realize it was pointing up the ongoingness of the clean-up and recovery process, I think it could have been done better. I would still air the piece without hesitation. Best, Cindi

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.11.02

    Reply
    FYI Jake

    I’m amazed someone went to the trouble of traveling from Arizona, but it’s true; the US exhibit will not begin until the end of this year, as current plans have it. This show is just a taste, the US show should be around 80 images. I’m glad you got to see it, and it’s interesting to hear how it appears with the other exhibits hanging around town.

    Spell-check here tends toward the mischievious, though.

  • Jay Allison

    3.12.02

    Reply

    Those are thoughtful responses.

    It’s tricky to talk openly about editorial rejection, especially using a specific piece as an example. There is a bit of a taboo about it. And such discussions often dissolve into pettiness. Transom seems like one of the few places where a conversation could occur without resentment – in fact, that’s pretty much the point of the place.

    If we don’t discuss cases, how can we get a clearer mutual understanding of public radio’s editorial principles? Transom is particularly interested in the implications here for how we use the medium, how perhaps we are applying the rules of print journalism or conventional narrative to our sound, how we may be establishing our boundaries, for better or worse.

    To turn to specifics… I would find it odd if a similar print piece didn’t identify any of the quoted workers. It would make me wonder why. Yet, when I hear their voices – and their tone – I don’t feel the need of their names, particularly in this context where all are joined in a communal setting. What would be added by having a narrator come in and ID them? What would be taken away? Certainly, there is a long tradition of Vox Pop pieces without IDs. NPR used to routinely air long montages in the news magazines. Is it now a question of length? Are there circumstances where long montages could air on NPR, or has that time passed? What principles are at play here?

    On the issue of story, I wonder if the question of length comes up again. At three minutes we can suspend our wish for narrative thread and exist in poetic time. How about for eight minutes? There are long poems. But can a news magazine accommodate poetic space and time? Does NPR want to do that anymore? A narrative curve can be subtle. Images can acquire meaning through juxtaposition. Themes can be developed without story. Certainly, an out-of-your-face style has been a signature of public radio, but as NPR tends toward more conventional journalistic narrative choices, are other more poetic choices becoming dischordant? Without unusual harmonics, don’t we have a drone?

    WNYC people are here and they may be able to offer some thoughts about why they chose to air the piece on Morning Edition. NPR people have been invited to drop by too and I hope they’ll pitch in. To what degree might this be a local/national issue? Are there any people here from a great distance from New York who could talk about the piece struck them far away?

    Is it possible that a new set of national editorial and sonic values are developing at stations distinct from those at NPR? If so, it could have a significant impact in the long run. Witness recent and new initiatives – The Public Radio Collaboration (MegaProject), the Radio Exchange, Public Radio Weekend, Execution Tapes, etc.

    For those reading this, I know it’s awkward to talk openly (we’re getting lots of emails), but give it a shot. Otherwise we’re working in the dark. As producers, we need to know what sort of work is wanted, and where. We need to talk about the tools on our radio toolbelt, and how we use them – or don’t – to tell about life.

  • Steve Young

    3.13.02

    Reply
    Steve Young

    Talk about awkward! I’ve been hoping that at least one or two of my fellow NDs would have posted on this before me. I’m the combination PD/ND at the station founded by Jay, WCAI-WNAN on the Cape, yet I find myself in the uncomfortable role of both contrarian (in relation to previous posts) and defender (for this piece at least) of the conservative NPR view. So here goes, head first into the Vineyard Sound.
    Susan’s piece has extraordinary tape and the tape moved me, as it must have all listeners. Would this piece work as a typical NPR acts and tracks feature? Probably not, but I was troubled by the lack of narrative voice (to be accurate, the reporter’s voice) and by the anonymity of the sources/subjects especially as they carry the weight of what narrative movement there is. In my opinion, anonymity should only be employed/allowed for a compelling editorial reason (fear of legal trouble, danger to abuse victims, etc) not because it’s more convenient production-wise. The emotions, reflections, opinions of these people working in and around that hole in the earth literally deserve credit, deserve the humanizing quality of having their names aired.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.13.02

    Reply

    What if the names were given afterwards, by the host?

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.13.02

    Reply
    Comments?

    As the author of the piece I figure I should jump in and suggest that some discussion re: editorial choices would be really beneficial and interesting. I told Jay I was open to this discussion because I like philosophical discussions. They can be separated from the day-to-day reality of doing your job as it now exists and perhaps get some ideas floating around that sometimes have the opportunity to evolve into reality. We think that my piece provides some fodder for everyone’s thoughts. I’m not married to it, though, pick your own examples if you like.

    I do appreciate the comments I have received so far. I hope when I have some more time that I’ll be able to think about other ways the material might be effectively presented.

    With my projects I don’t waste energy thinking about why something doesn’t fit because it’s much more productive to think about where it WILL fit and why. It’s a glass half full philosophy. So if anyone is holding back because they don’t want to make it uncomfortable for me, well, relax. I’ve got some distance here.

    More likely I imagine people are just extremely busy and want to have some time to assemble something articulate. I feel guilty for not having posted this sooner, but I’m pretty busy myself.

    As far as my choice to not have the names announced, I teetered back and forth on having them listed in the outro, something like "you heard the voices of Hanky Panky, Don Juan, Frankie Fingers, and Peter Piper, members of the IUOE." A good reason to have them there would be to give them credit for participating in the piece. But as Jay said above, it would have felt a little like a compromise to the idea–not just mine, but my interviewees’ as well–that they were speaking about a collective experience of all workers at the site. I didn’t feel comfortable calling these guys and asking them to make that compromise, because it would be different from what I represented when I spoke to them. They’re very private people and I wanted to try and respect that as well, in a way that allowed them to make a contribution to the story without seeming like they were trying to be "stars."

    At the beginning of this project I wasn’t sure what their sensitivities were going to be towards either the oral history archive or the radio product, I just went with instinct, provided them as much information as possible, and felt my way through it. My motiviation was to facilitate both history and current understanding, although at times the two objectives seemed at cross-purposes.

    As far as the idea of developing "characters" more, I think that is often a great way to draw in a listener and make them care about the experiences of the subject, and might have been another way to approach this project. But as I mentioned there was a sensitivity to making "stars" out of anyone in particular, at least at this phase, and also, it would have been at cross-purposes with the oral history needs–to have a broader view of work life there through many voices rather than a few.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.13.02

    Reply
    compelling editorial reasons

    Steve, you posted while I was writing my bit. I do hit on a couple of your points in my post, but I’ll just confirm that certainly it was not a production-convenience decision.

    Do we think the name is what humanizes, or the distinctive voice? Or some combination of the two?

  • Steve Young

    3.13.02

    Reply
    Steve Young

    Yes, I think that would have helped. But to me the problem would only be half solved, kind of like scrolling the credits at the end of the reel. Jay mentioned that if this were a print piece, it would seem odd to not identify the voices but then he went on to defend this choice in the radio piece. I actually believe the print analogy is apt. A series of unidentified quotations is questionable in any format, I think.

    Someone asked me today if I would have questioned Susan’s approach if it had been accepted and aired by NPR. That’s a fair question and it gave me pause. I like to think I would have but perhaps not. Clearly it’s a question of ethical and aesthetic choice.

  • Steve Young

    3.13.02

    Reply
    Steve Young

    In reply to Susan’s question (forgive my newness with this posting process), I think both the name and the distinctive voice humanize the "source," the person who is, after all, a stranger to us (the reporter and the listener). I worry about the utilitarian nature of this transaction. I use his/her voice for my story and then only the part of what they say I like and serves my purpose. I feel the least(and often times the most) I can do to bridge this gap is to say their name.

  • Jackson Braider

    3.14.02

    Reply
    Credit where credit is due…

    I found myself torn about the issue of the speakers’ identities — though not too terribly. The beauty of an "Everyman" piece such as this is any of us could possibly have provided the voices there. It would be *nice* to recognize the speakers (and I am sure that Susan has them documented somewhere) but I would argue that to listeners, knowing a name doesn’t necessarily amplify or inform what the voice has to say.

    Still, let me throw in my two cents of comment about the piece. I admired a great deal of it — I can’t point to a single false note, an unnecessary digression. But it struck me upon listening that Susan had, as the anthropologists would say, "gone native." The delivery of the narrative, like that of the people in the hole, is without affect. The guys imply time and again that no one outside the hole can possibly understand and we as listeners are somehow forced to buy that.

    So, when Susan "calls it a day" (which leads to my second problem with the piece, but more on that later), there is a sense for the listener of having been iced out of the experience — as if none of us on the other end of the radio can possibly have experienced the kind of unending trauma, the kind of horror these men and women face day after day in the hole.

    I feel great admiration for these people, but others, under the same circumstance, would have done exactly the same thing. We just don’t know who those other people might be because they have not yet been forced to encounter a similar circumstance. Expressing that commonality of experience would have given weight to the anonimity of the speakers and at the same time allowed a greater portion of listeners to allow their personal tales of trauma and horror inform their appreciation of what these people are doing.

    Which leads me to the "call it a day" portion of the narrative. Coming as it does toward the end of the piece, there is at leat a suggestion that all we have heard up to that moment has occurred within a single 24-hour span. Did it? The preamble should tell us.

    Still, a wonderful piece of work.

    Thanks.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.14.02

    Reply
    print; names; listening; Really Listening

    Wait a second. There’s precedent for experiential print pieces with collected quotes or paraphrases from unnamed people. They’re just not standard news stories.

    I wonder what the guys who were interviewed -and their colleagues and friends- would say after hearing it on the air. Wouldn’t that be the best test?

    I know someone who called in to a radio station taped listener line after Sept. 11
    An eighth of her comments ended up part of a collage that aired locally without mentioning names…
    She got phone calls from friends in cars who heard it on the air.
    "Oh my God, I didn’t cry until I heard what you said, and then I finally was able to cry about it.
    "Oh, you have such a gift!"

    Would it have had such power with names mentioned or with more of her words? Probably not. Does it matter to her that her name wasn’t mentioned? No. Because she got the calls that matter, and she doesn’t need calls from strangers, because she’s not representing a movement or company or book on that subject.

    In this freely competitive society it’s so hard to listen. People have to spend most of the time writing or thinking about what they’ll say when it’s their turn.

    I think the collage suspends that "Oh, that’s what So N’ So said. What would I say?" and lets them listen. Really listen.

    and that’s why the guys in the pit, who feared they couldn’t make others understand, allowed Susan to tape. They knew they couldn’t do it alone, they needed the other voices and someone like Susan

    Sort of the way builders need a whole crew and don’t want their names prominently on memorials.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.14.02

    Reply
    full power radio

    Judith Rudge "Radio Rookies" November 27, 2001 08:07pm

    …I like the fact that for 6 minutes, or for however long your story is, you are YOU, and your listeners and THEM, and for that very moment YOU become THEM, and they become YOU, for 6 minutes you feel like a GOD.

    Judith Rudge, Radio Rookies

    I think that’s what the collage form allows to happen for more people

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.14.02

    Reply
    balancing balls & imperfection

    These comments are really useful in helping me to think about and articulate what I do and what influences I bring to it. Thanks.

    Coming from a visual and literary arts background I tend to think of a radio piece as an expression of ideas or experiences through the careful orchestration of various sounds. Aesthetics are important to me. The workers committed to having a record of their experiences in the more traditional oral history archive form, for a museum setting, and they also understood that I was going to cull parts of the interviews to try and make something that would air on the radio and honor the experience and point of view expressed by the collective. In other words, I didn’t set out to make a news piece. That it happened to end up airing during a news program is fortuitous if for no other reason than it spurs debate about how "news" formats convey information versus "non-news" formats. (We were having a somewhat similar discussion over in Deborah Amos’ board).

    Being that it isn’t news, but is topical to the 6-month anniversary which IS news, we thought it might have a shot with ME. But being an Audio Portrait it is certainly understandable for people to think it doesn’t belong there. Especially when news journalism in this country often teeters on the brink of entertainment, where ‘entertainment’ is a 4-letter word. (Although I didn’t make this to be entertaining either).

    That it happened to fit WNYC’s idea of news material maybe testifies to the fluidity between "art" and "journalism" that seems to flourish in NY. I’m often interested in people and works that bridge two or more areas, that refuse to settle into one category or another. I certainly recognized journalistic values as I was working down there, in addition to historical and aesthetic ones. Trying to stay balanced on all three balls creates some ambiguity to negotiate, especially when you consider that this is the first time I have tried to do anything like this. I accept that it’s an imperfect process, with me as an imperfect practicioner.

  • Martha Foley

    3.15.02

    Reply
    Only Us Down Here

    First, I think a story told in this way — a collage of sound and
    voices, without script and other intrusions from the reporter — CAN be
    the absolute best in radio. Not very many stories work this way, it’s
    true, but some do beautifully. Second, I think this one fell short, for
    some of the reasons the NPR folks may have objected. I don’t need ID of
    the individuals as they enter the scene, but I’m wondering what the
    intro would have been. The text at Transom.org set it up pretty well,
    but I doubt Bob Edwards would be reading all that. How would we have
    gotten into it? I would want to know in general who I’m going to be
    hearing, where, why and how. And the scene, briefly — could conjure up
    all the pictures we have in our minds very easily — then I’m there.

    So I want these voices, this piece, basically in the way I’m hearing it.
    But I want it to hit my listeners as hard as possible. A "portrait"
    sounds pretty static, and the piece sounded kind of static, even though
    the tape was good. It was more of a jumble than a picture. Call it a
    portrait, but I still want a "narrative" line so I can string my bits
    of the portrait together in a way that makes sense. I want a starting
    place, progression, and close.

    I made a map of the way I would have ordered the cuts to do this, which
    won’t make sense if you didn’t number the cuts like I did. But for those
    of you who are editing stuff like this, I would start with the PLACE
    ("no way to explain this place," "an amazing place…" Susan: "guys in a
    manbasket," "you can close your eyes and picture") then gone to the WORK
    (Susan describing the 15 firefighters (like bees) picking through by
    hand, the 5 bodies coming out of the hole, Susn saying they just brought
    a body up, to the guys that started the piece talking about body parts),
    then to the HURT ("can’t talk to family," Susan: guy asleep in the
    crane, and I would have let the guy talking about long days and longer
    nights close the piece "won’t talk about it", probably. And I want the
    mix to be more seamless within the three sections, maybe with more
    obvious crossfades to help me transition from one to the other. And I
    would have cut Susan’s opening cut, which was separate anyway?

    So.. on this piece, it’s a yes and no. But sound "collages" —
    definitely yes.

    Thinking about this story, and others that might not fit network
    guidelines, makes me extra glad I work at my station, and not theirs.

    Martha Foley
    North Country Public Radio
    martha@ncpr.org

  • Martha Foley

    3.15.02

    Reply
    clarification

    I’m new to the posting process, too, so my previous post sounds a little abrupt. Jay had posted his question here (#14) about NYC’s acceptance of the piece, and NRP’s non-acceptance, to a listserv of public radio news folks, and my reply was simply pasted in from that list. So it was really about how I, as an editor, producer and host, would have reacted to it.

    Let me say again, though, that I feel comfortable with the "collage" form. But practically speaking, I as a program host — or in Susan’s role — would somehow tell my listeners who these guys are, not by name necessarily, and where they are. But I wouldn’t intrude on the flow of the piece.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.15.02

    Reply
    thanks

    So I guess this was on pub radio list serv? Some discussion’s splintered over there?
    I’m glad you posted as you did. I, for one, learned from your generously thorough comments. This is a rare and great discussion.
    As a listener I’m curious as to how my information is processed, or shuffled and dealt out. And as a beginning producer, I value your candor.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.16.02

    Reply
    What the intro was, fyi

    Audio Portrait of World Trade Center Site
    by Susan Jenkins
    NEW YORK, NY 2002-03-11 "For six months, crews have carried
    away remains of the World Trade Center and the people who died
    there. Now, only a portion of the South Tower is left. Producer
    Susan Jenkins has had unusual access to this slowly vanishing
    work site. Some of the stories construction workers told her there,
    and some of what Jenkins saw herself, have been put together
    into this audio portrait."

    © Copyright 2002, WNYC

    (read by Mark Hilan)

    you can link to this at
    http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wnyc/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=334388

    When I heard the intro Monday I felt it set up the piece pretty efficiently in the time they had.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.16.02

    Reply
    Martha

    Thanks for thinking about this piece so thoroughly.

    I did approach the layout of cuts in a similar way to yours initially with a great many more cuts than what we finally used, but I soon learned that what works on paper doesn’t necessarily work when you listen to it. Still I certainly have ideas for other ways to present the material that I hope to experiment with once I come back from my upcoming trip.

    As for them and us et al, we’re all on the same side here. Except when summer softball season starts, of course.

  • Joan Schuman

    3.16.02

    Reply
    far away

    as someone who lives far away from ground zero, i have some thoughts both as a listener and as a producer of montage/collage radio.

    a Philly native (always in the shadow of the Big Apple, all my family still lives there, both in Philly and NYC), and now, nearly a decade away from the east coast (first Santa Cruz, CA, now, Tucson, AZ), i am thirsty for "images" in sound of NYC. i don’t want to hear New Yorkers who live on the upper west side or elsewhere. i want to be at ground zero without having to go there, physically. your piece did that for me in a powerful way (i’d lose the "…call it a day" line, though…actually, i cringed at each last word of yours at the end…i just wanted to hear the beep beep of the construction vehicles as they faded…).

    it’s anything but "numb." there’s a lot of feeling in this piece, in what the workers have to say, what you say.

    now, about montage, portrait radio and NPR. first, as a listener, i PREFER this form. it leaves out the authoritative narrator, it leaves out the glib story teller/producer. it’s just voice and there’s enormous power in that voice, in those stories. raw (but obviously edited). i don’t need to know names, i don’t need them to introduce themselves. it’s too linear and i don’t imagine that working there or your visit to the place could be a linear process.

    as for NPR’s decision. perhaps ME and ATC just aren’t ready for portraiture, sound art, non-linear stories, collages. they’re just getting used to the more "feature-y" work — they can hook into a narrative arc, but it’s not "news."

    Have you thought of airing this work on the weekend (WESAT, WESUN or the ATC on Weekends)? I suggest this as I’ve had two pieces air there with little trouble.

    One piece, "Radio~Sound~Art" aired first here on Transom last year. it has no narrative arc, really, it doesn’t identify the speakers and it aired without edits on WESAT a few months after it was on Transom. Another piece, even less linear, more poetic/sound/essay, was produced for The Next Big Thing at WNYC and eventually aired on WESAT. again, this may be a place for your work.

    That said, i still would have loved to hear it on the more conservative ME or ATC on the 6-month anniversary. it may have signaled a willingness for editors on those shows to loosen the "news" grip on those programs.

    baby steps.

    Joan Schuman
    Radio~Sound~Art
    Tucson, Arizona
    radiosoundart@yahoo.com

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.16.02

    Reply
    non-narrative philly women

    Joan,

    So glad you posted. I enjoyed the Radio~Sound~Art when I heard it on WESAT last year and then discovered it living on Transom as well. I hail from Philly as well so I know about that shadow-of-the-apple feeling–proud to be different, yet pathologically insecure at the same time.

    I wonder about taking this to WATC or WESAT/SUN though. It’s topicality worked for it with the 6th anniversary passing, but may work AGAINST it for airing as a standalone piece some upcoming weekend in the near future.

    I enjoy TNBT too and have been in touch about some other work for them.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.16.02

    Reply
    creative team

    This piece was pulled together by a tremendous group of people, to whom I am greatly indebted for having the time and skills that I didn’t, and for their creative insights. I’m afraid I gave the impression in a previous post that it was a solo effort when it was Chelsea Merz, Vicki Merrick, and Jay Allison who edited based on notes, suggestions and conversations, putting in weeks of time on it. Had it not been for their commitment it would probably still be just a box of cassettes on my apartment floor.

    Among many things this piece also represents (to me, anyway) an amazing feat of long-distance collaboration between people who have never laid eyes or ears on each other before. THANK YOU.

  • Martha Foley

    3.18.02

    Reply
    narrative line?

    Hi Susan —

    I’m interested in the other sequences you thought about — we think about this with every story, of course, whether there is script or a narrator or not. It’s also something I think about whwnever I order the stories in my morning news, or the sequence of a series, etc., etc. Were you imagining a continuity of sound, subject…. visual imagery? One immediate response I had when I listened was that the references to body parts was too abrupt for me, I wanted a little warning, a set-up, if you like. That’s why in my map, which existed more in my ear than on paper, I started with the place.
    I’d be interested to have other editors’ thoughts on this.

  • Jay Allison

    3.18.02

    Reply
    many lines…

    Martha, your points about line are good. The production team tried all sorts of arrangements with this piece. I’m not convinced we found the best one. The last time I listened to it, I found a path I thought would work better…. starting somewhere around the third and fourth cuts and then going back to the early ones. This may be the same route you’re suggesting. There is a numbing effect to working intensely with any tape, and particularly with tape this charged, and one loses necessary distance, even with an editorial team.

    This discussion has been very good. It was an awkward framing to ask people to discuss a rejected piece, and I feared that atmosphere would become too defensive or agressive, but it hasn’t happened. I worried that the NPR staff might have felt there was an ambush here, but that has been proven untrue. I’m glad that station people are taking part and addressing these key questions about how we sound. Bruce Drake (NPR VP for News) and I have been emailing about this discussion and other critical discussions he has tried in-house, and how to pull it off. Clearly, it’s important to talk about what we do, and to let that conversation happen across NPR, the stations, and outside producers. I’m hoping that Bruce and others will work with us to continue the effort.

    Perhaps more people might pitch in on the larger question, i.e. aside from the merits or demerits of this particular piece — which here is useful as a springboard — is there a place for non-narrative, non-"informational", non-"news", pieces on the NPR news programs? If NPR doesn’t do it, should stations do it themselves? Certainly the early traditions of NPR included quite a lot of experimentation. When I hear pieces I did for "All Things Considered" in the 70s and 80s, it’s impossible to imagine them being aired today. They are much more sonically far out than the current style would allow (a montage on dogs’ dreams comes to mind).

    The standardization of style is double-edged. The NPR News environment is much solider now, more reliable and journalistically sound. But does it stir the imagination, hold focus, refresh the mind? Is it inclusive of the complexities of life? Should it be? Does poetic, ambiguous, layered content fit anymore?

  • Jay Allison

    3.19.02

    Reply
    Photographs

    For some reason I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before, but you can see more of Joel’s Ground Zero photographs at the online "exhibit" at his site. Well worth the visit.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.19.02

    Reply
    and at the State Department’s site

    http://www.911exhibit.com

  • deborah amos

    3.19.02

    Reply
    to susan and jay

    This is an interesting and worthwhile discussion – and should be a regular feature (maybe it is already – and I’m being insulting) – but, with the best of intentions – I mean that feedback is invaluable – and the only way to stay ahead of the conformity police is to have open discussions about new approaches.

    I have to admit that I didn’t like the sound portion of this program when I first heard it – and the opening essay is partly to blame. I LOVED THE OPENING ESSAY – I thought Susan captured an idea about ground zero – the essence of what people were doing down there that was new and interesting for me. I wanted that same feeling when I heard the tape and I didn’t get it the first time around.

    So I listened a second time today to see why that might be….and I think my problem with the voices is – there is too much chocolate….I need some vanilla.

    I don’t know how else to put this – but I need a rest between such incendiary bites. I want some narrative – I want some description – I want to know something about these guys. After reading the opening essay – I know that Susan can write to match the bites – and what these guys are saying is touching, sad, raises all kinds of emotions – but I found myself not responding because there was too much of it – and no "signposts" as they say here in my business.

  • Jay Allison

    3.19.02

    Reply

    That’s an utterly sensible critique, Deb, and I agree that Susan could have written a fine narrative piece. That route was considered and we chose montage, for better or worse.

    Montage is necessarily abstract, more akin to music than story. That’s how I hear this piece. Musically. It lets me wander in it, shows me vistas, tableaux. I hear the chorus. Testimonials at a memorial.

    What I wonder is: has montage been removed from our radio diets to such an extent that we just don’t like the form anymore? Have we little taste or appreciation for it? Do we like story with everything?

    Is anyone from WNYC reading this? Can you talk about your decision to air this piece on the six-month anniversary and about how it was received?

  • Jackson Braider

    3.19.02

    Reply
    Deborah’s critique actually put me back in New York…

    and another critique I used to haunt, that of New York songwriters. Jay’s comment about the "musical" nature of the montage brought that sense into clearer perspective. Deborah’s wanting for "vanilla" amidst all that "chocolate" was a metaphor the NY songwriters could have done something with.

    One old music teacher described the need for what he called the balance between tension and rest.

    Susan’s "voice" is not different enough. In tone, she is as worn out as they are. I confess that I would be tempted to ditch the narrative entirely. Perhaps there is audio of a priest murmurring late rites on the scene, or the silence that falls on the site as another body is recovered. Such ritual is as much for the living as it is for the soul. I posited earlier that one element of the "everyman" nature of the piece is that the people speaking represent everyone who quite possibly would be doing exactly the same thing if circumstances had brought such an event onto us. But we as listeners also stand in for every survivor — all 250 million of us. The intimacy of ritual at ground zero means something for us as well. And even if no one explains why there’s silence — or, at least, a lessening of noise — that’s okay: each listener will be able to explain it for him- or herself.

    The point is that by setting up the contrast, the talking gives the silence meaning, and "the silence" allows the listener a moment to reflect — even, in a strange sort of way, take comfort.

    An aside: the brother of the songwriters’ ringleader was an executive chef in tower no. 1 up somewhere on the 104th floor.

  • Abner Serd

    3.21.02

    Reply
    Pitching in on the Larger Question

    My folks gave me a subscription to Yankee magazine for Christmas. I can’t figure out why they don’t publish Tall Tales – a classic New England story form. I would have thought such pieces would be a perfect fit for that particular publication. In fact, I tried to sell them a few modern yarns, back in the distant past; they replied with their least encouraging form rejection letter – the one they send to writers who submit their manuscripts in crayon and neglect to attach sufficient return postage.

    Now I know better. But I still think they should publish that kind of piece. Or somebody should.

    Anyway … I knew Morning Edition wasn’t going to run this story, but I couldn’t have told you why. I thought it would have had a better shot at All Things Considered, but again I couldn’t exactly say why. And I agree with Joan Schuman that the best bet would have been the weekend programs. They just have a different taste to them.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing for magazines, print or audio, to stick to the kind of story that’s their kind of story. It’s just … what do you do with the really good stuff that doesn’t fit?

    Start a new magazine, I guess.

    For what it’s worth, here is a piece narrated by Scott Simon (WESAT 9/29/01) honoring some of the missing persons, in which not one single missing person is identified by name. I’m not the least bit interested in discussing whether it would have been a better piece if the people had names.

    Peace,

    Abner

  • Jay Allison

    3.21.02

    Reply
    Drone

    Abner’s right about the weekends.

    But think about it for a second. Is that the logic we really want to govern editorial policy? Unusual stuff goes on the weekends?

    I know I’m not the only person in America who tunes out from public radio because it always sounds THE SAME. Today could be yesterday. We drone. Admittedly, those are the dues of having a style, but can one element of style be… surprise?

    All the pictures hanging on your walls…. you don’t notice them anymore, do you? But move them around and you will. They’ll appear fresh again. In a new place, a new light.

    We approached Morning Edition and All Things Considered, rather than the weekend, for two reasons — 1) Monday was the actual six month mark since Sept. 11 and 2) We were hoping they’d be interested in trying something different for sake of it, to create a special, different moment, to hang a bit of the weekend on the long weekly wall.

    That’s not to say that this piece is perfect — good critiques have been offered here — but with some tweaking, I’d have been grateful, as a listener, to hear it as part of my weekday news diet. It would have made an impression, made today different from yesterday, made a break in the drone.

  • Abner Serd

    3.21.02

    Reply
    Great Line!

    " … to hang a bit of the weekend on the long weekly wall …"

    I’m with you, Jay. While you’re at it, see if you can get ’em to run the occasional non-topical, non-satirical, plain old (extra)ordinary Shaggy Dog Story.

    And I’ll see what I can do about Yankee magazine.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.22.02

    Reply
    Whole Truth Is Messy

    This is not just an academic exercise or a plea for more fun during the week!

    It’s significant when the only super power declares its central dialog to be a linear-only zone.

    Straight reporting seems like the most responsible way to go. But, especially during a war when we are so sure we are in the right, should we trust the prevailing marching narrative to be the only way to perceive and tell a story? Is that responsible?

    Closed to other ways, we cut off a lot of our intelligence and capacity to perceive and solve problems.

    If there’s only one way to tell a story, I’m afraid it’s too easy to assume there is only one story. And if there’s only one story… why bother report? Just pony up to the official narrative, past, present and future.

    The whole truth is not only linear.

    In this case, Ground Zero is the location of a sort of collective unconscious. It’s confusing, multi-voiced and multi-faceted, unreal, surreal. On some levels we share the place and the experience with the country and the world. On other levels we have no comprehension that the place really exists. It’s confusing. We’re not sure where others end and we begin. Time perception bends. People who have been working there are still in the original event.
    This piece managed to invite us to this complex place and time in a way no narrative could.

    Once in a while, it would be good to let the country experience the grief and confusion the way it really hits us: stream of consciousness… weird multi-layered juxtapositions .

    IF the country can really grieve, we have less of a chance of thinking we are the victims of the world who can justify any acts of war forever…

    But this isn’t just about war, either. (And by making it seem so, I’m falling into the usual trap of the argument culture.) Perhaps you’re tempted to dismiss this as an anti-war rant.

    Please think more generally about it. Insert any other topic. The economy, the environment, crime…. Right now, alternative points of view can only be reported if they are diametrically opposed. They only figure into stories if there is conflict.

    What about the confused, ambivalent voices? What about the visceral, whispered ones? The one that comes from the back of the neck or the raised hairs? The voice that says "um, wait a second, do you smell smoke? Is there something weird here?"

    Within the present system, you have to wait until the voices say things like "Fire! You half are all wrong! The atrocities may have occurred… Oops we got a little carried away. Well, someone did. It was that one bad guy. Now we’ll fix it with a lawsuit or a war."

    Back to war: most start like this. With surety of purpose… saving victims… and with little room for messy art and confusion. The Nazis were going to solve everything neatly and linearly. Maybe the Romans too? Let’s be smarter than they were.

    Whole Truth is messy.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.22.02

    Reply
    Last Monday’s ATC

    http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm?PrgDate=3%2F18%2F2002&PrgID=2

    Last Monday on ATC there was one report by Chris Arnold about the Port Authority people dealing with their losses. Followed by another story with Robert Siegel talking about ongoing funerals. I think they would have been richer accompanied by the piece here.

    Both ATC stories were fine stories. They were literally above ground (conscious, linear) talking about putting lives back together. The first story had to set up a lot of background. The second story could continue and go deeper. The transom piece could have taken it further, including the below-ground visit.

    Says a firefighter’s wife in the second story: "I told him he has to participate in the family again!" And the story is that he participated more, and things are getting back to normal thanks to wives and families.

    How more effective it would be to have the firefigher essentially be able to explain what he’s going through via the Jenkins/Transom piece. As a therapist told me. When there’s incomplete grief in a couple, the one has to be a witness to the grief, has to visit the other’s world for them to be able to understand eachother again. We could say the same for the country and about any issue.

  • Jay Allison

    3.22.02

    Reply
    good post

    Many wise thoughts up there, Nannette.

  • Martha Foley

    3.22.02

    Reply
    I’m with Nanette

    You’re so right.

  • Abner Serd

    3.22.02

    Reply
    An Academic Exercise

    Who said anything about having fun?

    I say again, if Morning Edition and All Things Considered reject a piece on account of it ain’t their kind of story, I can’t argue with that. Maybe you can, and maybe you’ve got the clout to bring it off. More power to you. But in the end, it’s their decision.

    So what do you do after you’ve yelled and screamed, or coaxed and cajoled, and they still turn you down? Maybe you start a new show. Or maybe you start a new network, except that after the way NPR and the NAB effectively buried Low Power FM, I wouldn’t bet money on whether or not you make it to the starting gate. Chickens. I’d bet chickens, maybe, but not money.

    How did it get to be this way? If, as Jay says, ATC used to be a lot more experimental 20-odd years ago, then how did they get to this point in time, at which they won’t even consider broadcasting a voice without a name attached to it? (no, wait – that’s the other show. Sorry.)

    I don’t know nuthin’, but that won’t stop me from guessing. I’d expect that it grew out of a need and a desire to be consistent and competitive and to be taken seriously. I’d say they’ve succeeded in attaining these goals. So why should they change?

    Perhaps they will change because of agitators from within. But that would most likely be a tentative change, hard-fought against, and with good reason: because there is no blueprint outside the existing one. There’s no guarantee that if they go that way, the audiences will follow.

    For the sake of argument, I submit that the "central dialog" of "the only super power" in noncommercial radio will only truly break out of its linear box when a competing program creates a new blueprint and draws enough of an audience to shake the foundations. Now excuse me while I duck and cover.

    Abner

    P.S. – I changed my mind. I wouldn’t even bet chickens.

  • Susan Jenkins

    3.23.02

    Reply
    2 observations about change

    1. establishment–>new–>establishment–>new

    This has been the pattern of cultural change for the last century and a half or so. Let’s call it Modernism.

    2. Innovation does not have to be exclusive to establishment. My sense is the sharpest organizations and individuals never allow themselves to get too comfortable. Once they sense the status quo enveloping their being, they innovate from within. They take the risk, and hope their audience/friends will follow. They experiment. They try new things.

    And sometimes they fail but they’ve learned something. Their perspective has altered. If you’re failing at things, to me this always means you’re heading forward.

    New Blueprints are being made all the time, whether you’re on the bandwagon or not. Some places (stations, web sites) support them. Others don’t, but they still react to them, some more than others, ’cause it’s a fluid thing. But wouldn’t you rather be on the making side than the reacting one?

    Just the fact this discussion exists creates change.

    Enough philosophy. Anyone know a good vegetarian restaurant in Tashkent?

    –SJ

  • Gregg McVicar

    3.23.02

    Reply
    More Montage

    I like it. The piece is gritty, shot in black & white. You’re down there in a place so bleak that any sort of music or glossy narrative would add a kind of normalcy where none belongs.

    Names? It would almost be invasive to the privacy of the individuals speaking, and wouldn’t add anything necessary to this particular piece where the voice is a shared one. As for improvements, I would like to hear more ambient sounds to conjure a sense of being there, along the lines of the backup alarm beeping at the end of the piece….footsteps, men working, radio chatter….more texture.

    If there were montage work on ATC or ME every day, I think that would be a real step in the right direction — listeners needn’t be spoon-fed sound, they’re ready to swim in it.

  • Bruce Drake

    3.27.02

    Reply
    weekends and weekdays

    Jay

    I agree with you on your observation about moving around the pictures on the wall, and about surprise being as important on the weekdays as on weekends.

    But I do disagree with you about whether there are breaks in what you call the "drone." A lot of this is due to the wonderful efforts of independent producers. Yiddish Radio is certainly a break in the drone. Joe Richman’s series, the most recent of which is the lost occupations of New York, are breaks in the drone. Dan Collison’s formatbreaker on the electroshock patient was a break in the drone. We may make in our own discussions make distinctions between what NPR produces and what comes from our independent community, but the important thing is whether these pieces air. I would also say there are many pieces and show elements that Chris Turpin, Art Silverman, Neva Grant, Jeff Rogers and Sara Sarasohn get in the weekday shows that are breaks in the "drone." It may be that they more often use narrative that is more conventional than less conventional, but I think too much weight is placed on devices such as "naming" versus "not naming" as criteria of that. The bottom line, I think, is what captures the imagination and the attention of listeners as well as producers. I don’t know how useful it is to frame this issue on one piece, such as the piece that started this discussion, since we can all have differing opinions on what worked, and what didn’t in a particular story.

    All that being said, I hope that public radio is a never-ending creative process, one in which all the kinds of back-and-forth that have gone on in this discussion, is absorbed by all with an open mind.

  • Jay Allison

    3.27.02

    Reply
    not only drone

    thanks for joining us, Bruce.

    I’m concerned that my "breaking the drone" construct creates defensiveness and I don’t mean it to. I’m certainly not finger-pointing and have loads of respect for all the above named producers, as they know. I’d hope that maybe some of them might drop by here and talk about their experiences in getting non-standard work on the air, whether they work inside or out.

    In fact, the real finger-pointing should be at ourselves. It’s my own drone I fear the most. We all have drones, by which I mean: the way we did it before, whatever has always worked, our customary style, the comfortable approach. Rules and policies, while appropriately establishing style and boundaries, can have the side-effect of creating drones.

    I understand that there is no hard and fast policy about non-narrative pieces, and the unraveling of this piece is a matter of editorial taste, but on the issue of naming, there is a clearer question, to wit: is there an NPR policy about naming voices in a piece? Would it vary from show to show? For producers, this would be helpful to know.

  • Bruce Drake

    3.27.02

    Reply
    naming names

    Jay

    Regarding your question on NPR policy on naming voices … I’ll post something here I wrote for staff some time ago, but I do so with great hesitation for two reasons: (1) it was written mostly to apply to more conventional news coverage and news features, and (2) I always find "policy" a scary word because it becomes synonymous with "set in stone," and while there are some principles of journalism that are in fact important enough to be set in stone, or almost so, the nature of our business is creative, and that calls for intellectual flexibility when something special comes one’s way.

    So, that being said, here is what I wrote:

    ATTRIBUTION

    The issue of identifying people when we use vox came up recently, and I wanted to address it here.

    In general, the burden is on the reporter to tell the listener who is speaking. I find that to be true in most cases. But there are cases where vox without names does not bother me, although I believe these should be the exception, not the rule. Our reporting should not be characterized by the frequent use of unidentified voices.

    I’m not going to try to anticipate every possible example. But certainly if we are doing political stories that report on peoples’ opinions about political events or issues, or other controversies, we need to say who the people are so that our listeners can make their own judgments on these opinions, how representative they are, where they are coming from. If we are doing random surveys of opinion on a controversy, our listeners have a right and a need to know who the people are. And, in such cases, the need-to-identify trumps art.

    In the mid-ground, the editorial "need-to-know" can sometimes be satisfied if there is an accurate way to categorize or characterize the people who are speaking and if the circumstances made individual identifications difficult. ("This group of postal workers were outraged over the federal shutdown …(succesion of voices …")

    There are other instances where vox without names does not raise the same kind of issues, where the "need to know" described above is not as editorially important: (1) "atmospheric" vox where the voices almost function as if they were ambience, where the tape’s value is the tone and mood of what is said, as opposed to the opinions being expressed, such as vox used to convey a chaotic scene or a setting, voices at a bar, etc. (2) pieces in which we briefly string together voices to convey a general mood or reaction of shock, anxiety, hilarity, an everybody-is-talking about-this intensity etc., in short, an unideological sum total, (3) descriptive reaction to an event like a bombing or natural disaster gathered under hurried conditions where circumstances make individual identification difficult.

    There were two good examples recently to draw on for this discussion.

    John Burnett did a model piece on short notice and short turnaround to get reaction from military personnel at Fort Hood to the McKinney verdict. This is the kind of piece where identification of the speaker is a must and adds to the credibility and impact of the story. Burnett did several solid interviews outside the Fort Hood PX. The speakers were identified by name and rank and, in one case, where the speaker asked not to be named, was identified by rank and her own description of her background as someone who had handled a sexual harassment case. It would have been unacceptable in this story to simply string together a montage of unidentified voices.

    On the other hand, I had no problem with this brief montage which Margot Adler included in a piece about the JFK Auction:

    ADLER: Previews start Friday, but at the moment some of the items are in a store window at Barney’s on Madison Avenue. There’s a gym bag, a Harvard sweater, Kennedy’s stereo, as well as many photographs and items of clothing. A few people passing by at lunch time were asked to choose their favorite item. PEDESTRIAN: The desk of course, it’s fabulous. PEDESTRIAN: The presidential stereo. PEDESTRIAN: I love the portrait of the both of them in that frame. PEDESTRIAN: It’s kind of sad in a way, you know, to see it disposed of like this.

    The editorial stakes are lower here. The gawkers essentially added up to a useful sound device for underlining and adding to the description of what was in the window, as well as pacing the narrative. While it might have been nice to know who was gawking (was it everyone from a middle-aged lawyer to a teenager who was born long after the Kennedy era?), I didn’t find it absolutely necessary given the brevity and purpose of the scene.

  • Jay Allison

    3.27.02

    Reply
    Perils of Policy

    That’s helpful, Bruce, thanks. In my judgement, a piece like this would fall under your "atmospheric" category above. I’m wondering: leaving aside other editorial considerations and assuming a piece like this was deemed terrific by all other standards, might it fall in that Atmospheric Category by your definition? Could it theoretically air as is, without naming? Or, would it clear your bar if the host said in the intro or back announce, 1) "members of the union of operating engineers at ground zero" or 2) a list of their names?

    Again, to my ear, it’s an example of the sort of piece which is better without the intrusion of constant naming. The reward of names would not be sufficient to the disturbance of the atmosphere.

    Finally, is it safe to conclude, then, that there is no hard and fast rule at NPR on identifying speakers? Could producers continue to produce this sort of montage work of this length, and assuming it was great work, could they not expect certain rejection?

    Also, for those who might not know, Bruce Drake is VP for News at NPR and has always been dedicated to talking openly about the sound and content of their air — even when it’s difficult or awkward (the most important times!) — and we appreciate his weighing in here. We hope to develop other useful discussion forums at Transom between NPR and outside contributors in the future. We’d welcome suggestions.

    Finally, I’d also like to congratulate him and his staff on their Peabody Award (announced today) for NPR’s coverage of the events related to September 11th. Well deserved without a doubt. Bravo.

  • Bruce Drake

    3.27.02

    Reply
    naming names

    Jay

    I wouldn’t put it quite the way you did. There are some hard and fast rules that will nearly always apply in the kinds of the cases I described. That being said, a producer here certainly has the flexibility to make the judgment that s/he has heard great work … and that it clicks the way it is, and should air that way.

  • Jay Allison

    3.28.02

    Reply
    Amen.

    I was trying to separate apples and oranges with specificity. It is when "atmospheric" pieces are judged by news standards, that good things fall may between the cracks.

    Perhaps larger question is how to apply "rules" over things like naming names, which, while vital in a news piece, may be less applicable in the wider range of ways we can communicate with the radio.

    Do we cripple the imagination when we standardize? I’m not just talking about NPR here, but any producer. The more accustomed we become to "the way things should sound," the harder it is to think of other ways, and to accept them. The fewer frequencies we use, the closer we come to the drone.

    Sharing specific examples and applying standards, as you are here, is an extremely helpful way to explore the boundaries and keep them from being fenced off.

  • Joe Richman

    3.28.02

    Reply
    montage on NPR

    Thanks Bruce Drake for being part of this discussion.

    I just went and listened to Susan’s piece again (I heard it a week or so ago as well). And I had a couple thoughts.

    I liked the piece. But I think the fact that people are not identified is the symptom, not the illness in this story. The issue is not that we don’t get names, but that we don’t get characters. Toward the end of the story there’s the lovely line: "There’s Artie asleep in the crane with his head tilted back." That line made me wish the piece had done a better job following Artie – or any of the workers. Maybe this is a problem with montage. But for me one of the gifts of radio is ‘character’ – how intimately and vividly we can get to know other people. The blur of anonymous voices in this piece made it feel more like ambience. I just couldn’t feel for them as much as I wanted to.

    I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, because I did like the piece. But it makes me wonder about the general question: is there a place for impressionistic or montage radio at NPR? I hope so. But of course, anything that sounds different is going to be held to higher standards and scrutiny. If I were doing a straight forward news story I would probably only have one NPR editor acting as gatekeeper. If I were doing a piece like Susan’s… there are likely at least 2-3 NPR show producers who might weigh in. And as anyone scanning the posts above can see, people have different opinions about what works. (It makes me think about how when you mix together everyone’s favorite color you get brown.)

    I’m curious how NPR discusses these issues internally. Bruce, what could NPR do institutionally to make the shows and editors more willing to accept stories that – as Jay said – don’t sound ‘the way things should sound’? Is there a sense that NPR could be doing more of this?

    One other note…. Bruce mentioned a few wonderful in-house NPR producers, including Neva Grant. Which reminds me of a story Neva did for Morning Edition this past Valentine’s day. It was a hilarious and innovative short piece where two automated phone services start to talk to each other – and date. Worth checking out online.

    Joe

  • Bruce Drake

    3.28.02

    Reply
    how things sound

    Joe

    We discuss these things internally in a variety of ways. For a while now, we have had weekly sessions that for lack of a better title we call "on air quality sessions" in which producers, editors, and reporters gather to discuss whether a particular show worked, or how to do more effective intros, or production issues in pieces, or writing, or finding a different angle on a story, etc. There were also a number of sessions like these the other weekend when we flew all the National Desk reporters to D.C. These issues also come up in specific discussions of how to get at stories in a fresh way. I think the answer to your other question is to get the conversation going with NPR folks and independent folks, the way Jay has tried to do here. We might all try to think of a way to reframe this subject, apart from the specific story that Jay used to start this thread, and build a new conversation from the ground up with participation on all sides. I will try to come up with some ideas (if I only could get out of all these meetings!!!!!!!!!!!)

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    3.28.02

    Reply

    http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm?PrgDate=02%2F14%2F2002&PrgID=3

    "Modern Love"

    Neva Grant introduces two telephone automated voices, Flight Information Guy Tom and Amtrak’s Julie…

  • Jackson Braider

    4.02.02

    Reply
    Thanks, Nanette…

    for leading us to the Neva Grant Valentine’s story without even having to use Google.

    I wonder a bit — to go back a little ways — about Jay’s "drone" perception. I love the Neva Grant piece — sharp, pithy, fun. It feels a bit like one of those little crumbs left by the wicked witch to lure Hansel and Gretel to the gingerbread house. We have a rigorous house style, but every once in a while, we’ll let you have *fun*. Does NPR have a scorecard — you’ve done X number of NPR News pieces, here are Y minutes to let you be entertaining (on the Neva Grant: the web site claims over 4:30, the story, according to RealPlayer, reads about 3:50).

    For instance, John Burnett, on site in Afghanistan, suddenly appears talking about a music bar in Austin and its happy-hour performer.

    Another case in point — long ago — Michael Goldfarb talking about one of the keenest memories of my childhood: the marine forecasts from closing time at the Beeb.

    Bruce, you’ve been so good as to join the discussion — I mean no disrespect — but are we to make something of these "lighter" moments? Beyond time constraints, newsworthiness, etc.

  • Dave Isay

    4.04.02

    Reply
    thoughts

    Here’s the sequence of how I came to this piece: I’d heard somewhere that newsmag rejected it because of some new attribution rule, skimmed the comments, listened to the piece, thought it was lovely, and was pissed. Then I went back and read the actual policy- which seemed reasonable- and felt better (Bruce- it’s great to have you on here)….. Here’s my two cents: I think this is a wonderful story… It passes my 95% test- it’s as good or better (to me) than 95% of the stuff hear on the air, which (to me) means it really ought to get on… I actually have a problem dissecting a story like this: Jay is a brilliant producer. If this is the material he had to work with, I’m taking a leap of faith and assuming that he’s done the best job with it that can be done. To my ears he did (although I know Jay wrote something about some re-ordering he’d want to do)… Shows should LOOK for pieces like this- that break the rules and change the sound and perk up ears.. These are the "gifts" that Kernis many years ago insisted be present on all shows…. I remember after Ghetto Life, there was a strong move afoot to ban music in documentaries on newsmags. Oy vey. Luckily, that arbitrary, idiotic idea eventually evaporated… Putting up a link here to a story I did many years ago that’s on a totally different subject (closing of the last Automat), but is somewhat similar in style http://soundportraits.org/working/automat.ram
    …. As much as it makes me cringe to hear this old stuff, glad it got on the air…. And I’m really, really sorry that the country won’t get to hear Susan’s piece…
    Dave

  • Susan Jenkins

    4.05.02

    Reply
    Impressions from Bangladesh

    I’m checking in from my embassy’s office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I’m helping to open the exhibit of Joel’s photographs this weekend. Heading into the third week of my trip, which included Tashkent as well.

    Yesterday I gave a talk to students at the local photography school–mostly employed photojournalists with a few artists sprinkled in. In discussing my experience at the site, I played this piece for the first time to an overseas audience. There were many excited comments after and they said this was the first time they really felt they knew what the experience was like for us. They pointedly said that the images only provided part of their understanding, that without the sounds and the speakers it was really hard to feel what it must be like there. They were surprised at how powerful radio could be.

    It was great to hear it for the first time again..through their ears, as well as my own.

    asalum walekum.

  • Bruce Drake

    4.05.02

    Reply

    Jackson

    I’m not sure what you’re asking in your last question. On your first question — does NPR have a scoreboard? — the answer is no. This really is mostly driven when a Neva or John or Michael spot something or conjure up this kind of an idea and push it. Obviously, if John is in the heat of a major story he’s covering, he won’t be able to drop what he’s doing to do the feature on the music bar, but even the busiest beats have their cycles, and I think we certainly would want him or anyone else to do the kind of feature that caught your attention as opposed to a lesser, make-work news story.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    4.05.02

    Reply

    Susan, is it too late to put the audio into the exhibits?

    and on radio in some of the countries…?

  • Susan Jenkins

    9.04.11

    Reply

    Just listened to this for the first time in a long while, probably five years. Previously it was difficult to hear it as a non-involved listener might, but today I had those ears. I deeply appreciated Jay’s edit and how he put the piece together. Reading the comments (which I had forgotten existed) I also identify with Joe Richman’s desire to be able to connect more with these guys as characters rather than a montage of voices.

    This ended up as a one-off for me as a radio producer. I had a couple of other things I worked on but they never came to fruition and eventually life took me in a different direction, and I’ve had minimal engagement with my experiences from that time since then. The looming anniversary has tapped me on the shoulder and I’m carving out some time to go back and look again.

    Glad to see Transom is alive and well.

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