Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill

Intro from Jay Allison: The dot-com bust was good for public radio. It threw talent out in the streets, including some zealous public radio listeners, a few of them zealous enough to consider trying this work instead of heading back to the hunt for riches. Phyllis Fletcher was one, a former computer programmer, and now–with the help of KUOW, Jack Straw and NPR’s Next Generation project–a radio producer. "Sweet Phil" is her debut in long form. Full of clever production, it is the story of a large, difficult and remarkable personality, Phyllis’s father, and it’s told with great care and no blame.

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Listen to “Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill”

About the Story

Mom, Dad, & Me
Mom, Dad, & Me

“It hurts me to have left so many kids out there in this world. But believe me, at the rate that I was going, if somebody were to have to go, it was always best for the kid and the mother that I was the one to go.” My father wrote me these words, and many more, from prison. Before we were reunited, he died, leaving behind 14 children with 13 different mothers. In Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill, I seek out my siblings and their mothers, and draw from their voices a portrait of the father we never knew. My dad speaks for himself in excerpts from his letters, read throughout the piece by his first-born son.

I produced Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill as an Artist-in-Residence with Jack Straw Productions, a non-profit audio production studio in Seattle. The people at Jack Straw grant each of their supported artists studio time with one of their engineers. I was fortunate to work with the experienced and talented Scott Bartlett.

Before receiving the grant, I flew to Phoenix to record my brother Eric reading our dad’s letters in character. Eric isn’t a formally trained actor, but his talent truly shines in his performance as our dad. Eric and I scheduled our sessions to coincide with the time he’d taken off work for Ramadan. We recorded at night, when he’d broken fast and could drink water. We didn’t have time to record all of the letters, so I guessed at which passages I would want to use. We ended up capturing everything I could have wanted and more. After receiving the grant, I travelled to DC, New Jersey, Spokane, Chicago, Sacramento, and Denver to interview the family members you hear in Sweet Phil. In Seattle I interviewed my mother and cousin, and recorded a friend to portray the coroner who performed my dad’s autopsy.

When I had finished interviewing, I logged my tape and reviewed my notes to develop a narrative arc of my dad’s life story. I chose my cuts, loaded them, wrote a script, and brought it all in to Jack Straw to put it together. Scott and I would edit in the studio during the day. At night I went home to choose the scoring music and make changes to the script. When we got everything we wanted into half an hour, I took it home, listened carefully, and made notes for our final edit a few weeks later.

Some people who’ve heard the piece have commended my bravery for exploring who my father was in such a public way. I humbly deflect that praise to my family, who graciously shared their time and memories with me.

Tech Info

I recorded my brother Eric’s interview and performance with his Sharp MD-MT15 MiniDisc recorder and Sony ECM-MS907 condenser mic. I recorded all other interviews and performance with my Sharp MD-MT770-S MiniDisc and AudioTechnica AT835b condenser mic. I loaded my cuts into SAW on a PC, and voiced my narration into a Neumann U-87. Scott engineered the final product on a Power Mac G4 in ProTools version 5.1.1.

Actors – If you live in Phoenix, you may have been treated to the conga virtuosity of Eric Green (Sweet Phil) in concert halls and dance clubs. Eric holds two degrees in aviation; he makes his living as a commercial airline captain. Tom Bostelmann (coroner) plays bassoon and basketball in Seattle. His accent occasionally betrays his Minnesota roots. Tom earns his keep as a software engineer.

Phyllis Fletcher

About
Phyllis Fletcher

Phyllis Fletcher is an editor for KUOW Seattle. Before that, she was a reporter. One of her favorite assignments led her to attend a press screening of the satirical movie Borat with diplomats from the embassy of Kazakhstan – the former Soviet state lampooned in the film. Throughout the screening, a chagrined diplomat leaned over to stage whisper a personalized commentary track, with information like, "this landscape is not actually Kazakhstan," "we never treat Jews this way in Kazakhstan," and "women have equal rights in our country." He did, though, find the nude wrestling scene hilarious. Phyllis has won first place awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, Education Writers Association, and Public Radio News Directors, Inc. Phyllis' discovery that a band leader from the 1930s passed for white from her childhood through her death won a Gracie Award--her first statuette. Pretty fancy for public radio. Phyllis produced her first radio report as an intern, about racial discrimination that happens over the phone. She is a proud graduate of James A. Garfield High School in Seattle. Go, Bulldogs.

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  • Jay Allison

    1.04.04

    Reply
    Sweet Phil From Sugar Hill

    The dot-com bust was good for public radio. It threw talent out in the streets, including some zealous public radio listeners, a few of them zealous enough to consider trying this work instead of heading back to the hunt for riches. Phyllis Fletcher was one, a former computer programmer, and now–with the help of KUOW, Jack Straw and NPR’s Next Generation project–a radio producer. "Sweet Phil" is her debut in long form. Full of clever production, it is the story of a large, difficult and remarkable personality, Phyllis’s father, and it’s told with great care and no blame.

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    1.05.04

    Reply

    Listening to this felt like a pretty complete experience to me
    I wonder how much of that feeling comes from the fact that the narrator sounded complete, or okay

    [In a way, that’s a disturbing thought. (]

    The only time I was thrown a bit was in the beginning, when I didn’t differentiate between the voices of mother and daughter quickly enough.

    also, I made the mistake of reading about the piece while listening. Reading about the coroner’s being an actor took me to the point of wondering how his voice might have been different if he’d been the real thing. Curiously, it didn’t throw me to know that the Dad was an actor.

    could you talk about the music? and how you and your engineer worked together?

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.05.04

    Reply
    Actors, music, my engineer

    First, thank you to all the Transom readers and listeners out there. I’d love to hear from more of you!

    Dear Nanette,

    Thank you for your feedback and questions. You suspect correctly that I chose an actor for the coroner’s part without the intention of people knowing that he was coming in as a character at all. I did think about the impact of revealing it when I was putting the Transom notes together, but I decided it was important to acknowledge both of my actors. Hopefully I left enough other things as surprises, so that knowing about the coroner doesn’t detract too much.

    You asked about music, and how my engineer and I worked together.

    I was very concerned about getting the right music. I asked a couple of people for music help, and I acknowledge them in the ending credits, but ultimately I chose all of the music myself–except for one piece. (More on that later.)

    For each scene I thought about what mood I wanted to evoke, and chose music that inspired that mood in me. Sometimes the answer came right away; other times I had to think a long time and play several songs before I felt I had the right one.

    Initially I was intimidated by this process, because I thought that somewhere out there was the perfect music and I just wasn’t hip enough to know about it. But what I needed to do was shift my thinking away from finding something obscure or unique, and concentrate on the mood and feeling. Contrary to what I initially thought, my personal music interests were broad enough to cover the emotions I wanted to support in the piece.

    Eventually I had all my scenes scored, with the exception of the scene where my dad’s letters first appear. I knew I wanted something whimsical yet intimate, and of course instrumental. It felt like a tall order. I wasn’t a swing fan, so I never would have chosen the Django Reinhardt piece you hear under that scene if my boyfriend hadn’t suggested it to me one night. I had the script with me, and when he played that song, we read lines over it, and I knew it was perfect.

    I think my engineer and I worked great together. Working with an engineer meant that Scott sat at the computer and I sat beside him; I would tell him what I wanted, and he would do it very expertly (or, on occasion, tell me why I may not want him to do it quite that way). Scott is a very skilled audio engineer, and he was enthusiastic about the project–a great combination. Some of the material is very sensitive and Scott always treated it with respect. He laughed at the things I laughed at, too, even after having heard them each a million times; that was reassuring. ("Whew–I’m not the only person in the world who thinks this is funny!")

    I was also able to turn to Scott when I had to make an editorial call and wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go. "What do you think?" Scott always gave me a straight answer. Without a formal editor in the process, Scott was the person who helped me cut six minutes off the piece so I could pitch it to a show with a half-hour format. He let me be the ruthless one, but he did stop me from cutting a scene or two that he really liked–and he found cutting room in other places so we could keep those scenes.

    I engineer and produce my own news reports at KUOW. After working with an engineer, I’ll never forget the luxury of just being able to say, "make that fade longer," and Scott would make it so.

    I did my voicing at Jack Straw, so Scott is also the one who set up my mic and even coached my voicing a bit. He played pieces of tape for me to come out of if I needed a little set-up, and he let me do as many takes as I needed.

    I’ll give a shout-out to Scott and maybe he’ll chime in with his take on the process.

  • Bob Butler

    1.06.04

    Reply
    Wow!

    Phyllis,

    Being in commercial radio anything over 60 seconds is too long. Just to let you know, I listened to the entire story…. and turned off the phone while it played. You’re blend of music and narration was very powerful. I’m glad to claim you as part the NABJ Radio Task Force (lol).
    Congratulations on a job well done.

    Bob

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    1.07.04

    Reply

    Another thing I like about this…
    is how race or ethnicity doesn’t come up except for Phil’s few words

    do you have anything to say about that?

    Also, is your name Phyllis because that’s a variation of , or close to the name Phil?

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.07.04

    Reply
    Bob Butler is a busy man, people.

    To inspire this man to turn off his phone for half an hour should be my goal in everything I do. 😉 Seriously, Bob, I accept your compliments very humbly, and I’m proud to be claimed by you AND the Radio Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists. Unity 2004!

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.07.04

    Reply
    my name, and race/ethnicity

    Nannette, thank you again for your feedback and questions.

    My parents named me after my dad’s oldest sister. I remember her in the "rest in peace" passage of the credits; she died in 1997.

    In Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill I dig into who my dad was and how he impacted his world. I chose go about answering those questions with aural snapshots–specific memories of things my dad wrote, said, and did. While I do think broader questions of race and ethnicity are worth asking and answering (or at least trying to answer), that was not among my goals in this project.

    I think I understand your point (and relief?) that the piece didn’t speak in racial generalities*, or wasn’t peppered with racially-stereotyped anecdotes or gags. ** *** However, I do think race is a present force in this story, or may be for many listeners.

    I believe that the sound of a black voice telling a story whispers "race" to many public radio listeners. I think this can happen for many reasons, fortunate and unfortunate.

    On the fortunate side, I believe the public radio audience is a thinking audience. When we hear something, we reflect, and are reminded of something else; we reflect on that, which reminds us of something else again. This reflective process will lead many people to the broader questions I referred to earlier–in the case of this piece, maybe to questions about race, among other things.

    On the unfortunate side, on most public radio stations, a black voice telling a story isn’t something you’ll hear every day. A diverse multitude of voices chiming in to tell a story is even more rare. So I don’t think a listener would be wrong to hear Sweet Phil as a black story or a multiracial story, just as one could also hear it as a family story or an American story. And on the other hand, if you hear it simply as a story, that’s OK too!

    * A-la stand-up comedy routines on how blacks and whites differ.

    ** Or black-guy/white-guy buddy movies.

    *** Am I the only one who finds those clunky, predictable, and uncomfortable to watch? Yet they must resonate with large audiences on some level, because Hollywood keeps making them. . . .

  • Susan Mullen

    1.07.04

    Reply
    A few comments from Phyllis’s mom.

    I am so proud of Phyllis for all she did in creating this project. My fondest hope is that the rest of the "sibs" who are out there will hear the piece and communicate with Phyllis.

    My interview with Phyllis was very difficult. I cry easily. I guess that’s enough said about that!

    I’d like to thank all the guardian angels who watched over us as Phyllis was growing up, and to second Phyllis’s wishes that those who have passed will rest in peace.

  • Scott

    1.07.04

    Reply
    Enter the Engineer

    I see my name’s popped up in this conversation already, so I should get involved!

    First of all, congratulations to Phyllis for the wonderful response that "Sweet Phil" has received, and I have to say that it was a pleasure to work on this project.

    I work on a wide array of projects at Jack Straw, and the degree to which I am a "producer" varies widely. A major influence in how Phyllis and I worked together was the massive amount of preproduction that she had already done, and how strongly innvested she was in the project. It was fun for me to be the engineer and not have to worry too much about aesthetic and creative considerations (except as a tiebreaker and occasional constructive criticism!).

    A couple of months before our studio sessions, Phyllis and I met over coffee and discussed the process and how best to work together so that she could make the most use of her time with me (since this was a limited-time residency grant). I think at that time I shared a sample script incorporating all of the sound elements.

    Phyllis went off to do more interviews, and when we came to the studio, not only was the script very thorough, she had already trimmed her MD audio down to the useful quotes and converted them to WAV’s so that we didn’t waste time searching for and importing audio. We could quickly import audio and do rough edits, lining everything up on the timeline.

    Some of the field interviews were of varying quality, so it seemed important that the narrative voice should float on top of all that, so the U-87 was a good choice for a very clean full vocal mic, but I simply used a Mackie board pre-amp on her. We did have an interesting conversation about Phyllis’s vocal persona, and I think I helped push her toward a more conversational and less ‘news broadcaster’ presentation, which I think helped her relax and let the story flow rather than present it as a history or from a complete outsider’s perspective. Phyllis is an important character in the story, and it seems that type of narrator really can’t distance themselves without sacrificing the intimacy that the story and listener deserves.

    A couple other engineering notes: Some of those field recordings had some slight EQ to cancel out some quality issues, and we added some additional telephone tone on the voice of Phil. Most of the engineering effort was really spent on creating good pauses and transitions between constrasting material, and incorporating the music (to say nothing of trimming time and getting uniform sound levels). I agree that the music was all excellent, and I had nothing to do with that! (I did make a couple of wisely turned-down suggestions though)

    I did have fun incorporating the music: one thing I almost always find in a production like this is the power of serendipity. We can edit a 3-minute section over a piece of music, and then find that a natural cadence in the music is absolutely perfect to punctuate a phrase (then, we we move things later, it takes all my energy to maintain that punctuation), and this happened more than a few times! There were also a few spots where we would loop music or create subtle crossfades for the sake of timing–tricky stuff, but well worth it.

    I’ll say one more non-engineer thing and then get out of the way, in response to the race/ethnicity question above. When we started this project, a conversation came up regarding colloquial language, specifically "nigga," which I can type, but as an aspiring politically correct liberal white guy, I prefer not to speak aloud. That was the one and only time race and ethnicity really came up, to my knowledge. While one could infer or impress these issues upon the story, it was never what the story was about, and while these issues may come to mind, I don’t think there was any need or inclination to force them.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.07.04

    Reply
    Scott the Engineer

    First of all, is anyone else on this board familiar with the persona "Scott the Engineer" of the Howard Stern show? Well, as you can see, *my* "Scott the Engineer" is a technical professional of the sophisticated and culturally-aware variety, and I can’t say enough what a blessing this was.

    I want to say something about Scott’s voice coaching. When I recorded my narration, Scott had me do a take of the first page and listen to it. I sounded stiff, distant; I heard it loud and clear, and I told Scott I knew it wasn’t right. Scott said, "this isn’t a news story." I said I was concerned about speaking clearly, and he said (kindly, you must believe me), that I should be more concerned about not sounding like a square. He was right, he was so right. These two Yoda-like comments freed me up to just tell the story.* As a result, the voicing you hear is much more pleasant to listen to than my first cut. A couple people at work asked me who my voice coach was for this piece, and I told them, "his name is Scott Bartlett, but I don’t know that he considers himself a voice coach!"

    Scott was a master at the EQ stuff he describes. He heard hisses that I hadn’t previously noticed, and he got rid of them (or made them appreciably less noticable). In retrospect, the recordings where Scott found this problem were probably the ones with high recording levels. I think I’ve read of this problem with MDs before, perhaps on this site.

    I asked Scott to add the telephone effect to my brother’s voice when he was in character as my dad, because I like the remote quality it lends to the character. For the demo I cut to get this grant, I recorded Eric on my home phone, using a borrowed Marantz with a phone jack. The distance implied by that phone sound was something I discovered quite by accident, and decided I wanted to keep. I’m not sure that every listener hears it consciously, but I think it does help distinguish "Eric as Eric" from "Eric as Phil."

    Thank you, Scott, for your wonderful work and your thoughtful post to this discussion. I hope people will feel free to direct questions to Scott, because he is very knowledgable and generous with his knowledge, as you can see.

    * Something I had been told to do at KUOW, and have tried with varying degrees of success.

  • Dmitchell

    1.07.04

    Reply
    Community

    Jay:
    Thanks for the plug. I can’t decide if I enjoyed the comments ABOUT the piece more than the piece itself.
    Phyllis was sent to me by my friend at KUOW, Ruby de Luna. Ruby is a mentor on our Next Generation training projects. Phyllis and I did some e-mail, than talked on the phone. We met when she came to DC last Spring to do research for her story. She left a CD for me to hear of other work she had done. I listened to it. I called her and asked her to come be a part of our project at the Black Journalists convention last August. She did and paid her own way to boot. Most people say " I can’t." Phyllis says "I’ll figure it out." Sounded familiar.
    While we were there a story broke. Gerald Boyd, formerly of the New York Times was to speak for the first time since his resignation from the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair controversy. I asked Phyllis to cover it with the idea of pitching it to NPR. One of our NABJ mentors and the Managing Editior of that project was Danyell Irby, who is the Deputy for NPR’s Newscast unit. Phyllis covered it, Danyell got the Newsdesk to listen and edit…KERA in Dallas and their reporter, Bill Zeeble, helped Phyllis produce it and John Stempin, the overnight newsdesk producer at NPR got it in the newscasts DURING Morning Edition….twice. Phyllis had never filed a newspot before but she impressed enough people with her professionalism and ability that it does not surprise me in the least that "Sweet Phil" is here on Transom and we are all richer for it.
    It truly does "take a village" to find, develop and keep talent in the system. Phyllis is already at a station, but I know dozens of other young, eager, raw and talented folks of all colors who want to work with those of us who have been here a while. I was told today that public radio’s audience is now 29 million. That’s 10 percent of the country. Not bad. What about the other 90 percent? What about those who’s first language is NOT English. What about those who go to "state schools" or community colleges? Or who didn’t go to college at all? Couldn’t they be a part of public radio’s future too?
    How do we get them?
    Maybe one way is to remind the system that The Beatles broke up in 1969?
    A non-sequitur? Maybe. Maybe not 🙂

    Doug MItchell
    Project Manager
    next generation radio
    NPR

  • Jackson

    1.08.04

    Reply
    A wonderful story

    Good job, Phyllis. I say this only because I can’t begin to try to out-say the enthusiasm your story has generated. It’s so much for so many of us — and all in so many different directions. I was particularly taken with Doug Mitchell’s evokation of the fact the Beatles broke up in 1969.

    In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what he means here — Doug? (arched eyebrow, forefinger tapping glass) Doug! Can you explain? — but I’ll venture that Sweet Phil was a member of our generation.

    As a semi-snarky pubrad participant and enthusiast, I confess that I was looking for a weakness in the piece. Not quite sure why, not quite sure what. But given the balance of what you were discovering, what you were learning, what new and earthchanging things you were no doubt discovering with each roll of tape, I can only sit here on the outside and admire what you’ve done.

    More later.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.08.04

    Reply
    A few comments about my mom, and interviewing

    I have to take another moment to thank my mom for everything she did to make this piece possible. First, and obviously, without her affection for my dad, I wouldn’t be here. Second, without the benevolent endurance of that affection, I surely wouldn’t have been motivated to do any of the things that led to the production of this piece.

    My mom is a very humble person. She has always been quick to attribute to my dad’s genes all of my positive qualities and abilities, from my cooking to my strong fingernails. But, as Eric’s mother said, "he didn’t do it all, now." So thanks, mom, for everything you’ve done to get me this far.

    In every interview I conducted, I told my family members that if I asked something they weren’t comfortable answering on tape, to signal verbally or non-verbally and we would move on or stop recording. Nobody took me up on this. Yes, there were tears, anger, and regret, but there was also laughter, and a LOT of surprises. (I had never heard that dog story before!) I was impressed again and again with how open people were–in some cases, on the day of our first meeting.

    I felt obligated to honor this openness by being very sensitive with the material that was given to me. I hope I have honored my family with the sensitivity that I intended.

    So to everyone I interviewed, thank you.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.08.04

    Reply
    Next Generation Radio

    The Beatles broke up? Has someone called AP?

    Doug gives concrete examples of what I’ve been trying to convey on this site: I could not have gotten nearly this far in public radio without the help of programs like Next Generation and all the people he mentions–and Doug himself, of course.

    In Seattle, I had the good fortune to have a reporter take me under her wing, and to get the grant to put this project together. But not every public radio station has reporters who have the time, resources, or initiative to do what Cathy did for me, and not every town has places like Jack Straw and engineers like Scott. We need programs like Next Generation at NPR as a centralized training camp that kids can get to if their local resources aren’t enough. And the great thing is, Doug runs his training camp as a travelling road show, so somewhere on their itinerary, they’ll even meet you halfway–or, if you’re lucky, they’ll come to your town!

    I hope Doug’s program can give an opportunity to EVERY young person in any town or urban neighborhood who has an interest in public radio reporting. Any newsroom would be well-served to take on a young reporter who comes through Doug’s boot camp with his stamp of approval.

    Hooray, Next Gen!

  • Sydney Lewis

    1.08.04

    Reply

    Thanks to Phyllis and Scott for taking the time to graciously give so much detail on their work process. Phyllis already knows how much I love the piece, the journey she takes us on, the music, the voices. My first reaction was: great story, and great to have work that’s not entirely about white people for a change. Race is not made a big deal of, it’s just a fact, a very normal fact. I liked that. Just wondering what changed in you as a result of telling this story. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the piece to feel like before setting out to tape? Did your course change in any big ways as you went from one person to the next? Did you agonize over the cuts, have to sacrifice great tape to stay close to your arc? What’s next for you?

  • Maxine Salaam

    1.08.04

    Reply
    A Labor of Love

    Thank you phyllis for inviting me to be a part of this very wonderful project. I view it as a labor of love.It really awakened an array of very deep emotions inside of me that havent surfaced in many years. Most of all ,I was happy to discover that finally your dad was able to find someone who would love him unconditionally inspite of his complex personality.It is almost as if it was a sort of compensation for the tragic loss of his mother in childhood. Finally,as I listened to this awesome piece of your work it awakened so much compassion from within my heart that I realized how glad i was to have been in his life……..what a documentary.

  • Sue Mell

    1.09.04

    Reply
    Dang, Sydney, I was gonna ask that!

    This piece, as Nanette observed, feels so complete. When thinking of what to post I was curious about the same questions Sydney raised—in particular, in what ways did actually doing the story turn out to be different than what you’d imagined or hoped.

    It’s such a lively piece—the half hour just whizzes by. I was fascinated by your ability to forgive and accept. This piece seems to have so expanded your life—not just in terms of doing radio work but personally, with regard to your extended family. And it’s so optimistic despite the potential for conflict and the fact that much of the history is sad and/or violent. A unique spin on an unusual story.

  • Jackson

    1.09.04

    Reply
    Whizzing by…

    Sue Mell is right, these 29+ minutes rip right by.

    One thing that struck me is how ingeniously, how assuredly, how intelligently, you dealt with the problem of using living readers for words from beyond.

    Radio is a very cranky muse. One cadre would have pursued an emotionally "flat" reading of your father’s letters — as if they were being given as evidence in a DWI case. Your choice of your brother (half? step? sorta? does it matter?) was wonderful.

    You made a logical choice in one sense, and yet you were stepping into an emotional minefield.

    Months after the fact, did you end up with what you imagined?

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.12.04

    Reply
    Thank you, "Mother Max"

    Those who’ve listened to Sweet Phil know that Maxine Salaam is the unforgettable mother of my brother Karriem. Listeners who’ve spoken with me personally have consistently asked about Ms. Salaam and commented on how much she adds to my dad’s story. In the edit booth, her voice would often bring a smile to my engineer’s face as she decribed how funny my dad was. Ms. Salaam, or Mother Max, as Eric and I call her, has always received me very warmly and her interview was no exception. So thank you, Mother Max, for a wonderful interview and for your kind words on this message board.

  • Karriem L. Salaam

    1.12.04

    Reply
    Son of Sweet Phil, Brother of Sweet Phyl-the prettier one

    Whattup sis, incredible piece, stellar job!!! Can’t wait to read the book. The fam and I wish you, Susan, and Josh all the best. Belated happy holidays, and New Year.

    Peace, and Godbless, "The Bro.",

    Karriem L. Salaam, M.D.

  • Kirk Anderson

    1.12.04

    Reply
    Sweet Phyl

    Let this be my official begging to work with you on something in the future. Ridiculously talented and charmed, you are.

  • Mitchell Kramer

    1.13.04

    Reply
    re: Sweet Phil radio piece

    What a banner day! I heard a reference to transom.com on a This American Life story and just finished listening to Sweet Phil From Sugar Hill by Phyllis Fletcher. Thanks, it was a terrific story. I’m an avid NPR listener and briefly hosted and produced a radio show in Philadelphia, so I am no stranger to these personal radio pieces. This one was possibly the best I’ve heard, (and so far better then anything I produced, it’s barely funny)

    Thank you for sharing. I’ll be looking out for stories by Phyllis Fletcher.

    Mitchell Kramer

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.13.04

    Reply
    the artistic process

    My attempt to answer Sydney and Jackson’s questions.

    What changed in me as a result of telling this story? The first time I called my grandfather after he listened to the finished product, he jubilantly told me that I’m a great storyteller. Everyone instinctively knows the importance of family, but this project drove that point home for me. I also know it’s not possible to please everyone, and that I was dealing with sensitive material. But even being aware of those built-in perils, if I had created a piece that pleased public radio listeners and not my family, I would have felt ashamed. I’m glad I’ve made something that my family is proud of.

    I’m also thankful to have had the opportunity to hear women’s stories about my dad, why they loved him, and why they feared him. I got to hear these stories in detail, listen to them over and over on tape, and think about their impact and meaning. This opportunity has given me a lot of insight about love, forgiveness, sacrifice, dignity, and grace.

    Did I have a clear idea of what I wanted the piece to feel like before setting out to tape? Yes. I knew I wanted a piece that felt true, honest, and sensitive. I wanted the full range of my dad’s personality represented in the piece, which I knew would be funny in some places and dark in others. And I knew that I wanted to interweave what my dad said about himself with what others said about him. Before taping, sometimes I’d let people flip through my dad’s letters if they wanted to, or during an interview I would occasionally quote the letters to get a response. But mostly I didn’t structure the interviews too much. I just asked people to tell me what he was like, and gave plenty of time for them to answer. Making people feel at ease and giving them lots of time to answer seemed to be the most sensitive (and, therefore, effective) way to conduct interviews for this project. Being sensitive and respectful to my interview subjects also, I hope, imparted confidence that I would be responsible with the tape I was getting.

    Did my course change in any big ways as I went from one person to the next? Interesting question. On reflection, I have to say no, it didn’t change, but that’s likely because my course was not particularly mapped-out. Although I did interview people in a strategic order, partly because I knew the answers I would get from one person would help shape a later interview.

    Did I agonize over the cuts, and have to sacrifice great tape to stay close to my arc? Yes! I got hours and hours of great tape from everybody you hear from, and many, many great moments were sacrificed on the cutting room floor. Most of it I left there before even going into the edit booth; the rest of it I held onto until it was clear that, for one reason or another, it just wasn’t going to work. But the reward of that agony is hearing that "the half hour just whizzes by." As much as I love some of the tape that didn’t make it, the streamlining was worth it in the end.

    Did I end up with what I imagined? Yes, and then some. I went into this project without 100% confidence that I could find as many people as I did, schedule time with all of them, ask them to talk candidly about my dad on tape, and meet my self-imposed end-of-2003 deadline. I knew that if I couldn’t get as much of that as I wanted, I could try to make up for it with my own voice, but I didn’t feel that would be as fun to listen to. So, I was thrilled to get so much great tape that it was hard to decide what to keep!

    What’s next for me? Honestly, I put so much work into this project, and have so much more AWESOME tape about my family and my dad, that I would love to parlay this half-hour radio piece into a bigger project that would support some of the great things I had to leave out. Listening to this kind of radio is one of my greatest pleasures, so I’m thrilled to have debuted this work as a half-hour radio documentary. But I would love the opportunity to turn it into something more. If anyone out there can help me with that, please give me a shout!

    I am also continuing to serve my community and local public radio station as a reporter/producer. I’m always looking for untold stories to tell, particularly among communities who aren’t always well-represented in the media. I hope to enhance my storytelling skills and put them to work in the newsroom. My fellow KUOW reporters help me with that; I’m grateful to work with such a generous and talented group.

    Thank you so much for your great questions and the chance to answer them.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.13.04

    Reply
    Karriem, a.k.a. "Doc"

    Karriem and I met when we were in college; he’s the first brother I ever knew. As you all heard in Sweet Phil, Karriem is the thoughtful and insightful son of the beautiful Ms. Maxine Salaam. Karriem also happens to be a physician with a wonderful family of his own.

    As Karriem very touchingly said on tape, now that we know each other, it’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t. And indeed, "you don’t have to be born and raised together to be a family. You can still be close, and you can still have meaningful relationships with good people." My relationship with Karriem is a testament to that.

    And in case y’all didn’t catch it, he’s pushing me to write a book. 😉 We’ll see! Keep on pushin’, bro!

    Thanks, Karriem, for contributing and for encouraging me. It means a lot.

    Love, P.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.14.04

    Reply
    support local theater

    First, a word about Kirk Anderson, author of message #21. Kirk is a writer, actor, and producer in Seattle. Last year he curated a performance cabaret series in town and invited me to contribute. His theater company is known for cross-genre work and taking successful risks. I took the opportunity to present a live reading of the 5-minute demo I cut for Sweet Phil. It was a great opportunity to get live audience feedback while the work was still in progress.

    Even if you "don’t like plays," you may find that there’s tons of stuff happening on stages in your area that you would actually really dig. For you producers out there, seeing what some of your theater colleagues are doing may inspire you to present some of your own work in a new way. And the best part is, lots of the best stuff you can see is only $5-10 a pop.

    Thanks, Kirk, for your kind words, and here’s to future collaborations. Cheers.

  • Eric D. Green

    1.15.04

    Reply
    The voice within the voice

    I can’t begin to explain how I feel about your piece on "Sweet Phil". Sometimes I listen to it over and over again and hope that his voice will replace mine when I hear it. When I hear me, I hear him and it’s very haunting at times. As strange as it may sound, you have helped me realize how much I miss that guy. Thank you for keeping his memory alive. Thank you for being such a wonderful Person. And most of all, thank you for being my Sister.

    Love,

    Eric

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.15.04

    Reply
    my beautiful brother

    How can I be anything but grateful for my dad’s life on this earth when he’s given me a brother as beautiful as Eric. You reading this probably recall that Eric is the haunting voice of our father, Sweet Phil himself. Eric personifies many of our dad’s most wonderful qualities in real life, including the dynamic comedic sensibilities of Richard Pryor, and the ass-kicking musical talent of any legendary conguero you could name. Eric is very kind and generous, and was very giving of his time and energy in the production of this piece. Thank you, Eric, for being a wonderful brother.

  • chelsea merz

    1.16.04

    Reply
    Comic book

    Hi Phyllis,

    Congratulations on producing a vibrant and wonderful story.

    I’m curious about your process. You wrote that you referred to the This American Life comic book in making your demo piece. What sort of revelations did you have from reading that and how much of what you read did you instinctively know? Also, were there moments when you surprised yourself in making production choices? If so, what were those moments? Where are they reflected in your piece? Or were there moments where you felt that you were over intellectualizing things? It seems a huge feat to take such auto-biographical material and keep it dynamic and interesting, so that’s why I’m bursting with questions about process.

    Many thanks.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    1.17.04

    Reply
    Radio: An Illustrated Guide

    Thanks, Chelsea, for your kind words and great questions.

    As a fan of This American Life, I had read Radio: An Illustrated Guide years ago, just to get the "how do they do that?" insight. At the time I was a listener and not a producer, but years of listening to public radio after checking out the comic book probably gave me some latent ideas that I can’t possibly attribute to instinct. Two things that come to mind are about editing: that weight can be added with a well-placed pause (p. 18), and that stopping your scoring music under someone’s words will shine a light on it (p. 23). That latter point is wonderfully illustrated in the comic book by Jessica Abel, as she draws Ira in a large blank square as he makes that explanation. Excellent!

    When I picked up my copy of the comic book in the pledge room and used it to make my demo, I used it primarily as a technical production manual. I followed the comic book’s instructions to buy the right cables, download a free version of CoolEdit (now Adobe Audition), and pipe the sound from a borrowed tape recorder into my laptop. I already knew the basics of digital sound editing from my volunteer job as a book narrator for the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library; the comic book gives good instruction in that area as well.

    Later, when I was taping interviews for the real deal, most of my technical guidance (equipment advice, mic placement) came from the on-the-job training I was getting from my colleagues at KUOW. But the comic book also has great tech tips.

    I’ve mentioned in earlier notes that my interview technique mostly consisted of asking people what they remembered and letting them do most of the talking. Since the material was highly sensitive, I felt it was important to make my questions fairly general and let people talk about what they wanted to talk about. I also used this technique out of necessity, since I really didn’t know a lot about my dad; I didn’t do a lot of pre-interviewing, and I was doing my primary research as the tape rolled. You could say that this was an instinct, since I don’t recall being advised to use this technique. But I would be willing to bet that it’s a common technique in documenting sensitive family stories. My family was very responsive to this interviewing style. I use different technique when I’m producing a news report, and I would guess that different types of stories can be better served by different techniques. And of course, the comic book gives great advice on interviewing.

    Did I ever surprise myself with my production choices? Wow, great question. I discuss in an earlier post the process of selecting music; many turns in that process were surprising to me. Sometimes I was surprised at how easy it was! In one case I was in a cafe telling a friend that I had just gotten the tape that I knew would be my opening, where my mom tells me that my dad wanted to train a dog to steal purses. I was thinking about music, and I suddenly realized that Been Caught Stealing opens with dogs barking. Perfect!

    An early version of my narration included some of the very few memories I have of my dad. I was surprised that these were the first things I cut when I realized I had too much material for half an hour. When they were gone, I was surprised at how much better the piece flowed without them.

    As far as over-intellectualizing things, yes, I was fearful of this. Autobiographical storytelling is one of my favorite kinds of art, but I recognize its many traps, of which over-intellectualizing is one. I found that for this story, cutting my own narration was the easiest way to avoid this particular trap. The reward of cutting my narration was the discovery of the versatility of music as an editorial device–another surprise! It allowed me to emotionally connect one event with another, or express my feelings without using words.

    I hope I’ve answered all your questions. Please feel free to ask more.

  • Ed Neely

    2.08.04

    Reply
    Fascinating and Moving Story

    I love the way this piece started out, as someone trying to connect with her father, and then built layer upon layer, more people and more stories, more information about Phil. Very well done. I began only half-listening as I was doing some other things, but then had to stop and just listen to the end. This is quite a compelling story, wonderfully revealed.

  • jimi

    3.20.04

    Reply
    That’s what I’m talking about

    How funny is it that on my annual peek in on the art honkems to make sure there is not a revolution afoot . . . a SISTER is telling a distinctly Black American story? Wow . . . what will they think of next?

    Yeah, a cookie for all the white folks out there trying to rub you on the head for not bringing up race . . .as if . . . but this is clearly a Black American experience–white boys aren’t slinging pipe that seriously to have a tale like this one told about them.

    Some Black men without other resources in this country use thier sex appeal as currency, a weapon, a vocation or a ticket to ride. That’s all good and all bad, but that’s the all of it. Seems like the only power we have that can’t be (easily) taken away.

    Anyhoo . . .

    I commend you for being able to come raw with yours . . . from such a personal place.

    Moving forward . . .

    On the production end: I found some of the edits jarring and disconcerting. The motion from narrator to subject one and subject two was like a fast paced video game—I was holding on for dear life. The background music could have been a scosh higher (or maybe my background as a MC/DJ gives me some bias . .. ups on The Nas, yo) but I felt like the narration was Courvosier . . . hot and tasty: smooth going down.

    On the verbage: Hotness. Pure hotness. Feeling it like crazy. Mad ups.

    On the downside . .wondering if we need another story about irresponsible black men feeding into a popular stereotype already prevalent in the zeitgeist. . . but on the real side? Your daddy sounds like 80% of my people’s daddy . . .
    including mine. So, as my Grandfather wouldv’e said—Whut Da hell? Can’t avoid telling a story just to be PC, right? Sometimes, it is what it is.

    Overall: I’m just overjoyed to see a sister putting it down instead of some musty hippie white chick in Doc Martins working on her PhD looking at us through a microscope. Or better yet, a Skip Gates-type look at a black American life, where he holds some poor black family close to his nose, turns them askew, and then takes a sniff, offering some profound academic prose about thier aroma as if they were dooky on a stick.

    Skip Gates—OY! . . . don’t get me started . . .

    But so glad you did this . . .just ecstatic . . . I can barely control myself . . . This is has really motivated me to stop talking and get in the studio with the lil bit of radio background I have. Two Big Thumbs, way, way the f*ck up.

    AYO—since you gonna be at UNITY, you make sure you hollatchaboy-boy, f’real.

    And you certainly are fine, honey . . . I’d drink a whole tub of your bathwater . . .

    Wait . .. your brother and your moms read this stuff don’t they?! Ooops. My bigs.

    What I MEANT to say was . . . damn fine showing. Damn fine. You need to do some stuff for Ira. Or Tavis. Or Terry. Somebody needs to snap you up.

    Keep up the good work.

    Holla back.

    the izza

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    4.25.04

    Reply
    Thank you, Jimi

    I replied to Jimi off the board when he originally posted; it occured to me only today that I should reply here too.

    I appreciate Jimi’s concern about the "irresponsible black man" story. Every good reporter, I believe, is extremely wary of contributing to a stereotype rather than telling a story. More than anything else, I didn’t want to offend my family and other people who were close to my dad.

    My dad was irresponsible, and he was a lot of other things. I wanted all of those facets of his personality to come forward in this piece. He was resourceful, smart, talented, funny, charming, and a good writer. He was also sad, angry, and scary. He was a complex person. My hope was to portray the person, and not the stereotype. I think my brother’s characterization of our dad made him very human and real.

    And that’s why I consulted my family: to get out of my own head, and to get away from conclusions one could easily make about my dad if all they knew were the highlights and lowlights, and to tap into the memories and oral history of what he was really like. I figured if I could do that well, I would tell a compelling story, and a fair story. I hope I have succeeded. The fact that it rings true with many, many other folks who’ve heard it gives me hope.

    I feel Jimi’s frustration with the portrayal of brown people on public radio. Public radio reporters are dedicated, hard-working, and intelligent. Some are multi-lingual and go to great lengths to seek out and report on people of color. However, as long as white people are telling the stories of people of color to other white people, some problems will need to be overcome. The people whose stories are being told are going to hear the story differently than the NPR majority audience. Sometimes that difference isn’t always bad, but sometimes it is, and it can be offensive. It’s something I strive to be aware of when I report on cultures other than my own. It’s a difficult job, and it’s very humbling to say to yourself, "you know, maybe if I were [Latino|Chinese|African] I would know how to tell this story better."

    That’s why Next Generation Radio is so important. The NPR initiative to bring young, diverse reporters into the public radio world deserves way more attention than the awkward announcement of Bob Edwards’ re-assignment. Heck, with the continuation and expansion of the NGR initiative, the next Bob Edwards could be someone who sounds a lot more like my dad! Well, maybe not quite like him. . . but it could be someone (or someones) who makes people of color feel even more at home in the public radio audience.

    Thank you, Jimi, for your insights and input. And my mom appreciates the truth in your turns of phrase!

  • Michael Lettera

    3.14.12

    Reply

    I just listened to this piece AGAIN on the train into work. I can’t say enough good things about it. I am sure I will listen to it again and again.

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