Local Radio, Local Food

Intro from Jay Allison: It’s no secret that the current system of national programming delivered by interconnected public radio stations is under threat. Stations are now too easy to bypass via the web and other delivery systems.

Increasingly, every individual station must ask: "What do we add?" Any minute now (already?) local terrestrial broadcast of national programming will not suffice. We’ll need to bring more to the table.

The obvious added value of any station? Localness. We are on the ground. We live here. In many cases, we may be the only truly local media outlet in our communities.

Localness gives us a key to sustainability and good health. The same could be said for food.

Some years ago, when The Kitchen Sisters and I began the Hidden Kitchen project and we listened to all the callers on our hotline tell stories about the importance of kitchens in their lives, it became clear how connected people are through place and food. Growing, cooking and eating together may be the very foundation of community…. that, and telling stories to each other.

Local radio and local food are a good match. Certainly other stations have explored the bond between food and radio. We at WCAI are doing it with The Local Food Report. We met Elspeth Hay at a radio station “Pub Night” (WCAI host evenings at pubs all over Cape Cod and the Islands. We supply the food and people buy their own drinks). Elspeth was writing a daily blog about local food called Diary of a Locavore and was fresh from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she studied with one of Transom’s patron saints, Bill McKibben, who has also traveled the food road between writing and radio, and testified about it here.

Elspeth’s writing is solid. She’s young, lively, committed to her subject and she’s both knowledgeable and curious. We had a ready-made partnership with her blog, so we both reached new audiences.

(By the way, Elspeth was then Elspeth Pierson and is now Elspeth Hay, having recently married a local fishmonger, Alex Hay, one of the brothers who runs the remarkable Mac’s Seafood in Wellfleet.)

Elspeth’s voice is not one you’d immediately associate with traditional broadcast—it’s not resonant, mature and authoritative--but I’ve always felt it’s a wise move for public radio to abandon pre-conceived notions of the ideal broadcast tone and include all sorts of voices. That said, she’s working all the time on her delivery; finding ways to communicate her natural enthusiasm with both clarity and energy.

Her stories range through planting, harvesting, buying and selling, beekeeping, foraging, fishing and on and on. You can find the full list here. The subject is full of stories. It lends itself to radio. Listeners take part and make suggestions. Coverage leads to positive changes for our community. Our stories tie to a larger movement. What more can you ask for?

Oh yeah, the Local Food Report began with funds from my Open Studio Project with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Now it’s self-sustaining, with support from the community.

“The Local Food Report” radio series

About WCAI’s Local Food Report with Elspeth Hay

When I approached Jay Allison and Viki Merrick about doing a radio show on local food, I had never held radio gear. I had no idea what ProTools was, or mixing, or levels, or fades. I knew that I was passionate about local food and encouraging people to connect to place and community through the meals on their tables, and I knew that I loved to write. Somehow, it did not occur to me that radio would be any different.

Elspeth Hay photo
Elspeth Hay interviews Mr. Bartlett

My beginning lessons were in recording. The first time I brought in audio from the farmers’ market Jay told me that it sounded like I was standing several states too far away. I understood what he meant—instead of just one farmer’s voice, I got the noises of every passing car, the slightest rustle of a shopping bag. Uncomfortable at first, I inched my mic closer and closer. I began to get over being shy about noises and feeling like I was invading people’s space, and I found that the more comfortable I got with my gear, the less anyone else seemed to notice it.

In fact, the hard part turned out not to be recording everyone else, but recording myself. When I listen to the first few shows, I cringe. Do I really talk that high, and so monotone? I’ve had to work a lot with Viki in the recording studio. She tries to get me to lower my voice, but keep my energy up—a balance that for me, requires constant thought. One day, I came in wearing corduroys and square-toed boots, and we discovered that with my hands through the belt-loops, I could almost channel John Wayne. I try to wear my corduroys every time I record my narration. I’ve also had to learn how to vary the way I read my sentences. I tend to read every phrase the same way, with my voice starting low and rising up and falling again at the end. Viki has me read each sentence a different way, changing my inflection several times before moving on, and it always surprises me later which ones I like best—often not what felt natural to me.

I’ve also had to work on my writing. I had assumed, having majored in writing, that this would be the easy part. But I’ve discovered that writing for radio is different than writing for print; I’ve had a hard time toning down the style and formality of my usual essays for the ear. I’ve ended up resorting to writing radio scripts from the more relaxed screen of my blog and copying them later to Word documents. Somehow, switching screens changes my frame of mind.

When we first started the show, everyone’s biggest worry was that there wouldn’t be enough material to carry us through the winter months. Happily, that is becoming more and more impossible every year. The local food movement has exploded on the Cape since we began. When we started the show there were summer farmers’ markets only; this year, winter markets opened in Plymouth and Marstons Mills. There is a growing coalition of young farmers, and more and more people focusing on the fringe foods—things like meat and grains and beans and dairy that have been so hard to get locally. The notebook I keep taped up with newspaper clippings and emails and notes scribbled down from farmers’ markets and meetings gets fatter every day.

With each show, it’s exciting to see new local food connections spring up. After a show on a young college student learning to raise grass-fed chickens in hopes of reviving his family’s Truro farm, I got three emails from people well-connected in the local food world wanting to help get him off the ground. After a show on a woman who inherited an orchard—and with it the dream of someone she’d never met—we got an email from a local book group wanting to invite her to join them. They were reading The Orchard by Adele Robertson, a story about another woman’s struggle to save her family apple trees, and they wanted to hear the perspective of someone who’d done it herself. Both sides left thrilled.

Connections like these are a good reminder that it’s the local nature of the show that makes it work. I love that we can do a show on a certain kind of lettuce or tomato sold by only one vendor, and that listeners can seek it out at the farmers’ market next week. The show may be part of a national movement, but it’s the local stories that bring it home.

The Local Food Report

The Local Food Report logo
The Local Food Report

Below are five pieces from WCAI’s “The Local Food Report” with Elspeth Hay and produced by our own Jay Allison and Viki Merrick at Atlantic Public Media. Elspeth is constantly exploring to find out what’s good, what’s growing and what to do with it. To hear more pieces from “The Local Food Report” go here.

Download
Listen to “Shy Brothers’ Cheese”
The Shy Brothers

The Shy Brothers

Elspeth reports from the farmer’s market in Provincetown where she finds out about Shy Brothers’ Cheese.

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Listen to “Clam Bake”
Clam Bake
Clam Bake

Elspeth talks with folklorist Kathy Neustadt, author of the book Clambake, about the end of summer feasting ritual–and what it means to the community of Westport.

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Listen to “Filleting”
Filleting
Filleting

Elspeth learns how to fillet a whole haddock. Her teacher is also her fiance, fishmonger Alex Hay of Mac’s Seafood in Truro, Eastham, and Wellfleet.

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Listen to “Truffles”
Truffles
Truffles

Elspeth brings home a story on tracking down white truffles on her honeymoon in Italy.

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Listen to “Seed Ordering”
Seed Ordering
Seed Ordering

Elspeth talks with Master Gardener Celeste Makely of Wellfleet about the best seed varieties to order for this year’s summer garden.


Additional support for this work provided by

Open Studio Project

with funding from the

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Elspeth Hay

About
Elspeth Hay

Elspeth Hay works with local food in a variety of mediums. In addition to working on the Local Food Report, she also writes a blog about eating locally — Diary of a Locavore — and several newspaper and magazine columns. In the summers, she helps manage the front of house at a Truro restaurant that works with farms and fishermen all over the Cape to serve fresh, local food. She lives in Wellfleet with her husband, Alex, who makes his living selling Cape Cod seafood, and their black lab, Fisher.

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  • Sydney Lewis

    3.21.10

    Reply
    food & place

    Hey Elspeth,

    Thanks for sharing so much about your learning curve and struggles with voice, both written and spoken.

    I listened to Shy Brothers and then Clambake and laughed at how different your voice is in each.

    One of the things I really like in your show are the spontaneous moments when you’re tasting, doing, totally in the moment — you filleting the fish is priceless.

    Also appreciate, as you did in the clambake piece, when you move our attention out from the plate to the table and beyond.

    When you go to record how do you prepare? I’m sure you have questions in mind, but so often the exchanges feel very spontaneous.

    Do you regularly get suggestions from listeners?

    Do you ever have to pass up good stories because they’re deemed not local enough? Is the listening range the local boundary?

    Thanks! Syd

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