Intro from Jay Allison: [Update 2017] Editors John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth just released the Second Edition of their book, “Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound”, adding a lot more voices to the collection (which includes several edited Transom Manifestos). Here is my revised afterword to the book, and we encourage you to go get yourself a copy of the latest edition.
*The Afterword to the book, Reality Radio
When I was small, I was quiet. Not shy exactly, but not someone with a radio future either. My father, on the other hand, was a wonderful talker. A big man with a big personality, he was full of funny stuff and everyone enjoyed him, including me. There was no sense in trying to match his affable, amplified self. Instead, I watched and listened: A happy audience.
Growing up, my sisters and I were sheltered in the sense that my family spent time with other families like us. I suppose many families tend to keep to their own kind, unless compelled to do otherwise, but we didn’t branch out much, or actively learn about different cultures, classes, or races. As a kid, it hardly occurred to me that there were other worlds out there, entirely other ways of thinking and being.
My school, too, was homogenous, divided only by the customary cliques. I did not run with any particular crowd, standing at ease on the outside, observing. Not talking much.
Being unidentified with others kept me, in a way, unidentified to myself. I think of it this way: I was a stranger to my own voice.
Some evenings, my father would get out the old Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder to make a family “broadcast.” He would perform the role of Master of Ceremonies and we children were invited to get in on the act as interviewees. The host was charming, the guests less so. I have old tapes of my giggles as my father introduced me, with continued giggles in response to every question. As I grew older, the recorded evidence proves that my stories remained inarticulate about the world or even my own life. I had nothing to say. I remember staring at the recording meter, an amber florescent eye blinking with each of my content-free utterances, a silent opening and closing, a measure of emptiness.
What stories did I have to tell? What voice would I use to tell them?
These questions persist fifty years later, after a career dedicated to answering them.
What’s so important about stories? The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Stories define each of us. They have the power to divide or connect us as individuals and communities.
The earliest stories were told out loud. When we tell stories on the radio, we tap into a primitive and powerful human tradition, even an imperative, to speak and be heard, to compel listening.
Listen. What can you hear right now? How many sounds or voices? You may have tuned them out while you were reading, but you were receiving them. We are open and vulnerable to sound. A voice can sneak in, bypass the brain, and touch the heart. We are equally susceptible to the shout and the whisper, the threat and the plea. Voice contains breath and lives in time. So does radio.
For evidence of sound’s primal power, I defer to Walter Murch, the godfather of film sound designers, writing on Transom.org. (We’ll get to Transom later, but in brief, it’s a web site dedicated to public radio storytelling, and I’ll be quoting some of our guests):
Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four-and-a-half months after we are conceived. And for the rest of our time in the womb — another four-and-a-half months — we are pickled in a rich brine of sound that permeates and nourishes our developing consciousness: the intimate and varied pulses of our mother’s heart and breath; her song and voice; the low rumbling and sudden flights of her intestinal trumpeting; the sudden, mysterious, alluring or frightening fragments of the outside world — all of these swirl ceaselessly around the womb-bound child, with no competition from dormant Sight, Smell, Taste or Touch.
Birth wakens those four sleepyhead senses and they scramble for the child’s attention — a race ultimately won by the darting and powerfully insistent Sight — but there is no getting around the fact that Sound was there before any of them, already waiting in the womb’s darkness as consciousness emerged, and was its tender midwife.
So although our mature consciousness may be betrothed to sight, it was suckled by sound, and if we are looking for the source of sound’s ability — in all its forms — to move us more deeply than the other senses and occasionally give us a mysterious feeling of connectedness to the universe, this primal intimacy is a good place to begin.
Convinced? It’s a little frightening, isn’t it, to imagine that we are fooling around with such power? Yet most of what we hear on the radio does not wield it. If Murch has described a sonic theatre of the air, the curtain is down.
In the mid-1970s, I had ended up in Washington, D.C., living in a friend’s basement, which I shared with his dog. A few years before, I’d switched my college major from engineering to theatre, with all the other changes that would imply.
The 60s and early 70s were fueled by a manic idealism and belief in the possibility of change and that young people could spearhead that change. After school, I’d pursued that idea through theatre, joining the experimental theatre movement of the day, reading Grotowski, directing Brecht in storefronts, studying with children’s theaters in the Soviet Union.
But the gas ran out. How do you make theatrical representations of life when you know so little of it? After a sheltered youth and education, what was banked in the Life Experience Department? When I directed actors, what authority did I have to guide them? What stories did I know?
In a quandary, I pretty much dropped out during the time of basement living, until one evening a guy named Keith Talbot came over for dinner and told us about a new enterprise that had just started up down on M Street: National Public Radio. Keith was their quasi artist-in-residence, taking reel-to-reel recorders out into the field and creating Radio Experiences. This had a comforting theatrical ring to it, but it was connected to reality, to the world. I liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of the mission statement, too, penned by Bill Siemering.
National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.
… The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.
In fact, this language was addictive to a hopeful young idealist searching for purpose and identity. Organizations should be careful when they write their mission statements, because good ones will attract zealots and they’re tough to get rid of. They don’t like having their dreams betrayed by pragmatists. They want the mission honored because they’ve pinned their own life’s meaning upon it. As the writer and radio maker/critic Sarah Vowell posted on Transom,
I still believe in public radio’s potential. Because it’s the one mass medium that’s still crafted almost entirely by true believers.
Keith loaned me one of NPR’s Sony 800B recorders and enough five-inch reels of audio tape to get started. NPR had no security system in those days. There was a street-level entrance near the elevators on M Street, and I just walked in every day, grabbed supplies, asked for advice from the engineers and producers, found an empty edit booth, and went to work. No one particularly cared or even knew that I wasn’t employed there. The more the merrier. The enterprise was inventing itself, as was I.
For years after that, I traveled all over, emerging from a sheltered past, encountering every kind of person I could. Carrying the passport of a microphone, I had permission to ask questions about anything. I could satisfy any curiosity and hear about unfamiliar lives. Afterward, with razor blades and multiple tape recorders, I cut and mixed the voices and sounds and brought some of the “infinitely varied” stories to air.
Theatrical training was useful. Radio is, after all, a performance art, its stories told in time, complete with scene, character, and conflict, needing rhythm, pacing, climax to hold interest. There was no established NPR style yet, so inventiveness was the order of the day. Lots of highs, lots of lows. Many voices. For my part, I was discovering my own voice by listening to the voices of others and passing them on.
Ever since then, I’ve been trying to repay that original loan of a tape recorder, to infect others with enthusiasm for the mission of public radio, and to create street level entrances. I want to extend the same invitation that was extended to me.
“You hear stuff you haven’t heard before, from a stranger or from someone you know, and you think, ‘Yeah, I am connected.’ I think that’s the goal, the responsibility, the challenge of public radio.”
“What would your ideal radio day be?”
“I’d want the human voice expressing grievances, or delight, or whatever it might be. But something real.”
That’s Studs Terkel in conversation on Transom. For many of us, Studs represents the ideal of listening. He is interested in everyone. He is a story-gatherer, a populist, a curious mind, an educator, and a theatrical presence — all qualities that feed the mission of public radio.
Public radio began life as primarily an “educational” enterprise. Many early licensees were universities, and programming was often that deemed Good For You. As we moved into news, we provided an “alternative” service, partly out of necessity — there wasn’t enough money (or listenership) to be anything else! As other radio networks abandoned serious news, public radio eventually became the primary news source for millions of Americans. No longer an alternative, its original broadly educational imperative, and even portions of its mission are often only echoes.
Yet public radio depends on the passion of its listeners. What other enterprise, besides church, depends for its survival on users paying for what they can get for free? News on public radio is vital to many, but the passion arises from a different source. Bill Siemering again on Transom:
Radio is a companion that makes the everyday elegant, like a Shaker chair or carved wooden spoons. It’s with you when you’re making breakfast, nursing the baby, fixing the car, sewing, or driving (even a tractor). Radio is personal, for both the producer and listener. This is why it has such power and why we feel so passionate about it. Hearing a voice alone gives radio an intimacy unmatched by any other medium. And because public radio is non-commercial we establish a bond with our listeners through our art.
From Transom, the writer and radio aficionado, John Hodgman:
Where television luridly reveals everything, radio is coy; radio conceals its sources. It is a voice behind a curtain, and you must provide the face. Or, if you do not keep your radio behind a curtain, as I do, you can imagine it as voices in the next room. This is what makes radio so powerfully consoling to the lonely — it creates the illusion of company in a way that few other media can. Public radio is particularly adept at creating this illusion of companionship . . . because of the close and uncanny naturalness of its voices.
We are blind listening to the radio. Our imaginations are in play. We create the characters, envision the settings. Images are indelible because we participate in their creation.
Listening to the radio is listening to a person. Radio stations or networks are like people. They have personalities. That’s what, as a listener, you are responding to — sensibility, tone, personality. Here is Cape Cod artist, Dennis Downey, on Transom for the anniversary of Marconi’s first Trans-Atlantic transmission from Cape Cod.
Even if the distance is very far, or…if the story told is very large, you talk like you’re talking to one person at a time…Radio goes out in all directions within a circle, to be heard, altogether at once… But the words fall from the sky and into the ears of always, one person at a time.
Ten years after starting in radio in Washington, I had ended up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There was no public radio up here on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, and I began to dream of a radio station with a personality, not just of one person, but a whole community — one that built on the broad mission of public radio and sounded like a place, built from the voices of the people who lived there.
It took about ten years of grassroots work to do it, a struggle I’d not recommend to any but the fanatical, but we finally ended up with our own Cape and Islands public radio station, WCAI. Our service was adopted by WGBH in Boston who shared our commitment to serve the local community. We carry the usual NPR fare, and have a small but strong local news service, but we also have something called “Sonic IDs,” an inside working title that stuck.
These are thirty- to ninety-second fragments of life here, each one ending with the station call letters — stories, memories, oral histories, overheard conversations, jokes, poems, mini-documentaries — all told by our neighbors. In fact, that’s the word that describes the station at its best: neighborly. Of course, we don’t all know each other, but we have one thing in common: This place.
Our Sonic IDs come on randomly, amid the news of the day. Suddenly, following a news report, someone begins telling you about their grandfather trying to get a cow on a sailboat, or a homeless woman talks of finding places to sleep in a resort community, or a kid recites a little poem — and the effect is uncanny. You feel your local life moving in parallel with the life of the world. It’s almost as if there’s been a mistake, something unplanned, that an actual person — your neighbor — jumped up and commandeered the electronics. In that instant, there’s a moment that’s real, unexpectedly, and a connection is made. The measure of success is this: when one of these little stories comes on, you turn and look at the radio.
There is also hope in these stories, even a utopian hope for more empathy and harmony. A community is like the world. We share the space, but we don’t necessarily know each other. Here, like everywhere, we are parochial, often distrustful. People from one island tend to think they’re generally superior to people from the other island. But if you’re from Nantucket, and you hear a good story from a fisherman, say, and you like the guy telling it and laugh with him, and then discover at the end that he’s from Martha’s Vineyard, you may have to adjust your world view. There is great power in shared stories, in these seacoast towns and around the world, and in the invitation to share them.
Along with Sonic IDs, we constantly experiment with other ways to ask listeners to become the content of the station. We loan out tape recorders, keep a listener line for stories, and generally invite people to bring their voices to the air. One person who took us up was Carol Wasserman:
Imagine that you are a young woman who has made several unfortunate choices, and finds herself alone with her child on the hardscrabble coast of Massachusetts. Without a clue what to do next.
You will take a succession of meaningless jobs, for little money. State law requires an employer to provide health insurance to those who work twenty hours a week. You will be hired to work nineteen. You will spend your life providing the Department of Transitional Assistance with photocopies of your pitiful bank statement and your electricity bills and, frequently, copies of your medical records. So that anyone might answer for themselves the question which you have asked yourself over and over and over, namely: ‘What is WRONG with you?’
There is nothing wrong with you, but you don’t know that yet. You spend your evenings with the radio on, listening to the voices in the darkness. You spend your days in a factory, counting things into piles of ten as they pass in front of you on a conveyor belt. But when you get home, public radio is there to tell you what happened while you were gone.
This is where the invitation came in. Carol brought a typed essay to the station — a lovely one — about the hard life in a resort town after Labor Day. We produced it, and many more from her in the coming years. She became a regular on All Things Considered nationally, and listening to her own voice coming over the radio she was, as she said, amazed at the woman she had become.
But all you have become is part of the achingly important institution of public radio. Which pulled you from deep water and into the boat. Which gave you a voice, and surprised you with the news that there is nothing wrong with you at all, except that you had not yet told your stories.
Not yet learned to accept the invitation which public radio has always extended to all of us. To listen. And, if we will, speak up.
When the radio station first signed on, the transmitter was switched and silence cleaned out the static, and the first word to emerge from the silence was, “Listen.”
At Atlantic Public Media, the founding organization for WCAI, we pursue all kinds of ways to extend the mission of public radio by opening the door to citizen participation.
Through series like The Sonic Memorial Project and Hidden Kitchens (collaborations with The Kitchen Sisters) we’ve called out to listeners to contribute, to send us the sounds and stories they hold precious. Our first project like that, Lost & Found Sound, made it clear that sonic artifacts carry a special kind of power. People sent sounds that brought the past alive for them — clinking milk bottles, porch door slams, trolley cars. And they sent us the voices of their loved ones who had passed away, often with a note like “it’s all I have left,” as if the voice was something actual, a vestige, with a kind of ghostly energy. People don’t have this kind of relationship with photographs. Those can be kept at arm’s length. Voices go inside. In hearing your mother’s voice, she becomes, in a way, my mother, and I am drawn back to my own history and outward into yours. Each listener’s sonic artifact triggered response from other listeners, who sent in their old audio, and a kind of community memory was built.
Our next listener-generated series on NPR, This I Believe, asked listeners to share something even more intimate, their fundamental convictions. More than 100,000 essays were sent in. It was a non-homogenous group, to say the least, from all over the world and represented an astonishing spectrum of belief. At its root, this series was about listening. There was no opportunity for rebuttal or argument. The only response was to write one of your own, to contribute your own voice to the commons. One of our essayists, Ted Gup, said:
If you take all the essays in the aggregate, what you have is sort of a national anthem. That’s the beauty of it: You have a multiplicity of voices and it’s a celebration of that multiplicity.
It’s the many strains of that anthem I long to hear on public radio. At APM, our invitation to sing along extends to the Internet.
In the 1980s, I frequented something called The WELL, an early experiment in online community started by the people at Whole Earth in San Francisco. The phone bill to log on with my 300-baud modem from Woods Hole, Massachusetts was staggering. But it felt like time traveling to the future, and in a way, it was. I hosted the radio forum on the WELL, but when my eldest daughter got caught up in a bad medical situation, I turned to the WELL for support. This was an unheard of phenomenon at the time — seeking community with virtual strangers. Most people hadn’t even heard of “email” and the Web, as such, didn’t exist, but pioneering outposts like the WELL proved that this way of connecting was real. I felt like public radio could learn from it. Radio, after all, is disembodied communication among strangers.
Whole Earth has as its credo, “Access to tools, ideas, and practice.” Those are the principles on which we founded Transom.org. And to that list, we add “mission.” Transom tells you what microphone to buy and how to use it, but more than that, we try to pass the baton, to attract a new generation of zealots, bred on the Internet, to bring their talents to public radio. Remarkable guests present manifestos and answer questions. We feature new work from new people. Our premise is that if we don’t attract passionate talent, we wither. Creative people are generally drawn not by money, but by a community of welcoming peers, the chance to do the work they care about, and an appreciative audience. The people we want to guide us into the future need to value our roots in public service, but also know the ways to penetrate public consciousness in a new era of information delivery.
From Transom.org sprang PRX.org, the Public Radio Exchange. This concept began in a Transom article I subversively titled, “The Interested Stations Group,” implying that any public radio station not part of this group was “uninterested.” The idea was to create an Internet repository on the then-emerging internet for the voices we weren’t hearing. Stations could browse the stacks and place this work in time slots saved for adventure and risk. Citizens could have direct access to local markets where their stories would be heard. A new category of employee would emerge, the PRX Jockey, who would act as the listener’s agent, finding the best stuff for each community’s audience. We would put the public back in public radio.
In collaboration with the Station Resource Group, we actually built the thing. The site has grown over the years and had become an amazing tool employed in all sorts of creative ways by the PRX staff, producers, stations, and the populace. It is open to all, welcomes peer review, and houses the largest body of critical writing on radio in existence. It has spawned Radiotopia, the first podcasting collective; Matter, the public media incubator; and most recently, RadioPublic. The fact is, thousands of individual voices are now on PRX platforms, speaking in their own styles, pushing edges freely, available to any station or listener that is, well… interested.
Which brings me to The Moth. Working on The Moth Radio Hour represents, in many ways, an apotheosis of these invitational ideals: to champion the power of story, and to open the door to all, so that we may hear the greatest possible range of human experience. At The Moth stories are authentic and true, told in the voices of those who lived them. Many are curated and crafted by The Moth staff, so that they represent the best from each teller.
The Moth is sublime in its simplicity, but the effect is potent. A single teller shares experience with an actual and virtual audience… and everyone is changed. The stories introduce listeners to new worlds, and often overcome prior judgments by establishing unexpected human connection. This is particularly true in audio where the prejudicial eye is not involved.
I’d venture to say The Moth has advanced the art of personal storytelling more than any other contemporary organization. Millions hear the radio program and podcast. Live shows sell out all over this country and around the world. The outreach and school programs are transformative. The audiences are young and old. Long may its stories abide.
The world is a noisy place; every day it gets noisier with content. How do you choose what to hear? Do you want what is familiar, something comforting in the chaos? Or do you want something surprising to wake you up? Here is the writer, Rick Moody, posting on Transom:
While I admire what public radio is and has been trying to do for twenty-five years or more, I find that I have also come to disbelieve it somehow, for the simple reason that I cannot believe that all of human life and psychology, all of human events, all of human history (not to mention the lives and environment of our animal friends), can always be rendered in exactly the same way. Suddenly, a medium that I love, that is, because I love thinking with my ears, begins to seem deeply suspect to me.
At Transom, WCAI, PRX and The Moth, we are looking for new voices and new ways of telling. We hope to embrace a greater range of style; we don’t impose an expectation of how someone should sound or how a story should be told. We explore the boundaries and talk about what makes the cut in public radio and what doesn’t, and, more importantly, why. From Transom, the editor and host of On the Media, Brooke Gladstone:
Here’s what I like about most public radio news magazines. The reporting is solid, the subjects are important and relevant, and the level of discourse is high. The audience is respected. These are the keys to public radio’s success. While more and more news outlets slice up consistently smaller pieces of the audience pie, public radio consistently gains listeners, so it’s doing something right.
Here, in my humble opinion, is what’s wrong: As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seek to balance the four humors (so as not to be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic or melancholy) by blood-letting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.
On public radio we need to hear the news, investigative journalism, solid reporting, no one questions that. But the more we regularize our sound in the name of reliability, the more we lull our audience. Any break from established style begins to seem jarring, not exciting.
You generally listen to two kinds of stories: Those you need to hear and those you want to hear. Radio news generally assumes the information is something you need. The other kind of story is more mysterious. It may be something you want to hear, but don’t know you want to hear. It is not predictable, searchable. It is accidental, having a quality of ambush. It is one person speaking to another, and falls outside the realm of perceived need. One champion of the individual voice is the reporter Robert Krulwich, speaking here at Third Coast International Audio Festival to an audience of producers and reporters.
Even if you’re working in an organization which doesn’t want you to be personal, which wants you to sound like the others, the secret thing you do is you sound sort of like the others, but you put in a little bit of your heart somewhere in there . . . just a little. And if it’s there, it’s like a marker. It’s the IOU to your soul. And sometimes they let you sing loudly. And sometimes you have to sing soft. But you keep singing. You never ever stop.
That sounds like a rallying cry to presage the podcasting boom. People want to sing, and not just softly or a little bit. Many podcast producers were incubated in public media and care about the innovations in long-form storytelling that were nurtured there — and they believe audiences still care too. It’s proving to be true. Human beings crave stories told with passion and grace, arising from the soul of another.
There may be something odd about those who want to tell stories on the radio and on podcasts. What sort of person wants to whisper in your ear from far away? What sort wants to be intimate, while remaining utterly detached, even disembodied? Who is drawn to sending an invisible voice through the invisible air in all directions to everyone?
The fact that we are odd is significant, because it can be used to resist the regularization that happens in every bureaucracy and organization. Oddness is what constitutes individuality.
When I was small I was quiet, but that didn’t take away the wish to participate.
As for my own voice, some days, I recognize it as authentic. But it feels amplified when it is joined by the voices of others. It is in wielding the strange power of sound and trying to honor Studs Terkel’s plea for “something real” — that I feel most myself.
When we use the “professional” voice to tell the stories of others, something may be gained in consistency of style, efficiency, and journalistic credibility, but something is lost too. When we let the other voices speak for themselves, we hear stories as astonishing as the world itself. We can certainly find ways to include more of all our voices in the conversation, just to remind us that we’re all here and that we’re neighbors.
Public radio will be as inclusive and representative as we demand it to be. Its anthem will be sung by as many as will join the chorus. And if public media does not take up the song, individuals will. The sound will be as powerful as we make it — not as professionals, but as citizens who view the public conversation as a collective opportunity and a responsibility, who remember that the invitation is always there, “To listen. And if we will, speak up.”
This essay is the Afterword to “Reality Radio, Second Edition: Telling True Stories in Sound” edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth. On PRX there is companion radio hour to the book, featuring Ira Glass, The Kitchen Sisters, and Jay Allison.