Toward the end of the workshop, I was sitting in the dark listening to Cathy FitzGerald spin her radio spell when I finally felt the magic that I had been seeking — and felt it viscerally. “Often, the thing that is missing is a pinch of strangeness, something that makes the world a little bit weird,” she told us.
But I didn’t quite know all that in the beginning. I was bummed when my first story didn’t land. It was about a roller-skating wiz. A few years ago, my main character took over a rink off Cape. With it he created a retro Neverland: a place of perpetual motion, without a single clock on the wall. The place had lots of flamboyant ingredients: a silver-haired spitfire of a main character; organ music and sequin skirts; a DJ named Skeeter; bright blue slushies. But our interview was cut short. My subject was tired. I excused myself. I didn’t get the tape I wanted. I went back a few times, I got a few more blisters. But when it came to the writing, I was totally stuck. The making of the piece felt serious and cumbersome and contrived. The external stress of This Must Be Good weighed heavily. The content was playful, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t feeling it.
It was then that my pal Jessica so wisely pointed out that our radio careers didn’t hinge upon these stories — or these nine weeks. In fact, Transom is the beginning of something much longer. And you have to start somewhere. The great thing about Transom? You always get the chance to start again.
So, when Ira Glass showed up, I pitched him a Magic School Bus-esque journey through the body — rife tick slurps, bass beats, bombs, and all. I wanted to make something visceral. Something creepy-crawly. A fresh perspective on a well-known issue. I wanted to make a science story because I had no idea, really, where to begin (ninth grade biology was a long time ago). For this piece, I had to translate a lot of science speak into radio writing, all the while endeavoring to give the piece an absurd twist. For the first time in my life, my interviews felt playful. Though the topic was a serious one, my interviewees were good-natured enough to go there with me. I think, in part, because I really wanted to be a student, because I wanted to create magic in the encounter, and because I wanted to have fun.
Here’s my big Transom takeaway: you have to know the rules so you know how to break them. And sometimes, breaking rules is fun, right? You’ve got to be willing to play, to be wrong, to sometimes get strange. The grief and doubt in the process? That’s normal, too. And some of the best radio: it makes you look at your speakers. You can feel it in your body. Why? Sound physically touches us. Hearing is our first sense in the womb, and is thought to be our last active sense when we die. There is no soundless place. The Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the most desolate places in the world, is all but quiet; its sonic environment is comprised of raging windstorms, the scuttling of insects. Including ticks.
The important thing is to always keep making and to keep stoking your wonder. You’ve got to keep alive your willingness to be surprised, to embrace the frustration, to accept the pivot. I do believe all of this is right up there with remembering Rule #1: turn on the recorder.
Robin’s Sonic ID
This sonic came from the seat of my bike. I was headed down the Woods Hole bike path when I spotted a woman wearing a bedazzled eye patch walking a dog in a sweater. I hopped off and introduced myself to Donna, and we began talking about this funny little place that is Woods Hole — a place that, in a lot of ways, feels like the edge of the world.