It Was 20 Years Ago Today…

Posted on: January 16th, 2011 by admin 3 Comments

…that I stopped listening to NPR.

Oddly, this happened at the very moment my work as a freelancer—reporting on arts and culture for NPR—was starting to take off. And before long I was a full-time correspondent at NPR in DC. But my days as a regular listener ended on January 16, 1991. On that evening, America and its allies started bombing Baghdad, and NPR turned into One Thing Considered.

This was something new. The Persian Gulf War was NPR’s moment to prove itself as it emerged from the media fringe and became a primary source of news. People would tell me occasionally NPR was their only source of news. I’d answer that I was scared for them and that they should please consider reading a newspaper!

The most worrisome aspect of the war coverage 20 years ago was its enthusiastic tone. Listeners would complain that NPR was not giving air time to dissenting voices. The official response from Ellen Weiss, then the executive producer of All Things Considered, was that research showed NPR listeners supported the war.

This was astonishing—an admission that at least one news executive there believed NPR’s role was to reflect public opinion. I was looking for a news organization to report what exists, no matter how we feel about it.

So that I could listen to the BBC, I went to Radio Shack and bought my first and only shortwave receiver. I still have it (pictured). The BBC’s coverage was noticeably more neutral than NPR’s.

P.S.: Now that the BBC streams its services online, I listen primarily to Radio 3 and Radio 4. When I’m home. I’m eagerly waiting for the next generation of cell networks to turn smartphones into the portable transistor radios of my youth.

P.P.S.: Ellen Weiss eventually rose to the position of Senior VP for News. She resigned ten days ago as a result of the Juan Williams firing.

How to Sound Like Yourself on the Radio

Posted on: December 8th, 2010 by admin No Comments

I think about this question all the time, mostly because I am allergic to the sound of people reading. And that’s what you usually get when you turn on the radio.

This matters to me so much that I spent a lot of time—a crazy amount of time—trying to get The Next Big Thing contributors to sound like themselves. To that end I developed what came to be known as the Method (h/t Lee Strasberg).

I’m grateful I had a chance to demonstrate the Method in front of a live audience this past October at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year.

The panel was called The Script Disappears (audio here). Jane Feltes (of This American Life) and I demonstrated contrasting ways to coach reporters in the delivery of their scripts. Conference-goers watched and listened as we worked with our brave subjects.

The message I got from participants is that there is a deep hunger in the public radio system for more of this kind of thing. So much so that I am in the process of turning The End of the Dial into a training tool, to cover that topic and others as the need arises. Stay tuned.

The Evocative Power of Sound at DOC NYC

Posted on: November 1st, 2010 by admin No Comments

I want to make sure you know about something that’s happening this Sunday, November 7, because you may want to be there. And I’m hoping it sells out. So this means I strongly recommend you buy your tickets now.

What it is
I’m curating and presenting a listening experience at the new DOC NYC – New York’s Documentary Festival, which makes its inaugural launch this week in Manhattan. (Details here.) The festival is kind of a big deal. Werner Herzog will be there. Errol Morris will be there. It’s outstanding that the organizers have carved out space for radio documentaries.

Why I think it could sell out
WNYC Radio, which is sponsoring the event I’m hosting, will be blanketing the airwaves with announcements. We know that public radio listeners attend this kind of thing in droves.

Late breaking extra special cool thing
The centerpiece of this event is Joe Richman’s documentary Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair, which on Saturday took the silver prize at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago.

The important thing is this
Here’s the link to buy tickets. I hope it sells out, and I hope to see you there, too.

Best to you,

86 Beautiful Book Covers

Posted on: October 25th, 2010 by admin No Comments

And one of them is mine. I just found out about this post from last March, which lists the From Square One book jacket along with 85 others that are also quite beautiful.

Tomorrow, at Jalopy!

Posted on: October 18th, 2010 by admin No Comments

Show starts at nine. We go on after The Hot Sardines.

Some links for you:

  1. Jalopy
  2. Ragdoll Cannon

Do come, won’t you?

The Ragtime Band Is Back in Business

Posted on: October 12th, 2010 by admin No Comments

We have a new name. Now we go by Ragdoll Cannon, and here is a little web page to tell you a little more about us. We’re playing next week – Tuesday, October 19 – at the most fabulous Jalopy in Red Hook. Show starts at 9, and we go on after The Hot Sardines. Do come!

Old Souls

Posted on: October 6th, 2010 by admin No Comments

I went to the Strand in search of Alec Wilder’s classic text American Popular Song. It wasn’t there. This has happened my last several trips to the store, which boasts eight miles of books. Eight miles of books, and still their collection is missing essential titles? It made me wonder if they were culling the herd in response to cataclysm within the literary ecosystem.

In its place I found I book I didn’t know I wanted. But now that I have bought it, I cherish it much more than the source of my original hunt. It’s Alec Wilder & His Friends, from 1974, and it’s a collection of New Yorker profiles by Whitney Balliett, who died three years ago.

These are portraits of—this is a term that has been applied to me more than once—old souls who “hold a common vision of life that has lately fallen low. They are highly moral people who have guarded their souls, who have, no matter how bad the going, refused to compromise. They have gone without jobs when fashion has turned against them, rather than demean themselves in shoddy ones. They have kept their spirits intact despite neglect, near-privation, and even semi-oblivion. These sterling people, in taking the high road, have bent their energies toward the endless polishing of their arts, and pre-eminence, no matter how tardy or circumscribed, has been their reward.”

A few—Tony Bennett, Blossom Dearie, Marian McPartland—were able to hang on long enough to enjoy an Indian summer of their careers. At the other end of the spectrum you have the much less known jazz pianist Marie Marcus. All of the subjects make for companionable reading.

I borrowed Balliett’s style for one section of my book From Square One. He sets up a scene and then lets his subject talk, often for pages at a time. The illusion is that there has been no mediation by an author. Of course just the opposite is true. Balliett has erased his questions and left the answers-as-monologue. The style seems old-fashioned today, and that no doubt has something to do with why I employed it.

Tomorrow, at Soho Rep!

Posted on: October 5th, 2010 by admin 1 Comment

I’ll lead the post-show discussion. The play is called Orange, Hat & Grace by Gregory Moss, directed by Sarah Benson, and it’s about FERAL PEOPLE in a smart and creepy, Greil-Marcus-old-weird-America kind of way. Guests are Columbia University earth scientist Jason Smerdon, who studies climate change, and writer Ginger Strand, author of Inventing Niagara. I think it’s going to be good. The theater is at 46 Walker St. in Manhattan. Curtain is at 7:30.

New Documentary Festival in New York City

Posted on: October 4th, 2010 by admin No Comments

And it’s big.

Coming the first weekend in November, it’s the DOC NYC festival. Read all about it here.

I was very pleased to be asked to sit on the board of advisers. Festival organizers Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen are insisting that the festival not be restricted only to film/video. And this is of course a terrific thing, since there is so much good work being done in sound alone.

Which brings me to my next point: I’m curating and presenting a public listening event Sunday, November 7 at 1:45pm in NYU’s Kimmel Center. More details about time and place as the date approaches. To whet your appetite, here’s the description:

The Medium Formerly Known as Radio: The Evocative Power of Sound
Media Sponsor: WNYC

Sit in a darkened theater, close your eyes, and see the best pictures of all―because you made them yourself. This public listening event features a sampler of stories told only in sound that have a way of going directly from the ear to the heart. With special guest Joe Richman, who will present his award-winning documentary Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.

I hope you can make it.

Today in History

Posted on: October 1st, 2010 by admin 1 Comment

Today is the tenth anniversary of The Next Big Thing’s debut on WNYC.

What’s The Next Big Thing? Here’s how I defined it once a week (most weeks): “It’s a visit to places you didn’t know existed, even though you go by them every day. It’s new ideas in an old medium. The next big thing is going out and finding interesting people and putting them on the radio.”

As it happens, AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, has launched a wiki, called the Sounds of Silence, to commemorate cancelled public radio programs.

And so on this bittersweet anniversary I have made my contribution to that wiki and posted it at The End of the Dial, a site that I hereby revive on this most auspicious of days. Keep checking back from time to time (indeed, why not subscribe to the associated blog’s RSS feed?) to see what happens on this site devoted to the medium formerly known as radio.

Some things to look forward to in the near future at The End of the Dial:

  1. news about the inaugural DOC NYC festival coming up the first weekend in November (I’ll be presenting a listening session of documentary sound work that I curated)
  2. radio and sound art worth listening to
  3. the sound of surprise

Future writing about radio and related matters is hereby migrating over to and I hope you can stop by now and then.