Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

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,

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.

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.

Hopper: Painting the Loneliness on BBC Radio 4

Posted on: May 31st, 2010 by admin No Comments

There are many reasons to love BBC Radio.

I’m not talking about the World Service, which is how most Americans hear the Beeb on public radio over here. That’s boring. I’m talking about the domestic channels intended for listeners in the U.K. and which I hear over the Internet.

Radio 4 is the closest thing to NPR. During drive time, they air news programs akin to Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But the rest of the day and night, instead of filling the time with excruciating talk shows, they air weird kinds of stuff that used to be on the radio here but which disappeared long ago.

The quiz shows, such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, are old-fashioned and demented in the best possible way. I find the Shipping Forecast mesmerizing.

On Tuesday, June 1, my first piece for the BBC will air. Called Painting the Loneliness, it’s a half hour program about Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks that I co-produced with Judith Kampfner. Half of it consists of documentary interviews – with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Whitney curator Barbara Haskell and author Gordon Theisen (who wrote a smart book about the painting). That material is interleaved with dramatic monologues. I imagined what was going through the minds of the figures in the painting. Playwright Michael Dowling wrote the script and acted, along with Jim Frangione and Sara Paul. I directed their performances “on location” at Haven Cafe and Bakery in Lenox, Massachusetts. (My BBC contact noted the “depth of the atmosphere” and noted how different it felt from standard sound effects.)

You can listen to the program when it streams live on Tuesday, 11:30am London time, (click here for live stream) or else on demand for the seven days following.

Hope for the Future

Posted on: May 26th, 2010 by admin No Comments

More and more, filmmakers are absorbing lessons from the DIY ethic that has helped to make music a viable livelihood. This post from John Bradburn is one example of the kind of case study that appears with some regularity on the blog Truly Free Film, which is one of film producer Ted Hope’s sites I have been studying closely along with the writings of Seth Godin. I envision a day – arriving soon, I hope – where we can start applying this model to the medium formerly known as radio.

The New Rules of the Game

Posted on: May 7th, 2010 by admin No Comments

… according to Elowitz. (Will future generations consider him the Edmond Hoyle of new media?)

Ben Elowitz asserts in that “traditional ways of judging ‘quality’ in published content are now useless.” (Read it here.)

His message is more or less the opposite of what I’ve been telling my students at NYU’s Carter Journalism Institute, where I’m now wrapping up a three-year appointment as a visiting professor.

Because the master’s program there lasts three semesters, grad students finish at the end of the calendar year – coinciding in 2008 with massive RIFs at NPR and the New York Times. One of my best and brightest students showed up for our last class sighing, “This is a pretty bleak job market.”

I said, “No, this is way worse than a bad job market. This is a paradigm shift. Those jobs are never coming back.”

Then I delivered a more hopeful message: I thought of myself as a medieval monk whose job it is to keep ancient knowledge alive. That ancient knowledge has to do with things like professional standards, ethics. This was even reflected in the course title: The Medium Formerly Known as Radio. The task of our class was to reinvigorate traditional radio values in the new medium of the Web. My thinking was that someone would figure out how to monetize reporting in its new digital form, journalism would re-professionalize itself, and my students were going to bring about a Renaissance. Sooner rather than later, I hoped.

This wasn’t just a lame attempt to rub a salve over the deep gash they were feeling. After all, they and their families had just dumped untold tens of thousands of dollars on a degree that had almost no hope of landing them a job in their chosen field. Perhaps ever.

The belief underlying my pep talk was that there would always be an audience for vital information gathered and presented with impartiality and craftsmanship. Elowitz argues just the opposite.

Of course, I’m strongest in recounting the past over predicting the future, which is why I became a journalist rather than a fortune teller.

I’m reminded of the standard reply sent to readers who had written letters to the New Yorker magazine in its early days: “Dear Sir. You may be right. Sincerely, Wolcott Gibbs.”

The Course of Empire

Posted on: January 2nd, 2010 by admin No Comments

In a blog post titled “Evolution of every medium” Seth Godin makes an observation that, based on my experience, feels right but—as with researchers who find evolutionary imperatives for various human behaviors, such as shopping—there is no way to actually test his assertion.

(While we’re at it, I’m hoping someone can explain why that branch of “science” is taken seriously, since it is immune to the rigors of the scientific method.)