The Inside Story – Independents in Radio
Originally published in Current, public broadcasting’s trade publication, in November 2001
By Sue Schardt
In his “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” first published in 1988, poet Italo Calvino sets forth what he considers the “indispensable literary values” for the coming century: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility and Multiplicity. Calvino, who died not long before he was to deliver the “Memos” in a Harvard lecture, never completed the sixth, which was to be Consistency. I found myself referring back to Calvino’s “Memos” when – to mark the upcoming Producers’ Summit, convened by the Association of Independents in Radio on Oct. 28 and 29 in Chicago – I spoke with a number of independent producers about their work, their inspiration and their vision of the future. The six literary values, selected by Calvino with writers in mind, describe well the unique talents and aspirations of the artists in our own radio community.
“Just remember, this isn’t about me. It’s about my mother – Just remember that.” The opening words to Dmae Roberts Peabody award-winning “Mei-Mei, A Daughter’s Song,” a deeply personal account that broke new ground as a personal documentary when it was first aired on “Soundprint” in 1990. “It’s the best piece I’ll ever do,” reflects Roberts, a respected veteran of the creative community who has produced radio for more than 20 years. “It’s rare to cut your heart open and show it to the world. It was at a time when I had so much to say and just went ahead and said it.” It was also a time, according to Roberts, when creative audio commanded more respect, if not great pay. “During the ’80s I would just put these montages together and sell them to NPR – 30 or 40 of them for $125 apiece. These things would run anywhere. There was always room. The first audio collage I did was based on a Lynda Barry cartoon called ‘Why I like Men.’ It was very crazy, satirical and funny, and it ran on “ATC”. That was 1984. If I try to pitch any thing like this now, it’s got to be very straight, probably news-oriented. Humor is considered risky. It is a sad time for creativity in radio.”
Roberts’ rich presentation of sound and storytelling is at once intimate and complex. The stark opening of “Mei-Mei” – a “click” and the tape is running – Roberts speaking over the sounds of a horns and children’s voices of busy street in Taiwan. She is on a trip with her mother, revisiting the homeland, seeking broken ties. We slide into a young woman’s tale about a girl out gathering firewood, who hears singing in the woods and follows it. There are 30 seconds of the “cloch-cloch” of drum sticks, a breathy flute and unintelligible voices. Her mother speaks in broken English: “… my parents sold me twice – for 20 yen – I don’t know, they need money. I don’t have a feel … nothing I can do about it… .” Again, Roberts herself, both interviewer and translator: “I’m the only human being on earth who understands everything my mother says.”
Roberts slips from frame to frame with great artistry, from intimate monologue to storytelling, re-enactment of a conversation at a kitchen table, an interview. She employs a range of sound gestures in her work – a chorus, solo instruments, whispers, foreign voices. Like a modern Scheherazade – invoked in Calvino’s memo on quickness – who tells her story within a story within a story, manipulating continuity, making us eager to know what comes next.
As an independent producer, Roberts is a model of multiplicity, invention and determination. She is grantwriter, producer, director, scriptwriter, visionary, teacher, engineer, web designer, playwright and theater sound designer. Most of the financial support for her work has come from CPB, NEA and, says Roberts, and from her own local fundraising, usually in $5,000 increments.
We talk about her relative invisibility in mainstream public radio, as well as that of many others who undertake intensive radio projects today. “It’s hard to realize that people don’t know who I am,” she says.
I ask, “What keeps you working in radio?”
Roberts, pauses, then answers thoughtfully, “I’m good at it. I also think there is a way that radio tells a story in a way that no other medium can. Talking directly to someone in their car, in their living room – to really reach into their hearts – and mix the real world with the fantasy world.”
Her latest initiative is “1stperson.org,” dedicated to personal narrative in sound, story and image,” with an inaugural theme inspired by events of Sept. 11, “Landscape of Loss and Hope.”
One of Alexa Dvorson’s first radio assignments came in 1980 when she was an intern in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her task was to “infiltrate the media” with public service announcements on behalf of a local environmental group. She produced them out of KUAC-FM, back when Kit Jensen, now manager of WCPN in Cleveland, was General Manager of the station. She crossed paths with a number of other now familiar names in radio during her Alaska days…Corey Flintoff, Elizabeth Arnold, and Peter Kenyan. “That was a long time ago,” says Dvorson.
On her lithe path from Fairbanks to her current outpost in Berlin she has filed from more than 20 countries in 21 years. “One mike sort of led to another,” she says. She gathered sounds and stories on deforestation in Africa, the reconciliation process in South Africa, and female “circumcision” in the Gambia. She spent more than 5 years filing stories that put a human face on the collapse of communism in Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. Dvorson was on the ground, feeding stories on the reunification of Germany back to North Americans through the CBC, Monitor Radio, NPR, MPR, “Living on Earth,” and Pacifica. She is compelled, she says, “to trace the changes in people’s lives in the face of the enormous political changes.”
Dvorson consistently chips away at the layer just beneath the story line and seeks the thread of connection between events and their repercussions on her subjects over time. She establishes continuity by returning, time and again, to the same people to track changes and the impact of an event over an extended period. Through narration and sound, this intentional storytelling is described in a passage from Calvino’s chapter on Exactitude, “… approach[ing] things – present and absent – with discretion, attention, caution, [and] with respect for what things – present and absent – communicate without words.”
Dvorson has been “inspired and challenged” for the past 15 years by her work as a trainer in radio journalism, which has led her to various corners of the earth: Nepal, South Africa, Senegal and Madagascar. She was named a Knight International Press Fellowship in 1997, and has just produced a 30-minute documentary to be broadcast on “Common Ground.” It’s the tale of her encounter with two former neo-nazis who made a return to “civil society.” She considers the story to be a personal milestone, for reasons, she says, we will understand if we hear it.
In nearly every one of my conversations with AIR members, the subject of the “power of radio” came up.
In a passage from his memo on visibility as “an indispensable literary value,” Calvino could be aptly describing radio’s unique power, while at the same time warning of “the danger we run of losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut … in fact, of thinking in terms of images …” This very phenomenon – being transported by sound – hooked David Clements and brought him into radio seven years ago, when he was a university student. Now 26, Clements files for syndicated programs and recently received a CPB grant to produce a science/technology documentary series “Be Connected” for public radio.
“What first got me into radio was listening to CBC; hearing the different ways they have of telling stories through radio, in ways that TV can’t,” says Clements. When he was young in Buffalo he used to listen “religiously” to former CBC “Morningside” host Peter Gzowski. “Gzowski has this way of interviewing people that is totally captivating – a style that wouldn’t fly on radio in the US. Very not-slick,” according to Clements.
As for his own work, “uncontrolled environments” excite Clements. “I don’t look to interview people in the “dry room” where there’s total quiet. I like to get people in the moment, while they’re walking around … like talking to a scientist right in his lab. They’re more vibrant, enthusiastic, when they’re in their own space. You can really feel that – capture that.”
Another relative newcomer to public radio, French-born Adele Sire, sounds this same theme of experimentation. “One of my favorite things to do is to produce interviews of people who you’re going to hear a lot more than me.” Besides producing full time for “The World” in Boston, Adele does some freelancing. “Studio 360” recently aired her piece on “Renee Fleming and Me,” a lighthearted and touching account of one fan’s unmitigated passion for an opera diva. We didn’t hear Adele once. The opera fan told his story while the object of his admiration, Diva Fleming, flowed in and out on a wave of recorded song.
This is not, of course, a new technique; Sire follows in the footsteps of other veteran radio producers who step out of the way and leave the stage to their subjects. But experimenting with this technique is one crucial step along the path of finding her own voice, her unique gifts, and inventing who she as a creative artist. Calvino’s sounds a note on the importance of invention in his own approach to words in his first memo, on lightness: “Everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight,” he writes. “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness … I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective.”
Sue Schardt has been a member of the AIR Board of Directors since 1998. Her weekly program, “In the Margin of the Other”, is entering its 13th year on WMBR in Cambridge, Mass. Her company, SchardtMEDIA, helps support and develop programming produced by public radio’s leading stations, syndicated producers and independents.