The Radio is Listening
Originally written for Jay Allison, who founded community-public radio stations WNAN/WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He asked a number of people throughout the industry what advice we’d give to someone starting a brand new radio station.
July 13, 1999
Sue Schardt , SchardtMEDIA
I visited a painter friend this week in New York. She’s been working hard on a new direction in her work and wanted reaction. In the two hours we spent together, her excitement was clear; she is exhilarated by the risks she is taking and the new ground she’s breaking. She uses her paint boldly – thickly – layer over layer, spread half…three quarters of the way across a square birch panel. Sometimes, parts of the panel on the edges or in the middle are untouched by the paint, so you can see through to the wood grain bottom. Other times, another painting lies flat and buried beneath mounds of color and texture, showing through in patches where the thickness breaks. Her colors are beautiful — expensive German pigments carefully blended with poppy seed oil or linseed oil. Like a cook, she blends malachite green, cadmium yellow, ochre, scarlet red, orange, blue-black to fit the day’s urge. With her brush, she fashions a dense topography, running her fingers through when the painting demands a more vigorous approach, occasionally adding a pinch of cristobalit to create texture. The work is demanding. Emotional intensity – demanding.
I ask her what she thinks about as she paints. She tells me that there is always talking. “Conversation is the engine,” she says…an inner dialogue between herself and herself and anyone, anything she conjures up. Her hand, her brush, dabbed in paint, gesture to drive home a point, or to lay out even-headed reason. She knows when something is finished by the way she feels as much as by the way the canvas looks.
One visitor asks, “Why don’t you make ten paintings instead of slathering your paints so thickly on top of one another?”
The answer came to her days later, the critic long-gone, “Because I want one good painting, not ten bad paintings.”
My work, too, is about the tension and resolution of inner conversation. I work with the vast and diverse language of music. While my painter-friend strives to articulate the course of her imagination’s dialogue on a panel, I have no brush, no oil to mix with sand. My medium is sound, my tool is my ear – the “organ of equilibrium” – where sounds enter through the auricle and travels the three centimeters of auditory canal to my eardrum, cross the delicate bones of the middle passage, and make their way to the mystery of my inner ear. At this point, a brief transaction with the auditory nerve transforms vibration into code that my brain can understand. Beyond that is the infinite territory of imagination.
Like a painter, my work is intuitive. Each of my weekly radio programs is produced spontaneously, live, over 2 hours, drawing from dozens of recordings I have with me in the studio. Through the broadcast, my aim is to explore disparate relationships. The name, “In the Margin of the Other,” connotes my perspective that “everything happens in the margin,” and the understanding and exploration of the underlying connection – constructive or destructive – between “one” and an “other.” I am an observer of relationships. A listening bystander. My stroke is in the segue, as I draw out the connection between things. “Listen…listen here,” I say, from my place of listening. Like my friend painting conversations, I put a new canvas into the air each week, and judge my success, in part, by how I feel when I’m done.
This place of imagination, where conversations take place, where connections are made, is difficult to describe. Our imaginations are utterly, uniquely our own. The vision behind the Cape and Island stations now, and since its inception, is to create a blend of the expected and the unexpected — where the woman who runs the bakery next to the ferry terminal has a rightful place alongside Scott Simon or Nina Totenberg ; to mingle the mainstream with the community voice, to give listeners what they depend on in public radio, but also to stretch beyond what is typical, and give them a reflection, a remembrance, of themselves. If WNAN/WCAI is to be a radio station rooted in invention, and with “talent from the community;”…a place where the “surprising and the interactive” mingle with “programming from the satellite,” it will need to be a place where, first and foremost, imagination will thrive.
WCAI/WNAN is taking up a difficult challenge. As it has matured, the public radio community has devised sophisticated methods for measuring audience, for soliciting money, for creating programming. In spite of uncertainties that are mostly driven by new media technology, public radio is pretty staid. Conformity abounds, and the niche for experimentation – live and on the air – has narrowed. The vision of the “core listener” – the 1/3 of the audience who drives public radio – is rather fixed. Mainstream programming speaks to a highly educated, high income, 40-something baby boomer who has listened to public radio for the better part of 20 years. There is reluctance to stray beyond the pale of convention, and programs are developed according to the specific expectations of how the left end of the dial should sound – the tone, the style, the relationship between the listener and the radio. WCAI/WNAN must be smart about why the tried and true are just that, but the station must have the courage to try new things, make mistakes, and accept criticism.
As a start, here are three, rather random pieces of advice to add to the mix of perspectives you’ve solicited.
Know thy listener, know thyself: Call Craig Oliver at RRC and sign up for your Spring and Fall Arbitron reports. Order the Fall Audigraphics from David Giovannoni. Hire somebody to help you understand these numbers, need be. But equally as important, remember that numbers are an illusion. Ultimately, they are the markers of where a producer’s imagination has led the listener. There is power in having a clear vision of whom you are speaking to, and numbers are just one of the ways to help paint that picture.
Invent a methodology for articulating and “measuring” the radio staff’s individual and collective vision of their listener. Whom do they conjure up when they open the microphone and start to speak? Create the means for people to externalize what is internal, and for management to validate the individual “imaginations” which comprise the radio station. This is the heart and soul of your community-on-air.
Young people: Make room for youth to thrive on the air. Radio is the most accessible medium and accessibility is one of its greatest powers. Don’t shy away from giving children and young adults a place to experiment and find their voices. Some critics say that children on the radio “don’t appeal to the core listener” or “children only appeal to other children.” Take it with a grain of salt. You have a tremendous opportunity for a powerful, positive role in your community by providing for the youth.
Hang a banner in the on-air studio that says “If it didn’t work this time, try something else next time.” Discipline and order is important, but beware over-criticizing of what is on-air. Encourage spontaneity. Drag people off the street and into the studio during a broadcast. Always remember that radio is alive, with the power of now.