institute for documentary studies

{Week 12: Multimedia}

Week 14: Radio

We’re exhausted.
Our computers are exhausted (which is probably why they keep crashing on us).
Our fingers are exhausted (which is probably why I hear the occasional sound of knuckles cracking amidst the clicking of keyboards).
Our brains are exhausted from the endless toggling between Slip and Shuffle mode that makes our radio pieces an intricate game of Tetris and the 11th hour script tweaks more obsessive than Webster writing the dictionary. I keep fudging at the level of single words, transitions like “but” and “now” and “and so…” in that hefty way Ira Glass sucks the story into a conclusive vacuum by saying “And so what have we learned…”
The only thing that keeps me awake and making semi-intelligible changes to my radio feature is pretending I’m a producer for NPR. Yes, I realize the vanity and silliness of this little rehearsal.
Executing radio stories in such a manner, interestingly enough, induces much insistent clicking and scrolling and track-pad-wheeling faith that this edit, this transitional hand-off between narration and interview tape, will bring my piece closer to what I imagined it would sound like in my mind’s ear. Is it better to say “Doug marched on Washington DC” or “Doug protested in Washington DC?” Which smears the mind with more vivid paint? How do I ultimately want my piece to sound?
These are the things we think about, as the date of our gallery show—There From Here—draws nearer. May 16th.
“There from Here” is borrowed from a traditional Maine phrase. I first heard about it while staring at a map of Maine propped on an easel in the Salt Writer’s room. Some topographer had carefully painted the state in light greens and browns, more vertical than horizontal, an elongated parallelogram with a prehistoric coastline. Some of the rocks that populate Maine’s coastline were once molten shale, pressed like phyllo pastry beneath a riotous earth and forced to the surface by the shifting plates. Maine is an ancient state.
The fringes of the Maine coastline are a series of peninsulas, like fingers fanning out into the frigid Atlantic. In order to traverse their surface, you have to go up a peninsula in order to go down another. You can’t hop. You can’t get there from here. There from Here. So, our show takes its name.
It’s a fitting reminder in a time like this. There are no shortcuts when it comes to creative work, no getting from the “There” of Week 1 to the “Here” of Week 14—so different than you thought it would be—without the missteps and the daily efforts on your part to tell better stories. That’s really it. That’s why we came to Salt and it’s made me grateful for every gracious hour, every courageous suggestion, every “Hey can you listen to this” met with “Sure,” in which another student took time out of his or her day to help make my piece better. The nature of Salt is collaborative and these pieces are as much a collective effort as an individual one.
We’re quite a tribe, we 11 radio students. We’ve seen each other’s stories from conception, when they were the faintest of notions and the most cursory of leads, and watched them evolve into these misshapen, susceptible organisms we shaped together over the course of weeks. Now these pieces—14 radio features, a handful of audio postcards and student profiles—are taking on their final form. They are solidifying and settling down. I’ve listened to them all, some several times, and am astoundingly proud to share them with others. It keeps me going, you know? Imagining the look on Erika or Emily’s face when the thing they’ve been laboring over for hours makes someone cry and exclaim, “You did a beautiful job. Thank you for making this.”

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Week 13: Radio

The first pitch I submitted for my Salt radio feature was 581 words long. It began like this:
“Google “Druids” and you will likely unearth images of cloaked figures holding hands and walking sticks, encircling Stonehenge while raising their faces to the sky. Are they singing? Are they chanting? Are they praying? Their form of worship is beguiling.”
To my untutored January imagination, this was a beguiling first paragraph. It beckoned forward with a long, bony finger, much the way I imagined the Druid community of Portland entreated its followers.
Yet much like a blog post that takes too long to arrive at its point (thank you faithful reader), a radio pitch that fails to hook someone immediately will not a radio story make. The same rules apply to a movie trailer: Deliver on the goods, but don’t be conclusive. Make your audience want to know how this story ends. My pitch about “Druids” peaked interest, but didn’t sustain it through tight focus on one part of Druid life; it was “a topic in search of a story” as someone tactfully put it. Who was the main character? What was his plight? All told, my pitch lacked that tell-me-more quality that makes a story worth telling.
And so, mid-April, I searched high and low for such a story. Browsing local newspapers seemed a promising place to start. Who better to identify narrative tension within the mess of everyday life than a local journalist? I came across an article by a local reporter named Doug. His coverage bore the thoroughness of someone who asks great questions and knows how to get the information. I decided to call him for leads to other stories in his area and went into the sound booth, shutting the door and crouching against the egg-crate walls to dial his office number.
On the second ring, someone picked up. My heart lurched at this sign of first contact, but what happened next was both predictable and utterly bizarre. Doug’s voice came over the line with a standard greeting:
“Hello. This is Doug at the Morning Sentinel.”
That’s what Doug said (at least, that’s what I thought he said), but his voice was distant. Muffled. What’s more—his voice had the tinny quality of an electronic synthesizer, as if it had been mixed with mechanical parts and flattened, producing a low buzzing tone that urged his words onward. I had heard never heard anything like it.
Doug was speaking to me with measured thoughtfulness and friendliness, like most people in Maine, but it wasn’t with his natural voice. Instead, he was using one of those electronic devices, which I would later learn was called a “voicebox” or “electrolarynx.” It was portable, battery-powered, and when held against his throat, allowed him to speak in lieu of vocal chords (which were removed eight years ago).
Though I called Doug with every intention to discuss his article, he had other plans.
“I want to do a story about someone in Maine,” I told him.
“Story? You’re looking for a story? You should do a story about me. I’m fascinating.”
And he was. Doug was a beat poet in Boston, tore up cobblestones on Las Ramblas when Franco died, and marched on DC during the height of the Vietnam War. He told me how as a young man, he crossed continents and worked with his hands, picking grapes in France, Brussels sprouts in England, and operated a construction site on the Dead Sea. There was a time he could say, “I love you” in a dozen languages and when his kids were little, he made radio dramas and played all the parts. All told, Doug Harlow was a man who lived without apology. These days, he lived without a voice, but it hadn’t stopped him from being a commendable journalist.
The more we talked, the more I grew to like Doug and to discern his personality through the filter of his voice box. Even with a limited range (the voice box had only two pitch settings, high and low), he managed to be wry, charming, and direct. He was telling me the story of his life, but also questioning whether to go public by participating in a Salt feature. He had doubts, nerves even. The volume may have been soft, but the message coming through was clear: “Why should I do this piece with you, Emily? Convince me.”
I froze. While pitching this story to my Salt class, I had never anticipated pitching the story to Doug. His cooperation was something I took for granted, as I focused solely on what would make Doug’s life interesting to other people—people who had never seen, heard, or spoken with Doug. It seemed foolish in retrospect. How had I failed to consider what Doug would get out of the process in equal measure?
As radio producers, it’s our job to earn the trust of the people whose stories we tell. But what does trust even mean in the beginning, when all you have is a cold call and a gut feeling that this is the guy—this guy Doug is fascinating—and a blind faith that this Emily chick, this radio student won’t botch your story. Doug, as a journalist, was privy to my process. He knew that in agreeing to open up, he was entrusting me with the power of interpretation on the final broadcast. There’s a partnership that is formed from the moment you agree to let a stranger tell your story. And truth be told, Doug deserved to get just as much out of it as I did.
“As a journalist, you’re always the person writing the story. Being on the other side of the table might be interesting for you and inform your work.”
“You are a fascinating person who has lived a fascinating life. This is your opportunity to tell it.
“People could learn a thing or two about strength from you.”
“People may have never met someone with a voice box. Let’s change that.”
These were the things that tumbled out of my mouth as I sought to reframe his life as something worth sharing. Doug didn’t interrupt, but listened carefully weighing his options. He said he would talk to his children and let me know. Wednesday morning, this was the e-mail Doug sent:

Hi Emily –
I’ll do it.
Count me in.
Let’s set up a schedule to meet.
Call me anytime.

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Week 7: Multimedia

Early last week, Portland was on the cusp of spring—birds were chirping, the sky was blue, people even ventured outside without hats. I hear it was great. I enjoyed the nice weather from the safety of my apartment, busily reworking the final draft of my first writing piece. This left little time for multimedia, but my brain found a unique solution: multimedia dreams (which were really more like nightmares). While my  body tried to rest, my mind worked itself into paralysis over the shortcomings of my final multimedia project.

At this point in the program, our final projects are locked in and we’ll all gathering photos, videos, and interviews and developing the arc of our stories. I was a little stuck. The root of the problem was the phone. I needed to schedule a time to go into the field with my subject, but I hate making phone calls, so I put it off. This meant that I finished the weekend neither well rested nor properly prepared. Luckily, spring in Maine is fickle. On Monday night it started snowing. The prediction was for over twelve inches of snow, so Tuesday’s multimedia class was rescheduled. I used this reprieve to make phone calls. Lots of phone calls. It was a stressful hour, but successful: by Wednesday morning I had concrete plans to meet my subject on Friday.
“You’re pretty brave,” my subject commented. This was Friday night. The two of us were hiking up a wooded slope, alone, at night. To her, this was an act of bravery (possibly stupidity). I like being outside, especially at night, so for me, this was the easiest part of the week. But it doesn’t mean she was wrong. I was pretty brave this week, I used the phone to call strangers. And for the first time in a month, I felt great.

- Alison, writing

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Week 7: Radio

For the past month, I’ve been time traveling. I’ve been venturing out of state to a living history museum that replicates village life in 19th century rural New England and getting to know the historical interpreters: those costumed men and women who operate the village for a curious 21st century public. Donning period clothes, they are trained in period skills, everything from doling out caramels at the general store to printing on an ink press. They do so with a wink and a lesson. Did you know that a skilled compositor, who arranged moveable type, could set 1000 characters an hour? Now you do. Historical interpreters have long fascinated me, the way some other little girls were captivated by Disney Princesses. 100-proof unadulterated magic. On every family vacation and field trip (it’s a rite of passage for most kids in the Massachusetts/Connecticut area), I would try to get one of them alone and ask the questions about who they were “in real life.”

I was never successful until Salt, with an ID card marked “documentary student” and a microphone to cut through the illusion. It’s been wonderful. I can follow my curiosity and ask all the questions I’ve always wanted to. In return, four interpreters—two men and two women with nearly 90 years of experience among them—have shared generously about their professional and personal lives. Their tape is rife with interesting material. The more I listen, the more amazed I am by the alignment of their working lives with their personal values: face-to-face conversation, simplicity, experiential learning, accessibility of history, awareness of food pathways, energy use, and labor. They’ve shared what it means to interpret history and have entrusted me with an interpretation of that intimate knowledge. In many ways, I feel like a historical interpreter to a second degree. I am plagued by a low-lying terror of producing a radio feature that won’t do their work justice.

The past three weeks have been a challenge for precisely that reason. At first, I took a multi-pronged approach to the story out of fear that eliminating angles would dilute the material. My first script read like an extended village scene, a knotted mess of quirky details (e.g. they made condoms from sheep intestines!) without a clear narrative. I began looking elsewhere, inspecting the tape with a spyglass for moments of tension. I wanted Mystery! Intrigue! I wanted to raise the stakes so listeners would take the work of historical interpreters seriously. My second script looked at the business side of living history and how museums had to make history digestible for the sensitive public. It thickened the plot, but with a weak agent. I hadn’t done enough reporting to make a conclusive statement about the managerial evolution of the museum. Back to the drawing board.

No small amount of hair has been spared extraction from my scalp as I’ve tried to salvage my script. I don’t know why it’s been so difficult, but it is. It is extremely difficult to distill real life in all its blithe wildness into a radio story.

Mary, another radio student who is skilled at getting to the heart of matters, took me aside the other day and said: “Why did this story interest you in the first place?” I thought about it.

The answer to that question is very simple: the people. I love these people.

“There’s your story,” she said.

And that is what my radio feature is amounting to. It’s tempting at Salt, where you have so much time, technology, and access to interesting people, to dream up a five-part saga fit for the History Channel. That’s a false idol, I’m coming to realize, for anyone but Ken Burns. Plus you don’t have Morgan Freeman’s voice. You have yours, your time, and your ability to work hard. My piece will probably be six minutes long. It will not make any grand statements or groundbreaking discoveries. Its scope has narrowed and its goals winnowed from a competing jury of many to the one most important: to bring historical interpreters into the purview of the listener and have the listener understand, for six minutes, why someone would want to spend 40 hours a week in another time period. Six minutes of suspended reality, six minutes I need to make worth your time.

Ironically, the person who understood this far better than I did was my main subject. She’s a radio junkie. It’s allowed a nice rapport to develop between us, a give and take that makes our interviewer-interviewee relationship mutually beneficial. She’s fascinated by radio production. I’m fascinated by historical interpretation. We try to make our jobs as transparent to one another as possible.

Our first conversation took place as she was seated behind the counter of a country store skimming a newspaper for sewing machine advertisements. Radio is the first thing we talked about. She understood that I needed to record ambient sounds of her sheep baaing for authenticity, remarking that she would notice if I had recorded sheep at another museum. She said something else too, something that I knew would never make it into the radio feature, would never be heard by anyone but me, but that articulated the challenge of her job, my job, and the job of anyone whose job is to interpret the lives of others: “I love the people who just tell the most boring, mundane, cereal eating parts of their lives, but they’re beautiful because of how they tell the story. It’s not taking the most extraordinary events, but taking everyday events and allowing them to be extraordinary.”

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Week 7: Writing

“To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.”
– Christian Wiman


I am an over-sharer by birth. In my family, feelings are like food: to be set down on the dinner table and shared, chewed over and digested. I make friends on airplanes to San Francisco, or elevators to the tenth floor – any enclosed space where it is perfectly okay to ignore the people around you, avoiding their eyes by staring down at your shoes. I don’t know how to have acquaintances, or peripheral friends — my friendships are founded on the kind of tell-all, late night conversations that necessitate a life-long bond; as a child, over tubs of ice cream in my parent’s kitchen, and now, on a bench in the park, or in the corner of a bar. A moment of connection, a lesson that we are only as misunderstood as we let ourselves be.


Our culture thrives on over-sharing. Thanks to Facebook, I know what my lab partner from my sophomore year of high school ate for dinner, and how it sat in his stomach. We’ve grown out of modesty. Left privacy at the door. A few weeks ago at Salt, we had a Skype session with a social media guru who urged us to build our social media presence, establish our beat, and curate tweets to fit within the Twitterverse.


I might seem like the prime user for social media, but in fact, I hate it. Sharing my thoughts comes naturally with my closest friends, but not with an unlimited amount of strangers on the internet. The same goes for the personal essay, which happens to be our next assignment in writing class. The idea of showing my essay to my fellow writing students doesn’t make me lose much sleep, but the prospect of making it accessible to all of the internet unnerves me.


In “The Limit”, Christian Wiman writes about the dark underbelly of his family; his words are so hauntingly raw that it is easy to forget the risk he is taking in exposing his personal history. Writing for “the reader” is a daunting task. Who is this reader? How will they judge me? And addressing my own personal history, it would be impossible to not include others. Rarely are people flattered by their portrayal on the page or their face on the screen. Somehow, I run the risk of not doing my loved ones justice, betraying their essence, filtering the facts through my own experience. By striving for honesty, will I inevitably falsify my experience?

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Salt Fundraising night at Otto Pizza March 19!

Please join us on the evening of Tuesday, March 19 for a Salt fundraiser across the street in the dining room at Otto Pizza (574 Congress St) – order pizza/salad/drinks (dine-in or takeout) between 5 and 9pm and a portion of the evening’s proceeds will go to Salt! Stay tuned for more details on Facebook.

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Tickets + schedule for this year’s Maine Jewish Film Festival


News from our friends at the Maine Jewish Film Festival - get your tickets for this year’s screenings (including a free one here at Salt on March 11) now!





The new website is launched and tickets are on sale now. To see the full line up, go to We’ve got films that will make you laugh, cry and cheer. We’ve got filmmakers visiting and available for post film q&a – and a movie trailer of our own to share. We’re ready for MJFF 2013, and hope you are too!

Upcoming Events
Wednesday, February 20 at 8:00pm at One Longfellow Square
The Maine Jewish Film Festival and One Longfellow Present Naftule’s Dream
Join us in welcoming Boston’s Naftule’s Dream to Portland for the first time.

Originally a side project of the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra- Glenn Dickson, Clarinet; Michael McLaughlin, accordion; Eric Rosenthal, drums; James Gray, tuba; and Andrew Stern, guitar- the band has prospered into its own band of Jewish ties. Incorporating Klezmer as well as new age rock and jazz into their music makes Naftule’s Dream unique, creating a significant name for themselves and the sound of new Jewish music.

Tickets are $10 and are available online at, through the Box Office located at 181 State Street in Portland or by calling (207) 761-1757.

Sunday, March 3 at 3:30pm at The Strand Theatre
“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” (previously scheduled for Feb. 10, cancelled due to snow storm)

“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” directed by Thierry Binitsi, deals with 17 year-old Tal who has emigrated from France to Jerusalem with her family. Following a bombing, Tal writes a letter refusing to accept that only hatred can reign between the Israelis and the Palestinians. She slips the letter into a bottle and her brother throws it into the sea. Her letter brings a response from Naïm, a young Palestinian. A turbulent but tender long-distance friendship develops as they both seek to understand and change the history that divides them.

Tickets for admission are $8.50 and may be purchased at the time of the showing. For more information visit or call (207) 594-0070. The film will also be screened as part of MJFF’s full line up in Portland.



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Salt Alumna Maisie Crow launches new project on The Atavist

The Last Clinic

By Maisie Crow and Alissa Quart

In Mississippi, a new law threatens to shut down the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last abortion provider in the state. Award-winning filmmaker and photographer Maisie Crow and writer Alissa Quart provide an intimate portrait of the lives at the center of this political maelstrom. From one of the clinic’s doctors, who feels duty-bound to travel there each week from out of state; to a leading protester, a doctor who once performed abortions herself; to the young women wrestling with a decision that will change the course of their lives, this unique multimedia story takes you beyond the slogans. The Last Clinic captures the humanity behind an incendiary issue.

“I’ve been involved with the movement for women’s reproductive rights for over 40 years, both as an activist and a writer, and this is by far the best reporting I have ever seen on the subject. Alissa Quart and Maisie Crow offer a view from the frontlines of the abortion conflict that is both intimate and bracingly challenging.”

—Barbara Ehrenreich, founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and bestselling author of Nickel and DimedBait and Switch, and other books.

About Maisie Crow and Alissa Quart

Maisie Crow is a photographer and multimedia producer based in Brooklyn. She has done work for The Boston Globe, Bread for the World, MediaStorm, The New York Times, the Robin Hood Foundation, Save the Children, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. Maisie has taught as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and as a multimedia instructor at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Alissa Quart is the author of two nonfiction books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her next book is forthcoming in 2013. She has written longform pieces for Mother Jones, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. She was a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, is a contributing editor and author of the Reality Check column for the Columbia Journalism Review, and teaches in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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More than a rap sheet returns to Salt

Please join us Thursday, October 11 at 5:30pm in honoring Domestic Violence Awareness Month next Thursday at Salt with a project by Family Crisis Services. For one night only, we will be bringing back one of our most talked about exhibits: More Than a Rap Sheet [ the real stories of incarcerated women in Maine ]. We are showcasing the raw and powerful poems by incarcerated women in Maine as well as their portraits by our very own alum Christine Heinz. We invite you to take in the images, read the poems and also to stick around for a short program of live poetry readings that will begin around 6pm. It only happens just this once, so don’t miss it!

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Susan Orlean Reads at Longfellow Books

We are so excited to welcome nonfiction author Susan Orlean to Portland, Maine on October 14th, 6pm. Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. In addition to spending some time with our students, we’re sponsoring an event at the firecely independent and local bookstore, Longfellow Books. Orlean will be reading from her new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Nearly ten years in the making, her first original book since the celebrated bestseller The Orchid Thief is a sweeping, surprising, and powerfully moving work of narrative nonfiction about the dog actor and international icon.

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