institute for documentary studies

{Week 13: Radio}

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.