institute for documentary studies

{Week 1: Radio}

Week 1: Radio


Q: Have you ever been…

A) Comforted just by the sound of someone’s voice?
B) Spellbound by a story?
C) Had a stranger’s words rub your heart raw, strum the chord of something deeply personal, maybe familiar, maybe foreign, and force you to pause – transfixed – startled by the feeling of your mind being changed?
D) All of the above

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, you would like radio.

And if you answered “Yes” to all of the above, I think you would really like the work we do at Salt.
The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies is situated right on the main thoroughfare of Portland, Maine, sandwiches between an Indian restaurant and a real estate company. Adhered to the windows in weathered blue lettering is the word “Tinder,” the name of last semester’s gallery show. Past the glass doors are pitched walls adorned with photographs and plaques describing last year’s projects. And deeper still, past the red room where Salt students assemble for their first day, past the kitchen where those selfsame Salt rookies navigate the cupboards and make introductions, is an archive containing 40 years of Salt documentary work from thousands (and its really thousands) of students who came before. Walking through Salt for the first time is a bit like approaching a wall of graffiti with your own can of spray paint. You are struck both by the contributions of those before you, their symbols and subjects, their trademark words, their storytelling prowess writ large, and the invitation – the imperative in fact – to paint over it. You are at once treading on hallowed, familiar ground and covering it with your tracks, venturing your own version of Maine people, places, and things. There is something exhilarating and terrifying about the first week at Salt.
I am one of these exhilarated and terrified students. My name is Emily Kwong, I am 22-years-old, and enrolled in the radio track. My classmates are extraordinary people, coming from Egypt and Canada, out of state from Oregon (by way of the other Portland), Texas, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New York. They have worn many hats in their lifetime, identifying themselves as journalists, media-makers, writers, professionals, teachers, union activists, students, singers, and ukulele players. Each is possessed with a unique ear and radio voice. They are all great storytellers. It should be noted that my experience is only one sliver of our collective experience at Salt. I hope to feature them all over the next fifteen weeks. Together we will relay what we see, feel, and most importantly, hear in the sound booth, on the road, and in the field.
For me, radio is the total in an imagined equation of “things I like to do”: follow curiosity, listen and learn from other people, write, record, and tell stories. Inspired by a longtime admiration for public radio, I took the plunge into radio journalism three years ago as a licensed programmer for the Arts Department of WKCR 89.9FM NY. The station served as the breeding ground for my amateur radio endeavors while I completed my last two years at Columbia University. I was an Anthropology and Human Rights major with academic tunnel vision. I spent a lot of time in the library, unable (or unwilling) to see the world beyond the scope of a formalized curriculum.
This changed dramatically while studying abroad in Durban, South Africa the spring semester of my junior year. Through World Learning’s SIT program, I conducted an independent research project on the adaptation of oral traditions for digital media. The research was an avenue to storytelling, first as a discipline to be studied and eventually, as a craft to be learned. I returned to Columbia for my senior year buoyed by this discovery and made the executive decision (really, it was a protracted, tearful three-hour conversation with a friend) to ditch my senior thesis and create a full-length radio program about student life at Columbia. At first, this program was meant to emulate the popular “This American Life” in sound and in scope: my co-producer and I chose a theme – “Undergraduate Life at Columbia” – and featured first-person narratives exploring that theme. With time, we realized the program brought a kind of kinship to everyone involved: the subjects, the listeners, ourselves. By creating an artificial environment of storytelling, extending the sound wave between student speakers and student listeners that would not have existed otherwise, we hoped to nurture a kind of auditory empathy. “I’ve been there.” “I know how that feels.” “I’m not alone.” The satisfaction from being that interstitial person is something I’ll never forget. I’ve come to Salt out of a desire to learn how to do that better.
In an interview for RadioLab, a radio program on WNYC, developmental psychologist Anne Fernald explained how mothers speak with their children and in the process, made a prescient point about sound. She remarked that sounds are not necessarily “about” something in a pointed or didactic way, but operate more like touch. She said, “If you whack me on the arm in a sudden, sharp way, I’m going to be startled. Or a gentle touch has a different effect. And actually, sound is kind of touch – at a distance.” The idea that sound is “touch at a distance” is literally true. Waves of vibrating air travel through space and are channeled into the ear of the listener. They vibrate the bones of the eardrum. Charged molecules send an electrical signal to the brain that is processed as sound. It is touch that arises out of a chain of multiple touches and it’s this domino effect that I’m hungry to learn at Salt. For, in the mechanics of sound, there arises a metaphor for human contact – the desire to reach out and feel, in a tangible, physical way, the presence of another human being.