institute for documentary studies

{Week 2: Radio}

Week 2: Radio


Radio is a composite of several discoveries:


  1. That radiation waves could propagate through free space.
  2. That those waves could be transmitted without conductors from one point to another.
  3. That those waves could travel very long distances. Miles. Able to cut corners, scale buildings, jump over bridges, and walk through walls. Radio is the Superman of wireless communication.


In this way, it’s difficult to determine when radio was “invented” because radio is not a machine. Your computer, that dial-by-station unit in your car, that antique contraption with the gaping wooden mouth is not “the radio,” but the penultimate stop (the last stop being your ears) of a signal that was sent to you by someone you cannot see.


Who is that someone? He or she might be stationed in Jakarta or Shanghai, Miami or Cairo. He or she might be soaked from monsoon rains or dabbing sweat from his or her forehead beneath studio lights. A sock might have crumbled down to the bridge of his or her foot, laden with the soil of some country you’ve never been to, but whose current events you know something about because this unseen journalist labored to give it to you. And what astonishes me time and again when I listen to the radio is how uniformly calm these men and women sound in spite of their varied circumstances. Walls may be falling and cities burning, but their measured cadences will usher you through every report without the slightest betrayal of the measures they took, large and small, to be there and gather those moments. They sound dignified, authoritative, and controlled. It sounds like the news just landed in their lap.


But that’s a falsehood. It took hard work, patience, and frantic seizures of opportunity. And if my first foray into the field is any indication, some serious juggling skills.


At Salt, each radio student is bequeathed a magnificent audio kit: a Sony PCM-D50 flash recorder that can record up to 12 hours of tape, an omnidirectional microphone, and a pair of headphones by which to hear the medley of recorded words and ambient sounds. We’ve been given the essential tools for making radio and in the week since, have mastered the comparative technics of a walkie talkie (On/Off, Record/Play/Pause). The real challenge of Salt radio (and one that will endure throughout our radio-making lives) is to use these tools well.


It seemed impossible at the time—a polyphonic documentary dance. You know that one-man-band suit Dick Van Dyke wears at the beginning of Mary Poppins? With the harmonica strapped beneath his chin and the cymbals at his knees? That’s about as graceful as I felt donning an audio kit.


Our assignment was to create an “audio postcard,” a 4-minute radio piece that evoked the feeling of a specific place – a bakery, a roller skating rink, a burlesque dance class. In addition to interviewing a person (or many people) and capturing the sounds of our chosen environment, our instructor Michael invited us to record a stand-up narration of what we were seeing in real time. He showed us a radio piece by Kelly McEvers from her night spent shadowing a Syrian activist. Her narration was ideal for on the ground reporting, more reflective than those play-by-play announcers on ESPN but less detached than those anchors reading a scripted version of the news. It was the voice of an intelligent and articulate witness that must have taken years of practice (and natural talent) to pull off.


With Kelly McEvers as our model, it’s no wonder I walked away from the Aucocisco III discouraged. My grand plan for my audio postcard had been to follow Portland’s morning mail ferry as it delivered packages to various islands in Casco Bay. Mail has only so much mileage as a topic of conversation, so I scrambled for new question material. Training my microphone beneath the chins of crew members, passengers, and the captain, we talked about the parts of the ferry, the route of the ferry, the weather (a lot about the weather), some stories, but not much beyond that. The insights didn’t arise from the wellspring of their high seas experience as freely as I thought they would. I blamed the equipment for interfering with any potential for rapport. “The only thing preventing us from having a normal conversation is this microphone,” I said to a pair of construction workers. But upon listening to my tape, I realized that the most stunted, flat answers were in response to my most close-ended questions. While seated outdoors at the back of the ferry, my interview with Anne went something like this:


Q: Do you live on Great Diamond?

A: I do, I do.

Q: Okay, yeah. And uh…so you’ve been taking the ferry for a long time?

A: I have, yes.

Q: Do you have any fond memories of riding the ferry?

A: Um, I have to think about that.


Poor Anne might as well have been talking to a ballot box. My questions bespoke a binary preconception of the ferry meant to its passengers. “Do you” and “So You’ve” can only be answered with a Yes or a No. There was no openness and no room for Anne’s interpretation, so our initial interview abounded with false starts and question stairways that led to nowhere. We both turned away. The sounds of the conversation deflating were audible. I remember scanning the water line for something to talk about.


Off the starboard side was a cliff face with these orange and green bands that caught light in an unusual way. I had never seen anything like them before. I began to account for their presence off the starboard side  and heard Anne venture, in a hesitant way, “Those are all the minerals. The mineral deposits in the rock ,that you see.” She embellished further, painting a vivid portrait of tide soaking the minerals with sea water. She talked about how the tide changed colors and how ice bowls formed upon their recession in wintertime, using language only a witness to the daily rhythms of an island ever could. I sat in riveted silence, basking in the sun of her words. For the first time that afternoon, instead of listening for something, I was listening to someone. It made all the difference.


A day later in the editing room, while cherry picking for usable moments, Anne’s interview was distinct from the rest of the tape. There was a momentum to her voice. An energy. It seemed to cut through the wind and settle freely wherever it wanted to. My microphone was merely a receptacle for this performance of herself. The more I appealed to her inner world with genuine curiosity, the more generous Anne was with her words. It made me wonder what would happen if all my interviews deferred to the subject’s expertise, handing over the reins and sitting shotgun, making the road ahead free of obstacles so the conversation goes and goes and goes.


I’m beginning to understand what will happen if you do. That respect will show in your face. It will read in your body language. It will inspire your next question. If you do your job well, neither you nor your subject will notice the equipment. You’ll be like Kelly McEvers or Dick Van Dyke, never once allowing your professional suit to outshine the human inside.