institute for documentary studies

{Week 5: Radio}

Week 5: Radio

Since introducing the radio production track in 2000, Salt has acquired some serious clout in the broadcast industry. This in in part due to the quality of the work produced by the students, disseminated through websites, blog, and radio collectives (e.g. PRX, Transom, Hearing Voices), the airwaves of major stations (e.g. MPBN, NPR), and presented at the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Post-graduation, Salt alumni ride the coattails of the portfolio they created to professional heights, landing radio production jobs, freelance gigs, and funding for independent projects. This, in turn, encourages the radio curious to apply. The Salt loops feeds back on itself. In fact, it was through tracing the footsteps of people I admired that I came across Salt in the first place. The name kept popping up in the “About Me” section for young producers, like a specter of radio past – “at Salt,” “from Salt,” “produced at Salt.”


Furthermore, Salt radio instructors are distinguished in their field. They know people who know people and lucky for you, bring said people into the classroom as guest lecturers. Last week, the NPR Northeast Bureau Chief vetted our pitches. This week, Robert Smith of Planet Money will be Skyping in from New York. Sean Cole of RadioLab might be offering his wisdom in the coming weeks. At this very moment, our instructor Michael is working with Ira Glass on an act for This American Life and once, after our class sung the praises of Starlee Kine, Michael mentioned he had a phone conversation with Starlee that very morning. Crazy right? After hearing her voice on the radio for years, weeping over the plinkity chords of her Phil-Collin’s-approved break-up song, the idea that she was a real, workingwoman was staggering. I suppose it’s natural to be gripped by a celebrity chokehold when you are in sitting (or Skyping) proximity with any member in the 21st century radio pantheon, which in the case of the Salt radio track, happens all the time. It’s a fact of life here and speaks to the caliber of the program. Suffice it to say, the public radio community is well aware of the Salt Institute and a growing number of alumni have joined their ranks.


While I’m well aware of specter of radio future, there are more pressing matters at hand. We are barreling through the production of our first feature. Graduation isn’t until May and at the moment, the takeaway message I find most comforting in the notion of Starlee Kine owning a cell phone is this: real people make radio. They are human, they set things in motion, and they make mistakes. At some point, I imagine even Carl Kasell has forgotten to press record. And if you are a person with two ears, two eyes, a voice, and opposable thumbs, you can make radio too.


It stars with finding a subject. That much is obvious, but is nonetheless an intimidating feat much like pulling out a loose tooth—one I can only believe ex-post-facto upon holding the pearly artifact in my hand. For the past five weeks, scouting for story leads has compelled me to approach a lot of strangers. I’ve shook hands and smiled. I’ve sent e-mails. I’ve made cold calls from white pages, business cards, and Craigslist replies. I had never posted on Craigslist before Salt and was amazed by the immediacy of the response, watching half-a-dozen invisible hands shoot up in the dark in response to my open call for “You: The Documentary.”


This practice, of gathering volunteers from a virtual, undefined crowd to perform a job, is called crowdsourcing. It was a word coined by Jeffrey Howe in Wired Magazine in 2006. Through a Skype call last Wednesday, Jeffrey explained the application of crowdsourcing to social media platforms. He pointed to Twitter as a prime example of how online tools can create communities out of thin air. Jeffrey’s explanation provided the theoretical explanation for the Craigslist response and his talk demonstrated how Twitter could be used similarly, if at the very least to generate interest. Let’s say a user writes a comment that’s 140-characters long, tags it with an organizing word or phrase, and rockets it into the abyss. Other people might share it (“retweet”) or respond. With time, a public conversation develops around this emergent topic. Right now, on Monday, March 11th, the exchange of NFL wide receiver to another team is trending. In a few hours, it will be something else. Through Twitter, you can take the pulse of public opinion on an issue and as Jeffrey suggested, become a contributing voice in the conversation enveloping that issue.


But what about conversations that don’t take place online? I kept thinking this throughout the Skype lecture, reminded of how Internet access is a luxury, not a universal law. Not every community requires bandwidth for the exchange of information. People converse in other ways. The real discussion is often offline. Conversations take place in homes, schools, and meeting halls. They take place in in places unlisted, places that are private and untagged, unmarked, untrendy. No matter how many replies I send, none will get me so far as returning a phone call, getting in a car, and showing up. If I wish to be a part of any of these conversations, I can only secure a place through my physical presence. At the end of the day, the kind of work that will enrich my radio piece and those of my classmates is very old and very simple. Standing. Sitting. Listening. Talking. Waiting. In clicking and scrolling through these new forms of social interaction, I never want to forget these mechanics.


Perhaps the best approach to garnering information is one that combines the strengths of both methods Social media is indispensable for skimming the dearth of new information, allowing you to cover the terrain of the world’s events and opinions like a downhill skier and broadcast your needs. Yet when it comes to finding stories and fulfilling needs, Twitter, Craigslist, and the like can only take you so far. Much like the parent who drops you off at school, these websites will only chaperone you to the doorstep of an interesting person or place or idea. It’s up to you to get your foot in the door.