For a brief time in the late 1990’s I experimented with writing and recording essays for the radio. In my head, I could hear myself waxing poetic on This American Life, or spinning funny tales on The Savvy Traveler. The closest I ever came to radio fame was having a recorded essay of mine, “White Girl in Miami,” played on WLRN in Miami as part of an author interview.
What I learned during that period was that writing for the page is completely different than writing for radio. Now that fellow BTM author Henriette Lazaridis Power has launched The Drum–“A Literary Magazine For Your Ears” I’m thinking again about the spoken word as an art form. And who better to turn to for advice than the award-winning producer, director, writer, podcast guru, and public radio personality Tony Kahn?
On the website of the witty radio game show Says You!–where Kahn is a panelist–his resume says he’s “worked with PBS, NPR, A&E, WGBH, WCVB and all the other letters in the alphabet as well as Nickelodeon and Monitor Radio.” Kahn is also the creator of WGBH Morning Stories and has been its host and producer since 2004. For his broadcast work, he’s received 12 New England Emmys, a National Emmy nomination, six Gold Medals of the New York International Festival, an Ohio State Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award for Feature Reporting, the A.I.R. Radio Award for Radio Interviewing, and the Grand Award for Radio Drama from the New York International Festival. If you don’t recognize his name, I’m certain you’ll recognize his voice. You can listen to his own stories, as well as ones he’s produced for others on his website, Hi, Tony!
Now that I’ve given you such a great intro, are you blushing? Though I suppose that it doesn’t matter, as–like when you’re on the radio–our readers can’t see you.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said humans are the only animals that blush or need to? Blushing is probably even good for you — keeps the pipes of your conscience from getting too clogged. I’ll have to remember to use it as a question the next time I can’t think of what to ask someone in an interview: “When was the last time you blushed?” Anyway, to answer your question, “Yes, I am blushing, a little.”
There’s an old phrase you’ve probably heard — “So and so has a great face for radio.” That’s me, nowadays. When I used to appear on television, people would stop me and say they had just seen something I’d done.” “Really?” I’d ask, “What was it?” “Oh, you know, that thing where you wore a green tie.” Or, even more mystifying, “The piece where you reminded me of my Uncle Lou.” Green tie? Uncle Lou? When it comes to TV I think people sometimes see what’s in the back of their minds, not in front of their eyes. On radio, they at least remember what you were saying.
Beyond the Margins is all about writers and the craft of writing. You’ve written for print, radio, and television, but my main concern here is writing for radio. What differentiates writing for radio and writing for print?
Well, for one thing, you can’t say as much on radio as you can in print. You generally have less time to make your point and you’ve got to assume people are paying less attention (after all, you choose to read a book, but radio sometimes you just run into while you’re doing something else). The general rule for me is keep it simple, make one point vividly instead of three points vaguely, and try to create images that the listener can visualize and so, make his or her own. In other words, avoid abstractions, use verbs and vivid details. “She bit his finger and snarled,” instead of “She responded violently and with menace.”
Remember the classic opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” Great writing for the page. Not so easy to visualize on radio, where you can’t dwell on and savor and re-hear the words.
There are plenty of other generalizations you could make about the differences, I’m sure. But maybe a good way to appreciate the difference is to get some transcripts from your favorite radio commentators or story tellers and read them aloud. Do they feel inevitable, do they roll right off the tongue, do they fill your mind with pictures or stimulate your senses? Do they feel like an experience you’re having rather than just a description of what someone else was doing?
Then there are also radio writers playing with the form, like the wonderful writers and producers of WNYC’s Radio Lab, who often mix their words with other sounds and music and build a narrative out of what they say in the studio with voices they’ve recorded in the field.
Radio writing, like any form of expression, develops with the medium it’s in and these are revolutionary and innovative times for radio..
A number of years ago, I had a written exchange on this topic with the author Sarah Vowell on Transom.org. She said when writing for radio or print she tries to write the way she talks, and added: “On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I’m so much more manipulative on the radio. I know how to use my voice to make you feel a certain way. And that’s not writing–that’s acting. I get tired of acting sometimes. Which is why it’s nice to be able to go back to the cold old page.” You have a distinctive and very expressive voice. Do you ever feel like your radio pieces are a kind of acting?
Acting? I suppose, but in a very personal way. In almost all the things I do, my goal is to make people feel what it’s like to be “the other guy,” to feel so connected to one of my stories that they experience them as something happening to them, or that could happen to them. In that sense, I want to make a personal connection, and the tone of my voice is one of my tools. So, I often imagine I’m telling my story directly to one other person, often someone whom I care for a good deal and whom I want to trust me. I think of my son Andrew, for instance, at different ages, depending upon the subject.
You often incorporate sound effects and music in your radio work, which makes them seem more like mini-plays than essays. Do you think of your work this way? How did this way of working evolve for you?
It evolved out of television, actually, where I worked for the first twenty or so years of my career. I discovered that I always wrote for the ear first, and then the eye. Whatever I decided to shoot I’d usually think of after I’d written the words that I wanted the images to work with. If I went the other way and didn’t think very carefully about making the images complement the sound, then the pictures could easily distract a viewer from the words and music, which were what were creating the emotional effect. This wouldn’t work too well for doing documentaries, of course, but then I’ve always been more of a story teller than a journalist.
Basically, I think the ear is a lot closer to the heart than the eye. My answer to that awful question, “If you had to choose which you’d rather be, deaf or blind?” is blind. I might not see the world any more, but I’d hear its voice — and never be isolated — I’d still be surrounded by people’s voices and the thoughts and feelings they convey.
Your work is diverse, from poignant stories about adopting your son in Mexico and grappling with cancer to funny pieces about delivering pizza in less than 15 minutes. How do you choose what to write about and produce as a radio story?
Usually an assignment and a deadline. The medium is so rich in the kinds of audiences you can get and the ways you can tell a story that I also try not to be typecast. The truth is I need the mix of comedy and tragedy in my life to keep things real. Sadly, I also need someone asking me for a story or I don’t do anything.
What do you see as the limitations of the craft?
I think the sky’s the limit, especially nowadays with new technologies and tools for telling stories to a worldwide audience, and a very change in the nature of the audience itself. For forty years of broadcasting I always had the feeling I was talking TO people who could either choose to listen or tune out. Because of the interactivity of the internet, its worldwide reach and ability to create communities out of people sharing the same interests and passions, there’s a whole new audience out there that sees what you do as part of a conversation they want to contribute to. When I started Morning Stories as a podcast back in 2004, we had an audience of maybe fifty people. By the end of the first five or six weeks, we had an audience of over 300,000 in 200 countries, many of them responding to my stories with stories of their own. They began to shape the content and the way I could tell and enrich a story in a dozen ways. And today, some six years later, it’s still very early days.
Your website says you’re a “Podcast Pioneer.” What are podcasts and how did you get involved with this technology?
I got involved because, for all my years and classical eduction, I’m a gear-head and the first kid on the block to try the latest technology. Soon as I heard my very first podcast (and basically the only one then in existence) I knew I had to produce one out of WGBH for Morning Stories. I was so excited about the idea, I got the station to set up an “RSS Feed” for me before either of us really knew what it was.
Morning Stories became public radio’s first podcast, one of only twenty then on-line, and about a week after the term “podcast” was coined. The term was a “mash-up” as they say of “broadcast” and “iPod,” the runaway gizmo that was also brand new. So the basic idea was a broadcast you could download and listen to on your iPod, meaning anything anyone wanted to produce and upload to the Web that you could then hear when you wanted, where you wanted, and as often as you wanted.” All of a sudden a broadcast was no longer something it took a lot of money to put on the air and that vanished without a trace, but a recording you could respond to and get involved with in a whole new way.
Anyway, I was referred to by the people who got podcasting started as one of its Twelve Pioneers (a great title with absolutely no fringe benefits). The last time I heard the term used for me was in an article called “The Archeology of Podcasting.” Ouch. Just six years from the start and I’m already pre-historic.
As I say, though, it’s still early days and I have very high expectations for what podcasting can turn into. Right now it’s still used primarily by broadcasters as a means of distributing regular, old-fashioned broadcasts on the web. But it’s a new medium with a whole new audience and sooner or later, I hope to see more people in public broadcasting creating original content for it in new formats. I think, for instance, that the whole way we cover controversial issues in the traditional media (usually as a series of polarized arguments between people who won’t give each other an inch) could be turned upside down by podcasting. I have some concrete ideas on how to do that in a Morning Stories kind of style that could encourage less ranting and more common solutions from both “sides.” To plug my idea even more shamelessly, anyone interested in helping to finance the project, should get in touch.
Have you seen the comic book that Ira Glass produced? It’s called “How To Make Radio.” I got a copy years ago, though I was a little overwhelmed by all the technical stuff about digital equipment and editing. I’m sure it’s easy once you get started?
Ira is a phenomenal producer and a spell binding story teller. He can make anything look simple. Like anything worth doing well, learning the tools takes time. But if you love it, the learning is fun and as “easy” as mastering the moves of a great game.
Any tips for beginners, either from a production standpoint, or breaking into the biz?
Make it personal. Find someone in the business you’re interested in and then drive them crazy till they let you hang around what they do and get some practical experience.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview! One last question: what are you working on now?
After a year long illness and a downturn in funding for the kind of work I do, I’ve declared myself “retired.” It’s code for “I have no idea what’ll interest me next or get my juices flowing, but as soon as I do I’m there.”