Programs/Publications

Feature article from the June 2009 AIRblast

Radio as a Second Language

By Hammad Ahmed


Hammad Ahmed learned English by watching
Nickelodeon. He learned radio by interning at NPR stations. As AIR’s Live-Interactive Resident in Seattle, he and fellow independent Emily Eagle put both together — making radio about learning English. We asked him to explain their project, RadioLingual, and what it says about the future of public media.

 


BOSTON, Summer 2008

On my first day as an intern at WBUR’s Here and Now, I got to observe a taped telephone two-way. The guest was a writer in India. I was excited to be part of a show that sought interviewees outside the United States. But the interview was cut short. The engineer said the sound quality was bad and the guy’s accent was worse.

Now to my ears, his Hindi-accented English was perfectly intelligible. Of course, I grew up around accents like his. My family moved to the United States from Pakistan when I was two. My parents loved to practice their English on my brother and me. Almost all of our family friends were Pakistani immigrants as well. So I was fairly well attuned to the particular cadences of Urdu and Hindi speakers. I know that whackuum is their way of saying vacuum.

I guess most public radio listeners don’t. Or at least that’s the assumption that producers tend to make. But is that a good assumption? And even if it is, why not challenge the listener? Why not expose her to an accent she can’t fully understand, in the hopes that increased exposure will eventually lead to comprehension.

But I didn’t have much time to try to change the status quo. My internship in Boston was soon over, and I moved on to another one with WNYC’s Studio 360 in New York City.

 

NEW YORK AND CHICAGO, Fall 2008

The neighborhood where I lived in Brooklyn had an entire stretch of storefronts written in Urdu: Beauty Salon. Car Repair. Kidney Specialist. Phone cards. Some of the signs didn’t even have an English translation. More than ever, I thought, if Brooklyn could do it, so could NPR.

Finally, the opportunity arose to try and create accented radio. I was at the annual Third Coast Conference when I stopped by the table of the Association of Independents in Radio. That’s where I met Sue Schardt. Sue is AIR’s executive director. There was a stack of flyers on the table publicizing the Live-Interactive Residency.

“You should apply for this,” she said to me. I thought, yeah right. What chance do I have at this highly publicized, well-funded position versus all the other super-experienced producers out there? I didn’t know at the time that it was the first year AIR was sponsoring this residency. That it was a new experiment for them.

“We were interested in tapping into the younger talent that’s coming into the organization,” Sue explains in hindsight. “Producers who had developed chops but hadn’t settled into exactly what they wanted to be doing and could up and move someplace for 10 weeks, especially if it involved playing with technology in new ways.” Well, I’m glad I took the flyer she handed me.

At Third Coast, I also met the person who would later become my cohort and co-conspirator: Emily Eagle. She and I sat at the same lunch table and immediately clicked. I found out she was from Washington state. She’d lived for a time in Nepal and Bangladesh. And she had volunteered with ESL classrooms. She had a really awesome block-printed business card, too.

It was a business card that came in handy when I found out I got the residency. I e-mailed to ask about her plans, and when it became clear that we were both going to be in Seattle at the same time, we decided to collaborate. And that’s how RadioLingual was born.

 

SEATTLE, Winter 2009

If there is one word that summarizes everything that came next, it is “ambitious.”

I knew what I wanted to do: capture the stories and voices of people learning English. And as part of my contract, there was a whole list of other goals: Be “live and interactive,” use the Web and new media, find new ways of telling stories through sound. I would be working three days a week at NPR member station KUOW 94.9 FM, which boasts the largest listenership in Washington state, and two days a week at Jack Straw Productions, a nonprofit audio arts center that supports local musicians, writers, and youth. And I would be expected to bring the two worlds together somehow.

Emily and I decided to offer a free radio workshop at Jack Straw for people learning to speak English. We would podcast sound collected by our students, and we would help them shape stories about their experiences in Seattle. We would also bring them on the air at KUOW, maybe for live call-in language lessons or just to play their pieces.

Emily and I looked all over Seattle for people who were learning English as adults: immigrants, visitors, English as a Second Language (ESL) students. We went to libraries, universities, churches, Indian spice shops, Ethiopian restaurants, Greek bakeries. I subscribed to Mosque listservs and collected business cards from international nonprofits. I’m a skinny person already, but in the first two weeks, I probably lost a couple more pounds to stress.

On the first night of our radio workshop, four people showed up: Charlie, Masae, Masa, and Ai. With the exception of Charlie, they were all exchange students at the University of Washington. I was a little disappointed that they were all East Asian. But there was no time for self-pity. We started the workshop by playing short examples of public radio documentaries we liked. After the first clip, the students were confused. It wasn’t their idea of radio.

This was only the first in a long series of unforeseen challenges to the workshop idea:

1) We asked Masa to bring his laptop to the workshop so we could play around in Audacity. But his operating system was in Japanese. And Audacity was in English. So none of the program menus had any text.

2) There was no wireless Internet in the building.

3) The students’ course schedules changed midway through the workshop, and some could no longer come to RadioLingual.

Fortunately, the workshop was not the only thing we were doing to collect audio. Emily and I were also scouting for stories in the field.

We recorded autobiographies written and read by nonnative English speakers in Seattle’s AmeriCorps literacy program. We went to the Seattle Public Library’s ESL conversation group to find out what immigrants couldn’t figure out about English (e.g., “What does start from scratch mean?”) And we created vox pop-style answers to the questions we’d recorded, using Web-based audio tools Wagwire and Google Voice. (See what I’m talking about at www.jackstraw.org/radiolingual.)

“It was great to have you and Emily bring your passion and energy to our studios,” Jack Straw Executive Director Joan Rabinowitz told me. Her staff had already been working with high school English-language learners, so our slightly older population dovetailed nicely. “Working with diverse ethnic communities is second nature to us, so we were able to help you prepare for unforeseen problems.”

That was the “interactive” part. What about the “live” part?

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I was a producer at KUOW’s live news call-in show, The Conversation with host Ross Reynolds.

I had expected it to be similar to the other shows I’d interned for: one host, a dozen producers, some unpaid fledglings. Well, sitting at a table with three other people that first 8 a.m. meeting, I wondered if part of the staff was going to show up late. Nope.

The Conversation is one of the most efficient shops I’ve seen. But that comes at a cost. A handful of people producing an hour of content every day can’t do much long-term planning. They were totally open and supportive to all my ideas, but that didn’t change the news deadlines.

When, for example, I tried encouraging our workshop participants to be guests on the air — talking about life in Seattle vs. life in their home country — they were silent. So I scouted for stories relating to East Asia, for which they could be “experts.” That didn’t work either. Most stories would only be newsy for a day or so — not long enough to get in touch with a participant and ask him or her to prepare.

So I went looking beyond the workshop. When Ross and staff suggested a future show on the theme “Life in Afghanistan,” I got excited. I suggested we find local Afghan folks in Seattle, have them reminisce, compare this country to that one. I knew that Jack Straw would soon have some young Afghan refugees coming to record poems they’d written. I imagined spending time scattered over a month putting this together. Then I noticed that the show was scheduled for the next week, in time for newsy headlines about a new military strategy.

I ended up going to an Afghan restaurant and talking to the owner for about two hours, all of which was boiled down to about three minutes of on-air drop-ins.

Ross Reynolds and I debriefed about this recently. “Besides doing projects and working on the show, you were dealing with an unstructured environment, reacting to change, and modifying your plan,” he noticed. “It reminded me of my brother’s stories of the Peace Corps, where he felt dropped into a new environment and no matter what the plan, he had to improvise.”

About three weeks in, I decided to stop rowing so hard against the current. I had a lot of Web and software skills. And the staff was so happy to let me use them to improve the interactivity of the show. I became a kind of new-media and post-production consultant for The Conversation. Getting the sound of nonnative English on the air became a lesser goal, but I managed here and there to sneak in an Afghan businessman or a Tibetan monk. And when I did, the response was always enthusiastic. Never once did a producer or listener remark that an accent was too heavy. Instead, the only criticism I remember, of all things, was that the native English narration wasn’t necessary.

 

THE MISSING HYPHEN

Live and Interactive. KUOW and Jack Straw. How did the two worlds come together? Ultimately, they did not. Except in small ways. (One night, Ross Reynolds visited Jack Straw to be a guest speaker at the radio workshop. And I used some of the contacts I had made at Jack Straw to help me in booking for The Conversation.) By and large, the two worlds were in different time zones.

And yet, as a producer I was able to take skills from each environment to apply to the other. At KUOW, I learned that listeners who call the show are much more likely to have something interesting to say if they have a model to work from — like the previous call or a short, produced segment that just aired. Well, at Jack Straw, we built the RadioLingual Web site so that Web “callers” would have audio to react to, be it the sound of a nonnative English speaker asking a question, or other callers giving their answers.

At Jack Straw, I learned that lending out recording kits to an insider is the most direct route to that hard-to-get tape. I’m thinking of the really intimate tape that our students got with their host families. The audio quality isn’t perfect, but who cares? The authenticity is priceless. At KUOW, I lent a recorder to an Iranian friend who wound up getting some great audio at a Persian New Year celebration that I couldn’t make it to.

Another lesson I learned, perhaps the strongest one, was that single-person scripted narration is out. We tried that. It sounds just like every other NPR announcer — distant, impersonal, bland. Instead, Emily and I sat down next to each other with nothing but a microphone between us. And we had a conversation. The cutting was remarkably easy, and the sound is so much more concise and fresh. Just say no to sitting alone in a voice-over booth with a printed script. Think live. Think interactive.

 

THE ROAD AHEAD

Because the residency was so ambitious, we didn’t accomplish every single goal. But we still ended up doing a lot. And we saw our impact.

We helped Ai discover a new side of herself, and she’s now hoping to explore radio internships in Japan. We learned which English color word is the most confusing for Spanish speakers (listen to find out), and we helped a young Thai woman come to understand the meaning of “stop and smell the flowers.” We coached a Filipina woman as she came to terms with her story of losing her job and her house. We gave new people an idea of the world across the antenna.

And I realize now that NPR stations, like WBUR in Boston and like KUOW in Seattle, are not against the idea of weird accents and unfamiliar voices on the air. If The Conversation is any indication, even the most focused and specific shows want to experiment. But in so many cases, there really is no time or manpower.

The answer, I think, lies in recruiting listeners more actively in the generation of content. Through calls, through uploading cell phone audio, YouTube videos, sharing MP3s, hotlines, recorded conversations, Wagwire, Google Voice, whatever technology allows.

Even though my residency is over, the project lives on. The awesome folks at Jack Straw are thinking of ways to expand RadioLingual geographically. I can only hope it will be part of a larger trend. Maybe one day public media will better reflect the linguistic diversity of America, with it all its accents, all its languages, all the strange ways of making meaning from sound.

After stints in Boston, New York, and Seattle, Hammad has settled in D.C. Aside from freelancing and attending several weddings this summer, he may be attempting to write some fiction. In the fall, he starts law school at Georgetown.