Feature article from the August 2013 AIRblast

Listening, Pleasure

By Karen Michel and Samara Freemark

It’s summertime and several of us have slowed down enough to be able to catch up on all the listening we’ve put aside till now. We’re sticking in our earbuds during the long hot drive to the beach, lying in our backyard hammocks or inside with the AC cranked.

We’re not talking “easy listening” as in traditional beach reading, but stories that excite, get our blood stirring and our creative juices pumping.

In case you’ve been too busy to create your own audio stockpile, we’ve invited two AIR producers — Karen Michel and Samara Freemark — to create their own lists to share with you.

First up is Samara Freemark. Samara worked with Radio Diaries in New York from 2008 to 2012 and helped produce some of their most memorable work, like the story of Jimmy Weekley, the “last man on the mountain” and “Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.” Samara moved to Minneapolis last year and now she’s working with American RadioWorks making long-form documentaries on education. She says from her perspective, AIR members are making some of the most exciting radio that’s out there. Samara’s divided her picks into genres or categories starting with features then moving to podcasts and last, but not least, news pieces.

Matt Holzman’s Ministry of Presence, for KCRW’s UnFictional, might be the most harrowing piece of radio you’ll listen to this year — and that’s a very good thing. It’s the story of minister Carroll Pickett, who observed 95 executions at Walls Prison unit in Huntsville, Texas, and after each death went home and turned on a tape recorder.

Matt wove Pickett’s home recordings, interviews with him, and archival tape into a monster of a radio piece. In interviews and in his own diaries, Pickett has a wonderful voice, a knack for storytelling, and an eye for detail that can just flatten you. The first cut of tape, in which Pickett describes a lethal injection, hits you like a punch in the stomach. And the detail — that devastating texture — just keeps coming: the checkerboard in the corner of the “death ward”; the inmate whose last request is to hear “In the Rain”; the Muslim inmate who wanted to die reciting “Allahu Akbar,” but didn’t make it past the first syllable.

I’m always impressed by pieces that cut through the hot air of politically charged issues and dig down to the heart and soul and story beneath. Ministry of Presence does that beautifully.

Lu Olkowski’s As Black as We Wish to Be, for State of the Re:Union, has been abundantly praised by authorities far more credentialed than I (hello, Society of Professional Journalists. How you doing, Edward R. Murrow Awards?). But if you’re one of the people out there who hasn’t yet listened to it, drop whatever you’re doing and head over to to stream this tremendously good story.

Lu spent months visiting and reporting in East Jackson, a town in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio whose residents look white but consider themselves black. She won the trust of the community, gained access to their homes and families, and asked incredibly sensitive questions. The result is jaw-dropping.

As Black as We Wish to Be
contains some of the most profound, revelatory, gut-wrenching tape I’ve ever heard. The segment that really slays me comes about 15 minutes in, when we meet an East Jackson mother and her two daughters: one identifies as black, the other insists she’s white — she’s even married to a Ku Klux Klan member. Racial classification is breaking their family apart, and Lu somehow managed to convince them to talk about it all on tape. I can’t remember hearing a more painfully honest moment on air.

Lu recently put together another version of this piece for Radiolab. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but it’s at the very top of my iTunes list.

I’ve loved Lulu Miller’s work for years now. She was one of my favorite Radiolab producers — this piece on face blindness was great — and in addition to working on NPR’s Science Desk, she’s a fabulous presence on the Radiolab blog.

In all her work, whether written or radio, Lulu manages to strike a darn near impossible balance: she’s got a voice full of wonder that never strays into twee. In Lulu’s world, everything is magical and nothing is trite.

Her piece Locusts, which she produced for the Bridge PAI arts organization, blew me away. Locusts is about grasshoppers, but it’s also about awe, and fear, and catastrophe, and humanity. This nine-minute story is built almost wholly from one phone tape interview, Lulu’s narration, and some well-chosen music and sound effects. But a whole universe resides within it.


It’s hard to talk about sex on the radio. The ladies of the Audio Smut podcast do it with charm, wit, and yes, class. This show about “your body, your heart, and your junk” has been around in some form or other since 2006, when it was created by a group of sex workers for McGill University’s radio station. Since then, it’s evolved mightily, and today, it’s a regular podcast produced and hosted by Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli.

Audio Smut spans the full range of the sexual experience — recent shows have covered childbirth, random hookups in movie theaters, and sexually transmitted infections. The interviewees are often shockingly honest, and the hosts have lovely on-air personas: comfortable and engaging and casual. They curse, they’re chatty, and the whole thing feels like spilling secrets with your best friend over a glass — or three — of bourbon.

I resisted Life of the Law for a long time because it’s about … the law. I’m married to a lawyer, so I get enough of that at home. But once I started listening, I was hooked.

Producers Shannon Heffernan, Nancy Mullane, and their very talented crew manage to spin real stories out of complex legal issues, and they make me consider ideas that otherwise would never cross my mind. A recent piece on polyamory (also, coincidentally, by the indefatigable Kaitlin Prest) introduces us to a three-parent family that’s navigating uncharted legal waters. What could be a bad joke is presented gently and humanely, and the story leaves you rooting for the family, even as it teases out the intricacies of family law.

Even better, to my ears, is a segment from Anthony Martinez that starts with the story of a gamer banned from this year’s League of Legends tournament, then takes you deep into the history of virtual crime and the evolution of legal systems within gaming worlds. It’s fascinating, and by the end of the piece, I was wholly convinced that the development of a League of Legends judiciary tribunal is really the story of democracy, writ small.

How to do news

My radio is on A LOT. But honestly, most of the time it’s basically white noise. Every so often, though, something rises up through the murmur and demands attention.
It could be a piece of tape that’s particularly compelling. Or an artful bit of writing. Something that makes me laugh, or stops me in my tracks, or just plain makes me jealous that I didn’t produce it myself.

When those moments happen during a standard newscast, I’m especially thrilled. A handful of AIR producers whose news pieces have turned my head lately:

Stan Alcorn is an independent reporter who covers tech with scene-driven heart and humor. His writing is consistently crisp, smart, and clear, and his turns of phrase are so good they make me angry. His short features for NPR on social networks after death, job searchers with criminal records, and dollar bill hobbyists are paragons of the form.

Tina Antolini is a producer with State of the Re:Union but she files for the network on occasion, and I’m always happy when I hear an intro with her name in it. Her story on a 93-year-old World War II veteran who wrote a symphony in 1945, and the improbable path that led to it finally being performed almost seven decades later, is a delight. Sweet but never syrupy, it’s a feel-good piece, yes, but who’s complaining?

Sally Herships
’s story for WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio investigating New Jersey’s police complaint system is a master class in how to break hard news while telling a good story. The piece brilliantly illuminates the real human stakes of a flawed citizen complaint process at local police stations. In a quick 8.5 minutes, we hear recordings from a police car of an unwarranted traffic stop; we listen to officers dispensing incorrect information about the complaint process; and we meet people who’ve been retaliated against for filing complaints.

It’s easy to consider storytelling and investigative work mutually exclusive categories. Sally’s piece proves that’s not true.

So, AIRsters, go forth and listen! The world is full of good radio, and you’re making a ton of it.

Next up, we hear from Karen Michel, who’s been making (and teaching) radio — as a documentarian, journalist, and audio artist. You’ve heard her arts reporting on NPR: deliciously quirky stories marked by great writing and great wit. For a real taste of Karen’s blend of intelligence and humor, check out what she calls her “obsessive” project, “Live? Die? Kill?: 3 Questions in Various Geographies.” Karen invites us here to open our ears to some of her favorite listening.

Bless Marshall McLuhan for pointing out that we don’t have earlids, just eyelids.

It takes effort (and hands or isolating headphones) to tune out the cosmos. Whether the storytelling is as intentional as a documentary or newscast, or seemingly natural as a bird’s song or the rumble of a bus on Broadway (any Broadway with buses, and there are many) or the tunes digitized for our analog pleasure, we are always listening. I’ve been told that hearing is the last sense to leave us; could be, so long as we don’t count “consciousness” as a sense, and many of us do.

When I listen, whether to radio (in whatever form or time-alteration it manifests) or to the emerging cicadas or, as last weekend, to a bunch of live bands, comedians, and a performance of Radiolab, it’s all the same for me: sounds, constructed (with my complicity) into narratives and into those potentially neuron-tingling ahas of transmitted sonic ecstasy.

One of my favorite pieces of constructed narrative was composed by Howard Berkes in 2003 for NPR. It’s on a contingent of friends and neighbors in a small town in Utah, about to go off to the first Gulf War.

What engages me after literally dozens of listens is everything: writing, delivery, tape, pacing. That writing! I don’t want to give away some of the textual treats; please listen. Also amazing: this was reported/recorded one evening and aired the following morning.

I don’t know if Howard just channeled the experience into transcendent radio or if he had a plot, a plan in mind. I don’t want to know. Listen here to the piece.

Two days ago, while in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to see the retrospective of ceramist/sculptor Ken Price’s marvelous work, I heard one guy say to another about the undulations they were observing: “They serve no function, It’s just art.” I can’t concur: art does have a function and it’s to transcend, that is, for the viewer, the recipient to feel that transcendence. Any art form can do that: radio, for example, when treated as art. On the wall at the Price show: “A craftsman knows what he’s going to make and an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like.” Ken Price, 1993.

As a listener, I don’t necessarily want to know where I’m going, to know that road ahead, to civilization. I get that feeling after repeated listenings to another oldie, this seven years younger (1998) than Berkes’: Dave Isay and Stacy Abramson’s “Sunshine Hotel.”

Again, I’ve listened to this lots of times — literally and clichédly countless times. A portrait of a Bowery flophouse and its inhabitants, the documentary is about as “sound-rich” as anything I’ve ever heard, is respectful of its cast of characters and subject, has about the best narrator ever, and is full of surprises. I’m always learning something new about the people, the nature of sound to envelop the listener.

Both of those stories are narrated, that is, have a narrator. While I’ve produced more than 70 “non-narrated” (everything is really narrated, one way or another) pieces, I find that my ears prefer a guide, an acknowledged “I.” There’s always an “I,” whether it’s the editor in an overtly tape-to-tape, non-narrated piece or it’s the reporter. Having an overt spine appeals to me.

A recent documentary by John Biewen, “Little War on the Prairie,” uses his personal story as its spine. The show delves into the mass execution of Dakota Indians in John’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota, something John never knew about all the time he was growing up. John’s a relaxed, engaging narrator; he speaks to me across the digits: humanizing, analogizing. It’s a story I wouldn’t have known about if not for John’s wanting to explore, to follow his curiosity. The people are interesting tellers of their story, the story the reporter acknowledges as his quest for truth. And, critically, the hourlong doc isn’t tubed by music. Here, the sweetening works. For this listener, frequently music added to a radio piece is cloying, dull, distracting; thankfully that’s not the case here. It probably helps that John plays keyboards, makes music as well as radio.

The other kind of radio I like to listen to is live: call-in shows, DJs, the works. To get a different perspective from what I usually hear, sometimes I’ll listen to Native America Calling. I’ve heard discussions about prescription drug abuse, Native American names for sports teams, and the effect of climate change in the Arctic. I wouldn’t call the show slick, and sometimes the callers sound more lonely than informed; still, those are some of the qualities that attract me.

About the best host I’ve ever heard for live call-in radio is WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, who’s always thoughtful, knowledgeable, compassionate, appropriate. This is one example. Or browse the show's website for your choice of a listen.

WGBH recently started a talk show with two commercial radio vets, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, who lost their jobs when their station, WTKK, changed to all music. I haven’t heard enough yet to know what I think, but I do like the way they reveal personal details rather than keep that enormous distance between themselves and listeners, common to many talk-show hosts. And their chemistry is good; their time together shows … or hears. Best to listen live, noon–2 p.m. ET. It’s Boston Public Radio.

About live: I recently attended a live Radiolab show, as part of the Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Radiolab had a bigger — and quieter — audience than almost any of the bands I’d seen on that stage (they were accompanied by a band, On Fillmore). It was a different experience from listening to Radiolab over the air: Robert Krulwich losing his place in the script a few times; a band member heading into the audience and looming over Jad Abumrad; the laughter. And even for the highly manicured shows (as this was, too), I like the irreverence of Radiolab, which is inherently serious. Y’know?

One last program: To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio. A mix of produced pieces, host interviews, author readings, intelligence, beautiful production. 

I keep looking/listening for a podcast to love but haven’t found one yet. Perhaps it’s because there are no overt time constraints; lots of shows — and the folks in them — go on wildly too long and too self-indulgently. I recently listened to (part of) a podcast with a maybe 15-minute interview with someone who lost me in the first 50 seconds!

Back to Ken Price, the visual artist. There are times in producing for radio that we certainly know where we’re going; we’ve made a map. Other times involve getting lost or what John Cage would call chance operations. Here’s Price’s thought: “… the highway to the unconscious … that’s where I like to be, in that place where you’re open, your mind goes quiet, and before long all kinds of possibilities come.”


What are you listening to? We’re especially interested to know what you’ve got that’s off the beaten path. Tweet it #AIRmedialistens. Happy summer!