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Transom Podcast

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Description is an experiment in channeling new work and voices to public radio through the internet, and for discussing that work, and encouraging more. Our podcast offers some tasty little audio morsels to go.
52 Episodes
Kate O'Connell is a radio producer and a registered nurse who lives and works in New York City, where the coronavirus hit with force. In addition to working in an ER in Queens, Kate has also been chronicling her experiences with the overwhelming reality of this pandemic. We've been featuring Kate’s audio letters on Transom and in our podcast all along, and have just compiled them into an hour, produced with Samantha Broun. We can't say this is an easy listen, but it's an important one. We're grateful to Kate for doing this so that the rest of us might hear and know what we otherwise wouldn't be able to.
Our Show  - The Hour

Our Show - The Hour


Erica Heilman is the producer of the neighborly podcast, Rumble Strip, and when COVID-19 struck, she looked for a way to be useful. She wasn't needed to make school lunches or volunteer at the hospital, so she asked her podcast listeners if they wanted to make something together. Word spread. Around the world. "Our Show" is a gathering of voices, a voluntary oral history of this moment on the planet, a global vox pop. We've been featuring "Our Show" episodes all along on Transom, and have just compiled them into a lovely poetic hour, quite unlike the daily fare. We highly recommend this for the fellowship and the surprise. We may be in it together, but it's not all the same.
Borders Between Us

Borders Between Us


Saidu Tejan-Thomas is a young poet. For a long time, he had a story he needed to tell: an homage and apology to his mother. It's a tragic love story driven by the tangled search for a better life. It's personal for sure, but set against the universal perils of immigration--in Saidu's case, from Sierra Leone in West Africa--but by extension, from anywhere. It uses Saidu's poems as narrative drivers, reveals, and resolutions. These are not easy tasks for poems. When Saidu and Jay identified moments in the story that needed these bridges, Saidu would say something like, "I'll go to the Poem Factory and see what I can do." He always made something perfect. Saidu's words are grounded and elevated, his voice is strong and vulnerable, his outlook is youthful and wise. We can’t understand how he pulls that off. Maybe you can. This was produced with Jay Allison and with support from the NEA. Read more here.
Two Years With Franz

Two Years With Franz


This is a story of art & love, of madness & beauty, of youth & age & death. It took Bianca Giaever 2 years of listening to 546 tapes of Pulitzer-winning Franz Wright to make. Jay Allison guided her. Listen.
Living With Murder

Living With Murder


The story of Kempis Songster, who was given a mandatory life sentence without parole for a crime he committed at 15 years old. He is forty-five now, still incarcerated, but recent Supreme Court rulings are giving him a chance at parole. Produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison in collaboration with the Frontline Dispatch.
  Editor’s Note: This speech was delivered as a “provocation” on the opening night of the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, November, 2016. (photo by Jay Allison) I confess I like preaching, but don’t want you to feel preached to, so I claim that these sermons are for me, and they are . . . even when I don’t heed them. They’re heretical in that they’re the opposite of a lot of advice, but they’re some of the things I tell myself when I stray from what feels most abidingly important. Maybe they’re exhortations to stay true to my younger self — not to be as foolish maybe, but to be brave and good-hearted — something that feels more critical than ever in these days.   Sermon 1: Don’t Ask Permission You want to get on the air, be on a show, have your story out there — but as you make your pitches, keep something precious in reserve and don’t pitch it. Just make it. Don’t even really plan it or predict what the narrative or sound will be. Just follow it and see what happens. Be dogged in the expedition. The joy of this work is the exploration and discovery — both of which are antithetical to pitching, which even for the best of us, can inadvertently cripple the imagination by determining your trip before you walk it. Walk in the dark, microphone extended, and don’t ask permission.   Sermon 2: Be Odd Here’s the convention: Listen to the work you like or shows you want to be on, and then work in that style. Okay. But also: Don’t produce in someone else’s mold; don’t subscribe to someone else’s existing theory of narrative, musical tone, structural traditions, in a voice we’ve already heard. Find a new one. Make something we’ve never heard before. Sure you can copy, and learn from the exercise, but sometimes: Be a poet. Be odd. Stick out. I miss the whacko fringe in public media. It’s important, because the edges can move the center. So, nourish the Fringe in yourself. And, while you’re at it, as useful as group edits can be, choose not to submit to them sometimes. Groups can make things that sound like groups made them. The edges are worn off, the individual fingerprint gone. How fine it is to see someone out on a limb by themselves. That’s how new things happen — by following a seemingly crazy impulse. You will fall and fail sometimes, but it can be important, for yourself and for others who witness your risk. Once in a while, fail nobly, on your own.   Sermon 3: Stay Home Don’t just connect with like-minded strangers far away. Radio producers are fundamentally dysfunctional. We want disembodied intimacy, which is a bit weird. We create detached connection, blind one-way communication. Remember to counter that. Do something on the ground with people who share the spot where you live, including the ones you disagree with and that don’t look like you. Build something from place. The Internet promised to connect us, but it has us hunkering in our chosen silos. Interview your neighbors, and look them in the eye. Maybe, where you live, you can introduce people to one another, calm one person’s fear, enlarge the civic space by inviting everyone to participate. Don’t necessarily move to Brooklyn. Find a place you love and dig in. Make it better.   Sermon 4: Don’t Try To Be Cool Don’t be afraid to be sincere. It’s a snarky world; we all want to be in on the joke and we don’t want to be the butt of it. When you’re sincere, you are close to earnestness and open to mockery. It’s much, much riskier to be sincere than to be ironic. The heartfelt is rare,
*Editor’s Note: This conversation was recorded on October 25, 2016. Jenna: So let’s start with who are you and what do you do? Laura: I’m Laura Walker, I’m the President and CEO of New York Public Radio. Jenna: And how long have you been here? Laura: Very long. [Laughter] I’ve been here for twenty years. Jenna: Really? Laura: Really. Jenna: What job did you start out doing here? Laura: President and CEO. [Laughter] I came when the board had made a deal with Mayor Guiliani to buy the stations for twenty million dollars. And there were two radio stations and, I think, two reporters. And we, over time, bought the stations and created much stronger radio stations.   The Road to WNYC Jenna: And what were you doing before WNYC? Laura: I started out as a print journalist and then I did radio. I worked at NPR for a little bit. I loved editing tape and I loved creating. It is so fun. And then I went to business school, and then did a little consulting, and then I was at Sesame Workshop for eight years where I worked on Ghostwriter, which was a mystery adventure. Jenna: It was my very favorite show, probably of all time. It was such a great show. [Laughter] Laura: Thank you. Jenna: No, it was the best show ever. I still sing the song from it all the time. Laura: Oh wow. Jenna: And what drew you to public media initially? Laura: I love the combination of mission and really great journalism and storytelling. But also competing in the real world for both attention and, you know, having to get out there and make some revenue and kind of build a business. Jenna: Yeah, that’s interesting. [Laughter] Laura: It’s a great combination.   Public Media’s Mission Jenna: Just how has public media changed since you started working in it? And how do you think it still needs to change? Laura: I think the fundamental kind of goals of public media are still very much the same. You read that wonderful speech that Lyndon Johnson gave almost fifty years ago, you know, when he set up CBP, and he quoted E.B. White and he talked about the theater of the imagination and the mission to tell the stories of America. So I think it’s still very much a fundamental mission to do great news, to tell great stories and to lift the voices of those that are not heard. When I first worked in public media, I was an intern at WGBH, and then I went to NPR and it reminds me actually of what podcasting feels like now. I mean, NPR in 1980, which is when, you know, nobody was over the age of thirty. There was this kind of like we’re changing the world thing, we’re doing something that’s really important, we’re going to be the best journalists. But we have this medium of radio that we’re redefining, and I think in some ways that’s come back. I think it’s very hard economically for a lot of the stations to actually have a mission in their communities that’s more of a news mission. They do a lot of outreach and other things. I think the journalism of radio and the deep roots in the community, and the fact that so many newspapers are, you know, like you look at what’s happened to the Bergen Record where they’re laying off half their reporters. Who’s gonna fill the void? I think it’s gonna be public radio to a large extent, and so all eyes are on us in a way that feels like we have a huge responsibility.   Podcasting at (especially small) Public Radio Stations Jenna: Definitely. Podcasting has taken on a big role in public radio and it’s taken on kind of a controversial role. There are some people in public media who seem afraid of podcasting, there are some people who think that podcasting and radio are at war, which I don’t agree with that at all. [Laughs] I think that everything can work really well together, and that it doesn’t have to be this competition between podcasting and radio.
The moment I heard about Jim Salestrom, I knew. Not only was this the story I wanted to do for the Transom Traveling Workshop, but I knew in my gut the story was also about me. I came to the Transom Traveling Workshop with all sorts of notions as to what Good and Bad in audio storytelling means. I’ve been hanging out around these parts for quite a while now. My love affair with, and frankly my need for, this medium as a listener has also opened up something that has grown in me alongside: I want to make stories, too. And I want them to be good. I started to pay attention: Reading about the thing, talking about the thing, gathering equipment for the thing, trying my hand at the thing, taking $15 online classes in the thing, even going so far as to land a fantastic job in the thing…getting to work directly with people who actually DO the thing! I applied for the Transom Traveling Workshop knowing it’s like the Ivy League School of audio storytelling training camp without actually being a school. Not only did I want to learn to make something, but to learn the proper way to make something: what the best equipment is and how to use it, writing, recording, editing, levels, what’s the perfect length. . . essentially The Rules. And of course I had lots of assumptions and beliefs as to what those rules are. Rule #1: Real Journalists Make Serious Stuff (and keep themselves out of the story). Reality: I worked myself up to the point of tears with my entire class admitting the truth of this story as it came to me, and that I was in it as a subject. To my amazement, no one had an issue with this — they even encouraged it! Rule #2: Use The Right Gear. (Something like the TASCAM 1776, or the ZOOM H1N1…right??) Reality: Doesn’t matter. Use your iPhone. Get something decent that you can afford and just start recording. Rule #3: This one is more like an assumption: Collaborating on stories, and reading and editing each other’s scripts, will expose all of my weaknesses as a writer and my shallow ideas. It will be torture, it will be humiliating, but it will be good for me. Like broccoli. Reality: The latter was true, the former was not. In fact, it actually made me feel better about my writing. Collaborating with a supportive peer group and leaders not only made the story better, it focused it and gave me ideas which I willingly used, and invested me deeply in other people’s stories and processes, and gave me a new community. I also happen to like broccoli. Rule #4: The right length for this piece, for a “real” radio piece, is about 4.5 minutes. Reality: I panicked when mine came in at 10+ minutes, only after brutal slashing (torture!) and rewriting. “They are going to send me packing!” You know what they said? The best story length is as long as the story needs to be. This story is 10+ minutes. I also got some things right. An enormous amount of work goes into making good audio stories. All of the writing and rewriting, collaborating, shaping, editing, leveling. . .it takes hours. Days. All of that logging of tape and transcribing that I was really hoping to find out one doesn’t actually have to do? It was an essential resource as I tried to find the story I was trying to structure again and again. There’s a method to the madness. It’s worth learning the process. Most of what I’ve been assuming in this realm turns out to be true. Dang. Amazingly, the piece I wound up making paralleled this exact journey. In its essence, the story is about just being who you are. Real Journalists DO make serious stuff, and they do keep themselves out of the story. I am enormously indebted to, and in awe of, the people who do this. The thing is. . . I’m not a journalist. I don’t need to try to pretend to be or try to be in order to make stuff. The stuff I want to make is the stuff that comes...
Last fall at the very end of the semester I saw a poster in the hallway of the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University for one of my favorite podcasts, Love and Radio by Nick van der Kolk. It turns out that it wasn’t a poster for the podcast (Do podcasts have posters? They really should!) but rather for a graduate level documentary radio class that van der Kolk was teaching at VCUarts this spring in the Department of Kinetic Imaging. I wished that I was a student again so that I could take his class. It turns out that one of the benefits of working at VCUarts is the ability to take up to two classes per semester tuition free. This January I registered for Nick’s class and took my seat in the classroom as a student rather than as an instructor. I hadn’t been on the student side of a classroom in more than ten years and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to shed the “let me show you how to do that” mentality that comes with ten years of teaching experience. Old Dog, New Tricks I teach film and video production courses and even have an audio podcast assignment built into my syllabus. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to learn in Nick’s seminar. The first day of class let me know that I would be learning a lot. For one, Nick’s favored form of audio capture is with the onboard mics of an H4N Zoom recorder. Having taught the Zooms for the last five years, I would normally bring out a host of cardioid, shotgun and lavalier microphones with boom poles, long runs of xlr cable and windscreens and show my students how to use them rather than the onboard mics, anything but the onboard mics. I quickly relearned that radio production is not film production, and that microphone proximity is the key factor in audio quality, not expensive Sennheiser shotguns (although they are amazing). Without having to worry about seeing audio equipment in the shot, I was instructed to get the Zoom as close to my subjects as I could (a fists length away) and to record in stereo using one of the X/Y mics for my subject and the other one to record my questions. Nick also taught us about how to avoid plosives when working so close to your subject. My favorite production trick that Nick shared was one he uses to get people comfortable with the unfamiliar equipment that we use with its giant foam or furry windscreens — he scratches his face while holding his equipment in his hand. It works! The End is Usually the Beginning This audio piece was recorded as part the Vox Populi assignment in Nick van der Kolk’s seminar. We were instructed to go out and conduct interviews with strangers in public. I chose to look for interview subjects at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on Super Bowl Sunday. I asked people the question: “If the VMFA were the NFL and the works of art on the wall were the teams in the Super Bowl of Art, which piece of art would you root for?” My first interview was with Vixi Jill Glenn who was visiting from Boone, North Carolina. Nick instructed us to always leave the tape rolling and equipment in recording position even after the interview questions were answered. After Vixi finished telling me about her favorite Rodin sculpture at the VMFA, she revealed that she was a “Keeper” of the Appalachian Jack tales, which include a series of more than a hundred stories about the Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame. In this piece Vixi Jill Glenn tells the Hicks’ family version of “Jack and the Bag of Death.” Listening and Learning I learned to listen again this semester. Both in the field and more importantly in the classroom as a student. It was such a gift to be on the student side of the classroom, to be reminded of what it is like for my students in my own classes. Face to face,
Revisiting Difficult Things The story of the violent crime my mother survived in the fall of 1994 has never been something I share easily. It’s more something I offer after I’ve really gotten to know someone and feel that there’s something important they need to know about me, about my family. I’m acutely aware of the impact this crime has had on my mother’s life, on our family’s life, and I’ve always had a sense of its larger consequences. I thought if I could tell the story of both the intimate and the public impact, it might be worthwhile. There were a lot of people who warned me this would be hard. And it was. Hardest of all was hearing again the details of what happened to my mother that night. And then hearing them repeatedly as I transcribed our interviews, assembled the script, cut tape, and listened to mixes. I spent many days horizontal on my couch, literally knocked over and out again (nearly 20 years later) by what happened to her. Revisiting difficult topics isn’t for everyone. When I interviewed my brother for this piece he said he doesn’t like to talk about it. I’ve come to respect that point of view. Over the past two plus years, I’ve had stomach aches and nightmares, I’ve locked my doors more than before, and one day was even sure I saw Reginald McFadden (the man who attacked my mother) walking down the street in the small town where I live. Still, I know myself well enough to know what I can tolerate and that ultimately, for me, it’s always better to stare hard stuff straight in the eye than to turn away from it. Here are a few things I learned from producing this documentary. Willingness To Talk My mother started talking about what happened to her the night she landed in the emergency room and hasn’t stopped since. She says that talking about it has saved her life. Going into this, I knew she would be willing to talk with me about what happened to her. But I had no idea about how others — family members and strangers — would feel about me, out of the blue two decades later, asking them to talk on tape about their connection to events before and after the attack. To my surprise, most people I reached out to said yes. Yes. Immediately yes. There was a sense that they had been waiting to talk to someone else who also carried this event around with them. And that’s often the way the interviews would go. After introductory awkwardness and pleasantries, we would jump right into what for some of the interviewees was one of the most difficult times in their lives. And our conversations would go deep. I always left the interviews exhausted. I’m sure the people I interviewed did too. I think Mark Singel (who I talked with for three hours) summed it up best. Producer Me And Me Me I have never done a personal piece before. While working on it, I became keenly aware of Producer Me (head) and Me Me (heart and belly). Producer Me would think about what was good for the piece, would handle details, would think about the story. Me Me was on a personal journey, was feeling lots of feelings. Me Me was seeking answers and resolution. The beauty of this, it turns out, is that despite the fact that I was on my own in the field conducting these interviews, I never felt alone — these two parts of me worked together and helped each other through the rough patches. For example, it was Me Me that convinced me to go to McFadden’s sister’s house in Philadelphia and it was Me Me who got me out of the car to approach her. Meeting Charlotte was something I had thought about for 20 years; I knew if I left the city and didn’t at least try to find her, I would regret it. It was Producer Me, though, who thought to turn on my iPhone and record the whole thing. On the other hand, Producer Me knew going to meet McFadden himself — or even trying to — would probably make great tape.
What Miranda July Can Teach (& Remind) Us About Making Media for the Public Admittedly, I over prepared for this interview. Beyond spending many evenings researching and thinking, I also hijacked every one of my hangouts with friends for months, turning brunches and walks into tactical conversations about July’s work and what makes it so compelling and unique. Along the way, it became clear that Miranda July’s work shares much in common with public media’s work. Here’s just a short list of the overlap. Both July and public media makers: * Produce audio / radio / video / films * Publish a newsletter * Make apps * Perform live shows * Sell branded bags for the super fans (July’s is not a tote bag for the farmer’s market, but it has quite a few compelling uses) * Toggle between nonfiction and fiction storytelling * Have a distinct sensibility, so much so that The Onion has had their fun with both July and public radio * Create deep intimacy and empathy with audiences All things were considered, which meant I had far too many questions for an hour’s worth of time. (Here’s what I had prepped for the interview, if you’re curious.) This also meant I surely missed a lot of opportunities to follow interesting threads that emerged, and go deep where my antenna sensed more to plumb, because there was just too much ground to cover. So rather than present a straight Q&A, here’s a distillation and expansion on some highlights of the conversation … a quasi-interview turned “classy listicle” (if that’s not an oxymoron). The accompanying audio is fairly different from what’s below, so feel free to give both your time. OK. On with it. Here are 9 key takeaways from my conversation with July — many of which I can’t help but think hold lessons and creative challenges and opportunities for public media. * Audio work teaches rigor * Make people feel the news * Lena Dunham is coming for your job * Comfort with vulnerability is a super power * Not taking risks? Red flag * Generosity over genius * The audience = wild cards, and that’s great * Audience engagement is an iterative process * What some of you asked her       Though Miranda July may be most well known as a filmmaker and author, her earliest work was in audio, creating radio plays in her early twenties. One early piece was called WSNO Radio Sno: Broadcasting From the Coldness of Your Heart in which she played the host and all of the callers. I wondered how she decided on audio as one of her earliest forms of expression. She explained that the term “radio plays” wasn’t intentional — it came about as a kind of shorthand way to explain the work. MJ: Really I wanted to be making movies and for some reason, it never occurred to me to just get as close to Hollywood or a professional filmmaker as possible. Instead, I would do things like what I called a “live movie,” which was aka a play, or a performance.
Rob Rosenthal, Lead Instructor Rob Rosenthal …one of the things I love most about my job as lead instructor [is] I have no idea what’s going to happen. From day-to-day, from workshop to workshop… every class is different. The stories are different. Even the style of storytelling is different… Read more. TSW: Class of Fall 2015 “No Flush, No Fuss” by Devika Bakshi Devika Bakshi Follow the good tape. Like a besotted stalker. Like you followed Teju Cole on Twitter. With utter devotion. Read more and listen. “Good Intentions: A Story of Cross-Racial Adoption” by Brenna Daldorph Brenna Daldorph Someone once told me that if you are comfortable during discussions about race, then nothing important is actually being said. I held that close to heart as I worked on this piece… Read more and listen. “An Act Relative To Sex Offenders” by Ciara Gillan Ciara Gillan You’re prepped from the outset that your story may not unfold the way you thought it would. But sometimes, at that very last minute, your story can grab you by the ears and spin you right upside down. Read more and listen. “More Than A Game” by Jimmy Gutierrez Jimmy Gutierrez It took me a long, long, long time before I understood the ingredients to make this story work. In the editing process I relied heavily on all eight classmates, along with Rob and Catie. Read more and listen. “Ears Underwater” by Bethel Habte Bethel Habte …go out and drink beers with scientists. More generally, always be on the hunt for stories. Read more and listen. “Trigger Warning” by Jacqui Helbert Jacqui Helbert It was extremely difficult to share so much about myself and make myself vulnerable while working on the piece. But both Paige and I are happy with the end result and hope that our story will help someone who has suffered at the hands of a family member. Read more and listen. “Secession’s the Answer” by Sally Helm Sally Helm On my way to gather tape at the karaoke bar, I wondered if I was crazy to think that this might work. At first it was awkward to record people on their night out. By the end of the night, though, I’d started to enjoy the rush that comes from talking to strangers and going out on a limb. Read more and listen. “Driving In Circles” by Martine Powers Martine Powers Coming from the world of print journalism, I always believed in the adage, “Everyone needs an editor.” Here’s what I learned at Transom: Everyone needs eight editors. Or nine. Or ten. Read more and listen.
Anatomy Of A Code Blue

Anatomy Of A Code Blue


A “Code Blue” You’ve seen it on TV. The line on the heart monitor goes flat. Reassuring beeps are overtaken by the ominous, solid tone of death. Doctors come running, throw electric paddles on the chest and yell, “Clear!” The patient springs back to life — most of the time, at least on TV. Yet a “code blue” can also be traumatic. A large nurse throws his entire weight onto the chest of a frail ninety-year old, cracking multiple ribs. A doctor tears off the patient’s gown. Each chest compression launches blood from the patient’s mouth showering his naked body. Drugs upon drugs squeeze blood to vital organs, but when his heart starts again most of his brain may have already died from lack of oxygen. A “code blue” is hospital-speak for advanced cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It is an attempt to restart the heart when it has stopped. On television codes are successful 75% of the time. In reality about 20% of patients live to leave the hospital. Whether a code is a magnificent life-saving feat or a brutal exercise in futility depends entirely on the overall condition and context of the patient’s life. In many cases the outcome is very difficult to predict. In weaving together the narrative of a code, my goal was not to answer the incredibly complex question of when or whether we should attempt to resuscitate. Rather, I wanted to explore what happens to hospital staff when grappling with acute uncertainty around our ability to combat death. Confronting Death I envisioned a story that was part medical documentary and part collective memory piece, drawing on many people’s experiences of working on the wards over many years. Paradoxically, I found my most powerful inspiration in the narrative form of the radio documentary Witness to an Execution by Stacy Abramson and David Isay. Witness tells the story of how lethal injections are carried out in Texas by weaving together the experiences of the full range of “death house” staff — the warden, the chaplain, the media correspondent, the “tie-down crew.” For me, the power of Witness comes largely from what it does not do. By not focusing on a single execution, not including recordings from any live event and not editorializing, it brings us deeper into the multi-layered experiences of those who live these events on a regular basis. I don’t think it was simply coincidental and ironic that my narrative about resuscitation found its inspiration in a piece about executions. Both moments of confronting death evoke emotions that cut through the more comfortably defined parameters of one’s “role” or “job.” Why Audio I originally turned to audio because of its power to immerse listeners in subjective experience. While video presents a reality seen through the camera’s lens, audio compels the listener to construct a mental and emotional image from the words and voices of those who have lived it. Audio also enabled me to capture a greater range of experience. By recording staff whose voices, accents and languages evoke their diverse backgrounds, I hoped to create a virtual conversation that might never occur due to the divisions within the hospital heirarchy. Indeed, nearly half of my subjects said they would not have talked with me if this were video. Before coming to their interviews many wanted to confirm, “No camera, right?” Logistics, Technical Aspects and Gear It took almost eight months of conversations with various hospitals to obtain permission to start recording. Privacy and legal concerns make this an extremely sensitive subject. I ultimately connected with leaders who shared a love for public radio in an institution that is actively working towards providing medical care with greater transparency. In addition, recording in the hospital turned out to be a technical challenge.
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Jul 6th
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