The Natural State

Natural gas well. Photo by Long Haul Productions.

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A little bit of criticism is okay. It’s good to hear constructive (and, sometimes, not-so-constructive) feedback.

However, a LOT of criticism, especially if it’s pointed, well…. that’s just plain hard to take.

National Public Radio received a slew of listener complaints about Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister’s July 8 story “The Natural State” which aired on All Things Considered. Robert Siegel and Michele Norris even read a few ‘jabs’ on-air.

“The Natural State” is part of Dan and Elizabeth’s on-going series Song+Story where they meld traditional reporting and song writing — an adventurous approach to storytelling. But, apparently, it’s too adventurous for NPR’s listeners.

Dan and Elizabeth talk about the public reaction to the story on this edition of HowSound. And, of course, we feature the piece, too. Have a listen.

Cheers,
Rob

PS – Here’s a link to all of Dan and Elizabeth’s work posted at PRX.

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10 comments to The Natural State

  • adam

    I think the reaction would have been less severe had the singer/songwriters chosen for this particular piece been less awful. I object far less to the style and content of the piece than to the poor quality of the music created/chosen to accompany it.

  • Shyla

    The Natural State was not too adventurous for this NPR listener. I think Elizabeth is right: critics are more motivated to comment. I loved this piece; the music created a reflective space that helped me weigh and understand what I was hearing. There is a place for dry reporting but we shouldn’t confuse a lack of obvious artfulness with truth or integrity. Surely there is a place for this type of storytelling. If not on ALL Things Considered, where? Please carry on Dan and Elizabeth!

  • Brock Lueck

    The themes covered (now and with the Saltcast) always seem to touch on something that I have been thinking about at the time. Thanks!

  • Erika

    NPR listeners expect even-handed journalism presented in a thoughtful but objective manner. When I first heard this piece on ATC, I immediately found it emotionally manipulative rather than journalistic. It felt like a melancholy disaster montage more likely to be played on an “American Idol Gives Back” episode than on NPR. Something so subjective would be better suited for a show like This American Life where such clear opinions and creative storytelling are expected. That being said, I am a songwriter in Nashville, and was completely confused by this music. It started out ok, but the lyrics and vocals got weirder as the piece progressed. At times, the lyrics, music and speaking began to feel like a spoof, almost like a “real men of genius” budweiser ad. Almost laughable in parts. It wasn’t the “creativity” that listeners were objecting too. I’d suggest sticking with Sufjan.

  • Assia

    Agreed, its not so much the style as it is the music itself… here’s an example of a news-song, and it happens to be on the same exact subject “fracking,” that is done really well (think: school house rock). http://explainer.net/thefrackingsong/

  • [...] Sound” podcaster Rob Rosenthal later interviewed the producers, Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, about the experience. The upshot? It sucked, but [...]

  • When I heard the introduction to today’s show, I immediately knew the piece you were talking about. I heard it when it first aired on All Things Considered. I believe I was washing dishes, coincidentally. After the story-song aired, went to the ATC website to complain, and found that I was not the first to comment.

    I am someone who is much more likely to leave feedback when a piece is especially good–see my commenting history on the Saltcast, for instance ; ) But I could not help myself with this one.

    The song, though custom written for the piece, is just not a good song, in my opinion. The difference between The Natural State and Great God Bird is stark. A story about a woodpecker–you’re not looking for a lot of information, and there is one focus. A story about fracking–there are many unanswered questions and differing opinions. Sufjan Stevens–he tends to write melodic story songs, and a lot of his music is already used in between NPR stories or on TAL. Bonnie Prince Billy’s songwriting is more brooding and depressive.

    I would listen to the song from Great God Bird on my iPod, but not the song from The Natural State.

    One last thing I will mention is, most people listen to the radio while doing something else–working, driving, washing the dishes. It is rare that someone will sit down next to the radio and just listen. So I think it is important to make radio stories easy to digest. The Natural State was not easy to digest. The same audio clips with narration and different music could have made a great piece about fracking and earthquakes. But it did not work as a story-song.

    On the plus side, as they say in show business, there is no such thing as bad publicity!

  • Ardy

    Lots of people integrate music and art into their work.
    It can make a boring subject fascinating and moving.
    Writing music writing lyrics, performing music… These are all separate skills, crafts.

    It would be unusual to find a person accomplished in the above
    who went on to also become a skilled interviewer , writer, reporter, editor, producer.

    What ever their other skills, the people who made this piece are
    Amateur composers, musicians, singers, and lyracists.
    It was self indulgence, not “art” to include their own music
    in what otherwise could have been an enlightening piece.

    It is always difficult to edit your own work
    So it is not surprising rather they were blind to the problem

    Still, it remains shocking that so many professionals allowed
    Themselves to become so enthralled by the supposed art,
    that they abandoned their well honed dispassion

    Reverence for art, or regret for its diminution, should not compell one
    Dilute standards. Our social appreciation for art is not enhanced
    By making mediocre art more pervasive.

    Being a professional includes the unpleasant duty to
    Tell well intentioned people their shortcomings,
    And not to flatter each other about your commitment to art.

  • Lisa

    The problem with the story is that the song sounded horrible…as if the singers were making fun of the people being interviewed. Not the lyrics per say, but the WAY they were sung. Like a couple of drunk jug band members or something. It was very distracting and off-putting. Like the singers were calling the interviewees rubes. It was akin to playing the rap song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” as the backdrop to a story about young African American boys trying to raise funds for college.

  • […] (So, is Long Haul Productions’ “The Natural State” which we featured on HowSound a few episodes back.) Andy worked with Hudson Branch, a band from Chicago. They composed music to accompany and become […]

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