Image by Jacob Boll


There seems to be a trend afoot in documentary radio — working directly with musicians to compose music for a story. In fact, some producers are using music to tell the story, not just score it. That’s one hundred eighty degrees in opposition to standard journalistic practice of not using music at all. And, it’s pretty damn interesting.

“Kohn” by Andy Mills is a compelling example of this trend. (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 part of the story about Andy’s friend, Kohn. Other people working in this vein are Charles Spearin and The Books.

Andy received the “Best New Artist” award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2011 for his production. Well deserved, I’d say. And, RadioLab picked up the story and produced their own version. Andy’s version and RadioLab’s version make for an interesting comparison.

Speaking of comparisons, Kohn is accompanied by Hudson Branch as he sings a unique version of Grey Room by Damien Rice. Check out the original.

Have a listen and post your thoughts about music and documentary storytelling.




9 comments to Kohn

  • Ben

    Great stuff. Moving. I love getting new angles on this piece.

  • I heard the Radiolab version before I heard the original edit and I definitely prefer the original. More precisely, the Radiolab edit made sense for that context, but I don’t know that the context was the right one for the story. The original story is much more of a story about Andy’s friend, Kohn, not his disability or his strange neurological disconnect. It’s personal, not biological. The Radiolab version is the opposite, as presumably suits a science program.

    As far as the music, I found that it gave it a really cinematic feel, sort of like a voice-over scene in an independent movie like Garden State or Amelie. I think it contributed a lot to the personal feeling. Of course, there’s a question of whether that would be true for someone else. For example, someone not of my generation might have a completely different feeling about the style of the music, and therefore come away with a completely different emotional impression.

    What was that phrase – music is emotional tyranny?

  • I listened to this last night in the car with my brother, with a pretty steady stream of tears flowing down my face the whole time. I had heard the radiolab version, so there were no surprises, just that feeling of I-love-where-this-is-going-ness, and it felt good to let it take me there.
    Thanks Rob. You’re on a roll.

  • Jeannie

    I have listened to this story a number of times and look forward to Kohn’s version of Grey Room. Can I buy that song? I have a friend who has serious physical deformities and is difficult to understand. I wonder if he think’s he sound normal to us like Kohn did…I’m going to leave it that way:)

    Thanks so much for the story, very moving. I love this type of radio.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    Hi Jeannie,

    Thanks for your note. I’ll forward it to Andy, the producer and he’ll get back to you directly.


  • Absolutely BRILLIANT radio! I dream of creating radio/podcasts like this.
    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • Ditto what Pete said.

    OK, so the piece is kiiiinda on the syrupy side for me, but I also wish I had been the producer. It really is lovely.

  • Recently I’d rekindled my first love – Radio! And whilst researching a new commissioned work I stumbled upon this story. As a composer / producer myself, and having worked on scores for theatre, film and radio I was astonished, delighted and charmed by this story and how elegantly it was brought together. Thank so much for this inside story.


  • Cassandra

    I just heard this story on Radiolab and it was very moving. I have a nodule on my vocal chord that makes my voice sound husky, which I didn’t know about until I recorded and played back my own voice on tape around 3rd grade, and had the same experience–that is, of hating recordings of my own voice, and being astonished that nobody had thought to tell me I sounded ‘different’ and just assumed I knew. Both Kohn’s story and the song “Grey Room” really resonated with me; thanks.

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