Hark! The Acoustic World of Elizabethan England


The idea is practically ludicrous – a radio program about the English soundscape 400 years ago…. when there were no recordings! How on Earth do you accomplish that, for an hour no less? Well, Chris Brookes, Paolo Pietropaolo, and Alan Hall figured out a way to do it and it’s genius. Of course it would be. Brookes, Pietropaolo, and Hall are three of the most creative radio producers around.

The three produced the documentary in 2008 and it’s called “Hark! The Acoustic World of Elizabethan England.” I found the program so stimulating that it sparked a New Year’s resolution – listen deliberately to the sounds around me as often as possible.

As the doc’s title suggests, “Hark!” explores what the English city and countryside may have sounded like some four centuries ago. While doing so, the piece places our modern soundscape under an audio microscope and poses some cogent questions about what we listen to day in and day out – hence my New Year’s resolution.

Please take time to listen to this doc. It’s lengthy and well worth your attention. I recommend headphones or planting yourself in front of your favorite speakers. You won’t regret it.

Cheers, Rob


The Last of the Iron Lungs


Martha Lillard inside her “iron lung.” Lillard contracted polio when she was six and needs the “lung” to breathe. (Photo by Julia Scott)

Julia Scott had no interest in climbing into an “iron lung.” She told me the device looks like something only Dracula would lay in. Of course, Martha Lillard, who uses the iron lung pictured above, is no Dracula. She’s a victim of the polio epidemic of the 1950s and needs the lung to stay alive.

Julia produced a story on Martha and her iron lung — one of only about a dozen still in use in the United States — for PRX’s Stem Story Project, a series of features focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. After interviewing and collecting the sound of the machine, Martha asked Julia if she’d like to get in and try it out. Despite her trepidation, Julia timidly said “yes” and she’s glad she did.

Laying inside the lung gave Julia a new perspective. She says she viscerally became aware of what it meant to have a machine take over breathing, an understanding she couldn’t have gained from an interview alone. To be sure, Julia didn’t use the lung for nearly sixty years like Martha has, but that sort of “participant observation”, even if brief, was incredibly valuable when writing the story, she says.

Have a listen to Julia’s feature “The Last of the Iron Lungs” on this edition of HowSound.

Ciao, Rob


The Fighter Pilot

KathyTu.Photo1.Fall2013Michael McGee, Lt. Col., United States Air Force, Retired (Photo by Kathy Tu)


ATTENTION: Please wear headphones for this HowSound. They’re mandatory. Put them on now.


Ira Glass once said of Jad Abumrad “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Is Kathy Tu the new, new sheriff? Clearly, it’s much too early to say, but take a listen to Kathy’s story on this edition of HowSound and you may ask yourself that very question.

The story is called “The Fighter Pilot” and it’s only the second story Kathy has ever produced (both stories were produced at the Fall 2013 Transom Story Workshop). She estimates she cut, mixed, and assembled sound design elements for “The Fighter Pilot” for seven hours — per minute of the six and a half minute story!

What’s even more impressive is that Kathy is a lawyer by training. In fact, she takes her bar exams soon. While I wish her luck, I sure hope she follows her ears and pursues her passion for radio.

Cheers, Rob


Just Plumb Gone

 Apison DamageDevastation near the home of Virgina and Tim Miller in Apison, Tennessee after the deadly tornado of April 27, 2011. (Photo by the Millers.)

Mary Helen Miller put a big smile on my face when she offered the following advice to station-based producers: Sneak out the back door with the tape recorder and make something good.

Mary Helen worked at WUTC in Chattanooga, Tennessee for a while where she said she left the station with her microphone as often as possible — even when no one was looking. She says working in the field means more work but the tape you gather brings life to a story so she “snuck out” whenever she could.

One of her forays in to the field led to the production of a story that won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award in 2013. The piece is called “Just Plumb Gone.”

Congratulations, Mary Helen and hopefully you’ll inspire other producers to “sneak out the back door.”




The Elusive Digital Stradivarius


Photo of Joseph Curtin by David Schulman.


I always admire producers who pushes themselves, who try something new. So, David Schulman automatically gets a thumbs up from me for a story he recently produced.

You may know David from his “Musicians in Their Own Words” series. He says he’s produced over a hundred stories on music for that series and many other public radio programs. All of his work is non-narrated.

Then, earlier this year for PRX’s Stem Story Project, David stepped out of his usual role as a hidden producer with his narrated story “The Elusive Digital Stradivarius.” On top of that, it’s a science piece — David’s not a science reporter.

On this HowSound David talks about how he simplified complex information about acoustics and he offers an incredibly solid tip on interviewing musicians…. interviewing anyone, actually. Listen up.

Ciao, Rob


This Story May Be Recorded… To Save Your Life

Meron-1Journalist Meron Estefanos reports on Eritrean hostages held captive in the Sinai Desert. (Photo by Trabelsi Productions.)


Yowei Shaw amassed 325 pages of transcripts after she completed logging her tape for a recent This American Life story. Yowei had help from TAL producer Brian Reed and Eritrean reporter Bealfan Hailey. But still, 325? That’s a lot!

The transcripts were for Yowei’s piece “This Story May Be Recorded… To Save Your Life,” which aired on This American Life in August of 2013. Yowei tells the story of reporter Meron Estefenos and the Eritrean hostages in the Sinai Desert that she’s attempting to rescue through her reporting and a public campaign.

In some respects, logging the recordings was the easy part for Yowei. First, she had to get all the audio files from Meron — hours and hours and hours of it. Then it had to be translated — all the calls were in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea. On top of that, Yowei along with Brian and Bealfan, had to figure out the story as they sifted through hundreds of phone calls with some 200 people!

And then there’s the content of the recordings. The hostages describe torture and beatings and their longing to be free — their begging to be free. The tape is brutal to listen to.

On this HowSound, Yowei describes her behind-the-scenes process and how the grueling effort to assemble this story took its toll on her.

Be forewarned. This program has descriptions of graphic violence.

Regards, Rob

PS – Some time ago, This American Life published a comic book on audio storytelling. It’s genius. Do yourself a favor and get a copy.


Clarification: The translation of Meren’s phone call recordings took place in both Silver Springs, Maryland and New York City, not just Silver Springs. And, Meren Estefanos is not a freelance reporter but, rather, works for Radio Erena.


Hafid is Free


I’ll be honest, for the life of me I can’t remember where I picked up Mark Kramer’s tips for stories without a narrative hook. Was it at a conference (Kramer currently directs The Power of Narrative conference at Boston University)? In his book Telling True Stories? My notes don’t say but, regardless, I’ve found Kramer’s suggestions insanely valuable. In fact, I think they’re so useful, this is the second time I’ve talked about them on HowSound.

Kramer proposes that a story without classic narrative can be successful if it contains sharp images, strong characterization, and anecdotes. I like to add a couple items to his list: a unique or strange setting as well as artful and clever production.

Lee Fuoco’s 2004 story “Hafid is Free” meets Kramer’s test. Lee produced this when she was a student of mine back in 2004 and it’s stayed with me all this time despite its lack of narrative primarily because of the strong characterization and creative production.

Have a good listen!

Cheers, Rob






Who said “Radio is the theater of the mind?” Was it Orson Welles? Regardless, it’s true. A recent edition of 99% Invisible proved the point.

Alex Goldman produced the story I’m talking about called “Heyoon.” It’s about Alex’s teenage hideaway – a mysterious, hard-to-find building in Ann Arbor, Michigan that he and his friends hung out in back in high school.

Alex interviewed many of his old buddies about the place. Then, when it came time to produce the story, he did what most producers might do: in an early draft, he put together a montage of quotes at the start of the story to paint a picture of Heyoon and establish the mystery.

Over at 99% Invisible headquarters in the Bay Area, Sam Greenspan and Roman Mars were editing the story when Sam had a eureka moment — recreate a visit to Heyoon in Roman’s back yard! A well-acted and recorded dramatization would tap into radio’s capacity to be the theater of the mind.

Sam rustled up a few non-actors who performed an excursion to Heyoon based on the recollections of Alex and his friends. The result is a lively, visual, radiophonic telling of events from many years ago. While a montage of quotes would have worked well, the dramatization definitely takes the story to the next level.

Listen to what Alex and Sam created and how they did it on this edition of HowSound and then, because I don’t feature the whole story, listen to all of Heyoon over at 99% Invisible.

Stay rad.





Nodding Syndrome


Robert Oyo, 17, lies on the floor of his home in a village in Pader District, Uganda. A chain runs from his ankle to the roof of the hut. Robert suffers from Nodding Syndrome, a rare disease effecting young people in east Africa. Parents sometimes chain their children to prevent them from wandering aimlessly, a symptom of the disease. (Photo by Matt Kielty/John Alexander Project.)


I vividly remember the open sore on Benson’s chest. He was sitting in front of me in a jail in Malawi, the tenth poorest country in the world. Benson told me about the night he killed someone in self-defense and how he turned himself in to the police. They locked him in this jail and left him there. By the time I interviewed him, he’d been incarcerated for 28 months and had yet to see a judge or go to trial.

Jails in Malawi are notoriously unhealthy and overcrowded so in those conditions, Benson contracted scabies.  His chest sore oozed pus. So did the sore under his arm that he gingerly covered with a napkin.  I tried not to stare.

When the interview was over, guards escorted Benson out of the room. I climbed into an air-conditioned pick-up truck and eventually returned to my gated hotel where I ate a full meal sitting next to a swimming pool — all expenses paid. I felt dirty.

The dichotomy of my life and Benson’s life has stayed with me ever since that moment a few years ago. My privilege was never more clear. And, I was being paid handsomely to report his story while he remained locked-up. Worse still, as I write this, I’m uneasy because I don’t know what has become of him.

Perhaps because misery loves company, I was pleased to learn that reporter Matt Kielty had a similar experience after reporting in Uganda late last year. Matt traveled there to report on Nodding Syndrome for the Above the Fray Fellowship — a partnership between NPR and the John Alexander Project. He returned to the U.S. confused and troubled about “objectification.” As he put it “… making a name for yourself and trying to further your career… on the backs of these people who are suffering immensely.”

Matt shares his concerns and confusion on this HowSound. And we feature one of the stories he produced on the syndrome. (Here’s a link to the other story.)

While you listen, I’m going to find out what happened to Benson.

— Rob




Autism Grows Up



Producer Catherine Stifter has an enviable job. She’s been hired by Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California to guide a change in the sound of the station’s reporting for their documentary program “The View From Here.” Catherine says her task is to “innovate and experiment.” Who wouldn’t want that gig, right?

In addition to changing up the sound, Catherine is building a new approach to reporting. Her partner in the task is jesikah maria ross (she doesn’t capitalize her name) the station’s community engagement specialist. Catherine and jesikah bring reporters together with people from the communities they report on as part of the reporting process. It’s a unique approach that flattens the hierarchy, if you will, between the station and audience.

On this edition of HowSound, Catherine talks about the sound she’s after — less narration, more verite-like scenes — and we listen to examples of that approach in the documentary “Autism Grows Up.” Also, Catherine and jesikah describe the community engagement process they’re utilizing for an upcoming documentary on the high school dropout crisis in the state.

Listen up!