American Sounds

On the old, weird days of National Public Radio.

William Eggleston, untitled, from the “Los Alamos Series,” 1965–74. © William Eggleston. From Autophoto (Éditions Xavier Barral, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2017).

It’s January 1, 1985, and in kitchens and cars across the United States, National Public Radio is reporting the news: the man who hijacked American Airlines flight 626 is in custody in Havana, Cuba; in Pensacola, Florida, a twenty-one-year-old construction worker has confessed to bombing four abortion clinics; last night, Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as India’s sixth prime minister. Sometime during All Things Considered, the evening news broadcast, there is another sound, unrelated to Reagan or hijackings or abortion clinics. A horse whinnies. And then the sound of a barn—jangling tack and boots walking on concrete—fades in.

“Okay, what’s your horse’s name?” a woman asks in a chipper, expectant tone. Off mic, a different woman answers, muffled. And then a man’s voice comes in, strong and certain, with a Western, tough-guy accent: “They call me Christopher.”

For the next four and a half minutes, the woman, an animal communicator, reads the mind of the horse, Christopher, speaking aloud into the microphone. “Tell me about times when you’re happy,” she says.

“Well, I like to run in open country and jump,” the horse says. Christopher sounds melancholy; he misses wherever he came from. “It rained last week. The rain always does this to me.” The communicator misunderstands: she thinks the horse loves the beach. “No, no, no the ocean’s fine, I like it,” Christopher explains. But it’s the mountains he really loves.

“This guy is really something else,” the communicator laughs. “He wants to wear bells!”

She hasn’t heard quite right, again. “I’m thinking of canyons and lightning,” the horse says. “I’m wet. Running against the dark sky. And there is nothing more free than this. The earth is ringing. And I believe I can fly.”

“He’s happy,” the communicator says.

A long moment, the sounds of the barn, a stretch of quiet makes the listener wonder if the horse really is happy.

“Okay?” she asks, a bit less chipper, finished with her job. The recorder turns off. The news fades in. 

*

I first heard “Communicating with Horses” in 2008, sitting in a cold room in Portland, Maine, with a handful of other aspiring radio producers at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. We listened closely, unsure where to look. We screwed up our faces, confused. The freedom of the piece was what struck me the most; I remember thinking it was so profoundly weird. There was no real narrative thrust. The piece used real tape—the woman was an actual animal communicator—but it also used elements of fiction and theater that were outside the rules of radio as I had understood them. It was the mid-2000s public-radio equivalent of hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. No one screamed or hurled fruit at the speakers, but we were disturbed: Was this allowed?

Although National Public Radio was founded fifteen years before “Communicating with Horses” aired, the people who worked there were still trying to figure out, in 1985, what exactly public radio was. Funded by micro-grants and public money, spurred on by open-minded programmers, public radio in its early days was something of a wide-open medium that could be almost anything. “The spirit there was adventurous, experimental, artistic, and dedicated to the medium of recorded sound,” Jay Allison, who produced “Communicating with Horses,” told me. “Also, no one was listening. The stakes were low.”

National Public Radio started in Washington, D.C., but like the Works Progress Administration in the thirties, it was a hybrid between a top-down federal project and a grassroots local one. Audio producers from local stations across the country helped to imagine public radio into existence, making stories in Alaska, Maine, Utah, California, and all the towns in between that were then played to millions on All Things Considered. Jay Allison called these early producers a “motley band”—they were just making it all up as they went along.

In 1973, Allison lived in D.C., where he stayed in collective housing and raced motorcycles. He was out of work and at loose ends when a guy named Keith Talbot, an innovative radio producer who was helping to build the sound of early public radio, came over for dinner and said, You guys oughta come work at this new thing called NPR, this new thing on M Street.

At the time, the building was a dump. There were reel-to-reel players everywhere and corkboards with handwritten notes. People didn’t use headphones as much as they do now, so it was loud. Producers played the same five seconds of sound over and over again to cut it just in the right place. No one I talked to remembered if the building had windows. “I always thought of it as a mosh pit,” Davia Nelson, of the early public-radio duo the Kitchen Sisters, told me.

When Jay Allison showed up, one thing the building definitely didn’t have was security. He was never technically employed at NPR, but no one seemed to notice, and he regularly borrowed a recorder to report stories on. “It was just like a key to the universe,” he told me. “It allowed me to satisfy my curiosity about everything.”

The people who worked at NPR had come from all over—Pacifica Radio, the arts, journalism. “All of us were just trying to impress each other,” Allison said. “Trying to get the rest of the gang to say ‘listen to that!’ ” The work was wild and loose, earnest and bizarre. It reflected a spirit of service central to NPR’s mission—the public part of public radio that meant it was funded by listeners, grants, and the government, and was accountable to citizens rather than bottom lines.

Two of NPR’s most influential and experimental leading producers were Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, who started making audio pieces as the Kitchen Sisters in the late seventies in Santa Cruz. They played clips of oral histories they had recorded on their live community radio-station broadcast. “We went out and recorded hours and hours and hours with people, and then got back to the studio and quickly realized that nobody was going to listen to eight hours of tape.” They learned to cut the tape and piece it back together using razor blades and splicing tape. A friend told them about NPR, but they had never listened to it when they sent their first piece in. A few weeks later, the producer Alex Chadwick called and said, We really like your piece, but what kind of equipment are you girls using?

Largely self-taught, Nelson and Silva composed their pieces as much as they produced them, primarily because, at first, they didn’t realize they could start and stop as they went along. “It was just us and the machines, and the machines seemed to have a life of their own. I think of us standing by each other kind of dancing together with the machine. It was like a living animal.” The work they make is almost always nonnarrated, character driven, and rich in sound. They weren’t making Aristotelian This American Life narrative arcs but rather cinema-verité slice-of-life pieces that take the listener deep into a corner of the world they hadn’t known before: an all-girls radio station in Tennessee, an ad hoc kitchen in a solitary-confinement cell, a smoky bar with a one-armed pool player.

It was late December in 1981 when the Kitchen Sisters’ piece “Tupperware” aired on All Things Considered. “Somewhere in the world, a Tupperware party is held every ten seconds,” the piece begins, and then soars into a cacophony of nonnarrated sound collage of Tupperware parties, rallies, and voices. Women sing songs about Tupperware in four-part harmony, someone drums out a beat on the plastic lids, and the voices of Tupperware saleswomen cut in and out—stories of women who have found a way to make money from home, who have discovered female community not in the consciousness raisings of their hippie sisters but in the comfort of domestic commerce.

A guy named Scott Carrier heard “Tupperware,” and the other strange sounds of early public radio, shortly after his marriage fell apart. He was looking for a way out of despair. Carrier had studied film in college but had given it up because it was too expensive. Listening to the Kitchen Sisters showed him another medium that was accessible, experimental, and political. “They were able to present a slice of life that was their own vision,” he told me. “No one was telling them how to do that story. There was no sponsorship; they had freedom. Truly independent producers are dangerous. Radio is dangerous. The first thing revolutionary armies do is take over the radio stations.” In 1983, Carrier wrote a letter to NPR to tell them he was hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., thinking he would record people on his way, make a nonnarrated vérité piece about the open road, then convince NPR to play it when he arrived.

When he got to M Street, NPR had finally hired a security guard, who wouldn’t let him through. But Carrier talked his way in, convincing the guard to call up to the studio. The producers let him up as a joke, to see how crazy he was, but they liked his audio and helped him make his first piece. With a team of producers and engineers, Carrier developed a new style of personal-essay radio, one that defied easy narratives or news pegs.

The piece that came out of his journey across the U.S. is long and rambling, and the recordings aren’t great, but the voices he captured are uncanny and haunting. In March of 1983, a listener would have clicked on the radio hoping to hear an update about Reagan’s plans for what the media was calling “Star Wars.” Instead she would have heard the whoosh of tires, the voice of a hospital intern in North Carolina trying to figure out how to care about all his patients, the sound of a man taking swigs of whiskey as he drives to Florida to see his mom one last time before she dies, and the voice of Scott Carrier describing the light bounce of the red rocks of Arizona.

*

I grew up on nineties public radio, listening to All Things Considered as my mom cooked dinner and to Car Talk as I ran errands with my dad on Saturday mornings. Before I went to Salt, I listened to the radio to get myself from point A to point B. I listened to Nina Totenberg narrate the Supreme Court as I drove to the grocery store; I laughed along to the Garrison Keillor joke show while I cleaned my apartment. Radio has always been a multitasker’s medium: you can do your chores and get the week’s news; cook dinner for the kids and get a deeper understanding of the financial crisis. It rarely demands your full attention.

It was during these years that NPR started to become more of a news outlet than a space for vérité documentary or experimentation. The producers and executives wanted their listeners to be able to trust them, and accuracy and gravity became crucial. Pieces needed to be short, relevant, and have a strong sense of momentum. If a segment was going to be on All Things Considered, there had to be a news hook. If it was going to be on a magazine show, it needed a strong narrative arc. Once, I heard an editor at a radio conference say that she wouldn’t accept a pitch unless the story made her run down the hall screaming, Oh my God! It was a high bar that left out a lot of stories, including sound-rich pieces on Tupperware and animal communicators. “When I got there, we were toddlers,” Jay Allison told me, “and then [we had] sort of teenage rebellion, and then finally [we became] grown-ups. Grown-ups don’t play in the same way.”

Though this era of radio was well-loved by Midwestern, middle-class people like me and my parents, it was hated by many others. Saturday Night Live poked fun at NPR’s placid, colorless vibe with its “Delicious Dish” sketches, which satirized the repressed, dulcet, careful sound of nineties public radio. Writer Charles Bowden had more precision and acidity in his distaste: “The voice is educated, smug, and more or less female,” he wrote in the mid-aughts. “That fabled NPR voice, produced in some secret kitchen where ordinary Americans are dipped in tubs of soy milk, white wine, and herbal tea until their vocal cords lose all sense of desire, familiarity, or place.” Bowden sums up the worst stereotypes of public radio—impotent and stuck-up, bourgeois, and relentlessly white. Although public radio was never as one-note as that stereotype, even during the most grown-up years, as Allison might call them, there was always something about the critiques that cut to the quick.

Experimentation survived during the early years of This American Life, where Scott Carrier started airing his documentaries and essays. The Kitchen Sisters still aired short pieces on All Things Considered—between much longer segments of serious news. But those were the stories that grabbed me by the collar, demanded my attention, and asked me to leave my chores for later. Those weird, sound-rich, nonnarrative pieces were the ones that made me want to make radio. I remember listening to a piece on This American Life about a man who had started a cable TV channel that only showed puppy videos. I found a CD full of radio documentaries at the public library that used audio diaries to tell the story of a young woman struggling with anorexia. These voices generated a deep intimacy, a kind that I’ve never experienced in any other medium. The producers and the characters were speaking to me directly—across the ether, as they used to say.

*

Recently, I’ve started to think of those early years of NPR as the time of the old, weird public radio, a phrase Greil Marcus used to describe the America captured by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of albums that came out in 1952 and helped to spur the folk music revival and give a sound and cultural ethos to a new era of leftist politics. Smith himself was a grade A bohemian weirdo, an experimental filmmaker who lived at the Chelsea Hotel in the seventies. He kept enormous collections of Ukrainian Easter eggs, string figures, and Seminole texts, and dabbled liberally in the occult. He also had a great record collection, which he curated into the anthology.

The Anthology of American Folk Music was full of performances by the Carter Family and Blind Lemon Jefferson and field recordings by Alan Lomax and other collectors. There are hymns and sacred harp singers and the songs of chain gangs and workers. There are murderers and ghosts and an eerie spirituality that permeates everything. Cuckoo birds foretell tragedy and old ladies do battle with the devil. The world the anthology invokes doesn’t make a lot of literal sense, but it does make a deep, poetic sense, a sense that comes from building on centuries of tradition and making art when no one is really looking.

NPR in the early days dealt in that same kind of poetic sense. The motley crew of radio producers on M Street and in Santa Cruz and at the stations that dotted the prairies and mountains created work that allowed for the weirdness of America to live on the airwaves. Producers went out and recorded voices of everyday people, people who drove trucks and played pool and sold Tupperware. They used those voices to experiment with sound and create work that unsettled you. The familiar became strange; the mundane became poetic. Like Marcus’s Old Weird America, the Old Weird Public Radio was populist experimentation. The result was shows that radically reoriented the listener to the world they lived in, that helped them hear America anew.

We are in an audio renaissance, a revival if you will. We call it podcasting now instead of radio, and it has opened things up, invited people in, created an audience public radio never had. The public-service mission that inspired Jay Allison has faded away as the financial structure of audio storytelling has switched from pledge drives to corporate sponsorship, and podcasts compete for top billing on the iTunes charts. Some of the danger that Scott Carrier heard in “Tupperware” has become safe. But there are more diverse voices in my earbuds than there ever were on the public-radio waves, and more topics covered than ever could have been possible on the radio’s small bandwidth. There is still a lot of possibility in the form.

But I can’t help but long for the far-out sounds of the old, weird public radio. I crave strange voices coming to me when I turn my radio on at just the right moment. I miss being captivated by the intimacy of a voice that I didn’t expect to hear. I miss wanting to throw fruit at a speaker because of the utter strangeness of the sounds coming at me, like I felt like doing with “Communicating with Horses.” And I miss audio that critiques the world in both content and form, giving me access to the deep, strange psychology of Evangelical truck drivers in Texas, and Tupperware salespeople in Salinas, and animal communicators in the mid-Atlantic—people whose narratives don’t follow the rules, whose stories won’t be the ones that top iTunes ratings, and whose lives won’t make you scream, Oh my God!

Heather Radke is a writer, curator, and audio producer who lives in New York.

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