After posting a blog about using “the visual versus the visualized” when writing stories, I decided to expand the idea and submit it as a radio essay. The essay aired today, on Chicago Public Radio’s “848”show.
Usually the radio essays I do for NPR and Chicago Public Radio go like this: I email them an essay; they say they like the topic. Well, actually, usually they say they don’t like the topic, or they can’t use my essay right now, thanks but no thanks.
When they do* like my essay, though, they email me back with edits and suggestions. I change the wording, we go back and forth a few times, and when everyone is happy I set up a time to cab over to the station to record.
In the studio, a producer sits me in front of a microphone and asks what I had for breakfast that morning. I have no idea why, but when it comes to testing sound levels, public radio producers always ask about breakfast. Even when I did a Story Corps thing with one of the senior citizens in the memoir-writing class I teach, the guy there tested our sound levels by asking us what we had for breakfast. Must be in a public radio guidebook or something.
Breakfast covered, sound levels checked, the producer whips out a written copy of my essay. He reads a few sentences at a time, and I repeat what he’s said. Note: most people read their public radio essays. But that wouldn’t work for me. Although I can indeed read Braille, I’m very slow at it.
Once I’ve repeated all my lines, a producer splices the sentences together, sometimes adding sound effects or music. Voila! When my essay airs on the radio, It sounds like I just sat down and read the whole essay all at once.
The essay that aired today, however, was recorded a little differently. When I sat down in front of the microphone, the producer asked me to tell him what the essay was about.
“You mean you don’t want to know what I had for breakfast?” I asked.
So I just started talking. You know, so he could get the sound levels. I went on and on and on about the essay, waiting for him to stop me. He never did.
Finally I stopped myself. “Are you recording all this?” I asked. He was. He did have a printed copy of the essay in front of him, but he didn’t want me to repeat it verbatim. He looked it over as I talked, but only interrupted if he found something I’d forgotten to mention. “Tell me about describing the brigadier general,” he’d say. Or, “What about your interview with Miss America?”
When all was said and done, I said just about everything that had been in the written essay. We got done very, very quickly. I knew the producer would have a lot of work ahead of him –he’d have to take all those pieces I’d said and splice them together into something that made sense, plus add music and sound effects. He assured me he’d enjoy the task.
“Do you always record contributor essays this way?” I asked as he helped Hanni and me outside to catch a cab.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “This is the first time I’ve ever tried anything like this.”
I was extremely pleased to hear the finished product on the radio this morning. It was one of the best essays I’ve ever done for public radio. Or I should say, I sounded wayyyyy more natural in this essay than in any other I’ve recorded. If you’d like, please listen to my essay yourself – I’m interested in hearing what you think of our new method!