"Without bread we are all orphans," says the sign that greets customers as they walk into Steve's Bread Shop in Portland, Maine. Meet Steve, who bakes bread in the most traditional way possible: by hand.
David Welch produced Steve, the Baker as part of an intensive, 15-week radio production course at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME.
Find out more about the Salt Institute's radio production course.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Rob Rosenthal, director of the Salt Institute's radio program.
Give us a brief history of the Salt Institute. Is there anything else like it in the country?
Salt was created more than 30 years ago by journalist Pamela H. Wood, who had landed a job -- ever temporarily she imagined -- teaching a high school folklore course in Kennebunk, Maine. Giving up the dated textbook that she and her students were given, she instead asked her students to write their own. Together they published a quarterly magazine called Salt which featured the students' stories and pictures describing the world that surrounded them. Here were young people talking to older people who knew something of fishing, of farming, and of just plain living in what was then small-town, rural Maine.
In the late 70s, the high school program outgrew its space and mission. Salt moved from the school to a boatyard and added teaching trades -- boat building and lumberjacking -- to its oral history curriculum. In the 80s, Salt evolved further still, trading its high school roots for college and graduate students and teaching documentary writing, photography, and now radio during an intense 15-week semester.
To our knowledge, there is no other school like Salt. This is especially true for the radio program. While many schools offer courses in radio production and journalism, we know of no school that focuses on documentary radio and offers such deep immersion in the medium. Salt, the magazine, is still published twice a year. Pamela Wood left Salt last year after nearly 30 years as its director.
Radio is a relatively recent addition to the curriculum. Why did you add it?
The radio program started on an experimental basis in the fall of 2000. It became its own track at Salt a year later. Radio is a natural for Salt. Writing students have been recording interviews with Maine people for many, many years. We have thousands of hours of tape in our archives. These recordings, however, have been used by writing students primarily for transcription purposes. It only made sense that Salt would expand to include the use of audio recordings to produce radio.
What does the radio program offer students?
The curriculum is designed for folks just starting out. During the semester, students develop skills in several areas: listening, field recording, interviewing, sound studio basics, digital audio editing, narrative development, and script writing. Over the course of the semester, students produce a promo and a vox pop as means of getting their feet and ears wet. Soon after, the real substance of the semester begins as students start their field work and produce two seven-minute features.
I teach the radio classes and guest speakers visit on a regular basis, including radio and television journalist Lynn Kippax, WNYC's documentary producer John Rudolph, audio engineer Jim Begley, NPR's Andrea Deleon, and staff from Maine Public Radio.
Often we're asked by people of all experience levels how to get a start producing radio. In the past the options have been slim: find an internship or do-it-yourself. Who do you think can benefit most from a semester at the Salt Institute?
Anyone with little to no radio experience can benefit by a semester at Salt so long as they have a passion for telling stories with sound. And, we emphasize the word "passion." Salt is not for the weak-hearted, or those with a passing fancy in radio documentary work.
Is the coursework between writing, photography, and radio integrated in any way?
All students attend a weekly seminar on documentary studies. Ethics, entering and exiting the field, professional development, history, theory, and much more are discussed. In addition to the seminar, Salt students are required to collaborate across tracks. Radio and writing students work with a photographer to produce a collaborative project. Radio producers benefit in several ways working with a photographer: students learn through contrast and comparison the relative strengths and weaknesses of working with sound; working with a photographer helps radio producers to think visually with their sound; an informal editorial relationship develops; and radio producers are better prepared to work in new media applications after leaving Salt.
Do you instruct your students in a particular style of documentary radio that you would like Salt to become known for?
The radio program is still young and is in the process of seeking its identity and sound. We feel that we stand at the crossroads of narrative journalism, oral history/documentary, and audio art, with each discipline informing our productions. That being said, it is possible that Salt will never have a definitive sound since we encourage students to find their own voice and style. Inevitably, our productions vary each semester.
There's not much money to be made in producing radio stories and not many job openings. What career advice do you give your students?
Salt is up front with students. Radio is not an easy field to break into, hence the reason why we stress the need for passion. Not only will heartfelt passion lead to better productions but it will also help to stay the course and persevere when the going gets rough. Also, we encourage students to think beyond radio. After 15 weeks at Salt, students have a very strong foundation for telling stories with sound; radio is only one location for putting such creative skills to work. Other possibilities include the web, oral history projects, walking tours for non-profits, classroom curriculum for young people, archive work, advocacy work such as producing PSAs for organizations, museum and gallery installations. Storytelling is the content; sound is the medium. The applications are limitless.