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BEHIND THE SCENES pt 1 - with Ned Sublette


(Don't miss pt. 2, with New American Radio co-founder Helen Thorington, directly following.)

What came first - the idea to make a documentary about auctioneer school, or the desire to attend auctioneer school? What else were you doing professionally at the time

Ever since I was a kid growing up in a farm town, I had always wanted to attend auctioneer school. I spent a lot of the 1980s writing songs, and I was identified with an otherwise non-existent school of country music that I invented for myself. It seemed that if I was going to be a country singer I'd better be able to sell a cow. Plus, singing in bars wasn't paying the bills, and I figured I needed another vocational skill. And I love making radio, so when I saw that New American Radio was accepting applications, I jumped at it

Have you produced other radio documentaries? If so, about what topics? If not, are there documentaries you've always wanted to produce, or would today if you had the time/resources/opportunities

I've been involved in radio one way or another since 1965. I was in the ninth grade when I first talked my way into our local one-lung AM radio station in Portales, New Mexico. In hindsight it was somewhere between a schoolkid's prank and a conceptual art piece. Perhaps inspired by the movie Lover Come Back , in which an advertising executive hypes a non-existent product then has to make good, I got the kids in my junior high to all call in to the evening shift DJ requesting a non-existent record, driving him crazy, then hastily composed the song and showed up at the radio station with the "sheet music" in my own pencil-scripted hand. The DJ, a music major at the local college, sang the song on the air and after that let me hang around the station at night as a sort of mascot. I learned how to cue up records and run the board

But it went back farther than that. I lived in segregated Louisiana as a child, and was physically kept away, as were all white children, from black people. In my memo ir The Year Before the Flood I talk about how radio allowed me to hear the music from the other side of the race wall. I tried to imagine the world those songs projected. Then later, border radio brought me the Spanish-speaking world. Radio was a central force in the making of the musical world I grew up in

My first job when I moved to New York in 1976 was at WHN-AM, then the #2 rated station in the Arbitrons, which was a country music AM outlet. I cut contest spots for them -- "turn your neighbor on to somethin' good" was the promotion -- with a razor blade on the overnight shift during a ratings sweep as a substitute for my friend Peter Gordon, whose job it was but who had to go off on tour with a band for a few weeks. It was my rude introduction to the big-media world, though comical in retrospect. Someday I'll write about that experience

My professional training was in music, specializing in performance and composition. I saw radio as a medium for composition, coming at it from a sort of post-Cage, post-structuralist perspective. I theorized about radio a lot in the 1970s, and did a great deal of strange radio for KUNM in Albuquerque. Radio permeated my work as a musician. In the 1980s I played a radio on stage with my band at CBGB and other downtown dives, and collaborated with a number of other artists to produce original work for radio. I taught workshops in "Composing for Radio" at KUNM (1980) and subsequently at VPRO in the Netherlands (1982)

In 1990 I produced the first of my over a hundred episodes of Sean Barlow's then-new program Afropop Worldwide , then on NPR and subsequently on PRI. I couldn't believe there was a program that hip on NPR, and indeed, it was an exception to the lineup and did not stay on NPR, but it is still on the air and is still just as necessary as it was when Sean started it up. Beginning with a documentary I made during my first trip (of twenty-five) to Cuba, working for Afropop Worldwide was a job that taught me more than any Ph.D. could have done. I will be teaching history and geography of Africa and the diaspora this summer at Baruch College, and will be using these programs as part of the curriculum, because music is geography. I was a co-founder of Afropop Worldwide 's scholarly subseries Hip Deep, and the programs I made for them are streaming on line at the Hip Deep website, including this one

I also had the transformative experience of anchoring on the short-lived Air America, as a substitute for Laura Flanders when she went on leave for the month of April 2006

I am supposed to travel to Angola for Hip Deep in 2012

How did you approach balancing the sound/composition of The Auctioneer , and the story-telling elements? Chorus v. characters, music v. narrative

I saw it less as a documentary and more as a musical composition. I took the two-week course at Missouri Auction School in 1988, carrying with me the then-new portable DAT recorder. I recorded all the lectures and drills, and did some interviews, then copied the best parts over to analog tape and edited, edited, edited. I did no mixing to make the program -- it's all razor-spliced quarter-inch tape. I'm not sure why I decided to do it that way instead of layer and mix, but it's a hardcore one-channel piece. I was a big fan of the Richard Leacock (RIP) school of cinema verité that eschewed a narrator and let the material speak for itself, so I gave it the barest of wraparounds and let it roll

All these years later, what scene, sonic element, or story from the documentary sticks with you the most vividly

The drills. Seventy-five men and women, mostly from Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, chanting numbers together at eight in the morning . It was tantric. I imagined Philip Glass hearing it in his dreams

Have you had the chance to draw upon your auctioneering skills over the years

Yes, I actually did get a New York City auctioneer's license and worked for a bit, both commercially and doing benefit fundraisers. What I found, though, is that to be in the auction biz you have to be in it full time. It wasn't going to be my life, and I let it go

I did write a song about it called "The Auctioneer's Nightmare," in which I get to use my bid chant. It's going to be on my forthcoming album Kiss You Down South

BEHIND THE SCENES pt 2 - with Helen Thorington, co-founder of New American Radi

We were so pleased to discover The Auctioneer amongst the New American Radio archives, and realized that far too few people are probably aware of them. So we asked NAR co-founder, Helen Thorington, who along with producer Regine Beyer ran the organization, to give a little background - when it existed, what it stood for, and why it went away

I founded the not-for-profit organization – New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. – in 1981; and initiated the New American Radio (NAR) 13-week series a few years later with a grant from the NEA of $15,000. At the time I was a practicing sound artist, and there was no place for the kind of work I was doing. Radio seemed ideal. Thus NAR, with the encouragement of artists like Jacki Apple and Gregory Whitehead came into existence

Then, with a stroke of amazing luck – a supportive artist on the review panel ! -- we received a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) grant large enough to produce a full year of New American Radio. It was both the first and last grant we got from them. Public radio – and particularly the powers that existed at the CPB at that time - treated us with utmost contempt. Subjected to their "EAR" focus group without context or explanation, our programming was "shown" to be totally unwanted by the American public. As a result only a few public stations with art audiences aired the series. Believe me it was a hard struggle, from the very beginning

Public radio depends on the financial contributions of its audiences, and as audiences for radio art are small, the field is not encouraged. In fact in the late 90's station after station terminated programs that spoke to an arts audience. It was (Jacki) Apple who summed up the termination of radio art when her own program, Soundings , perished in 1995

NAR lasted ten years none-the-less, from 1988 to 1998 – supporting the early work of such playwrights as Susan Lori-Parks, Carl Hancock Rux and Lynn Nottage -- giving radio space and large audiences to composers, musicians – Christian Marclay and John Adams, for instance – performance artists, writers, sound artists and others like Gregory Whitehead, Christof Migone, and Don Landers whose interest centered in the radio medium. And last but not least, we introduced many of them to the European radio scene. NAR also encouraged discussion and writing as we all struggled to come to grips with radio art. Although we kept NAR going until 1998, by late 1995 we had already begun our move to a more open environment – the Internet -- and started a new commissioning program there - http://turbulence.org

Now, 24 years later, NAR is both archived at Wesleyan University and on somewhere.org, and its works are still very much in demand – aired by college stations, listened to on the Internet, requested by individuals, and selected for audio exhibitions

What are some of my series favorites? There are many, but the ones that come to mind immediately are: Sheila Davies, What is the Matter in Amy Glennon ; Rinde Eckert, Shoot the Moving Things ; Terry Allen's dark but wonderful radio movies: Bleeder , Reunion , Dugout. Or, if you want a really amazing but also trying experience, there's Schrei by Diamanda Galas

These are just some of my favorites. The series offers many others for other tastes

[ Ed. note: And we encourage you to explore these and other NAR commissions. You'll find them here. ]