BEHIND THE SCENES with Karen Michel

(Editor's note from Johanna Zorn: Karen Michel and I can date ourselves back to the early days of NPR. I began my internship at Chicago Public Radio in 1980, the year Morning Edition debuted on NPR. Karen started back in 1974. So while I created the Third Coast Festival, in part, to encourage the next generation of audio producers, I've wondered lately about what it takes to keep producing fresh and creative programs over a long career. So I asked my friend and fellow middle-ager Karen Michel to indulge me in an interview about "graying" in this business.

When you began producing radio stories did you think of radio as a lifelong career

Are you kidding? I still don't. Maybe I'll become a bartender, or a realtor, or a dog groomer. Or stay with my addiction: radio. Now, a sidebar, or rather the first thing needs to be told: When I was six going on seven, I remember lying in bed next to my mother while visiting her parents in Erie, Pennsylvania (we'd taken a cross-country train journey from LA to get there). I told her that I knew why I'd been born: it was to observe. That's what I do in my work now. It's taken some time getting here; for years my observations were in my photographs, sculptures, ceramics, then sound compositions. Radio

*Why have you stayed with it for so long?

*There are many days when I wonder, given the frustrations (add to the usual, the computer crashes). I guess I stay in it because deep down, or perhaps skin deep, I'm a masochist. I also love the medium, even though as an independent producer I'm constantly trying to learn while banging head and other body parts against public radio management pooh-bahs. I'm also attracted to most of the Medusa-tressed aspects of it (writing, engineering, schmoozing, etc.) and haven't come up with anything more satisfying (and less lucrative) to do with my life.

**Do you think the field is more suited to the young, or simply the young-at-heart, and why?***

**I've always felt that journalism -- not specifically radio-art or sound-making or whatever -- is perfect for growing old. It's something that a person can always do, however frail, unfit, unsound, or otherwise. If young-at-heart implies constant curiousity, then YES! I'm basically a nosy, inquisitive, wants-to-know person, and I feel fortunate and privileged to be in a field that requires these attributes. And I get to tell other folks what I've found out, and that's great.***

**How many years did it take until you found your voice?***

**My voice? Hmm. I think I found it when I relaxed. And that was not so long into doing this work. One day in Fairbanks, Alaska, while driving into the local public radio station, KUAC-FM (where I got My Start), I realized that I had no desire to interview Gary Snyder (Pulitzer prize-winning author and poet) -- I really wanted to have a conversation. That was a eureka moment and led to a totally different way of interviewing, producing, thinking, and hearing about radio.***

**Do you think your voice continued to evolve? Or is it a matter of finding your sound and sticking with it?***

**I hope that once I'm stuck I can unstick. Without leaving a nasty residue unremovable by any conceptual cleanser. Sure, it's changed, changes, and when I feel like I haven't changed for some time and I am boring myself, I work on figuring out a change. Literally. I've taken voice lessons, music lessons, gotten more deeply into spiritual pursuits, whatever to shake me up and thus sound different. Still, it's me.***

What is your advice to people who want to age gracefully and continue to do meaningful work in radio over a long career ?***

**Ask for, and insist on, edits! And don't just ask Official Editors, but others, preferably:***

  • not radio people - if radio, then younger/less experienced/less sure - from one's own altered consciousness, which is also an "other

Do I think it's possible to be old and do great work -- well, of course I do or I'd kill myself. Since I just acquired a fine new eMac, MBox and PT LE I'm planning to stick around for at least three more years before auto-techno-obsolescence kicks in! And, hey, I've got PILES of ideas and would love an opportunity (aka $) to do at least some of them

Do think you'll ever stop making radio stories

I don't imagine I'll ever be financially able to retire. I'll hold a microphone 'til my hand shakes so badly that I'm micing a boob or armpit or waist -- and then I'll just figure out another way to mic. I think I may never stop loving sound: I am a sound junkie. Have been for a very long time. I nearly went deaf at the age of seven, and it's had a bigtime impact on my appreciation for hearing and listening

But I have other plans too. I do think it's likely I'll do more print journalism; I love to write, and print takes much less time to do. A few months ago I did a video project for a New York City museum, and I am now doing another for a cable channel. (I worked in video for several years in Alaska, and I am enjoying re-entering the visual realm.) Future plans include attempting to make art again; I've got ideas and miss the tactile

Any last words of wisdom

Above and to the side of one of my computers, I keep a photo of Henry Miller and the following quote, both a gift from a slightly older actor/writer/director friend: "The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing."