BEHIND THE SCENES with Keith Talbot

What was the atmosphere like at National Public Radio in the 1970s, when you were there? How did your work -- much of which seems, even today, pretty experimental -- fit into the larger scheme of things at NPR and how did you come to occupy your niche

NPR was a pretty conservative place and its timidity was frustrating for the best people who worked there. So, how was this good news for me? Imagine this is a documentary starting with a cut from the President of the United States. Imagine the President saying: "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace. An America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievements in business or state craft." That's right. You're not listening to George Bush. This is John F. Kennedy, speaking in 1963 at Amherst College, one month before he was assassinated. "If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, our society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him," he said. But the grandest and most romantic words often yield mixed blessings (and even wars). Four years later, still acting in the spirit of that JFK quote, Lyndon Baines Johnson's people proposed something called "public broadcasting." Nobody knew exactly what it was supposed to be except, of course, that the federal government was going to pay for it. By the 1970s, when NPR got going, it still wasn't clear what this "public broadcasting" was. Was NPR supposed to be a real news organization? An arts broadcaster? Or something else

Richard Nixon, not a friend of "public broadcasting", was president and NPR's management needed to stay under the radar to keep the federal funding flowing. In 1973, for example, a staff reporter with a Watergate scoop was told by her boss that "NPR is not here to break news." Her story was killed. Timidity was bad for journalism and the vague, grand mandate (". . . society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever. . . .") was bad for planning, promotion and fund-raising. But, as long as confusion prevailed, there was also a small window for someone like myself who wanted to explore the "something else.

Eventually, the people with full-time jobs would go on appropriately and righteously to build NPR into the exceptional and valuable news organization it is today. But during that early time of confusion, I worked as a freelancer (working for less than minimum wage at first) and, later, as a staff producer (sort of the "artist in residence") trying to figure out what else this thing called public radio might be. The first thing I came up with was the Sound Portraits series, which I created for All Things Considered . These were the first and the original Sound Portraits: extensively edited pieces with "ordinary" people. They ran each Friday afternoon. Later, I created an experimental one hour series called Radio Experiences. They ran at the end of each month on NPR's Options

But, most importantly, the Kennedy-Johnson legacy of open-ended federal funding for something vague called "public broadcasting" made it possible for me to hire and to teach talented colleagues. Most notably, Jay Allison, now of Atlantic Public Media (WCAI), and This I Believe, and Ira Glass, who (15 years after working as my production assistant at NPR) created This American Life . They both have grandly succeeded in finding "something else" that's been good for public radio

What initially drew you to radio as a storytelling medium

Because it was there. I'd get up before dawn and pretend to be the host of a morning radio show, speaking to an imaginary audience via a toy microphone. That was when I was eight. Later, with a real working intercom, I had my own "radio station" inside the house. I improvised newscasts and produced magazine shows for visitors. I did radio because I loved it. As for the "story telling" part, for me all radio was music. I listened to all radio, both talk and tunes, as if it were music and I tried to arrange the background sounds in my shows as the tune. The interviews and the stories were the "lyrics.

Of course, if I were a kid today, I'd do all this on and Probably not on radio

Who are some of your radio influences? What radio work inspired your own

You might be surprised at my inspirations. Half of them were musicians and music producers because when I was 18, pop music was really interesting. Often innovative. Songs were the real radio "programs." It was music that drew people to the radio. Phil Spector, Roy Halee, and George Martin, the music producers who did the most interesting mixes, were vital influences on my work. They taught me what I wanted to hear in the studio. Among broadcasters, I admired anyone who followed a format but simultaneously performed just off from that format. People who sounded as if they were listening to the station along with you. DJ's Dan Ingram and Bruce Morrow, for example, who injected their personalities while preserving the station's identity. On NPR today, Scott Simon is the master in this regard. You can hear Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition developing this essential talent as well. What's to be learned from them? That a dependable format makes the audience comfortable while the surprise personality keeps them listening. The magic balance of surprise and predictability

The ultimate radio performer was, of course, Jean Shepherd. As he did for so many other listeners, Shepherd gave me hope in the depths of high school. And he gave me full permission to experiment

Why was it important to you to put "ordinary" people (the people in your Sound Portraits) on the radio

First, just because I could. "Ordinary" people were available and everyone else in the media was ignoring them. Or, more precisely, every time a farmer or fisherman or salesman or mother was interviewed, reporters just asked, "Who you gonna vote for?" and that was that. As if voting was the only valuable thing people did. Worse yet, the follow-up questions were always about things people could only know by listening to the media. "We tell you what to think and you parrot it back to us" was the pervasive "man on the street" interview format on both commercial and public media. I thought it was stupid. Meanwhile, on NPR at the time, most of the content consisted of in-studio talking heads from Washington think-tanks commenting on the news. By contrast, I figured that many "ordinary" people were available for real conversations without the agenda of soliciting votes, trying to sell books or protecting their jobs. That was the genesis of the Sound Portraits series I invented for All Things Considered . I'd drive around the country, jump out of the car anywhere and start recording. I talked with a pilot or a policeman or a sales clerk for at least an hour, often prompting them to open up by sharing details of my own life with them. Then I'd go home, cut myself out of the interviews and spend three days crafting and mixing the little five-minute "portrait" for broadcast each Friday. A young single mother talking about her suicidal thoughts, for example, required 72 edits for the five-minute piece, with lots of inserted pauses. I wanted it to sound as if she was talking just to you, the listener. Intimately. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time. I thought it would be good for people to hear the issues of the day -- life in the military, crime, flying safety, drug use, or whatever --- emerging naturally, without a reporter's contrived prompting

This seems like a common practice for producers today -- to take recording equipment out into the field to capture scenes and sounds and life outside the studio -- but it must have been a very new thing in the 1970s, when you first started producing your Sound Portraits. What inspired you to go out into the field

Listening to Pacifica one morning, I heard the earliest field recordings made by famed commercial producer, Tony Schwartz (author of The Responsive Chord ). The sounds of kids playing in the park. The sound of tug boats on the Hudson River. These sounded rather extraordinary at the time, when portable cassette machines had only been around for a few years. It was novel and I wanted to record stuff like this right away, myself

What were you trying to achieve with the hour-long documentaries you produced for Options

OK. If this were one more documentary, first I'd give you a cut from a show I called Cape Cod: The Grand Tour . You'd be listening to the high, sweet sound of medieval wind instruments mixing with waves breaking ashore at Nauset beach in Massachusetts. I recorded the ocean because I wanted to hear what medieval flutes and ocean waves would sound like together. Sometimes I did things just for the music. We'll cross fade now into a clip from a show I called The Selling Game . A narrator is speaking from the floor of a busy shopping mall in Virginia, introducing vox pops. First we hear the "visiting team" (those are the voices of shoppers at the mall saying stuff like, "I just can't resist the word s-a-l-e"). Then interviews with the "home team" (those are the sales people at the mall, "The team with the home court advantage"). This show is filled with useful consumer education but I've repackaged the information into a "game," all of it on location, where most people come to "play": at the shopping mall. Lastly, one more clip. This one from the hour I called The 1978 World's Fair . You're hearing the US ambassador from Japan telling you, "the ultimate luxury for Japanese people is having space . . . just enough space" and he's followed by the ambassador from Jamaica telling you, in contrast, that "just a piece of meat. Anything to eat" would be considered a luxury in her country

In this show, there are ten interviews from various D.C. embassies (with ambassadors from Egypt, Israel, Venezuela, Madagascar), interviews filled with bits of economics and anthropology, but they've all been inserted into a rich sound mix. A total fantasy sound environment of crowds milling and world music playing. It sounds as if the interviews are all taking place in pavilions at some World's Fair. A "fair," actually, that I just made up. A concept. It only existed on the radio

So that's the kind of thing I did. Those shows won awards. Each month was different. I was constantly reframing the information I'd collect, changing the format to keep up with changing reality. Throwing out the tradition-bound categories of "news" over here and "art" over there. But, more simply, why did my shows sound this way? For one thing, whenever I needed inspiration for my work, all I had to do was think back to the late 60s when the Beatles and George Martin were transforming chaotic experiences into beautifully packaged four-minute songs. That was plenty of inspiration. While I wasn't John Lennon or George Martin and I didn't make concept albums, I could try to make concept albums for radio. And that, to answer your question, was what I was trying to achieve. Just like every other Baby Boomer boy, I wanted to be like the Beatles

Ocean Hour is a really intriguing piece -- part-documentary, part-short story, part-free associative narrative, part-soundscape, all bound together by two men, sitting on a dock, talking. Could you talk a little about how you approached the idea of the narrator in your radio stories

In most shows, I asked a well-known staff announcer at NPR, Mike Waters, to read my scripts. I wanted the audience to have confidence, even when the shows were highly experimental. Each month was different. For a show about the newspaper industry ( Black and White and Read All Over ) that included tape from my visit to the New York Times newsroom, for example, the narrator was recorded while he was riding on a commuter train. Because that's where people read their papers. The narrator represented the audience. In a show about education, I created an imaginary PTA meeting where the narrator appeared to be an author giving a ridiculous satirical speech. Listening to silly speeches in school gymnasiums is a common experience, so I thought the audience might relate to it in the middle of an otherwise experimental show. For Ocean Hour I sat down in the studio with Larry Massett (who composed the truly beautiful original music for this show) and we pretended to be sitting together on a dock, a bit like the little dock where I had just recorded the sounds of sail boats clanging in the wind in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Again, something for the audience to relate to amidst a collection of more unusual experiences and interviews

Have you continued to work in radio since leaving NPR? Are you still working in radio now

After NPR, I took on my favorite project: at WNYC, I built the Peabody-award winning nationwide call-in radio show for children, Kids America . After that, I moved into television as a Vice President at The Disney Channel and, later, as a producer at MTV Networks and the Sci Fi Channel. In 2004, I returned to radio, working with writers from around the world online, crafting with them a series of 78 op-ed essays for Public Radio International, which we called Primary Sources. Today, I'm researching a new project involving neurological discoveries and economics, I consult for various TV, radio, and satellite producers, and I'm always available to encourage good work.