BEHIND THE SCENES with Margy Rochlin and Jay Allison

First Margy

Alone Like a Stone... was produced 25 years ago; how does it sound to your ears today?

I just listened to Alone Like A Stone... for the first time in a long while. The memories came flooding back, but as two separate trains of thought. So many of the people I spoke to for the piece have been gone for years, and I was so happy to hear their voices! But I also recalled what it was like for me to work on the piece with Jay. The only radio I'd done up to that point was a handful of commentaries for Morning Edition (Ira Glass was my producer!). Jay heard one of them and asked if I wanted to work with him on a radio documentary. Then he sent me a big box. Inside was a broadcast-quality tape recorder, batteries, tapes etc. and a sheaf of instructions. I would study the instructions constantly but I was never sure if I was taping correctly or not. I was once sent to China to report a story. On the flight over the man across the aisle from me ate his entire American-style dinner, then when he finished I saw him pick up a small tub of Thousand Island dressing, open it up and eat it with a spoon. I guess he thought it was dessert -- a pink, sort of greasy pudding. That's what it felt like: I hoped that I was doing everything right, but I probably had one if not many things totally wrong.

It's about so many things at once – attachment, nostalgia, connection, place. What's the main theme for you?

I think Alone Like A Stone is about all of those things. My grandmother's property was sold years and years ago, and when it comes to my family I'm still not sure if it was terrible idea, or a good one, or whether it makes no difference either way.

Do you remember your process? Did you gather a bunch of tape and then draw the story from that, or go into the story knowing it was about certain themes.

The only idea I had was that I knew my family had been discussing what to do with my grandmother's property. I think I collected so much tape because I approached it like I would a heavily-reported print piece: I just started talking to all sorts of people and let the story find itself. Two other things about working with Jay: 1) He kept telling me, "Tape is cheap. Just keep taping," and 2) Jay Allison is a wonderful, magical producer. We spoke a lot when I was collecting tape, plus I think – but I'm not sure – that he sent me a collection of things he liked best and I sort of wrote what I thought belonged in between. (If this isn't what happened, Jay, many apologies.) When it came time to record the narration, Jay generously invited me to travel east and be a part of the process. What I remember is that I flew to Boston, took a bus to Woods Hole, then Jay – who I'd spoken to on the phone, but never met – picked me up. I stayed in a dorm room at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. When he dropped me off there, Jay handed me a small portable TV and a six-pack of beer (which he told me I could chill by sticking it out on the window sill). That's when I knew that the entire experience was going to be total perfection.

You write a lot about popular culture and food [ MR: I also do the occasional crime story ]. How does the audio medium compare to print for you, for telling stories?

I have said this before, but I can't repeat it enough: one of the things that I love most about radio is the collaborative process. I have worked with so many amazing, thoughtful, gifted producers: Jay Allison, Ira Glass, Alix Spiegel, Bob Carlson. In print, when it comes to reporting, your editor only knows what is on the page and maybe what you've shared with them anecdotally. With radio, the producers have listened to everything. You can say, "Remember when so-and-so said that?" and they can say, "Yes, but I liked it better when this happened..." I spend so many hours by myself and I get so lonely. The conversations I've had with producers? It was like they were inside my head. Our talks would just make my day. Every single one of these producers made my work a thousand times better.

Must ask! What happened to your grandmother's home ultimately?

The property was sold, and my grandmother's house wasn't just torn down -- all of the cypress trees, bamboo, and cacti that surrounded the house were removed as well. The first time I returned, I couldn't figure out where the house once stood. It was like it had been removed from the land with the world's largest eraser. Before the demolition, my cousin David drove over to the property and loaded up as many bricks from the house as he could. After that, he had these small metal plates made that said: ROCHLIN FAMILY HOME. BUILT 1928. NOGALES, ARIZONA. Then he gave a brick to each of the cousins in our family. I also have returned to the property and brought home mementos, like chunks of beige-speckled Tufa stone, as well as cactus-y plants that I have been growing in pots. If I do not keep this habit in check, I am terrified that one day I will wake up and realize that I have the means to build a small but extremely accurate replica of my Grandmother's house in my back yard.

On a final note, I did a piece for Bob Carlson's UnFictional called After You Left . It's sort of a companion piece to Alone Like A Stone .

One of my favorite things is finding very old audio tape of interviews I recorded for print and using them to make a radio story. The sound quality is pretty terrible, but there is something incredibly fun about finding those tiny moments that either didn't make it into a story or worked best as something to be heard. I did a piece produced by Alix Spiegel for TAL about going on the road with George Burns. Part of the inspiration was about wanting to tell the story of what it was like to travel with these three elderly gentlemen. But there was also some part of me that needed to share that after Burns chugged his three nightly martinis, he'd suddenly break out his blue material.

And now a few thoughts from Jay Allison..

Listening to this 25 years later, I'm struck by this thought: We assumed people were listening.

We didn't feel like we had to spell things out. We could be poetic in our connections. Margy was honestly on a curious quest. She really wanted to explore, and we let the audience do that with her. I think Margy actually discouraged me from putting more signposts along the way, and I'm grateful for her influence.

This piece wouldn't have made a good "pitch," because a story doesn't exactly exist here. There was a DECISION to be made, that's about all we had. When we began producing, we had no idea where we'd go, but because Margy is such a good writer, I felt happy to embark with her and figure it out as we went. If we were producing today, I actually hope we'd do exactly the same thing--be willing to be lost, take our time, let the sum of the parts create the whole. It's not the way radio is produced very much anymore, because there seems to be more pressure to hold your audience at every moment, and a 3-minute musing is about the maximum--forget 30 minutes. But the rise of the podcast audience suggests that people are still listening, and are okay with not being led by the nose, and it's sure nice not to have to do that.