How did Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio come together as an audio story?

Sometime in early spring of 2006, the fantastic Sasha Aslanian of American Radio Works noticed that the coming Christmas Eve was the supposed 100th anniversary of the first voice broadcast (which is just the sort of thing that ARW knocks out of the park). They knew they wanted to do something for the anniversary but didn't have anyone on staff to do it. I had just left a job at Marketplace (where I'd worked closely with the ARW folks of a few projects), they knew I loved history, and I was a warm body

I was a warm body who'd never personally reported and produced a piece longer than eight minutes or so. All my experience was on daily programs and almost all my stories aired during half-hour episodes of Marketplace. So, a lot of the process for me on the documentary was about simply figuring out how to make an hour work -- how to make it flow, how to draw listeners across the hour, how to mete out information, how to create a story worth an hour of your life that you'll never get back, and, how to simply get the work done

An hour is hard. You need to be very organized and very patient. You need to want to live with the ideas and the audio for a long time. It was remarkably challenging and nearly equally satisfying

My editor, Catherine Winter, was a remarkable partner on this. She has super-sharp edits and a super-steady personality when I'd (over and over) call in some sort of panic

What challenges did you face in making the story? The most interesting challenge was also the most interesting aspect of the whole idea of a history of music on radio: people didn't think it was worth saving for history's sake. I mention it in the first section of the doc, but there is shockingly little left as a record of what was actually on air in the teens and '20s. If you scrounged it all up (and you can do this pretty easily through the dedicated on-line community of "old-time" radio-philes), it'd fit on a few cds. At this point, I think I actually have all of the American music radio performances that exist before 1930. All that is left to us as an audio record of a transformative cultural moment in American history is literally in my top left desk drawer with an empty stapler, some note cards, an orange Sharpie and a couple of Animal Collective CDs. It's bananas. It's sad. And makes it hard to tell a compelling story in a medium dependent on audio. At the same time, it hints at what I found so interesting about the earliest days of the radio boom: it must have been magic to hear these sounds coming from your neighbor's window or from that box your brother just built in the living room. I sort of like that you literally can't hear it. It's like those early sounds were just for the people that were around to hear them for the first time

How did you decide on the specific music you highlight in radio's evolution? For a long time this doc was on American Radio Works's schedule with the title A History of Radio . This is how it was originally pitched to me, and it's kind of a ridiculous notion for an hour long piece. I knew I didn't want to do a And then, a nation mourned as the Hindenburg exploded, then a nation's spirits were picked up by the Fire Side Chats , sort of thing. I noticed that there has been very little done in terms of a survey of the history of music radio. That was exciting, but still kind of a ridiculous notion for an hour long piece. I needed to tighten it up. I knew I wanted to tackle the 1920s and the notion that in a time of incredible racial and ethnic conflict, radio brought people into contact with cultures to which they otherwise wouldn't have been exposed. Looking at the next decades, I found the theme of cultural border-crossing crop up again and again. It became the narrative through-line

Where did you find source material for your piece

I used various audio archives. A quick Google search can get you in touch with the few people that have the earliest recordings. A lot of the hobbyists (though the term hardly implies the care, affection, and expertise they bring to their collections) will be happy to sell you a copy of what they have. Other than that, I spent a lot of time in archives at the University of Maryland, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and at Fred MacDonald's place in Chicago

What's your favorite moment in the story, and why? I'd say the section about the '20s is my favorite. I have music in my life for hours a day -- on the car radio, my iPod, my stereo, and the computer. I love to think of that moment in history when that was first possible. I think that the radio "moment" is more powerful than the phonograph moment. With a record player, there's an intentionality. You want to hear some rag or some march or some string quartet, you put it on. But the radio comes on and you don't know where it's going to take you. You don't know what idea it's going to introduce to you, you don't know what culture you're going to be exposed to for the first time. Radio can sneak in and change you

I feel pretty good about the little "set-pieces" in each segment of the story. In the first part, it's the "flipping across the dial" bit. In the second part, it's the story about the night the Grand Ol' Opry was named. In the third part, it's the story of how Todd Storrs invented Top 40. Yes, they're little audio gimmicks, but I believe that stories need thrilling moments. Sometimes, they come on their own . . . there's just a piece of tape that crystallizes the whole story -- a tear-inducing confession or the punch-line. Sometimes, and I think this might be particularly true for history stories, you've just got to build them from scratch.