"The Only Medium That Can Make You Blush in the Dark": Learning About Radio

"There are things about not being able to see someone who is talking that somehow gives you a much more direct link to that person than if you see their face. There's an awful lot of emotion conveyed in their voice and there's an awful lot of their personality conveyed in their voice. There's the obvious thing that you are able to create your own pictures in your head. It's also a lot more intimate. It's like someone is whispering to you in the dark. There was a guy at this radio festival I go to every year called the Third Coast International Audio Festival. One thing he said was radio was the only medium that can make you blush in the dark. You have to think about it for a moment but yeah, you can't read in the dark, you can't watch TV in the dark because it's emitting its own light, and it's true. It's like being at a slumber party all the time. It's really wonderful."

-- NPR reporter Sean Cole

Sean Cole is an award winning radio reporter, working out of WBUR in Boston, and producing content for such shows as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and This American Life. He is also the subject of one of the exemplars we have produced as part of the MacArthur-funded Project NML. Previous entries here have described some of our goals for this project -- to expose young people to the choices that get made in the production of various forms of media, to provide them with role-models of what it might be like to create and distribute work in those media, to provide educators -- in school and out -- with a vocabulary for talking about and assessing student work within those media.

This profile of Sean Cole was produced by Comparative Media Studies graduate student Orit Kuritsky with assistance from CMS graduate student Amulya Gopalakrishnan. Kuritsky, herself, is an experienced media producer, having worked developing new formats, scripting and editing for children's television in her native Israel and in radio production here in the United States, She moved from intern into a producer position on The Connectiona syndicated talk show that aired from WBUR Boston before returning to graduate school. She has also been part of a team of our graduate students which has been working with the Terrascope Program in the Earth Sciences department at MIT to help scientist learn to communicate their ideas through radio. The students focused their energies this year on the earthquake and tsunami that hit the coast of Chile in 1960 – the largest one ever documented. The students went to Chile during spring break to do interviews and collect sounds which would eventually be edited into a 23 minute piece dealing, as they put it, with “ecological, cultural and personal survival during a devastating earthquake and tsunami”. The piece aired on WMBR and is also available on the public radio exchange

In a recent e-mail, Kuritsky explained to me some of the factors that went into her choice of Cole as an exemplar subject:

I love to listen to him on the radio. His quirkiness, combined with genuine curiosity and wit, generate great radio pieces. And I'm not alone. He is regarded as one of the most interesting and unique voices in the world of public radio. He is a very warm, attitude-less person. When I was new at the station, besides simply being nice, he kept telling me that he also started as an intern, and that it took time for him to get a permanent position, all things I needed to hear at the time. I think this unassuming attitude, combined with willingness to give advice, translates well on the screen. Sean is technically savvy. Many highly regarded public radio reporters still send interview, narration and ambiance clips to their respective headquarters, where professional editors/engineers lace their pieces together. Sean insists on doing it himself. He is also active in online communities of radio enthusiasts (like transom and prx, commenting on othersÂ’ works and offering advice). In these regards, Sean represents where public radio is heading, or at least one among contradicting directions; younger, more personal, more participatory, more diverse.

Here, Kuritsky collaborated closely with Cole to help students develop a better understanding of what goes into the production of a segment for Morning Edition from its conceptualization and planning, through the collection of interviews and environmental sounds, the logging and selection of sounds, the scripting and editing process, and the final product. Like the Nick Bertozzi profile I showed here recently, this series of short digital films lays out the choices which shape the production process at every step along the way, offering very good professional advice to would be radio producers. Indeed, this advice seems particularly timely given the revival of interest in recorded sound production brought about by the emergence of podcasting.

Throughout the segment, Cole is passionate about radio as a medium -- as my opening quote above suggests -- and very attentive to the ways it differs from other ways of presenting the same material:

In print, you write a story and pepper it with quotes. In radio, the tape is everything. The tape is the structure of the story. It is the architecture, it's the skeleton of the story and the script is the muscle and sinew around it.

As students begin to watch these tapes of producers working in different media, we hope they will learn to think ethnographically. We want students to focus not just on what people are saying but how they say it. So, in the case of Sean Cole, part of the fascination is the ways that the kinds of metaphors which characterize NPR style emerge spontaneously throughout his interview. He speaks in the segment about the need to construct a conversational style for radio which is nevertheless concise, accurate, and evocative. Watching him talk in this extended interview, one can see how he has internalized this style and how it becomes a natural part of the way he engages with people around him.

Cole is very interested in getting youth not only to listen closely to the mix of sonic elements which constitute a radio segment but also to listen closely to their own physical surroundings. He talks about how radio producers seek to capture the characteristic sounds of a particular location -- whether it is the clacking of needles at a knitting convention or the burbling street noises which he acknowledges are something of a cliché in public radio work. This emphasis on hearing one's environment is consistent with the approach which Kuritsky had taken with the students in her own radio class:

We spent a lot of time in class listening to a variety of radio pieces and talking about them. It was striking at first to discover that the students are really not familiar with the medium (except as a vehicle for music), and have a very small vocabulary in their conceptual tool boxes to discuss it. This changed quickly as they listened to more pieces and became more sensitive to the elements of radio stories, how they work together, and how they react to them. Besides listening, students learned by doing; they created their own radio pieces, simple ones at first, and more complicated ones as final projects. (In order to do that, they had to master recording techniques and editing software, as well as develop their skills as interviewers and writers)

Throughout the series, we want very much to show the professional contexts in which these media artists produce their work, especially stressing forms of collaboration within the workplace. We feel schools put too much emphasis on individual creative expression and not enough on the ways people often work together to insure the production and distribution of art. Here's what Kuritsky had to say about her goals in depicting WBUR:

Despite the fact that Sean is very much self sufficient in his daily work it was important for me to portray him in context, banter from his boss included. (see chapter 9 “collaboration”.) It takes a certain personality, as well as certain socio-economic conditions for creative people to posit themselves as ‘artists’. Many people still need to work for organizations to make a living, and express, their creative skills. Working in organizations does not mean lack of creative freedom, but it certainly entails some give and take, which is reflected in this chapter and others.

Cole is a gifted storyteller, as the people who work with him are quick to tell us here, and this segment explodes with fascinating narratives about his experiences in the field. The primary focus is on a basic story in which he follows the evacuation route out of Boston being recommended by local government officials but along the way he also shares with us stories about Sherlock Holmes fans, about a young man who discovers the recycling of musical themes by Nickleback, and a range of other assignments on which he worked.

The goal of this project, however, is not simply to provide technical instruction to help young people become better media makers or to prepare them for professions in the media industry. We also want to heighten their awareness of the ethical issues which media makers face as they go about their work. We are especially proud of segment 8 in this series which deals with the choices Cole make in producing this segment: in particular, he has to think about the best way to preserve the original context and meaning of his interviewee's remarks, even as radio requires a ruthless pairing down of material. He encounters a situation where he could make a policeman he interviewed look foolish and has to decide the best way to preserve what the man was trying to communicate. Cole speaks forcefully about the responsibilities which reporters have to their subjects and the various professional procedures they follow in order to maintain the integrity and fairness of what they produce. This attention to journalistic ethics seems especially urgent at a time when so many young people are generating media through blogs or home pages or LJ entries without much oversight by adults. It is also urgently needed at a time when many young people are increasingly cynical about all forms of journalism, drawing limited distinction between the partisanship that often charges the blogosphere and more traditional forms of journalism. Cole makes it clear that all journalism involves making choices about how to represent what one has observed, that these choices are made by human beings who make mistakes, and that these choices have an impact on the people who they are representing through their work.

Much media literacy work has historically been concerned about the effects of media on the people who consume it. If I had my way, we would recenter those questions from media effects to media ethics, getting students to think through the choices they make as they generate and circulate their own media and the consequences of those choices on other people. Many of the same issues would resurface in such an approach but they would have greater immediacy as young people were actively involved in making choices about the kinds of media they are producing.