‘If we can imagine it, why don’t we do it?’

Print More

It was raining in Baltimore Sept. 23 when independent producer Jay Allison delivered his “benediction,” the traditional closing speech of the Public Radio Program Directors annual conference.

The bleary, conferenced-out audience listened closely. Allison, who learned the nonfiction radio craft when NPR was a startup and went on to start up a few radio institutions himself, reminded attendees why perseverance matters. They gave Allison a standing ovation before dispersing under the dark sky.

In the 1970s, a guy at NPR loaned me a tape recorder, and I just made myself at home on M Street, producing pieces, editing day and night. They didn’t have a security system in those days; I think they just assumed I worked there. But I was a citizen of this country and they let me in. It was a favor — an act I still hope is embedded in the DNA of public radio — and I have devoted my life to repaying that favor. And this morning I hope to convince some of you to join that invitational cause.

Jay Allison delivers a PRPD "benediction." (Photo: David Hollis, PRPD.)A “benediction” suggests a license to preach — a great temptation for anyone in public radio — and I’m going to take advantage of it a little bit. Partly, I’ll be preaching to myself, which I do all the time: I’m getting lazy, not doing enough, not doing enough good, I’m not sufficiently honoring our purpose and public trust. So you’ll have the pleasure of being included today in these flagellations. We can be chastised together, and find possibilities for redemption, together.

I come at this from three angles — a national producer, a local station founder, and an Internet guy. I’ve been independent all these years (in fact, I’ve never had a real job), working with the networks and national shows, with our station, and creating new series and digital spaces.

I’ve come to know the pressures on the ground at stations, and also the excuses.

I find at these conferences, if you take away one or two thoughts that abide, a couple of actionable notions, you’re doing pretty well. So I hope you can find some in this hour, because many of you are the gatekeepers. You decide who gets in, what gets heard. In many ways, you determine our collective identity. It’s in your hands. You’re responsible.

And to spice my little benediction, which is divided into chapters, I’m going to play some Sonic IDs from our station on Cape Cod — something we put on our air in the interstitial time, every broadcast day. I know some of you are familiar with these and have even replicated them at your stations. We’ve done this since we first went on the air and now we have hundreds in rotation.

The IDs interrupt the block programming in a good way. Suddenly, in the middle of the world news, there’s a 30- or 60-second portrait, an overheard moment, some found real-life poetry from right here where we live. The IDs create a signature that makes us sound a little different from anyone else, and describe our home by building a sonic space comprised of the people who live here (article, Current, May 14, 2001).


[Jaunty piano music begins.]

JAY: Eileen McGrath on Nantucket.

EILEEN: All right, here we go. Now you’re gonna see the correct way to put the wash on the line. If it’s a windy day, you’ve got to decide which way you’re gonna stand, because otherwise you’ll have them wrapped right around your head as you hang them up, you see.

If I were a careless laundry hanger, I’d do this [flapping sound] uhhh — I just threw it over the line and then, you know, speared it with a couple of clothes pins. Very careless work. You should do it just exactly the way so everything is shipshape. It’s a lost art.

[Piano fades up.]

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations, a service of WGBH.

[Piano ends.]

Chapter 1: The Correct Way to Put Wash on the Line, or…

We are appropriately focused on change, but some values don’t change, like in laundry-hanging. We don’t have to change everything. Our mission still stands. That’s comforting.

It was mission that sucked many of us in, and it still binds us together. I was a bright-eyed idealist in my 20s (still am, to a degree) and I know there are plenty of us out there, young ones (and old ones) ready to sign on to something they believe in.
Public radio is a mission-based enterprise. Everything rightfully follows that. Really, all we ever have to do is be as good and as true as we say we are.

We all have some version of mission at our stations. Here’s my friend Bill Siemering’s writing from the early days of NPR: “The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.”

Bingo. This doesn’t have to change. It’s as inclusive and non-elitist and non-politically biased as you could ask for.

We need to remember how beautiful our mission is. Many of us have staked our lives’ meaning on it. We don’t take it lightly. Listeners honor us for doing that. As Sarah Vowell posted on Transom, “I still believe in public radio’s potential. Because it’s the one mass medium that’s still crafted almost entirely by true believers.”

It’s true. I know I went away in the ’90s for a bit and worked for Ted Koppel at Nightline. I loved it. It was a great journalistic outfit. But I missed the mission, and I missed radio. I came back and renewed my vow of poverty.

For many of us, for some important core of us, public radio is a calling. We believe in a civic responsibility and in civil behavior. That’s a precious combination, because it’s increasingly rare. Our listeners know this about us. It’s why they trust us. And it’s why people want to join our cause — as supporters and participants. I’ll come back to that.


[Large clock ticking.]

THOMAS: I only held the clock job for, oh, five or six years.

JAY: Thomas Hodgson, former keeper of the clock at the Congregational Church in West Tisbury.

THOMAS: I’m afraid my confession about the ultimate reason for wanting to retire is that I don’t really care what time it is.

[Ticking continues.]

And I would rather — I’d rather rely on an internal clock than a machine, though this is certainly a beautiful machine.

[Clock chime winds up.]

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

[Clock chimes twice and winds down.]

Chapter 2:  A Beautiful Machine, or…

So, we get older. Time goes by. Our eyes get less bright, our backs tire, our children need tuition. Mission can become inconvenient sometimes, too much work.

Understandably, as an enterprise, we crave success, too. And money. For one thing, those are quantifiable.

And this is tricky, because when success and audience numbers and money are the goal, our mission can become a burden. There are easier ways to get money, and we get lazy.

I think of the musical nostalgia fundraisers on public TV, for example, pre-empting Frontline. That’s a break in the trust. It’s cynical, it’s a short sell, and it’s the beginning of the end. We haven’t done that yet in public radio. But the risk of dedicating ourselves primarily to fulfilling metrics or budgets is always there.

Another note on mission: The original purpose of public broadcasting, I think it’s worth remembering, was broadly educational. Education is an unassailable civic good, to my way of thinking, unless you are someone who wants an ignorant workforce you can exploit, or an ignorant population you can manipulate politically, but that’s the subject of a different benediction.

Our original mission was not “to report the news of the day.” Certainly that can fit within a broadly educational mandate, but Congress did not direct us explicitly to report the news.

It’s odd, in fact, after so many years tagging along behind newspapers, to find ourselves one of the strongest bastions of journalism in the country. We should be proud of that and never diminish the importance of our news reporting but always remember that it has a context, which is life itself, and the broadly educational purpose to help create a better-informed citizenry.

It’s sharing the meaningful, unexpected, transformational stories of our lives, here in America and around the world, that sets us apart. Our listeners depend on us for the news. But they love us for Our Heart. It’s easy to find the latest news these days. One click. But it’s hard to find anywhere the kind of heart that’s at the core of our sensibility.


BARBARA: My husband is a retired dairy farmer. A dairy farmer works seven days a week. He had never seen the ocean. So when we were married, we came to the Cape so he could see the ocean.

JAY: Barbara Yamamoto of Harwichport.

BARBARA: His eyes filled with tears and he said, “I have to live here.” And here we are, and here we intend to stay.

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

Jay Allison with microphone

Chapter 3: And Here We Intend to Stay, or…

If you came in late — I’m playing WCAI’s Sonic IDs as an organizing principle. Like that one — it’s less than 30 seconds long, but doesn’t it have an amazing amount of information and heart in it? It’s so short, but not rushed. Our PD used to say about the sonics, “If you don’t like it, it’s over.”

They also raise an interesting point, because sometimes they sound like mistakes for a second when they start. The listener, momentarily, wonders what’s going on and feels lost, but then recovers — a bit refreshed. It sharpens the mind to feel lost and then found. I always say that the sonics are a success if they make you look at the radio.

Eventually, my dream is to put everybody on the air, the whole place — an epic poem of community, created in collaboration with the community.

So, neighborliness. That’s the word I’ve come to favor as a way to describe the quality our radio station should aspire to: Being neighborly. These IDs propound neighborliness. We don’t know each other but we have our place in common, and in some way, these stories weave us all into the fabric of the place. We get to know each other a little bit. We feel friendlly toward strangers.

A guy named Jim Haynes wrote a This I Believe essay for our series on NPR. He’s a wonderfully social man who hosts huge weekly dinner parties at his flat in Paris. Everyone signs up and then appears. Here’s a quote from his This I Believe essay that I think relates to our own identity: “All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness. I believe in introducing people to people. I have a good memory, so each week I make it a point to remember everyone’s name on the guest list and where they’re from and what they do, so I can introduce them to each other, effortlessly. If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other.”

How’s that for neighborly? I think of us in public radio that way — as hosts, with our convening, curatorial attributes — inviting everyone, everyone talking together, all ages and ethnicities, with civility and intelligence and good humor.

All of this is Utopian, of course, but so what? The world needs Utopians. We don’t have to succeed in building a Utopia, we just need to get closer.

In fact, I see our role not just as reporting on our place, but as actively involved in improving it.

To do that, we should seek out our likely collaborators. Build partnerships with other groups who have kinship with us: arts groups, civic organizations, schools, museums, social services, all the nonprofits involved in making our places better. We can act as a key connector in community. The other day, I heard a remark by the longtime public radio leader Dennis Haarsager that went something like this: “We used to see ourselves as the nonprofit arm of the media world. Perhaps we should see ourselves as the media arm of the nonprofit world.”

We have natural allies there, and there is strength in collaborative energy.

In any case, I like the idea of a public radio actively committed to positive change in the places we live. David Gessner, an environmental writer who also wrote a This I Believe essay for us, sums up his environmental action this way in his recent book, and I think it works for us, too: “Fall in love with a place and fight for it.”


EARL: “Wah-ta-honk. Ah-ki-ee.” There’s a feeling that gives you goosebumps. It’s such a nice, nice sound to be able to hear how your ancestors must have spoken: “wee-noh-wahs” — “onion;” “ah-kash-ki” — “groundhog;” “ah-ki-aiou” — It mean “bottom,” “down on the floor.”

My soul is a jar, and there’s only certain things that enter it, and this language thing is one of those. It enters and it . . . it exhilarates me. “Ah-ki-oumous” mean a “bee.” The sound of that sounds like a bee. “Ah-ki-oumous.”

JAY: Earl Mills, Chief Flying Eagle of the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee. You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

Chapter 4: My Soul is a Jar, or…

Forget for a moment new technology, multiple platforms, delivery systems, social media — just for a moment, forget all that — and remember, we work in sound. That’s where we started and that’s what we’re known for. We do it better than anyone else.

I don’t mean that we ignore the other senses, but we should be the masters of this one.

I know it’s almost heretical to say it these days, to invoke the name of radio, when some are deleting the word from our identity. Even my own nonprofit organization is Atlantic Public Media (the first APM, by the way), and I am a strong advocate for occupying all the digital spaces, for being everywhere all the time, but sound is our home.

I can’t help but quote the great sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The Godfather) from his Manifesto on our website, Transom.org:

“Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four-and-a-half months after we are conceived. . . . Birth wakens the other four sleepyhead senses and they scramble for the child’s attention — a race ultimately won by the darting and powerfully insistent Sight — but there is no getting around the fact that Sound was there before any of them, already waiting in the womb’s darkness as consciousness emerged, and was its tender midwife.

“So although our mature consciousness may be betrothed to sight, it was suckled by sound, and if we are looking for the source of sound’s ability — in all its forms — to move us more deeply than the other senses and occasionally give us a mysterious feeling of connectedness to the universe, this primal intimacy is a good place to begin.”

I co-produced the wonderful series Lost and Found Sound with my friends the Kitchen Sisters. Sometimes, I would listen all day to the voices of dead people. The listeners who would call our Quest for Sound line would describe their old tape or phonograph or whatever contained the voice of their loved one and say, “It’s all I have left,” as if it were an actual part of the person, full of life and breath. And in a way, it was. The connection to the remaining voice is not at all like a photograph, it’s much deeper. Sound has the ghostly power to enter our bodies, unbidden.

The playwright Marsha Norman talks about a time after her husband died, finding a plastic blow-up beach ball in the back of the closet and realizing it contained her husband’s breath. That resonates with me. It reminds me of the kind of power we hold in our medium.

As we become more focused on other media, as we find ourselves newspaper-ized, as our attention is drawn away from our craft — remember the power of sound. We have the opportunity to wield it if we want.


[Fado music begins. A duet.]

JAY: Ana and Jose Vinagre, Portuguese fado singers from New Bedford.

[Ana sings.]

ANA: I can’t wear shoes when I’m singing. I gotta feel where I’m at. I can’t. I can, but it doesn’t sound — it’s not being true to myself. I gotta kick the shoes off.

[Jose sings.]

JOSE: My item of better singing is high-heel boots (he chuckles). The boots help me — uh — open my diaphragm a little better rather than flat shoes. And when I put on a pair of high-heel, black, Spanish-style, black boots, I feel strong about being a better fado singer.

[They sing together.]

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

[Song ends.]

Chapter 5: Bare Feet, High Heels, or…

Beyond sound, or within sound, there is story. I have five children and on that limited sampling, I’m willing to extrapolate: We’re hard-wired for stories told out loud.

Among my 2-year-old son’s first words was “story.” And then “again.” “Story.” “Again.” “Story, again.” This summer we went to the Fourth of July fireworks at the beach, and he sat on my lap, looking up while the fireworks shot off in the sky and he kept turning to me, saying, “Story. Tell. Story.” It was happening right in front of him, but he wanted me to tell him about it. He wanted to hear about what he was experiencing.

In public radio, our signature is story. It’s what we’re known for. We have masters of story already working with us — many here at this conference and more who are willing to join.

One of the simplest storytelling programs we air is The Moth Radio Hour, which I’m privileged to produce. I should say it’s not as simple as it seems, perhaps, because The Moth’s directors do magic to create that illusion in their work with the storytellers, but finally, it’s storytelling reduced to its essence. My Pro Tools sessions are the opposite of the insane one Jad showed you at the beginning of this conference. They’re one track (and a bleep track, sometimes).

It’s just someone telling a true story, other people listening. It’s primitive, like in a cave, by a fire. It’s also got the wonderful quality that something might go wrong; there’s risk. It’s that Mistake Thing again. In public radio, you always feel everything is going to turn out all right, that there won’t be any surprises, that everything’s under control. But The Moth is on a tightrope, or like a sporting event — the kind of thing Brecht wanted from the theater. Something might be different this time, something might go wrong. The storytellers themselves are vulnerable, taking a chance with what they’re telling us. It can be riveting.

It’s also what we champion at Transom, which we call “Slow Radio.” Radio that contains breath and takes its time to render a full humanity. Moth stories go for 18 minutes sometimes. One voice, no editing. Insane, right? It’ll never work. But hundreds of people are turned away from live Moth events. My teenage kids hate a lot of public radio; they love The Moth.

I think it partly ties to what Studs Terkel said on Transom about what he wanted from his radio. “Something real.” Just something real.


DOUGIE:  We try to have fun here, and we try to be creative here, and we address the client’s needs the best way we can.

[Clipping noise in background.]

JAY: Provincetown hairdresser Dougie Freeman.

DOUGIE: We’re bringing back dancing and kissing. I ordered a stripper pole from Palomino Poles in Las Vegas, which is where the best poles, dance stripper poles come from, and we installed it in the salon and it was a huge success. You had to be under 200 pounds and you could only dance five minutes — that was the stipulation.

Also, we have a kissing booth going on now, on Saturday nights, and that’s $2 a kiss, and it’s kissing with Saran Wrap, which is another application for Saran Wrap so — you have the confidence when you’re kissing — the confidence of Saran Wrap.

[Clip, clip, clip.]

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

[Clip, clip, clip.]

Chapter 6: We Try to Have Fun Here and We Try to Be Creative, or…

This seems like such an obvious point, but where does creativity come from? It comes from creative people.

We so often tend to design top-down programming. Invent a vehicle and find talent to drive it. That can work in some cases, but the highway is littered with abandoned public radio vehicles of that sort.

Really, we know: Our lasting work rises up from the grassroots, from talent, from singular vision.

I want us to throw open the doors more often to people of singular vision. Welcome the bright-eyed, mission-driven people who will carry us forward. Bring in the future poets of the medium.

We can function like the real estate market: Encourage some artists to move in, let them make the place cool and then everyone wants in.

I was emailing with my friend Robert Krulwich while I was here, both of us happy about Jad’s MacArthur fellowship, and he wrote: “For a while there, maybe eight to 10 years ago, when Transom was just getting going, I was wondering, where are the people who are going to inherit this thing we helped make, and make it their own? What if it goes the way of public TV and just dies in place? But it isn’t doing that. Partly, I think, because of [those of us] who just recruit new folks in and give them room to breathe and grow, let ’em suffer their way through and learn, and . . . up pops, oh, say . . . Jad.”

Jad came in through an open door.

At this conference, Dan Grech of WLRN said to me, “But Jad is not replicable. Radiolab is not replicable.” That’s absolutely true, but fortunately, it doesn’t matter. The process is replicable. The process. WNYC and Mikel Ellcessor opened a door, they stuck with Jad because they had faith something good was there, even if it hadn’t yet formed. Dean Cappello overlooked the complainers and stayed the course, because his gut told him to. As Jad said, “They left me alone to do weird things.”

That’s risk. Many of you do it, and I admire you: WBEZ, KUOW, North Country, Remix Radio, KUT, KCRW, and, happily, so many more.

As a producer, I can always know there will be a core group of stations that will gamble, that are willing to be first. That helps give me the strength to try.

But why not all of us? Being willing to risk and try new things first — why isn’t that part of our collective identity?


STEVEN: The worst thing about living on Nantucket for a teenager…

[Slow music starts.]

is probably . . .

[More slow music.]

the boredom.

[More music.]

JAY: Steven Hamblin of Nantucket.

[More music.]

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

[Music fades out.]

Chapter 7: The Boredom, or…
The Boredom

So, here are some specific practical ideas on how to spice up our air and realize this goal of identifying and welcoming talent.
First of all, the whole world is auditioning for us, whether they know it or not. The Internet is the world’s largest audition stage. It’s never been easier to find talented people — podcasters, bloggers, musicians, poets, comedians. They’re right there, waiting for us to notice and bring them in. Many of them want in. Just ask.

At PRX, we ran the Talent Quest and found in a very short time a pool of people wanting to join us. We got Al Letson and Glynn Washington, both remarkable additions to our roster, and left dozens of intriguing people on the table. We had about 1,400 people create audition pieces. If I had some funding right now, I’d go back into that list and find some people and start collaborating with them.

Beyond that, there’s PRX itself: an absolute mine of talent and new programming. Explore in there. It’s amazing. It’s easy to use. For the active programmer, who is really scheduling every day like it’s special, PRX is a dream.

Jump on AIR’s new Localore project. That could be transformative for both a station and a producer.

Look for people who scare you a little, and welcome them, too. We should be magnets. Find the person in your shop who understands talented people and can manage them with respect and delicacy. Use that person. We should be known as a place where creativity is embraced, understood and employed in service of mission.

Bring on interns. Give them something real to do. Invite them to surprise us. Let them search the Internet for cool things our listeners should hear. Make them PRX-Jockeys.

Remember the legacy producers, the ones who defined our sound and are eager to keep redefining. Don’t let them all leave us for lack of support. Warning: that’s happening. To lots of us.

In the independent community, we’ve developed all sorts of training and baton-passing like Krulwich and I were emailing about — outfits like PRX, AIR, Third Coast and Transom. And Ira Glass and This American Life have singlehandedly spread the public radio gospel to a generation.

At Atlantic Public Media, we’re about to start the first-ever Transom Story Workshop Oct. 3, right in our little village of Woods Hole, Mass., in cooperation with WCAI. It will run for seven weeks, and we’re charging something comparable to college tuition but without the credit. We did no publicity, but just announced it on the Web, and got 60 applicants from all over the world. We accepted eight to come be in residence. This is not multimedia, but radio story — a beginning course, taught by the former instructor at the Salt Institute, Rob Rosenthal. Ira Glass and Kelly McEvers and many other great producers will come help teach. Students will leave with a portfolio. We’re excited.

But when we’re done training, can you help them stay in public radio? Let us know you’re interested, so we can send good ones your way.

As Torey Malatia said, “It’s easy to support talent. Hire it.”


MILDRED: We got out to Michigan on Lake Finch, a beautiful spot. I hated the place the minute I stepped into it — I couldn’t stand it.

JAY: The late Mildred Huntington of Vineyard Haven.

MILDRED: We finally got this place right on the lake — closer to water than this. I would walk down there, take a deep breath and there’s nothing — it’s complete void. It didn’t smell like salt water; there’s no smell to it. I couldn’t stand the place.

I didn’t like the food out there. You couldn’t buy any baked beans unless you had tomato sauce in them. I don’t like beans with tomato sauce. You couldn’t buy any salt mixed pork, so I couldn’t make a chowder. You couldn’t buy any hardtack that goes with the chowder. You couldn’t buy any New England rum, which Gale and I both like to have a drink of at night. There wasn’t anything about that place I liked. It was horrible.

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

Chapter 8: A Complete Void, or…
Starting from Scratch

(That ID has a bit of a twist, since it expresses love of place by describing hatred of another place.)

I should mention that with these IDs, I have an ongoing task I didn’t anticipate when we began. Like in that one, I have to go back and record to add “the late” to my copy as people pass away. But their voices stay on our air, like a living oral history.

When I was founding WCAI, I asked just about everybody for advice, “What would you do if you were starting from scratch with a brand-new public radio station, a blank slate?” Everyone had ideas.

Here is just a tiny sampling:

Jeffrey Dvorkin, v.p., news, NPR, Washington, D.C.: “We need to remember that people who will listen want to be astonished. Not all the time. But regularly. They want to be able to say, ‘Did you hear that?’”

Lorenzo Milam, founder of numerous community radio stations,  and author, Sex and Broadcasting: “What you should do is create a model of original radio. The listeners will catch on quickly — and will be part of your on-going works (if you let them).”

Ron Kramer, g.m., Jefferson Public Radio, Ashland, Ore.: “Don’t be afraid to do things ‘differently’ than the industry ‘standard’ approach. Have fun. If your staff is enjoying what they do each day, it comes out through the speaker and is contagious.”

Martin Spinelli, professor of radio at CUNY Brooklyn College: “The key to truly riveting radio is toying with expectations, fulfilling them in unexpected ways, reinventing them, even thwarting them in loving ways.”

Susan Stamberg, host and journalist, NPR, Washington, D.C.: “I don’t want anybody AUTHORITATIVE sounding — NPR gives me plenty of that. I want people I can COUNT on — Make the radio station a community of people looking out for one another.”
Larry Josephson, independent producer, New York City: “All I can tell you is be open to people who don’t fit the mold.”

Art Silverman, producer, All Things Considered, NPR. “The constant is one thing: surprise. Above all: fun, adventure, juxtaposition, fearlessness.”

[For more suggestions sent to Allison, see his 1999 article.]

Almost nobody said, “Do exactly what we’re doing now.” Not that they repudiated it, far from it, but they were dreaming of something more, something with more life and surprise and energy.
If we can imagine it, why don’t we do it? Repeat: If we can imagine it, why don’t we do it?


DR. INSLEY: This is the Board of Shame that contains numerous objects removed from the outside of peoples’ bodies.

JAY: Dr. Robert Insley of Chatham on his office exhibit.

DR. INSLEY: We have a faucet up here that I personally removed from a gentleman that works at a local boat yard. When he was trying to pry off a rusted bolt, the bolt broke and he went flying backwards impaling himself on this faucet, breaking it off, and then therefore having to come in here with a faucet embedded in his rear end. And this was removed and obviously he did not want to take it with him.

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

DR. INSLEY: I will fail to give the patient’s name because he’s still roaming around here, and he would probably never be able to be seen downtown if anybody knew that was removed from him.

Chapter 9: The Board of Shame, or…

Okay, two main excuses: Money and Time.

Money, I understand. I’m broke, too. But we have to figure out how to pay for content.

John Barth of PRX tells me when he talks to stations about great new content he hears back, “Well, we’re not going to pay for anything.” I’m sure that’s none of you here. It’s those other stations, but . . . excuse me? Is content not the most important thing to pay for? Even in a financial crisis? Especially in a financial crisis? Isn’t that all our listeners really care about?

And, another thing. Aren’t we accusing our non-supportive listeners of the same thing? Taking our content and not paying for it? We chastise the 90 percent who don’t honor our content with their support. We have whole pledge drives devoted to that theme, and yet we’re doing the same thing.

We need to examine our consciences on this one. There won’t be any of the change we’ve talked about here if we won’t pay for new content. Start a fund, a risk fund, a fun fund. Find the money. We can do it. It’s one thing we could do, leaving this conference on the Content Conversation, to move it from talking to action.
Next excuse: Time. Time in our schedules. I think this one is simpler.

We can make time to try new things. Start here: Pick your weakest rolled-over program and devote that slot to something new and exciting you want to gamble on. Take some risks late in the evening. Every week. Then do it some more. Get adventurous and put something powerful where your audience will be surprised by it. Put it in the middle of the day.

Open the schedule. Listeners don’t plan their days around our schedules. They want something great, that’s all. Replace something good with something great.

There are lots of stations making this happen in all different ways. Share your tricks. It gives producers hope to have the knowledge that their work, if it’s good enough, will find an audience, because enough stations are giving it a chance.


CARLO: Well, I’m a carpenter you know. I spend most of my time working on houses to make a living, but when I work on a boat, I really feel like I’m doing something that satisfies me deep down in my soul. Everything that you do on a boat is challenging. They’re all curves; there’s steam bending. Plus they’re, they’re so visual, you know, they’re so beautiful. And I’ve always had a passion for boats, my entire life, as long as I can remember. Everyone should have a passion in life, and mine’s boats, I guess.

[Music fades in.]

CARLO: And dogs. . . . I like dogs a lot (chuckle).

A little more music.]

CARLO: I’m Carlo D’Antonio from Martha’s Vineyard. You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations (chuckle).

[Music ends.]

Chapter 10: Deep Down in My Soul, or…
Two Kinds of Fear

First, the bad kind. We’re scared to change. We’re scared of our audience. We’re scared of people not liking us, or criticizing us, saying we’re liberal, or saying that we’re corporate tools, that we’re too safe, or too edgy. We’re afraid of “alienating the core.” So we allow self-censorship and create mealy, middle-of-the-road, vanilla work.

There’s the fear of getting yelled at. Editors sometimes think this way: If I do what I did yesterday, it should be fine, because I didn’t get yelled at yesterday. That’s a cop-out and unimaginative and is exactly why people say we’re boring.

We need to overcome these fears by being brave. No short cuts.
Then there’s another kind of fear. Fear of really trying. Of saying, “I stand behind this. I’m putting myself on the line, this is mine.”
This I Believe was like that. It was a statement for the ages, which made it scary for people to step up, standing virtually naked in front of millions, speaking their innermost thoughts, saying, “This is the heart of me.” I have great respect for all the people who cut close to their own bones and did it.

Feeling the fear of this kind of honesty and commitment can be good. It can mean we’re approaching the center, our own truth. We’re on the edge, we’re creating.

Maybe you can create an environment in your radio station where, every day, someone feels nervous like that, because they’re taking a creative chance. Maybe you can produce something or put something on the air that gives you the nervousness of pride — that makes you want to grab people and say, “Listen to this. Isn’t this amazing?”

I heard an NPR interview by Audie Cornish, talking to the makers of the new movie 50/50, where one of the main characters works in public radio, and the writers/producers said, “Well, we wanted him to have a job where he was creative but not too creative.”

Doesn’t that sum it up?

We all dance at that edge, wanting to go the whole hog, but just worried that our audience won’t go there with us. Again, we’re afraid of “alienating the core.” Perhaps we imagine we’re protecting our audience by proxy. But they don’t want protection; they want our passion.

So, in my role as pastor today, let me give us all permission. Let’s just commit to it: Next week, we’ll do something that’s too creative. Or we’ll give someone we respect the chance to do it. We’ll just go crazy. A little at first. See how it goes.


BONNIE: When I was 10 or 11 years old, we had this great big brown rocking chair, and my brother Jake would take us on trips.

JAY: Bonnie Robinson of Chatham.

BONNIE: One day he said, “Let’s go to Africa.” So Peggy and Rita — those are my two older sisters — they sat on the big rocking chair, and I stood on the other side of the rocking chair, and Jake said, “Everybody in the chair; everybody is holding on tight because we’re traveling very fast.”

And we traveled, and he said, “Well, we finally made it.” And he said, “Just look around, but everybody’s gotta be quiet because you know they have a lot of big animals here.” And then he said, “Oh,” he said, “Look on the ground there’s a baby elephant.” And we looked, and sure enough there was that little baby elephant there.

JAY: You’re listening to the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

Chapter 11, the last chapter: Everybody Is Holding on Tight Because We’re Traveling Very Fast, or…
Imagination and Invitation

I want to acknowledge some of the people who recorded tape for our Sonic IDs: Viki Merrick, Sam Broun, Sydney Lewis, Linsey Lee, Jeremy Hobson, Sarah Reynolds, Helen Woodward, Jim Sulzer, Chelsea Merz, Franny Carr, Ibby Caputo, and many others. Everyone throws in — interns, community members, volunteers. We loan out machines, we ask our reporters to give us their favorite outtakes. We encourage everyone to come out and play.
So. The invitation. Along with Sonic IDs, we experiment with other ways to ask listeners to become the content of the station. On our good days, we keep the door open to talent.

One person who took us up early on was Carol Wasserman. She just showed up one day and we ended up collaborating a lot, and later she wrote a statement about how public radio had been important in her life, and I want to play it for you because it’s such an affirming story, and it makes me feel better every time I hear it.

CAROL: “Imagine that you are a young woman who has made several unfortunate choices and finds herself alone with her child on the hardscrabble coast of Massachusetts. Without a clue what to do next.

“You will take a succession of meaningless jobs, for little money. State law requires an employer to provide health insurance to those who work 20 hours a week. You will be hired to work 19. You will spend your life providing the Department of Transitional Assistance with photocopies of your pitiful bank statement and your electricity bills and — frequently — copies of your medical records. So that anyone might answer for themselves the question which you have asked yourself over and over and over, namely: ‘What is wrong with you?’

“There is nothing wrong with you, but you don’t know that yet. You spend your evenings with the radio on, listening to the voices in the darkness. You spend your days in a factory, counting things into piles of 10 as they pass in front of you on a conveyor belt. But when you get home, public radio is there to tell you what happened while you were gone.”

This is where the invitation came in. Carol brought us a typed essay to the station — a lovely one, about the hard life in a resort town after Labor Day. We produced it, and many more from her in the coming years. She became a regular on All Things Considered nationally, and listening to her own voice coming over the radio she was, as she said, amazed at the woman she had become.

CAROL: “But all you have become is part of the achingly important institution of public radio. Which pulled you from deep water and into the boat. Which gave you a voice, and surprised you with the news that there is nothing wrong with you at all, except that you had not yet told your stories.

“Not yet learned to accept the invitation which public radio has always extended to all of us. To listen. And, if we will, speak up.”

When our radio station first signed on, the transmitter was powered up, silence cleaned out the static, and the first word to emerge from the silence — I got to say it — the first word was, “Listen.”

LISTEN. And with that word, we joined what Carol called — rightly, I think — “the achingly important institution of public radio,” of which we are the shepherds.

In my neighborhood — in the largest sense, where I live in my town and on the planet — I want to hear what’s happening, who lives here with me, what needs to change, and what we must keep from changing.

In whatever creative ways it can, I ask my public radio station, “Tell me the story of this life.” Just as my 2-year-old son, even looking right up at the wondrous bursting lights right in front of his eyes, still wants to hear about what he sees. To my public radio friends: Tell me the story of the fireworks.



Allison’s collected answers to the question “If you were starting a public radio stations, what would you put on the air?” 1999.

Allison describes Sonic IDs at the Cape Cod stations: Bursts of lush and local life are the new stations’ trademark. 2001.


Audio of Jay Allison’s benediction, courtesy of PRPD..

The Cape & Island Stations that Allison helped put on the air.

Transom.org, showcast for new public radio.

Allison’s bio and his production company, Atlantic Public Media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *