Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound

Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound

by John Biewen, Alexa Dilworth
Over the last few decades, the radio documentary has developed into a strikingly vibrant form of creative expression. Millions of listeners hear arresting, intimate storytelling from an ever-widening array of producers on programs including This American Life, StoryCorps, and Radio Lab; online through such sites as Transom, the Public Radio


Over the last few decades, the radio documentary has developed into a strikingly vibrant form of creative expression. Millions of listeners hear arresting, intimate storytelling from an ever-widening array of producers on programs including This American Life, StoryCorps, and Radio Lab; online through such sites as Transom, the Public Radio Exchange, Hearing Voices, and Soundprint; and through a growing collection of podcasts.

Reality Radio celebrates today's best audio documentary work by bringing together some of the most influential and innovative practitioners from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In these nineteen essays, documentary artists tell--and demonstrate, through stories and transcripts--how they make radio the way they do, and why.

Whether the contributors to the volume call themselves journalists, storytellers, even audio artists--and although their essays are just as diverse in content and approach--all use sound to tell true stories, artfully.

Jad Abumrad
Jay Allison
damali ayo
John Biewen
Emily Botein
Chris Brookes
Scott Carrier
Katie Davis
Sherre DeLys
Lena Eckert-Erdheim
Ira Glass
Alan Hall
Natalie Kestecher
The Kitchen Sisters
Maria Martin
Karen Michel
Rick Moody
Joe Richman
Dmae Roberts
Stephen Smith
Sandy Tolan

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
[Biewen] offers a lively history of creative documentary radio in his introduction to 19 passionate, instructive, and unexpectedly moving essays by innovative audio journalists and artists who use sound to tell true stories artfully. . . . Invaluable and many-faceted coverage of a thriving, populist, and mind-expanding art form.—Booklist

Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
Documentary Arts and Culture, Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
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Reality Radio

Telling True Stories in Sound

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2010 The Center for Documentary Studies
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-7102-7

Chapter One

Are We on the Air?

Chris Brookes

THERE IS ONE FEATURE that distinguishes me from other radio makers: geography. I am the only one whose production studio is located on the cliff where radio, as we know it, was born.

Long-distance radio transmission was delivered into the world at the top of my cliff in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio transmission. So a century later when I sit down to my Pro Tools editing screen I'm conscious of the fact that two hundred feet above me is where Marconi did it, and on a foggy day all I have to do is look out my studio window to see his ghost. I like to think that this shapes my understanding of radio. It is a humble understanding, since my studio is only at the bottom of the cliff, not at the top.

Marconi spent three windy and freezing December days at the top of Signal Hill, St. John's, Newfoundland. He flew a kite to get his antenna up, glued his ear to a set of headphones, and listened for a signal transmitted from a huge spark-gap transmitter he'd built in Cornwall. He heard it, or at least he said he did. The signal was the Morse code letter "s," just pure binary information over the radio: three dots. And from my vantage point at the bottom of the cliff it seems to me this might explain why radio has been too often mistaken as a medium for information instead of evocation. Let me explain.

The important thing about the birth of radio on Signal Hill is that it didn't really happen. A physicist at Canada's National Research Council, Dr. John Belrose, has proved that it was scientifically impossible for Marconi to have heard his signal. He says Marconi had three strikes against him. Strike one had to do with the frequency of Marconi's transmission. Shortwave radio can be received over long distances because the signal bounces off the ionosphere-particularly at night, which is why of an evening you might hear Radio Moscow in New York. But Marconi's transmitter two thousand miles away in Cornwall wasn't shortwave; it was broadcasting in the low-frequency radio spectrum. Frequencies at the low end of the dial tend not to bounce, and consequently don't travel very far.

Strike two had to do with the time of day. Marconi claimed to have received the signal not at night but at noon. The ionosphere is not particularly active during daylight hours. Finally, ionospheric reflection can be influenced by sunspot activity. More sunspots enhance reflectivity; fewer sunspots diminish it. On December 12, 1901, there was unusually low sunspot activity. Strike three.

Marconi's signal could not have bounced, and it could not possibly have been heard over the curvature of the earth two thousand miles away in St. John's, Newfoundland. Dr. Belrose knows this in the twenty-first century, but nobody knew it in 1901. Back then people had never heard of the ionosphere. They were just trying to figure out how this new radio thing actually worked. Before they managed to do that, Marconi accidentally upped his frequency a couple of years later and lucked into successful transatlantic communication using shorter wavelengths at night. Very serendipitously for him.

But on that December day in 1901, if he couldn't have heard the signal at the top of my cliff, why did he say he did? It may have been a lie, and in 1901 some said as much. Alexander Graham Bell claimed it was a hoax. These days, Jack Belrose is more charitable. He points out that Marconi had so much riding on it. He was under huge financial pressure-building the transmitter had practically bankrupted his company-and if he didn't get a signal across the Atlantic he would be finished. Dr. Belrose thinks he wanted it so desperately that he imagined he heard the signal. And he suggests this speaks to Marconi's delicate state of mind and finances at the time.

Dr. John Belrose is a scientist. I'm a radio feature maker, and it suggests something more intriguing to me, something about the essential nature of radio: that compared to other media like print or even television, radio isn't the ideal way to convey information. A radio journalist who has to do a story about economics, for example, has his work cut out for him. Readers can plow through the same story in a newspaper, and when they get muddled they can go back and reread the facts and figures until they understand them. Television viewers can see graphs and pie charts. In radio, it goes by your ears once, and if you didn't get it, too bad.

What radio does best is stimulate the imagination. And we should have realized this in the very beginning. After all, the first of our senses to develop is that of hearing. Lying in the darkness of the womb at first we can only hear. We can tell there's something out there-it may be Mom playing Mozart to us with headphones on her belly or having a shouting match in the kitchen with Dad-but we can't see it or smell it or touch it or taste it. We don't have those senses yet. All we can do is listen, and imagine what it might be. Does this hotwire a primal connection between our hearing and our imagination?

I don't know, but I do know there was this little Italian man on top of my cliff a hundred years ago, freezing his arse off in a drafty little shack, listening for three solid days with earphones clapped to his skull. A man giving radio his full attention. Does it give him the information? No. It engages his imagination so powerfully that he imagines the information. To me, this illustrates that radio excels not by delivering information (in this case the letter "s") but by evoking the imagination (the suggestion of the letter "s"). For radio program makers this should be a crucial difference.

Unfortunately on December 2, 1901, the headlines were: MARCONI RECEIVES RADIO SIGNAL! not MARCONI HAS EVOCATIVE RADIO EXPERIENCE. So we got off on the wrong foot. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

In 2001, I was commissioned to produce a fifty-minute historical feature to mark the centenary of Marconi's achievement. I didn't want to start off like a newsreader announcing headlines. I wanted to be more like a man selling dirty postcards. I wanted to whisper, to suggest delicious mystery, to entice. Since this story will climax with its central character on Signal Hill listening with a desperate intensity, I wanted to pull listeners closer to their radios from the beginning.

The program starts with a kind of on the air sound. I didn't use real radio static for this. We're used to static now, in our twenty-first century. Back then, almost no one was-except for Marconi and a few other experimenters. It was a completely new sound. I wanted a sound that modern listeners wouldn't take for granted. After all, back in Marconi's day they talked about the ether. Early experimenters believed this to be the invisible substance that conducted radio waves. It didn't exist. But if it did, I wondered, what would it sound like?

So I tried to find sound that suggested the way that radio static would have struck the ear a century ago. I combined a few things and came up with something I hoped conveyed a presence, like "on." Over that bed sound I then tried to layer something to suggest a fleeting signal. I'd been to Bologna, Italy, gathering interviews and sound. Bologna was where Marconi grew up, and I'd tried to open my ears to the sounds he would have heard. In the early morning hours at my hotel, pigeons would gather on the adjoining rooftop, and I would lie awake listening to the feathery swishing of their wings cutting the air as they got airborne. A fluttering at the window was the way I imagined that the idea of radio could have fluttered at Marconi's mind, a faint signal trying to come in. An urgency. So I sneaked a stereo mic onto the window ledge and recorded the flutters. In the mix I processed the sound and pushed it into deep reverb to make "ether flutters," then slowly pulled it out of reverb to make it recognizable as wings when the program later mentions carrier pigeons.

I became fascinated by an old stone structure in the Piazza Maggiore near Marconi's birthplace. Couples would stand at different corners speaking softly into the masonry, their words reflected and focused by the roof construction to be clearly heard at the opposite corner. This was so different from my home city, whose wooden structures didn't "transmit" sound this way. I wondered if the architecture of his neighborhood could account for Marconi's obsession with signal transmission. It seemed pedantic to explain this with a script, so I teased some sound into the opening hoping it would be recognized when the full scene appeared in the program later on. I tried to use sound as enticement rather than as simple illustration. Often I cut it hard on and off to suggest nineteenth-century binary signaling.

Likewise with my script, I tried not to explain things but to give listeners bits of a puzzle that would come together later. To avoid a standard full-frontal narrator, I wrote a long list of questions and partial phrases that I asked an actor to read, then alternated her voice with mine. I used pauses -I think a pause allows the picture to develop in the listener's mind like a photograph slowly emerging in a darkroom chemical bath. This must not be a passive process. The beauty of radio is that the listener actively creates his or her own images with our help. For this reason it's vital to leave space in a program: room for the listener to walk in and take part.

This is the opening:

SOUND: An electric "on" bed noise that continues. An ether flutter.

VOICE: Are we on the air?

SOUND: Another ether flutter.


VOICE: Are we on the air now?

BROOKES [recorded in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore, hard cut in and out]: Can you hear me?


VOICE: On. The. Air.

BROOKES [recorded in the piazza, hard cut]: Can you hear me now?

MARCONI [archival recording]: Can you hear anything?

SOUND: An ether flutter.


VOICE: What is "on ... the air?"

HISTORIAN [interview clip]: Well you see, the first actual communication was when one person spoke to another person and they understood what they were saying, and then it goes on for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.

VOICE: Call. Response. Transmit.

BROOKES [recorded in the piazza]: Hello.

VOICE: Can you hear?

BROOKES [recorded in the piazza]: Hello.

VOICE: Can you hear me?

BROOKES [in the piazza]: Can you hear me?

MARCONI [archival clip]: Can you hear anything?

BROOKES [in the piazza]: I can hear you.

SOUND: Distant woman's reply recorded in the piazza.

VOICE: Receive.

BROOKES [in the piazza]: What happens if we whisper? [whispering:] Can you hear me now?

VOICE: "s"

BROOKES [in interview]: Why did they choose that?

CURATOR: Well, they used the letter "s" because they thought if they used anything with dashes in, they thought that the dots and the dashes would run into each other. And therefore the easiest letter to distinguish was "s," which is in Morse code three dots.

MARCONI [archival clip]: The letter "s."

VOICE: Sssssssss.


VOICE: S for silence.

SOUND: Electric-bed noise stops.

VOICE: Silence.


VOICE: S for sound.

SOUND: Cell phone rings. Radio static.

VOICE: Sssssssound.

SOUND: Radio tunes through stations. An ether flutter.

VOICE: But what was it like then?

BROOKES: What was it like then?

SOUND: Faint fluttering.

HISTORIAN: From the beginning of long-distance communications, with fires on mountaintops and so on, we moved to a number of different things throughout history.

SOUND: Flutters move out of reverb.

VOICE: In the siege of Paris ...

BROOKES: They sent messages by carrier pigeon.

VOICE: On the air ... waves.

SOUND: Pigeon wings flutter.

BROOKES: What was it like?

VOICE: Can you hear me?

MARCONI: Can you hear anything?

VOICE: Call. Response.

SOUND: Church bell tolling.

HISTORIAN: We get into modern times with Christianity, for instance bells. People were summoned to church by bells. That was the message being sent. And the bells rang over the hills and the dales, and people heard them and answered the call. In fact, John Betchman, I think, called his biography Summoned by Bells.

SOUND: Church bell begins digitally "stretching" to a longer timescale.

BROOKES: Before the car, the plane, the radio, the telephone, the telegraph. What was the world like? Was it larger?

BROOKES [in interview]: Did the world feel like a larger place to live in?

SOUND: Church bell continues tolling, now obviously stretched.

CURATOR TWO: I think the world felt enormous. Turn of the century-and I'm talking about 1800, not 1900-large parts of Africa completely unknown. The Far East, very mysterious. A message to any foreign country took weeks....

That's the beginning of the fifty-minute documentary. Of course, the beginning of a story is just the start of the radio maker's challenge. Keeping a listener's attention through a long-form documentary means not just delivering information but thinking about story mechanics: how to structure and present that information over the length of the program. There are a million ways to tell a story, and while creators in other media can learn from the past (filmmakers or writers can easily go to the library or the video store to see how Steinbeck, Joyce, Kubrick, and Capra did it), it's harder for radio makers to study how our wireless predecessors practiced their art. Who is our Walker Evans, our Hemingway, and how can we hear them? The Internet is helping to change that, and now we're beginning to hear some archival radio broadcasts online.

One such recording is a 1936 report on the Moose River mine disaster in Nova Scotia. It was the world's first live continuous radio remote news broadcast, and it's not hard to find the audio online. It made a big splash seven decades ago, broadcast to over 650 stations across Canada and the United States to an estimated 100 million listeners. The reporter, Frank Willis, talked into his microphone for three minutes every half hour for fifty-six hours straight. His presentational style sounds dated to modern ears, but it was appropriate to the low-sensitivity microphones of the era. Since there were no tape recorders in 1936 he couldn't rely on recorded interview clips or field sound. He had only his voice and perhaps a few hastily scribbled notes, but the poverty of production elements makes it easier to see the mechanics of what he's doing. He could have arranged his story in many ways, but here is how he chose to structure this three-minute report:

Simon McGill ... is dead.


Two others, Doctor D. E. Robertson and Albert Scadding of Toronto, Ontario, are still in the depths of Moose River mine. Late this after noon. They can hang on for eight to ten hours more. But that won't be necessary we don't think. The latest word, sent up though the pipeline which has been sunk into the pit by a diamond drill, brings word from the men below that they can hear tapping. They can hear the men in the workings breaking down the rock to get through to them.


It is a broken country down here, drab and desolate. Almost impenetrable from the outside world. You come in over roads almost impassable. A country of scrub and second growth, of rock. Rock, relentless, hard, cruel hard. It is against rock of this sort that miners for the past week have fought and fought, grim-lipped, determined. Every hour, every minute, risking their lives a thousand times an hour, a minute, in a titanic battle to save the lives of two Toronto men. And they are winning their fight. Inch by inch, the rock is retreating.


Excerpted from Reality Radio Copyright © 2010 by The Center for Documentary Studies. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
A powerful and illuminating anthology about our most powerful and intimate medium. Reality Radio is a must-read for anyone who feels called to make documentary work or whose imagination and heart are stirred by the sounds of nonfiction storytelling on the radio. A wonderful book!—Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and Sound Portraits Productions

Reality Radio is a collection of masterful essays by radio's best producers; I feel as though I've had a personal, one-on-one conversation with many of the medium's contemporary heroes. This book will stoke the 'radio fire' in the bellies of its readers.—Rob Rosenthal, independent radio producer and director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies radio program

The producers who wrote these essays prove that there's nothing more moving than real, truthful radio. I read a lot of the book in bed and soon heard the voices whispering in my ear: 'Get up. Go record something. Now.' You will feel the same.—Neenah Ellis, independent radio producer and author of If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians

Meet the Author

John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he teaches and produces documentary work for NPR, PRI, American Public Media, and other public radio audiences.
Alexa Dilworth is publishing director at the Center for Documentary Studies.

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