Feature article from the March 2011 AIRblast
By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
AIR's Live Interactive Residency sponsors up-and-coming public radio producers to work with radio stations on innovative new projects. In 2010, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch and Julie Caine were chosen to work at music programming pioneer KEXP in Seattle. Past residents have worked at Jack Straw Productions and KUOW in Seattle. During her residency, Anna produced the series "Why Music Matters," which aired between songs during the station's music shows. We invited Anna to share her experience.
The radio at CB's Nuts on Puget Sound is always set to KEXP 90.3 FM. The shop was busier than usual one day in early December. Workers hauled sacks of salty peanuts to the metal roaster, while others packed up the freshly cooked morsels for shipping.
Then, after a set of music, an astronaut started talking. Huh? "I stopped what I was doing and turned toward my radio," says Clark Bowen, founder of CB's nuts. He was drawn in. "I just heard his voice and it got more interesting, and more interesting, and more interesting. And then the music kicked in, and it was Steely Dan. It was just a fascinating story."
At first, he wondered "how the hell an astronaut ties into why music matters." But then the combination of music and storytelling kept him listening. Later he wrote to KEXP: "We are really busy here at CB's Nuts today, (our first pallet to New York!) but when the astronaut's story came on, we all stopped to listen. Great stuff. Thanks for great radio — CB." Two months after he wrote in, I called him to follow up and he still remembered the radio piece in detail.
Making radio, all we can use are varying combinations of words and sounds. Because our audience multitasks as they listen, sometimes important pieces of information get lost between a traffic jam and the kids in the backseat (or roasting and packaging peanuts). Radio programming — especially music — becomes relegated to background noise. But if you pair a few tricks of storytelling with Steely Dan, I found that audience members will become active listeners instead of zoning out.
Before I started my residency at KEXP, I wasn't really a music person. Sure, I went through boy band and punk phases. But I had grown up. If I was going to listen to something, it had to be news and information. So, I made sure to download days of public radio podcasts as I packed for the cross-country drive to Seattle.
Before I left Alabama, I checked in with DJ Kevin Cole who would be my editor and supervisor at KEXP. He asked, "So, have you picked out what songs you're going to play on the road?" Uh … well … Not a single song, actually. It hadn't occurred to me. I realized what an outsider I was going to be at a station devoted to music.
KEXP's tagline is "Where the music matters." The station aims to enrich the lives of listeners and artists by championing music and discovery. My job — as a producer from the side of the dial where we talk more than sing — was to find new ways of putting music and storytelling together. The exact contours of the project were fuzzy before I started work. Maybe profile a bouncer? Or some vox pop of people with blasting earbuds on the bus? What about a love story? KEXP already has an ongoing series of short documentaries on musicians and new trends, so I wanted to do something different.
I kept my recorder handy on the 3,000-mile drive to Seattle, open to anything. At one stop, in the Grand Canyon, I met Navajo musician Clarence Clearwater. After performing for a group of tourists, he sat down with me and I recorded our conversation about music in general and his own artistic path and style. Clarence shared a Navajo saying, "When you're a man, you go with your songs and prayers through life, and that's all you need in your life." I followed up, "How do you represent going with your songs and your prayers in your own life?" He responded with a story.
Clarence told me his grandfather used to be a "very wealthy man." But in the 1930s, the U.S. government's Navajo Livestock Reduction program killed hundreds of his horses, sheep, and cattle. After seeing his flocks slaughtered, Clarence's grandfather became a "very angry man" and took to drinking. "He used to burn all the Bibles he could find," said Clarence. But grandson Clarence had learned from his grandfather's experience. He found a different path. He teared up as he said, "Music is my answer." I was absolutely speechless. It was a story of injustice and tragic loss, but also redemption through music. I decided to keep that part of the interview almost totally uncut in the final piece.
It was clear that the fundamentals of storytelling had to be the basis of whatever I created, even though I was charged with innovation. The pieces needed good characters, something at stake, tension, surprise, a beginning, middle, end, and a nugget of wisdom. For this series, that nugget needed to answer "why music matters." Using Clarence's story as my standard, I looked for the most surprising characters who represented a variety of backgrounds and who had very specific and compelling stories to tell.
It wasn't that hard to find people who fit the criteria. DJ Kevin Cole and KEXP were bursting with contacts. Astronaut Stan Love is a KEXP listener, as are Luke and Jessica Ivey, the couple who used live music to keep them together, and Christian Niccum, a member of the U.S. luge team. One interviewee, Nathan Hotchkiss, was even a station volunteer.
I also solicited ideas for interviewees from a long list of local nonprofits. As a result, local organizations like Arts Corps, the Hmong Association of Washington, and the Music Therapy Association of Washington helped me contact people like Vivi Perez, Cher Veng, and Barbara Dunn. Other ideas came from Google, brainstorming, friends, coworkers, and my mom.
Once I found the right people, it didn't take much prodding to get stories about the power of music. People who love music really love music. I didn't ask luge athlete Christian Niccum much more than, "How do you use music to train?" for him to tell me how he broke a track record by listening to The Velvet Underground. After a while, I just asked potential interviewees, "Do you have a story about the power of music?" and the answer was a resounding, "Yes!"
As people spoke, they usually mentioned specific songs or musicians. I took note of that and then mixed those songs into the edited tape. In other cases, I searched through KEXP's vast music library for hours trying to find the right song, or consulted KEXP DJs for suggestions. When the people I interviewed had more than one song to represent their story, we created playlists and featured them on the website along with their picture and related videos.
DJ Kevin Cole and I decided to air the stories in between songs, as part of the music programming. The idea was to seamlessly blend the music and stories, and get people to engage with their radios in a different way. To that end, I tried to use music within the stories as much as possible. A small part of me was afraid of listener response. I imagined a loud click echoing across the Pacific Northwest as KEXP listeners collectively switched off their radios in disgust, feeling deceived that someone had substituted talking for their usual tunes.
I worked with a number of people at KEXP on the mixes. Kevin and I listened to each piece together and talked about the edits. As he listened, he moved his head and arms to the crescendos of music in each piece. He spoke of the artists by their first name, like, "Put Lou in the pocket more," or "Wait until Kate finishes singing to bring in the next cut." He was listening to the musicians as if they were also characters in the stories. I realized that I needed to do the same and bring the narrative conveyed in the music into the piece, not just the sound. So, we looked up lyrics online from Lou Reed's "Heroin" and Kate Bush's "Hello Earth" and cut up the songs like any other tape.
Music started to take over my life. My coworkers would play songs for me, rave about the latest live show they saw, and sing at their desks. I started not only listening to more music, but also actually craving it. I had been convinced that music matters and that it could enrich my life too. I started pairing songs with events in my day: "Mushaboom" by Feist when I woke up; "I Saw you Blink" by Stornoway for driving in my car; "Sexxy Bicycle" by Mad Rad for a bike ride; and "Dog Days are Over" by Florence and the Machine at the end of the day.
The residency taught me how stories and music can be juxtaposed and joined in beautiful harmony in both radio and in everyday life. It sounds warm and fuzzy, but I think this is also just useful methodology. A heavy dose of songs with your stories can hook people into your tape. A sprinkling of stories with your music programming can get the audience to take a second listen to their radio. And a well-placed song throughout the day is like a kick in the pants, a good cup of coffee, or a warm blanket, depending.
Music matters for a whole lot of reasons. Radio producers and stations are especially poised to tap into its power to move us. But above all, music has the power to communicate in ways that words cannot. Together, stories and songs make a delicious combination; they hook the ear like fat and salt get you grabbing for just one more roasted peanut.
In the future, I know I will look for ways to use music in my radio work. For me, a new day has come. Now Julie Caine will start as the next AIR Live Interactive resident at KEXP. Let's see what she does.
"Anna Boiko-Weyrauch is a globe-trotting independent producer, who currently calls Seattle home. For her next project, she's exploring the vast landscapes and gritty corners of the Pacific Northwest. Stay tuned!"
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