From the Archive: Too-intimate tape?

From AIR's Archive logoEditor’s note: From time to time, we have all encountered powerful, well-produced radio works that leave us wondering: Am I grateful to have heard that program? Should that report have been broadcast? Even if the head says yes, the heart and gut may not. Are some pieces better left undone? These are a few of the questions asked by longtime producer Alex van Oss.

This criticism of WNYC’s “The Execution Tapes” and Lu Olkowski’s “Grandpa,” and responses from Olkowski and Gary Covino, the co-producer of “The Execution Tapes,” was first published as “The Fine Art of the Wee Pause” in the March 2009 AIRblast. 

By Alex van Oss 
“A man strikes a light for himself in the night when his sight is quenched. Living, he touches the dead in his sleep. Waking, he touches the sleeper.”
Waking from a nap yesterday, I recalled this fragment of Heraclitus, quoted in filmmaker Derek Jarman’s autobiography “At Your Own Risk.” Perhaps it pertains to radio production, especially when considering whether to tackle difficult subject matter.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. After all, except for broadcasting certain coarse words, few things are forbidden to us as radio producers. Moreover, there are no Ten Commandments of feature-making, though the following might serve as a start:
“Thou shalt not make a piece just because you have hot tape.”
There’s perhaps no “hotter” tape than of a person’s final moments and that may be why there are so many stories documenting people in the final stages of life. One evening, in 2000, after a hard day’s work at NPR, I read in The New York Times that NPR was going to air some work from the highly regarded independent producer David Isay. The work consisted of some extraordinarily “hot” tapes: recordings of prison officials performing actual executions, from 1983 to 1996, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. I showed the article to my NPR colleagues and asked what they thought. Was it appropriate for public radio to be airing execution tapes? Without exception, they shrugged and said sure, why not? It’s information.
NPR ultimately turned down Isay’s offer of the recordings, but member station WNYC decided to broadcast excerpts nationwide as part of “A Public Radio Special Report: The Execution Tapes,” featuring “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace and contributions by Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC’s “On the Media.” Independent producer Gary Covino and John Keefe of WNYC produced the special, which, along with a call-in program, aired on more than 60 NPR member stations in 2001; the execution tapes were later broadcast by theDemocracy Now! program as well. 
Current quoted Covino, when he chided NPR for its hesitancy: “If you say that you are a news organization, there are certain stories that, when they come into your possession … you have an obligation to bring them before the public, hopefully not in a sensationalistic or incomplete way. And if you don’t, it’s an act of suppression.”
Obligation versus suppression? Time to hit the pause button and ask: Is there such a thing as good taste in these matters? Is there, shall we say, an acoustic “sniff test” — especially when dealing with pain and death?
I am not sure. But I do know that it is difficult for me, even after seven years, to write dispassionately about “The Execution Tapes,” so I shall continue this discussion as an interview, with myself.
Q: Alex, I know that you are an excitable soul, but please be honest: Wouldn’t you say that it takes a certain amount of … well, guts to present real, live execution tapes to an audience?
No, not guts. Nerve, maybe. I mean, the nerve of all those station news cowboys patting themselves on the back for taking public radio down the tabloid toilet! At this rate, why not go, you know, all the way and hold executions in a studio, live on tape, as it were? Hey, you could even get some celeb to push the button — just think of the audience! The markets! The metrics!
Q: Now stop right there. Those execution recordings were from the 1980s and 1990s. And you’ve listened to some of those tapes yourself. It wasn’t so hard, was it? What if, in 2001, you had had your hands on those execution tapes? Wouldn’t you have tried to broadcast them — or would you have hidden them away?
No, of course I would have exploited them — I’m no prude. However, I’d have used them in a vastly different way. What I would have done with the execution tapes is dramatize them.

Q: Dramatize? But why?

Do you remember how the ancient Greeks, in their classical theater (which has had an absolutely huge effect on Western culture over the centuries), always kept violence off stage? You never see blood or killing; you only hear about it from a messenger who runs in, or from the Greek chorus’s lamentation. Ironically, that distance from the action heightens the impact. It’s absolutely chilling. 

Yes, but we’re not ancient Greeks, and nowadays surely nothing could be more dramatic and chilling than documentary recordings.

You are mistaken. In themselves, execution tapes are but artifacts — extraordinary, yet sort of dull. They are just voices and prison shoptalk, as matter-of-fact as a radio communication from NASA Mission Control.
So what would you have done with those execution tapes — turned them into clever little plays?
No, I would have scripted them, exactly as they were in reality. That is, I would have hired actors to recreate the moment: recite the prison officials’ words with precisely the same intonation and cadence. 
And I would have filtered their voices in the studio so as to reproduce the telephone-line quality of the original. Also, I would have structured the program in exactly the same way: with hosts, reporters, call-ins, and commentators — but I would have announced periodically and made sure the audience understood that what they were hearing was not the real thing at all, but a meticulously crafted simulation: a performance.
Q: Why bother, if the two sound identical?
It makes a world of difference. While documentary recordings soon grow banal, performance would remain excruciating — precisely because we cannot believe that the real event could be so mundane, so perfunctory, as the actors portray it. I think that that disjunction, that tension, would really get people thinking. 
Q: But Alex, can you so simply compare the purpose of art and the purpose of journalism? And besides, an execution is far more than just a contrived drama; I mean it really is happening!

One can argue that art and journalism should use different techniques. But let’s not kid ourselves; the two are related. The purpose of those classical Greek plays was, in part, “journalistic” in that they shed light upon a matter, they generate thought and emotion, they inspire action, awe — many things. While contemporary journalism, try as it might to purge itself of artistic conceits, cannot do it; we are always using literary devices, painting word-pictures, or, in radio, sound-pictures. What is more, sound is always, well, there in our work, and weaving its magic spell.

The reason that an execution becomes news fodder is not just the fact of its happening, but because it is potentially dramatic. That is why our friends the news producers, documentary makers, and reporters churn out so much stuff about these terrible events. They are all taking part in the “dramaturgy of death” of which historian Garry Wills spoke. In that sense, my modest live-on-tape, in-house, studio radio execution proposal is just going along with the news flow — if you catch my drift.
Uh huh, Alex, I do. I really do. Thank you so much for sharing.
No problem, I’m sure.
The second feature I want to discuss is “Grandpa,” produced by Lu Olkowski. First broadcast on WNYC’s Radio Lab program, it won a bronze award for Best Documentary at the 2007 Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCF). The TCF website states that “most of us look away [from death], but in the case of the Zagar family, they look closer” — i.e., at grandpa — and the site displays a photograph of an emaciated arm.
“Grandpa” is about a man who is dying and his son and grandson, who decide to compete to see who can take the most honest photographs of his last months. The feature begins with a snippet of the grandfather’s voice and continues with interviews of the family. Father and son minutely describe their photographs of the lesions on their grandfather’s body; they explain how their photography project was an expression of love for the dying man, and how it had resulted in a stronger father-son bond. We learn that this bond-fostering had been the father’s hidden intention all along.
“Grandpa” is powerful, but, to me, flawed. First of all, is the premise that “most of us look away” from death true or merely conventional wisdom? Perhaps this “we Americans look away” premise is merely a hook — a sincere or a clever one. Consider that, year in, year out, war correspondents and photographers win prizes for vivid, “unflinching” portrayals of death. So we are always looking, or at least peeking. And of course sooner or later, we all confront each others’ and our own mortality. But what relatively few of us do is photograph or record it.
Unfortunately, radio’s intimacy can all too often be narcissistic and cloying — and for me, there is something about “Grandpa” was too vivid, too much. I felt it made listeners look (or rather, listen) too closely, whether we wanted to or not. True, we listeners could choose to turn off the program or leave the room (but neither action would ultimately change the nature of future feature productions, nor enrich them — which is the ultimate purpose of this critique).
Now, there is nothing taboo about the subject matter — the death of a loved one — nor is there anything wrong with using radio in order to disturb. Nevertheless, there is still something macabre about the manner in which father and son discuss their home photos of the deceased, even as to the very texture of the dying man’s body, as if it were a kind of curious specimen or landscape. Was it my imagination that the speakers almost seemed to relish what they were doing? It sure sounded like it; in fact, they sounded weird. And then a thought came to me: Had the grandfather been a willing participant in this documentary experiment or just the subject of it? That is, had he given permission for photographs to be taken of him? 
“Grandpa” producer Lu Olkowski told me that it is hard to say whether or not the subject, who had Alzheimer’s, had been aware of being photographed, but he seemed not to mind. Alas, that to me clinches it: “Seem” is not good enough and silence does not connote consent. Permission matters very much in these matters, very much indeed. 

Does “Grandpa” lead the listener into an unexpected, unwanted, and, in post-modern lingo, possibly even a “transgressive” experience, making us complicit, through the imagination, with the actions documented in the radio piece?
The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote, “There is, in intimacy, a secretmost line.”
She was speaking about the temptation to go too far. Radio too can be intimate, and one wonders: Where is its secretmost line beyond which we go too far?
One of America’s most famous forgotten figures is Paul Goodman: a poet, novelist, Gestalt therapist, and media figure, who was extraordinarily popular during the 1960s after publication of his social critique,Growing Up Absurd. In a 1945 essay called “Reflections on Drawing the Line,” Paul Goodman argued that there comes a point in life when one must simply draw a line, a boundary beyond which one cannot cooperate with the powers, customs, or standards that be. I find his notion an intriguing one when applied to difficult conceptual or production matters in radio. Where to draw that line? Goodman, ever the anarchist, reaches a surprising conclusion: “Since it can be shown that one step leads to another in either direction [i.e., to extremes], in the in-between murk any apparently arbitrary line is good enough. No particular line will ever be defensible logically. But the right way from any line will prove itself more clearly step by step and blow by blow.”
That is, says Goodman, it doesn’t really matter where one draws the line; the important thing is just to do it and learn from the process.
Is he right when it comes to “edgy” radio? I am tempted to think so, but at other times I feel that, despite the demands of timeliness and deadlines, our task as reporters, producers, and editors is to remain open to the possibility that what we want to do, and what we will into existence as creators, may not quite be quite right. It may not be “it.” And if there is the slightest doubt, then surely it is best to hit the “pause” button and give the idea a rest. Not to throw the idea away (for it might be “it” after all), but just not use it quite yet, or as originally conceived. The poet William Carlos Williams stated: “First thought — best thought.” That may be true in poetry, but reporting is another matter.
Another reason to pull back is that acoustic media tend to expand and inflate content: A sob, when closely recorded and shoved into the listener’s ear, can resemble retching. Therefore, gently, gently; understatement and a light touch in radio are just fine. I have found my greatest ally in deciding when or when not to do a piece as planned, is something I call the Wee Pause. It is a signal, one that may come from outside, as a comment from one’s peers or editor, or as a hunch or sixth sense, for all I know from out “yonder” — the cosmos.
Here is a personal example:
In 1982, NPR reporter Howard Berkes and I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The focus of our visit was the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee, where, in December 1890, United States troops killed and buried more than one hundred Lakota Sioux Indians. Official military photographs depict a tableau of snow and frozen corpses. It is still a windswept and solemn place. 
On a whim, I suggested that we drive back to the gravesite at night so that I could gather atmospheric recordings of wind rustling through the grass, ambience that might come in handy for our report. Howard stopped the car and I approached the grave on foot in the dark. And then, out of nowhere, a great sadness fell upon me. 
Perhaps it was the weight of history and what had happened on that spot at Wounded Knee, but I could scarcely breathe. I felt disgust for what I was intending to do: record the wind and the grass, nothing more. Nothing wrong, nothing egregious, nothing “in your face.” Nevertheless, it just didn’t seem right. 
So I turned off the cassette recorder, walked back to the car, and we drove off. It is one of the best editorial decisions I have ever made. We had plenty of other ambience.
Will “The Execution Tapes” and “Grandpa” and the many other works that carefully document an individual’s dying and death have the redeeming effect upon public consciousness as did, say, Walker Evans’s poignant photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — photographs of sharecroppers who later expressed dismay at being so intimately portrayed?
One hopes so, but in the meantime, we pause.
• Since the 1970s, Alex van Oss has been everything from a tape-cutter to editor and correspondent, in and out of NPR and other networks. He served on the AIR Board during the early 1990s. 
One of Alex’s main questions about “Grandpa” is whether Asher gave permission to be photographed. The question implies that Isaiah and Jeremiah Zagar (Asher’s son and grandson) didn’t think to consider Asher’s point of view, and that is untrue. The family made their decision based on a lifetime of knowing Asher.
During his working life, Asher was a mechanical and electrical engineer, but his real passion was photography. Not just snapshots, but the whole process. He had a darkroom and constantly photographed and made prints of his extended family. So for Isaiah, Asher’s son, photography was a natural part of his life from the beginning. Isaiah also took exhaustive photographs of his family. He photographed his children being born so why not his father dying?
It’s important to note that Isaiah (Asher’s son) and Sheila (Asher’s daughter), each of their spouses and children all approved of the initial photography and the radio piece (which happened years later). The photographs and the experience are treasured within the family, which is why they were so open with me. They were thrilled to share the story.
I found the Zagars to be the most overwhelmingly loving family that I have ever met. There was no question they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. And one could only hope to be as close as their family is. That being said, I’ll give you this: The Zagars are unique. They process all of their experiences through making art.
Jeremiah (the grandson and photographer in the radio story) is a filmmaker; his brother, a musician; his father, a fine artist; and his aunt, a modern dancer. Jeremiah describes his family’s commitment to art in simple terms, “Art is their religion, there is no higher calling.”
For some, this story is unusual, but within the context of the family’s lifestyle and belief system, this all seemed perfectly normal. Their decision to photograph Asher was rooted in love. If there were any whiff of elder maltreatment or maliciousness, I would not have proceeded with the story.
I agree with Alex on only one point: As producers, it’s our duty to follow our internal moral compass and stay true to it. Over the course of the production, I did encounter people who thought the piece was too graphic. I disagreed with them then, as I now disagree with Alex. The piece is about a young man examining death. Contrary to Alex’s assertion, Jeremiah and his family did take a closer look at death than many of us. They could have chosen to put Asher in a nursing home and let strangers attend to him, but they chose to care for him and witness his passing in all of its natural brutality. To gloss over what Jeremiah experienced would have been a flaw to my ears and a disservice to the family.
• Lu Olkowski, the producer of “Grandpa,” won a Gracie Award in 2006 for her profile of documentary director Zana Briski. Her radio work has been honored by the American Women in Radio & Television, the international competition New York Festivals, the literary magazine The Missouri Review and the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the essay by Alex van Oss in which he discussed “A Public Radio Special Report: The Execution Tapes.” I know Alex, and I found his conclusions to be both interesting and provocative — although I don’t agree with any of them.
Nearly eight years after we produced our special about the Georgia death house recordings, my own opinions about the program are still the same as they were back in 2001. 
I still think it was an excellent program. I still think that there was no choice but to bring out the documented evidence of what Georgia officials were doing on behalf of — or in the name of — the people of that state, and how they were doing it. 
I still think that any news organization that found itself in possession of this type of material, but chose not to make it public, would be committing an act of suppression. 
I still think we succeeded in our attempt to present the execution tapes in a radio program that was thoughtful and not sensationalistic, as part of the larger debate in this country over the death penalty and the ancillary debate over whether the public at large has the right to witness executions.

While I applaud Alex’s attempt to wrestle with the issues that our program raised for him, I think there is a deep flaw at the heart of his argument — and it is one I find especially troubling. It’s an error of assumption about the motivations, attitudes, and depth of emotional concern of the people who were involved with producing the program that contained those recordings made in the Georgia death house. His portrayal is a caricature of who we were, what we were doing, and why we were doing it. And he presumes that none of us, while working on the radio program, ever hit any sort of intellectual, emotional, or journalistic “pause buttons” about the execution tapes and what we were attempting to do with them. In fact, the reality was quite the opposite, and I would maintain that the final product — the radio program itself — provides the real evidence for that, even for those without any direct knowledge of what went on behind the scenes.
My one recommendation would be that anyone who is interested in these issues listen to the actual program. Another fascinating take on this subject — a documentary produced by David Isay and Stacy Abramson — is “Witness to an Execution.”
• Gary Covino is an independent producer and editor. He was the co-producer and editor of “A Public Radio Special Report: The Execution Tapes.”