New Member Corner: 27-hour bus ride to a career

Name: Sylvia RyersonSylvia at WMMT

Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Joined AIR: September 2016

Get in touch: or

Tell us about your professional experience and background: 
My first experience working in radio was back in 2008. I’d just turned 21 and it was the summer before my senior year of college. I took a 27-hour Greyhound bus from my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the hills of eastern Kentucky. I spent the summer at WMMT-FM, a community radio station in the heart of Central Appalachia.

WMMT is a part of Appalshop, a media arts and education center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Appalshop was started during the War on Poverty as a jobs training program for local youth. It trained young people in the media arts, and primarily documentary film. But rather than leaving the area to find jobs in the mainstream media industry, many of the original high school students involved decided to stay home and create an organization dedicated to documenting the lives and stories Central Appalachia – a region so often misrepresented by the mainstream media during the War on Poverty, and sadly, to this day.

As a total newbie, it was an incredible place to be. Appalshop believes deeply in the philosophy of letting people learn by doing. A week after I arrived, I was handed a Marantz recorder and a pair of headphones, and told to go out and find a story. It was thrilling. I made tons of mistakes and some really terrible radio. But I learned so much, and had brilliant, patient mentors gently guiding me along the way.

This is where I fell in love with radio. I returned the following summer and ended up working at WMMT-FM for five years, as a reporter, leading the station’s citizen journalism project and eventually as the director of public affairs programming. I worked on a series called “Making Connections News” and co-produced “Calls from Home,” a weekly program that sends messages over the radio from family members to their loved ones who are incarcerated in prisons within the station’s listening area.

I am now an independent producer based in Brooklyn, New York. I’m currently producing The Runners World Show,” a weekly podcast from Runner’s World Magazine, and a long-term participatory radio documentary project titled “Restorative Radio,” working with families that have loved ones incarcerated far from home to co-create “audio postcards” to be broadcast over public airwaves to reach their relatives in prison.You can find out more about the Restorative Radio project here and here.

What’s playing on your radio/streaming service right now?
The show I just finished editing last night!
The Runner’s World Show, Episode 28: Running While Female. I’m doing a final listen-through. In this episode we host a roundtable discussion about the street harassment so many women face while running and walking and existing in the world, and what we can all do about it.

What’s a podcast you’ve just learned about?
A friend just turned me on to “In the Dark,” from APM. It’s a series about the 27-year-long child abduction case of Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped at the age of 11 near his home in rural Minnesota.

What do you think about it?
I’m only two episodes in, and I’m hooked. It’s the investigation of a 27-year-long investigation. I think Madeleine Baran and her team do an exceptional job of empathetically pulling us into a gripping storyline, while also providing larger commentary on questions of law enforcement, public safety, human psychology, sex-offender registries and more. I also appreciate that the story is based in a rural location and dives deep into rural community life. I think we need more rural voices, stories and perspectives on air. Unfortunately this is a very sad story, but a very important one.

What’s the best piece you’ve ever heard?
Hmmmm, hard question. One of the most powerful and well-reported pieces I’ve ever heard was “This American Life,” Episode 562: “The Problem We All Live With,” reported by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

What drew you to radio?
I was first drawn to radio my first summer at WMMT-FM, listening to WMMT’s
“Calls from Home” show and hearing families send messages over the air to reach their loved ones incarcerated. Prisons are the most closed, censored institutions in the world. But radio is a rare medium that can pass freely through prison walls, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Prisoners would write us to say how much it means to hear their mothers’, daughters’, uncles’ voices coming to them over the airwaves from hundreds of miles away, and how the show is a lifeline for them. This is when I first began to understand both the power and intimacy of radio.

I love how in audio, we are forced to listen closely to what people are saying. Because there is no visual element, we can’t unconsciously judge people by what they look like, what they are wearing or where they are located. We are forced to listen to their words.

What are you looking to learn about your craft?
I’d like to become a better sound engineer. I want to learn more about the science of sound – to become real sound magician! There is just so much you can do with editing and mastering programs these days, it’s amazing. But I’m also a big believer in learning what you need to know as you need to know it.

What piece of audio do you love to share with others?
“If” by John Jacobs and Sherre DeLys. As Third Coast describes it:
“A young patient reinvents his experience of being in the hospital through metaphor and allusion. Responding to ‘what if’ questions, Andrew exemplifies the transformative qualities of fantasy, empathy and humor.”

It is so playful and moving, with stunning sound design and composition. This piece totally expanded my idea of what is possible when making radio.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about audio?
Being done is better than being perfect! I’m a perfectionist, so this mantra is very useful for me. You could edit something forever. But sometimes we have to let go, in order to let our work live.

Whom have you always wanted to interview?
I wish I could interview one of my great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers. Did you know that every person has 64 great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers? And I don’t know the names of any of mine! I wish I could talk to all 64 of them.


• To find Sylvia Ryerson and a diverse array of audio and multimedia producers who are at the top of their craft, visit AIR’s Talent Directory.