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Reality Radio Doesn’t Bite: 208 Pages of Pure Joy

I hope that when you’re finished reading this post, you’ll do whatever it takes to get your hands on a copy of Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound. How often does a book come out the celebrates the art of audio? Like, never. My copy, which only arrived last week, is already dog-eared and highlighted in several neon colors.

This well-curated collection of beautifully-crafted essays makes me feel proud to say that I work in the magical universe of public radio. The pieces within detail the backstory of public radio creation; the inspirations, aspirations, perspirations of the masters and makers of meaningful media.  

In this era of bloggarrhea, where intimate details of life are seemingly “broadcast” 140 characters at a time to fans and followers and friends and fauxs, it’s an unusual treat to read the thoughtful voices of respected producers who have captured and shared some of the most intense, powerful, memorable stories of humanity with all of us. From Scott Carrier to Maria Martin, Jay Allison to Dmae Roberts, Sandy Tolan to  Jad Abumrad*, these contemporary griots have garnered more awards for their work than they could probably count. But most importantly, they’ve won ears

You might ask, isn’t reading about radio a little like “dancing about architecture?” Indeed, editor (and AIR Member) John Biewen posed this very question. But he and co-editor Alexa Dilworth of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University have answered the question wisely by publishing Reality Radio cross-platform. Instead of producing a CD to accompany the paperback volume, they’ve set up a website rich with links to the many works discussed in the book, so that you can have a look and a listen without firing up the search engines.

Reality Radio is a tremendous resource to anyone who teaches audio production and I suspect it will soon be plugged into the curricula and syllabi of college courses from coast to coast. It could also be a great springboard for the launch of listening clubs or audio salons. Wouldn’t it be cool if people got together in the real world (not just in their cars) to listen to radio documentaries and “talk among themselves” the way they do at book clubs and film clubs? That’s probably been tried somewhere… 

It’s unlikely that Alexa and John will make beaucoups bucks from this stellar efort, but they’ve made an incredibly important contribution to the field of public media, one that will invite introspection, spark creativity, and hopefully teach people that the first step in learning is listening. 

Let me share with you some of my favorite quotes from Reality Radio:

“The act of bearing witness with a tape recorder is something that feels essential to us and motivates us to move in a lot of directions at once. Our stories come from the heart and meander down the side roads.”  ~Kitchen Sisters

“I’ve made peace with the idea that doing this kind of work always amounts to going out in the world, poking around, trying one thing after another and waiting for luck to strike. If you want to get hit by lightning, you’ll have to wander around in the rain for a while. It’s funny that when you decide to do creative work…nobody tells you how much of your time you’ll be spending simply hunting for something worth writing about.” ~Ira Glass

“I love working with sound for its ability to invite listening as deep as the ocean…Perhaps it’s sound’s ability to mesmerize us into a slower, stiller mode that promotes reflective inquiry…As a documentarian I’m looking for just such opportunities to take listeners out there where…we move in the space between the spirit and the everyday, where the common becomes uncommonly beautiful.” ~Sherre DeLys

“For the feature maker, sound – pure sound – is as potent a substance as any carefully weighed word or well-chosen musical figuration. Possibly even more potent. It should be used with care – no sound is innocent.”  ~Alan Hall

“If the story is too clean and perfect, the messiness of life gets lost. Often the most ‘real’ moments can be found in the margins and jagged edges, in the audio detritus.”  ~Joe Richman

“Sound is a time machine. Hearing history transports us to the past in a powerful, imaginative way. The voices of the past…have the power to alter the stories we tell about ourselves, and to change us.”  ~Stephen Smith

“Public radio needs people willing to use the medium in new ways, and teenagers are uniquely qualified for this…We all know the sound of civilized radio; let’s hear it for the teens who can cannabalize the good parts, chew them up, and come up with something new.” ~Karen Michel

Just a few morsels of Reality Radio to relish and digest. I hope I’ve tantalized your taste buds for more. Reality Radio is published by the University of North Carolina Press. You can read an interview with the editors here, find out about book-related events here, and order a copy of the book here

*Footnote:  Jad Abumrad’s book entry mentions the work of MQ2 grantees Kara Oehler and Ann Heppermann.