Wilson Sayre’s Experiment with Form

WLRN producer Wilson Sayre’s “Miami Made Muhammad Ali” is a four-minute gem of a story: a quirky experiment in which Ali’s fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco and Ramiro Ortiz, the president of the Miami History Museum, walk back through time to 50 years ago, on the night when Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston and emerged as the heavyweight on top of the world, Muhammad Ali. 

The entire tale is delivered as an arrangement of historical tape, boxing sounds and two fans of the fight trading memories.

Sayre, who put the story together after attending the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive in December 2013, called it “a really wonky, weird-sounding thing” — a nice break her from her work on the poverty and income equality beat.

Best to listen first, and her story will light up.

Here, in her own words, is how she made it. This interview has been edited and condensed:

What’s great about having this event be 50 years ago and these people in retirement, is that they’re willing to talk to you and they’re available to talk to you – for perhaps a few too many hours, but you get to know people through the process. I knew that the anniversary of the fight was coming up, but I didn’t know how big of a deal it was in Miami.

I probably started a week and a half before the piece was aired. I first went out and talked to Ferdie Pacheco, who was the corner doctor, as well as [Ramiro Ortiz,] the director of the history center. He was a big boxing fan.

Having these people talk through the fight, once I got that down, it all got easier. What I really enjoyed doing was asking what sounds they remembered making. “Pow!” Their analysis of what’s going on with the fight is interspersed with the fight itself. The fight is its own character, and these other two people, [Pacheco and Ortiz,] because they’re commenting on it, are telling you why this matters post facto.

What’s great about a boxing match is that the sounds are interesting. I recorded a friend of mine boxing, so I played with that and interspersed those sounds, but the fight itself worked as a kind of soundtrack. It was like the music for the story, so you punctuate with that.

That was something I got out of Full Spectrum. Doing it and hearing about it are different things. What’s great about Full Spectrum is playing around with these [techniques] before you do it on a full story gives you confidence. Thinking about what kind of sound you use here, what doesn’t work there because it’s too intense – it felt like in some ways the piece was helping me relive the experience.

I played around with lots of different boxing sounds – a boxing glove hitting a bag, all of that. Some of them didn’t sound old enough. So a lot of it was going through, putting sound in and taking it out.

These characters’ personalities, they way that they boxed, is one story of the fight but I had to leave that part out because it was too long. That was the hardest part for me, cutting the narrative down. There are so many twists and turns to a fight. I had to find the parts that told the story.

On trying non-narrated storytelling: I did music all throughout my childhood, so I kind of have a musical ear. That definitely helped me, but it was mostly trial and error – listening with different headphones, listening with colleagues and asking, “Does this work? Does it work now?” But mostly it’s the question: What are the artistic choices I want to make?

It was a different process, it felt like it took longer, but it didn’t really.

It took me like a day and a half to bring the whole thing together: two interviews plus a day and a half of mixing. I don’t necessarily think it took all that much longer but I also had so much material from those interviews and the raw tape [of the fight], so I didn’t have to do so much looking for sound or creating my own sound.

I wasn’t necessarily writing a score for this piece – I scored it with sound that was easily attainable. If you’re writing your own music or creating sound effects from scratch, that’s a different thing.

On advice for other producers: Don’t be afraid to do something different. This would have been so easy to do kind of “the importance of Mohammad Ali in race relations in Miami in the 1960s” and have historians talk about that. That easily could have been the story.

I’m not saying this is a better way of approaching the story, but it’s the one I chose and perhaps people will be interested and they’ll go do their own research. It might make people more curious about what’s going on than a straight historical feature might have been.

It can be nerve-wracking going in to your editor with a really wonky, weird-sounding thing, but my editor was really supportive. If you think it sounds good and could work in a different way, I think people respond to that.