Listening is Something You Teach

Celebrating the work of three women audio makers who taught me how to listen

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers this week. The ones at day care and pre-K programs whose jobs are or might in jeopardy, the ones at K-12 schools and colleges who are being forced to move their classes online, and the ones who are not teachers in their everyday lives but have been forced into that role because their kids are now taking their classes online and/or from home. Kudos to all of them for trying to make this situation work.

I was lucky to have a lot of great teachers when I was in school, which is maybe why I went to school until I was in my 30s. My mom was a teacher, so I’m sure that also played a large part in how I came to value education and love learning. Like my mom, almost all of my favorite teachers were women, in part because teaching in the United States has largely become a women’s profession—a fact that sadly correlates to how much we value the work that teachers do.

For a lot of years, I thought I would be a teacher at the college level. But in 2014, I left academic life, moved to Madison, and started working for To the Best of Our Knowledge (affectionately known in the public radio world as ‘TTBOOK’). While in some ways this marked the end of my formal education, it was the beginning of a crash course in an entirely new skillset: how to make radio. I had taken some classes on audio editing software and even one on “radio storytelling,” but seeing an hour of national-caliber public radio get made week after week was nothing short of awe-inspiring, in the old-fashioned sense: terrible and wonderful and incredibly immediate.

In some ways I had no choice but to learn as much as I could as fast as I could, but the staff at TTBOOK made that work much easier. Like so many of my teachers before them, my new instructors in this endeavor were largely the women who worked on the show: Caryl Owen, Sara Nics, and Anne Strainchamps.

This also isn’t a coincidence. At work, like in their domestic lives, women do the invisible labor of keeping the ship afloat, making sure people are happy and on task, and, well, helping a new guy find his way in an entirely new city and an entirely new industry. I benefited greatly from that, and I truly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without them. As we wrap up another Women’s History Month, this post is a small thank-you to these three kickass radio makers and a list of some of their work that changed the way I listen.

Caryl Owen, Engineer / Editor / Producer

  • Ghetto Life 101” (1993, 30 minutes), engineer / editor

    Ghetto Life 101 is my favorite radio story ever made. It was made in the 90s, but I first heard it grad school, probably around 2006. It was produced by Dave Isay as part of his “Sound Portraits” series, the documentary work that came before he started StoryCorps in 2002. This piece is legendary for both its method and its message. Isay gave two teenage boys living in Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing projects tape recorders for a week, and then stitched those tapes together into a powerful portrait of youth and race and poverty.

    But here’s the thing: the actual stitching was done by Caryl Owen. She was the technical director at TTBOOK, and I for the first few months I worked there I had no idea she even worked on this piece. “Ghetto Life 101” had always been presented to me as Isay’s work, an example of his genius and status as a radio auteur, etc. But one day, I was talking about how much I loved this story, and there was a pause in the conversation. Caryl just looked at me and said, “I mixed that.”

    My jaw hit the floor. I immediately wanted to know more, and what I learned was remarkable. The mix was completely analog; at some point Caryl was working four reel-to-reel machines in real time, dubbing and redubbing from the field tapes until they had the final piece assembled. She has described this process as “multi-machine choreography.” When you listen—which, just stop reading now and listen to this story—you’ll notice that it is not just a masterclass is storytelling, but also one in editing and mixing. If this is choreography, Caryl is a most beautiful dancer.

  • On the Rocks” (2004, 3 minutes), writer / producer

    As an engineer, you don’t ofter hear Caryl’s voice in her work, so when you do it is a pretty special experience. This piece is a reflection on “rocks,” but is actually a meditation on geology, deep time, spirituality, and life itself. Revisiting it this week I was struck by its commentary on humans and ecological health: “The vast stretches of geologic time have become a comfort, helping me understand that catastrophe and rebuilding are as essential to the life of the planet as they are to an individual.” As a bonus: there is whispering!

Sara Nics, Editor / Producer

  • Death Doesn't Bother Me, Anyway” (2014, 27 minutes)

    When I started at TTBOOK, the staff was in the midst of producing a 5-hour, multi-episode series about “death.” As you might guess, it was heavy, difficult work. Almost all of that work was done in-house, but there was one story that came in from a freelancer. Seth Jovaag had spent time with Dan and Judy Pierotti at the end of Dan's life. I actually don’t know many of the details here—not only was I new, I was primarily working on the website, not on audio—but I know that Sara took a whole lot of Seth’s tape and worked with him to create something really powerful. It’s probably the first time I understand what an “editor” did, but it wasn’t my last: Sara helped me with many of my early attempts at making radio.

  • Alone and On Foot in Antarctica” (2018, 26 minutes)

    Sara left TTBOOK to join the New Yorker Radio Hour in 2015, and for a while there I just lost track of her work. Then, one night, I’m on a long walk, and I can’t remember why or where I was going, but I decided to listen to the show. 25 minutes later, I’m wiping my eyes and texting Sara and saying something embarrassing about how beautiful this piece is. But years later and in the harsh light of day, I stand by that. It’s just wonderful, tragic storytelling that comes through because it is so well edited.

  • Finding Fred (2019, 10 episodes)

    I’m a Pittsburgher, so once you say “Fred Rogers” you can generally count me in. I was actually skeptical about this show based solely on its title, but it’s a deep 10-episode series about who Mr. Rogers was and what his life and work can tell us today. Once again, the editing is spot-on, especially on the tearjerking 4th episode, “Beth.” Maybe Sara is just good at making me cry?

    Find Sara on Twitter at @saranics.

Anne Strainchamps, Host / Producer

  • Sounding off on Vocal Fry” (2015, 9 minutes)

    I think for a lot of listeners, the host of any particular radio show is the show; all of the producers and editors and staff fade into the background because of the voice—the voice that welcomes you and guides you through an episode and sends you off at the end. Anne Strainchamps is the host of TTBOOK and a public radio “lifer”: her first job was in public radio, and she has been working in public radio ever since. She is a leader on the TTBOOK staff, and she has a great voice. But even still, being “the voice” comes with a lot of pressure. And no one is immune to that. This piece is great because Anne peels back the layers a bit to explore her own voice in light of the then-viral criticism of “vocal fry,” especially in women. And she talks to other women in the industry about this, from podcaster Ann Friedman to public radio legend Susan Stamberg. This piece is a wake-up call for the shit women have to deal with at work, like getting hate mail about the way they talk on the radio.

  • Teens Don’t Want Hope. They Want Action” (8 minutes, 2019)

    One of the easiest things to do is to make fun of people younger than you for having “big ideas” or wanting to change the world. But this interview highlights just how empathetic Anne can be as an interviewer. She takes 17-year-old Lydia Hester seriously without pandering or being condescending. Now Anne can tackle “big ideas” with the best of them, but this interview is a beautiful demonstration on how interviewers also need to be good listeners.

    Find Anne on Twitter at @strainchamps.

Thanks for reading and listening—and please pass this along to a friend if you think they might dig it. This weird time has made me more committed to listening and writing and sharing, so expect more from me soon. And feel free to write back and let me know what you think!

-Craig