Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Red Wagon of Culver City

After months of the planning, overseas travel, reporting, and scripting it all comes down to what we call in the radio biz the “final mix.” And it’s my job to make sure the final mix is flawless. If you’ve ever worked in radio, you know the process it takes to complete the final program isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We entrust this momentous task to Rima Snyder of Red Wagon Audio.

Like Larry Josephson, Rima works from the comfort of her home. Her Culver City, California house was built on what used to be the back lot of MGM Studios, so it somehow seems fitting that the final mix happens in the shadows of Hollywood.

There are dozens of people who could engineer the final mix, but why fix something when it isn’t broken? Rima has worked the past six Stanley Foundation/KQED radio specials. My ProTools skills aren’t too shabby, but Rima is a PT whiz.

With Rima’s trusty dog Willa at our feet, Rima works her magic as I offer up direction, suggestions and comments.

It doesn’t take long to reach the point every producer dreads: trimming the script to fit the clock. I long for the day when I can honestly say we added material to a show!

It’s easy to get married to every single piece of audio we intended to put into the show. That’s why it is sometimes downright painful to leave fabulous material on the imaginary “edit room floor.” It takes countless text messages, IM exchanges, e-mails, and conference calls with Simon and Keith. Rima patiently awaits the final decision (and offers up condolences as she trims away).

We successfully hit the magic time of 52:59 today. It will take us a few more days to “polish” up the final product. Anxious to hear the final result? Beyond Fear: America’s Role in an Uncertain World debuts on KQED Public Radio on May 9 at 8:00pm PDT. National distribution begins the next day.

--Kristin McHugh

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Fighting the Cold War in New Jersey

A vacant lot in suburban New Jersey is not on my usual reporting itinerary for radio documentaries on international affairs. But there we were last week, creating a human wind buffer as David Brancaccio recorded his closing essay for "Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain World."

The documentary is all about looking for ways the United States can interact with the world that aren't driven by fear... and the benefits this could accrue to our national security. This line of thought reminded David of the abandoned Nike missile defense system which used to ring New York City. He had stumbled across part of the system's remains while bike riding near his Maplewood, NJ home.

So he incorporated the missiles into his closing essay using them as a symbol of the fear Americans felt during the Cold War. And then he suggested we actually go to the site to collect some natural sound and record his reading. Kristin, Simon, and I loved the idea because we are always looking for ways to inject as much sound richness as possible into these documentaries.

After leaving Larry Josephson's recording studio in Manhattan we went to Penn Station and caught the New Jersey Transit train to Maplewood. There David used his trusty GPS navigation devices to find what is now a nearly empty expanse of land amid a purely American suburb. The site has winding, narrow pavement in a path which ultimately loops back on itself. There are small, assorted concrete platforms and manhole covers in various locations and a rusty, overgrown chain link fence topped by barbed wire.

After poking around a bit we pulled out the recording equipment and tried to find a place and a position which could at least minimize the noise of a steady, brisk breeze. While David was nearing the end of the first take, a police patrol car cruised slowly through the site. I was sure we would be asked to leave... trespassing and all that... but the car completed the pavement circuit and kept right on going.

I guess the site of radio documentarians practicing their craft is more common in New Jersey than I assumed.
--Keith Porter

Friday, April 13, 2007

Larry's Place

Last week, David Brancaccio, Kristin McHugh, Simon Marks, and I gathered in Larry Josephson's Manhattan radio studio to record David's narration for the documentary "Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain World." All of you in the public radio world have met Larry or know him by reputation. He was present at the creation of our industry and not much more needs to be said.

But his base of operation is worth further description. This fifth floor apartment on Central Park West is his home as well as the workplace for a small staff of people. It is infused with an amazing collection of radio equipment and paraphernalia, although "collection" may give it too much of a sense of organization. David quipped that this is probably what his home would look like if he didn't have others regulating his purchase of old microphones and gizmo treasures.

Sylvester the cat, wandering through the rooms, gives the place a very civilized and homey vibe. People love recording at Larry's place certainly because of the excellent sound quality and technical expertise of the staff. But the comfortable feel of the place adds a relaxation and warmth to the aural experience which cannot be quantified. And I have no doubt that it adds to the success of our projects.

In the tiny, un-remodeled bathroom, the modern office phone hanging precariously over the stool has a laminated sheet with the speed dial codes for an impressive array of international news organizations and area food delivery operations. For a moment I thought about grabbing the phone and pushing the button marked "NPR Washington Desk" before regaining my professional composure.

Later, standing in the recording booth, I looked at the rows of reel-to-reel tapes holding raw interview audio. The spines read Woody Allen, Nelson Mandela, Bob and Ray, and so on. On that day we had to finish up on time because Alec Baldwin was headed in next to read some scripts.

Kristin and David in the recording booth

A while back I saw that Julia Child's kitchen had been carefully disassembled and reconstructed as a permanent display at the Smithsonian. I wonder if they could do that with Larry's place?

--Keith Porter