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

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