Radio: Spice for the ears

  • Gregg McVicar recording the host commentary for the national 5-hour daily music show, UnderCurrents

    Jay Cory

Note: This article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.

It sounds as if a lone angel alighted on the head of a pin, and encountered — to her surprise — a choir of angelic cousins there.

Of course, we know that angels like gathering in such infinitely tiny places to sing. But it seems this particular angel is discovering it for the first time, and she’s so moved by their rich and resonant tones that she breaks into lofting, ethereal vocalizations of her own.

That’s what it sounds like. The reality is equally remarkable: It’s Sioux opera singer Bonnie Jo Hunt and a chorus of crickets, recorded in 1994.

"They sounded exactly like a well-trained church choir to me," Hunt said in an interview a few years later.

Record producer Jim Wilson, who was working with musician Robbie Robertson on a CD called Music for the Native Americans, unlocked the crickets’ music by slowing a recording of them way down to reveal hidden melodies in the chirps. Entranced, Robertson asked Hunt to add her voice to theirs.

"And when I heard them, I was so ashamed of myself," Hunt said. "I was so humbled, because I had not given them enough respect."

The song aired on National Public Radio (NPR) in 2004, in a five-minute piece by independent producer Gregg McVicar. But remarkable as the story was, it might never have made it to the national airwaves without the help of Hearing Voices, a collective of independent producers scattered around the country that is trying to add some much-needed spice to public broadcasting.

Bozeman, Montana-based founder Barrett Golding says the collective grew out of discussions he’d had for years with other producers about the state of public radio and the networks that feed it content such as NPR, Public Radio International, and American Public Media.

"The networks are good at covering the news," Golding says. "They’re not as good at finding interesting people and good stories."

Golding had been an independent radio producer more than two decades; he’d created material for just about every public radio show. But, he says, network editors rarely took chances on funding ambitious or oddball stories, even when those are precisely the kind of stories that impel a listener to pay attention with both ears.

In 2001, Golding and his cohorts convinced the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to fund the Hearing Voices collective, so they could pursue the stories and voices they felt were missing from the airwaves. Since then, more grants have come from CPB and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The producers in the Hearing Voices collective work mostly out of home offices scattered across the country. ("Working out of a home office — you can put your insomnia to work for you," Golding quips.) Digital audio editing and recording equipment is cheap these days; combined with the Internet, it has empowered Hearing Voices’ independent producers to do the kind of work historically done by big outfits with budgets for expensive sound studios and overnight shipping costs.

But the heart of the operation remains a brilliant eye (and ear) for a story. "We prize stories and real voices over everything else," says Golding. "We care less about news, issues, trends, topicality. Even accuracy takes a back seat to a good story."

Hearing Voices has released its own hour-long syndicated programs; it’s also brought hundreds of pieces to national network shows. Most of the stories have unusual audio, provocative voices, and form-busting narrative style: A blind dog in rural Utah that jumps for Frisbees, and catches them, for example, or a textured piece on the relentless waves of illegal immigrants who brave the Sonoran Desert and sometimes die of thirst, narrated by author Charles Bowden in his dark, gritty basso.

Funding has also allowed Golding to bring in other producers, including Gregg McVicar. Golding learned about Bonnie Jo Hunt and the crickets when he asked McVicar to send examples of his work.

"I’d tried going directly to (network) editors several times with stories, and I’d kind of given up," says McVicar, who himself discovered the Hunt recording while producing his own program about Native American music, Earthsongs. "Barrett made a couple of small edits and that was it."

"NPR doesn’t want to take that risk. They’re gonna say ‘no,’ almost all the time," Golding says. "But if we produce the story, they’re gonna say ‘yes’ almost all the time — once it’s done."

Adam Burke is an independent radio producer based in Paonia, Colorado.

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The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- More Radio Waves

- Online: Web watchdog

- Online: No more talking heads

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