â€œWith radio, you become more of a writer…your words (and other sounds) have to create the picture, whereas in TV and film, you can be a relatively lazy writer if youâ€™ve got great images. Working in both formats gives me an opportunity to develop different storytelling muscles. And in the end, it is all about telling a good story.â€
- Amber Edwards, WBGO Radio Producer (and NJN Television Producer)
Hi, this is Aaron Henkin, curator of the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Each week, producers at public radio stations around the country are creating outstanding reports and features for their local listening audiences, and on this podcast we take the time to meet some of the talented folks who bring those stories to life. This week, weâ€™re introducing Amber Edwards, a producer whoâ€™s put together a wide range of original stories for Newark, New Jerseyâ€™s public radio station, WBGO. In 2004, Amber produced a short radio history on an obscure but really fascinating topic — ocean liner and cruise ship musical entertainment. She interviewed a maritime historian and a cruise ship entertainment director for the project, and she decked out her feature with a very evocative array of musical selections that have been played aboard famous ocean liners over the past century. Hereâ€™s a short Q & A with Amber about her broadcasting background, and about what inspired her to pursue this weekâ€™s featured story, Music at Sea…
Tell us a bit about how you got involved with NJN and WGBO…
I grew up in Kansas City, came â€œback eastâ€ to college (Yale) and never looked back. My original dream had been to be a Broadway Star (I thought Iâ€™d simply go to a few auditions in New York and instantly be vaulted to fame and fortune) but I learned quickly that I didnâ€™t have the stomach for a life of daily rejection and grinding poverty. So, with zero experience, I took a TV job in Utica, NY and gradually worked my way up to larger stations. When I arrived at New Jersey Public TV (NJN) in 1987, I realized I would probably never find a more flexible, hospitable home for what I wanted to do: arts programming and documentaries–which even back then, were an endangered species. NJN allows me to host and produce a weekly television arts program, â€œState of the Artsâ€, and also produce and direct national PBS documentaries â€“ five to date, with two more currently in production. I am definitely the beneficiary of new technology, as I am able to work from home, in Connecticut, most of the time, using recording and editing equipment Iâ€™ve accumulated over the years on various projects. (How I landed in CT is too complicated for a short answer: but it involved love, marriage, real estate, and money, as do so many things in life.) I started doing radio only a couple of years ago, when our â€œState of the Artsâ€ TV series decided to expand its on-air presence to radio, which included sharing stories with WBGO in Newark, NJ, one of public radioâ€™s biggest all-jazz stations.
You’re someone who does both television work and radio work, and I wonder if you might talk about what you’ve learned about how to approach each of these formats as a producer? Are there major differences to consider when you’re putting together a radio story versus a television story?
When I first started producing radio stories, I was struck with a sense of relief from the TV producerâ€™s constant burden of having to SHOW everything youâ€™re talking about: If you canâ€™t see it, you canâ€™t say it. When you do historical documentaries, itâ€™s even more daunting…you often feel as if the whole project hinges on what kind of archival material is available (and affordable) or you have to come up with really creative ways to visualize concepts and abstract ideas. With radio, you become more of a writer…your words (and other sounds) have to create the picture, whereas in TV and film, you can be a relatively lazy writer if youâ€™ve got great images. Working in both formats gives me an opportunity to develop different storytelling muscles. And in the end, it is all about telling a good story.
I know from your other radio work that you’re a music enthusiast, but how was it that you fell into the music-and-cruise-culture idea for this story?
My husband and I know John Maxtone-Graham, the maritime historian, socially; and we had spent an evening with him and his wife Mary, hearing about their experiences on the maiden voyage of the QM2. He and Mary live most of the time at sea, writing and lecturing about ships and ocean liners, and their view of shipboard life is tempered by reality. It wasnâ€™t at all the glamorous Cole Porter world Iâ€™d envisioned â€“ especially the entertainment. As I got a sense of the depth of his knowledge of the Golden Age of cruising and crossing, in such delicious detail, I knew I had the ingredients for a really interesting radio feature and went back the next day with my mini-disc for an interview.
Have you ever taken a cruise yourself? If you have, I wonder how the experience compared to your expectations. You point out an interesting paradox that the cruise industry is facing – trying to appeal to opposite ends of the demographic spectrum. It seems like there’s sort of an inevitable gap between the fantasy of what a cruise is like, compared to the real thing…
Iâ€™ve never been on a cruise, and donâ€™t plan to. The idea of being trapped in the middle of the ocean with thousands of people you donâ€™t know (and probably donâ€™t want to) with no graceful exit short of going overboard is my idea of a nightmare!
This radio feature is embroidered throughout with really great, evocative music. Talk a bit about where you found these recordings and what you think they bring to the narrative…
Well, I couldnâ€™t have done the story without the music; in this case, the recordings are the TV equivalent of archival footage, and utterly necessary. The rarest piece, â€œSonge dâ€™Automneâ€, which was played as the Titanic sank, was actually recorded privately for John Maxtone-Graham by the Turtle Island String Quartet, and he generously shared it with me. The other clips were either from my own CD collection (hot jazz from the 20s, big band swing from the 40s) or were discovered on the internet. The Library of Congress has a remarkable audio collection from the wax cylinder era, and there are hundreds of private collectors who post their files just to share with the world. Iâ€™m grateful for them.
You can hear other features from WBGO producer Amber Edwards online at The Public Radio Exchange, where producers from around the world post their stories. Write your own reviews and help decide what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.