â€œI wish there was more abstraction, more subtlety, more innuendo and suggestion on public radio!â€
- Jenny Asarnow, KUOW Freelancer
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 traveling to the west coast, where KUOW broadcasts to the Seattle area from the campus of the University of Washington. Producer Jenny Asarnow started as a volunteer there, and sheâ€™s ended up as a valuable freelancer whoâ€™s currently doing everything from spot news reporting to producing long-form features about the character of public spaces around her city. This week, weâ€™re doing something a little different on our podcast: Weâ€™re actually featuring one of Jennyâ€™s very earliest radio creations, a piece that she put together when she was a student at Brown University. Itâ€™s utterly unlike anything youâ€™re likely to hear on the airwaves, but itâ€™s a great demonstration of what can be accomplished when someone with an artistic mind (and a penchant for abstraction) approaches the radio medium as a blank canvas. Jenny calls this piece Julie the Amtrak God. Itâ€™s essentially a phone conversation with a computerized voice-recognition program, and it manages to evoke a wide range of emotional responses from us as listeners without explicitly telling much of anything. Hereâ€™s a short Q & A with Jenny about her background and her inspiration for this unusual radio experimentâ€¦
Tell us a little bit about your background, what brought you Seattle, and how you ended up getting involved with KUOW…
I grew up in New Jersey where I fell in love with freeform radio through listening to the wonderful station WFMU. I moved to Providence and studied history, literature and media at Brown University. I got involved at the freeform student-run station there, BSR, first as a DJ, then as a producer and editor for a features show. After I graduated in 2004 I moved to D.C. to intern for NPR. I wanted to try working in public radio but didn’t have much of an idea where or how to do it. I just knew I didn’t want to move to New York, where most of my friends had gone–I felt like I needed to go on a far-flung adventure. My boyfriend was moving to Seattle and so I hopped on the train with him and arrived here without a job. I’d never even visited the Northwest before! After being here a few months I scored an unpaid internship at a KUOW talk show…several months after that I started doing freelance work for the station.
What sort of work are you currently doing for KUOW?
I do a lot of different work for KUOW. I think of myself as the fill-in lady. In the past month, for example, I’ve filled in as a spot news reporter, produced the morning talk show and the afternoon fast-paced news talk show, produced spots for the pledge drive, and filled in for the receptionist! My main ongoing project is a series of half hour portraits of public spaces in Seattle. They are sort of extended vox pops–I go somewhere and talk to the people there in an effort to illustrate the character of a place and the different people who inhabit it. I also record a lot of public lectures for the station, and I used to produce a weekly lecture series.
Your story, “Julie the Amtrak God,” is completely unlike anything most public radio listeners have ever heard before. I wonder if you could explain a bit about how the idea for it originally popped into your head, and what happened from there…
To be honest, it’s probably unlike what you hear on public radio because it was NOT made at a public radio station. I made this for a class in college. I didn’t have to worry about money or time. I thought of a neat idea and I attempted to create it. It’s more comparable to art than your typical feature story in that way–there were no outside constraints on the work other than my own imagination and the materials I had to work with. Here’s where the piece came from, as best I remember: I called the Amtrak line to book a reservation on a train. I had a cold so I kept coughing and sneezing into the phone. Julie, the automated voice, kept mistaking my coughs for names of cities. I thought that was bizzarre and amusing. I started to wonder what would happen if I put myself in her seemingly all-knowing, yet strangely inept hands. I think of ‘me’ in that piece as a kind of character. Maybe it’s a part of me, helpless and searching for direction. Julie’s job is to provide direction. I called her a bunch of times and used the best takes. The AM radio sounds you hear underneath and in between the conversations came from an idea I had about fuzzy signals. I thought about voices transmitting over telephone lines and the information getting lost somewhere in between, and I associated that with a bad radio signal– I wanted the fuzzy sound to communicate that idea. Also I liked the way it sounded. Most people I’ve talked to seem to have not liked that aspect of the piece, but I do!
What have people had to say to you in the way of feedback when they hear this piece?
I’ve gotten a lot of positive reactions to the piece but for different reasons. Some people just think it’s hilarious. Some people think it’s melancholy. I’ve had people say they appreciate how personal it is. Radio professionals have sometimes thought it was too long. Maybe the biggest compliment I’ve gotten is that the professor whose class I made the piece for, Roger Mayer, still plays it for his class.
I think this piece says a lot about solitude and alienation, but it does so without actually saying much of anything… I wonder what your thoughts are about the power of the abstract in radio. It seems to me a lot of public radio producers can get trapped in the I-have-to-over-explain-everything mode of thinking…
I wish there was more abstraction, more subtlety, more innuendo and suggestion on public radio! My favorite radio is a little opaque and strange. Sometimes I think of radio compared with film–filmmakers are ‘allowed’ to use their medium so much more creatively than many radio producers, especially in the U.S. Radio can be an art form and I wish it would be used that way more often!
You say you made this piece when you were a student at Brown University. Now you’re a working, free-lance contributor to a metropolitan public radio station. How do you think your radio work has changed between then and now?
Well, now I am doing radio as my job. I’m producing work for a station, not for my own amusement. My radio work is much, much less personal now. I am much more focused on getting across information. And I have a lot less time. But I do still try to be creative with the work I do at KUOW. For instance, my programs about public spaces use a lot of sound and I try to juxtapose sounds and voices in interesting and delightful ways. I’m much better at getting to the point of things than I used to be. If I made ‘Julie’ now it would probably be shorter. Actually, I’m not sure I could make this piece now. At this moment in my life, I tend to use my most inner creative energies on other projects, like music.
You can hear other features from KUOW producer Jenny Asarnow 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.