National Writing Project

Rural Voices Radio Spawns New Series: Calling America

By: Art Peterson
Date: January 9, 2009

Summary: A new audio series by the team that produced Rural Voices Radio features short segments of writing by authors, young and old, from across the nation.


For Deborah Begel, “outtake” is just another word for “opportunity.”

Begel is the freelance radio producer who between 1998 and 2003 collaborated with rural teacher-consultants and their students to create the series of 13 half-hour radio programs known as Rural Voices Radio.

Now, together with her Rural Voices Radio colleagues, she has taken unused pieces from those programs—the outtakes—and used them as the foundation for a new radio series, Calling America .

Rural Voices Radio, which aired on NPR stations all over the country, focused on regions as disparate as Maine and Hawaii, providing a platform for young writers and their teachers to share their lives in the context of the places they call home. Developed as part of the Rural Sites Network’s Rural Voices, Country Schools project, the programs drew high praise from the likes of Bill Moyers and Studs Terkel.

Wrapping up the series, however, Begel was left with what her Rural Voices Radio colleagues called a “happy problem.” As Deborah tells it, “I had miles of digital recording that we hadn’t used.” And the idea for Calling America was born.

The programs drew high praise from the likes of Bill Moyers and Studs Terkel.

Start the Day with a Poem

Begel knew just what she wanted to do with this surplus material. She had been a long-time fan of Garrison Keillor’s NPR program The Writer’s Almanac, in which Keillor provides a brief daily dose of poetry. “I thought, what could be better than starting the day with a poem on the radio along with a morning cup of coffee?”

Begel realized she could use her treasure trove of previously collected Rural Voices material as a starting place for short modules to “delight the mind, hearten the soul, reveal a dream, or tell a good story.”

After some discussion with Rural Voices Radio colleagues like Kim Stafford, former director of the Lewis and Clark Writing Project, and sound engineer Stephen Erickson, the idea for the new series took shape.

Begel approached Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, NWP’s director of national programs and site development and a key mover in Rural Voices Radio, to test out the idea.

“I knew we had lots of quality material that we had not been able to use, and I saw this new project as a way to build on energy that Rural Voices Radio had generated,” says Eidman-Aadahl. “But more importantly, it was a way to continue to share with the public a sense of what young writers can and do produce.”

The Themes of Our Lives

So in 2004, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the project was launched. Calling America, however, is not Rural Voices Radio redux. There are significant differences.

The Rural Voices Radio programs were thirty minutes in length, each focusing on the environment and culture of a particular region. By contrast, Calling America segments are shorter, two to four minutes in length, and are organized around themes, “all the things that are part of our lives,” says Begel.

Presently there are 21 program themes that focus on areas as varied as fantasy, fun, old age, and jobs. Within these themes the writers take dramatically different approaches.

The category of “Dreams,” for instance, allows Laquisha Tisdal to tell the story of her dashed teenage hopes of becoming an African American supermodel when she takes a runway fall facilitated by the four-inch pumps she has worn at her tryout.

“I did not hear the end of it,” Laquisha writes. “The tape was broadcast on television and my classmates pantomimed my fall. I was the joke of town.”

Lyric Randall’s dream, by contrast, is pure pleasure. In “Dolphin Dreams” he writes, “The dolphin approaches, looks me in the eye. I start swimming as I watch the beautiful creatures jumping in and out of the water. They are singing.”

New Voices

Another difference between Calling America and Rural Voices Radio is that Calling America has solicited writing from individuals as well as writing project sites. The broader call for submissions also brought in work from adults, some of which concerns subject matter not likely to be considered by younger writers.

In the section “Love Dried Up,” for instance, Jessica Flynn writes of a garage sale that follows the breakup of a marriage: "Cleaning, gutting, selling parcels of lives laid out on the driveway like skeletons after the memories have been picked off the bones. Neighbors claw at the Persian carpet, dotted with white dog and cat hairs that refuse to be sucked up by the vacuum."

Calling America differs in another significant way from its predecessor. In recording the Rural Voices Radio pieces Begel would travel to sites in Oregon, South Dakota, Mississippi, or one of the other regions involved to record the voices of the student writers and teachers. The local accents and dialects—the laconic twang of Maine, the musical Spanish-based accents of the Texas border—provided much of the verisimilitude and charm of these recordings.

But opening up solicitations to residents of all states meant that the writers could no longer be the readers. Instead, Begel recruited acting students, many from the Stella Adler Studio in New York City and from the Albuquerque, New Mexico area where she lives.

While these performances necessarily lack the homegrown quality of the Rural Voices recordings, Begel sees an upside. “The actors seeing this material for the first time often bring something fresh to the interpretation. I think many of the writers would be delighted to hear what these readers found in their work.”

The Calling America CD, produced as a way of disseminating the programs, has a subtitle: “Give Us Your Stories, Poems, and Essays.” This request points to what Begel expects will be the interactive nature of the project.

Begel hopes that teachers in the writing project network will access the Calling America programs and, if they like what they hear, contact their local public radio stations and urge the broadcasters to request a CD so that these programs can receive a local airing.

If this exposure generates a demand for more programs, Begel is ready. “I still have a box of outtakes, itching to be heard,” she says.

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