National Writing Project

Rural Voices Radio Series Makes an Urban Visit

By: Laura Paradise
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: What goes into making a radio program? A group working on the upcoming Rural Voices Radio III release went to New York City to put the finishing touches on four, half-hour radio programs featuring teacher and student voices.


Kim Donehower, director of the Red River Valley Writing Project, lends an ear at the Rural Voices Radio mix session in New York City. Photograph by Deborah Begel.
Think New York City, and it brings to mind all the trappings of a big city: bustling streets, neon lights, tantalizing smells from the street vendors' carts—and the sounds that accompany all of this.

But for the Rural Voices Radio series team visiting the Big Apple this summer, the experience might best be summed up with the phrase "the sounds of silence." In August, a group involved in the production of the newest Rural Voices Radio series CD—site coordinators, producer Deborah Begel, and National Writing Project staff members Laura Paradise and Iana Rogers—sat quietly in a Brooklyn engineering studio, listening carefully to sound effects and musical selections to put the finishing touches on each of the four new radio programs. 

Rural Voices Radio III, the third release in the Rural Voices Radio series, will contain four new half-hour radio programs—from southwestern Texas, eastern Kentucky, North Dakota, and northeastern Nevada—each encapsulating the sense of home and place with the readings and writings of students and teachers. Making real the texture of rural life has been an overriding goal of the radio series, which already includes ten programs on two CDs. In large measure, that goal has been met simply by airing the voices and readings of students. Local accents and dialects and the diction of radio amateurs serves to tell listeners that Rural Voices Radio is the genuine article. But music and sound are a critical component of the programs and a half-hour script may use as many as 40 selections for transitions, mood changes, introductions, and emphasis.

Producer Begel strives to use as much live sound as possible. In the northeast Nevada piece, for example, listeners will hear the clank of coins dropping into a slot machine and background casino noise. Audiences will virtually cross a bridge over the Rio Grande along with Begel as part of the recording she made during her visit in Texas. And, we'll hear the quivering voices of students at a public reading in Morehead, Kentucky.

There are many sounds a producer can't capture live. For example, it didn't rain in North Dakota while Begel was recording, but she needed the sound of torrential rains to complete the story of the devastating flood there in 1997. There are volumes in a studio engineer's library with rain sounds alone, from trickles to downpours to floods. However, to be sure the sound echoed that of Red River Valley rains required Site Coordinator Kim Donehower's knowledgeable ear.

As the team learned, capturing the unique character of four distinct rural regions, often with only ten or twenty seconds of track, calls for a fast lesson in discriminating listening for the Rural Voices Radio crew. Finding and agreeing on just the right sound can be challenging. Decisions are a matter of judgment and taste, and ensuring authenticity is key. Several effects sent the crew on a scavenger hunt, like the trip to find Norwegian folk music that led the team from a computer listserve for radio producers to a guy in the newsroom at an Alaska public radio station to his girlfriend who does Norwegian dancing and finally to a museum in Iowa that sent the music overnight to the Brooklyn studio. Most nights during the mix ended in a trip to the record store on 4th and Broadway, where Begel and others scoured the shelves for the obscure and the familiar, always hoping to find just the right effect to fit a few seconds of track. And, on many occasions, consensus was reached thanks to a skillful mixing that resulted in just the right blend of emphasis and fade.

Rural Voices Radio III will be an interesting listen on many levels. In addition to featuring the readings of writings of its student and teacher authors, the programs will be a feast of rich details. Who could have guessed, for example, that Bing Crosby crooned about Elko, Nevada? Who can pick out the call of a tobacco auctioneer or the sound of an explosion at a gold mine? Thanks to the research and careful listening of the Rural Voices Radio team, listeners will soon gain new insights such as these about less-known rural places. Stay tuned for the release of Rural Voices Radio III next spring.

First Two Rural Voices Radio Releases Are Online
Listen to Rural Voices Radio I and Rural Voices Radio II on NWP's website.

About the Author Laura Paradise is a program associate with the National Writing Project.

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