Sunday, February 27, 2011

Do You Hear the People Sing?

I've just returned from the state capitol, where I faced two substantial audio challenges. One, the difficulty of recording in a giant, echo-y space full of yelling people, has been ongoing for the last two weeks. The second issue arose today, while recording a flash mob consisting of hundreds of musicians singing a song from Les Miserables. Not only was I standing in the middle of the same acoustic nightmare that has plagued news media for the last 13 days, but I was fighting back tears and the urge to sniffle. Luckily (or not, depending how you look at it), I had experienced this problem while recording Russ Feingold's concession speech at the former (sniffle) U.S. Senator's "victory" "party" this November. Ten minutes of great audio, ruined by the bodily functions of myself and my fellow campaign interns.

This time, fortunately, I succeeded in keeping my emotions in check (though I dare you to stand in the capitol rotunda, surrounded by hundreds of friends from the arts and music community while they perform an incredibly moving song and not tear up). And to those of you who suggest that burying your feelings is not healthy or productive, I present my new favorite recording as evidence to the contrary.

HOST: At 1:00 p.m. on the 13th day of protests in Madison, Wisconsin, hundreds of singers and instrumentalists suddenly burst into song. The "Les Miserables" Flash Mob was organized in a single day by community arts activists Sarah Marty and Jordan Peterson.

The above version is edited, and includes interviews with Jordan and Sarah. I had to condense the song itself for time and audio quality. Because the amazing singers and instrumentalists deserve their full props, and because I do not want you to miss out on the MAD AWESOME trumpet action that took place this afternoon, I'm also including audio of the full performance below:

And just in case you STILL can't get enough Les Mis Flash Mob, check out this fabulous video by Charles Uphoff:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The test of a true Madison kid... that they can use the word "rotunda" in a sentence.

My friend Lucy does this without batting an eye. And in case you have any lingering doubts about her legitimacy as a Madisonian, she and her sister Maddy spent last Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and most of this Monday protesting at the state capitol.

During my stint in the hearing room for Senate Bill 11, I heard the testimony of an articulate young woman from Memorial High School. That was five days ago, and I can't stop thinking about her remarkable poise as she refuted assertions that student presence downtown is the result of teacher instructions. "It kind of offends us," she explained, "when people say we're only here because of our teachers." She went on to describe the myriad impact restrictions on collective bargaining rights would have on her parents, neighbors, friends, and, yes, schools.

It's true - some local and national media have painted Madison's youngest protesters as clueless victims of their unquestioningly liberal city. This is a common refrain among local conservatives (who, despite their complaints, have enjoyed increased political representation in recent years).

Here comes the part where I become increasingly annoyed. I may not be in high school anymore, but at 23 years old, I'm not exactly the crypt keeper. I've never missed an election. If I could meet anyone, alive or dead, it would be Alice Paul. I've seen every episode of The West Wing too many times to admit. The "young people are so politically apathetic" argument has never carried a whole lot of credence in Lauren Land. But it wasn't until this particular testimony that I realized just how soundly it had been demolished in the last week.

I've spoken to more strangers in the past seven days than I have in the rest of my entire life until this point. Overwhelmingly, the most impressive, genuine, well-spoken, great-tape-making of those strangers were high school students (and one middle schooler). As I played back their interviews, I realized how little occasion they have had to share their views publicly. Even in lefty-est of the lefty news sources, we just aren't hearing from them.

Being an unmitigated radio nerd, this realization was accompanied by a FLASH OF RADIO GENIUS (gird your loins, mere mortals). I've always been a little nervous about trying a non-narrated piece, since it basically means you have to be a totally kickass interviewer with mad editing skills and rockstar subjects. Despite all this, I decided to jump off the (radio) cliff...for the children. It seemed like a win-win situation: I get to try my hand at a new kind of piece, and some very deserving people get a chance to tell their story in their own words, without my snarky interjections.

MICHELE NORRIS (I mean, um, talented radio host who shall remain nameless): Students in Madison, Wisconsin returned to school this Tuesday following the introduction of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill. In the last week, the state capitol was home to thousands of protesters who objected to restrictions on collective bargaining rights of public employees such as public school teachers. Producer Lauren Peterson discussed tales from the front lines with two very young activists.

MN (I mean...whoever...): Though they are happy to be back in the classroom, Maddy and Lucy Friedman continue to spend as much time as possible on the picket lines - just as soon as they've finished their homework.

Monday, February 21, 2011

And they called it puppy love...

 ...well, I guess they'll never know.

But you will, if you can just hold your horses (apparently today is brought to you by animal metaphors). Before I share another audio piece, I'd like to acknowledge the following:

Yes, there is major civil unrest going down in my hometown at the moment. And yes, I care a whole lot about my local politics, and yes, I spent last night at the state capitol. Rest assured I have not spent five minutes away from my trusty Marantz 661 or its BFF, Rode NTG-2 (BTW, has anyone tried the NTG-3? It looks kind of sparkly and beautiful) in the last week. I'm cooking up some audio from the protests, and I fully intend to slap that up on this blog the second I'm done. That said, this weekend left me emotionally and physically drained, so today's audio tidbit will be SOMETHING COMPLETELY UNRELATED to politics. I don't know about you, but my fellow Madisonians and I could sure use the break.

It is in the spirit of all things fluffy* (*you're about to realize what a bad pun this was) that I offer you a sound postcard from myself and my canine compatriot. Though it was not technically produced within the hallowed halls of CDS, this piece would not have seen the light of day without Katie Davis' Writing For Radio workshop. This time, Katie asked us to show up in Durham with our audio tracks and a rough script (as opposed to Audio Institute I, where we raced our pieces from start to finish in a week). I pitched my topic to her during a pre-workshop phone conference, followed my dog around the house with a microphone for a month, and scraped together an outline.

I've had an aversion to animal stories since my sister and I read the horrifyingly cloying obituary of a celebrity's dog in a magazine that shall remain nameless. We still mock that article, particularly my sister, who chooses the most inappropriate moments to adopt a tragic smile and whisper, "She was always smiling..." But I decided to feel the fear and do it anyway, and here's why:

1. SCOPE - I wanted to work on a piece that was manageable in a weekend at CDS, both in terms of length and subject matter. Katie had asked for 4-minute pieces, and I wanted to come in well under the time limit. Plus, after months of interviewing everyone from hemp farmers to award-winning biophysicists, I desperately needed to write about something I understood. In case I needed another excuse, Katie Davis is kind of a rock star when it comes to personal narrative, and since the class was supposed to focus on writing, it seemed like a perfect opportunity and forum.

2. THIS PIECE - I had recently listened to Katie Mingle's "Frankie," and was impressed with her ability to tell an animal story that was both sweet and hilarious without being overly precious. So I knew it was possible.

3. THE WHINING - When Katie Davis called for our conference, I had to momentarily smother my dog (don't worry, she could TOTALLY breathe, I'm pretty sure, and anyway, it was just for a second). Marly makes the loudest and most varied doggy sounds I have ever heard, and I had already started recording them for my own entertainment. I was excited by the idea of writing a personal essay that really couldn't be complete in written form.

4. MY EYE-ROLLING SISTER - Anna's always going to ridicule me, whether I write a sappy animal story or not, so I figured I might as well write a sappy animal story and go down trying.

What do you think re: animal stories? Always acceptable? Sometimes? Never? Kind of not, but you cry over them anyway, like how everybody knows "The Cutting Edge" is an appallingly bad movie but you still wind up holding your breath when they try the lift in the big competition? Discuss.

Oh, and - this piece has a host intro and outro, because it helps me focus, and that's how it works on the real live radio. I like to imagine Michele Norris reading mine, but I guess that's really a matter of personal preference.

HOST: We've all seen them - maneuvering down a crowded sidewalk, six hounds in tow; playing smug fetch in the park; waiting quietly at the vet's office. They're "dog people," and they make it seem effortless. Three years ago, novice-dog owner Lauren Peterson set out to join their ranks.

HOST: Lauren Peterson lives with her dog, Marlene Dietrich, in Madison, Wisconsin. They recently renewed the lease on their one-bedroom apartment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The First Pancake

The happiest place on Earth...
Once upon a time, I was an intrepid youngster planning my much-needed return to college after a much-needed year off. I had given three days' notice to my boss, which went over about as well as one might expect. I was scrambling to fill out my course schedule when I thought, hey, once I took a class called Biology and Appreciation of Companion Animals - if that can be a class, I bet there's a class about the new love of my life, RADIO.

Sure enough, there was: Radio and the Art of Sound, Communication Arts 613, also known as MY DESTINY. As if to prove this point, the University of Wisconsin Office of the Registrar had kindly scheduled it during the one open spot in my week. It was basically created with me in mind.

And it was full.

So I played the one card I had resisted playing during the previous years of my undergraduate education: I called my dad, a former Comm Arts grad student at the UW-Madison. He did his thing, which is to say he was charming and well-connected (Dad, if you are reading this, please note that nowhere in that sentence did I define your thing as being "cool" or "hilarious"), and the professor, Michele Hilmes, agreed to let me into a class so far beyond full that I had to sit on the floor on the first day. Sensing I needed more help than she alone could offer, Professor Hilmes told me about the Third Coast Filmless Festival, which was also the release party for our textbook, Reality Radio, which I had read cover-to-cover within a day of its arrival from Amazon. At the end of the festival (also known as 24 hours of straight-up amazing), I hunted down the book's editors, John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. If they were terrified by my fangirl-esque display ("I read! This whole! Book! In a day! And then! I googled! Everyone in it!"), they covered admirably and encouraged me to come visit CDS.

And that's how I came to spend the most magical week of my life in Durham, North Carolina, staying at a halfway house for hipsters, sweating more than I would have though physically possible, and taking classes in audio production. I learned how to turn on my recorder that Monday and had mixed and edited a piece by Saturday. You know that whole thing about how great (radio) journeys begin with a single (radio) step? Totally true. I was so scared to start my first piece that I almost didn't. Which brings us to Important Radio Production Lesson #1:

The difference between a famous radio producer and a really flaky radio fanatic is that a famous radio producer makes radio.

Seriously. Before my first week at CDS, I had a million ideas that I thought would make "great radio pieces." I had implemented exactly zero. During the early part of that week, I had a million ideas about how to make my assignment into THE BEST THING ANYONE AT CDS HAD EVER HEARD. And I totally froze. Luckily for me, instructor Katie Davis witnessed my existential crisis in time to confiscate my 50th first draft of an increasingly preachy script, Shea Shackelford told me "Sometimes, you just have to get started, even if you don't know what it is yet," and John Biewen encouraged us to write our host intros before doing anything else (I still do this - it's a great way to find your focus).
Lauren & Zenobia, approximately 5 minutes after our deadline.

And, thank God, I wasn't alone. My partner, Zenobia Connor, turned out to be my complete and total soul sister. We passed a draft of our host intro back and forth, crossing out words and bickering over prepositions until we erased gigantic holes through the paper. We worked together, ate meals together, typed together, paced together, wrote together, and we created our first piece together. It isn't perfect, but in the spirit of ripping off the band-aid, I'm putting it out there. I figure if I'm going to start at Square One, I might as well start with our Square One, so here it is:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chapter 1: I Am Obsessed With Radio

My friend Nathan says that adding the word "radio" to anything automatically makes said thing uncool. Waves - cool. Radio waves - not cool. Host - cool. Radio host - not cool. Ham - cool. Ham radio - not cool.

But I'd take radio over ham any day, and not just because I'm a vegetarian. I love, love, love radio, especially that holy grail of nerdiness, public radio (Can you say "Schweaty balls?"). If I could marry radio, I would. If I could BE radio, I would.

On the first day of every semester, my professors in the theatre department at the University of Wisconsin - Madison would warn us sternly that we should only pursue a career in acting if we "couldn't imagine doing anything else." I would watch as my classmates nodded emphatically, tears in their eyes, and described the glorious moment when they first KNEW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they NEEDED to be an actor. And I would think, "Really? Does anyone actually NEED to be an actor?"

And then I discovered radio. The Moment came while listening to Elna Baker's story, "Babies Buying Babies," on This American Life. Suddenly I realized that there were people who actually made the radio I was listening to, that those people learned about all kinds of different things and wrote and listened and told stories and recorded sounds and put it all together, and best of all, that this was an actual JOB that existed - a job I NEEDED TO HAVE. Immediately.

That was three years ago. My illustrious career in public radio has yet to be fully realized, or even mostly realized, or even much more than a very tiny bit realized. Still, I will not be discouraged. Yes, my beloved This American Life has yet to respond to one of my story pitches and doesn't want me as their intern (yet, YET). True, I have tried and failed to follow the advice of seasoned radio professionals who encourage me to "just get a job" at my "local NPR affiliate" as though they're suggesting I pick up a paper route for some extra cash. But I have recently received my first encouraging signs.

One of my beloved teachers at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, John Biewen, says there are dozens of dollars to be made in radio, and I am about to get my hands on a few of them. I recently submitted a pitch to the fabulous storytelling show Snap Judgment, and a few days later, got an email saying they were (gasp) interested. When they called to work out the details of my first paid production assignment, I was so excited I accidentally stabbed myself in the thigh with a toothpick. Then I ran around my apartment making martial arts-type gestures and yelling "YEAH, baby! NATIONAL! PUBLIC! RADIO! Woo!...Wait, is my leg bleeding?"

So now seemed as good a time as any to begin a Giant Project - radio at a breakneck pace. In the next 365 days, I will attempt to produce 100 audio pieces. Starting with my Snap Judgment assignment. And I'm going to tell YOU all about it, in the hope that it will entertain you (in either a "Wow, she's so great and smart and awesome at making radio!" way or a scary train-wreck reality T.V. way, depending on the outcome). In the spirit of full disclosure, I also have a selfish motive. I need to work my face off in order to get my foot in the door of public radio, and I need some kind of encouragement (bonus points for the sword of potential public humiliation dangling over my head) to actually produce these pieces and not procrastinate or wander off as has historically been my way.

Welcome to my radio project. I'm delighted to have you as my reader/scary threatening auditor. If you want to help me in this, the pursuit of my future, you might consider providing suggestions for topics or sending me intimidating grouchy emails if I'm not keeping at this. And, while I appreciate you VERY MUCH, I recognize that true motivation comes from within...or something. As C-Money Dickens puts it in the opening line of David Copperfield:
"Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station* will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
(*Station - cool. Radio station - not cool.)