Why Austin doesn’t have a subway, for StateImpact Texas

The city of Austin is digging a subway-sized tunnel through downtown. The limestone foundation rock is the ideal material for tunneling, so why not a subway for Austin? 

Well, there are a lot of reasons why not. I go through them in my most recent story that aired on KUT: 

Waller Tunnel Has Some Thinking Subway

This story was produced with StateImpact Texas, a collaboration between Texas public radio stations and NPR. Essentially, that means that this story looks wider than Austin, up to Dallas, where they are decades ahead with public transportation. 

Here’s the full text writeup I did for the StateImpact site: 

Why Texas Doesn’t Have Subways

That title isn’t technically correct. Dallas has the only subway in all of the Southwest. The only reason it exists is because it would be a bigger headache, or impossible, to get right of way through the neighborhoods that a new light rail line would have gone through on a route that parallels one of the city’s biggest commuter roadways.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty much light rail or bust. And for all Austin’s talk of being the most progressive city in Texas, it’s behind the curve on public transportation. 

I love public transportation stories, so this was really interesting for me, even though I knew coming into it that cost is the biggest issue. The best part was talking to Rob Spillar, the director of the city’s Transportation department. After our interview, he spent a half hour talking about future plans and challenges for public transportation in Austin. I wish I had recorded it!

But I love interviews like that - when you realize your interview subject loves talking about what they do so much, they grab ahold of an interested listener, and you get to learn so much more than you came for. 

Tags: work audio

This reporter claims to have handed in his laptop and uses only an iPhone and iPad for reporting and editing. 

I have heard of this extreme behavior before, and I could not possibly get on board. I think it’s fine for down and dirty, super quick turnaround news reporting, but you’re inevitably sacrificing quality of sound and any suaveness of craft. 

He’s basically using the pre-installed voice memo app and SoundCloud to send in audio for the newsroom to put together his pieces.

I just don’t know why anyone would go actually want to turn their laptop in. That stuff is still useful!

Tags: audio thoughts

Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish wrote this great piece about the future of magazines. 

One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle. Part of me has come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd. They are like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is vast and steep.

It sounds harsh. But without even realizing it, I’ve come to the same view. I said I’d never give up the feeling of a book in my hand, the satisfaction of turning a page in a newspaper, admiring the layout of a magazine.

I remember where I was standing when I said this, my senior year of college: The office where we were laying out a print magazine. 

But technology has a way of reducing our ideals to nostalgia. I got a Kindle as an un-asked for gift, and now when I read a physical book, I wonder why I can’t pull up the meaning of a word on the page itself. 

In a personal last stand for physical media, I ordered a subscription to the Sunday Times, during Labor Day weekend. It hasn’t come yet. Apparently, it’s a huge hassle to get a carrier to deliver it to my house. (Andrew Sullivan mentions delivery problems too, NYT, stop whining about the death of print and get it together!) I’ve called or emailed five times now, and I want to cancel my subscription. I tried! and was defeated by print itself. 

Sullivan sees the future of magazines as existing only in extremes: High-end luxury product, or low-end grocery line tabloid. I think that’s realistic. But it assumes that everyone in the mid-range (those who would read Newsweek, for example) has access to a tablet reader. That our lives are filled with increasing amounts of physical technology. I feel like I’m already there, living in the future. 

My friend Ashley Milne-Tyte’s recent blog post has been attracting attention in public radio circles in the past week or so. It addresses, straight-on, what is almost a taboo subject: The fact that you can’t make a living as an independent producer. 

I’m secretly proud to have contributed (via Facebook chat) what has become the catchphrase of the post: It’s radio’s dirty little secret. 

The post was triggered by Ashley’s experience at the Third Coast Audio Festival, a bi-annual conference that celebrates independently produced work, and where many people from the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) meet up. 

I found it hard to sit there applauding at the idea that AIR has so many more members, when a lot of these members will be 20-somethings who will find it very hard to make anything more than $200-$700 a story, depending on the outlet and the ‘tier’ of pay the outlet decides the producer deserves.

If you do the math (and I don’t, both because I’m scared of numbers and the results of  said math), you might end up making minimum wage or less on a radio story. That’s because it’s the nature of us public radio folks to make the best work we can, regardless of pay. You can’t charge for getting an interview that wasn’t originally discussed, or invoice extra for a second edit on your story. Or you might end up making nothing, like Ashley does on her high quality podcast, The Broad Experience

I’ve been complacent about pay. For me, making radio is a luxury. I knew when I left my steady radio job that freelancing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills. I once accepted $200 for an 8 minute story just because I’d wanted to do the story for so long. There’s a priceless value for me in reporting a story and getting it on air. 

But I do wonder why we’re not more up front about the fact that it doesn’t pay very well. In a way, it’s the same ethical dilemma all across journalism: Should we tell j-school students that they probably won’t find a newspaper job? That more likely, they’ll be blogging on a crappy website for nickels? It’s not such a bright and shiny future if you aren’t willing to be creative about it. I feel lucky to have found life stories, and learned not to put all my career eggs in one shrinking basket. 

Shooting family interviews in New Orleans

Last week I flew out to New Orleans with a light HD camcorder and a 60 lb bag of lighting equipment on my shoulder. I was shooting my first family history documentary - four interviews that I’ll weave together to tell the story of a wonderful Southern family living in an idyllic Southern town.

One of my unexpected favorite parts of the interview was this reading. One of the interviewees had stumbled on a church program that focused on the importance of family stories. She thought it was akin to divine intervention.

Linda Smith Reading from Reflect & Record on Vimeo.

As you can see, the interviews can get very emotional. I’m tearing up behind the camera. Each interview is fascinating and beautiful. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect - with seriousness and intention - on the meaning of time gone by.

It’s a real privilege to be a part of moments like these, and in some ways, responsible for bringing them about.

* The above video is completely unedited. It will get nicer with editing!

**Also, re: heavy and huge lighting equipment bag: Fly Southwest! Tell them when you check in that you’re with media or a commercial filmmaking company, and you can preboard so your precious gear does not get checked.

This press release headline first caught my eye because I thought it read, “Tasered youth fare well as adults”, which implied that tasering a youth teaches them an effective and valuable lesson.

What it really means to say is that tasering a youth is not a big deal and no one should complain about being tasered (“Don’t tase me, bro!”). The study looked at 100 adolescents who had been tased - a group which turns out to be older and larger, more similar in physiology to adults than children. They found only 20 mild injuries, most of which were puncture wounds from the weapon’s probes. That sounds like it kinda hurts. But they also found that there weren’t any heart problems associated with getting tased, which was backed up by an earlier study with volunteer police officers. Who volunteered to get tased.

I don’t know. Getting tased still sounds unpleasant. Although, as the press release concludes, it’s obviously safer than getting assaulted with a baton, fists, or firearms.

It’s finally here! The human cheese is here!

For the past six months, when people ask “What are you working on?” I have to explain what “human cheese” is. Hearing the reaction to that phrase never got old.

The short version is that Christina Agapakis, a brilliant and hip biologist (and a childhood friend of my best friend), has made cheese using human bacteria. It’s a pretty simple project actually. Most cheeses start with bacteria. Christina has just replaced the pure strains with a potpourri of bacterial communities taken from the dirtiest places on the body.

I did most of the recording at South By Southwest, where I (and a few other Austin science communicators) helped Christina set up an event called South By South Swab. It was at a popular bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s. The human cheese project started as an art/science collaboration, but Christina is now interpreting it more as a science outreach project. You can see the project at bacterially.org.

I got some awesome tape, most of which was not appropriate to put on an educational podcast (see “I’m Gonna Make Cheese Outta You”).

I also got to talk with Austin’s most famous cheesemonger, John Antonelli. The man knows a heck of a lot about cheese. If you want to know more about the science of cheese making, he recommends Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking.

This was a very fun story. Many thanks to my amazing and patient editor, Mia Lobel, as well as Christina Agapakis, John Antonelli, and Joe Hanson.

[Update: This was produced for Distillations, a podcast from the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Hear the rest of the "gross foods" episode.]

Tags: work audio

I’m so, so excited to share this. With the arrival of Localore’s Austin Music Map in town, I’ve had the opportunity to record some of Austin’s greatest sounds and places.

The Minor Mishap Marching Band has been one of my favorite, must-see Austin bands for a few years now. I’ve seen them start spontaneous, riotous dance parties in parking lots, parade through my neighborhood, and rise up with a big brass sound from the escalator beneath Whole Foods and proceed to march around the store. I love them. So when Delaney, the producer of Austin Music Map, asked for off-the-grid musical experiences, I pretty much called dibs on Minor Mishap. She said okay.

It was fortuitous that when Delaney asked about their next show, it was in the works to be the most ambitious Minor Mishap show yet. Twenty-five members of a brass band would be playing in canoes, underneath Barton Creek bridge, while aerialists dangled and danced over the water.

Yes, it was as amazing as it sounds. I got a front seat ride, with Datri, the ebullient band leader, in her canoe . And that was the single moment when I felt most affirmed in my career choices.

This was my first non-narrated piece, and Delaney helped with its shape and final sound. I always feel like making radio is like putting pieces of an audio puzzle together, but there’s no edges and no one picture to create. It’s a blobby and vague puzzle.

The radio story, which is hitting Morning Edition, Texas Music Matters, and All Things Considered is paired with a beautiful video by KUT’s Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon.

Tags: work audio


I just discovered Storyboard on Tumblr, and I am now a fan. Just look at this great video with David Remnick.

As I film mostly interviews, I like to see how filmmakers fill in the space between the interview subject. This can be quite challenging in an office setting. Luckily, the New Yorker has a vast collection of interesting covers.

Today is National HIV Testing Day. By no coincidence, today is also the day I had a story air on KUT about National HIV Testing Day.

The backstory is that HIV/AIDS is one of my main beats for dailyRx.com. I cover lots of awareness days (World AIDS Day, National Women & Girls HIV Awareness Day) but for this one, I decided to get in touch with a local AIDS organization, AIDS Services of Austin. They invited me to do an in-person interview - something I rarely get to do. 

Their building is very hard to find. It sits behind a hurricane fence and has no sign. They explained that the lack of signage is an attempt to reduce some of the stigma of walking in to get tested for HIV.

I got a quick tour of the building. The thing that impressed me most was a photo documentary project lining the walls, of the faces of HIV/AIDS in Austin. I realized that while I could quote off any number of studies and statistics, I don’t have any stories about HIV/AIDS - what it’s like to be diagnosed, to live with the disease these days. The people in the photographs looked healthy and normal. It’s now possible to be healthy and normal with HIV.

I think a look at those faces would do more to encourage people to get tested than any statistics or awareness day. A face and a story that was just like mine would make me get tested. I haven’t been, although I would not hesitate tell you that the CDC recommends everyone between 13 - 64 be tested at least once.

Here’s my story for dailyRx, too.

Tags: work audio health