"Radio silence" is a fitting term to describe what’s been happening on this blog for the past few months. But it’s about to be broken with the premiere of my most recent radio story, filed from a new outlet for me: Marfa Public Radio. Click above to listen to a story from the Funny or Die "Happier" Hour at the Marfa Film Festival. 

Marfa is a small town of about 2,000 people in West Texas. It’s an hour outside of Big Bend and features its own devastatingly beautiful vistas of desert, ranch, and mountains. After spending a few days there and getting to know the town, I started to think of it as transplanting a Brooklyn neighborhood into the middle of nowhere, and somehow incubating a harmonious habitat of creatives and ranchers. 

Marfa is kind of a thing, especially when you live in Austin. El Cosmico t-shirts abound. I’d driven through twice and been unimpressed: Nothing was open. It was a small town with hipster pretensions. Why did everyone love it so much? 

I decided to give Marfa one last shot. The Marfa Film Festival was coming out of hiatus after two years, and my friend Rebecca is a film-lover and Marfa-lover. If I couldn’t figure out Marfa with lineup of films and a personal guide, I could finally stop questioning my judgement. 

I returned from Marfa feeling like a person torn away from a new love: Daydreaming of a different life and angry to be back in Austin. And I’d say that’s due to Marfa Public Radio.

One of Rebecca’s recommendations had been to get a tour of the radio station, so I stopped in during a break between films. After I introduced myself as an independent producer, the receptionist began to give me a tour. The tour was quickly interrupted by the general manager, Tom Michael, who asked if I was in for the film festival. I said yes. He said, “Great, can you get on air?”

One three minute live-feed later, the tour resumed. Tom had started the station seven years ago and has lived in Marfa for ten. I explained that I had brought my recording equipment (in case of any potential stories or interviews) and would be happy to do a story. 

And that’s how I ended up in a thrift store recording “analog tweets” from a Funny or Die comedian.

The next day I skipped a few films to put the story together. It was the best kind of vacation. Through Tom and Sarah, one of the interns, life in Marfa was revealed to me. I had thought it would be a lot of boredom and drinking, which may still be true, but what I saw was a close-knit community of people who left their keys unlocked in their cars and doors wide open, a town where everyone helped out, with a cultural life matched to the beauty of the landscape. There might not be a decent grocery store in town, but every child receives a Montessori education and hangs out in art galleries. Life in Austin, with its traffic and office buildings, seems like New York City by comparison. 

Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, I am not packing my bags for Marfa right now. But there might be a position at Marfa Public Radio open for another very lucky producer with small town fantasies. 

Tags: work audio marfa

My Mars Curiosity story on Studio 360

My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish. 

It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.

As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California. 

The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.) 

I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.

Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)

Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right. 

This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord. 

The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal. 

Tags: work audio

I’m very excited to share my first story for a Marketplace program. I pitched this back in the summer not long after Plug & Play opened. Plug & Play combines co-working with childcare (they call it a “work-life balance”) so that parents who work freelance or part-time have a more flexible childcare option.

I learned a lot while reporting this story. 

1. Childcare is crazy expensive.

2. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that you can work from home and look after a child at the same time. 

3. This type of business should be everywhere. 

4. Mothers are willing to give up major bucks in their careers to spend more time with their kids.

My favorite part was observing Lauren Walz, the mother in the story, as she tried to work with her daughter nearby. It was a bit of a setup, but it played out as Lauren promised me it would: Nora was not happy with her mom’s attention being on the Mac. Mac needed to be stopped. Nora first tried to pull out the thumb drive. Then she put her hands on the keyboard as her mom typed. Then, she finally just tried to close the laptop. It was a pretty effective strategy, and a little scary. I’ve heard a lot of talk about women having it all, or not having it all. But I hadn’t connected it to the idea that kids are the ones that do not want moms to have it all. I thought it was like, a societal construct. But Nora really did not like to see her mom at work, and would love to end her career aspirations. I wonder, is this how it is with all toddlers? 

Many thanks to David Shaw for being a fantastic and fun editor, Ashley Milne-Tyte for sharing the secrets of how to pitch Marketplace, and Amy Braden for helping me get connected and patience while this story waited for airtime.

Tags: work audio

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

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

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

Behind the tape at Marketplace

I love the public radio show Marketplace. Last week, I had two opportunities to do some behind-the-scenes work for them.

Broken trust: A Ponzi scheme victim bounces back

First, a trip out to Marble Falls, which is about an hour outside of Austin. I met with New York Times wealth columnist Paul Sullivan as he interviewed a Ponzi scheme victim. Carol Lovil, a very, very sweet lady, lost her life savings after investing with Allen Stanford. Stanford was just convicted of defrauding 30,000 investors, but Lovil doesn’t expect to see her money back.

In the middle of the story you’ll hear Lovil’s edited monologue, which was recorded in a restaurant in Marble Falls.

SXSW lets Austin homeowners cash in

During SXSW, just as I was getting ready to attend one of the most anticipated panels on my schedule (New Careers in Journalism: Online Video Producer (aka my career)) I began receiving a barrage of texts, calls, and emails asking if I could get to an interview at Homeaway’s headquarters in an hour.

A reporter for Marketplace was doing a story about people paying off their mortgage by renting out their house. Ironically, I had pitched a very similar story to Marketplace about how Austinites cash in on SXSW, which obviously didn’t make the cut. It occurred to me that maybe that was because of this story? Anyhow, I did end up cashing in on SXSW by ditching the panel (conference audio is up now!) and heading down to Homeaway’s office at 5th and Lamar.

I’ve always wanted to visit the office, which has a large replica of Homeaway’s birdhouse logo looking out on the busy intersection. After the interview I got a private tour of all the features - snowglobes collected from around the world, game rooms, recycled wood all over, and travel-themed art created by the founder himself. It’s a pretty awesome office. And I finally learned why Homeaway maintains so many home-rental brands: They bought up competing websites but the task of migrating the information to Homeaway’s main site is too large to do all at once.

After the tour, another frantic text: Could I collect vox pops about where people are staying? That’s the term in the business for walking up to complete strangers with an out-of-context question that supplements the audio for your story. This time, I dragged along my friend Julianna who had just flown into town for the music festival. We met a girl whose parents were “helping” her pay $700 a night to stay at the W, because “all the other hotels were booked.”

Julianna and I silently gasped at each other. That audio made it into the story.

Tags: work audio

Best. Tape. Ever.

But maybe not safe to listen to at work. Or around kids. Or if you’re squeamish about weird cheese and body parts.

This was recorded while I was observing scientists at work. They were standing outside a bar at SXSW, getting drunk people to contribute their skin bacteria for a human cheese making experiment. That’s already awesome, right?

It got even more awesome when the singer of the band that had just played (obviously there were bands, it’s South By) stopped by the table. She contributed some cleavage bacteria, and as I recorded her reaction to the project, she launched into this awesome rap that I’m titling, “I’m Gonna Make Cheese Outta You.”

Thinking of adding a parenthetical (The Human Cheese Song) when the album is released.

Tags: audio work