Sonic IDs: Bursts of lush and local life are new stations’ trademark

Commentary by Jay Allison

Jim Sulzer records an interview for a sonic i.d. on Main Street in Nantucket Town. (Photos: Jay Allison.)

About a year and a half ago, we were getting ready to launch a new public radio service here on Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. I asked for advice from colleagues: How would you make them special? What would you put on the clean canvas of a brand new public radio station, the first one of the new millennium?

Dozens of people took the time to respond, and we excerpted their advice in Current (Sept. 20, 1999), much of which was about how to be local, how to sound different.

“Let the listeners broadcast to the station. Set up kiosks, microphones in public places. — Tony Kahn

“I want my local radio station to be a good companion through my day. NPR gives me dense, sometimes too intense, too thick, even dull information. But my local station should sound local.” — Susan Stamberg

“Get everyone to do i.d.’s for you. Suggest scripts but encourage them to ad-lib, make up slogans, have fun.” — Ross Reynolds

“You’d be amazed at the range of voices that sound good on your station.”— Barrett Golding

“. . . a slogan that you might try to implement: Expect the unexpected.” — Larry Josephson

“The vision behind the Cape and Island stations now, and since its inception, is to mingle the mainstream with the community voice, to give listeners what they depend on in public radio, but also to stretch beyond what is typical, and give them a reflection, a remembrance, of themselves.” — Sue Schardt

“The radio station of the NIGHT SKY and the HOUSING CRISIS, of CRANBERRY HARVESTS and CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION, of LAZY SWIMS and HIGH-SPEED FERRIES, of CHILDREN BUILDING CASTLES ON THE BEACH and JUNKIES SHOOTING SKAG IN THE PARKING LOT, of BLUEBERRY BUSHES and BULL MARKETS.”
— Gregory Whitehead

Well, WCAI 90.1 and WNAN 91.1 went on the air last year. The first word to come out of the static was: “Listen.”

And then: “Our purpose is community service. A sane and respectful place to talk. An ear on the rest of the world. A crossroads in our daily paths where we can meet and gather and even create change. That is perhaps a lofty goal for a mere radio signal, but a radio signal has the singular ability to proclaim all our separate identities, while it also spans our boundaries to bring us together.”

We have just celebrated our first anniversary, a good time to take stock and see how we incorporated the good ideas from the field.

A bit of history first. It took more than seven years to get on the air. That represents a lot of evenings and weekends for the volunteer founding group. At about Year Five, with FCC construction permits and federal grants to build, we decided we needed a partner. We approached Maria Rivero and John Voci at WGBH-FM, Boston, who felt a kinship with our mission. They adopted our local effort, built the stations, and put them into service. WGBH holds the licenses and honors the founding group’s original intention to air a customized local schedule. WCAI and WNAN don’t repeat the Boston signal. We broadcast from local studios in Woods Hole, with local staff, connected to WGBH and the satellite by a T-1 line and running an AudioVault system.

Allison with volunteers and WGBH-FM manager Marita Rivero outside the Woods Hole studios. (Photo: WGBH.)

We spent a lot of time developing a template for how a big station can adopt a little one, keeping local character alive while achieving economies of scale through shared infrastructure. Our common mission makes it possible.

It is important to note that we didn’t have much loose cash to create local programming in the first year. The startup represented a considerable investment with no guarantee of a return. We have a tight budget.

We decided to rely heavily on a schedule of news, talk and documentary from NPR, PRI and independents. Very little music. Following conventional wisdom, we wanted a strong local host presence within Morning Edition and All Things Considered. We were committed to a big flexible hole in our weekend schedule for eclectic specials, both local and national. We made plans to develop a regular call-in show.

But we also wanted to try something different. Our local founding group (then called Cape and Islands Community Public Radio, now Atlantic Public Media) had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to experiment with an artful approach to the design of the sound and schedule. WGBH matched it. Together, we wanted to try techniques that would be economical and, therefore, replicable at other stations around the country.

In the months before we went on air, we took to the streets with microphones to develop a concept we called, “Sonic i.d.’s.” Nobody really loves the name, but it stuck.

(Upbeat jazzy piano music intro, continuing throughout piece.)

Announcer: Eileen McGrath on Nantucket.

Woman: All right, here we go . . . now you’re going to see the correct way to put the wash on the line (the sound of wooden washing pins clipping on line in background). If it is a windy day, you’ve got to decide which way you’re going to stand, ’cause otherwise you’ll have them wrapped around your head as you hang them up, you see? If I were a careless laundry hanger, I’d do this . . . (disgruntled sigh). I just threw it over the line and then speared it with a couple of clothespins, very careless work. You should do it just exactly this way, so everything is ship shape . . . it’s a lost art. (Background jazz rises to fore.)

Announcer: You’re listening to WCAI, Woods Hole/ Martha’s Vineyard, and WNAN, Nantucket—the Cape and Islands NPR stations, a local service of WGBH, Boston. (More jazz to end.)

They are portraits, oral histories, poems, anecdotes, memories, fragments of life overheard. Their common denominator is a sense of place. They all happen here, and they make these radio stations sound like here, not anywhere else. And, they pop up all day long, during every national show around the clock, 30-60-90-second bursts of life as experienced or remembered by all of us who live here. They are the thread in the fabric of our broadcast day.

Man: I just moved here this year from New York . . . and it’s different because, you know what I’m saying, we’re on an island, and like the school I used to go to had four floors, and now this school only got one floor. . . . Know what I’m saying? . . . It’s different . . . and the boys’ bathroom is clean, too — that never used to happen, know what I’m saying? And we got toilet paper, too. In New York, they had no toilet paper, and they had no soap. We got soap. We got a whole bunch of stuff, know what I’m saying? They got good lunch . . . in New York, we used to have roaches on the floor, know what I’m saying? It was rough, tell you that. Then, I can’t swim either, to make it worse. How can you be surrounded by water and can’t swim?! Hello, this is Ian. I live on Martha’s Vineyard, the island. You’re listening to 90.1, WCAI . . .

The effect is startling, unexpected. You are listening to news of the world and then, during a pause, an unheralded speaker — a local elder or high school kid or sandwich-maker or scientist — pops in. The voices of our neighbors, taking us by surprise, are given equal weight with events overseas.

Man: Well, I’m a carpenter, I spend most of my time working on houses, to make a living, but when I work on a boat, I feel like I’m doing something that satisfies me deep down in my soul. Everything you do on a boat is challenging—they’re all curves, there’s steam bending. Plus, they’re so beautiful. I’ve always had a passion for boats my entire life, as long as I can remember. Everyone should have a passion in life, and mine’s boats I guess . . . (music up) . . . And dogs, I like dogs a lot. . . . (soft laughter). I’m Carlo D’Antonio from Martha’s Vineyard, and you’re listening to 90.1 WCAI . . .

(Pet birds tweeting in background.)

Woman: We’ve had to help people select items for their animals, and this woman and her husband came in . . .

Announcer: That’s Elaine Boehm at a pet shop on Nantucket.

Woman: She was looking for a training collar, the pinch-collar type and she couldn’t make up her mind what size to get, so she looked over at her husband and she said, “Dear, come over here,” and she looked at me and she said, “You know, his neck is about the same size as the dog’s; put this on,” she says, and the guy stood there and took it (sounding incredulous). And she puts the prong pinch collar around his neck, and she gives him a yank (breaks into laughter), and he says: “Yes sweetheart, this works, this works, thank you very much.” That was the end of that. (Peals of laughter.)

Announcer: You’re listening to 90.1WCAI . . . (Birds tweet out to the end.)

Ferry sounds

The concept has become incredibly popular here. Everyone wants to be in one of these i.d.’s or has someone to nominate. They have spawned local stars, uncovered community storytellers. We installed a Listener Line that people can call and leave stories on voice mail. We just pick the good ones and put them on the air.

Man: This is Dick Backus on Woods Hole Road with a story. . . . Perhaps you remember the Store of Three Wonders in Falmouth, gone now for many a year. I think it was on the corner of Walker Street and Main Street, where that confectionary now is . . . its shelves running over with pants, shirts, socks, overalls, watch caps, foul-weather gear, boots and work shoes, stretched from floor to ceiling, and their denim-, khaki-, canvas-, rubber-laden ranks were so close that you had to twist the shoulders a little to pass between. The proprietor gave away yardsticks and one-foot rulers that bore the place’s name and motto: “You wonder if I have it, I wonder where it is, you wonder how I found it.”

Announcer: If you have a story to tell, call our Listener Line . . .

We have made hundreds of these now. One not-altogether-silly goal is to put all our listeners on the air eventually, to create a spoken archive of community life that is kept in constant circulation. To that end, we loan out portable tape recorders to whomever promises to use them. We buy machines off eBay for this purpose.

Because the pieces are bite-sized, almost any interested local volunteer/intern/citizen can spend a minimal amount of time and make a good one, with a little help from us. The process teaches quite a bit about the power and technique of radio—a good lede, narrative curve, use of imagery, development of character, employment of sound — and so they are a wonderful training tool, with a concrete and useful outcome and the pride of authorship to boot.

They give the station a simple way to participate in community events without committing to long feature pieces. And, because they are designed to be repeatable, the investment in a compelling one-minute piece gets amortized over the dozens of times it will air in the months or years to come.

I’m Michael McHone, a commissioner on the Nantucket Commission on Disabilities. I was illustrating the parking permit to someone up by the Pacific Bank, and this woman approached me, and proceeded to rip me up and down the street about how I had ruined the parking permits for people like her on Nantucket, and she said “and furthermore, you’re not even disabled! Why are you sticking your nose into our business?” At that point I had a leg that was an artificial limb that was very easy to remove, and I pulled my artificial leg off and flung it to the steps of the Pacific Bank. Yes, I let my irritation get the best of me. But it proved the point to the lady that, yes, there are people who are disabled that don’t necessarily appear to be so, and that what we were trying to do was put into place a good parking system, that would work for everybody, and we think we have. You’re listening to 90.1 WCAI . . .

(Background sounds of bustling restaurant, “For here or to go?”. . .)

Woman: At the moment, I’m making sandwiches. So I just start, get the bread, meats, pass them down to Nadia, who is next on our production line, and she puts on the garnishes and then the last person wraps them up. It’s brilliant fun; the sandwich board’s the best place to be. You don’t have to talk to customers, you put your head down, keep working. There are certain rules of the sandwich board: “Thou shalt not address the sandwich board, you know, directly.” You have to go through your server. We don’t like people talking to us like, “Is that my sandwich? That’s not enough mayonnaise.” But other than that, we just keep our heads down, we sing, we talk, we gossip. “The sandwich board never lies,” is our motto, so whatever goes on the night before, the sandwich board knows the very next morning . . . (She laughs, background restaurant buzz fades out.)

Announcer: That was Ruth at a sandwich board on Nantucket. You’re listening to 90.1, WCAI . . .

Technically, it’s straightforward. We load likely bits of tape into the ProTools digital editing system and carve them into little stories. It’s not hard, but it takes someone with a good ear for poetry and story and the impressionistic power of the non sequitur, a sudden prayer or photograph or haiku. Sometimes, we make pure sound pieces, which begin with the word, “Listen”, and consist of a rusty swing set on the playground in Falmouth or the old windmill on Nantucket, or a scallop dredge dropped overboard in Cape Pogue Pond, with the sound i.d.’d at the end. We like to give tape recorders to kids and teenagers to get their take on life.

Young man: The worst thing about living on Nantucket for a teenager . . . (slow piano music starts) . . . is probably . . . (slow piano music continues in the pause) . . . the boredom . . .

Announcer: Steven Hamblin of Nantucket (slow piano music on and on). You’re listening to WCAI . . .

Young girl: I like Haiku because even if it’s not that many words, it can kind of mean a lot. (Clear, crisp bell chime resonates behind child’s voice.)

Indian Summer Haiku.
“Cold against my face
Indian summer seeming tucked away
Sudden warmth a gift.”

I’m Allegra Bianchini from Woods Hole. You’re listening to WCAI . . .

Announcer: Listen. . . . (Extremely convincing trilling cricket sound.)

Young girl: I make the cricket noise with my mouth . . . (higher-pitch trilling sound) . . . I scream and . . . um . . . I . . . move my tongue up and down . . . (trilling sound repeats) . . . I am Jesse Davis. I am in fourth grade at the Nantucket Elementary School.

Announcer: You’re listening to WCAI . . .

Listeners have said that these little breaks not only contribute to community, they actually build it. Here’s why: We live in a place which is geographically fragmented (islands, after all) and each community feels itself to be more “special” than the others, yet the radio signal extends across them all, disrespecting the boundaries.

Man: Well, I’m told that I’m a fairly rare type of individual, because I was born on Nantucket and work and live here on the Vineyard.

Announcer: Matthew Stackpole.

Man: I always say that it’s a good, encouraging sign that there is possible world peace everywhere that I’ve been able to move to the Vineyard and be accepted almost as an equal . . .

Announcer: You’re listening to 90.1 WCAI . . .

Man: If someone asks me if I am an Islander, I simply say, “Yes.”

In our database, we titled that particular i.d. “World Peace.” We have feuds and jealousies here—political division, parochial ignorance (is it so different from anywhere else?), but these stories tend, almost miraculously, to break those down. When they start, you often don’t know where the speaker is from. You simply listen, without judgment. You enjoy what you hear, and then, when you discover he is not from your island, you must decide how you will incorporate that contradiction, which may lead you, helplessly, to acceptance. You think: well, I guess they’re not all bad over there. And eventually, you may even come to think of their stories as your stories.

So, our goal of countering the negative effect of watery boundaries (or cultural, racial, economic or social ones) is being honored in the humble act of identifying a station call sign. In these little moments, we proclaim our common identity as people who share a place. We celebrate our differences, while at the same time we come closer together. As a daily task, that’s not too bad. Not too bad for a mere public radio station.

Jay Allison is founder and executive producer of WCAI/WNAN. The stations are a local service of WGBH, Boston. Allison, Viki Merrick, Helen Woodward and Jim Sulzer are the major producing team for the i.d.’s. Allison is also executive director of Atlantic Public Media and a longtime independent producer.

Filling in the national map

Map of Cape & Islands stations' coverageThere are now enough public radio stations to reach more than 90 percent of the American public, and pubcasters have adding specialized stations to increase listening options in areas where pubradio already exists.

So it’s rare that all-new stations arise, especially in the East, or can afford to get going with sparse populations. An exception: the twin stations WCAI on Cape Cod, Mass., and WNAN on Nantucket Island.

They were founded locally (by Cape & Islands Public Radio) and the programming is controlled locally, but the founders made a unique arrangement with a major Boston station to handle many of the functions — taking advantage of its greater economies of scale.

Founder Jay Allison, a nationally prominent independent radio producer, surveyed colleagues nationwide for advice on the stations’ sound and conceived the “sonic i.d.’s” that mark led an effort to mark them with the voices and sounds of the region.

RELATED LINKS

Cape & Islands stations WCAI and WNAN. Slide show tour of the station’s old wooden house (a low-key pitch for capital donations). Locally made mugs.

Listen to the Sonic IDs.

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