Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

Changes at Maine documentary school worry its devoted alumni

By Mike Janssen

The departure of the entire four-person faculty from Maine’s small but influential Salt Institute for Documentary Studies has caused concern among the school’s alumni, many of whom found their way into public radio via Salt’s unique classes in audio production.

Shackelford and Dean, among the fond graduates.

The teachers who left have either declined to discuss their resignations publicly or said their reasons for leaving were personal and unrelated. The executive director of the Portland-based school and its board of trustees echo those accounts.

That has done little to assure alums, however, who fear that the close timing of the departures suggests problems behind the scenes.

“It’s a pretty clear picture that there’s an underlying issue and a reason they all decided to leave,” says Jen Dean, a photographer and Salt grad who has represented alumni in meetings with Salt leadership. “Maybe each of the people also had personal reasons. But the entire faculty doesn’t leave without there being an underlying issue.”

This worries Dean and other Salt graduates because they love the school. Founded by high-school teacher Pamela Wood in Kennebunk in 1973, Salt was founded to send students forth to document the folk traditions of Mainers.

Long ago relocated to Portland, Salt today enrolls as many as 35 students per semester, learning documentary audio, writing or photography in an immersive, hands-on environment. Audio students finish the semester with two six-minute, broadcast-quality pieces and an audio slideshow. A Salt student pays $9,600 per 15-week session.

Graduates talk of Salt in glowing terms. They credit the school with giving them confidence to risk a financially precarious documentary career, setting them on rewarding and life-changing career paths.

“There’s nothing like Salt,” says Shea Shackelford, an independent radio producer and Salt grad based in Montreal. Rob Rosenthal, the audio instructor who was among those who resigned, “built something unique and amazing,” Shackelford says.

Evidence of the school’s impact on public media is widespread. In the span of one month last fall, the school’s blog announced that pieces by graduates were airing on PBS NewsHour and NPR’s Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. During the same period, the school also announced Shackelford’s Bronze Award for documentaries at last year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival.

“Salt seems to really engender the spirit of public radio in a way that’s seeded the next generation,” says Julie Shapiro, artistic director of the Chicago-based festival.

Third Coast, which started around the same time as Salt’s audio courses, has awarded several Best New Artist awards to Salt alumni, and Shapiro says grads from Salt and from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies have a friendly rivalry in dance-offs at conference shindigs.

Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, says Salt is “one of the farm teams” for the public radio ecosystem. “It’s really critical for maintaining the fresh and vibrant pool of talent.”

Class size, curriculum changed

Salt alums first became concerned about the school in the spring of 2010, when two teachers were laid off, including radio instructor Patty Wight. That change left Salt with one instructor per discipline, and class sizes have increased as a result. Radio classes can now include up to 11 students, up from a previous average of seven or so, says Salt Executive Director Donna Galluzzo.

Salt alums credit the program’s success in part to the one-on-one access that students have had to teachers, which they fear is rarer today. “In our collective experience, small class size was central to our positive experiences at Salt,” wrote about 80 graduates in a July 2010 letter to the Salt board of trustees.

The school is also expanding its multimedia offerings. Today’s students want to be better prepared for the evolving freelance job market, says Donna Galluzzo, Salt’s executive director since 2003 and an alumna herself.

“We’re just trying to prepare our students to be more like utility players and be more prepared for the freelance world they’re entering now,” she says.

To that end, a class titled Perspectives in Documentary will embrace multiple media, possibly including video, and other classes may mingle disciplines.

That proposal doesn’t sit well with some grads, including Amy O’Leary, deputy news editor and former multimedia producer at the New York Times. In visits to j-schools, O’Leary has observed a fashion for outfitting journalists as “one-man bands,” she says. O’Leary, however, recommends that journalists hone their storytelling skills by focusing on one discipline. She credits her experience in Salt’s audio classes with setting her on the path toward a successful career.

“Salt gave you the time, space and luxury to think deeply through your stories,” she says.

In addition, the departure of audio instructor Rosenthal represents a troubling break in continuity to some observers. Rosenthal became the school’s first audio teacher in 2000 and designed the curriculum from scratch. In an interview with Transom.org earlier this year, he estimated that at least half of the audio program’s 150 graduates had gone on to work in audio production or public radio in some capacity. (Rosenthal did not answer Current’s requests for an interview.)

“Because we recommend the school so highly, we’re concerned that we’re recommending a program we don’t recognize,” O’Leary says. Alumni have written letters to the Salt board and administration and met face-to-face with them earlier this month. They have asked the school to add seats to its board for representatives elected by alums.

Salt administrators have tried to allay their concerns. “. . . [T]he board has not wavered in its commitment to Salt’s overriding mission — to teach, cultivate and promote the art of storytelling through words, images and sound,” wrote Bill Nemitz, vice chair of the trustees, in a May 27 letter to alums. “Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, that guiding principle has not and will not change.”

The school derives almost all of its income from tuition, and tuition proceeds have been shrinking. According to Salt’s tax forms, the school collected $457,701 in tuition in fiscal year 2010, down 11 percent from $519,135 two years earlier.

Salt’s leadership has said that last year’s changes in staffing were unrelated to its finances. The board of trustees told alumni last year that Salt “has never been more fiscally sound than it is today.”

The other teachers who resigned are Kate Philbrick, photography; Melissa Falcon-Field, writing; and Jennifer Smith-Mayo, Perspectives in Documentary teacher.

The school has since hired replacements for Philbrick and Smith-Mayo and also added freelancer Michael May to replace Rosenthal. The new hires will begin teaching in fall semester.

Philbrick told Current that she left Salt because it was “time for a change in my life.” However, the Portland Press Herald said Philbrick cited “uncertainty over the curriculum changes” as a factor in her departure. Falcon-Field told the paper that faculty members were frustrated by a lack of communication about proposed changes in curriculum. She could not be reached by Current for comment.

TEACHING RADIO

Michael May, Salt’s new radio instructor, has placed reports on This American Life, Studio 360, Marketplace and NPR programs, won a Third Coast Audio Festival gold award, reported for KUT in Austin, and served as managing editor of the Texas Observer. [His website.]

RELATED LINKS

Salt Institute website.

Samples of students’ radio documentary work on PRX.

Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Durham, N.C.

Comments, questions, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net
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