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Sonic memorial documentaries recall histories of the World Trade Center

Originally published in Current, May 13, 2002
By Karen Everhart

Memories and audio artifacts gathered through Lost and Found Sound's Sonic Memorial Project begin airing regularly on All Things Considered next month with a series of documentaries on little-known histories of the World Trade Center.

Producers of Lost and Found Sound established the project last fall in an impromptu effort to collect audio for a sonic memorial of the World Trade Center and the people who worked there. It grew from a team of radio indies working with NPR and WNYC into a broader collaboration of New York-based artists and journalists from other media. The project is only partly funded and operates largely through contributions of volunteers.

Public radio will present the biggest body of work created through the project, although ABC News and the Smithsonian are drawing materials from it to create special memorial coverage and exhibits. In addition to the historical documentaries, which will have an ongoing albeit limited presence on NPR's ATC through the summer, the project will contribute several pieces to public radio's commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Installations and events commemorating the first anniversary of the buildings' collapse are also under discussion as additional outlets for the Sonic Memorial.

The initial impetus for the project was to preserve and collect voicemail messages from the World Trade Center that the telecom company Verizon recorded on cassette tape for customers or families of those who worked in the towers. Verizon declined to help spread the word about the producers' call for audio, said Davia Nelson, an independent producer of Lost and Found Sound who is managing the project with her longtime collaborator Nikki Silva. Many Verizon voicemail tapes did come to the project through people who heard about it on WNYC or NPR, or read about it in the New York Times, she said.

Both NPR and WNYC asked listeners to share "sonic artifacts" through a voice mailbox established at NPR or by calling into Brian Lehrer's WNYC show, On the Line. "Material just floods in when we go on the air," Nelson said.

Two reports based on listeners' submissions aired in February: a piece by Lost and Found Sound co-producer Jay Allison that sampled the calls to NPR's hotline; and a Valentine's Day documentary about couples who were married in the Twin Towers. The Feb. 14 piece "captured what we hope will be the feel of the memorial," said Nelson. "It was very personal, very tender, very historic, but took you down some unexpected roads."

Beginning June 3, ATC will present documentaries from Lost and Found Sound's Sonic Memorial Project on Mondays every four weeks. The 12-minute pieces will tell stories about the neighborhood that was lost when the Trade Center was built and the "people whose unknown contributions have not been documented," Nelson added.

The first, produced by indies Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman, rediscovers "radio row," a neighborhood of radio and electronic gadget stores that was destroyed to make way for construction of the World Trade Center. Producers found one of the shopkeepers and a treasure trove of documents detailing angry court battles and neighborhood resistance to the construction.

A documentary on two generations of Mohawk Indian ironworkers--men who constructed the top stories of the Trade Center towers, and those who worked on cleanup of the demolished complex--is scheduled as the second piece.

"The popular conception has always been that these men are fearless and have some predisposition to being able to withstand the height," said producer Jamie York, during an interview from the Kahnwake Mohawk Indian reservation outside Montreal. "I'll be exploring the historical legacy and the traditions that led them to iron work and kept them at it. . . . A great deal of their work is about pride and being able to distinguish yourself by doing the most dangerous work imaginable."

Nelson and Silva, known within public radio as the Kitchen Sisters, are producing a story about an army of young women in miniskirt uniforms who worked to popularize the twin towers among resentful New Yorkers in the late 1960s. These "building stewardesses" gave tours of the Trade Center and provided details of its construction and engineering.

ABC News Correspondent Deborah Amos, a former NPR reporter who joined the collaboration, is producing the fourth documentary on the Trade Center elevators and a Jamaican elevator operator who died on Sept. 11.

ATC also plans to air three pieces from the Sonic Memorial Project Sept. 9-11. "The anniversary pieces will be more impressionistic, reflective and elegiac, and based on the calls that came in," said Nelson. They will include contributions from artists who lived or worked in the buildings, and audio from performances in the Trade Center plaza.

Also in September, the Sonic Memorial will produce a one-hour documentary for Minnesota Public Radio's coordinated week of coverage. Through the Public Radio Collaboration (formerly known as the Mega-Project), stations will broadcast and contribute special programs on the theme of "understanding American post-9/11," said Israel Smith, logistics manager for MPR.

The Sonic Memorial doc will be one of several offerings from the collaboration, although it will feature distinct voices from neighborhoods around New York, said Bill Buzenberg, v.p. of news.

ABC News will air material from the project during its 15-hour broadcast marking the first anniversary of the attacks.

Correspondent Robert Krulwich, another NPR veteran who joined the collaboration, is creating a series of 90-second reflections that draw from the memorial's sonic artifacts. Amos may collaborate with York on a television piece on the Mohawk ironworkers.

Grants to support the project have been hard to come by, according to Nelson, and as of last week half of its total budget had been raised. "The interesting thing with a collaboration is that everyone thinks someone else is funding it," Nelson said. Early on, CPB and NEA allowed producers to reframe stories planned for Lost and Found Sound as stories from the Sonic Memorial. MPR provided a small amount for the hour-long documentary, and CPB recently awarded a direct grant to the memorial. Additional funding requests are still pending, and the collaborative continues to request audio contributions through its website and NPR line, (202) 408-0300.

To Current's home page
Earlier feature: Lost & Found Sound profiled, 1999.
Earlier news: Producers plan Sonic Memorial, 2001.
Outside link: Streaming audio of Sonic Memorial artifacts and stories and a full list of collaborators on the project are posted on its website.

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