Host Alex Chadwick settles into "Deep Worker," a one-man submersible at Monterey Bay.
Advance for Radio Expeditions: capturing the sound of the bee swarm
It's been seven years since the first Radio Expeditions feature took NPR listeners to a virtually lost place--the natural world as it sounds without modern-day aural interference. Since that one-hour broadcast of "The Unheard World," Expeditions has produced dozens of sound-rich features that variously blend exploration, adventure and conservation themes.
For those who yearn these days to hear more Radio on the radio, the Expeditions series — a coproduction between NPR and the National Geographic Society — is something of an oasis. People often point to it as the kind of programming NPR should air more often. "For all of our knowing in our hearts that sound belongs on radio, I think Radio Expeditions is one of the few places where you can still hear sound and have it given in nice intelligent context," says independent producer Jim Metzner, who himself specializes in sound-focused natural-world pieces.
Talking about Expeditions last year, independent producer Elisabeth Perez-Luna said the series exemplified public radio's best effort to exploit the medium's potential: "What gave NPR its respect and fame ... is the fact they are radio and use sound. You still have some riveting reports. And you still have things like Radio Expeditions. It's exciting radio ... "
The series' intent from the start has been to give listeners the sound equivalent of National Geographic photos, says Carolyn Jensen, its producer and spouse of Expeditions host/chief writer Alex Chadwick). In the works now is a report that aims to take listeners to a place they're not ever likely to be — 100 feet up a tree in northern Malaysia. With killer bees, by the way. Jensen hopes to capture the roar of the bees swarming down from the treetops after locals known as "honey hunters" invade the bees' arboreal home. It's supposed to be spectacular, a sound like no other, she said a day before leaving for the assignment.
Other installments have taken listeners to the Galapagos, Madagascar, Midway Island, West Coast marine sanctuaries, Yellowstone after the fires.
Expeditions started as intermittent, discrete one-hours, but before long Jensen was adapting the specials to air inside the NPR newsmags. Eventually it found a home on Morning Edition. This year, an offshoot series gives it a weekly air presence.
That offshoot, Geographic Century, uses National Geo's tape archives to profile 20th Century explorers including: Robert Peary, who led the first successful trek to the North Pole; Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who crossed the Southern Ocean in an open boat; and Jane Goodall, chimpanzee researcher. Because they're weekly and incorporate existing tape, these reports are not as highly produced as the features from the field. The thrill comes from hearing the voices and stories of 20th Century heroes. Says Geographic spokesperson Barbara Moffet: "Funny, every time I hear it, I get chills, and sometimes I feel I'm about to cry. [The series] is bringing the whole Geographic family back to life."
Chadwick recently interviewed Sir Edmund Hillary, first to scale Mt. Everest, with Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. Chadwick's was the only interview Hillary granted while in Washington, D.C. to receive a medal. Goodall is scheduled for an interview this week. "The Geographic name really helps" in gaining access to the researchers and explorers, says Jensen.
Geographic also helps secure underwriting, and provides staff support; its producer Donald Smith is writing the Geographic Century profiles, for example.
What Geographic gets out of the partnership is access to a wider audience. Research has shown that NPR and Geographic's audiences are similar in many respects, but interestingly, not many NPR listeners are subscribers to the monthly Geographic, says Chadwick. One Geo staff member guesses that NPR's audience is slightly younger than Geographic's.
There will be a total of 40 Geographic Century profiles throughout the year. The other 12 weeks, Morning Edition will air the regular Expeditions features from the field.
The Explorers series has been something of a rejuvenation, say NPR's Neal Conan, who's done Expeditions reports from Midway Island, including two stories on the search for the USS Yorktown. For a time, when the series was focused on aquatic wildlife sanctuaries, the pieces sounded similar, he says. But the problem disappeared as soon as Jensen and Chadwick ended the water pieces and began the explorer profiles and new features from the field. "I think it's been a reawakening," he says.
The fact that the "Honey Hunters" event will be recorded in Surround Sound is another advance for Expeditions. Engineers requested and got a green light on the project when they met recently with NPR's new president, Kevin Klose. The attempt will be a first for NPR, Jensen says. Radio Expeditions will become a demonstration project for an attempt to give a sense of being there — up in trees. We'll hoist mikes on balloons hanging up in air, floating."
And in another development, the series is now occasionally on the road — Chadwick and Expeditions Technical Director Chuck Thompson have a traveling show designed for station fundraising or other events. "An analog broadcast signal can't really convey all that you've got in the studio," Chadwick says. "It's fun to take this stuff out on CD and go to a theatrical setting ... and get really good sound systems and play it for people. They just love it. We're not playing parts of programs, we're playing raw tape we've collected in field." Thompson's story about being attacked by killer bees (a different kind than the ones awaiting Jensen and crew in Malaysia) is usually a hit, as are recordings of humpback whales, he says.
Expeditions is an engineer's plum assignment, because the mission is to get stellar sound, taking whatever time is necessary, Chadwick says. "The good NPR engineers are like the great photographers, capable of bringing back images that are life-changing in a way, startling, amazing, informative."
Some deadline-harassed NPR reporters covet the assignments too, regarding them with what one described as "wistful envy." Says Conan: "It's a tremendous opportunity. They give you time and they allow you to do huge amounts of reporting. It's almost like the days, years and years ago. And they provide you with technicians that are to die for."
Because of the increased workload that came with the Geographic Century series, Jensen is in a good position to involve more folks inside NPR. She says: "As Radio Expeditions has caught on, there are obviously more seasoned reporters who are keen to work on this. I've been trying to involve a number of new people."
She doesn't plan to do a weekly series similar to the Geographic Century project next year — the workload is too much. But Expeditions will continue, Jensen says. "We're going to do stories of exploration and discovery and diverse cultures and the natural world and threatened environments. Hopefully next year we can gather funding to provide for a good mix."
Copyright 1999 Current