Lost and Found Sound cuts a glittering path to the aural past
Originally published in Current, July 19, 1999
By Karen Everhart Bedford
Sam Phillips, a self-described "old radio cat" and founder of Sun Records, waxes appreciatively on the value of Lost and Found Sound, a Friday feature of NPR's All Things Considered for all of 1999: "The persuasiveness of sound is singular: it's the most important thing that God can give us in this world. I think it's under-appreciated."
Not so, judging by the response to Lost and Found Sound. Listeners are appreciating the ongoing series, with its aural glimpses of 20th century history from the likes of Thomas Alva Edison and Tennessee Williams, and from the grandparents of many ordinary Americans who found antique recordings in their attics.
Telephone responses to the producers' "Quest for Sound"--a "your turn" element of the series inviting sound hounds to share their "favorite sonic artifacts"--exceeded a total of 1,200 in May, when producers stopped counting. "There's a huge backlog of material sitting here," says indie producer Jay Allison, curator of the "Quest." Allison describes himself as a "step-brother" to the "Kitchen Sisters," executive producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. "It's like we walked into a treasure room that no one's been in before. We walk in with headlamps and see glitterings on the wall."
ATC listeners can be excused some amazement as they eavesdrop on the distant past. In photo, ladies in Salina, Kan., give rapt attention to voices from an early talking machine. (Photo: Edison National Historic Site.)
A creative duo who gained their nickname (they're not really sisters) as cohosts on an eclectic, live show on KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz in the late '70s, the Kitchen Sisters are "fun and charming, and you want to hang out with them," says Allison. "Their radio show was like that--imaginative and nonlinear. They have respect for primary speakers and usually get out of the way themselves."
"They're the kind of people that public radio should want to continue to involve, and this series is a way to bring them back to the frontlines," he adds.
Since their days at KUSP, both have moved on to other careers--Nelson writes screenplays and works with Francis Ford Coppola, and Silva directs a museum in Santa Cruz--but they continue to produce radio on and off for Soundprint, ATC and Radio Smithsonian.
The concept for Lost and Found evolved over several years with lots of input from various quarters, according to Nelson. It was originally envisioned as a freestanding series to mark the turn of the century through a retrospective of recorded sound. She and Silva consulted with fellow indies, station executives, and artists. "We tried to do it over meals, cooking together," she adds. "We'd cook, think and talk about it."
(Incidentally, it was not their penchant for meal-centered consultations that inspired Nelson and Silva to coin themselves the Kitchen Sisters, but an interview with an author of a rather boring book about Santa Cruz architecture. They inquired about what they found to be the only interesting part of his research: a story about a pair of eccentric stone masons, Kenneth and Robert Kitchen, who obsessively built a yogi temple by the light of the moon during the 1940s. The line went something like, "Tell us about the Kitchen brothers, who are not to be confused with the Kitchen sisters who are here with you today," Silva recalls. The name stuck because "our show was like being in a kitchen and chatting.")
After their proposal began winning grants, Rick Madden, director of CPB's Radio Program Fund, advised Nelson and Silva to maximize the dollars available by recasting the program as a limited series to air within one of NPR's newsmagazines. "We kept proposing it, and bringing everyone together to consider it," says Nelson, describing talks with NPR. Eventually, ATC became its home. NEA, NEH and CPB are its major funders.
Captured by groove and needle
Lost and Found Sound covers a broad swath of territory in its quest to both document and evoke history. It does this through approaching recovered material in two different ways: highly crafted documentaries, such as "The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Thomas Alva Edison, parts I & II," which combines archival sounds and historical perspectives; and more intimate pieces, often culled from submissions to the "Quest for Sound," which are presented more casually and directly to listeners.
A good example of the former is "Harmonica Lesson," based on an old audio cassette submitted by a listener named Jonathan Mitchell, who received it when he was a boy from his grandfather. Mitchell lived far away from his grandfather and saw him only a few times. But he grew up to be a musician, like his grandpa, who is heard passing along his wisdoms to Jonathan, as well as harmonica techniques. When people hear the tape, they hear their own grandfathers, says Allison. With such a "catalytic experience," they can "go back into their own lives."
"What we're interested in is what we keep, and why and what it tells us about ourselves," explains Allison. "It doesn't have to be something that's ancient, but the notion of the things we choose to save."
"Old tape is not inherently interesting," he adds. "You have to construct a path to the tape and the tape is the destination. If we just threw it on the radio, it'd be old stuff."
"We wanted to capture not just lost sound, but how the sound of sound has changed," says Nelson. The formal speech mannerisms of people who lived through the last turn of the century-- when sound recording devices were first invented--stand out in the Edison documentaries. In addition to the stilted oratorial style of those times, archival recordings of toasts by Edward VIII and Arthur Sullivan to Edison also evoke the speakers' "sheer wonder" that their voices "could be captured with a groove and a needle," she adds.
Cardboard acetate discs of Tennessee Williams and friends, recorded in 1947 in a Voice-O-Graph booth in the New Orleans Pennyland Arcade, formed the basis of another documentary that aired in May. The discs feature the playwright and friends hamming it up as they read scenes from the recently opened A Streetcar Named Desire, or more pensively recite gay love poems and Williams' prose.
"There are wonderful slices of the moment and New Orleans," says Nelson. "Our quest is to put this piece of history into the context of his work and that place." The finished documentary wove tape from a modern-day visit to the Pennyland Arcade, an interview with Kim Hunter, the actress who played the original Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, expert insights, and the evocative archival treasure.
Listener responses to the "Quest for Sound" also turned up surprising discoveries, such as an eyewitness account of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address--a boyhood experience recalled by William V. Rathvon and recorded on a 78 rpm record in 1938. "I stood within 15 feet of Mr. Lincoln and looked up into his serious face," the elderly man recalls reverently. Rathvon describes the scene at length, though he admits, "I listened closely, but could not recall what he said later."
Another came from the Rev. Dwight Frissell, who discovered an audio artifact in the presidential library of Harry Truman. It features a speech that Truman delivered at the groundbreaking for a shopping center to be built on the land of the Truman family farm. "We know very well that progress pays no attention to individuals," says Truman, becoming audibly agitated. "We don't want to stand in the way of progress, but that doesn't help us from being rather homesick for the place as we knew it when we were children.
"I know you'll like this place: it's the finest place in the world, and to me it's the center of the world," he concludes.
Features of the series are accessible in RealAudio files on the Lost and Found Sound web site, www.npr.org/programs/lnfsound/.
Down with the walls
Just as Nelson and Silva developed Lost and Found Sound by brainstorming widely, production of the series is a broadly collaborative process. Stations such as WKNO in Memphis, locale for three docs to air this fall, have collaborated on the series; WGBH in Boston has helped restore old audio.
David Giovannoni, the public radio ratings guru, has shared his "remarkable collection of old [audio] machines and old sounds," says Silva. "He led us to every recording we found in those Edison pieces." Work has been commissioned from noted documentarians Mary Beth Kirchner and Norman Corwin. Veteran CBS newsman Robert Trout has contributed, as have NPR's Susan Stamberg, Kathy Schalch, and Art Silverman, senior producer of ATC, who also coordinates Lost and Found Sound.
"The hosts are into it, they've gotten their producers behind it," comments Allison. He characterized the producers' relationship with NPR on this series as uniquely collaborative. "They're producing; we're producing; we edit each other; we're divvying up story ideas together. It's breaking down a little bit the wall between the inside and outside NPR. It's one of the worst walls in public radio."
Silva says "Quest for Sound" also has allowed new talent to "walk through the door, because we have a new context."
"It's not just us: it's a bunch of people trying to take a theme," says Nelson. "At the end of the year, we'll feel like we've really explored a subject, not from one point of view, or in one style, or over one decade. It'll be a whole array of voices and times."
Kitchen Sisters Nelson and Silva.
To Current's home page
Outside link: The series' web presence on NPR Online, with RealAudio clips of episodes.
Outside link: Web site of KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, on one of the loveliest parts of California's coast, where the Kitchen Sisters came to be.
Web page created July 28, 1999
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.