Execution Tapes bypasses pubradio's main gatekeeper
Originally published in Current, May 14, 2001
By Mike Janssen
The final answer was no, forcing David Isay to pursue a back-up plan. There was little time to spare. Isay, a star producer in public radio, had just obtained a unique collection of audio tapes documenting 22 executions in Georgia's electric chair. He was determined to get one on public radio, and any enterprising journalist could easily scoop him. But NPR, his long-time collaborator, wasn't going to work with him this time.
Nonetheless, within a month, Isay and his team at Sound Portraits Productions, later joined by WNYC, were able to put the resulting hour-long program, "The Execution Tapes," on more than 60 stations. The accomplishment signals that the system of increasingly capable public radio stations and independent producers no longer needs to rely entirely on NPR for time-sensitive national programming.
"There is real power in ... these alternate ways of distribution," says Dean Cappello, WNYC's v.p. of programming. "I think the old models just don't make sense anymore."
"Tapes" also generated an intense media buzz--seemingly everywhere but on NPR. Not only did the network pass on the tapes, but, according to a media summary compiled by WNYC, it sat out the ensuing rush to report on Isay's project, which aired two weeks before the scheduled execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Elsewhere, Isay coordinated same-day coverage with the New York Times and ABC's Nightline, and the story was picked up by numerous U.S. and international papers, press wires and radio and TV stations.
"My brain exploded"
"The Execution Tapes" arose from Isay's acute interest in punishment and incarceration, a theme that he has treated several times in his wide-ranging body of work. Just before "Tapes," Isay co-produced "Witness to an Execution," a piece aired on ATC that led listeners step by step through an execution by lethal injection. Yet the report's narrators simply recreated the process, at a distance from the actual event.
The 22 tapes Isay discovered take listeners as close to ground zero as is possible without pictures: employees of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison narrate executions by electric chair as they occur. Recorded from 1983 to 1996, the tapes are the only known records of state-sanctioned executions in this country since 1936, when a public hanging in Kentucky was photographed.
Isay first learned of the tapes in a New York Times article about Michael Mears, a Georgia attorney crusading to ban the electric chair by redefining it as "cruel and unusual" punishment. Isay already was obsessed with the idea of taping an execution, and was even considering illegally smuggling a recording out of a death chamber. When he learned about the tapes, "my brain exploded," he says. "I never thought in my lifetime I would hear anything like them."
He won't discuss his views on the death penalty ("They're not germane," he contends), and says his interest in the issue fits with the rest of his documentary work. "The mission of Sound Portraits is to get into dark corners, and there is no darker corner than the death chamber," he says. "This is the most serious act that the government can carry out in our name, short of declaring war."
"I thought it was important that people understand what was being done in their name, in a direct way," he adds.
Isay included just one full recording of an execution in "Tapes." The condemned was Ivon Ray Stanley, a retarded 28-year-old who was convicted of murder and put to death on July 12, 1984. A warden's assistant, Willis Marable, narrates the event dispassionately.
"Both arm straps are secure at this time," he says in a typical passage. "They are still in the process of securing the leg straps. At this time the condemned has been secured in the chair. He is not moving--he is just sitting there very passively staring out at the witnesses." At the end, the executioners congratulate each other on a "very smooth job."
Though the subject matter is gruesome, the narration nearly disguises the task at hand. Casual listeners might not immediately grasp what they're hearing. There are no cries of protest or pain, no auditory signs that someone is dying. Isay says he picked the tape of Stanley's execution for two reasons: it was one of the most descriptive, and it was completely average, with no mistakes.
Isay contacted Mears, and within two days had his own copies of the tapes. But he lacked a bona fide exclusive. WAGA, a Fox-affiliated TV station in Atlanta, had already aired excerpts. No one had broken them nationally, but anyone could get them from Mears or the state corrections agency.
The pressure compounded as Isay started planning a program. He didn't want to air the tapes too near the date of McVeigh's execution.
"Anywhere closer than a week would be completely disrespectful, and detract from the significance of the tapes," he says.
Still, McVeigh's wish to have his death televised had renewed the debate over public access to executions, providing a ready-made context for Isay's program.
Whatever Isay did, it was going to have to differ from his usual practice of taking months and sometimes years to report, edit and finesse long-form documentaries. The tapes needed to hit the airwaves within weeks, and there were few options, in Isay's view, about how to present them: he wanted an execution to air in full and be followed by a discussion of the issues the tapes raise. He hoped All Things Considered would again be his forum. "It was kind of a no-brainer to me," he says.
Isay consulted with Gary Covino, his long-time editor and a former NPR editor and producer, who sounded a note of caution. "I said, 'Okay, that's fine, maybe I'll be proved wrong, but I think we should have a backup plan for what to do when NPR does not want to air this material,'" Covino says. "Because, in the end, I thought it was extremely likely that they wouldn't."
Plan A: ATC
Covino, who eventually co-produced and edited "The Execution Tapes," says that for more than two weeks Isay tried to sell NPR on the tapes, but with no luck, even after he gave them an extra day to reconsider. (Isay declined to discuss his talks with NPR, but did confirm this part of Covino's account.)
In the end, Isay and NPR differed in their news judgment. "David had a clear idea of how he wanted to present the material," says Celeste James, NPR's v.p. of communications. "We didn't come to an agreement on how to present it." NPR President Kevin Klose, Vice President of Programming Jay Kernis, Vice President of News Bruce Drake, and ATC Executive Producer Ellen Weiss all declined to be interviewed for this story.
Certainly, figuring out how to handle these controversial tapes posed a challenge to everyone involved. With such a chilling find, how could the producers escape accusations of sensationalism? Isay was well aware of this pitfall, and, when "The Execution Tapes" finally went out to the system, WNYC gave stations telephone and letter scripts to help handle upset listeners.
Unlike many of Isay's projects, which are virtually complete before he hands them over to NPR, Covino says this time the producer approached NPR with a more open-ended proposal. He says Isay suggested that NPR air one entire execution, "and that anything else done with the material would be worked out. And whether he was a part of that or not didn't matter."
"My understanding is, the big failure of understanding or agreement between NPR and David about this material wasn't even so much on the question of whether one whole execution should be broadcast," Covino adds, "but over the question of whether this material was actually important enough to do something with. David obviously felt it was extremely important. NPR's reaction was something else."
Covino agreed with Isay on the tapes' significance. "I think that this was a massive failure of news judgment on the part of NPR," Covino says. "If you say that you are a news organization, there are certain stories that, when they come into your possession, ... you have an obligation to bring them before the public, hopefully not in a sensationalistic or incomplete way. And if you don't, it's an act of suppression.... If no one at NPR stood up and said, 'We're a news organization, and when a news organization obtains material of this type it has no choice but to bring it before the public,' somebody should have."
Next, Covino and Isay needed a new partner who shared their perspective, and their search ended at WNYC's doorstep. The station, which produces shows for NPR and is a member of the network, took on the role of competing news organization, preparing itself to circumvent public radio's primary journalistic gatekeeper in less than a week.
"We sensed what [the tapes] were, and how big it was," says Cappello. "This is an urgent national issue that people are talking about, and this was one crucial piece of information that no one had, because nationally no one had done it in this kind of way."
Meanwhile, according to the online magazine Inside.com, NPR sources said network President Kevin Klose was "visibly shaken" by word that Isay had taken his work elsewhere. Sources told Inside.com that NPR fruitlessly tried to retrieve the program.
Trying a new pipeline
The potentially incendiary tapes, and Isay's shaky claim to them, became both WNYC's key selling point and soft spot. How could WNYC pull significant carriage for "The Execution Tapes" without leaking what it had to the press, possibly giving away its secret?
A high-profile, all-out campaign was not an option. Six days before the May 2 broadcast, Cappello talked up the program in off-the-record calls to stations in the top 10 markets. Visitors to a password-protected website could hear excerpts from the tapes.
Most stations signed on right away, and, by Friday afternoon, WNYC had secured carriage in 25 of the top 30 markets.
Meanwhile, Covino and John Keefe, an executive producer for program development at WNYC, shaped the program (they were billed as co-producers and Isay offered production assistance). Former Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez returned to public radio to host the show. (Bill Moyers was a top choice, Covino says, but wasn't available.) 60 Minutes anchor Mike Wallace and several criminal justice experts discussed the tapes for the broadcast, and On the Media host Brooke Gladstone contributed two pieces to the program, one of which included clips of a botched execution and of prisoners' final words. (The full program, as well as complete audio of all of the taped executions, can be heard at www.soundportraits.org.)
The day before the broadcast, WNYC let the whole system in on its secret. It held a press conference the next morning, sparking widespread media coverage. More than 60 stations aired "The Execution Tapes," and WNYC also offered an live hour-long call-in special at 8 p.m. Eastern time, hosted by Brian Lehrer.
The team behind "The Execution Tapes" is calling the effort a success, and, even though the media buzz has died down, some say the impromptu partnership between Isay and WNYC points toward a decentralizing trend in public radio.
Stations around the country that are starting to produce weekly shows for networks, such as WNYC (Studio 360, Satellite Sisters) and KCRW (To the Point, Sounds Eclectic), might also have the wherewithal to produce shorter-term projects for each other. Minnesota Public Radio also could mount major productions by experienced teams under news Vice President Bill Buzenberg or Marketplace Productions General Manager Jim Russell, whose Marketplace Morning Report made inroads years ago in NPR's morning timeslot.
In Cappello's case, strong ties to heads of major public radio stations around the country helped to guarantee success. "We've never done anything in this way, this quickly," Cappello says. "It's sort of a less processed way of looking at the world, and not looking to single pipelines."
"There is real power in looking at these alternate ways of distribution," he says.
"There will be no one way to distribute [a program]. So long as you have access to an uplink and are smart about how you communicate with your peers, you can have the kind of impact that we had."
But is an American public that doesn't distinguish between "public radio" and "NPR" prepared to give credit where credit's due? Perhaps not, if early reports are any indication. A comment on WNYC's effort in a Washington Post online chat last week was typical:
"Bravo! to NPR for 'The Execution Tapes.'"
. To Current's home page . Earlier articles: Current Contributing Editor David Stewart reviews Isay's work and profiles him. . Outside link: SoundPortraits, Isay's production company, where web visitors can hear audio files of "The Execution Tapes" and other projects.
Web page posted May 13, 2001
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