When the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) handed out their first annual awards for reporting on the environment this fall, the judges said of one of the winning entries, “The pictures were as good as the writing. And that’s no small accomplishment for radio.” The award went to NPR’s “Living on Earth,” for a feature story on the long-running conflicts over Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
I sit on the board of SEJ, and I used to work for “Living on Earth.” And while I wish I could say I had something to do with either creating the story or bestowing the award, I can’t. But the judges’ comments cut to an essential truth about radio: When done well, there is no more compelling, intimate and resonant medium for telling stories and for telling environmental stories in particular. There’s something about sound, especially the sound of a human voice, which engages the brain. Often, it’s surprisingly simple sounds that work best, woven in with clear, evocative writing. It can be a single gunshot heard in the vastness of the New Mexican desert or the monotonous, unceasing flow of water in the southeast Alaska rain forest.
A good piece of radio journalism uses sound and voice to transport its listeners to places, far away or familiar, ordinary or unique, better than any other medium. In environmental reporting, nothing is more elemental than the sense of place. The environment is, after all, that which surrounds us.
The Sound of Pictures
In the SEJ award-winning “Living on Earth” piece on the Tongass, producer Guy Hand first draws listeners in with a wild scene of the opening of the herring season off the town of Sitka, but then quickly steps back to invite us into the big picture. To do this, he just lets the water flow. At first, we hear a trickle of water—just by itself for a couple of seconds, then the sound continues behind the reporter’s voice:
“… And as the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world, its fertility is fueled by water. Alaska State Writer Richard Nelson.”
The water continues as Richard Nelson’s voice emerges:
“Rain is the god here. Rain is what makes this forest. Rain is to southeast Alaska as sun is to the desert.”
More water and the reporter again:
“Water is the one thing that touches and fuses and influences everything else in Alaska’s panhandle. Even the bookstores. A sign in the Old Harbor Bookstore in Sitka says, ‘Please don’t drip on the books….’”
And the water continues.
Perhaps it doesn’t come through in print, but that’s exactly the point—the sound of an unceasing gurgle and drip, drip, drip of water weaves together with the voices to create mental images and a sense of the place that no piece of writing, and for that matter no images, can achieve. I don’t know where Hand recorded his little rivulet of water, but what it sounds like to me—what it conjures up for me—is rainwater running off a roof and splattering onto the ground. The roof is probably covered in moss. The ground is saturated, so the water is pooling up. In my mind’s eye, I sense the air as gray and heavy, the surroundings as deep green and brown and laced with mist. And in the roughly 40 seconds that this section runs, I’m feeling soaked and shivering, oppressed and somehow enthralled by all this water.
That’s an awful lot of experience and emotion to get out of a single sound. And it washes over me without a word of explanation about what I’m hearing. It doesn’t need any explanation. In fact, it’s more effective without any. My imagination is piqued by the simple, relentless sound, and then it is free to roam. At the same time, the script imparts crucial tidbits of experiential information. In its single sentence—“ A sign in the Old Harbor Bookstore in Sitka says, ‘Please don’t drip on the books.’”—I learn that this is a town right by the sea, that it’s a community where there are still small, independent businesses, and that it’s a place with a sense of humor. And all of this information comes to me through that most elemental relationship of our species—the connection between the human voice and the human ear. Of course, I have no idea whether Hand was thinking this clearly about the impact of every beat and syllable of this section, but he’s nonetheless composed a lesson in the art of radio.
Earlier in this piece, Hand used more detailed description where it was needed, to build upon sound that’s both more complex and specific. At this point, Hand has brought listeners into the countdown to the opening of the herring season. We hear motors and splashing water.
HAND: As soon as Fish and Game announces the herring opening via radio, diesel smoke explodes from the stacks of every boat.
MAN: Look at all this smoke!
HAND: … And each begins dropping seine nets into the sea. Soon, they’re pulling uncountable masses of wriggling, silver-skinned herring to the surface. It’s as if the ocean were made of fish. Nothing in my two weeks in the Tongass has shouted more loudly of its fertility than this churning circus of herring and humanity.
As Hand’s example demonstrates, good writing for radio is simple, precise, intimate and evocative. It pays attention to the rhythm of the story and hangs comfortably on the ear. Words are delivered with sensitivity and empathy. They are spoken, not announced. Ultimately, radio reporters are nothing more or less than old-fashioned storytellers, and their words and voices merge with the tape to create something more than the sum of its parts—a feeling of presence for the listener. The experience enables listeners to come to know and care about the places the story takes them and the people they meet. Here is another example, from a story that I did edit, in 1996. We’re in New Mexico, crouched in juniper bushes with a couple of young men with rifles. They’re hunting coyotes, although the coyotes are just a stand-in for a more significant quarry, wolves. Our story is about the battle over reintroducing wolves to the Southwest, and although these two men have told us they would not kill a federally protected wolf, it’s clear where they stand on the issue. The sound we hear is pretty much nothing. It’s quiet. Just the dead, flat air of the wide-open desert.
Producer Sandy Tolan then pulls listeners into the bushes with these men.
TOLAN: The young men are still. In the pale, fading light, a coyote appears from behind a juniper bush. Skinny and alert, he sniffs the air. Jason draws a bead with his Remington 30 aught six.
TOLAN: He misses. Then he whistles. The animal stops one last time and stares back.
TOLAN: Jason misses again.
It’s a simple but powerful scene, which in some ways works as a metaphor for the entire story. The culture of the Southwest is shifting; cowboys and ranchers are losing influence to environmentalists and urban dwellers. After being exterminated to protect cattle generations ago, the wolf will probably be brought back to the region. Nothing captures the ethos of the Old West more than the simple sound of a rifle shot. But in the Old West, the cowboy never missed his mark. Something has changed, and this uncomplicated scene captures it perfectly.
And that second shot—it wasn’t in Sandy’s original script. But he told me about it, and I urged him to put it in. The point had been made, and the scene would have been complete without it, but there was just something about lingering in the scene a little longer with that piercing-the-silence-of-nature, make-no-mistake-about-its-meaning sound of that gunshot, hanging in the air for the second time, and missing again. It just added immensely to the weight and resonance of the moment. With the sound of the rifle shots, the dull quiet of the desert and the hushed voices of the young men, listeners can feel that they are right there with them. No other medium can take us this close. This story also pulled down a couple of awards for “Living on Earth.”
Environment Stories and the Rhythm of Real Life
In 1999, I went to Alaska as the 10th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was approaching. I was the reporter this time, and I found myself in the kitchen of a couple who were both former fishermen and whose lives were basically shattered by the event. They had been telling me about how the spill nearly destroyed the market for wild Alaska salmon and how their town, Cordova, had since been torn apart by unremitting anger, depression, divorce and suicide. I tried to recreate this moment in the piece as I’d experienced it—as one of profound sadness and despair. But in the middle of it, their dog ambled blithely into the kitchen. I recorded the familiar scritch-scratching of its claws on their hard floor, the clinking of its collar, and the madcap flap of its ears as it shook its head.
The dog’s appearance had absolutely nothing to do with “the story,” but I decided to put it in anyway. It broke the tension and gave listeners—just as it had given us—some relief from the gravity of the moment, without stepping back from its intense intimacy. The dog soothed us in the story in the way that pets do in real life. It was real life. I didn’t comment on this in the script; instead, we merely hear the sounds, the woman saying “That’s a good dog!” and me saying, “Sheelagh and Ross’s dalmatian trots in from the other room.” This gave the listeners a chance to catch their breath and gave me the opportunity to steer the story toward a small scrap of hope that Sheelagh and Ross, and their community, were hanging onto. No awards for that one, I’m afraid. Radio also has its limitations. While it’s particularly well-suited to some environmental stories, with others its limitations can be more pronounced. Environmental stories are about connections and relationships, many of them subtle and unseen. They tend to evolve slowly over time and often need a good deal of exposition of background and context. They usually involve a broad array of perspectives along with the head-scratching science that is often at once arcane and highly uncertain. This complexity makes some environmental stories particularly challenging to tell in a medium as ephemeral as radio.
Sound can’t capture everything. Newspapers or television can feature images of cryptosporidium microorganisms, for instance, but those bugs don’t make any noise. Nor does drinking water contaminated with them sound any different coming out of the tap than clean water does. But a little creative thinking or even dumb luck can always help. When I was reporting a story on drinking water quality for “Living On Earth,” I happened to be staying with a friend in Philadelphia who runs her tap water through a Brita filter. I used the sound of her filling up her water container and complaining about the city’s bad water. Later, in reporting the same story, I went to a farm to look into agricultural contamination of waterways. One of the cows obliged me by defecating right in front of my microphone, a few dozen yards from a creek. I used it in the story.
We got an award for that one, too.
Peter Thomson was the founding editor and producer of “Living on Earth” and in nearly 10 years with the program also served as senior editor, west region bureau chief, senior correspondent, and special projects editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Boston.