A Reed Radio Renaissance

Reed students tend to be opinionated, outspoken, and inquisitive. What better place for them to critically question the world than radio? Reed has a long and storied history of radio personalities, from the quirky Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen ’63) to the news-oriented Arun Rath ’92, weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered. What is it then about the siren call of radio that attracts so many Reedies? Is it the glamour of a dying medium? The narcissistic impulse to hear yourself on air? Or is it simply an excuse to ask people invasive questions, satisfy your own curiosity, and get paid for it?

Reed to Russia

Sasha Peters ’15, history-literature major and recipient of a 2015 Watson Fellowship, is one of many Reedies working in the expanding field of podcasting. As part of her Watson Fellowship, Peters will be creating radio stories over the course of the coming year as she travels throughout eastern Europe and explores the history of various abandoned sites from the former Soviet Union.

At the start of her freshman year at Reed, Peters started writing for the Quest, which sparked her interest in journalism. By the time second semester of her freshman year rolled around she was an editor, a position she held for the next year and a half. Like many other Reedies who later went on to pursue a career in broadcast radio, Peters also had a radio show on KRRC.

“It took all of the pressure off,” says Peters of her former show, Breast Friends Forever, hosted with Leah Artenian ’15. “It was really good practice.”

Peters’ practice eventually paid off. She landed an internship with Rendered, a Portland-based podcast (formerly Destination DIY), where since last summer she has developed shows. Peters has managed to find an opportune balance between her academics and her passion for radio. “I think being a history-literature major fits them well,” says Peters of the influence of her academics on her interest in radio. “Both of them are about storytelling, factual and fictional. They both have definitely helped in terms of identifying what I like and don’t like and why.”

Although her childhood wasn’t spent glued to the radio, she has recently become a loyal fan of various radio shows and podcasts, such as 99% Invisible, Serial, Here Be Monsters, and Invisibilia. “It seems like such a hard thing to want to do now,” says Peters of a career in radio. “There are more instantiated shows. There are definitely a lot more people listening to podcasts.”

A Forgiving Deep End

Alexi Horowitz ’14 is another Reedie in radio — and one who didn’t waste much time before finding his niche. After graduating from Reed in 2014, Horowitz began working for KBOO, Portland’s community radio station, before moving to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). KBOO offers volunteers the opportunity to develop their own radio pieces and get a sense of what radio work is actually like. The open, community-based atmosphere lets volunteers walk in one day and be on the air with their own segment the next. KBOO is a great place for students who are interested in radio and have little to no experience to beef up their resumes and get some experience on air. “I started working at KBOO to sharpen my skills and get into the habit of doing daily reporting stuff. They just kind of throw you into the deep end,” Horowitz laughingly reminisces. “But it’s a forgiving deep end.”

Horowitz’s interest in radio began early on in his Reed career. “I found out about OPB my freshman year because it was an NPR affiliate. Radio has been a good way for me to stay informed — it’s fast, it’s passive, you can listen and have it in the background, and at a place like Reed where you’re constantly running around doing things and reading things, it’s nice to have some way to kind of fill the space.”

Like Peters, Horowitz’s interest in radio began with print journalism. “I had done a lot of journalism in high school. I worked at the city newspaper in Santa Fe, where I’m from, and I edited and wrote for my high school newspaper, did some stuff with the Quest here.”

Having studied history while at Reed, Horowitz managed to combine his academic and journalistic pursuits. “They’ve definitely informed each other. . . . The three things I'm interested in right now, both in life potentially and in general, are history, creative writing and journalism, and then law. They’re all oriented around research, evidence, facts — kind of sifting through the world and finding artifacts of different phenomena and then figuring out ways to interpret those facts and create narrative structures out of them that have different implications or suggest different ways of looking at the world or acting in the world.”

For Horowitz, radio and academics fit together perfectly: “I did an audio essay for my final project for Modern Humanities. I tried to incorporate audio stuff into my course work as much as I could here, and you know, despite how traditional and conservative the academics can be here, that was pretty easy. Instead of doing a paper I enlisted some of the different professors and different people at the school that had exerted some sort of psychological import on me at my time to read or represent these different authors. So Darius Rejali (Political Science, 1989–) was Rousseau; Peter Steinberger (Political Science, 1977–) was Kant; Ben Lazier (History, 2005–) was Nietzsche; Nathalia King (English, 1987–) was Hannah Arendt; Roger Porter (English, 1963–) was Wordsworth and Thomas Mann; Katja Garloff (German, 1997–) was Trotsky; John Kroger was Edmund Burke; Margot Minardi (History, 2007–), my thesis adviser, was Mary Wollstonecraft; David Garrett (History, 1998–) was Baudelaire.”

There are many similarities between the paths that Horowitz and Peters took into radio. Horowitz, like Peters, was also the recipient of an academic grant that allowed him to undertake a project involving radio. “I got a McGill-Lawrence Grant to do this podcast pilot for the New Mexico History Museum, and for that I was doing a lot of interviews. One of the guys that I was working with, Jack Leffler, was a great friend of Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder and was really associated with Beat literature and counterculture, and that was one of the big reasons I came to Reed, having read The Dharma Bums. . . . While I was there I got to interview him and just see really how radio can be this whole lifetime relationship and way of accessing the world and a pretense to talk to the people you’re interested in.”

Horowitz’s enthusiasm for radio is infectious. He discusses traditional and online broadcasting without affect and reveals a passion for the possibilities presented by the medium. Horowitz is optimistic about the explosion of podcasts and online radio broadcasting, calling the current period a “Radio Renaissance.” Horowitz sees shows such as This American Life and Serial as creative new ways of working the medium. “We’re discovering new forms of storytelling all the time, it feels like it’s still fresh and there are places to go.”

Kickin’ it Old School

This year’s Working Weekend, February 6 and 7, featured an opportunity for current students to cut their teeth in public broadcasting and radio editing with a two-day long intensive Radio Bootcamp hosted by Robert Smith ’89 and Miles Bryan ’13. Sasha Peters attended the same bootcamp with Smith two years ago in 2013.

Smith hosts Planet Money for NPR, a podcast that makes economic reporting accessible and engaging. The 15 minute podcast has come out twice a week since 2008 and focuses on how the global economy affects the daily lives of Americans. Previously, Smith covered a diverse array of subjects — the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the awe-inspiring landing of US Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, and the jungle that is New York politics — as NPR’s New York correspondent. Smith too got his start at Portland’s community radio station KBOO and Reed’s very own KRRC.

Bryan is new to life outside the bubble but isn’t wasting his time. He currently reports for Wyoming Public Radio and spent several months interning for NPR’s Los Angeles Bureau.

The two alumni walked a group of six Reedies through the basics of radio: how to ask questions, conduct interviews, record and edit short segments of tape, radio slang for audio recordings. Smith firmly believes that radio “is the most awesome career in life you can have,” because it engages with the world and all kinds of different people. He thinks public broadcasting appeals to many Reedies because “it’s a mixture of an intellectual discipline, a social discipline, and a sales job” and allows them to think critically about the world. Smith is convinced that the only thing holding Reedies back from taking over the radio industry is the performance aspect. It’s no surprise to any of us that Reedies are, in general, shy and introverted and so a job that requires them to spend all day talking to strangers may not be high on their list of things to do post-graduation.

Smith and Bryan began the bootcamp Friday evening with a general overview of radio. Smith regaled students with stories from his beginning days in radio saying, “I would wear a suit to protests. . . I tried to sound smarter than the people I was interviewing, it was a very Reed thing that was bred into me.”

He says the hardest thing to learn in radio was “how to ask stupid questions and write simple sentences. It’s super hard to ask stupid questions. I look back on my thesis now and I literally do not understand it. I had to relearn how to write for radio.” Bryan agreed jokingly that “Reed prioritized obfuscation, the guy in the conference whom no one understood was always considered the smartest.”

For Smith, radio is a full-contact sport: “You’re in the game, you’re trying to be your best and trying to get the best out of them. . . tape is cheap, you have to think you’re on the air in that moment. . . you want to be somebody’s ally, create a sense of play where you have fun together and you enlist them in the game.” Smith stressed this point multiple times: “people give you what you give them — this is good life advice, not just radio advice.”

Bryan works a slightly different tactic. “What I like to do is be really stupid and rude, get people mad at me, people are so great when they’re mad on tape. If someone’s house has burnt down I like to go up to them and say, ‘So this isn’t so bad, right? I mean, you have another house, don’t you?’ And then they say, ‘No I don’t have another fucking house! This is horrible, my house burnt down!’ and you’ve got a great piece of tape.”

Both Smith and Bryan agree upon the sales component of radio. “The idea of radio is that the people listening are not you and are not your friends,” says Smith, “you have to be selling people constantly on the information you’re telling them, every bit needs to be compelling enough that you want to move on to the next bit and remember the last bit at the same time.” Bryan chimed in, “You’re crafting a story, that’s actually one of my favorite things about it.”

On Saturday, students were sent off to craft their own stories. They collected tape for vox pops, short segments featuring several people answering the same question. On Friday night Smith asked the assembled students and alumni if they knew what it stood for.

Kieran Hanrahan ’15 immediately raised his hand and answered, “Vox populi, it’s Latin, voice of the people.” Bryan sat up in his chair and said, “That’s what it stands for? I never knew that, cool.” Smith turned to him, disbelievingly. “Are you fucking kidding me? You didn’t know that? How did you did graduate?” Bryan glanced at your writers and said, “don’t write that down. Are you writing that down?”  

Bryan and Smith both lamented the startling absence of their fellow Reedies in public broadcasting. “Public radio should be filled with Reed students, this industry is built for us,” said Smith. Bryan chalked it up to the insatiable desire for knowledge that comes with being a Reedie. “Reedies are intellectually curious, they want an excuse to invade peoples homes and privacy and ask them questions, they want to learn; radio is about learning.”

The students’ vox pops went swimmingly. Every student left the bootcamp with their first foray into radio under their belts and a minute of tape.

Long Live the Strange

Reed’s own Dr. Demento is almost certainly the most successful alumnus to have worked in traditional radio broadcasting. Dr. Demento, otherwise known as Barry Hansen ’63, began his highly successful radio career as station manager of KRRC. Hansen, a music major, eventually made his way down to Los Angeles, where he landed a radio spot of his own. With his eclectic taste and quirky on-air persona, Hansen eventually developed a wide listenership and a strong following; influencing the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Weird Al Yankovic.

The nature of radio has changed remarkably since the early days of Dr. Demento’s career. Rather than listening to live radio broadcasts during daily or weekly time slots, people have shifted towards downloading and listening to podcasts at their own leisure. With the advent of the Internet and portable devices, radio listeners are now able to listen to shows whenever and wherever they please, without needing to tune into a radio channel. As Horowitz notes, listening to podcasts on the go is particularly convenient for the modern multitasker who wants to stay entertained or informed while doing other things. The rise of podcasts, if understood as an evolution of traditional radio broadcasting, has ushered in a new era of radio, both in terms of the ways we listen and the content we listen to.

KRRC lost its broadcasting rights in 2011 but is working hard on obtaining a license and should soon be back on the air.It is hard to say what the overall value of maintaining a radio signal is in an increasingly digital world, but hopefully soon KRRC will be a springboard for radio stars of future generations.

Those worried about the approaching death of radio are in the same camp as the mourners of Olde Reed. Smith assured us it wouldn’t draw its last breath until the autonomous cars come, so we’ve got a good ten years to take over, and with the growing interest in podcasts it seems future possibilities are endless.

A selection of this year’s Radio Bootcamp vox pops can be found on our website, www.reedthegrail.com, and those from 2013 can be found on Reed Magazine’s website http://www.reed.edu/reed_magazine/.