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It’s All About Tone: Listening to David Candow

 

***

October 9th is the two year anniversary of the day I quit public radio. I wasn’t happy about walking away from a fifteen-year career in broadcast. It hurt to look at anything from my old job. I boxed up the eleven spiral-bound steno pads that hold more than a decade of to-do lists, pre-interview details, aircheck feedback, and notes from training sessions. I didn’t want to look at them again.

Last Thursday, though, I decided it was time to sift through the detritus of my years as a host, producer and editor. On top of the stack was a piece of paper, “Writing for Radio”. David Candow gave it to me during one of his annual training sessions at my station.

David was a former CBC producer and trainer who became a circuit riding consultant at public radio stations around the country. His list of yellow flags for writing hung by my computer for years. Looking at it last week, I thought, “I’ll never need this again.” I crumpled it up and threw it away.

The next day a friend who still works at my old station called me. She said, “Megan, I wanted to be sure you heard it from me. David  Candow died.”

I sat in silence, which is rare for me. I started crying. David inspired me and encouraged me. His message about the power of oral storytelling made me feel like I belonged in public radio. Losing him severed the last emotional tie to my past life.

***

David started at the CBC back when the network still produced radio theatre. Like me, his first love was the stage and performance. Unlike me, he became a major documentary producer, a trainer for CBC Radio, and he traveled the world teaching journalism. I knew there would be tributes to him all over the place. He touched so many lives.

Right after I hung up the phone, and stopped crying, I started searching the Internet. I wanted to find something that went deeper than 140 characters, something to tell me what I didn’t know about him.  I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until late Saturday afternoon when I found Scott Simon’s remembrance on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. I purposely avoided reading the transcript and listened to the audio instead. David Candow’s gospel was that the tone of your voice tells more than words on a page ever could. Voice conveys true emotion.

I was disappointed. Scott Simon used pretty words, but his script and delivery defied all of David’s teaching. It sounded like Scott was just reading the page, not speaking from the heart. He used the auto-voice of a seasoned broadcaster. With each sentence, I could hear David calling out, “Words don’t carry a message! Only TONE tells the listener what it means. Words by themselves mean nothing!”

Rather than a warm memory of a man who shaped a generation of public radio voices, I remembered what David Candow railed against in his trainings. I looked at the transcript of Scott’s commentary. It was exactly what he read on the air. To the eye, the tribute was fine. But, having spent days analyzing scripts with David Candow over my shoulder, prodding me to make it better, I saw yellow flags all over the place.

Since I already had the Pandora’s box of steno pads open, I took the time to go through each one and mark the pages of notes I made during David’s training. Then I transcribed the notes into a spreadsheet. It was something I meant to do since February 2010 – the post-it note reminding me to do it was still on top of the notebook. His words jumped off the page. I could hear his voice in my head again. And I saw exactly what David would say about his radio tribute, if he edited it.

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***

“David Candow was 74. He was a slightly tubby man from Newfoundland with a sly smile and a soft voice.”

Scott described David using adjectives. From a February 2010 training, I found this note:

“Bad Radio Habit #7: Using adjectives rather than verbs. Adjectives are paint by number. Verbs allow the listener to paint their own picture. Describing someone as a “plain woman with a brown sweater and simple shoes” tells me nothing about her as a person. Instead, recount the action of her character, “she would blush when spoken to and shuffle around the corner”. 

Tubby reduces David to a caricature. David had the physique of a man who traveled thousands of miles of year, squeaking out a living on consulting fees. He didn’t think twice about eating tinned meat from a drugstore to save money. He built a house with his own hands. I never saw him sitting and relaxing.

“People who make their living on the air often distrust consultants.” 

Scott assigned his attitude to all broadcasters. From a May 2004 training, I found this note:

“It’s wimpy to use “Those who say” or “Some people” or attribute statements to the masses. Stand up to being the devil’s advocate. Wear what you say as your own.”

When the Washington Post wrote an article about David Candow in 2008, they quoted Scott Simon. Candow led a training at my station six weeks after the story ran. He was humble about it, and laughed that Scott said anything. He said he spent very little time with him, and confirmed that Scott didn’t want to talk to him. David said their meeting had been years and years earlier, and that he didn’t hear that he made any difference in Scott’s delivery.

The yellow flags continue through the whole script.

“David had a few rules for writing, which he called “good ideas,” because he knew journalists balk at rules. Over the years, I’ve found David Candow’s advice as valuable as George Orwell’s, with which it had a lot in common.” 

A  “good idea” from David’s “Writing for Radio”:

“The words which or that are strong indicators that you are about to write a subordinate clause. Put a full stop in front of them, and begin a new sentence.”

David’s advice came out of the knowledge that listening is linear and contextual. The ear can’t process information the same way the eye can. So, he advised us to only deliver one thought per sentence, in order, leading to a conclusion.

“Avoid corporate and technical cliches, and if you begin to hear a word too much — bandwidth, curate, eclectic and robust are my current least-favorites — it’s become a cliche; don’t use it.” 

“The use of a conjunction in the middle of a sentence indicates you are linking two thoughts.”

“And like Orwell, David said, “Break any of these rules if it will help people remember what you say.” 

The second reference to George Orwell, without telling me what George Orwell’s advice was. It reminded of something David said in May 2004,

“Don’t be stingy with knowledge. Don’t be exclusionary.”

I had to search online to find George Orwell’s Rules of Effective Writing to know what the comparison meant. I’ve read Orwell’s books, but I’m not an expert. As a listener, the reference made me feel like I didn’t do my homework rather than illustrating the subject of the tribute. I couldn’t remember what Scott said because I was too busy trying to figure out what he was saying.

Scott closed by saying,

David Candow used to remind us, “One of the most compelling sounds for the human ear is the sound of another human voice talking about something they care about.”

If you’re reading this post rather than listening to the audio version, you’re missing my point. You’re also making it.

Radio is all about tone, something the written word can never provide. From May 2004,

“Tone is as important as script.”

It’s simply not compelling to hear someone read an article written for the eye.

In my indignation after hearing Scott, I e-mailed all my old radio friends, asking if they heard it. None of them did. They saw the written version, read it, and were touched by it. They even shared it on Facebook. Indeed, it’s a fine piece of writing for the eye. But, none of them listened to it.

In the era of the Internet, no one has time to listen. Not even radio professionals. Twitter was awash in mentions. I eventually found a tumblr site with heartfelt remembrances and personal photos that made me smile. A web producer shared an e-mail exchange about applying David’s work to the web – prophetic about the shift of media.

Lots of writing. No audio, except Scott Simon. It looked to me like David took radio – and the authentic tone of the human voice – with him.

***

Scott Simon flouted David Candow’s lessons, but he did me a favor. Had I heard a passionate, sincere and informative remembrance of the man who gave me my most valuable storytelling tools, I might not have gone back and combed through all those notes. David sprang to life again in my mind as I read them. My memories came back as vivid as when I struggled to make daily deadlines and produce radio that touched people’s lives.

Scott still has the deadlines. He still faces the pressures that I quit two years ago. He managed to turn around his piece and have it ready for national broadcast in twenty-four hours. It’s taken me four days to pull this together. I admit I’m not being fair in dissecting his work. We all express grief in different ways.

***

When David and I last met, back in October 2011, I asked him if he was archiving all his workshop information. He said he tried to write a book with his daughter. He said she’s an excellent writer. But, he found he couldn’t convey the importance of tone through writing.

David and I often talked about the tension between the oral tradition and the written tradition. The spoken word is transient and malleable while the written word is permanent and authoritative. He told me this as we discussed why it was so hard to get journalists to tear themselves away from the page, to let their natural way of speaking lead their delivery.

I grew up awash in oral storytelling. I admired Carl Kasell, Charlie Rose, David Brinkley, and Charles Kuralt – all fellow North Carolina natives. Their straightforward style and honest connection inspired me. David once asked me, “You know why so many radio people came from North Carolina?”

He said, like Newfoundland, it was a place of Irish immigrants and not much money. Oral tradition dominates where formal education is unavailable. As a result, the oral tradition was often connected with poverty and ignorance, people who didn’t have the benefit of learning from the higher form of the written word. But, David pointed out, radio is an oral medium.

I suggested recording a series of interviews where he could share all his experience and insight. Like music, you can’t learn radio from a book. David wasn’t interested. He hustled to make a living. He was an itinerant preacher of a dying art form. I suspected he didn’t want to compete with himself. Why would anyone fly him in for a week of workshops if they could just buy a packet of audio files?

I don’t know the real reason he didn’t want to preserve his oral wisdom. But I do know I couldn’t cajole him into even one interview. When we parted I implored him to consider recording something. I hope he found a way to preserve the real magic of his teaching, if only the melody of his Newfoundland accent. I’ll keep listening for him.

Megan Candow 2007-1

 

***

I’m a story consultant and an independent producer now. Last week I threw away David’s “Writing for Radio” because I thought it no longer applied to me. But, that’s not the case. As I unearthed all my notes, I found that his teaching still applies.

So long as people talk to one another, mastering direct language and authentic tone pays off. Even if radio as an industry becomes simply a reading service for online articles, there will always be places where people want to hear humans sounding like humans.

You can’t replace sitting in a room with him, but for the sake of passing on the wisdom he gave me, I’ve created a spreadsheet of all my notes from Candow’s trainings, by date and topic. Feel free to download it and see if any gems help you in your work.

I finally completed my post-it note task from 2010.

**UPDATE: 10/2/14, I found one more notebook from a January 2009 training and added 75 more entries to the spreadsheet.**

Download (XLS, 25KB)

I also scanned pdf’s of all the handouts he gave me. He told me a producer helped him pull those together. He was reticent about documenting even that much. When he passed them out, he kept asking if they made sense, if they were helpful at all. They are. My thanks to the nameless producer who wrangled him into that much documentation.

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

 

The Best Worst Night On The Job

Q98Van
photo by Glenn Sukys

My first lesson in radio was how to say the letter “W”. Dave Stone, the program director who hired me to cover weekends on Q98, WQSM, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, informed me it is “Double-You”, not “Dubya”. I spent my high school years competing in speech and debate, graduated college with a theatre degree and acted professionally in a few productions, but Southern accents die hard.

Before I could leave his office, he instructed me to learn a few other things about radio:
1. No one wants to hear you blather. Shut up and play the music.
2. Caller number 10 isn’t really the winner. Women age 18-45 are our demographic. They win. If a man calls in tenth, take another call.
3. It doesn’t matter if you detest R. Kelly’s  “I Believe I Can Fly”, you are not paid to play music you like. Play what’s on the list. So, stop spinning Crash Test Dummies.

Radio in 1996 was not like it looked on WKRP in Cincinnati in 1980.

***

I came to radio via theatre. After college I worked as a regional theatre stage manager and then an actor with a traveling children’s theatre show. It was a two-person play designed for easy portability so we could hit two to three schools a day with our forty-five minute versions of Robin Hood and the Greek Myths. We traveled from one school cafetorium to another, criss-crossing the Southeast. I swear they all served the exact same Salisbury steak, whipped potatoes and green beans on the days we performed.

Somewhere in the middle of a 300-mile day, driving a white kidnapper van with my reticent acting partner, I decided I wasn’t cut out for the theatre life. I tried to imagine how I’d feel with a more engaging role in a real play, better hotels, audiences that used full-size toilets, but I still couldn’t see how I’d like the endless touring, never feeling like I really belonged anywhere.

The balm to my brain on those tedious drives was listening to the radio. NPR interviews and shows kept me company, and they kept my mind from turning the consistency of those Salisbury steaks. I didn’t feel so alone when I was sitting down with Terry Gross and another fascinating guest.

About three months into the tour, I began to strategize about getting a public radio job. It had all the performance and arts I wanted, but hosts got to use their own words. I liked talking with real people more than following someone else’s dialogue over and over and over and over and…

On top of that, I was in love. I fell for a cool younger guy who was the Assistant Technical Director at the regional theatre. He was going to school in Fayetteville, where all my family was. I wanted to spend time with him, and an acting career demands absolute loyalty. Love doesn’t lead to stardom.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only person getting out of theatre. The Operations Manager at the theatre in Fayetteville recently left to start at Q98, running the overnight shift. He put in a word for me to fill-in on weekends once I got off tour.

Only theatre people would think moving into radio in the 90’s was a good career move.

***

Q98 wasn’t the public radio job I dreamed of during those long van trips. It was a commercial adult contemporary station, 100,000 watts, playing hits from Mariah Carey, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Celine Dion. It wasn’t my kind of music, but it was a chance to get experience that I thought might help me move into the coveted coffee cup and Birkenstock culture of non-profit radio.

Even though I had little enthusiasm for Q98’s music in 1996, it was the station I loved as a kid. I still have cassette tapes I made of broadcasts in the 80’s, recording “Say You, Say Me” from Lionel Richie. “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner and John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”. At slumber parties we would call  up the Q98 DJ’s to giggle and request Duran Duran. So, part of me was a *little* excited to work there.

Before my first Saturday running the board all by myself I told all my friends, my family, and my boyfriend to listen. I imagined I’d blow them away, like MTV’s Nina Blackood, all smooth tones and cool vibes. Unfortunately, after I announced a call-in contest for tickets to see Toni Braxton, I forgot to turn off the mic. So, while I tried to answer the phones – which were muted when the mic was open – everyone I cared about heard  me fumble with the controls, talking to myself, “Huh, why isn’t this phone working? Hello? Q98, hello?” Surprisingly, Dave Stone gave me a second chance.

***

Within a few weeks, I got to earn the sweetest money of the gig, a remote broadcast. I only made $6 an hour to forward promote Duncan Shiek’s “Barely Breathing”, but taking the station van to a car dealership paid $50 an hour for three hours. Easy. Money.

This time I didn’t tell anyone, in case I had another disaster. I did tell my mom. She had to listen, she was my mom.

It was a weekday afternoon and I sat by the van in a vast parking lot, surrounded by Escorts and Probes. Twice an hour the DJ tossed it over to me so I could smile and say, “Hey, hey, come on down to Lafayette Ford on Raeford Road! I’m here with great deals and the prize wheel. Drop on by, take a spin, and get your pick of a CD, a T-shirt or a bunch of other great gifts. Then you gotta check out these  super sales they’ve got on the Fiesta and a four-wheel drive Bronco. Lafayette Ford and Q98, hot fun in the summertime!” If I could, I’d wrestle some passer-by to cheer and yell behind me while I talked, to make it sound even more like a raucous party.

When I got home, my mom asked me if I had a great time. I looked at her with my fresh sunburn, hair plastered to my head with sweat, my head still spinning from exhaust fumes. “NO.”

“But it sounded like you were having a great time.”

“Welcome to the reality of radio, mom. I get paid to fake it. Everything in radio is fake. Caller number 10… isn’t. Turns out I didn’t leave acting after all.”

***

By the time a few more weeks passed, the thrill was long gone. I wasn’t making much more than minimum wage. I was bored. Sitting at the controls all weekend, I’d mutter to myself, “I graduated summa cum laude and THIS is the best I can do. I’m twenty-freaking-three years old with a high school job.” I played Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” and had to agree with her. It was like a free ride when I already paid.

I considered calling up the touring children’s theatre and begging for my job back. But then, I got a tiny break. The evening DJ took a job with a dance club. My friend got promoted out of overnights and took over the seven to midnight shift. The station needed an overnight announcer.

To be clear, Q98 did not need dulcet tunes and a wicked personality to rock the Sandhills all night long. The station needed a living human being capable of pushing a button in case of disaster. WQSM was the Emergency Alert Repeater for the five county area.

Every other station in the region automated overnights. If an emergency occurred, the overnight DJ at Q98 had to be able to push the button to override those other frequencies and deliver alerts and public safety information.

My big break required none of my education and talent, just my finger. Or possibly an elbow if I was eating a sandwich at the time. Still, a break is a break. It kept me in town, close to my boyfriend. I took the job. I did not get a raise.

***

It didn’t take long for me to start automating myself overnight. I’d spend the first hour taping all the breaks till 6 a.m. into the computer system. Then I’d go to my boss’s desk and take a spin on a new-fangled thing called the Internet. Searching Yahoo, looking up old friends, eating Lean Cuisine microwave meals and making sure disaster didn’t go unnoticed. That was my job.

The building housed both Q98 and its AM news-radio sister station, WFNC. Another part of my job was making sure that signal stayed on the air, so that listeners wouldn’t miss The Art Bell Show, Coast to Coast, broadcast from the “Land of Nye”, Nevada.

Art Bell talked about the paranormal, the occult, pseudoscience, and UFO’s. As I floated through the halls of the station, all alone, a ghost in the middle of the machines, I’d hear his guests discuss topics that were far scarier in the dark of 2 a.m. One night he hosted “honest-to-goodness vampires”. I had to hide in the FM control booth because it creeped me out so badly.

Art Bell had 15 million listeners, the highest rated late-night radio host in the country. I maybe had 15. There were fans of my shift, though. Convenience store attendants appreciated knowing someone else was awake like them. And then there were the boys at the glue factory.

One night the glue guys called up the request line and said they wanted to know what I looked like. The sad truth about radio is that most people who go into it have a face for radio. So, I lied.

I said, “Well, I’m five-foot ten, I have long, blonde hair, blue eyes…”

The guy on the other end of the phone relayed each trait to the guys standing near him, “She says she’s blonde!”

Then I said, “And my real name is Christie Brinkley.”

They were disappointed. But, desperate for human contact, I started asking them about their jobs, why they got into glue manufacturing, what the most interesting thing about their work was. Finally I jokingly asked, “When do the horses arrive?”

He said, “They come in on Thursday.”

I learned too much. But, they were my fans.

***

The date passed when I would have started rehearsing the next season at the children’s theatre. My boyfriend transferred to a new university an hour-and-a-half up the Interstate. Since I worked all night, I slept all day and never saw anybody socially. I had the radio remorse real bad. Then, Mother Nature came to rescue.

Hurricane Fran was a Category 3 storm, bigger than Hugo or Andrew. In early September ’96, she blew past South Carolina and made her way toward Cape Fear. From there, the hurricane followed the Cape Fear River into the mainland and headed right for Fayetteville. It was getting dark when the winds picked up and the entire news team and on-air staff hunkered down for a long night of tracking.

I showed up for my shift early in the evening and ran the board while reporters came in during the commercial breaks to deliver updates and emergency shelter information. The winds and rain kept getting worse, and finally the news director made the call. They suspended all programs, simulcast on both the AM and FM, and went wall-to-wall with Fran coverage. I had never seen that kind of news action. I loved it.

A little before midnight, power went out around the area. More than a million people lost electricity. The station had a backup generator for just that reason. We kept broadcasting.

Hurricane Fran was exactly the emergency that made my job necessary. It was the moment when I was supposed to push the button and take over five counties worth of signal. Unfortunately, the engineer was there and he did it for me.

Then, the news wire went down. Phone lines snapped. The fledgling Internet was no use for real-time information. News staff scrambled to get reliable reports from TV, but every other station was in the same situation.

The news director debated about how to address our limitations on-air without inciting panic. We were broadcasting, but we were as blind about events as our listeners. Outside, gusts reached almost 100 mph, and tornadoes began to spin off the winds. I got scared. That’s when a woman named Wendy Riddle taught me what radio is all about.

Wendy was the voice of my childhood. My dad was a devoted listener of her daily call-in show, “Sound Off”. When she wasn’t on the air, she was a wickedly good actor, singer and stage performer. Her picture hung all over the regional theatre where I used to work. I wanted to be like Wendy.

She walked into the control booth and said, “We’re going all phones.” With a calm, warm voice, Wendy told the listeners exactly what happened, that we needed them as much as they needed us. She told everyone that they were our eyes and ears, that as long as we had a signal we would let each other know that we weren’t alone.

The calls flooded in. People were hiding in bathtubs, watching 100 year-old trees snap in two, worrying about neighbors whose houses were obscured by sheets of sideways rain. Each and every caller said how much it meant to hear the voices in the dark coming through on their little battery radios.

Reporters tried to track the storm by the places people called from: Lumberton, then Red Springs, then Dunn. We knew Fran would keep moving, that it wouldn’t last forever, but every moment felt like an eternity.

When Wendy started to get hoarse from non-stop talking, the other hosts stepped in. I even got a chance to take calls. My voice was thin and shaky, but I was fueled by the intensity of talking with strangers in the middle of a terrifying night.

Finally, Fran moved on, smashing through Raleigh and wreaking havoc all the way up the Eastern seaboard. She managed to make it as far as southern Canada before finally venting all her force and settling into a light rain.

In Fayetteville, the sun rose on a scene of incredible damage. Neighborhoods were covered in splintered trees, powered stay out for days, sewage overflowed into the Cape Fear River, and at the station we all stayed in action-mode. I loved it.

That night I decided I definitely wanted to have a radio career. I knew it wasn’t the medium of the future. I suspected that the Internet might soon have more to offer than a dancing baby viral video. But, I wanted to learn how to bring a community together with nothing more than the power of voice.

***

I didn’t stay on overnights forever. I started producing the morning show. Then I got a job in North Myrtle Beach, not much better than Q98, but I got to be a morning show co-host. A little over a year later I got a job in public radio in Rocky Mount, North Carolina – where my boyfriend was in college. Eventually, I made my way to the Pacific Northwest and twelve years as a host and producer at an NPR station in Seattle. My dream.

But, two years ago I quit my radio career. This Internet thing IS big. Trying to stay relevant in the smart phone era, radio … didn’t feel like radio anymore. Audience numbers mattered more than making connections with the audience. I spent longer hours in the studio, and fewer at home.

I wasn’t the only one to step away from the mic. The guy who helped me get my first job left his gig and now has his own photography studio. Wendy Riddle retired. Even my first program director, Dave Stone, quit the business, changed his name, and moved to Portland.

I’ve been building my own business since then, and at the age of 41 I’m not even making what I did at Q98. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how things would turn out back when I was twenty-freaking-three.

In the wake of my radio life, I look back and wonder what I can take with me. Is there anything about radio that I loved and didn’t lose by giving up the air shift? For one, I’m spending more time with my husband. He was the cool boyfriend I wanted to be near in the first place. But, there’s more.

That night during Hurricane Fran we depended on a radio signal to stay in touch. But, it wasn’t really technology that brought thousands of people together. Radio didn’t make the magic, and neither does the Internet now. It was the voices in the dark. People sharing their fears, their hopes, and their lives with each other, that’s the magic.

I now co-produce a live storytelling show, Drunken Telegraph. It takes me full circle back to theatre. My husband runs tech for me, just like that first job out of college.

We invite people to take the stage and share real-life experiences with a roomful of strangers. Sharing and listening to those stories gives me what I loved most about radio, what made me want a radio career in the first place, the opposite of loneliness: community.