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Working with the Kitchen Sisters

Art Silverman

I'm the lucky guy who got to hear each new radio offering from The Kitchen Sisters every few weeks in 1999. Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva sent the finest in audio treasures to my office at National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

small logo for Lost and FoundSoundLost & Found Sound meant that every Friday that year, we presented another installment of the series on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered. Sometimes the story would be from The Kitchen Sisters, other times from their co-executive producer Jay Allison, still other times from independent producers or NPR staff members. Each offered a fresh look at old audio.

I served as translator between the deadline and production needs of a demanding daily news program and the creative needs of the independent producers.We all spoke the language of audio, but our dialects differed.
"We all spoke the language of audio, but our dialects differed. I served as a middleman between the swift decision-making style of journalists and the almost cinematic visions of The Kitchen Sisters."
I served as a middleman between the swift decision-making style of journalists and the almost cinematic visions of The Kitchen Sisters. I feel I now understand what the White House press secretary goes through. I found myself trying to remain neutral as I translated the desires of each side to the other. I became a semi-successful, impartial negotiator.

The Kitchen Sisters work with great intensity on a single story. Their probing of the possibilities of sound involves music, sound effects, timing, and other subtleties that require hours in the studio. They revise and revise, challenging the deadline to a duel.

Our news producers work equally hard on a wide array of stories, giving each the maximum scrutiny—to the point where time forbids going any further. A producer of the program All Things Considered weighs features and news and commentary on a slip-sliding scale. The clock and the cutaway times reign the producer in. The clock always wins. So you compromise.

These two approaches to storytelling collide when a series such as Lost & Found Sound comes on the scene. Only now that it's over can I talk about it. I'm past the point of slitting my wrists. I'm actually in denial that it ever happened. Lost & Found Sound still continues on All Things Considered, now as an occasional series, so the profound tension of a weekly deadline ceases to exist.

On the NPR side, this project meant relinquishing absolute control. That was a tough concept to swallow. Part of the order at NPR depends on making radio our way, no other way.

All Things Considered also has an unwritten code in how individual stories should be presented. We shy away from long lists of credits at the conclusion of stories. Stories and stories. They appear without formal titles. We like feature stories finished well before they broadcast. We reserve panic for breaking news, not for celebrations of 100 year old audio.

Enter The Kitchen Sisters.

"They are artists  with audio, not  journalists."
Davia and Nikki work wonders with tape in ways no one else does. It's part of their sensibility to let the subject tell the story. They are artists with audio, not journalists.

I understand and admire what they do. I want to do it. In a few selfish moments over my 20 plus years at NPR, I've found time to toy with longer work. But I also love plunging into a story at 10 o'clock in the morning and having a completed work on the radio at five in the afternoon. That quick and dirty magic has its own rewards.

The Kitchen Sisters make the time disappear. To achieve the results they have achieved, there's no other way. They compose multi-layered epics on digital workstations, with the help of Jim McKee at Earwax Studios in San Francisco.

Let me not mince words: every Friday on which one of their stories aired panic ensued. If not from the actual story being delivered just in time (with revised version following revised version), with questions about how to introduce the story or how many people to credit cropping up.

These incidents stood in the path of the fast-moving train of a two-hour daily news program. Was it worth it? Every second of it. Not only did I hone my feeble negotiating skills, but I learned how much a huge organization can bend to accommodate creativity. And in the other direction, I saw how artists can depend on a huge organization to make excellent work shine.

In addition to impressing me with their skills in the studio, The Kitchen Sisters taught me to think of the actual radio production as just one aspect of the whole enterprise. To aid in making Lost & Found Sound work, Davia and Nikki rally whole departments I didn't even know existed at NPR. The Web site for the series shows how that pays off. The Sisters kept a fire under our publicity folks, too. Same for graphic design and station services. Thanks to these two talented outsiders, I now have a better knowledge of my own company.

As this series unfolded on the air, compromises allowed each episode to have a name, as if it were a movie or book. Also, we played a standard theme each time an installment began. We let The Kitchen Sisters include production credits that to our ears seemed impossibly long.

"I can...feel for the first time in my career of daily journalism, that something I worked on has permanence."
Now there's Volume One of a Lost & Found CD on the market. I can sit at home, with the pain and anxiety of each week's deadline happily forgotten, and feel for the first time in my career of daily journalism, that something I worked on has permanence.

Making Lost & Found Sound | Oral History-1 | Oral History-2 | Durham Talk | Working with the Kitchen Sisters 

Working With the Kitchen Sisters
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