A Microphone on the Margins
The New York Times, Nov. 8, 1998
by Samuel G. Freedman
One afternoon in 1988, when David Isay was 22 years old and just stumbling into a passion for radio, he paid an unannounced visit to the Manhattan office of his father, a psychoanalyst. There he encountered a man who seemed to be living in an anteroom of the professional suite. At first, Mr. Isay's father explained away the stranger as a patient. Then he told the truth: he was gay and the man was his lover.
Stunned by the disclosure, Mr. Isay set about understanding the surreptitious life his father had led through years of marriage and parenting. There was nothing autobiographical, much less confessional, about his approach. With microphone and tape recorder and the license both objects conferred to ask questions, Mr. Isay began interviewing veterans of the Stonewall uprising, the 1969 brawl between homosexuals and police outside a Greenwich Village bar that catalyzed the gay-rights movement.
Six months later, the 25 minutes of "Stonewall Remembered" were broadcast on National Public Radio, becoming the first of Mr. Isay's documentaries to play on the network. Listeners heard from those exhilarated by the insurrection: a Vietnam veteran, a former convent girl, a drag queen, a lesbian now residing in a center for the elderly. They even heard from the public-morals investigator assigned to police the Stonewall Inn. Only at the very end, though, did they hear the producer responsible for the program intone simply, "I'm David Isay."
In the decade since that documentary, Mr. Isay has produced an acclaimed body of radio journalism that still hews to the paradoxical style of "Stonewall Remembered." Whether assembling pieces about ghetto teen-agers or Appalachian snake handlers, Bowery denizens or gospel quartets, Mr. Isay has made himself both determinedly absent and fiercely present, imprinting his sensibility while silencing his voice.
Mr. Isay (pronounced like the two words "I say") has won or shared in numerous awards, foremost among them two Peabodys for broadcast journalism. Working more as an oral historian than a newsman, he has influenced other radio documentarians even as he has occasionally tangled with the editors of National Public Radio. In the latest nod to Mr. Isay's stature, WNYC-FM (93.9) will present a two-hour retrospective of his work at 7 P.M. on Nov. 27, simulcast on WNYC-AM (820).
His success serves as proof that even a half-century after television should in theory have rendered radio obsolete, this relatively primitive medium provides certain satisfactions not even the highest technology can match. National Public Radio's flagship broadcast, "All Things Considered," draws a nightly audience of 7.7 million, not much less than the viewership for any one of the television network newscasts, and has created stars like Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, John Hockenberrry and Robert Krulwich. That Mr. Isay remains far more obscure than they to a general audience says less about public radio than about his own taste for invisibility.
"I find other people's stories so much more interesting than my story," he says. "I know my story. And I know I'm not much of a talker. I'm a much better listener. So I try to be the vehicle through which people's stories can be heard. What I'm looking for is poetry on the margins."
KEN MUELLER, the radio curator of the Museum of Television and Radio, puts it this way: "Just like Frederick Wiseman is cinema verite, David Isay is audio verite."
Even before entering radio, Mr. Isay had learned much about the meticulous editing that characterizes his work. He grew up, first in New Haven and then in Manhattan, with the example of his mother, Jane Isay, a book editor who has worked with authors like Harold Bloom and Melissa Fay Greene. "She taught me the ability to cut down to what's most interesting," he says, "to be brutal with yourself."
From his father, Robert, Mr. Isay says, he took "a real sense of the courage of people who are out of the mainstream and of the cruelty of the mainstream."
Still, both Mr. Isay's social conscience and incipient technique waited in latency as he graduated from New York University in 1987 and headed into medical school. During a break from class, he wandered past an East Village store specializing in books and supplies for 12-step programs. When Mr. Isay chatted with the owners, both recovered drug addicts, he found they were planning to open a "museum of addiction." They already had blueprints and a scale model made of tongue depressors.
Mr. Isay raced back to his apartment, threw open the Yellow Pages and began calling television and radio stations, trying to interest anyone in the story. Finally, he reached Amy Goodman, the news director at WBAI-FM, the Pacifica station known for its iconoclasm. "Sounds great," she told him. "I don't have anyone to do it. Why don't you?"
With a borrowed tape recorder and editing help from Ms. Goodman, Mr. Isay patched together a six-minute piece. On the day it was broadcast in 1988, a National Public Radio producer named Gary Covino happened to be visiting New York and listening to WBAI. Mr. Covino had earned his own reputation on NPR for assembling audio portraits, most notably one of a street demonstration against the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, from vast volumes of first-person testimony. Now he heard a kindred spirit. "It was rough," he recalls of the Isay piece, "but listening through the roughness I could hear this sensibility that intrigued me."
Through Ms. Goodman, he located Mr. Isay, a gangly, bespectacled fellow with, appropriately enough, very big ears. Mr. Covino re-edited the WBAI piece so it could run nationally on NPR's "Weekend All Things Considered." Then he paid the neophyte $50. "I was apologizing that it was so little," he says, "and Dave was flipping out because he didn't think he'd be paid at all."
So began the education of an acolyte. As Mr. Isay developed "Stonewall Remembered," he spent months immersed in tapes that Mr. Covino had sent him and in the broadcasts of "Weekend All Things Considered," which Mr. Covino produced. From those models, Mr. Isay learned to eschew the NPR formula of "acts and trax" -- slang for alternating sections of the ambient sound called actualities and vocal tracks -- in favor of using editing and overdubbing to create a dense aural tapestry.
When Mr. Isay began producing more pieces, Mr. Covino took sole responsibility for editing them. Justifiably or not, he depicted NPR's editors as "narrow minds who wouldn't hear the potential for terrific stories in his ideas." To this day, he proudly asserts, "We violated all the rules of NPR editorial apparatus."
Yet NPR broadcast virtually everything that Mr. Isay developed, bringing both the network and the young producer renown. Between 1990 and 1993, Mr. Isay traveled the country for the American Folklife Project, profiling characters from death row inmates to a Pullman porter to a minister with a 34-million-word diary. The series captured a Peabody honor, and the death row segment won the Livingston Award for excellence by a young journalist. Subsequently, Shanachie Records released highlights from the series and W. W. Norton published a companion book.
"These were stories of sacrifice, of quiet heroism," Mr. Isay wrote in the book, "Holding On." "There seemed to be eternal qualities shared by all of these subjects, but we couldn't pin them down. Was it the sense of loneliness? The bravery? Individuality? Resilience? Was it that oddly wistful feeling we were left with each time we visited one of these people?"
The impact of Mr. Isay's next major documentary, "Ghetto Life 101," was anything but ineffable. In 1993, Mr. Covino hired Mr. Isay to contribute to a yearlong series of broadcasts on race relations for WBEZ, the NPR affiliate in Chicago. Inspired by "There Are No Children Here," Alex Kotlowitz's book about two boys in a Chicago housing project, Mr. Isay created an aural equivalent -- except that he actually turned over the reporting to two 13-year-olds, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. The pair kept taped diaries and interviewed friends and family members, and Mr. Isay pared down more than 100 hours of material to an excruciating 25 minutes.
At one point, Lloyd Newman caught neighborhood children taunting his alcoholic father by daring him to spell "fool." Later in the broadcast, LeAlan Jones asked his older sister how many of her friends had been murdered. "Maybe a little less than 30," she replied. In still another scene, the two boys wandered into a downtown hotel as the lounge pianist played the theme song from the Peanuts cartoon series, surely not the soundtrack to their youth.
"Ghetto Life 101" won a Livingston Award and a Society of Professional Journalists prize, among others, and was translated for broadcast in several foreign countries. But Mr. Isay's proteges were not, as it turned out, finished yet. In 1996, a 5-year-old boy from the same housing project as Le Alan and Lloyd was pushed out a high-rise window to his death by assailants ages 10 and 11. With Mr. Isay again editing and producing, LeAlan and Lloyd reported a 25-minute documentary entitled "Remorse." Perhaps its most harrowing moment came in this exchange about the murdered boy:
LeAlan: Dude, you think they got a playground in heaven for shorties?
Lloyd: Nope. Ain't no playground in heaven for nobody.
LeAlan: I don't know, man. How you figure there ain't no playground in heaven for little kids?
Lloyd: God didn't make it special for nobody.
LeAlan: But, man, what Shorty gonna do up there? He wasn't old enough to do nothing bad enough to go to no hell. What he doin, just kickin' it? Or is he reincarnated? Maybe he be a little bird or something.
With "Remorse," Mr. Isay won his second Peabody and the only Grand Prize ever given to a radio program in the Robert F. Kennedy Awards for coverage of the disadvantaged. Scribner published a book compiling the transcripts and many outtakes from both "Remorse" and "Ghetto Life 101." Mr. Isay established his own nonprofit organization, Soundport, for which he currently raises $200,000 annually, enough to support himself and several employees and to cover production costs.
As important, Mr. Isay had found in the use of surrogate narrators a form that suited his temperament, one that began to be imitated in public-radio circles. He employed the trope most recently in "The Sunshine Hotel," a 25-minute portrait of a Bowery flophouse that was broadcast on "All Things Considered" in September. Mr. Isay chose Nathan Smith, the hotel manager, to introduce listeners to some of the 125 men who pay $4.50 a night for a 4-by-6 cubicle topped with chicken wire: the Russian immigrant with a weekend heroin habit, the former band boy with Tito Puente, the loan shark, the drug dealer, the senile 80-year-old abandoned by his son and living on Oreos. ÜÜÜSuch a cast, far from disturbing Mr. Isay, elicited his friendship. "He comes with a particular innocence," Mr. Smith says. "It disarms people. You don't think he's going to cut your throat or rob you. It was a heartfelt, honest thing he did."
Compassion and engagement, however, yielded more than 70 hours of raw tape. Which it fell to Mr. Isay and his digital editing machine to reduce in a manner that his mother might well have appreciated.
"He is a compulsive editor," says Stacy Abramson, Mr. Isay's associate producer. "It's enough to make you insane. He'll sit there and fine-tune and fine-tune and fine-tune. He'll make sure the timing of the phone call fits seamlessly over Nate's narration. It's so seamless you don't notice it. But it's been gone over and over and over. When you spent a year on a piece and boil it down to 25 minutes, every second has to be perfect."
Despite Mr. Isay's perfection, or perhaps because of it, he has at times feuded with NPR. "All Things Considered" turned down his 1995 audio diary of a prostitute dying of AIDS, though the segment later was broadcast on "Weekend All Things Considered" and took a Kennedy Award. The network withheld broadcast of Mr. Isay's 1991 documentary on a hospital for the criminally insane. The facility's director claimed, based on an advance script that Mr. Isay had provided her, that the report overemphasized the patients' violence. John Dinges, then NPR's managing editor, ordered it revised to address "serious questions about both accuracy and balance." Mr. Isay instead withdrew the documentary. It later was broadcast on another NPR show, "Soundprint," and, paradoxically enough, received an award from the American Psychological Association.
"There is always a prickly relationship with highly talented independent producers and the network," says Bill Buzenberg, who was NPR's vice president for news and information from 1990 through 1997. "It stems from the fact they are independent, don't want to work for the network, want to do radio art to the nth degree. So a mutual distrust gets in there sometimes."
MR. ISAY himself acknowledges the periodic tensions. "I've been viewed with suspicion," he says. "There's a feeling that when you do a non-narrated piece, when you don't write, when you do something like oral history, that you haven't done the research, that you don't know your facts. There's a feeling that you're cheating."
Those feelings have not lasted long, even among Mr. Isay's few critics. Mr. Buzenberg hails him as "one of the best radio artisans in the business." After "Ghetto Life 101" was broadcast, Mr. Dinges wrote in a memo to the NPR staff that "pieces like this will revolutionize documentary radio."
Mr. Isay, typically, lets his subjects speak for him. There comes a moment in the American Folklife Project series when a Colorado man, who has built a castle atop an isolated mountaintop, delivers what could be Mr. Isay's own manifesto.
"They go on and on about Buttafuoco," the man says. "Did he ever build anything with his hands? Conan O'Brian? Where do they come from? I've heard of Imelda Marcos. I've heard of Saddam Hussein. I've heard of all these other people. Have they heard of this?"