Allison voices real radio
MIDDLEBURY — When radio pioneer Jay Allison spoke at Middlebury College on March 16, the turn out was significantly larger than anticipated. After moving to a larger auditorium to accommodate hoards of eager listeners, dozens of students and community members were turned away from the free talk due to what organizers called “a fire hazard.”
Although Allison is well respected as the curator and producer of the “This I Believe” series on National Public Radio (NPR) and for his works on “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” perhaps he is best known for the smooth, raspy, rumbling voice that has captivated listeners for decades. His works — which include hundreds of documentaries, essays and broadcasts — have landed him top journalism awards and made him one of radio’s most prolific voices.
Allison’s talk last Wednesday focused on the power of the human voice and the way that its rhythm, idiosyncrasies and emotion can capture attention and resonate deeply within us.
“We are vulnerable to sound because it can pass into us — directly into us,” said Allison. “A voice can get inside, right passed our brains, and touch our hearts with an astonishing kind of power.”
By playing for the Middlebury audience a wide range of human sound recordings — from a little girl’s loving message to a soldier’s final words — accompanied by his explanations, Allison composed an auditory painting that artistically and coherently illustrated the power of the human voice.
Rumbling along, he argued that radio as it is produced today often neglects the power of a pause in one’s voice.
“We have that kind of power in radio and we mostly don’t use it,” said Allison. “We mostly give you information — give you the headlines. Things are cut down. These days on NPR, they’ll even cut the breath out of stories to save time, thinking that what’s essential is the words, and so often it’s not. So often it’s what’s in between, it’s the (inhales then exhales), you know, like if somebody did that now in a story if they breathed in and out without saying anything and then breathed again to speak there’s a good chance that will be cut. To me, that’s the beauty — that’s the human being in there. Time changes when you hear that.”
To express the way that breath weighs on his heart and conscience, Allison drew this example: “The playwright Marsha Norman talks about, after her husband died, going into a closet some months later and finding a balloon and realizing it contained his breath … It feels like that to me.”
Allison’s talk was the third event in a four-part Middlebury College series called “Meet the Press.”
“One of the very small handful of people who have done the primary work to get new ideas and new sound out into our ears was Jay Allison,” said Middlebury Scholar in Residence Bill McKibben when he introduced Allison.
McKibben, just like millions of others, is moved by the qualities of Allison’s voice.
“It’s one of the most important voices out there,” McKibben said, “and what fun it is to be able to welcome it in all its rumbling glory here in Middlebury.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].