BEHIND THE SCENES with Abby Wendle and Sarah Geis

Let's start with the basics. Tell us all about This Land Press / This Land Radio.

AW: Michael Mason started This Land Press in 2010 after becoming frustrated with local news coverage. He wanted to bring narrative journalism - with characters, plot, conflict - to Oklahoma. This Land started as a print magazine and a website. The first issue featured a story from Randy Roberts Potts, the grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts, about growing up gay in a religious family. Soon, This Land Press also included video production.

Michael always saw radio as an integral part of storytelling because the human voice communicates a level of intimacy beyond that of other forms of media. I joined the team in early 2011, and This Land Radio began as a collection of short podcasts about life and culture in Oklahoma. We made stories about farming, food, poetry and people passing through town. To my surprise, the shorts had a broader appeal than just Oklahoma. Stations as far away as New Hampshire to California bought our pieces from PRX.

In the spring of 2013, Sarah came on board to help launch an hour long radio show, in partnership with the Oklahoma station KOSU. We produced ten episodes that feature a wide variety of content, including interviews with authors of This Land articles, musicians and people on the street.

Considering that neither of you are from OK, how'd you end up there, and what's it been like, immersing so intentionally in a local culture that's not originally yours?

AW: New York? Pakistan? Utah? It was 2011 and I had a brand new master's degree in journalism. I was willing to move anywhere to work. Then I got an email from Michael Mason, the editor of This Land Press. He wasn't sure exactly how, but he wanted to add audio to This Land's website. There was no job description. No salary. And no guarantee that I'd be hired. But he offered me a stipend to come to Oklahoma for a month and experiment.

The impulse that got me here - to go and do and figure it out along the way - has helped me dig my heels into Oklahoma's culture. I grew up a Montessori-school-attending-agnostic-Unitarian. Since coming to Oklahoma I've said yes to anti-abortion pray-a-thons, taken a Conceal and Carry class (I can have a gun on my hip), ridden with cowboys up steep inclines and spent many Saturday nights at a laundromat/bar with men who talk medical bills, plumbing and politics. I've done these things not always to track down stories, but because I live here and I want to experience it.

That being said, there are parts of the culture I do not know. Oklahoma is filled with suburban sprawl and huge parts of Oklahoma City and Tulsa appear to be generic America. My hunch is that I'm wrong, but accessing that part of our culture is difficult because people can move from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned office and back again. But that's no excuse. I have much work to do.

SG: I first heard of This Land when I was living in Chicago, and saw the post for a radio job on the AIR listserv. I clicked, thinking, "Oklahoma? Probably not, but no harm in looking," and was immediately impressed with what This Land was doing. The first audio piece I heard was this, and the first story I read was this. That was about a year ago.

Before coming to This Land, I spent a few years traveling around the United States with the StoryCorps oral history project. With StoryCorps, I would spend about a month in one spot, sometimes only a few days. I'd gotten good at on-the-ground outreach, but I wanted to know a place more deeply.

Being new to a place is clunky--I don't have any long-standing connections here, I'm sure I sometimes miss subtleties, it can be harder to gain some people's trust. But there are advantages, too: I'm genuinely curious, un-jaded, and ready to listen. And being new forces me to ask the really basic questions that might sound dumb--and the answers sometimes lead to interesting places.

I spent this past Sunday at a Cowboy Church outside the city. I'm a Jewish girl from Chicago, so this was totally outside my element. The preacher entered the arena on horseback, his sermon was about roping calves, and the communion ("Lord's Supper") was Welch's grape juice and flour tortillas. I'm going back for Thursday night Bible Study. I want to take as much time as possible getting to know these guys, and find the story. A great thing about This Land is that the whole rest of the crew is from Oklahoma originally. So they're a resource and a sounding board.

Soul of a Man was produced as part of an entire hour, "This Machine Comes Home". What was the full program about, and how did this segment fit in?

SG: This is our Woody Guthrie episode. Woody is in many ways a guiding voice for This Land Press, and everything we do here is in some way a response to his question: "Is this land still made for you and me?" The Woody Guthrie Center opened in downtown Tulsa this past April. It's a big, beautiful space containing Woody's archives and exhibits about his life, folk music, and the Dust Bowl. Though Woody was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, he and the state have had a complicated relationship--Oklahoma has not always been eager to claim him. This hour of radio celebrates Woody's legacy and the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center, but also asks: What does it mean for this fancy museum to come here this spring? The first interview we recorded for the show was with Woody's archivist, Tiffany Colannino, which includes some great archival tape of Woody performing live in 1949 (recorded on wire!). We also had a recording of his daughter, Nora Guthrie, speaking at the opening of the Center. Nora, as you learn in the episode, really didn't get to know her father, because he was institutionalized for Huntington's Disease. Abby and I knew that the show needed the voice of someone who knew Woody not through his legacy, but as a man. When we learned that his protege and dear friend Jack Elliott was coming to town to perform, we knew we had to include him.

How is "This Machine Comes Home" emblematic of what you're striving for with TLR?

AW: This is a hard question to answer because form is something we're constantly playing around with. "Broken Down Hearted" had a mixed tape feel, with little narration guiding the listener. "Fork in the Road" included a lot more ambient sound (rattlesnakes!). "This Machine Comes Home" has more traditional narration and a recorded recorded public event--Nora's speech--which we had never done before. We do try to be plainspoken, heartfelt, occasionally funny, and paint a complicated picture of Oklahoma.

Along with being a fine portrait of a musician, RJE has a few exceptional moments, and they largely involve the reporter's perspective - describing the video, calling Jack out on snoring, and that wonderful request to tell a night-time story. Can you walk us through how you pulled this piece together, and thought about your presence in it?

AW: I had tried for days - unsuccessfully - to set up an interview with Ramblin' Jack. He was in Tulsa with his road manager, Jim Bone, to perform at the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center. After missing each other on the phone several times, I bumped into Jack and Jim in the middle of the street. I recognized them from photos on Jack's website. "Jim?" I asked. "I'm Abby." He pulled me in for a half-hug, spun me around towards Jack, and said I was the little lady with the radio show. I walked with them down the street. Jack launched into a story about listening to Jack Kerouac read his manuscript of On The Road while they sat on the floor of an apartment, drinking bottles of wine. He told me he rode a motorcycle all around Europe, and that he was a sensation in England before The Beatles were The Beatles. They invited me to their hotel room, to do the interview. I wasn't ready. I didn't have my recording equipment, and there was so much of Jack's life I wanted to listen to and read about first. "I need to go home and investigate you," I said, smiling at Jack. He pulled his sunglasses to his nose and looked me up and down. He said I was pretty. Then he told me he didn't like radio interviews because he couldn't engage his audience without looking them in the eye. We agreed to meet again the next day.

Back at the office I sat down in front of my computer, determined to craft a set of interview questions that would make Jack come to life in the minds of our listeners.

The next afternoon, Sarah and I went downtown for Jack's performance and, later, the interview. The concert was outdoors, and it was chilly, wet and grey. We got there a few minutes before Jack's set was supposed to begin, but he had already finished. Turns out he had only played for a handful of minutes. The two men were beneath the main tent. Jack didn't recognize me. Sarah and I exchanged glances. This was obviously not going to be the interview I planned. Do we leave? Do we stay? Do we tag along to dinner? A few pizza pies, meatballs, and a glass of wine later, the four of us went up to their hotel room where it was quiet enough to do the interview. Jim was talking most of the time, so Sarah sat with him on the bed, pointing her mic at him. I sunk to the floor by the couch where Jack was laying down, getting comfy. Part of calling Jack out on his snore was just an instinct not to ignore what was really going on. I was also trying to give Jack a chance to say he was tired, and it was time for us to leave. Instead, he giggled back. From that giggle on, I decided to let Ramblin' Jack Elliott...ramble. And why not begin with some rambling about falling asleep? The editing process was a struggle. I remember walking to my car with Sarah after the interview, wondering if we could carve a story out of such strange tape. I decided I would just use Jack's anecdote about Odetta's mom naming him. It would be 3 minutes long, and serve as an excuse to play one of his songs. But I couldn't stop thinking about Jack. How he'd helped Woody Guthrie raise his kids, how he'd ran away to the rodeo as a teen, recorded his Grammy-winning album on a whim. I watched his performance of "If I Were a Carpenter" over and over and over again. I came to the conclusion that this story could still prove Jack wrong--he still could burst through the radio and make eye contact with the audience. But I had to help by writing in my own experience of Jack, both past and present.

SG: There were a lot of moments--me on the bed with Jim, Abby on the floor next to Jack--where we exchanged glances that said, "Should we just get out of here and let this tired man go to sleep?" But every time we got close to leaving, Jack and Jim started up again. They were exhausted, but they enjoyed our attention, too. I worried that the piece would come off as a portrait of an artist in decline, or that the inclusion of Jack's snoring would humiliate him. Abby's choice to include her perspective in the piece changed that, transforming it into something charming and weird. My favorite part of the piece is the very end, where Jack and Jim trail off talking about nicknames. It reminds me of two little kids at a sleepover, fighting to keep their eyes open.

What are a few other stories you've made for TLR that especially convey the essence of Oklahoma culture?

SG & AW:

"Where is Oklahoma?" is our first episode, and it asks a very Oklahoman question: "Where the heck are we, anyway?" The South? The Midwest? The Southwest?

This sense of looking for an identity, and of holding multiple identities at once, is central to this place. The hour features Russell Cobb (who wrote This Land's story "South by Midwest: Or, Where is Oklahoma?"), Jeff Martin on his Oklahoma speculative fiction project, a New Yorker's take on the state from Ginger Strand, and a music interview with the Okie John Fullbright who, let's face it, we're pretty much in love with, and may or may not sometimes blast his album at full-volume, hula-hooping and tromping around.

Clara Bruises & Hashbrown Sings the Blues

Among ourselves, we call these tiny little interview segments "Howdys." This is short for "You Had Me at Howdy," which is a phrase we first saw printed on t-shirts at the gay rodeo. Basically, these segments are an excuse for us to approach a stranger, often with no plan, and try to get a story that will get the listener to fall in love with them a bit. We try to put at least one of these moments in each show, to break up the longer, more formal interviews, and because they're fun

What's down the pike for This Land Radio?

Good question! We'll continue to produce great stories from Oklahoma, and to play with form and style. To hear where we're headed, subscribe to the This Land Radio podcast in the iTunes store :)