What do you get when you mix two peerless polyglots with a sagacious engineer, a swashbuckling producer and a demiurgic technical crew? You get A Way with Words, the lively public radio show heard on NPR stations, devoted to the curiosities of the English language.
Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett and Senior Producer Stefanie Levine are already well into their 9th season, having completed their 235th show as a self-contained unit, devoted to the exploration of language in a one-hour radio show. (Engineer/Editor Tim Felten joined them in 2007). Pre-recorded weekly at Studio West in San Diego, A Way with Words relies on the technical support of the Studio West staff and senior students and alumni of The Recording Arts Center (TRAC) to help bring their show to the public – via almost 14.2 million podcast downloads to date and on public radio stations in almost 300 cities in 33 states.
While sitting in on a show taping, you might see what appear to be two shows going on simultaneously –the one between Martha, Grant and the callers that’s being recorded for future broadcast, and the equally lively “behind the scenes” show going on in the control room of Studio C at Studio West. Tim (Felten) is on the phone cueing up the next caller while he monitors Pro Tools (the recording software) on the screen in front of him. Stefanie (Levine) may also talk to a caller, “Oh my, you’re calling from the emergency room of a hospital? Are you ok? You sure you feel up to this?” The caller does. Stefanie is also typing suggestions to Martha (Barnette) on a special two-way text monitoring system running through a computer, which also runs a Pro Tools backup recording system. In the back of the room, Colin Tedeschi, a graduate of TRAC, is monitoring the backup rig and is on hand to provide technical support if needed. As the on-air conversation with the caller proceeds, the team in the control room comments on the discussion and the whole scene is frequently punctuated with bursts of laughter. It’s evident that the hard work that’s gone into the technical setup allows everything to flow smoothly – and everyone is clearly having a lot of fun.
A Little History (A Way with Words Comes to Studio West):
A Way with Words was first aired in 1998 at KPBS-FM in San Diego. Producer Stefanie Levine came on board in 2002 and created the current version of the show, as senior KPBS management helped expand the show’s reach to other markets. In 2007, due to budget cuts, KPBS was no longer able to fund the production of the show. With the station’s blessing, Grant, Martha and Stefanie took over the production and funding of the show as a Limited Liability Company, and later established a 501(c) (3) Non-Profit. “Many people don’t realize that public radio stations don’t pay for content. We were definitely trailblazers, in that we were one of the first to create this kind of content independently within the public radio system,” she says. “And we did it right as the recession hit!” Finding a new studio home was the first order of business. “We immediately started looking for a studio where we could record the shows,” says Stefanie. “We went to a lot of places and talked to a lot of people, but Studio West felt like home. The creative environment and friendly people were a perfect fit for us, and they’ve met our technical needs week in and week out,” she adds.
The Technology Team
“When the show first started taping here, an important part of our job was to make the show feel intimate, as if the two hosts were sitting together drinking coffee and chatting with callers,” says Mark Kirchner, TRAC’s Chief Academic Officer and Studio West’s Sr. Post-production Engineer. This was no small feat, considering that in 2007 Grant was in New York and Martha was in San Diego. The puzzle guy, John Chaneski, is also plugged in from a remote studio in New York. The show utilizes a phone patch and an ISDN interconnect. “We used some technical magic to make the data connection between New York and San Diego, so it sounded like the hosts were in the same room,” he adds. Consistent set up and creation of the technical and the physical environment has been important too. Studio West and TRAC students built a customized virtual radio station within Pro Tools specifically for the show. “An actual radio station studio stays set up the same way all the time,” says Colin Tedeschi, the show’s technical liaison from Studio West and a TRAC graduate. “The rooms at Studio West are constantly reconfigured for different sessions and setups, so a challenging part of my job for the show is to duplicate the physical and technical setup as consistently as possible each time,” he says. Colin typically arrives at the studio between 6:15 and 6:30 am to start the setup for a 9:00 am taping. “The hosts’ desks have to be a certain height, speakers in the control room have to be in a certain position, even the clock has to be facing exactly the right direction,” he says. “And of course all the technical routing and the ISDN setup has to be duplicated each time as well, so that the sound is always the same – it’s an important part of the vibe of the show,” Colin adds.
In addition to the special Pro Tools interface and the two way text monitoring system that TRAC students built for A Way with Words, the studio also created a customized talk-back system with dedicated buttons so Stefanie, the producer in the control room, can talk individually to Martha, to Grant, to the caller or to all of them together.
TRAC Students and the Show
“Since the first show at Studio West in October of 2007, TRAC students have done the setups for us,” says Stefanie Levine. Before Colin, other TRAC students to assist with the show include: Dana Paulochovski, Riley Evans, Hunter Levy, Brandon Papsidero and Henrique Landim. Stefanie, who’s a 30 year veteran of public radio, says, “These are the kind of guys and gals I’d assign to live radio. They’ve all been quality technical people with a great demeanor.”
Recently, Colin has been stepping in as engineer for tapings of A Way with Words in Tim Felten’s absence. A graduate of TRAC’s recording arts degree program, Colin learned the intricacies of signal flow, Pro Tools, ISDN and phone patching, and uses that knowledge working on the show. “It’s been an awesome experience learning audio engineering, and then getting to apply it on a nationally broadcasted radio show,” Colin says. One of his first TRAC classes was held in Studio C where the show is taped. “I’ve spent a lot of weeks setting up, observing the show and being the technical liaison, so I’m always ready to jump in and engineer when they need me,” he adds. Colin says that working on the show has taught him, “patience and discipline to be really methodical with the setup.” Also, he says he’s learned the importance of being able to accommodate whatever the client needs in a recording session. A graduate of USC with a B.S. in Business Administration and a minor in Music Industry, Colin has this to say to aspiring TRAC students: “Take it seriously when you are in school, be attentive while you’re going through it.” He says the experience working with A Way with Words in the studio has been a lot of fun. “I was a fan of the show before I started working on it,” says Colin. “Being involved behind the scenes has been a great gig with a very lively bunch of funny people. It definitely doesn’t feel like a job!” As for Stefanie, she says that she and Tim and the hosts feel supported and “embraced” by their technical team. “Colin and Mark are real gems, they don’t get rattled and they know how to get the job done, no matter what comes up,” she says, “that’s a big part of why we just recorded our 235th show at Studio West.”