hen I moved to New York after a decade in Italy to go to graduate school, working with audio was one of my favorite New World discoveries. I had a brief love affair with my audio skills class first semester, and a girl crush on the instructor, a spritely, lithe woman with the most beautiful pixie haircut I’ve ever seen, who’d spent a decade covering humanitarian crises in Africa. Amy seemed to have all the journalistic attributes that I lacked, she was quick on her feet, relentlessly probing, and not self-involved.
Inward and observant, what had always drawn me to the page were words — and my capacity to use them. With audio, it was different — you recorded the sounds and voices around you, but your own was irrelevant much of the time. “Less ego-driven” is how an audio reporter I know recently put it. Audio freed me of myself, although I admit I felt pretty important carrying around my mic and earphones. But these tools allowed me to simply gather life, not impose my own vision on it. I delighted in gathering sound at gospel concerts, the New York City Marathon, chemo clinics where I interviewed breast cancer patients against the backdrop of beeping medical machines.
Perhaps, I thought, this is the childhood musician in me finding a different way to work with sound. Audio also had certain advantages over the page, namely that it carried emotion more directly. When I interviewed my mom for my thesis, about her diagnosis with stage IV cancer, she went straight to the burden of having to tell her children about it. Steadying the mic against her breast, I realized then as I do now that I will never have words for what she said — but I have her saying it on tape.
At the end of graduate school, my classmates voted me “most underutilized radio voice,” and my radio teacher Amy hugged me after I strode across the stage at graduation.
A few months later, back home in Iowa, my mother, by then in rapid decline, one evening raised her head abruptly from the bed when she heard the classical music announcer come on the radio. “That’s what I want Kristine to do,” she announced. Her dream for me was spot on in at least one sense: I sounded more like a classical music announcer than say, an NPR reporter, although I envied the latter for their authority. But when my classmates voted another student, who would later become an NPR star reporter, as “the bedroom voice,” I knew where I stood in terms of voice marketability.
But I found ways to continue to practice my audio skills. Nine months after my mother died, I was doing a clunky health communications internship at the National Cancer Institute, where I quickly figured out the only way I would survive the tedium of my tasks was to report audio stories for the National Institutes of Health Radio. The subject matter of these interviews was not light, nor immediately interesting — rare diseases and how they worked. But I found joy in working with the audio nonetheless; the medium itself took the edge off the gravitas of what the doctors and researchers were saying. And they too spoke in ways that were enthused, convinced, and inspired — not unusual for those scientists, whose careers are driven by the suffering of loved ones from the very thing they study.
I also wove my own narration into these interviews, always with a light touch. One day, walking around the bucolic NIH campus, a private title came to mind for my collection: “Can I Send These Tapes to Heaven?” Perhaps I was finally, almost, fulfilling my mother’s wishes.