When I was researching MFA programs before application season, I had an Excel spreadsheet comparing key factors for all the schools I was looking at: size, location, duration, faculty, etc. But there was also an “Other” column that I treated as a “What if?” exercise. What if I took up rowing in a cool city? What if I got really good at building snow caves from winter camping in Alaska? My What If for Wyoming was what if I took up podcasting?
It was right there on the website: you could intern with Wyoming Public Radio. It wasn’t a given that I’d go for this. I didn’t listen to the radio often, I didn’t listen to podcasts. The last time I honestly thought about a career in broadcasting, I was seven. I listened to Ernie Harwell call Tigers games on my clock radio turned way down low long after I was supposed to go to sleep. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) In one of the best birthday presents of all time, I called a half-inning in an empty radio booth at Tiger Stadium—of course, it was never actually on air—and got to keep the tape.
[My sister and me at the Baseball Hall of Fame around the same time, celebrating the best in sport and early ‘90s fashion.]
Twenty-some years later, the dream had changed quite a bit. But here I was in Laramie and Wyoming Public Radio was looking for MFA candidates to work on a new podcast, Spoken Words. Micah Schweizer, our host and supervisor, likes having writers work on podcasts because we understand narrative arc—or at least that’s what he says when he’s assigning us new work. The idea behind this podcast is to take a new look at the Mountain West through authors writing from or about the area. The student producers reach out to authors, interview them, and produce the episodes. Producing the episodes involves figuring out what the main arc will be, editing half an hour or more of tape down to twelve minutes or less, writing a script for the host and then editing the whole thing together. I’ve never spent so much time thinking about plosives before.
[Whenever I switch over to spectral frequency display, I worry for a split second that the sound waves are on fire.]
There’s a tremendous flexibility in what we mean when we say “Mountain West” and that works to our benefit putting together the show. Most of us who have produced episodes so far would agree that we’re trying to push back against the standard cowboy narrative of the West and expand how people think about this space. We talk with fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, playwrights, historians, ecologists, journalists, athletes, etc. exploring issues of identity in the West. Of course, we’ve also got some authors of more traditional westerns featured on the program. They share great advice on the writing process, but also dig deeper on how newer threads in “western” writing alter our understanding of the history of the genre and the place. With new MFA candidates coming in each semester to work on the podcast, it’ll continue to push in new directions and we’ll promote more and more authors that buck the traditional narratives in so many different ways.
Spoken Words is launching on Tuesday. You can catch the preview here, and subscribe if you feel so moved. I should note that I’ve had so much fun working on Spoken Words, I’m also joining the team for a second Wyoming Public Media podcast, HumaNature. Between these two programs, I’ll be spending almost as much time at the station as I spend writing this summer. (Sorry, thesis committee.) But learning words as sound waves, and writing things to be heard, not read, definitely impacts my personal writing. Jeff Lockwood, our outgoing MFA program director, likes to say that a good podcast has “the arc of a story, the rigor of non-fiction, and the elegance of poetry.” It’s a great trifecta, and a constant goal.
I would have ended this update there, but there’s a little postscript. Micah and I were talking about getting new producers for next semester, and he mentioned that no one responded to his first email about the opportunity last fall. I was indignant! There can’t have been an email before the one I saw and jumped on – this was my What If! But of course he was right, there was a first email. And it looks like it came in when I was stressed about getting a story in for workshop and getting bogged down in all sorts of other minutiae about being in a new town. Thank goodness I got another shot at it. So when you’re looking at programs, go wild imagining your What Ifs. And then, once you go, make sure you take the time to follow through on them. Don’t fall into the grad school rabbit hole. Take time for the What Ifs.