Jonathan Menjivar volunteered at a local station trying to break into public radio. But after months of stuffing envelopes, he still had no clue how to produce a piece, much less get it on the air.
Then he found a Web site that helped him accomplish both.
Transom.org is an online workshop where material is refined and offered up to broadcasters in a virtual "shopping mall." Transom staff, listeners and even radio professionals provide hopefuls with feedback.
The goal, founder Jay Allison said, is to get new and unsolicited voices on the radio.
"Breaking through, putting something together and having people hear it, that's what's really hard," Menjivar said, "and that's what Transom really excels at."
When the site was just getting started in 2001, Menjivar had an idea for documenting an offbeat book tour by author Neal Pollack.
Menjivar pitched it to Allison, a 25-year veteran of National Public Radio and four-time Peabody Award-winner, who saw potential even though Menjivar had never done a radio piece.
Allison worked with Menjivar to craft the piece, staying in contact with him from the road, offering guidance and advice and loaning him audio equipment.
Menjivar, a 25-year-old Chicago grant writer, soon learned how to record on digital audio and edit with Pro Tools, a digital audio production system.
"What Transom really does is it takes all of the difficult tech stuff of radio and just tears that down completely," Menjivar said.
"There's nothing else quite like that. There's not really a site for musicians who can learn to record their own music and then have their favorite musicians critique it for them. It's pretty amazing."
His piece, "Neal Pollack Takes on America," was featured on Transom in March 2001 and picked up by NPR's "All Things Considered." Since then, Menjivar has produced items for "Savvy Traveler" and "This American Life," the show that inspired him to join public radio in the first place.
"This American Life" host Ira Glass, whose show gets about 50 submissions weekly and occasionally uses material from Transom, said a piece vetted through Transom "definitely has more legitimacy in our eyes."
Transom, based in Woods Hole, Mass., gets about $100,000 in funding each year, primarily from a foundation headed by public TV journalist Bill Moyers.
The funding covers about five part-time staff members and editorial contributions from the likes of Glass, writer Sarah Vowell and the legendary journalist Studs Terkel.
Transom gets some 15 submissions each month, about two of which get featured on the site. Those that do get $300 and airing on the radio -- some on local stations such as Allison's WCAI and WNAN, which serve Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. About half run nationally.
Transom takes full advantage of the Internet to enrich radio and those who work in it. A "Tools" page offers recommendations for Minidisc recorders and microphones, processing basics about equalizer levels and sound compression, and an extensive tutorial on using Pro Tools to mix narration, interview clips and music for a broadcast piece.
A discussion board lets listeners, producers and professionals comment. Often, multiple versions of a piece are posted and people are invited to discuss which is the most effective.
And Transom maximizes the multimedia capabilities of the Internet to showcase works in ways not possible on radio.
Along with a recent audio piece from Rene Gutel about the daily postcards she had received from her father while in college, images of the postcards were posted and could be flipped over and read by moving the mouse. Another producer used a PowerPoint presentation to punctuate the humor and absurdity of a German lawnmower race.
Allison said he got the idea for Transom from fellow journalist and radio enthusiast Bill McKibben, who wanted to hear more interesting and diverse stories on the air.
When NPR began in the 1970s, Allison said, virtually anyone with a story to tell could walk in off the street and be heard. But now NPR has more than 750 radio stations worldwide and an acclaimed reputation to uphold.
"Public broadcasting is supposed to be a resource for us, as citizens, and it makes sense for us to have some access and for us to participate," he said. "It's harder and harder to walk in the door and be heard. So we're looking at the Internet as a way to change that."
Granted, public radio's audience is niche, and its programming doesn't have the same reach as the mainstream stations owned by, say, Clear Channel Communications Inc. But that very consolidation, Allison believes, makes diverse viewpoints on public radio ever more important.
"We want to hear from a lot of people and we want a lot of choice, and that's what Transom's trying to do," Allison said.
Glass agrees on the need for new voices, saying that it is an area in which public radio is failing.
"It's a real problem because part of its mandate is innovation," Glass said. "Everything to get new blood into the system is really good."
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