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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Pleasure of Managing Great Talent

Carolyn Jensen Chadwick died over the weekend in California.

Not many people in the US would have heard of her; fewer still in Canada. Yet her skills as a radio producer were phenomenal. She worked at NPR and produced some of the finest radio pieces I ever heard. Along with her husband, the reporter and on air host Alex Chadwick, they created a series of exploratory documentaries called "Radio Expeditions." Carolyn and Alex wandered around the world for NPR and National Geographic and brought back a true sense of audio awe and wonder.

It's said that when radio does its job well, the listener becomes complicit with the act of imagination as the producers and reporters transport us in our minds to where they wish us to be.

Carolyn Jensen did that better than anyone. She also worked with some of the best editors, producers and engineers ever to be in radio. It was a fabulous constellation of talents. My favorite piece from Carolyn was a series from India called "The Geography of Heaven." Absolutely unforgettable and you must have a listen here.

A few years ago, Carolyn and Alex moved to southern California when Alex became host of a now defunct NPR radio show. When the show was canceled, they moved to Santa Barbara where Carolyn continued to produce radio and Alex produced a TV series called "Interviews Fifty Cents," named for a sign he once puckishly made for a series: he sat at a card table in Washington, DC's Union Station and asked passers-by if he might interview them. The results were remarkable as befit this enormously talented couple.

I met Carolyn at NPR in 1997. She came into my office to quietly ask (she was always soft-spoken) if there was some way that Radio Expeditions could be put on "base budget." In the arcane world of public radio, some program elements were inside the NPR budget; other were not and it was up to the producers themselves to raise the money for their productions and even for their own salaries.

"Radio Expeditions" was actually part of the NPR News family (it ran as part of "Morning Edition"), yet it was treated as a fiscal and organizational orphan especially by some short-sighted managers who had trouble pigeon-holing it: it wasn't hard news and it wasn't science journalism. Due to managerial neglect, it never had a "home" inside NPR, even though it continued to win many awards.

Carolyn made a convincing case for changing this situation and after I heard a few episodes, I needed no further argument. It belonged inside NPR.

It was a privilege to do this for her and a privilege to have known her. The greater privilege belonged to the listeners who were the real beneficiaries of Carolyn's vision and talent.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for wonderful tribute to an enormously talented woman. A person that reached for greatness but not for herself. I will miss the wonderful radio that she and her husband produced.

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  2. Radio Expeditions was epic.
    So many of her other projects
    enlightened so many. Sad loss.

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  3. One correction, Jeffrey, and one clarification. Alex and Carolyn didn't move to Santa Barbara when Day to Day was canceled, but stayed on in their wonderful home in Marina del Rey. And, it's interesting to note that in the tributes to Carolyn on NPR, a key fact was omitted. The company fired both Carolyn and Alex, first letting her go after canceling Radio Expeditions, and later laying off Alex. Both were in their 60's, and had devoted their careers to public radio. Carolyn was indeed one of the people who made NPR what it is. And yet, the company determined that her style of high-production, immersive radio is no longer something they want to support. Apparently, Alex's vaunted ability to capture almost any scene in a few, choice words is also no longer valued. If that sounds a little bitter, it is, and it's left a bad taste in a lot of our mouths.

    That being said, thank you for supporting Carolyn when you had the power to do so, and thanks for remembering her now. We'll not see another like her again.

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  4. Thanks for the correction. I knew it was Marina Del Ray, but somehow, SB got in there...Yes, the sound rich radio tradition is in decline. There are still a few around thankfully...

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