Of Guinea Hens and Piano Songs
You hear their voices and you listen to their stories – but you might not know what happens behind the scenes – what goes into producing an audio story for public radio. You could probably guess that there’s some research – phone calls, emails leading to interviews – recording the interviews and cutting up the audio – writing, editing, etc. But every once in a while, a radio journalist will run into a particular “radio journalist” sort of problem. A little hazard or difficulty that he or she must try to overcome. Word of Mouth's Sean Hurley tells us about a particular sound issue he’s been having – something he can’t really fix but something he thinks – with this story – that he might have just come to terms with.
This is a story about how I’ve been trying to keep a certain sound out of my radio stories and not succeeding - and how I’ve been trying to a get a certain sound into my radio stories – and also not succeeding.
And how I overcame this. It’s really a story of triumph.
It’s also about a new word I coined - bonmal - which I will define thusly: To fail to remove something unwanted from a place while simultaneously failing to add something wanted in the same place and then seeking a remedy by simply allowing the unwanted former and forcing in the unwilling latter, regardless of the outcome.
This story will be a good example of what a bonmal is.
A few years ago our neighbors traded their chickens in for guineafowl. These birds were bigger and their eggs smaller than chickens, they told us. The eggs were prized by craftspeople. You could get a dollar an egg, for example, they told us. And because guinea hens are free-ranging they’d probably come and sit on our porch and lay eggs here and there. But then again, here and there, if we found an egg, really we were just finding a dollar. And another plus was that they eat ticks. And they are like guard dogs as well so if anything tries to get by the guinea hens – be it a bug or a breeze or a villain – they will sound the alarm.
And speaking of the latter, they said - and it should be remembered how helpful this will be in the worst case scenario of villains coming along - these guinea hens are loud.
Guinea hens look a bit like moon-colored rugby balls. They have a bit of turkey in their neckiness, a bit of chicken in the frame skipping madness of their nervous systems, and a bit of pigeon in their smoothy sleekness.
I record my radio stories at home in a funny little box in the attic. It’s like a square turret that sticks up out of the roof. The door to my office is on the floor. The stairs are a ladder. The top of my head brushes the ceiling of my office. And it is, dimensionally, both the perfect box to store me in and the room version of myself.
It’s mostly quiet being up in the box, as I call it, and we live in a quiet part of our quiet state. Sometimes I have to wait for a neighbor to stop mowing his lawn before I can record -
Otherwise my only sound enemies are things like the washing machine downstairs...which I can turn off.
But I haven’t yet learned how to turn the guinea hens off.
So here’s me, up in the box, trying to record a recent story on metal detecting: “Ok…testing one two three… Retired firefighter Mike Cogan from Long Island…(guinea hens interrupt)…uhh…Retired firefighter Mike Co-(guinea hens again)…
And that’s just one example.
In fact, over the last year a lot of my stories have included subtle fragments of guinea hen sound in the background.
I try to keep them out but I can’t hear them like I used to. And so with every story now I have to do a bird pass. Where I listen to my recorded narration to see if anything snuck in. And even if I do find something, if I can blend it away into the background noise of whatever story, I will.
All the music in this story, by the way, comes from Moon Whale, the debut piano solo album of Canadian composer Keven St. Ours.
Keven is 29, and lives in Quebec. He spent the last three years recording his first piano album and at the moment is trying to figure out how to get people to listen to it. “He’s working mostly by himself,” Keven’s girlfriend Sarah told me. “He’s using mostly YouTube and Soundcloud for people to hear what he’s doing. Each time he has a new piece, he’s putting it on the web.”
Another thing Keven has been doing – he’s been sending public radio reporters links to his music and asking them to make use of it.
So I’ve been trying to do that. Trying to fit some of his music into my radio stories. I tried to drop it into my story on the Canterbury Bread Shop and then into my story on metal detecting. But it just didn’t sound right. It was too pretty, or too staring out the window at the rainy day sounding.
And I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do it. And because I’d told Keven that I would, I now had to write him and I tell him that I couldn’t. I began the email by noting how lovely I found his music and that I wished him well and that the funny thing was – and I don’t know if it was funny or was it ironic? was that I had these weird guinea hens outside my window whose noise I could not keep out of my stories. And so I was sort of double sad that I couldn’t keep their sound out while getting his in.
Unless, I wrote, there was some kind of kitchen sink, all hands on deck, burst out of the cake, let the walls falls down kind of story that just said yes to everything.
Like if there was a thing called a “bonmal” that just allowed everything to come on in.
But there is no such thing as a bonmal, I wrote. I just made it up. I wrote “Kind Regards, Sean Hurley.
And I watched my cursor rise and then hover over the send button…