Aaron Henkin and Lisa Morgan
For the last year and a half, Aaron Henkin and Lisa Morgan have been producing The Signal, a weekly local arts and culture show on WYPR (88.1 FM). Neither had any formal training in radio—Morgan was a film major at the University of Maryland, Henkin has an English degree from the University of Chicago—before joining WYPR. Instead they learned on the job, paying their dues at the station, including stints on The Marc Steiner Show. “It’s just what everyone must do, I think, to prove that you’ll stick around,” Morgan says. Since The Signal began in September 2004, they have interviewed dozens of musicians, artists, poets, and personalities and, as the tag line says, explored the “hidden corners of Maryland’s cultural landscape.” Recently Henkin and Morgan sat down at the WYPR studios to discuss producing the show, Russian wrestlers, and being a disembodied voice on the radio.
City Paper: Why did you want to start The Signal?
Aaron Henkin: Lisa and I had been talking about co-creating this local arts program, and we pitched it to [WYPR], and they said, “Sure, we’ll entrust you to do that.”
Lisa Morgan: We had been doing it as a monthly special version of the Friday Marc Steiner Show and sort of getting a feel for how to put the show together.
AH: So for about eight months, we just continued doing our normal jobs and making this show once a month. And then eventually they let us take it weekly, which means basically that’s our full-time job, but we have to do a lot of other producer-type chores around here.
LM: You might recognize us from fund-drive announcements describing all our giveaway merchandise.
AH: You might know me from such promos as “Do you have a car or some other vehicle you don’t need anymore? You can donate it to WYPR.”
CP: How do you choose your subjects?
AH: At this point we get so many ideas and submissions from people who listen to the show and understand what it’s about.
LM: When we started we both seemed to have things that we really wanted to do, a whole list of something you keep in your back pocket, like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do a story about this—I never had a way to do it.”
AH: When we were getting ready to do the show, [I] spent about four days reading the yellow pages cover to cover and taking notes, because there are many, many absurd headings in the yellow pages and everybody’s phone number is in there. I found a guy who builds pipe organs and a handwriting analyst. They were a little leery, just because it was so out of left field, but that sort of got the ball rolling.
LM: You know when you’re killing time waiting for a table at the Golden West [Café], just check out what’s lying around there. I picked up a mannequin service postcard and ended up calling the woman. [She says], “‘We’re too busy to talk now. You have to call the end of the month.’” And I was like, “Well, what are you so busy doing?” And she said, “‘I’m trying to get these eyeballs to look like they have an expression on their face.’”
CP: Were you, at least at first, intentionally mining your circles of friends?
LM: Well, yeah. We had to start somewhere. And like I said about the people and things you always wanted to do.
AH: It’s been a pretty amazing daisy chain that’s gone from there, though, that’s taken us to people that we would never have met. We’ve, through recommendations of recommendations of recommendations, managed to meet people like an 82-year-old Polish lady in Curtis Bay who remembers her immigrant experience, all sorts of spoken-word artists.
CP: I thought the “Mad Russian” piece was fascinating. How did you end up with that?
AH: A buddy of mine that I go skateboarding with on the weekends called me one day—we had both been big pro-wrestling fans when we were kids—and he said, “Someone told me Nikolai Volkov lives in Baltimore County and works as a housing inspector.” So I just started Googling away until I found that that was in fact true. And I just called him at his office and just...
City Paper photographer Jefferson Jackson Steele: ...put the hammerlock on him.
AH: That’s right—give him the bear hug until he submitted. That one I couldn’t leave alone.
LM: That actually became a borderline obsessive-compulsive experience.
AH: I worked on that story for about six months. Just going and recording with him over and over again at various events, whether it was at an autograph signing at the North Point flea market or at his house. And I actually called World Wrestling [Entertainment] to get legal permission, because I heard they’re very litigious.
LM: Didn’t we have a vow of silence on that?
AH: And they never called me back, so I took that as tacit permission to use—fair use, though, fair use.
LM: Well, it was fun when we used to get to produce The Signal before we got sued.
AH: But maybe we can make a radio story about our legal struggle with World Wrestling [Entertainment] next week.
LM: That’s the last people I want breathing down my neck.
CP: When you interview people you realize how inarticulate we all are. How do you get people to speak in coherent blocks?
AH: Ah, trade secrets.
LM: There is that, but also I think it goes back to making them really comfortable.
AH: The nice thing is that this is a prerecorded show. This is not a labor-efficient program. The show is 48 minutes and 30 seconds once you subtract the breaks and the news holes, and we probably make that 48 minutes and 30 seconds out of five to six to 10 hours of tape.
LM: That’s the nice thing—you can just pick exactly what you want.
AH: Right. So you’re constantly cutting and cutting and cutting and polishing until you’ve got the crown jewels of what everybody is saying. And everybody does end up sounding a little more lucid and a little more caffeinated.
LM: People will trust you more if everybody sounds great. If everyone sounds like a fool, then nobody would want to come on the show.
CP: Do you ever struggle between wanting to make people sound good and using a more entertaining but less flattering quote?
LM: We do our schadenfreude on our own time, I think. I mean, we’ve killed things—just flat out killed them—to avoid making ourselves uncomfortable, making listeners uncomfortable, making the subject matter uncomfortable. And we don’t always love what we’re talking about, or we don’t always like the human being who we feature. I don’t want to make fun of anybody. I mean, on the radio.
AH: I think our philosophy is, let people speak for themselves and let the listeners decide what they think of that person. We’ve had segments with experimental musicians where we just let them wax forth about experimental music, we play the experimental music behind them. We cut together a really nicely paced piece, and we get e-mails and calls within minutes of each other after the show from people who say, “I love that, tell me where that person’s web site is,” and other people e-mailing and saying, “I think when you say ‘experimental music’ you mean ‘complete crap.’”
CP: What was the most surprising moment you’ve had in an interview?
AH: A friend of a friend had just had to euthanize her cat, and coincidentally that same week I got an e-mail from someone who said they had a friend who was a pet bereavement therapist. And so I thought I’m going to interview both of these people separately, and then I’m going to introduce them to each other in the studio and record their conversation with each other. It ended up being one of the most emotionally wrenching radio stories I ever have produced or heard. So that was one of those things that seemed wacky for starters but ended up being really surprisingly profound.
LM: Don’t mess with people’s cat love.
CP: Do you guys have radio idols?
LM: This American Life, of course, is obviously an influence, but that’s actually more reality-based. That show is very different from our show, but I like the idea that a show like that can exist. That’s what public radio is.
AH: You know who my radio idol is? Joe Frank. Not a lot of people know who he is. He was this midnight radio guy who got syndicated on a lot of public radio stations. And he’s on fewer and fewer stations. He’s like the public radio id. He’s this guy who is not afraid to fill lots of space with music and then just come on from time to time with these stories that are put together with public radio production values, but that are almost mockumentaries and Twilight Zone versions of what you would expect to hear on public radio.
CP: Good radio voices: nature or nurture?
LM: I think everyone hates the sound of their voice at first, but you get really used to it when you do it all the time and you find what sounds better.
AH: I feel like you should avoid having any difference between your radio voice and your normal voice. Part of the trick is writing for radio and writing in such a way that you’re writing a script, you’re not writing an article, so that when you sit down at the mic you’re reading something that sounds like the way you would talk. Which takes practice, and obviously we’re always learning new tricks and stuff. We’re not perfect at it.
LM: I think it’s interesting what makes a good radio voice, though, too, is not what you would traditionally think—like old-school FM DJ guy.
AH: To me, if the person you’re listening to sounds like you’re the only person they’re talking to, they have a good radio voice.
CP: Do you like the fact that people can’t see you?
AH and LM: Yes.
AH: It’s always a fun game when you meet someone who listens to the show and they describe to you all the ways in which you don’t look the way you’re supposed to look. Like, evidently I’m sort of skinnier and younger and have less facial hair than most people think.
LM: You sound hairy on air? Is that want they think?
AH: I don’t know.
LM: He sounds hairy. That’s really weird.
CP: Of course, people will see you in the photo that goes along with this article.
AH: Put lots of Vaseline on the lens.
CP: How does it feel being on the other side of an interview?
AH: It’s a taste of our own medicine.
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