by Becky Purdy
The following feature story appeared in the Trinity College publication Mosaic in March, 2001.
In 1976, a man named Keith Talbot came for dinner at a house where Jay Allison ’73 was staying. Talbot, who produced experimental documentaries for radio and was an acquaintance of Allison’s housemates, loaned Allison and his friends tape recorders and urged them to capture the sounds and voices of life around them. That is just what Allison did, and he has never stopped. “I just took to it,” he recalls. “I went out with the tape recorder and talked to anybody who interested me. It really was a passport to learning about life.” Today, 25 years later, recording the voices of interesting people is still essentially what Allison does, only now millions of listeners get to hear what he records.
An independent radio producer whose documentaries regularly air on National Public Radio (NPR), Allison has risen to the top of his field without losing sight of his beginnings. In 1996, he received public radio’s highest honor, the Edward R. Murrow Award, marking the first time an independent producer has won the award. He has received numerous other honors in his field, including three George Foster Peabody Medals and two Clarion Awards, as well as support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and other funding sources. For the last four years he also has reported, filmed, and produced pieces for ABC News’ Nightline.
In awe of sound
Allison’s work examines a variety of subjects, from child abuse to electric fans, from Vietnam veterans to carnival side-show promoters, from one woman’s nervous breakdown to one man’s life as a hermit. Despite the range of topics, a common thread connects all of Allison’s work: a fascination with sound, most often the sound of ordinary people’s voices. Allison says he is awed by “the power of the human voice and the way it exists beyond dimension and beyond time. Photographs stay outside of you. Sound gets inside of you.” The effect is ghostly, he adds, when a recording conjures the voice of someone who died long ago.
One set of recordings that haunts Allison is that of a 19-year-old Marine who took a reel-to-reel tape recorder with him to Vietnam in 1966. The Marine, Michael Baronowski, recorded his thoughts, the sounds of combat, and the voices of his friends and sent them home as audio letters. He was killed in action two months after arriving in Vietnam. Thirty-four years later, the audio letters made their way to the NPR series “Lost & Found Sound.” Allison is one of the executive producers of the series, and Christina Egloff, Allison’s partner and wife, produced the Baronowski piece. According to NPR, the piece resulted in one of the largest outpourings of listener letters in the history of the program All Things Considered. Allison gets choked up when he talks about Baronowski. “He had such a deep presence,” he says. “And then to feel the loss of him . . .”
Moral purpose and motorcycles
Allison majored in English and theater at Trinity. “Jay could write, and he could think,” recalls Professor of English Hugh Ogden. “He was perceptive, sensitive, and aware of larger concepts in literature.” Ogden still sees this sensitivity in Allison’s work today. “He has an innate sense of moral purpose, of value in human life.”
Most of Allison’s friends at Trinity were creative-minded students as well. One friend, Elizabeth Egloff ’75, is now a successful playwright. She also happens to be Allison’s sister-in-law. Christina Egloff, whom Allison met at Trinity and married in 1985, became a highly regarded radio producer in her own right.
During his junior year at the College, Allison spent a semester at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford. After graduating from Trinity, he received a Watson Fellowship to travel through Russia and Europe studying theater for a year.
When Allison returned to the United States, he worked as a clerk-typist for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, and directed plays in experimental theater at night. Eventually, however, he decided he didn’t know enough about life to direct it on stage, and he dropped out of the theater life, lived in friends’ basements, and raced motorcycles.
Then one day Keith Talbot handed him a tape recorder, and Allison found his calling. Talbot was one of the pioneering producers of NPR, which was just starting in Washington. Allison began to sell his pieces to All Things Considered and learn production skills from people in the NPR booth.
Voices of public radio
True to his beginnings, Allison buys used tape recorders on the eBay Web site and loans them to young people. He urges the recipients to keep audio diaries, and he helps them make their recordings into finished pieces.
Allison enjoys getting people’s stories and voices onto the airwaves, and public radio is the perfect medium. As NPR has evolved into a strong, credible news service through the years, Allison has championed the cause of stories that are not in the mainstream. “I see it as a mission to keep different sorts of stories on NPR, things that contain a lot of poetry and ambiguity,” he says. To that end, he recently launched a Web site, www.transom.org, that aims to encourage new voices in public radio.
He also has brought radio to the community, founding the public radio station WCAI/WNAN, which broadcasts to the previously neglected airwaves of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. The station, which is managed by WGBH-Boston, began broadcasting last year from Woods Hole, MA, where Allison and Egloff live with their three children. Allison is the station’s executive producer, and the project is his first foray into local broadcasting. He likes the change. “Nationally, you don’t feel in touch with the community,” he notes.
He takes great pleasure in the meteoric success of a local woman named Carol Wasserman. In the fall of 1999, Wasserman was just scraping by when she sent WCAI/WNAN a couple of short essays she had written, including a piece about life after Labor Day in a beach town. Allison was stunned by her lovely writing and helped bring her work to NPR. She now is a regular commentator on All Things Considered.
Allison fosters “an extremely creative, extremely supportive environment,” Wasserman says, and he has an uncanny ability to discern hidden potential in people who work for him. His own work reflects this perceptiveness as well. Allison listens to the world with remarkable intensity and insight, Wasserman says. “He has some kind of radar that most of us don’t have.”
Luckily for his listeners, he shares his insights with the world of public radio.