Jay AllisonThe Boston Globe Magazine (03/2000)

Why start new nonprofit radio stations?

After my wife and I moved here 12 years ago, I couldn’t hear public radio – it was like having somebody absent who you missed all the time. I’ve contributed to public radio for 20 years, but I’ve also been listening since it began. The solution to getting a good broadcast signal seemed to be to start a radio station [really, two: WNAN-91.1 FM going on the air this month and serving Nantucket; and WCAI-90.1 FM, which will reach the Vineyard and upper and mid-Cape, beginning this summer]. I also thought it would be nice to have a place where the lights were on later than 9 at night, especially in the winter. I don’t sleep much. I have three little kids, and I work a lot at night. I worked in the theater before I got into radio, and my wife and I still stay up really late.

You made a deal with WGBH in Boston. Why?

We went into a license agreement with them even though we had the licenses and the grants to get it going ourselves. It saved a fortune of community money to share their infrastructure, but it’s not a WGBH repeater station. Our news and public affairs service is being designed from the ground up. We’ve got a local staff, local hosts, and everything is meant to serve this region. But by law, they’re ‘GBH’s stations. I’m the executive producer. I’m going to be developing new features and working on local projects that may go national.

What are the defining styles of the stations?

The voices of the people that live here – and finding ways to reflect their perspectives. We want to experiment with voice mail, where people can comment and be a part of what we’re doing throughout the day. I wish I could say that right away we’ll have our own distinctive signature in every moment of the day. But we won’t. It’s going to sound like an NPR station. We’ve got a few minutes every hour to play with between the big programming blocks and some parts of the broadcast day where, eventually, we can create distinctive local programming. The spirit of the place is supposed to be something of a laboratory. We’re in a town full of laboratories.

A lot of your NPR pieces concern suffering and marginal lives. Where does that come from?

My own good fortune and, honestly, a sort of feeling of debt. I want to create empathy for all sorts of lives. You see so many people judged by those who have had better circumstances.

Did you grow up in great privilege?

No, but I’m OK. I’m not sick, we have enough money to get by, we have people who love us, and I haven’t been abused by people or war or circumstance. So I have a feeling of debt. Telling stories makes me feel good, so it serves me selfishly, too.

What turned you on to radio?

It all comes from story more than sound. Sometimes, I feel like I place the present tense immediately in the past, because I experience the present tense as story; I imagine it, retranslate it. It’s almost a disability, this knocking yourself out of time. And radio is the purest way for me to channel the experience of the present tense.

Which would you choose if you had to, being deaf or blind?

If I didn’t have this feeling, I would prefer to see. But I think I would lose my eyes first.

Discuss the power of radio.

We don’t have earlids, so you’re defenseless in a way to sonic stimulus, and the radio can ambush you. I love it when a sound or a voice or a story sneaks in past the radar, and, all of a sudden, it’s inside me. It happens to me sitting in my studio. I will often just start crying – it’s happened a lot with the “Lost & Found Sound” series [on NPR, which Allison and two colleagues created]. A sound surrounds you. It’s invisible and it can get inside you; it’s like a ghost. The voice has breath in it, you can hear the breath. So when you listen to an old voice or the voice of someone who’s deceased, even if it’s not your own relative, your own past comes back, and I find it’s a remarkable kind of connecting experience. Sound asks you to make your own pictures, and the pictures you make in your own mind are perhaps more powerful than ones you’re shown.

How does TV work compare to radio?

I also work for Nightline, producing half-hour specials. I did a lot a few years ago, the same way I do radio – I’m a one man crew. I ended up feeling radio is a much more powerful medium for story, and I just missed it all the time. I can make more money in commercial television and get a bigger audience, but that feeling of just wanting to fade to black and listen to the story keeps me in radio.

Do you care if people are driving or cooking while listening to your stories?

I wish they were all sitting in a darkened theater quietly – but they’re not. You have to keep something available at the surface. It means that the sonic dynamic range and the range of meaning have to have something for the person driving or doing dishes. What you hope is that beneath the surface, there will be something for those whose attention you really have. The best thing is getting them to pull over or stay parked in the driveway with the radio on.