'Cowboy,' a Study in Radio Tale-Telling

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John Widoff, with microphone, at work on 'Cowboy.'

John Widoff, with microphone, at work on 'Cowboy.' hide caption

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In 1980, journalist-producer Josh Darsa, technical director and recording engineer John Widoff, assisted by Miles Smith, Dave Glasser and shop technician Bob Butcher, collaborated on "Cowboy," a project that has become a classic of radio journalism.

It was originally broadcast on Oct. 4, 1980, on a series called The Mind's Eye. In May 1998, Widoff offered perspective on how the piece came together, in an interview with NPR Vice President for Engineering Mike Starling. Portions of the interview are excerpted and condensed here:

Multiple Vantage Points

"While we were at the rodeo, Josh Darsa wanted to record multiple vantage points of a single scene," Widoff recalls. "For instance, I'd have a Nagra tape recorder on the roof of the grandstand and Miles Smith, a freelancer out of New York (currently Boston), would have a Nagra in the chutes where the riders would bust out for their ride. Then we would have a free-running Nagra III on the rodeo announcer. We ran them in sync kinda like you would do in video with multiple cameras. This gave us three vantage points. During the show you hear the perspective change through cross fading which is a result of these different but simultaneous perspectives."

Taping and Dubbing

"There must have been 70 hours or more of tape we shot out there in Cheyenne and every single thing got dubbed. What you heard in the halls of the old NPR were rodeo sounds coming from RC1. Constant horses, bulls, things crashing, just all kinds of things. I think it drove people nuts hearing this stuff up and down the halls."

Writing to the Music

"In a movie, a score will be written to the dialogue and the story. For 'Cowboy,' we did the opposite. Josh would listen to the music over and over and write his narrative to it. What Josh wrote is completely inspired by the music. That is why the pauses in the music work so well with the narrative. We did get into some spots where we did not know how to get out of the music... One solution: something called Braun Cut (named after Peter Leonard Braun, former head of the Features Department at Radio Free Berlin). It's like in a movie where you do something abrupt with one production element to disguise a transition into another. In 'Cowboy' we decided that if the music slammed into something, like the sound of a belt tightening, it could disappear without the listener noticing. So that's what we did... For example, towards the beginning of 'Cowboy' you hear a car passing in the night, and as the car goes swishing by, it drowns out the music. But then, as the car drives off in the distance, the music reappears as though it never went away."

Final Thoughts

"This was the height of my career at NPR. It was a combination of everything... the music recording, the production sound recording, interviews... every single thing that I had ever done for this company all came together in this show. This was probably how Walt Disney felt when he made Mary Poppins. It was a dream come true for me to build something like this. 'Cowboy' is the kind of show you would listen to in a darkened movie theatre. The writing is spectacular."

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