Sounding Off on a Tennessee Cave Tale

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It turns out that one reporter's effort to record a story about exploring caves in Tennessee encountered many technical difficulties. The crew spent two days in dark, wet caves for eight minutes of radio.


Earlier this week on MORNING EDITION, reporter David Kestenbaum took you on an NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition to find some unusual creatures that live in the caves of Tennessee. Here's a page from his somewhat soggy Reporter's Notebook.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

DAVID KESTENBAUM: We have lots of sounds from this trip that make you want to reach for a flashlight and a good pair of boots. You may think when you hear a radio story that you can picture the scene.

Unidentified Man: Ooh, big spider.

KESTENBAUM: In this case it's a dark cave with a low ceiling and slippery rocks. I bet you're not picturing the whole scene, though. The whole scene includes a producer, a sound engineer, recording equipment, headphones and wireless microphones.

(Soundbite of transmitter)

KESTENBAUM: That is the sound of an Electrosonics UM200B transmitter, which isn't working properly at the moment. None of this gear is waterproof. The caves are basically underground rivers. So we e-mailed our guide before coming. What are the chances we will accidentally go for a swim? Will we have to crawl through tiny holes? The answer was: maybe. So our sound engineer, Sean Corey Campbell(ph) duck-taped the wireless microphones to the scientists' hardhats. In a waterproof backpack he put the precious, expensive, fragile recording equipment. The gear looked like a bomb from an old James Bond movie - rubber bands around a box with flashing yellow and green lights, a receiver and a big pack of batteries.

At one point, to follow the scientists, Sean had to crawl along a ledge flat on his belly.

Mr. SEAN COREY CAMBELL (Sound Engineer): I'm very concerned now. Ceiling's really low. If I were to lose my balance here, I would go rolling down into some water. So far so good.

KESTENBAUM: I slide down a slope covered with bat guano. In Radioland, this story took eight minutes. In reality, we spent two days in caves. It's an entirely different experience. You get accustomed to being there, to darkness, to mud. Few things have any color. The bugs we found were often ghostly pale. And leaving the cave is an Alice in Wonderland moment. Our entrance into darkness becomes the exit into light. The cave opening is a jagged frame for a beautiful picture. Sun - there's color. Green plants moving in the wind. One time we emerge at dusk and you could just hear the world open up.

(Soundbite of crickets)

KESTENBAUM: For a minute I get a strange sensation. I feel I understand that I am walking on the surface of a giant ball. All the business of the world - the hope, the pain - is up here. You could see why early humans liked caves. It's a little overwhelming to be back.

NEARY: NPR's David Kestenbaum on a radio expedition to the caves of Tennessee.

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