On a quiet street in Manhattan's East Village, there's an apartment building that lists "Sound Portraits" as one of its tenants. Hit the buzzer, and you'll be directed to a rather unremarkable and cramped one-bedroom on the ninth floor, the former home of 33-year-old David Isay, and the current home of his acclaimed nonprofit radio production company. Were it not for the Robert F. Kennedy awards on the floor of the narrow hallway and the sound equipment glimpsed through a half-shut door, one might wonder whether this were really the place from which some of the decade's most acclaimed radio programming has emerged.
"Sound Portraits" tells the tales of society's most ignored citizens: a freak-show giant; life-without-parole prisoners; children in a Chicago housing project; residents of a New York flop house. And while uncovering hidden corners of American life has become practically a cottage industry in hip media circles, its lack of pretension and the respect shown its subjects sets this show apart. Documentaries like 1993's "Ghetto Life 101" or last year's "The Sunshine Hotel" are examples of "Sound Portraits" at its best -- but if you didn't hear the NPR announcer say so, you wouldn't know Isay had made them. Not a syllable is heard from his lips in either piece. In fact, his aversion to taking center stage in his work seems so strong, perhaps it's not so surprising that his offices are unassuming to the point of seeming covert.
It all started, or so the now-familiar anecdote goes, in 1987 when 22-year-old Isay stumbled on two recovering heroin addicts who ran a 12-step store in Manhattan. Unable to stoke the interest of local papers in the pair's efforts to open a "museum of addiction," and unwilling to let the story die, Isay reported it himself for New York's WBAI-FM. The piece caught the ear of Gary Covino, a producer at NPR, who reedited the piece for "Weekend All Things Considered." With the help of Covino, who still edits "Sound Portraits" Isay began planning his next documentary. The rest, as they say, is history.
While it's a story to make journalism majors grind their teeth in envy, Isay actually wasn't looking for a career in radio. In fact, he was a complete stranger to the medium. "When I was in the eighth grade there was a call-in radio show on WELI in New Haven that I used to listen to," he says, "but that was all I knew."
Isay's first full-length documentary was "Remembering Stonewall" in 1989, an ORAL history of the 1969 Greenwich Village riots that helped galvanize the gay-rights movement. Isay gave himself only a few lines in the piece, allotting the bulk of air time to testimonials from riot participants, ranging from drag queens to a public-morals investigator who had policed the Stonewall Inn. Next came "Tossing Away the Keys," a 1990 piece about life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The documentary was narrated by Wilbert Rideau, the editor of the prison paper, the Angolite. Publicity from the program eventually resulted in the release of one of its featured subjects, Moreese Bickham, who had been wrongly convicted for the murder of two Klansmen and imprisoned for 30 years.
For several years afterward, Isay reverted to a more traditional documentary structure, interspersing his own narration with quotes from his subjects. It wasn't until "Ghetto Life 101" that his non-narrative style blossomed in full. For that segment, he turned the recording equipment over to 13-year-old LeAlan Jones and 14-year-old Lloyd Newman to report on their lives in and around the Ida B. Wells housing projects in Chicago's South Side. The piece won a Livingston Award and the European broadcasting award, the Prix Italia. It also marked a maturation of Isay's rare sensibility.
"I just don't think what I have to say is that interesting," Isay insists. He shrugs off the possibility that opting for a more behind-the-scenes role has diminished his own shot at radio fame (a la "This American Life's" Ira Glass). "I have no regrets," he insists.
Regardless, Isay's approach is effective. To hear Jones' voice grow husky as he asks the whereabouts of his absent father, or grow shrill as he compares living in his neighborhood to having been in Vietnam, is to get a sense of life in an urban ghetto that traditional reporting rarely captures.
"Sound Portraits'" most recent piece, "The Jewish Giant" is in some ways a departure from its previous work in that it chronicles the life of a legend, rather than a living community. It's the story of Eddie Carmel, the giant immortalized by the 1970 Diane Arbus photograph. The photo features Carmel crouched in his parents' living room with them staring up at him, their faces studies in bewilderment and sadness. Suffering from a tumor on his pituitary gland that caused the production of too many growth hormones, Carmel grew to be 9 feet tall and weigh 300 pounds. Unable to live a normal life, he tried his hand in the movies, on radio and as a freak in a sideshow before dying at age 36 of a heart attack, by many accounts a bitter and depressed man.
The piece (click here to listen) marks the producing debut of Isay's associate, Stacy Abramson, and is narrated by Jenny Carchman, Carmel's cousin. Carchman spent the last two years interviewing relatives and tracking down people who had known Eddie. Although Carchman's interest in the story was intensely personal -- she talks of growing up fearing that touching the Arbus photo would transform her into a giant -- the documentary is not so much a journal of personal discovery as a portrait of a man thwarted by circumstances. While the piece doesn't reach the dramatic heights of last year's extraordinary "The Sunshine Hotel," it gently evokes the horror of a man trapped in his own body.
It's not uncommon for Isay and Abramson to spend six months or even a year on a single work; Abramson first started working on "The Jewish Giant" last October, recording more than 70 hours of tape that they whittled down to a final running time of 21 minutes.
"People would say to me 'What did you do today?' and I'd say, 'Oh, I had a great day; I cut 10 seconds off Mrs. Carchman today," Abramson recalls.
Isay and Abramson spend months just gaining access to the worlds they cover. And once such connections have been made, its not unusual for them to find themselves intimately bound with the people encountered. Isay counts Jones and Newman of "Ghetto Life 101" and Nate Smith, the narrator of "The Sunshine Hotel," as close friends. Spend five minutes with him and you know this is no cloying publicity-driven stance: His eyes light up when he talks about Newman's acceptance to Langston University; he talks gruffly about Smith's battle with colon cancer.
Isay's involvement in the well-being of his subjects stands to become an increasingly integral part of "Sound Portraits." Both Abramson and he talk about hiring a social worker and an education outreach coordinator one day. If such efforts threaten journalistic objectivity, he says, then so be it.
"It's part documentary, part art, part social services. It doesn't have a name -- and I'm comfortable with that."