‘Backstage Heroes’ is a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly — where her ‘Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts — giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
In 2016, the very act of listening itself seems to be changing: The rise of the podcast is upon us. Maybe this is radio’s revenge -- all of a sudden everyone’s listening, where before we were mostly watching. The current popularity of audio recalls the 1930s, back when radio owned the world. Today, many of us have favorite podcasts to discuss and mull over; we wait for the next episode of Serial the way we used to wait for the next episode of our favorite TV show.
Producer Nathan Dalton works with the Kitchen Sisters, a 35-year-old, Peabody-winning independent audio production company, and it seems he’s the right person in the right place at the right time. Under the Kitchen Sisters' umbrella, Dalton has helped produce such notable series as The Hidden World of Girls, Hidden Kitchens (the Texas episode of which is narrated by Willie Nelson), and KQED's The Making Of ..., among others.
“He works on all aspects of every project -- he pitches ideas, creates the graphics, multimedia, and online material,” says Nikki Silva, one of the eponymous Sisters. He's "...the person you want to collaborate with -- generous, creative, and kind."
Dalton is also one of those people with dark hair and light eyes, which somehow gives the impression that he might be able to see more than you can, but the truth is, he can hear more than you can. Audio producing demands a wide range of skills including compassion, discretion, and a rock-solid sense of “beginning-middle-end storytelling” in addition to graphic design and admin skills, but of course it’s largely about having a really good ear.
I first ran into Dalton in his role as indie rockstar, in proto-emo punk band Nuzzle, and later in an intense alt-country group called the Dying Californian. In tandem with his charismatic brother Andrew, Dalton always seemed at home onstage. So during our interview at his small, charming home in Berkeley, I wonder aloud what it might be like for him to play the very different role of producer -- the silent, unseen “recordist.” I hazard a guess he might feel overlooked, in comparison. It turns out being invisible is actually part of the appeal.
“Even if you’re not invisible — if you’re the most visible dude in the room, and you are, because you have a big microphone and headphones -- you feel like you’re in your own world," says Dalton. Unexpectedly enough, it’s the same bell-jar sensation he felt onstage, he says, a state of deep, singular concentration. “You play a song, and it’s sort of like a force field that encompasses all of you. And you just live in that song for three minutes.”
Dalton says he loves his job. He also echoes Silva when he lists off his various duties, which include bookkeeping and bill-paying. Is he also the guy who tells the yokels to sing into a can, like the man at the radio station in O Brother, Where Art Thou? This question gets a loud, sharp laugh from Dalton. Sure, he says, kind of. Or at least that’s one of his favorite jobs. “The happiest days are when you get to interview and cut tape!”
It's an interesting time in the radio industry: With more listeners comes more money. Yes, the Kitchen Sisters work in public broadcasting, not in the commercial market, but even the nonprofit world finds capitalists encroaching. Podcasting post-Serial has changed the game, Dalton notes, and people form opposing camps around questions of funding. Some don’t want to hear corporate advertising on public airwaves, of course.
But there are others, says Dalton, who don’t mind at all. It’s hard to be an artist, he says, the sadness in his voice suddenly audible. As the father of three children, he stresses how lucky he was to join the well-established, relatively financially secure Kitchen Sisters in 2006.
It must be weird to see a lot of money flying around in the broadcasting world: Audio might be easier to compromise than other media, simply because it’s invisible. On the other hand, a lot of sponsors of public radio are “just these small, kind of cool companies who really love public radio, and storytelling, and they love artists, and that’s why they’re supporting the work,” says Dalton. He’s bounced back to his usual optimistic self, and I can see why Silva is so effusive in her praise: “He is the glue, the memory, the creative juice that keeps it all together and in motion around The Kitchen Sisters shop.”
Since he's also a musician, I'm curious how Dalton and the Kitchen Sisters team go about choosing the music that goes with a podcast. To me, background music is elemental, even if it is the world’s most common metaphor for meaninglessness. If background music is good, you don’t notice it; you just feel warm. But if it’s corny, the story’s message can be completely destroyed.
So it’s no surprise to me that choosing the music is the most time-consuming part of creating a story. “One of the funnest parts, as well,” says Dalton. Whether they’re working with NPR’s Morning Edition or another public broadcasting group; overall production of a show can take anywhere from a month to several years, he says. During that time, they’re constantly on the search for good music, focusing mostly on finding instrumentals (for obvious reasons), especially those with varying texture; he likes percussive tracks, or those with “lots of little weird sounds.” NPR has licensing deals with ASCAP and BMI, so most of the time, the team has a lot of freedom, but the search continues.
“We listen listen listen, and we’ve built up a bank of music over the years,” Dalton says. They also have go-to artists like Moondog, Brian Eno, or Ry Cooder. But they don’t rely solely on their own ears, no matter how good they are. Because the Kitchen Sisters do not narrate their stories, each segment is edited from hours of interview material. As recordist, Dalton has plenty of time to spend with interview subjects, and he makes the most of it.
“We ask everyone we interview: What’s your soundtrack? Who do you listen to? What’s some of your favorite music?” says Dalton. Even this strategy isn’t quite enough, however: “We often ask them to sing, as well.” If a song plays in the background of an interview, he’ll record that too.
The results are a cache of audio artifacts to play with, augmented with archival research, and it’s Dalton’s job to monkey around with it all. “It’s fun to try different sounds to see how it changes a scene,” he says.
The process is more satisfyingly complicated than I had even imagined, and it sets me off wondering about the personal soundtrack of everyone I know. But not everyone can do what Nathan Dalton does: Only a polymathic independent radio producer can successfully get someone they’ve never met before to sing into a can.