Big Audio Dynamite

If these were words on air instead of words on paper, you’d hear WBEZ’s Johanna Zorn here at the top, explaining this weekend’s first annual Third Coast International Audio Festival in her own voice. “The phrase that helped people get it right away was calling it a Sundance for radio,” she’d be saying, the timbre of her voice, like every voice, distinct as a fingerprint. Zorn sounds cool and professional, raspy and bell-like at the same time, and if her voice came at you over your Walkman or your car radio it would seem like she was talking directly to you, leaning in close so you could get every word. That intimacy, she says, is documentary radio’s special power.

Zorn has been at ‘BEZ for two decades, most recently as executive producer of the Chicago Matters series. Two years ago, when she was wondering why no one had done for documentary radio what Sundance does for documentary film, it occurred to her that she might be able to make it happen. She brought the idea to manager Torey Malatia and the station’s board, which paid for a $25,000 feasibility study. ‘BEZ committed to the project, but Zorn knew she’d have to come up with outside funding if it was to be more than a onetime event. Corporations weren’t interested in taking a risk on something so new, she says, but the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation offered a $100,000 one-for-two challenge grant, and nine months of fund-raising harvested the additional money.

Third Coast is a four-headed monster: a competition, a year-round Web site, a three-hour radio broadcast, and the two-day conference that starts today at the Holiday Inn Chicago-City Centre. The conference is running in tandem with another industry event, a meeting of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). Both are geared to producers, Zorn says, “but AIR is focusing more on the business end of it–our conference is talking about the art.” A mere five years ago, Zorn says, she couldn’t have predicted the explosion of interest in audio documentary. Attendance for Third Coast was capped at 200. It sold out, and Zorn and the festival’s assistant director, Julie Shapiro, expanded to 225 and then started turning people away. Though good documentary reporting had been around a long time on shows like All Things Considered and Soundprint, Zorn says the major engine has been the success of Ira Glass’s This American Life (now playing on 400 stations). That show; work like David Isay’s Ghetto Life 101, which put tape recorders into the hands of kids; and technological advances that allow almost anyone to edit at home have democratized the medium and invigorated the form, she says.

The public can hear the festival’s keynote address by Andrei Codrescu and its panel discussions (featuring the likes of Robert Krulwich, Scott Smith, and the Kitchen Sisters) on its Web site, The competition drew 310 entries for cash prizes in a half-dozen categories; a group of winners has already been selected, though exactly who won what is being kept secret till October 27. Winning work will be heard on a three-hour program hosted by Glass that will be broadcast nationally (Thanksgiving weekend on WBEZ). An ongoing Third Coast documentary program is under consideration for ‘BEZ beginning next year, as is more public participation in the next festival. Zorn says, “I’d like to premiere documentaries the way they premiere films.”

Virgins Wanted

Bruce Steinberg’s dad died suddenly, right in front of him, when he was seven years old. That changed his Skokie childhood in a big way, and when he grew up–a lawyer who wanted to be a writer–he made his vivid memories of that event and everything that followed into a cathartic, heavily autobiographical novel. Then he tried to sell it. After collecting rejection slips from a string of mainstream publishers, Steinberg ran into Gardenia Press, where his biggest stumbling block–his virgin publishing status–was suddenly an asset. Started two years ago by P. Elizabeth and Bob Collins, and run from their Milwaukee home, Gardenia solicits only first novels and wants to “help new authors go as far as they can with their merit-holding work,” according to its brochure. Steinberg entered his manuscript in a Gardenia contest and won the grand prize: publication. No advance, and the promotion’s mostly up to him, but he’ll collect a 10 percent royalty on the first 1,500 copies, then 121/2 percent. Gardenia was launched after Elizabeth Collins couldn’t get her own novel published. “We always knew we wanted to have our own business,” she says. Now she’s president and chief editor; Bob, a retired Navy machinist, is senior editor. They’ve published a half-dozen books so far, including two by P. Elizabeth, and they offer an array of editorial services and workshops that generate cash flow. Gardenia will look at manuscripts without charge, but any comment beyond thumbs-up or -down costs. A three-to-seven-page critique is $60; a line edit of a novel up to 300 pages is $225; a novel-writing workshop by correspondence is $999. Their second annual conference, being held this week in Memphis, sold out at $375 a person ($349 for early registration), and they got 92 entries in this year’s first-novel contest. They’re on the Web at Steinberg’s book, The Widow’s Son, will be in local bookstores he’s lined up as soon as the Collinses truck up to their printer in Canada and collect it.

Hedwig and the Angry Zych

After purchasing $105 worth of advance tickets to Hedwig and the Angry Inch for himself and friends, Jeff Zych showed up at the Broadway Theatre on the appointed day and was surprised to find it dark. “It was the day the movie opened,” says the adaptable Zych, “so I decided to go over to Landmark’s Century and see it anyway.” When he got there, he was surprised again–the Broadway Theatre cast was performing in the lobby. That was OK with him, he says, but the play never reopened, and trying to get a refund has been tougher than getting a sugar daddy to bring some home. “I sent the appropriate info and ticket copies to the Broadway box office as directed by the sign at the theater,” laments Zych. “No response. The phone has been disconnected, mail looks like it’s piling up in the lobby. I believe I have been stiffed by the producers.” Local producer Job Christenson claims refunds should be coming from New York by the end of this month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.