“Splash” on PRX
Who did What to WHOM!?
My memory’s not what it once was. But hearing a certain name made an instant connection with the past.
A prominent Tampa lawyer was murdered by his ex-wife. She snapped, drove to his new home and shot him six times. I got a cold chill when the victim was ID’d. I’d known him as a neighborhood kid decades ago when we played kid games.
But the part of the story I couldn’t shake was what his ex did after emptying her revolver. She drove to the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge and jumped nearly 200 feet into Tampa Bay. The cosmic joke was on her. Instead of evading an ugly trial and lifetime lockup, she survived.
Now I’d heard about plenty of jumpers who’d used the Sunshine Skyway to exit life. But somebody who actually lived to tell about it?
I’m no fan of gruesome movies or TV, but morbid curiosity took over. What thoughts do bridge jumpers have a second after their feet leave the wall? How does it feel to hit choppy water at 75 miles per hour? How do their broken bodies stay afloat until rescued?
And would this make a good radio story?
Thank goodness for a certain four-letter word.
Luck. I had none of it while trying to set up an interview with the ex-wife in her new home at the state pen. We got a little correspondence going, but it ended abruptly when a letter bounced back “Return to Sender.” Either she decided not to participate or the prison system wouldn’t allow it.
I was hitting dead ends trying to contact a few other surviving jumpers.
Then luck struck. A survivor named Hanns Jones actually returned my email. After a few phone calls convincing him I wasn’t out to exploit his story for ill-gotten gain (I explained it was for public radio), he agreed to an interview.
Magic. I couldn’t have asked for a better storyteller. Or a jumper so willing to volunteer all the painful and emotional details of his ordeal. Or a voice that could paint the picture like a colorful character in a movie.
Driving away from that first interview with Hanns, holding the tiny speaker on my flash recorder up to my ear, the cartoon light bulb flashed on overhead: “Holy crap! This guy can carry the piece. Who needs a detached narrator when you’ve got the glue to hold it all together, a strong story arc and a commanding voice, all in one.”
All I had to do was take a zillion bits and pieces, assemble them into a coherent story, and orchestrate with other sonic ingredients.
After I found Hanns (a gift from the radio gods?) everything fell into place like few things in life ever do. Even when I hit the occasional speed bump, a solution presented itself that made the piece better.
You’ve heard that luck is some combination of preparation, perspiration and inspiration. I agree — up to a point. But there’s another kind that you can’t account for or prep for. The kind that comes out of the blue like lightning. You don’t need it to make great radio. But it’s a game changer when it happens.
What’s with all the sound design you ask?
Ever notice that the soundtracks of most film and video docs are more complex and better crafted than radio documentaries? Why be self-limiting, unless the piece is pure journalism? Why not use every tool available, including music, atmospheres and SFX?
Strong sound design was always part of my plan, but it also served a practical purpose. I needed it to cover wind-damaged portions of Hanns’ dialogue (micro editing also helped). I wasn’t prepared for the 15-25 mph gusts off the bay in our first interview. My bad. We recorded in calmer locations after that.
I might’ve gone lighter on sound design if the piece had traditional narration. But Hanns’ unflinching willingness to tell his personal story made it a good fit. Really, a perfect fit to elevate “Splash” to impressionist...
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