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An American Mosaic

The stories of uncommon people get a marathon Thanksgiving airing on NPR's 'A Sense of Place.'


What a perfect day to indulge in America.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, when the focus is on hearth and home, what better way to experience and celebrate the nation's diversity of people and variety of landscape than by tuning in to Helen Borten's radio documentary series, "A Sense of Place"? It can be sampled, like the courses of a meal, while basting a turkey or driving in the car to someone else's festivity.

In a marathon of programming from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., KCRW-FM (89.9) is airing 15 half-hours of Borten's evocative, ongoing opus for National Public Radio about uncommon characters, places and histories. The former WNYC-FM producer and children's author is the series' sole producer, narrator, writer, selector of its music and interviewer.

Listeners can begin at 9 a.m. with "Little Odessa in Brooklyn," about Russian Jews who bring humor, music and dark memories to Brighton Beach, and then segue at 9:30 to "House of the Lord," the story of an endangered black plantation church in St. Francisville, La.

There are a pair of two-parters: "Circus Life" (10-11 a.m.), told from the perspective of so-called sideshow "freaks" and of daredevil trapeze acrobats, and "Vietnamese Homecoming" (1-2 p.m.), about fishermen and their families who, on the day South Vietnam fell in 1975, escape under fire in their own boats to sea and eventually become shrimpers on the Gulf Coast. "Homecoming" also traces their struggles with Cajun competitors, the Americanization of their children and their lives today.

"It shows another great American story--another group that is integrated into the fabric of this nation," Borten says from her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "They suffered a lot, but theirs is a tremendous success story. They are by and large accepted, they are not ghettoized," and indeed many of them, she happily notes, "having worked so hard, live in beautiful ranch houses."

Other segments include the "myth" of the 1947 "invasion" of Hollister, Calif., by 4,000 motorcyclists (11 a.m.); a strike by Mexican mushroom pickers, which polarizes a Quaker community in Pennsylvania (11:30 a.m.); and "The Skywalkers of Akwesasne" (12:30 p.m.), about how men of a Mohawk tribe near the Canadian border became famed ironwalkers and helped build such national monuments as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center.

Closer to her home in New York, Borten also tells of the searing experiences of four formerly homeless people in "Lost in America" (3 p.m.). They include a blind woman and an ex-drug addict, now on scholarship in a master's program.

Although other public radio stations across the nation have aired the first 13 pieces, the final two--"Barn Burning" (3:30 p.m.), about a serial arsonist who terrifies Woodstock, and "Fly Fishing" (4 p.m.)--are KCRW premieres.

"A Sense of Place" was inspired by a drive Borten took across the country in 1987 with her younger son, now a high school physics teacher. It was the first time, she confesses, that she really "started to know America." In 1994, the award-winning documentarian began work on the first 13 pieces, armed with $149,000 from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and $8,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now she has a second CPB grant of $220,000 and an additional $16,650 from the New York State Council on the Arts for 13 more pieces.

"I wanted to do my bit to close the gap between perception and reality," Borten says. "I think that the real lives of ordinary Americans tell us more about who we are as a people and a nation than the extreme stories--crime, drugs, etc.--that grab the headlines.

"We get a distorted view of the country through the media," she adds. "I'm afraid to sound corny, but I felt I had a mission--to reflect the ethos and idealism of this country."

Among the people listeners will hear from are Diana Trost, founder of the Shostakovich Music School in Brooklyn, who teaches amid the harsh rumbling cacophony of elevated trains outside; Montana writer Tom McGuane--"I don't usually do famous people but he's a well-known fly-fisherman; I examine the links between literature and fishing"--and Tampa, Fla., blues performer Diamond Teeth Mary--92 when she was interviewed, blind and in a wheelchair--who tells Borten, with ambition still burning fiercely, "Just think how far I come, but I ain't got where I wanna get yet."


Sci-Fi Alert: KCRW and KPCC-FM (89.3) didn't plan it this way, but both public stations are airing the same audio adaptations--but not simultaneously--of classic science-fiction novels, produced by and starring Leonard Nimoy, the original "Star Trek's" Mr. Spock, and John de Lancie, who was Q on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Voyager."

The adaptations for National Public Radio, each lasting two hours, were done by writer-producer Nat Segaloff and De Lancie for Alien Voices, a Los Angeles-based audio troupe created in 1996 by Nimoy, De Lancie and Segaloff.

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