David Isay was starting out in medical school, wandering through New York's Greenwich Village one day, when he happened upon a storefront museum of drug addiction, run by husband-and-wife ex-junkies.
Isay had never been a reporter, but he knew this was a story waiting to be told. He called every TV station in town and got nowhere. He called every radio station; same result. Except at the tiny, volunteer-run, left-wing Pacifica Radio station, where the news director told Isay to get a tape recorder and do the story himself.
He did. It got on the news. A traveling producer from National Public Radio happened to hear it and picked it up for national broadcast. David Isay was 22 and he had just found himself a career and a calling.
A decade later, Isay is the conscience and the sizzle of radio storytelling. He operates on his own out of New York City, producing half-hour nonfiction dramas that could not exist in any other medium. The voices in Isay's pieces reach out and grab you. Surrounded by the lush, sometimes grating sounds of places and people you can barely believe still exist, Isay's characters are the underdogs, the edgy loners and lost souls who populate the best novels. But they are real, and Isay has somehow persuaded them to tell their tales.
Isay's latest gem will be broadcast Friday on NPR's "All Things Considered," which occasionally hands the independent producer half an hour to do his thing. This one, "The Sunshine Hotel: Last of the Bowery Flops," is narrated by Nathan Smith, the gravel-voiced manager of a skid row flophouse where undesirables and incorrigibles find shelter for $4.50 a night.
It's a startling story, and that alone is remarkable in a time in which the explosion of news and pseudo-news media has hardened us against surprise. But that is Isay's gift, and whether he is documenting the story of Joe Franklin, the ancient New York TV and radio variety show host; or that of Dan Field, a Jewish matchmaker in Manhattan; or that of LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, the Chicago teenagers who chronicled their lives on the streets of the South Side in "Ghetto Life 101," Isay takes his listeners on journeys brimming with heart and cleansed of cynicism.
Doing so takes a lot of time, enormous patience and an openness that is immediately apparent to anyone who meets Isay. He looks like an earnest, gentle med student; he is the son of a psychiatrist, a Connecticut prep school kid who moved to New York at age 15 and became intrigued by the city and its characters.
"I'm fascinated by people in isolation, underdogs, the poetry on the edges of society," he says.
Isay has developed a theory of radio, a belief that there are certain kinds of stories that are best for print, and certain kinds that are best told in sound--dark, intimate tales with great voices, stories about places where a TV camera would disrupt.
In the flophouses, Isay and associate producer Stacy Abramson spent months winning the trust of the men who live there. "By nature, people living in flophouses want to be left alone," Isay says. "So it's a tough story."
Eventually, he found Smith, the hotel manager, and gave him a tape recorder so he could tell his own story. Although Isay intended to narrate the piece himself, in the end he decided to tell the entire tale in Smith's voice.
As he has on other stories, Isay pays the characters he chooses to narrate or co-report his pieces. While he says he would never pay a source for information, "I always split my fee with whomever I'm working with. Especially when you're working in disadvantaged communities, it's obscene not to pay people who are gathering tape with you."
"The Sunshine Hotel" runs 22 minutes, edited from more than 70 hours of tape. Isay's stories require far more time than NPR or any broadcaster would devote to putting together a feature story. And the fees NPR pays for an Isay story cover about 1% of his production costs; he must raise the rest from foundations and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.
"It's a real hustle," Isay says. "Nobody funds radio. But this is the only thing I do well. When it's going good, there's nothing I'd rather do."
His next projects are a series of stories based on an archive of Yiddish radio programs from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a diary of a death row inmate. Listen for them.