Radio Star

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Ann Heppermann

In refugee camps around the world, the main way people receive news is by radio.

As it happens, radio is writing teacher Ann Heppermann’s medium of choice. So when she and longtime friend Kara Oehler wanted to tell the stories of six refugees living in six US cities, they created a sound installation in which the stories were transmitted simultaneously to six radios in one space. (Imagine boom boxes on top of music stands with radio transmitters suspended over each one.) The pair worked with Heppermann’s husband, composer Jason Cady, to harmonize the voices and sync the narratives rhythmically, using some of the same auto-tune techniques heard on a Kanye West album.

Heppermann and Oehler won a prestigious $50,000 United States Artists fellowship in December of 2011 in recognition of Chorus of Refuge and their other work with audio documentaries and radio writing over the last 12 years. Heppermann’s stories have aired on This American Life, Radio Lab, Morning Edition, and Marketplace, among many others.

Heppermann credits her love affair with radio to Catholic school: she grew up in residential Phoenix and had to drive at least an hour in the car each day, with radio as the only entertainment. “Audio is near and dear to my heart,” she says, “and I keep thinking of different ways to take in, transmit, or present stories.”

Next, Heppermann and Cady are considering running voice recordings through piano strings and recording the synthetic vibrations of the vocals—essentially turning the piano into a speaking voice. This fall, she’s teaching a new course for SLC’s graduate writing program titled, “Truthiness Radio—From Tall-Tale Monologues to Radio Drama with Some Facts Mixed In.”