Waxing about ‘Words’

Yesterday I finished up my final production and post-production work for the “Words” program at KAFM Community Radio. My co-producer, Linda Skinner, will be continuing to work with the program for a while until new producers are trained and ready, but with my imminent departure from the area she felt it was also time to move on.

For those unfamiliar, “Words” involves school-age children learning a word in the dictionary – it’s spelling, definition, and usage – and recording a segment about that word, including using it in a sentence. Linda and I would then edit this recording with a musical selection appropriate to the word’s definition or usage, into a short audio clip (usually around 2 minutes in length) that is aired three times each weekday on KAFM.


The logistics of the program can be daunting. After the recording, editing, and post-production are complete, we compile a CD of all of the children from a particular school, class, or group and provide copies to each participant. We encouraged the participation of home-schooled children, and even had an ‘open mic’ night last year.

Linda, as a professional educator, handles the recruitment of classes, doing an introduction to the concept in conjunction with the teachers involved, and working closely with students to choose a word or craft a sentence. Both of us handled recording and editing, and I specialized in post-production, programming the segments, generating a calendar, and completing the CDs for the month and for the participants.

Since taking over production duties in November of 2006, Linda and I have produced nearly 1,000 segments. I tried to calculate the amount of time required for everything, and came up with an average of something like 8 hours a week, every week.

I took on this project in the midst of my late wife’s illness to give me something else to think about besides work, parenting, and making sure she was receiving proper care. Technology afforded me the ability to edit and do post-production on a laptop at home, which was absolutely essential then.

We’re grateful for the support of KAFM station management, and for those local organizations who supported and continue to support “Words” as underwriters, especially in a tough economy. Enstrom Candies has been there throughout. We greatly appreciate their commitment.

I attached some examples of “Words” segments to illustrate what we tried to accomplish. The first is the most straightforward example – a word that may not lend itself to an immediate match in a database of song titles (thank God for Amazon and ITunes), but with a little imagination a pleasant, meaningful match is found. You’ll hear what I mean.

We used varieties of music in keeping not only with the mission of KAFM, but also to reach out across generations and perhaps expose kids to musical styles they might otherwise miss. It doesn’t matter what decade you’re living in – one of the most incredible singing voices ever recorded belonged to Sarah Vaughan:

We often use instrumental selections in “Words” segments. Often, a student would select a word in another language, or representative of a particular region or culture. We would usually accompany these with music from that region, often with what is known as “world music”, popularized in places such as the Putamayo record label.


This next word, while seemingly easy to program (just find some violin music, right?), called for some additional attention to detail. I was drawn to one of my favorite films, The Red Violin, and selected a snippet from it’s Oscar-winning original score. Combined with the voice of the student, which has an eerily calm, almost soothing quality to it, this remains my favorite segment:

It’s no coincidence that I programmed this to air on Valentine’s Day. In fact, there were a few opportunities to engage in some recognition of holidays with an appropriate word awaiting editing and production. I always tried to program a word with a raucous theme and music for New Year’s Eve; this past Valentine’s Day the word aired was “Pheromone“, with appropriate music and lyrics.


Some words have offered the opportunity for some impromptu and subtle social commentary.
One year during the second Bush administration I took a student’s recording of the word “Anarchy”, mixed it with The Clash’s “Clampdown”, and programmed it to air on President’s Day. More recently, Linda and I were presented with a word selected by a middle school student in 2009 – “Dispensary” – and saw an opportunity to make it topical and current with the choice of music.

I saw the below clip as an opportunity to take a word that has applications across human history and personalize it for today, and even perhaps for the member of the generation that recorded it.

The music and lyric perhaps laments that very thing that we as volunteers in community media are trying to prevent from happening, by working with dedicated teachers who sense the value of such an activity to expand the horizons of students beyond the textbook or the classroom, and especially beyond the lure of what corporate media sees fit to provide them with:

“Any escape might help to smooth
the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
the restless dreams of youth…”


I would have preferred to do more with the program, such as using the Internet to make current and previous recordings available, and draw interest to participation in the program, which had waxed and waned over the years as schedules, class sizes, and limited budgets for field trips to the station became factors for many educators.

We eventually leveraged technology to take the studio to some schools, with interesting results; the raw audio contained things like class bells, slamming locker doors, and giggles from other classmates that were at times difficult to deal with in editing. It was also interesting to note how the person being recorded would speed up their reading after the class bell rang. While this was easily handled in most cases with editing software, it was a potent illustration of how conditioned we all are to certain things.

My experience with “Words” as someone outside the educational community showed me one big thing as well; that the quality of education is truly a partnership between parent, student, and teacher, but the quality of leadership and dedication established by our teachers sets the foundation for the quality of our educational system.

That’s one reason I’m sympathetic to the teachers and other public sector union members in Wisconsin and elsewhere, many of whom likely know that if government, like a corporation, can afford to cut corners somewhere, they will do it. Education is no place to be cutting corners. At the same time, people working in these professions should recognize their importance, strive to excel, and utilize what they do have in a manner that will benefit students and their community the most.

Take care.

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This entry was posted in Community, KAFM, Local, Media, Music, Personal, Schools. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Waxing about ‘Words’

  1. linda says:

    Wow, talk about summing it up! Makes me tearful to realize it is oming to an end. I know my vocabulary, both musically and language-wise have improved immensely. Thanks for making it such a delightful ride!Skinner

  2. Jenny says:

    What an incredible program! Sorry it has to end. It would be challenging and fun to come up with the music to accompany some of those words.

  3. Love the Red Violin music in background. Good on you for doing this program for so long.

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