Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thanks for Nothing, New York City

Hi friends.  I have a new post up on Slate, where I blame New York City for all the environmental ills of the nation.  Good times.

As a Birdist Bonus, I got to thinking about other famous invasive introduction sites.  Below is a map (click here if the points aren't showing up) showing, to the extent I could figure out, the spots around the country where exotic species were first introduced.  If you've got additions or suggestions, please let me know!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interview with Ray Brown of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds

I first started listening to Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds back in 2006, the early days of podcasting.  It was a wild west back then, with very little content available except The Ricky Gervais Show and some weirder stuff.  Searching through the iTunes options back then I had little hope of finding anything bird-related - but there was Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

The show was just the fix I needed.  Recorded in Boston by a dulcet-toned broadcasting vet, Ray Brown, the show captured a sort of DIY folksiness immediately recognizable in birders - you could sometimes even hear birds at the feeders outside the studio window.  Ray's passion for the topic was evident and infectious, and the show became a constant companion.

And it's still going strong.  Ray is set to record his 500th show, and to celebrate the milestone he's hitting the road and coming to DC, recording this Sunday, November 9, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  I'll be there, and you should be too.  I was able to ask Ray a few questions in preparation for this weekend's big event.

The Birdist: Five hundred shows!  Can you talk about the impetus for Talkin' Birds?  Was it a tough pitch to the station?

Ray Brown: The impetus (which led to a result after about ten years of sporadic rumination) came about when I was doing a weekend talk show on a Boston radio station (WBZ). Somehow, when we started talking about birds one day, we got bombarded with calls (and not from listeners demanding that we change the subject). Then and there I decided to create a radio show about birds and birding. But I didn't rush into it.

Yes, the first pitch was met with a pretty big dollop of skepticism, but then again so were most of the subsequent pitches. We've managed so far to convince 14 stations to carry the show (one required a modest financial sweetener), and so far, no station that's picked up the show has dropped it. (They wouldn't dare risk havi ng a bunch of crazed birders brandishing Swarovski scopes on big tripods doing protest marches in front of the studios.)

The Birdist: What was that first show like?

Ray Brown: To tell you the truth, I haven't dared listen to it. [ed note: the great Tumblr set up for the show only goes back as far as Episode 28, with Kenn Kaufman!]

The Birdist: Ha! Haven't listened to it! Has the format changed, though, since then?  What lessons do you think you've learned since that first day?

Ray Brown: After looking at the outline of the first show, I'm not sure how we filled the thirty minutes--must have used some extended musical interludes (to set the mood for avian contemplation). The centerpiece, though, was the Mystery Bird Contest, featuring clues and the song or call of a bird and the reward of a Droll Yankees bird feeder. We still do that contest every week, and have now reduced Droll Yankees' inventory by about 500 items. We like to think that we've made significant contributions to the nutritional needs of many, many birds (assuming that the winners of the feeders actually fill them up).

Changes have included the addition of other regular features, including our Let's Ask Mike segment, in which Mike O'Connor, the witty and knowledgeable owner of  Cape Cod's Birdwatcher's General Store, and author of two very successful bird books, answers questions like "Why are there no birds at my feeders?" every week. We've also added the unfortunately-titled "Featured Feathered Friend" segment, which attempts to showcase interesting attributes of a different bird each week, often using some well-disguised humor. Other rotating segments include "Science Corner," "Birds in the News," and the "Bird Word of the Week," in which our resident professor, Dr. Rufus Towhee, corrects my misinterpretations of avian anatomical terms. ("No, 'after-shaft' is not another term for 'downsizing,'" for example.) And more guests.

One thing I've learned is that, even for a short show of 30 minutes length, it's important to have enough material to cover the time. "Wanna hear that again?" can only go so far.

The Birdist: What's the planning or writing process like before a show goes on?

Ray Brown: Someone asked me the other day if I pre-plan the show or just "wing it." I don't think he was offering an intentional pun, and I don't think he believed me when I said I spend about 15 hours preparing each program. But he doesn't know that I'm a slow worker. Anyway, I write an "opening comments" section each week that runs seven or eight minutes; put scripts together for a produced featured bird segment for each show, along with a couple of other features; record a brief weekly interview with our bird feeding expert; and set up interviews for future shows. I know, it shouldn't take so long.

The Birdist: How much do you get out to bird, and where?

Ray Brown:  I stop by the marshes and ponds on the way to work most days, and hook up occasionally with local bird clubs so I can figure out what I saw when I had only a field guide (and 5 birding apps) to help me. My office has a nice view of Boston Harbor -- I have a telescope at the window and in the winter I manage to rack up a fair number of duck species without leaving my desk. (That may partly explain why it takes me so long to produce the show.) I used to keep a life list but gave it up when I realized I'd never be featured in one of Birding Magazine's milestone reports.

The Birdist: Well, I think 500 shows is a milestone worthy of Birding Magazine...any surprises in store for the next 500?

Ray Brown: I guess it's not a surprise if I reveal it, but I can say that we'll soon have a prestigious new show contributor. (His name rhymes with Mavid Fibley.)


Mavid Fibley, huh?  I wonder who he could be talking about?  Ravid Gibley?  Pavid Libley?  I'm stumped, so I guess if we want to find out, we'll have to stay tuned: click here to listen to Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds online.

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