Interview with Tony Schwartz (1985)

I had been making a radio program on KAOS in Olympia, WA called Snapshot Radio with my friend Rich Jensen, in which we only played homemade recordings of sounds from everyday life, made by ourselves and sent to us by people from all over the world. As we became more aware of the precedents for this kind of work, we came across the work of Tony Schwartz and his many LPs on Folkways, some of which Moses Asch was kind enough to send us. In 1984 I moved to New York to do an internship for my last year of college, and while I was there I contacted Tony to see if I could interview him. I was young and inexperienced, and I am sure my questions were not very interesting to him. But he invited me over and graciously indulged me. This interview was typed up 26 years later from my original handwritten transcription of the audio cassette, then compared to the tape to make some corrections. It has been lightly edited for the sake of conversational continuity. — SP, Feb. 2010

TS: Alright, ask questions...

You had the first portable tape recorder in the country? Is that true?

TS: In the world!

And how did you go about doing that? I mean, did you have to modify them, or...?

TS: I always have said that no recorder is built for you, everything has to be modified, because your uses are generally unique. So the first recorder I had was a Magnacorder. That was an old standard before the Ampexes. Well no, the first recorder I had was a Webcor wire recorder. I still have it downstairs. That was [recording] on a spool of wire. Then I had a smaller model made by a recording wire company. They manufactured recording wire and this recorder. Then the next thing I had was a Pentron tape recorder, which was a small home-type recorder. Then the next thing I had was the Magnacorder, which was a professional unit. And the Magnacorder was a heavy unit, required AC power and so forth. It was a large, heavy recorder and I was interested in going out and recording things outside. A friend of mine lent me his Renault and I built a portable battery-operated generator, it operated on a 12-volt battery. Cars had 6-volt batteries at that time, and the only 12-volt battery was an airplane battery. So I got airplane batteries for it, and I found that I couldn’t work the dials and be out on the street, so for that I built a little control panel that I’d hang around my neck and on my chest. I had a VU meter and a volume control, and plugs for the mic which I could have on a 6-foot cord and hold in my hand. And then I had the line going to the mic input and to the earphone output of the recorder, I had a hundred foot [power] line, so I would start the recorder and I could control the volume and hear it and see it on the VU meter. So that was my first remote ability. And I would go out and do street interviews, I would record street musicians that way, and go out and get the sounds of nature.

But that was still pretty bulky, though, huh?

TS: Oh yeah, that was heavy. The next thing was, I found the Amplifier Corporation of America made a portable unit that you had to wind. It had an old phonograph motor in it. But this unit was built to work in the same way you’d use a professional recorder. That is: go to a location, open up your recorder and so forth, but then you had the winder for the motor and you had dry cell batteries inside for the power. Then I took that unit and I extended the meter to the top side of it outside. I extended the mic input to the top side. I put a strap on it and I drilled holes in the cover and put extension rods on the On/Off switch and the volume control, so I could control the volume and watch my meter here and so forth. I think there’s a picture of it – see that Sounds From My City album there [hanging on the wall]? It’s down by my foot there. And that one was really the first portable recorder in the country. You might say I had the first Walkman in the world. And with that I’d go out and record all sorts of things. I’d record auctions, street vendors, I just would carry it wherever I went.

Then I bought the first Nagra in the country. It was a wind-up Nagra. There was a Mr. Ski [?] here from Connecticut, who brought over the first one and he was showing it to a doctor friend of mine, Victor Whitten [?], uptown, and I was in the office then and I said, “I’ll take it!” I bought that one. Then I had the first electric Nagra in the US. In fact, years later when I had other Nagras, someone wanted to buy the old wind-up one I had, and he went to Switzerland one time and they took it away from him at the Nagra factory because it was their first one and they wanted it for their museum. So they gave him a brand new electric one in place of that. He just went there to get it checked out and they said, “We’d like to keep this one and give you a brand new one.” And so they did.

And that’s been my experience with recorders. I’ve always wanted to get smaller and smaller. This one [my Sony TCD-5M] is a fantastic recorder. I had the miniature Nagras but they weren’t convenient with tape, with reel to reel and so forth. And then the Walkman Professional is a fantastic unit, almost as good as this, not quite. So there are really top quality recorders that you can carry. I have four of the Walkman Professionals and two of these [TCD-5M], and the larger Nagras over here.

So what was the beginning of your obsession with all of this? How did you get started? You were doing advertising or something, right?

TS: I studied advertising design at Pratt Institute as an art director. And then I was a gadget hound all the time. And I remember when I was a kid I used to see the disc recordings, where you cut the discs, and I always thought, “Gee, I’d love to have one of those.” And later on I bought one. Eventually I bought a really good disc cutter with which I’d cut discs from wire and tape.

So you could make your own records?

TS: So I could give records to people of the stuff they recorded. I had a lot of friends who were interested in folk music and folklore. And I started recording the programs off WNYC. There was Oscar Brand, had a folk music festival. And one day I met one of the people I’d recorded, and I found out that the average singer of folk songs had no money, couldn’t afford to get an air check, and so forth. And when I mentioned that I’d recorded him – ”Oh, could I come and hear it?” And he came and listened and he said, “Gee, could I try recording a few songs?” And so every week I would just call the people who were on the program and say, “If you want to hear yourself you could come over and I’d be glad to play it for you.”

So they were performing live on the radio?

TS: Yeah. So then they’d come over and listen to themselves and record other things. I recorded people at that time like Burl Ives, Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Yma Sumac, dozens of people. And I started exchanging folklore with people around the world. I started putting ads in foreign journals and sending out tapes to foreign radio stations, and I got probably 30 to 40 thousand folk songs that way.

Now, you were just looking for folk songs at this point?

TS: For folk material – folk songs, folk sayings, and so forth.

And this was when?

TS: In the 40s and 50s. Then I did a program once on WNYC on how folk music spreads. I was a guest on someone else’s show and I was telling the story of my exchange. And some very wealthy man called me afterwards and said he’d like to come and see me. He and his wife came over. The next day they came over again and he said, “I’d like to offer you time off to do anything you want to do in the world of sound.” And he supported me for about three years. And I decided that if I was going to ask people of the world to exchange with me, I really should know my own neighborhood in depth, so I could advise people about how to get to know theirs. Well, I did a study of the non-commercial musical life of my postal zone, which was New York 19, which was the West Side of midtown Manhattan. And it was interesting because it was a very rich area of folklore and it was also the commercial music center of the United States. So I worked on that for a few years. I met Moe Asch of Folkways Records, and he heard my stuff and asked if I would produce some records for him, and I did. The first one I did was 1-2-3 and-a-Zing-Zing-Zing, which was the story of children’s street songs and games. The second one was New York 19. Then I did TheWorld in My Mailbox. I worked nine years on Nueva York, which was a study of Puerto Rican life in New York. And I did many albums for him, the innate musicality in people and so forth.

On some of the records there’s narration, and I assume that’s because they were produced originally for radio. Maybe not, I don’t know. But my question is, if you were going to do it again do you think that the sounds themselves are strong enough? Would you still have that narration or would you just have a printed supplement to go with it?

TS: Well, the Folkways records were generally done without narration except where they were broadcasts. Like, The Sounds of My City was a broadcast. It won the World Radio Festival.1-2-3 and-a-Zing-Zing-Zing has no narration, it’s just structured material. But then I’ve gotten involved in developing a much more intense form of editing.

Like, I though that Nueva York was great in that it didn’t need any narration. A Dog’s Life, that wasn’t even you narrating. That was very “radio,” it was really slick...

TS: That was a radio broadcast. That was CBS Radio Workshop. I did a radio program on sounds of the city for 35 years. And I did a nightclub act with sound, with recordings, for about five years. And I’ve done all of these Folkways records.

Then one day I was invited to speak about my hobby at the Art Director’s Club, and when I did a bunch of art directors came up to me and said, “Gee, would you do sound for commercials? We can’t get the type of thing we’re interested in.” I started doing that, and every commercial I did just blew the field apart.

You did that [President] Johnson commercial, right?

TS: Well, the first one I did was Johnson’s Baby Powder! Then the second one was Johnson’s Baby Power [laughs]. No, I mean, that I did many years later.

I still remember that commercial.

TS: How old are you?


TS: Did you see it when it ran?

I believe so, yeah. That was, what, 1960...?

TS: ‘64. So you were 3 years old.

No, I was five.

TS: You remember it?

Oh, sure, I remember...

TS: It was only shown once [during the campaign].

Just one time? Then I must have seen it somewhere else.

TS: It’s been shown every year, dozens of times.

Then that’s probably how I saw it, because I know that I’ve seen that.

TS: Of course! It’s probably the most famous commercial ever made.

When you started doing this were you more interested in sound, per se, or people making sound? I ask because myself, I came to it from music and abstract sound.

TS: No, I didn’t come to it from the point of view of music. I came to it from: What is the relation of this music to the people who make it and listen? That’s what I was interested in.

But it very quickly got away weren’t just looking for folk music, you started to record people talking, and various...

TS: I was interested in folk music and folklore.

In the late 1950s I took a group of kids from the Walden School, and we decided to do a study of the religions in the city, and we ended up doing an in-depth study of a Puerto Rican Gospel Church and the relation of the people to this church. Actually, that year I won the – when was Eisenhower president? – in that period I won the Valley Forge Freedom Foundation, and I have a plaque signed by Eisenhower, the school has it. I was selected the best social studies teacher in the country that year because of doing this project. I didn’t even know that the school’s principle submitted it to the foundation. Then over the years I’ve taken kids on different kinds of projects. Last year I took a class of kids who were supposed to be involved in community service and I taught them how they could use media for community service. And they could take any subject they wanted, and any position in relation to that subject, and I would teach them how to create materials to speak for that area. And we would do it in commercial form.

And then in the course of time I got interested in the whole field of communications. In later years I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a study of our changing communications environment. And really, it was very interesting because the records I did were really the end of an era in which people were mainly interested in external sound. The main sound that’s of meaning to us today is internal sound.

Like what comes over the radio...?

TS: What comes over the media, yeah. And the fascinating thing is that the whole interest in noise pollution came about when that shift took place. Because what was “communication” outside was now “noise.” See, noise is unwanted sound. There is no [such] “thing” as noise. Noise is unwanted information or unwanted sound. So if someone was walking down the street singing while you’re trying to listen to your records, that’s “noise.” It used to be communication: Someone’s coming home drunk, or someone’s coming from a party or something. It was information. But now you were interested in the information on the radio or the TV or your records.

First off, the fascinating thing, the most important thing in this work, is people are born without earlids. Therefore, what determines what they listen to? They listen to what interests them. And I mean, if we two were talking and someone had the radio on in the next room and we heard my name or your name, we’d pay attention to it. Talking about a tape recorder or something like that, we’d pay attention to it. But see, the interesting thing is that we can create...There are two types of things you can do with a recorder: environmental re-creation, which is what we’re doing right at this minute, and environmental recreation. Now, once you start editing you’re into recreation. When you just record people talking and play it back to someone, that’s re-creation. You’re re-creating the environment here to the people you’re playing it to. But once you’re into overlays and editing and so forth, then you’re creating something that is original to this form. It’s not a copy of something else. Right now you’re copying my voice.When you start editing you’re creating a new entity with that.

So, what else?

I’m interested to know how many tapes have you got in this archive, and what percentage of them are tapes made by you and what percentage are tapes that you got through the mails?

TS: Well, I’d say at this point probably 90% is made by me. And I have another apartment upstairs this size filled with just tapes. And I keep working everyday on new things. So we produce maybe two or three commercials a day, things like that.

So are you still gathering raw material in the field? Or do you pretty much just work in the studio now?

TS: No, no. I’ve become interested in the design of words, and I’ve created a whole new form of speech, which is “word design.”

So tell me about this, because I want to hear where all of this other stuff that you’ve done has led to now.

TS: Well, the main area...have you read my books?

I’ve read The Responsive Chord.

TS: I have another one, I’ll give you a copy, Media: The Second God. But where it’s all led is to the use of media for social purposes. That’s what I’m most interested in. Use it to prevent nuclear war. Use it to get money for kids for education. Use it to stop the use of drugs, use it to stop people from smoking. A thousand people a day in this country die from smoking, the effects of smoking. So, these are things I’m interested in.

And so that entails making commercials? I see a lot of video stuff here. Are you making video tapes or film strips, or...?

TS: I do video and radio commercials. I do a lot of political campaigns. But I’m losing interest in that because I find that the same techniques applied to community service can do phenomenal things. This year I’m into an anti-smoking program. I’ve gotten the full support, from kindergarten through the City University. I got a vote of 180,000 students to get involved in a no smoking program. And I just got a call an hour ago from the Mayor’s Office that he’s putting my program into law for the City, and he’s making the toughest anti-smoking laws for the City.

Can you elaborate on these techniques? You were talking about “word design” – what exactly do you mean?

TS: Well, I could show you examples of it, but...For instance, I learned that one of the most effective means of social control is shame, in primitive cultures. And it is again today with media. It worked in primitive cultures because you had a closed communications environment in the village or the community. And in today’s world, with sound we can reach anyone anywhere and everyone everywhere in this country in less than a 62nd of a second. I really ought to change that statement, because I do recording from California, and I’m using two satellites, so I’m going 90,000 miles,so it takes about two thirds of a second or something. But that way we’re able to reach whole communities. And I’ve been able to prevent strikes in the city, of the police and the firemen. I’ve been able to get money for students to go to college in Massachusetts. The federal government cut out student loans, so I embarrassed the state into covering for that. The first year I got 34 million dollars, the second year I got 50 million dollars. Third year I got 57 million dollars.

And this was all in the form of radio commercials?

TS: Radio commercials to socially embarrass the powers that be. I’m doing it now in relation to smoking. I took the Mayor’s statement about closing down the baths because of AIDS – he said, “They’re selling death, and we can’t let that go on.” So I made a commercial saying, “When the Mayor closed down the bath houses because of AIDS, he said...” Then I said, “But Mayor Koch, you could say the same thing about cigarettes.” And then I put, “They’re selling death.” And when you allow cigarettes to be sold on city buses...” – I put it in his words again – “you’re selling death. When you allow cigarettes to be sold on public property, they’re selling death. When you allow them to be advertised in the City station’s program guide, they’re selling death.” And I said, “Like you, Mayor Koch, we feel...” And then I had his words, “We can’t let that go on.” Well, the tobacco companies said I took his words out of context. I didn’t, because I told where they came from. So then I just got this call from the Mayor’s Office, he’s making everything I said in that commercial into law. So I’ve used it to deal with the AIDS question, I’m dealing with the water crisis, with smoking...My main interest is in using media for social purposes.

So now, these spots you’re producing – are they coming out on commercial radio, or NPR or what?

TS: Through commerical radio.

Nationwide, or mostly local?

TS: Starting local, but I’m building a network of people around the country. I have Austin, Texas. Pittsburgh, the whole of New Mexico...various places.

I want to go back to getting tapes from people around the world. Have you ever hooked up with any of those people? Have you ever ended up meeting them because of tapes sent through the mail?

TS: That’s an interesting question. Yes, I met a woman from Pittsburgh that I’d recorded one time, that I exchanged tapes with. But very few, very few. Ask one more question.

I’m not sure I have a great one to end with.

TS: Well, all I can say is, it’s like if you were to relate it to photography, the world is your studio and your workshop is your darkroom, where you develop your pictures you’ve taken and you edit and develop them and so forth. And both aspects are very important. And I would say to anyone going into this, put your money into recording equipment. Don’t worry about amplifiers and speakers until later. Because the one thing you want the best on is your tape. So get good microphones, get good recorders. And recorders today that sell for $200 are better than things that sold for $2000 or $3000 thirty years ago. And the fascinating thing is that this is a hobby where anyone who’s making a modest income can get a recorder for, say, $250 for a Walkman Professional, get several editing decks, which might be a few hundred dollars. And you can produce stuff that is equal in quality to anything that anyone in the world is producing on broadcast. And therefore, the only limitation of what you can go into is your own mind. I always say that sound is a swinging door to the mind. It’s a way to get in and a way to hear what people have to say. And we have had such a visually oriented culture that people really haven’t put much thought into the real uses of sound, but...I use it every day.