In January 1994, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music, a first-time radio series collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio, began airing on hundreds of NPR affiliate stations throughout America. An ambitious and influential series of 26 hour-long documentary programs, Wade explored 200 years of black sacred music, including spirituals, ring shouts, lined hymns, jazz, and gospel. The series also featured the insights of music creators, performers, listeners, and historians who could place African American sacred music traditions within the social, political, and cultural context of their times. Wade eventually won a Peabody Award and other awards of distinction. Conceived and hosted by Smithsonian Institution curator, artist, and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow Bernice Johnson Reagon, Wade required an intensive, five-year-long fundraising, research, and production journey of commitment. As the series’ associate producer, this article’s author worked with a host of dedicated radio producers, researchers, engineers, scholars, and music collectors who helped to make Wade a reality. Therefore, this article describes the series’ production journey from the vantage point of an insider, and it serves as a personal reflection on the making of a series that would set the standard for future long-form, NPR-based music documentary productions.
Near the beginning of the luncheon program honoring the new crop of George Foster Peabody Award winners on 8 May 1995, distinguished broadcaster and master of ceremonies Bill Moyers stepped back into the spotlight on the grand ballroom stage of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Moyers looked out into the packed ballroom and announced, “Our next winner is the product of the creative marriage between the Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio.” He was referring to the 26-part series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred MusicTraditions—public radio’s most listened to weekly music series in 1994.1
Wade’s colorful logo—a commissioned painting by artist Al Smith depicting a watery baptismal scene—served as an onstage backdrop while luncheon attendees listened to a program segment featuring famed opera singer Jessye Norman and the highly regarded gospel group the Mighty Clouds of Joy.2 When the Wade audio segment ended, Moyers introduced the series’ conceptual producer and host, historian, artist, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Bernice Johnson Reagon along with NPR senior producer Judi Moore Latta. Reagon and Latta graciously accepted the award for their respective institutions.
Since 1940 the Peabody Awards, one of the electronic media’s most competitive and prestigious honors, has recognized “the best of the best” media programs: shows that reflected “excellence in quality rather than popularity or commercial success.”3 Deemed to be both excellent and popular, Wade explored more than 200 years of African American culture and sacred music in all its forms, including spirituals, lined hymns, gospel, ring shouts, and jazz as performed by black quartets, choirs, individual performers, and composers.
Reagon had been clear about the need for and purpose of the series. “You cannot understand American culture and history without understanding African American cultural history, and you can’t understand African American culture and history if you don’t know the sacred history,” Reagon noted.4 African American culture “drives mainstream popular culture and the roots of it can be found in the African American sacred tradition”.5 When you attend a pop music concert, Reagon said, “look at the way the pianist plays, look at the way the musicians move across the stage, even the way the audience moves, up on their feet waving, all these things come out of the black church.”6 In just one specific example, Dr. Reagon indicated that Mick Jagger, lead singer of the celebrated rock group the Rolling Stones, would not know how to act on stage without the influence of the African American church. “Look at the way he moves and his style of delivery—it’s African influenced,” Reagon stated.7
According to Wade Executive Producer and NPR cultural programming head Sandra Rattley, collaborating with Dr. Reagon and the Smithsonian on Wade was “consistent with [NPR’s] mission to represent the culture of this country and all of its complexity and diversity—to ensure that multiple voices are heard and to make sure the stories are being told that have not been done before.”8 In addition, Rattley noted,
We had to present the material in a way that would appeal to people both from that tradition and those who [aren’t]. It was very ambitious to actually put together 26 one-hour shows from all the material we gathered—200 years’ worth of history, 20 years’ worth of archival material collected from the Smithsonian, as well as the interviews and original material we recorded.9
Wade’s production journey included five years of fundraising intrigue, sonic challenges, and gut-wrenching programming decisions. Ultimately, the series survived with support from private and public funding sources. Just as importantly, the series moved from concept to aural reality based on the decades of historical research and curatorial experience of Bernice Johnson Reagon, along with the more than 50 cumulative years of audio production experience of the NPR-based production staff. The core team included NPR executives Peter Pennekamp and Sandra Rattley, senior producer Judi Moore Latta, me as associate producer, technical director Renee Pringle, research associate Beverly Oliver, and a host of additional radio producers, researchers, engineers, production assistants, and interns.
The Journey Begins: Funding and Preproduction
Close to 300 of NPR’s then 490 affiliate stations signed on to carry Wade by the time the series began airing in January 1994.10 Each station had agreed to devote valuable hour-long programming slots to Wade for 26 weeks. Essentially, the stations signed up for six months of guaranteed weekly network programming; for many stations, that programming commitment turned into a year when NPR rebroadcast the series during the second half of 1994.
Reagon and the NPR production team had to deliver broadcast quality, preproduced episodes each week (prerecorded, edited, and mixed as opposed to live, disc jockey styled programming). The shows were sent to affiliate stations via nonnegotiable and regularly scheduled satellite feeds. There was no room for missed deadlines or excuses. Nor was there a precedent for this type of production. The Smithsonian and NPR had never before collaborated on this scale, and there was no template for how such a collaboration should proceed. The ground had been broken, but the path moving forward was unclear.
As a curator in the Division of Community Life in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Reagon spent two decades documenting and preserving American and African American cultural history.11 She had conducted hours-long oral history interviews, encouraging her interviewees to share detailed information about their lives, their communities, and their accomplishments. Reagon also organized public symposia and concerts with musical innovators, which the Smithsonian recorded and preserved. Likewise, NPR documented and reported on the broad scope of America’s cultural landscape through its cultural programming division. But given the limitations of broadcast air time and personnel availability, NPR reporters and producers could ill afford to devote hours on end to one interview or to one subject.
Therefore, the two institutions’ complementary though divergent documentary approaches meant that compromises would be necessary to produce radio programs that could accommodate Reagon’s curatorial sensibilities and NPR’s practice of combining edited interview segments with illustrative and often short music selections. The delicate balance of song length, host narration, interview segments, and ambient audio would have to be navigated for each of Wade’s 26 programs—negotiations that often took weeks to settle.
Production on Wade started in earnest during the fall months of 1991. Before then, Reagon worked with NPR executives and producers to secure the funding necessary to support this massive undertaking. After nearly two and a half years of effort, NPR and the Smithsonian secured a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).12 NEH funds had to be matched, so the search continued for additional funders. Eventually, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Catholic Communication Campaign, National Endowment for the Arts, Ruth Mott Fund, Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the Links, Inc., the Smithsonian Institution, and NPR contributed funds.13 In addition, Reagon donated a portion of the $275,000 prize money she had received as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. With its $1 million budget, Wade was “the largest project NPR…ever attempted” at that time, series executive producer Rattley said. NPR viewed Wade as “a model for many of the things we hope to do in the future, both in developing partnerships and developing programming,” she added.14
To ensure the historical accuracy and musical integrity of the programs, NEH required the Wade team to assemble a national group of scholars, archivists, record collectors, and other experts who could serve as advisers. According to Rattley, the documentation work for Wade necessitated “doing original research in many instances…reviewing the 20 years of music archives and interview tapes the Smithsonian made available…and going out in the field all over the United States and conducting field recordings of some of the very old traditions as well as contemporary musicians.”15 Rare archives and private collections had to be searched and the rights to use certain material had to be secured.
I joined the production team in January 1992. My responsibilities included writing and producing 13 of the 26 shows; Latta tackled the other half. With a large chunk of our budget in place, we were able to hire researchers, freelance producers, and production assistants. In our other capacity as faculty members in the Howard University Department of Radio, Television and Film, Latta and I recruited student interns, a couple of whom became full-time Wade staffers upon their graduation.
The Wade team traveled around the country to document religious services; record commissioned musical performances; interview singers, musicians, composers, historians, and music collectors; and conduct research in the appropriate archival and personal collections. We also had to factor in the availability and costs of NPR headquarters’ highly booked Washington, DC, studios where we would record narration sessions with Reagon, conduct local interviews, and spend at least three or four 8-hour-long days or evenings mixing and mastering each of the 26 shows. As a result of such intense production demands and fixed air dates, deadlines had to be strictly adhered to and optimum audio quality had to be achieved at each level.
So how did these program goals come together? The following account illustrates how the Wade team navigated location recording challenges using the example of one field trip to Chicago—a major center for African American gospel music.
A Research and Field Production Marathon
Late Saturday morning, 24 October 1992, five Wade production team members landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for a three-day music recording and interviewing schedule. Months before, we had searched for, contacted, and confirmed interview and location recording dates with specific church representatives, performers, and scholars. So after claiming our personal and equipment-laden luggage, the team headed to a rental van and drove to Chicago’s South Side. Latta and I were scheduled to conduct four interviews in two different South Side locations starting at one o’clock that afternoon. Checking into our hotel rooms would have to wait.
The first interview was with Delois Barrett Campbell, lead singer of the famous Barrett Sisters gospel group. We interviewed Ms. Campbell in her home, and as with most location recordings, we quickly had to determine if any home-based sounds might interfere with our taping. That meant checking for fans, clocks, or electrical appliances that might generate intermittent noises, such as refrigerators, heaters, or air conditioners. Campbell was a gracious and generous interviewee. She eagerly shared details about the significance of gospel music in her life and in her community. Campbell was celebrated because of her ability to sing rich, low tones (in the lower alto range) and then fluidly soar to high soprano notes.16
After our hour-long interview concluded, we jumped back into our van and headed to the family-owned Gatling’s Chapel, a funeral home located farther south on the same side of town. Wade’s technical director Renee Pringle needed to set up her recording equipment for a 6:30 p.m. session in Gatling’s Chapel, where five local gospel groups, choirs, and individuals would perform. Latta and I used a couple of the funeral home’s quiet office spaces to conduct interviews with the performers. It was a long but meaningful evening.
The next day, 25 October, we arrived early to set up for 8 a.m. interviews with the pastor, the music director, and some parishioners of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. Ebenezer is a historic site in African American gospel choir history. In 1932, Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the pianist and prolific composer recognized as the father of gospel music, created his first gospel choir at Ebenezer. So while Latta and I conducted interviews, Pringle set up her equipment to record Ebenezer’s Sunday morning church service.
Meanwhile Reagon, with NPR engineer Flawn Williams, interviewed singer Eugene Smith, musician (and Dorsey’s niece) Lena McClin, and R. H. Harris, the respected former lead singer of the Soul Stirrers—a pioneering gospel quartet that also claimed R & B superstars Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls as onetime members. After Ebenezer’s morning service ended, Latta, Pringle, and I headed to the First Church of Deliverance, a huge congregation also located on Chicago’s South Side. The church was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and we had been granted permission to record whatever magic ensued. Entering this large church early that afternoon, Pringle figured that she would have plenty of equipment set-up time. However, what actually transpired underscored the absolutely true maxim that unexpected cultural practices and norms can sometimes derail the best-laid plans.
First Church of Deliverance’s long, red-carpeted center aisle stretched the length of the huge sanctuary. The aisle cut a direct path from the church’s entrance to the pulpit and the choir stands behind it. Church members considered this center aisle to be sacred space. As such, the aisle was off limits to women prior to the beginning of a service. Therefore, Pringle could not walk down the aisle, nor could she place microphone cables on the side of the aisle leading back to the rear of the church where she would monitor the evening’s recording. Instead, the microphones cables had to be snaked under church pews, a much more arduous and slow installation process. In addition, women were not allowed to wear pants in the church, even though Pringle needed to crawl under the pews to lay the cables.
As documentarians, Latta noted that it was important “to observe the rules of community” and “respect the code of ethics of the field location”.17 Therefore, we fashioned a wraparound skirt for Pringle from some material we found. Flawn Williams eventually arrived at the church, and he and Pringle scrambled to secure all the cables and test microphone response levels before the 7 p.m. program start time. They made it—and some of the music they recorded that night can be heard in Wade’s first episode, “Songs and Singing as Church.” In fact, the aforementioned Jessye Norman, Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Gatling’s Chapel segments also were featured in that show. The other original music recordings and interviews we conducted during this Chicago trip found their way into Wade programs focusing on the so-called Chicago School of Gospel, the life and music of pianist/composer Thomas A. Dorsey, and the impact of singers and composers who took their sacred stylings to the secular music world.18
Monday, 26 October was another early-morning start day. At 7 a.m., Latta, Pringle, and I were set to record, once again, in Gatling’s Chapel. Each morning, Gatling staff members began their day with a devotional service that included communal singing, and we wanted to capture that non-church based sacred tradition. Meanwhile, Reagon and Flawn Williams interviewed gospel singers Robert Anderson and Robuck Staples, the leader of the family group known as the Staples Singers. That afternoon, we drove to Chicago’s downtown Loop area to conduct research and interview Samuel Floyd, director of the Columbia College Center for Black Music Research. Finally, before heading to the airport for our flight home, Reagon and Pringle interviewed legendary gospel singer Albertina Walker.
If this three-day excursion sounded like an exhausting whirlwind—it was. Yet similar intensive music, research, and interview recordings were replicated, obviously with variations, on trips to Alabama (Birmingham, Demopolis, and Tuscaloosa), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Tennessee (Nashville), and California (Oakland and Los Angeles)—to name just a few locations. As a result, the Wade team acquired more than 250 hours of interviews and even more hours of originally recorded, archival, and commercially available music performances.19 The task for each documentary show was to determine, with Reagon’s and our advisers’ guidance, the most important storytelling elements for each 59-minute documentary program.
To say that this was a monumental task is an understatement.
Moving Toward the Finish Line: Postproduction
In order to keep track of all the elements needed for each show, senior producer Judi Moore Latta created a massive production flowchart and hung it on the wall in one of Wade’s NPR offices in Washington, DC. The chart contained columns for each program with our standardized program categories: music selections, interviewees, research needs, scholars, draft script completion and script revisions dates, narration tracking sessions, editing deadlines, mix and remix dates, and air dates. Each time a program element was completed, we placed a checkmark beside it—a simple but effective visual barometer of our progress. When a show finally was ready to air we celebrated, however briefly. We had too many programs in varying stages of completion to get overly excited about one show.
Writing about managing the Wade production process years later, Latta explained:
In order to reach a long-term goal, it was necessary to organize “big picture” plans using “little picture” details. It was necessary to be thorough enough in the plan and in the steps of that plan so that every person involved become invested in and directed toward seeing the project to completion.20
Wade was one of the most difficult and one of the most rewarding audio production experiences of my life. Today, an audio producer can record, edit, and mix sound sources conveniently using a personal laptop, tablet, phone, or desktop. Yet during the early 1990s, we used more cumbersome analog and digital recording, editing, and mixing methods and equipment. Original musical performances and interviews were recorded in the field on portable digital audio tape recorders (DATs). Back in NPR’s studios, we transferred the DAT recordings to analog magnetic tape stored on large 10½-inch reels. We edited the brown-colored magnetic audio tape using white grease pencils to mark in and out edit points, and we physically cut the tape with single-edged razor blades. We then reattached the edited tape we chose to keep with specially designed splicing tape.
If you walked into almost any NPR editing booth at that time, including Wade’s, you would likely see strips of magnetic audio tape hanging on the wall, ready to be grabbed and reattached as needed. You might also see the outtakes stored on tape reels, with each edit separated by strips of white or yellow “leader” tape—a plastic, nonmagnetic and nonrecordable tape. In the 21st century, those necessary 20th-century tools of the audio editing trade have been replaced by computer-based editing and mixing software programs. Thank goodness!
Also during the 1990s, NPR engineers cleaned up “noisy” archival recordings with either analog processing equipment or the rather slow, though effective, computer processing systems of the day. For example, a couple of the many great archival finds of the Wade series included a 1910 recording of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers singing the spiritual “Shout All Over God’s Heaven.” We also uncovered a 1935 recording by a South African ensemble interpreting the same song, demonstrating the international influence of the African American concert spiritual tradition. The edited versions of both of those selections were loaded into one of NPR’s then–state-of-the-art digital audio workstation (DAW). NPR engineers programmed the DAW to eliminate tape hiss, analog or digital artifacts, and other unwanted audio signals. This process could take hours; sometimes the processing had to be left to work overnight. Once the digital cleanup was complete, the processed audio selections were transferred back to analog tape reels containing all the music for the program, in the order of their appearance in the show. The sequential ordering of show segments would be duplicated for the show’s separate narration, ambient sound, and interview reels.
In NPR studios, each of those distinct reels of edited program material was placed on large reel-to-reel tape machines remotely controlled by technical director Pringle from a central audio console/control board. During the final mix sessions, Pringle followed our program scripts and our verbal directions in order to play the appropriate program content from its assigned tape machine. And every Wade script indicated whether the edited analog magnetic tapes either had no noise reduction (NNR) or had been treated using a Dolby Spectral Recording (SR) noise-reduction system to ensure that the audio elements were pristine.
Today’s digital audio recording, processing, editing, and mixing methods have replaced many of the production practices described above. Yet whatever technical advances are currently in place or will be in the future, they are ultimately just tools to be used in the service of aural storytelling. In Wade, we employed the power of the human voice, relevant ambient/ environmental sounds, and music to tell the complex story of African American sacred music traditions and culture. Apparently, those stories and musical soundscapes resonated with listeners, and the series laid the groundwork for subsequent NPR productions. After Wade, NPR-based production teams created other well regarded long-form music documentaries, including two Peabody Award winning series: Making the Music—another 26-part series created and hosted by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis21 and Jazz Profiles, a weekly program celebrating the life and music of jazz legends, narrated by singer Nancy Wilson.22
Wade lives on today on one of National Public Radio’s online portals.23 But why should a listener care about or embrace a documentary series like Wade that explores untold stories of American culture? “We need to tell these complex stories, and not only because it happened, but also because people are in need of information,” Bernice Johnson Reagon explained. “America isn’t going to get less complex and we are at this point as a culture, struggling with what we think about the fact that we’ve got to face our diversity.”24
In fact, we should not only face our diversity but embrace it, document it, and aurally preserve it. Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions was one example of such a preservation journey.
National Public Radio, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, Fact Sheet, 1994; S. Rattley, producer, Wade in the Water 25th Anniversary Celebration, National Public Radio, February 12, 2019.
Peabody Awards, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, 1994, http://www.peabodyawards.com/award-profile/wade-in-the-water-african-american-sacred-music-traditions.
J. P. Jones, Message from the Executive Director, Peabody Awards, 2019, http://www.peabodyawards.com/stories/story/peabody-awards-archive; Peabody Awards, “The Nineteen Ninety-Four Peabody Awards Presentation Luncheon Program,” May 8, 1995, 2–7.
M. A. French, “A Song and a Prayer,” Washington Post, December 21, 1993, B1–2.
R. Bentley, “Musical Roots: Gospel Series Tells Truth About African Influences,” Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, February 2, 1994.
L. Outerbridge, “Songs from the Soul,” Washington Times, January 7, 1994, C13.
Bentley, “Musical Roots.”
S. E. Smith, “Singing History: Preserving the Culture of African Americans,” Religious Broadcasting, 194, 16.
National Public Radio, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, Carriage Report, May 17, 1994 (not a final tally).
Smith, “Singing History,” 16.
Outerbridge, “Songs from the Soul.”
National Public Radio, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, Fact Sheet, 1994.
Outerbridge, “Songs from the Soul.”
Smith, “Singing History,” 17.
D. Campbell, interview with the author, October 24, 1992.
J. M. Latta, Wade in the Water—The Public Radio Series: The Effects of the Politics of Production on Sacred Music Representations (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1999), 257.
J. M. Latta and S. Williams, producers, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (26-part series), National Public Radio, 1994, https://www.npr.org/series/726103231/wade-in-the-water.
C. H. Farley, “Drenched in the Spirit,” Time, January 17, 1994.
Latta, Wade in the Water—The Public Radio Series (1999), 253.
Peabody Awards, Making the Music, 1995, http://www.peabodyawards.com/award-profile/wynton-marsalis-making-the-music-marsalis-on-music.
Peabody Awards, Jazz Profiles, 2001, http://www.peabodyawards.com/award-profile/jazz-profiles.
J. M. Latta, and S. Williams, producers, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (26-part series), National Public Radio, 1994, https://www.npr.org/series/726103231/wade-in-the-water.
M. A. French, “A Song and a Prayer,” Washington Post, December 21, 1993, B1–2.