From New Orleans to Your Radio–It’s American Routes

From New Orleans to Your Radio–It’s American Routes

Allen Tullos

Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 16-22

In April of 1998 American Routes, a weekly, two-hour radio show featuring genre-busting sets of recorded music and original interviews went on the air across the United States. Based in New Orleans and syndicated by Public Radio International, with a list of stations that grows weekly (for the station nearest you, see page 22), American Routes explores the roots and routes of American traditional and popular musics. Nick Spitzer, the creator and host of the program, is a familiar voice to public radio listeners for his features on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and as host of the popular Folk Masters series of concerts from Carnegie Hall and Wolf Trap, heard on Public Radio International. In the following edited interview with Southern Changes editor Allen Tullos, Nick Spitzer, native of New England, University of Pennsylvania- and University of Texas-trained ethnographer, and Louisiana and Smithsonian folklorist discusses the launch and first months of American Routes.

Allen Tullos: Nick, what is American Routes?

Nick Spitzer: American Routes is a radio program that I’ve been thinking about for around twenty-five years. I’ve always felt strongly about music based on oral traditions that work their way into popular culture, whether blues, country, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, klezmer, zydeco. Instead of a radio show presenting only one sort of music, I feel that all these musics deserve to be heard together as part of an understanding of the broader American cultural experience. American Routes presents musical forms that have historic cultural, or at least parallel, relationships but that are often artificially separated by the marketplace for purposes of selling off bits and pieces to core audiences of differing classes and ethnicities in a manner that may seem efficient, but denies some of our cultural sharing. In an opposite sense, the program also tries to air the styles and music that do in fact distinguish groups or are tied to different identities in our country but we do this in a positive way-using a capital D for distinguish.

Tullos: How did you come up with the Routes name instead of, say, American Roots?

Spitzer: The show is named American Routes to take into account how in a large nation state, all the smaller, traditional or grassroots musics–gospel, country, bluegrass, soul have mingled and mixed and traveled just like people travel from rural Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma out to the west, north to Chicago, Detroit, from the Carolinas up to Washington and Philadelphia. From the rural South into cities like New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and in these settings of new lives and the search for employment, and seeking a better life, people have merged their musics as they have mixed socially and culturally.

Rural Anglo-Texans, Cajuns, and African Americans might find themselves working in the same oil field and create new kinds of honky-tonk blues. Performers that range from Gatemouth Brown to Janis Joplin emerge. Routes is about migration and immigration; we try to offer a sense of traveling, planned and unplanned, as cosmic, as diasporic, as creative, as painful. How people got to where they are. How they change their identities. This allows us to play western swing with its very developed horn figures based in fiddling–the string music of the Anglo South–next to certain forms of jazz and klezmer. Then klezmer allows us to get to Gershwin who brings us back to jazz or to American forms of classical music. American Routes travels through time and space with musicians and their cultures. Now you note in all this that we do play “roots” music from the small community be it Cajun, country blues, or brass band jazz from the New Orleans neighborhood. But with Routes we embrace the organic idea of “roots music” while reaching to the wider shared experience of how all kinds of folks have taken the roots to new places, e.g. American Routes.

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Tullos: What sort music and radio projects were you doing prior to the current program?

Spitzer: Before American Routes, for six years since 1990, I had been doing a show called Folk Masters on Public Radio International. I did it at Carnegie Hall in New York and later at Wolf Trap, in northern Virginia about twenty miles from Washington, D. C. Folk Masters was an end-of-the century attempt to show how folk artists and cultures move and change and transform. We presented many great traditional performers to live audiences. Folk Masters also came about as I became dissatisfied with the way musicians were often presented at folk festivals where the audiences were extremely mobile or inattentive. Those of us who worked on festivals–I’m specifically thinking of the Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall–back then sometimes fooled ourselves into thinking we were presenting to community audiences, or we forgot we were in a very different public space than our “county fair” production values could address. I thought that the proscenium stage and public radio might be combined to bring more focused attention on the musicians-their lives and their art. Folk Masters was a way to do that. It became a bit of the Grand Ole Opry meets Chautauqua meets a variety show meets the King Biscuit Hour. We would present different groups that had varied approaches to one instrument: three different cultural styles on the guitar like Hawaiian slack-key, African-American blues, and Anglo-American country. Or we would do things that had cultural affinity: music from the French Caribbean and music from French Louisiana. Or we would take a cultural style and see how its different manifestations had emerged: Native American rock music alongside several forms of far more traditional American Indian music like Navajo songs or Iroquois chants with drumming

Tullos: How did Folk Masters differ from American Routes in terms of intention and reach? And how did Routes evolve?

Spitzer: With Folk Masters, we were working with live performers, bringing them to concert audiences, and combining that with a radio audience. The disadvantage of that format is that you’re generally already preaching to the converted. That is, many of the people who are attending a concert or tuning into something called Folk Masters are often already interested in this sort of music. That’s great for the artists. It helps develop their careers. And it’s a lot of fun to do for supportive audiences. But the limiting factor, from a more activist point of view, is that you’re not then able to weave together broader audiences whose shared interests are not generally acknowledged. Native Americans’ relationships with European fiddling tradition, African Americans who play or appreciate country music, Anglo Americans who have been profoundly influenced by and play blues. When you try to get that on the radio, some programmers start raising questions about eclecticism and working across perceived categories.

As I began thinking more seriously about American Routes, I felt that it would have to come from the Gulf South or the Deep South because that’s the source point of a lot of our mingled or creolized music forms–the old-time jazz, the rhythm & blues, roots rock and roll, honky-tonk country, Cajun, and zydeco–that I think people can accept as such because these styles have been or are becoming part of our popular culture (albeit sometimes in awfully mainstream and watered-down forms).

Back in the early 1990s, I initially approached National Public Radio (NPR) with the idea for an American Routes-type program. I think it scared them. It didn’t fit classical music format ideas. It didn’t fit jazz. It wasn’t exactly a news/variety program. So I kept plugging. I worked with an old friend, the executive producer of Folk Masters, Mary Beth Kirchner, a widely respected cultural producer in public radio and television documentary. Folk Masters became our project built on a core audience of people who were interested in some of the perspectives I’ve mentioned, but who especially wanted to hear live music. We had a pretty good success with Folk Masters. I think we expected maybe forty or fifty stations, and in the end we reached three-hundred stations and had some overseas airings as well.

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During that time, I had also been doing features for All Things Considered about everything from a segment on Croatian computer repairmen in Chicago who continued to play their tamburitza music for Serbian- and Croatian-American “mixed” audiences despite the war in Central Europe, to the Christmas/New Year’s ring shouts from the coast of rural Georgia. We began making the point that this was news, this was information. Whether it was a griot or a bard or a country and western singer or a blues singer, it was news about the human condition–in the Croatian example or a commentary I did on David Duke-versus-Edwin Edwards, it approached “hard news” as well. So after putting together our own demo in 1997, we went to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We were well received. We asked for a little money to study the prospects of and piloting American Routes. They liked the demo enough that the CPB tripled our funding and said, “Do it.” That had never happened to me before. We assembled a team and got started. After a period of negotiations, first with NPR and then with PRI, we ended up with Public Radio International on the air in April of 1998.

Tullos: How do PM and NPR differ as networks supporting the kinds of programs and issues that concern you as a folklorist and independent producer?

Spitzer: PM and NPR are both very important, for different reasons. NPR’s greatest strength is its news operations. As I’ve said, I’ve done many seven-to-twelve minute cultural features for All Things Considered and those pieces have terrific impact despite being short in terms of usual documentary lengths of thirty minutes or an hour. NPR also produces and distributes cultural programming–some of it very good–but I see it as less of a distributor of programming from outside its shop. Also, some of its cultural programming often has a very news-based style or continues the more received notions of public radio cultural programming like Performance Today or the opera. PRI is exclusively a distributor of programs. Everything you hear on PRI, whether it’s The World (BBC-WGBH), Marketplace, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, or Afropop, those are programs produced by independent producers or producing entities that PRI distributes. I make the analogy in Hollywood terms between the old big line studios that make the blockbusters, that have their ups and downs–from Titanicto Waterworld, metaphorically one floated and one sank with the public. That’s more like NPR–trying to create a network blockbuster in-house with their many personnel and information resources, but with the problems of being Beltway-centric and often programmed by committee. PRI is more like independent cinema around the world where a lot of stuff is made, a lot of things happen, and what grabs people’s attention most ends up with PRI’s support and a wider audience. PRI is playing to a new-found freedom across the U.S. among independent public radio producers like Ira Glass’ This American Life or your own Southern Regional Council’s powerful Will The Circle Be Unbroken? and getting it well-distributed by a credible network. PRI has been great for us. But, that’s not to say that NPR doesn’t do a lot of fine news and cultural productions. I still do pieces for NPR and All Things Considered when time permits or they call me, and they also broadcast the annual Fourth of July Concert that I host live from the National Mall in D. C.

Tullos: What sort of economic and political implications exist in working on American Routes from the Gulf South?

Spitzer: I have spent many years working on the Gulf Coast, for the state of Louisiana and the Smithsonian, in urban and rural situations, in small communities with Cajuns and Creoles. I have a devotion to people from this region and I’ve tried to express that in public policy and programs. I remember standing one day with a National Park Service official in New Orleans, in front of a map. He pointed to St. Louis and Memphis, and he pointed down to the Florida Gulf Coast, then drew his hand over the map across Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and he said, ‘This is the dead zone of the United States.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Economically,” he said, “it’s not thriving. Its politics are regressive. Environmentally it’s a disaster. And it doesn’t have the leading intellectual activity of the East and West coasts.”

As someone who grew up in New England, I was flabbergasted. I said, “But it has produced and continues to produce music, movements for social justice, literature, foodways, and other forms of culture that affect the whole country, indeed the world. It’s a bellwether for the painful mingling of peoples, as well as for their most creative output.” I said, “How can you call it a ‘dead zone’ and rank it purely in economic and political terms when in cultural terms, it arguably has the most influential regional culture in America?”

I think it’s sadly typical for people to think quickly of the East Coast and the West Coast, but tend not to think of the South Coast, the Gulf Coast. What I call the Third Coast is considered by some the defeated coast, the coast of cheap labor and poor environment. Now, I’m no defender of regressive politics and ecological irresponsibility, and I know that broken economies lead to broken lives. But I’m a real believer that cultural power can, and is, providing a way to help transform the Deep South

There is tremendous creativity at points where the cultures here have crossed-over with one another. New Orleans is one of those points. This city is the second most popular urban tourist destination in the country, after San

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Francisco. It takes specialty regional and ethnic musics such as rhythm and blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco, and creolizes them, becomes a serving bowl for them. That cultural mix of music was what led me here and it is what keeps me here. What New Orleans is facing now is how do we notch-up the regional quality and economic impact of cultural programming, cultural tourism, and music “industry”related activities without compromising values of community life and cultural expression for our own sake here with excessive commercialism and all the attendant problems for community-based music and other art forms of say a Motown- or Nashville-type situation.

With the possible exception of TV cooking shows, I think American Routes is the only nationally syndicated public media program out of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. As we aim for a broader audience on American Routes, we work outward from the creolized musics of the South, trying to convey qualities of New Orleans as our point of reference, our urban village, using ambient sounds and local voices. We’re lucky enough to produce the show in the French Quarter in an old water bottling plant next to the historic Gallier House. The tourists pass down Royal Street, the hustlers lurk in the shadows, and the horses clip-clop by. It’s all out there for the listening.

Tullos: Does being in such a musically distinctive city and region limit your programming?

Spitzer: No, I think it’s the opposite. With New Orleans as our base, we can still move widely around the country, seeking the subtleties of social relations that are in the music in a parallel way to our situation here. Recently we presented Jack Kerouac’s Lowell, Massachussetts. We have chased moose through the Maine woods. We have talked to Navajos about the history of the highway that came through their land called Route 66 and brought problems (cultural loss and stereotypical teepee motels) and progress (more jobs, a restored sense of Navajo nomadic freedom to work on railroads or go West). On that show, we played versions of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” along with Native American music, western swing, Texas oilfield rhythm blues–forms of music that both arrived with and comment on the nature of the travel west.

Now, there are certain core genres in American Routes: blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel as well as Cajun and zydeco, that have very strong associations with New Orleans and the region. We add in Memphis, Nashville and the rest of the Southern music by sub-region and that’s a powerful palette. Then there are the artists or styles in “rootsy” popular music that draw on those forms whether it’s Ray Charles or The Band, the Grateful Dead, Merle Haggard, Etta James–there are certain artists that embody those transformations or “routes” versions of “roots” music.

Around that maybe 60 percent music core of the show, we start adding other things, keeping in mind that one person’s familiar song is not another person’s familiar song if you went in a three song set. So, to give the example in Latin music, for people that are interested in Tejano and already like Latino music, they hear Santiago Jimenez doing a regionally well-known ranchera like “Ay te dejó en San Antonio” (“I’m Going to Leave You in San Antonio”). After that you play something familiar to most people who have ever heard oldies, a song that was a novelty hit when it was made and most people don’t know where it came from: Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ ‘Wooly Bully.” In “Wooly Bully” you have a song that probably relates to humor about supernatural beliefs and certain types of malevolent animal spirits chasing around in everyday life, some people call it the “chupa cabra.” Maybe you don’t and maybe you do, but nonetheless that aesthetic, that humor is there to an original audience. ‘Wooly Bully” was produced by Stan Kessler, who had worked with and written songs for Elvis at Memphis’ Sun Records. It became a huge pop hit. But people still don’t know what the Wooly Bully might be, they just kind of relate to the pulsing rockabilly/ rhythm blues feel and its exoticism.

We put ‘Wooly Bully” back in another context by

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playing it next to the traditional ranchera I mentioned in the Tejano conjunto tradition. Santiago Jimenez and Sam Samudio of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs are both from Texas. The completion of the three song set comes when you put Los Lobos on the other side of “Wooly Bully.” The guys in Los Lobos appreciate “Wooly Bully” and the traditional Tejano music but are themselves progressive, next generation, intellectual Mexicano Californians. They get how those songs are put together which are also well received by FM rock listeners of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Once you’ve done that sort of three song segué you help audiences hear the relationships between all of these things: the traditional ranchera, the pop standard that has been beaten to death in oldies formats, and Los Lobos singing about alienation in American life in a song called “One Time, One Night in America.” So our art in the show is partly the art of the segué, that continuity, that set of juxtapositions that allow these things to be heard in a fresh way. If was going to continue out of this set, knowing that guitarist David Hidalgo of Los Lobos grew up hearing and being influenced by the California rockabilly of the Bakersfield Arkies and Okies like Buck Owens, I’m now freed by having heard those guitar lines in Los Lobos to play some Buck Owens. (And I hope Buck or someone appreciates that!)

Seriously, we try never to dwell too long on any genre of music. All of these people and musics are in migration in history, in real life and in our show. Things that pop culture has turned into static icons are freed and allowed to flow again.That’s the kind of conscious effort we’re trying for in our mix. To make those things possible, but to do it in a way that’s not static. As much as I’ve talked about it just now, if 1 talked this much on the radio I’d be dead. It has to be done quickly. The music selections speak to each other and to listeners.

This flow of the music is the everyday, living, breathing aspect of American Routes. The way the show is put together always has a basis of juxtaposition, transformation, and texture. Making forms of American classical music (Ives, Still, Copeland) work with classic jazz (Ellington, Basie) next to blues, next to country, on and on. But we are also interested in themes. Sometimes themes are based around interviews. We’re currently doing a series of programs featuring the living New Orleans piano professors like Allen Toussaint and Henry Butler. The theme is how these piano professors mingle European and popular music aesthetics with jazz and blues and new forms of African-American popular music. Artist interviews give a sense of an anchor to these programs that also include cuts from Louis Gottschalk, rural black banjo players, piano boogie music, and so on.

Shows may be completely thematic but still listenable even if you’re not particularly interested in the theme. For instance, in the Jack Kerouac show, we put him back into

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the context of where he was born and grew up. Many people think of Kerouac as the alienated existential traveller who wrote of his search for an America sans any home place. Your readers probably know that Kerouac was from a French-speaking family and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts’ industrial setting. In our show, we infer that his alienation stems in part from his sense of rejection in New England as a French-speaking person. We talk to French people from Lowell; talk to people who worked in the same factories as some of his family or friends. It offers an opportunity to play a lot of music and do something that’s of interest in an evocative way. We don’t demand that everyone listen closely, but if they do, it’s all there to imagine and take further in their own minds.

This same show does a lot with the music of the Beats. It allowed us to play a lot of be-bop jazz and a lot of the more existential blues. It also let us run a little Beat poetry in there, hear manifestions in popular culture and consider music that somewhat parodies the Beats-like Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s “Beatnick Blues.” Slim Gaillard’s “Yip Roc Heresy” allows us to talk about scat singing, where people use nonsense syllables as a melodic line or work them as instruments that jam over melody, and also identify the notion of “vocalese” which is where people take actual song words and make them conform literally to the melodic line or the instrumental line. You get to bring out a lot about where that music came from, how it’s put together, how it’s entertaining, without asking people to be listening to a documentary close-up about the Beats.

We also did a Labor Day show knowing that weekend is a kind of a playtime, end of summer, and in many people’s minds has moved away from a celebration of one big union and solidarity and the American labor movement. We wanted to give some history of the American labor movement. For that we used a grand figure, folklorist Archie Green, and recordings he had compiled of workers singing songs. Archie helped us set the scene. He noted that very few labor song are currently listened to by workers. What are they listening to? The popular music of the time. For example in country music: Merle Haggard’s ‘Workin’ Man’s Blues,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” as well as lighter entertainment.

In that show we also played the legendary Paul Robeson singing about the labor leader Joe Hill, next to Randy Newman singing “Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man” which was a mid1970s retro, almost Brechtian representation of 1930s Depression labor strife but still the parlor piano and art song style made it work next to “Joe Hill.” Then Ray Charles in the 1960s singing Harlan Howard’s “Busted” which is itself a kind of a theatrical presentation of the working man or woman’s plight, sung by a soul/rhythm and blues singer. So, in three songs you get a Black activist singing in European art style about labor radicalism and social justice, a tongue-in-cheek representation of the thirties in Randy Newman, and then finally a wildly popular artist from the 1960s singing what was originally a country song. They all are addressing the place of economic well being and work in people’s lives.The Labor Day show went between serious historical discussion of the history of labor in the U.S. and its significant but entertaining manifestations in music. At one point, at Archie Green’s request, we juxtaposed Pete Seeger with Merle Haggard. To me that’s both illustrative and entertaining.

I’m not saying I don’t have a point of view in all this, but I really believe strongly in letting different kinds of voices be heard. If somebody thinks I’m being a little too arch or ironic from my eclectic populist perspective, they can tell me that on our web site ( and IT respond as best I can.

Tullos: Interviews with performers are a regular feature of American Routes. How do you approach these?

Spitzer: If somebody is really well known we try to find out more about their attachment to roots music and culture. And if somebody is a relatively unknown folk artist, we are giving them the spotlight, trying to show a broader audience how valuable their traditions are. You take an artist like the late Jerry Garcia who spoke quite frankly about the fact that the old Folkways collection, Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) by Harry Smith was as fundamental to his musical development as playing banjo in a jug band on the West Coast Berkeley folk scene. Having a father that played pop music was important, but so was a grandmother who listened to the Grand Ole Opry. Then, Oakland rhythm and blues radio stations in the 1950s gave a sense of the beginnings of rock and roll to him. All became the sources that Jerry Garcia drew upon to create the Grateful Dead, a band that consumed jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, country, rock and soul that came before it and produced a new form. Jerry was very conscious of all that, incredibly articulate, and, I think, happy to talk about it. It gave him a sense of payback when we did an oral history with him while I was still working at the Smithsonian.

Other interviews have ranged from B.B. King, Irma Thomas, Nicholas Payton and Dr. John to shoeshine men, children doing handclap games, community historians, and taxicab drivers.

Tullos: How much new music is helpful to you, and who are some of the artists involved?

Spitzer: By one medium or another, good, new roots music is finding its routes to new audiences. Among the emerging artists we have featured, let me start in Louisiana with a fabulous young jazz banjo player named Don Vappie, a younger musician from a Creole family who is digging into traditional material and recreating it in very skilled

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ways. I also feel that way about Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Cajun musicians from rural French Louisiana. They are getting somewhat like a Los Lobos of Cajun music. Beyond Louisiana, I find Gillian Welch not some sort of retro folky re-creating old songs, nor is she a fully contemporary pop country artist, but a singer-songwriter who has taken the essence of Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the old ballads, things like that and woven them into new material that feels extremely fresh. Her album covers suggest she might be a member of the Gudger family. Ironically I hear she grew up in Los Angeles or went to Beverly Hills High. That provokes some mystery to me on how much utility is left in the notion of authencity as we have known and used it. As a folklorist all I can say is that she is “authentically” a very capable artist despite not desecending from some of the community traditions we have always designated as “folk.”

A great cadre of African-American performers are new intellectual exhibitors of the blues. Younger performers such as Alvin Youngblood Hart or a seasoned jazzman like Olu Dara are both bringing a new touch to the country blues. I am also intrigued when more traditional artists like R L. Burnside are being being produced by Beck’s producer–Tom Rothrock–and sounding good in mingling the blues that are clearly in the roots of rock with some of hip-hop rhythms that R.L.’s grandson Cedric plays on drums with 90’s production values.

Records and artists like these are addressing the question of how roots performers can reach old and new audiences in a time when most commercial music radio is hopelessly detached from the local and regional and is programmed entirely by numbers. I hope American Routes is also one of the answers to that problem.

Tullos: What is the reception to American Routes in the program’s inaugural year?

Spitzer: American Routes started in April of 98 with an initial group of twelve stations. Public Radio International set a one-year goal of signing-up one-hundred stations to carry the show. We’re already at around sixty-five stations (see the carriage list accompanying this interview). They are an interesting cross-section, ranging from news and information to community-based stations to classical stations,jazz stations, small towns, big cities, rural areas, Alaska and Alabama. It’s very pleasing. We get letters and email from all over. From mayors and prisoners, musicians, storytellers, gas pump operators. The stations come in different types: sometimes the confidence of a state network joining us urges other state networks to join. When a classical station that has a weekend information format joins us, it encourages other classical stations to join. It’s an additive process. We’re trying to have broad appeal without sacrificing a sense of core continuity from the Gulf Southern cultures and from what I call “consistent eclecticism” that really speaks to the American experience from a perspective seasoned in New Orleans.

Sidebar: American Routes Staff

American Routes is not just a host, with music. There is a staff that produces the program and makes it happen every week. A research team helps make the segments fit together. We have a University of New Orleans staffer, Lauren Callihan who keeps us in touch with the university and the cityscape. Associate producer Lisa Richardson is an ethnomusicologist who has worked in Cajun country and has been a public radio host there. Lisa does background research and maintains archival materials. We also have a technical director, Matt Sakakeeny, who has come out of the mingling of musical performance practice, recording, and engineering. He’s a graduate of the Peabody School and Johns Hopkins. Matt does all our editing digitally, so whether from an old 78, compact disc, LP, field recorded cassette or DAT, it all goes into the digital editing system so that it can be moved around, seguéd, raised and lowered in volume, and have noise levels reduced. Matt is the craftsman behind the very seamless sound that we get.

Mary Beth Kirchner is our executive producer, a wise woman in the world of programming for public radio and television. Mary Beth is responsible for a number of important documentaries on public radio over the years, from research into the frontiers of the brain to elderly nuns and the “graying of the convent.” She helps us understand how we’re communicating and whether we’re being effective or not to the network and the non-initiated who are a big segment of our audience. -N. S.