As a young producer, I am always trying to learn from radio pieces by figuring out how they were made. When Scott Carrier’s broken and laconic voice drifts out over the airwaves, I listen for the ways he weaves his own story into a portrait of another place. When an Ira Glass introduction tantalizes, or a Radiolab story seamlessly bridges science and philosophy, my student brain whirs and analyzes.
Sometimes, however, a piece of radio is so frightfully intimate and foreign, artful and natural, that I cannot figure out how the producers put its parts together. "The Sunshine Hotel", which premiered on All Things Considered in 1998, is one of these rare pieces. It’s the story of one of New York City’s last remaining flophouses - cheap hotels that serve those who are down on their luck. Residents of The Sunshine sleep in flea-ridden cubicles with chicken-wire ceilings, and sometimes stay a long time. Some have been there for years. Some die inside.
The producers, David Isay and Stacy Ambramson of Sound Portraits, collected their audio during two months of 24-hour access to the Sunshine Hotel. We know that much. But their voices don’t appear in the piece, and instead, it is narrated by Nathan Smith, the hotel manager. Smith has the voice of a grizzled porter from hell – humorous, wizened, worn by cigarette smoke and experience.
It is Smith who makes this more than a puff piece about a strange, dark place full of characters, the kind of piece that gets narrated by an outsider who is either overenthusiastic or falsely dry. This could have been that story. There is material enough. In the course of the piece we hear a heroin addict discuss his love for his pet birds through a monotonous robotic voicebox, the story of a resident named Fat Anthony, the story of a zen errand runner (“two rolaids and a tea!”). That piece would have been easier. But it’s not that piece.
Instead, Smith invites us in as though we are a customer. “Welcome, come on in!” he says. “If you’ve got the rent money you can stay, if you ain’t, beat it.” He laughs, and we hear the telephone ring. That telephone ring is the first signal of what we are about to experience – the seamless merging of Smith’s carefully crafted tour with the real, spontaneous sounds, moments, and people of the Sunshine Hotel.
We are the wide-eyed but welcome outsider, coddled in the questionable embrace of a place that Smith describes as “the last stop.” “On the one hand, it’s pretty close to living in hell,” he says. “125 dysfunctional guys, crammed together in this old hotel. On the other hand,” he says, “it's pretty interesting.” He goes on, and then we meet another patron, in real time.
The reason that this baffles me is that it must have been difficult. The two sections – the physical tour with its sounds, and Smith’s narration – must have been recorded separately, and the latter must have been carefully crafted by Smith under some kind of direction from Abramson or Isay. But Smith’s narration feels of the moment and unforced. He introduces us to different characters as though they are right around the corner, and simultaneously we go into their rooms.
His narration never takes us out of the space or the mood, and since all of the music is either guitar riffs or vocal sections sung by residents, the music does not remove us either. And running under the whole thing is the sound of shuffling, talking, wisecracks and yelps. The longer the piece goes, the more people we meet. The more Smith speaks, the more we feel as if we are really there. Listening to this piece, I feel trapped in the growing sense of a homey claustrophobia and an accustomed danger.
“The Sunshine Hotel” ends with Smith saying goodbye to customers, and to the listener. “Good luck,” he says. “Take care, buddy.” And like many of the residents, despite my distaste for the grime and the grim of the Sunshine, I’m not sure if I am quite ready to leave.
"The Sunshine Hotel"
Produced in 1998 by Dave Isay and Stacy Abramson at Sound Portraits
23 minutes, 30 seconds