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Producing 'Alcoholic Central'

Duluth, Minn. — Most public radio stories are told in the voice of a reporter. Once in a while it's better to let someone else tell the story. Paul Ojanen didn't set out to be on the radio, but he was willing when he got the chance.

Paul sent an e-mail message to MPR about a news story he'd heard on the radio -- a story about methamphetamine. Paul wrote to say that he knows about meth. He's a recovered meth addict and alcoholic. In his message, Paul conceded that meth is news, but he went on to ask why there isn't more news about alcohol.

Paul's message got forwarded to me because he lives near me. So we exchanged e-mails, and I thought right away that Paul belonged on the radio. We met for coffee and I listened to Paul for a couple hours. He talked in a steady, cigarette-tinged bass. Sometimes he flashed a smile. Often, controlled anger simmered under his words.

He cited studies, he quoted facts, and he told stories -- vivid, heart-wrenching stories of lives ruined, and taken, by alcohol.

Most of his stories took place along a four-block stretch of First St. in downtown Duluth. He called the neighborhood "Alcoholic Central." So I asked Paul if he'd take us all on an audio tour of First St., and he immediately said yes. We spent several hours walking around. I rolled tape and asked a few questions, and Paul talked. He told stories, and he stopped along the way and talked with people he knows from his time working in halfway houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhood.

I cut the tape down to size for a radio piece. I had lots of fascinating stuff on tape that didn't make it into the final story.

For example, in the story, you won't hear Paul entering a liquor store on First St. and asking the owner to talk on tape -- and being refused. You won't hear Paul talking with Rich, a guy who's six months into sobriety after taking up drinking at age 13 and spending 24 years as a raging alcoholic (Listen), and you won't hear Paul explain why he believes Rich has a great chance of staying sober. There's a lot more on tape that you won't hear. But what you do hear in "Alcoholic Central" is amazing.

Rough drafts of the story took a few different shapes. I moved the various scenes around like puzzle pieces. I was trying to help it all make sense. But what we ended up with follows the exact progression that things really happened. So what you hear is a fairly precise encapsulation of our walk.

In a few spots, we needed to make transitions -- to write short pieces of script to move from one scene to the next. We needed to introduce ideas that Paul talked about during some other part of our walk. So I pulled thoughts, and entire sentences, from other parts of the tape and wrote them down. I wrote them in Paul's words as much as I could, and then he rewrote some of them.

Then Paul read the scripted sections onto tape. He did it without much rehearsal, and with very little coaching. He pretty much just did it.

The result is a moving, provocative, guided tour of Alcoholic Central in Duluth.

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