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Sound Man

Radio engineer Flawn Williams (C72) has recorded everything from buzzing bees to bluegrass banjos in his quest to provide listeners with cool vibrations.


by Robert Brenner (J07)

Asiatic honeybees divebombed Flawn Williams as he stood in pitch darkness beneath an immense tualang tree in a Malaysian forest. More than 100 feet above, honey hunters riled the bees from their colony with smoke and sparks.

With 10 microphones between the forest floor and the branches above, Williams, a sound engineer for National Public Radio, captured the bees’ buzz and honey hunters’ call during the ancient harvesting ritual on that moonless spring night.

Best of all, in his quest for surround sound, he didn’t get stung.

Williams (C72), former WNUR-FM station manager and member of Northwestern’s Amazingrace Coffeehouse collective, counts the Malaysian state of Kedah as one of the most exotic places he’s visited while on assignment for NPR/

National Geographic’s Radio Expeditions, which is just one of many duties in his search for vibrant audio environments.

He has also sloshed down rain-flooded trails in the Amazon of eastern Ecuador, listening for “qwerks” and groans for a story on insect communication. Williams’ audio brought listeners up Pinnacle Gully, the 800-foot ice climb on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, with helmet-mounted microphones on renowned mountaineer David Brashears.

Williams captured prolonged squawking at Argentina’s Punta Tombo, where hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins take over a 10-mile stretch of coastline every summer.

“For someone who was used to staking out wildlife, which is like looking for a wonderful solo singer in the forest, being at Punta Tombo was more like finding thousands auditioning for American Idol,” Williams says.

He also spent a week following the late noted ornithologist Ted Parker as he surveyed 300 species of birds in the lowlands of Bolivia.

“My philosophy of life is that we’re doing great damage to the environment,” Williams says. “I think the more people know about the environment, the less damage they’re likely to do. Radio Expeditions looks at cultures as well as the natural environment, but certainly a large part of the reporting shows that it’s really people like you and me who are out there doing this kind of research work. It’s work we all need to be doing.”

While Radio Expeditions is one of his favorite assignments, the former technical director of All Things Considered and one of NPR’s most experienced production engineers says he has been involved in almost every NPR program at some point since he started with the organization in 1978.

Williams got his first taste of old-style radio when he lived in Augsburg, Germany, as a preteen in the early 1960s. “TV was not such a big part of people’s lives in Europe,” says Williams, who remembers listening to radio drama on Armed Forces Radio. Born in Columbia, S.C., Williams lived in eight different places by the time he graduated from high school, thanks to his father’s career in the U.S. Army’s Adjutant General Corps.

While an undergraduate in the School of Communication at Northwestern, Williams hosted folk and eclectic music programs and selected programming as student station manager for WNUR-FM, Northwestern’s student-run radio station. He also helped run the popular Amazingrace Coffeehouse in Scott Hall in 1970.

The operation moved to Shanley Hall in 1972, and the group added musical performance to accompany the vegetarian menu. Williams borrowed equipment to use for concerts at Cahn Auditorium and ran sound for the shows. He also set up transmission lines between Shanley and Annie May Swift Hall, allowing WNUR to do live broadcasts. Many of the twice-nightly shows, featuring folk artists such as Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc, would sell out.

“A lot of us shared an eclectic taste in music, and this was a wonderful outlet,” Williams says. “Amazingrace was always a place where the music was appreciated, and people listened, unlike at bars.”

Williams applied for an internship at NPR after graduation but was turned down. He spent several summers as an assistant instructor with the Northwestern University National High School Institute.

After working on political campaigns for a few years as a media logistics specialist, Williams hired on with NPR’s engineering department in 1978 as a recording technician and quickly became involved with what he calls some of the best audio journalism of that era.

For several years he put that experience to use as a mentor to students interested in exploring careers in radio as part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a series of weeklong student training projects. Williams served as technical adviser to Next Generation Radio. He also wrote the recording chapters and served as technical editor for Sound Reporting, NPR’s radio journalism textbook, and he answers questions sent to “Ask the Engineer” on the NPR web site.

“There are lots of people who know lots of things but don’t know how to teach,” says Doug Mitchell, Next Generation Radio project manager. He says Williams’ demeanor, ability to speak in a nontechnical way and patience make him an excellent teacher.

Those skills transfer to his work at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va., where Williams spends a few weeks each summer teaching singing styles ranging from early American shape note hymns (a system of musical notation to facilitate choral singing) to doo-wop and more modern a cappella. He also coordinates an eclectic one-week vocal music program featuring folk music and world music. This past summer’s program drew from Bulgarian Balkan, Appalachian and Sephardic Jewish traditions, among others.

These musical styles might seem diverse, but for Williams it’s all part of life’s rich melody.

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Williams records the sounds of Krishna devotee women making offerings along the bank of the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, India.
Williams records the sounds of Krishna devotee women making offerings along the bank of the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, India. Photo by Alex Chadwick, NPR
Williams mikes the vocalizations of a juvenile elephant seal at Punta Delgada on Argentina
Williams mikes the vocalizations of a juvenile elephant seal at Punta Delgada on Argentina's Peninsula Valdes. Photo by Jessica Goldstein, NPR
Flawn Williams
Flawn Williams Photo by Benjamin Pierce