September 15, 2016

Cornell Research Inspires Producer’s Award-Winning Radio Series

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“Sound is an important element in the evolution of life on earth — it has shaped life as we know it,” said Bill McQuay, an audio producer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

McQuay, partnering with Christopher Joyce and Alison Richards of NPR, developed a radio series called “Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound,” which focuses on biologists who study sound in the natural world. The series was awarded a communication award from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

A former sound engineer and technical director for NPR — where he worked on a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in 2000 and won the organization’s only Grammy — McQuay said he was inspired by a former series he produced with Joyce over 10 years ago.

“I had been at NPR back in 2002 and traveled to Central Africa we did a story on the Cornell Elephant Listening Project,” McQuay said. “Years later, at the Lab of Ornithology, we discovered that there is serious poaching in that very area. We decided this would be a chance to do a story to expose and counter the poaching efforts.”

Since 2005, Lab of Ornithology’s library has stored one of the largest collections of natural sound on NPR’s behalf, including the material from McQuay’s prior expeditions.

“We decided to delve into the archive that dealt with all this rich sound from ten years prior — complex sound tapes from some of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity — and enrich the story,” McQuay said.

McQuay’s radio series was also, in part, inspired by the works of many scientists at Cornell, including Prof. Trevor Pinch, science and technology studies, Prof. Adam Law, Weill Cornell Medicine and Katy Payne, the founder of Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project.

“A number of the people that were featured have a direct connection with Cornell: they either work here or the research they are involved was archived here or they are doing joint projects with the folks at the Lab of Ornithology,” he said. “It’s more than just that I’m at Cornell. Cornell is one of those places where science and sound have really come together.”

In the future, McQuay said he and Joyce plan to study how sound has influenced and continues to influence human evolution.

“It’s is something that we are not conscious of, but it affects our day to day living,” he said.