‘Bring it to life’: How WHYY engineer Al Banks helps people find their voices

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WHYY engineer, Al Banks, left, and WHYY's Morning Edition host, Jennifer Lynn, pose outside the StoryCorps MobileBooth which is parked this month at The Porch at 30th Street Station.  (Laurie Beck Peterson)

WHYY engineer, Al Banks, left, and WHYY's Morning Edition host, Jennifer Lynn, pose outside the StoryCorps MobileBooth which is parked this month at The Porch at 30th Street Station. (Laurie Beck Peterson)

Every day this week on Morning Edition, we’re airing a memorable local StoryCorps segment from years past to celebrate the StoryCorps MobileBooth, which is parked this month at The Porch at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

At WHYY, Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spends a lot of time in front of a microphone, while audio engineer Al Banks spends a lot of time behind a big sound control board. He presses the buttons that make many of the programs you listen to sound great.

Banks was a college radio jock way back when, and at the StoryCorps MobileBooth in Philadelphia, Lynn talked to him about how he became such a keen listener and how he’s helped so many people find their voice behind the mic — even Patti LaBelle.


The mentoring you do — I’ve been around for almost two decades at this radio station, but there are some folks who’ve just come in the door. It’s just beautiful to see you in your very subtle way working with their voice, working with the pacing. You know about these things because you have done it, right?

Right. I’m just passing on what I was taught — little tricks to get past the fear of the microphone. I remember I had a teacher named, up at Penn State, Dr. Lillian E. Preston. You know, she would start her class, “So you want to be in broadcasting, huh, kid?” That kind of attitude. She would notice that maybe somebody was talking monotone. She would have these cards and she would give you a card. You turn it over in says “Mickey Mouse.” So you’d have to read what you were supposed to read for the assignment in the voice of Mickey Mouse. She would say, “I want you to talk as low as you can. Now, talk as high as you can.” Lo and behold, you find your range. You’re not stuck in the middle monotone. Bring it to life.

I have a secret voice. I do Julia Child.

Okay.

We take the newsroom chicken, and we toss it on the ground. And it loosens me up.

And that’s the idea. I mean, that’s the whole idea you got to come out of yourself a little bit to be able to really do that. I give an example. I remember one time Patti LaBelle. She just could not get past this line in the script — kept stumbling over it. I mean, a good 15 minutes. You know, where you had all the big wigs behind me. I was basically recording audio. So imagine me — I’m on the other side of the glass and I said, Ms. LaBelle? And she goes, “Yes.” I said, “This is going to sound strange, but I want you to just try this. Take the line and put a simple melody to it and sing it.” And one of the big wigs behind me smacked me in the back of the head.

Literally?

Literally and said, “That’s the cheapest way to make her sing a song.”

That’s not what your intent was.

That was not my intention. She did that — didn’t have a problem after that. Got right through it. Everybody was patting me on the back. “Oh, how did you know to do that?”

Do you remember what she said?

No, but I just remember that it worked and we were all relieved. And then when she stumbled over another line she said, “Okay give me a second.” She would sing it … And then she’d come back and hit it. You know? And it was cool.

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