Behind the Scenes: John Francis
One day in 1983, in response to an oil spill off the coast of California, John Francis decided to go for a walk. And he kept walking and sailing around North and South America for the next 22 years — and for 17 of those years, he didn’t speak. Today, his Planetwalk foundation consults on sustainable development and works with educational groups to teach kids about the environment.
So, for an interview with John Francis, Majora and John spent a full day walking together through his hometown of Cape May, New Jersey. They began their walk at the Atlantic Ocean and walked through neighborhoods, along railroad tracks, and in a nature preserve, talking about John's journey and his message of respect for the earth.
Producer Emily Botein talks about walking with John and Majora that day, creating space for surprise, and the pleasures of tiptoeing into people’s lives.
Above, Producer Emily Botein (recorder in hand), Majora, and John (banjo in hand) amble around his neighborhood.
Tell our audience about what you do for The Promised Land.
I am one of the show producers, so that means I come up with ideas and research them. I think about how to approach a topic. I plan the details — from car rental and road snacks — and also think about the larger issues, like what questions will elicit a surprising answer from the guest. And then I edit the final show together from the interviews.
How did you sift through all of the show ideas and pick John?
A lot of what we do on The Promised Land is inspired by Majora and people who interest her. Majora brought up John Francis's name, but John was someone I had heard about before, when I was working on a radio series called Stories from the Heart of the Land.
What drew you as a producer to John's story?
When you're putting together a show, you need to create an environment where surprising things happen. And so it was the form of the interview — walking with John for an entire day — that seemed most compelling. I liked the idea of being stuck with someone for a day. What was going to happen? I could only predict so much. Tiring out the host and the guest seemed intriguing.
John found that when he walked through a place, he interacted with people in a different way and on a different level. What was your experience like, walking through Cape May?
We met a few people along the way, including a woman tending flowers in her front yard. John and Majora stopped and talked to her. Usually, as a producer, I'm shoving a mic into someone's face. This time, we were using lavalier mics (which attach to Majora’s and John's clothes and feed back to my recorder). The woman realized that we were recording because I had on equipment, but the equipment was discreet. I think the lavalier mics made the experience more comfortable for the people we met. To me, the best thing about radio is that you can tiptoe into people’s lives, and the lavalier allows you to do that even more.
What surprised you about John?
Frankly, I was surprised by how little water he drank. It was a hot, sunny day, and I was gulping water and being very conscious about drinking water. I wondered, does he have a different body than I do because he's walked outside for so long? Is he like a camel? Is he used to being outside? I was also surprised at how slowly he walks. It made sense because he has to preserve himself. He's a steady walker, and I wondered how much his pace was determined by us. I think if we hadn’t stopped, he could have just kept walking at the end of the day.
Anything else you wish you could have done, if you had more time?
The thing about doing everything in a day — which is still a luxury in radio — is you have this feeling that everything has to be momentous, and you have to get everything. There's a part of me that wonders, what would have happened if we had walked with John for three days? Or, as he's used to doing, three weeks? If you spend more time with someone, perhaps you would have time to be more playful, silly, or quiet. If we had done a longer walk, we would have had more space for silence.