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Telling Stories With Strings

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INTRO: We’re all used to hearing stories with words. But commentator Matthew Vann found you don’t always need words to tell them.

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News at the Half-Hour

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For Columbia Radio News in New York, I’m Matthew Vann.

The U.S. economy added 165,000 jobs in April, dropping the unemployment rate to  a four year low of 7.5%. The US Department of Labor in its monthly report today says the  economy created an average of 208,000 jobs a month from November through April.


U.S. factory orders dropped by 4 percent in March, reflecting a big decline in the category of commerical aircraft. Orders were up by 1.9 percent in February.


President Obama is in Mexico today, where he’s emphasizing the relationship between the two countries. Jessica Gould reports.

GOULD: Speaking at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, President Obama said the two nations should work together to avoid stereotypes. Too often, he said, Americans associate Mexico with drug violence. So he pledged to increase law enforcement, education and treatment to reduce the American market for illegal drugs. And he urged Mexicans to resist views of their neighbor as isolationist and disrespectful.

OBAMA: I’ve reaffirmed with President Pena Nieto that the great partnership between our two countries will not only continue. It’s going to get stronger and go broader

GOULD: Obama also promised to keep pushing for immigration reform and continue supporting trade policies that would benefit both nations.


And the next stop for President Obama is Costa Rica. While there, the president will hold bilateral talks with President Laura Chinchilla and expanded talks with other Central American leaders.


An American military refueling plane crashed today in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The plane was carrying three crew members. The United States operates a key air base in the country which it has used for the war in Afghanistan.


The administrator of a fund created to help people injured in the Boston marathon bombings will begin meeting with victims next week. Kenneth Feinberg is overseeing The One Fund Boston program which as of today has taken in more than 28 million dollars. The fund hopes to begin cutting the first checks by the end of June.


Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans rose sharply over the past decade. More people now die of suicide than car accidents, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control. The greatest increase has been for men in their 50s.


The National Rifle Association kicked off its annual convention this morning with a warning from its incoming president James Porter. He says that the fight for gun control will stretch into the 2014 elections. More than 70,000 people are expected to attend the convention, which comes after the defeat of a major gun control bill in the United States Senate.


It’s a sunny and clear 63 degrees here in New York City.  Temperatures are expected to drop to 50 this evening.

For Columbia Radio News, I’m Matthew Vann.

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Classical Musicians Rebel Against Modern Music Traditions

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HOST INTRO: Street musicians can be found almost anywhere in New York City. Classical musicians, however, are just a bit harder to find for reasons many believe have to due with the challenges  the industry faces. But as Matthew Vann reports, one classical pianist is reviving this old art form one note at a time.

It’s 8:15 on a Saturday morning at Washington Square Park. Vinny Longo and a friend are moving a baby grand piano off a pickup truck.

[FADE UP AMBI: Vinny Moving Piano]

They’re assembling the piano for what will be a very long day of playing by the instrument’s owner: 35 year-old Colin Huggins.

[FADE UP AMBI: Assembling Piano]  

They turn the piano over and screw in the legs. After a half hour, the piano is assembled. The pianist, Colin Huggins is red-haired, with music notes tattooed to his finger knuckles. He tunes the instrument himself.

[FADE UP AMBI: Colin Tuning the Piano.]

He sits at the keyboard, closes his eyes and plays.


He opens with Consolation No. 3 by 19th century composer Franz Liszt.

[FADE UP AMBI & UNDER NARR: Sound from piano]

In a matter of minutes, a small crowd gathers. Huggins turns this otherwise noisy park into a concert hall.

[FADE UP AMBI & UNDER NARR: Last Note and Applause]

As he takes in the applause, some from the crowd approach to drop dollar bills in the two buckets Huggins placed at each end of the piano.  Others linger for the next piece.


He’s now playing Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune. This music is his passion.

COLIN HUGGINS: These pieces are beautiful. And if they’re presented in the right way I think people will totally take them.  

Huggins lives solely off of the monetary donations he gets from playing in the park on weekends. And he’s found the life of a solo classical street performer to be tough.

COLIN HUGGINS:  I can pay my rent. I can get enough food to eat. But I can’t unfortunately afford health care or a car or to buy myself my own home.

Other classical musicians teach, play freelance gigs or work in orchestras, but aren’t  necessarily more prosperous than a street musician like Huggins. That’s because the industry of classical music is in crisis.

DAVID GEBER: We have strikes, we have lockouts, we have bankruptcies, we have scaling down in terms of personnel.  And those are really 21st century issues. There were not these problems, 50, 60, 70 years ago.

David Geber is a professor at the Manhattan School of Music. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the audience for classical music has declined by 30% since the 1980s. And because audiences have dropped, hiring with orchestras and arts institutions have slowed.  But despite that, Colin Huggins still landed a job. He worked for a while as an accompanist at the American Ballet Theatre in New York. But it wasn’t what he wanted.

COLIN HUGGINS: I want to be performing. I want to be the center of attention. I want to be preparing big classical pieces and not just working on the accompaniment.

That’s why playing on the weekends is so important for Huggins. Once he’s reeled in a listener with music, he’s got them hooked.

[FADE UP AMBI: If you like that piece of music I have it here on a CD feel free to come grab one anytime.]

And they do come to grab one. Sometimes, even more than one.

[FADE UP AMBI: Exchange between Colin and Listener]

He says the key to his success as a classical music performer is knowing which pieces to play. That’s something he says more classical musicians should be aware of.

COLIN HUGGINS: If you end up forcing boring music on people and get angry at them then they say this is boring when they say they don’t wanna listen to this. It’s gonna be a wreck and that’s what classical musicians end up doing a lot of the time.

Unlike popular music, classical music isn’t heard as widely. Because listenership declined, public radio stations dropped classical music programming for more news and talk. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, there are only 19 commercial classical music stations nationwide. To reverse this trend, some performers are combining classical music with other music genres. Allan Kozinn,  a New York Times music critic, says that’s working.

ALLAN KOZINN: Now you have an audience of young people going to what is in effect new classical music. Liking it because it speaks a language that is not that different from pop language but incorporates classical elements and classical sounds.

And that’s an audience Huggins is trying to attract. On the days he’s not playing in Washington Sq. Park, Huggins is busy composing new classical music from his home studio.

[FADE UP AMBI & UNDER: Huggins Composing and Playing Excerpts]

This time, he’s branching out beyond the piano to compose a piece for strings, guitar, and voice.

[FADE UP AMBI & UNDER: Huggins Composing and Playing Excerpts]

COLIN HUGGINS: I play a lot of the same music in the park but I’m aware of it and I’m trying to learn new things and keep developing it.

And it is, perhaps, that desire from listeners to hear new works that will sustain classical music in spite of its challenges.  Matthew Vann. Columbia Radio News.

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All Hail the Hipster Savior?

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HOST: And if church could be held in a ballroom then maybe Jesus was the original hipster. That’s how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn is branding their savior in an effort to get people to church on Sundays. As Matthew Vann reports, church leaders hope that image resonates with young people.

NARR: Most people just walk by an ad on a phone booth featuring a man from the waist down in a pair of converse sneakers poking out of his robes. The message on the ad says all faces, everyday understanding. It’s an attempt by the Brooklyn Diocese to portray Christ as a handsome, scruffy fisher of men to a young audience in the borough’s most hip neighborhoods.

The diocese’s vicar of communications Msgr. Keiran Harrington says Brooklyn’s hipsters will understand.

MSGR. KEIRAN HARRINGTON: I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say that somebody that lives in Williamsburg might look at an image of a guy in a robe, with converse sneakers. See the caption original hipster and say that’s Jesus.

In Fort Greene, on the corner of Dekalb Avenue and Ashland Place, Opal Blake says she was pleasantly surprised by an unusual but not technically unorthodox image of Christ.

OPAL BLAKE:  It’s all about who you see him…Who you perceive him to be. People are just expressing themselves. The way they feel about him.

And Monsignor Harrington says Brooklynites like Blake got the ad exactly right.

MSGR. KEIRAN HARRINGTON: The nature of the campaign is to say look: No matter who you are. You are welcome in the church. Jesus Christ goes out to people where they are.

But Thomas Boland, a young man who looks like he could be a hipster disagrees. Standing on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, Boland is wearing a bandana, torn jeans and an earing in his left ear. He says the church behind the message might have trouble selling it.

THOMAS BOLAND: I think the image and idea that they have of this. That they’re promoting are not exactly honest with what they’re preaching about.

In fact, many of the church’s policies on things like abortion, gay marriage and stell cell research stand at odds with the views of young people who are likely to be in favor of them.  At another location of the original hipster ad on Livingston Street near a fruit stand, Antonio Berroa thinks it’s not so bad an idea.

ANTONIO BERROA: I wish I could see the pope wearing sneakers that would be kind of nice too you know. I think the message that its sending is reaching out to many of the youth. I like that.

The Brooklyn diocese’s ad campaign will expand to other neighborhoods across the borough through this fall.

Matthew Vann, Columbia Radio News.

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Brooklyn District Attorney Election Gets Heated

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Come November, the biggest race in the city will be for mayor. And it’s likely to bring many voters out. Brooklyn’s voters will choose a district attorney. Two candidates in the race say now is a great time to challenge the incumbent of 23 years: Charles Hynes. Matthew Vann reports.

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New Pope’s Humble Style Inspires New York Catholics

HOST INTRO: Christians around the world are commemorating Holy Week, with prayer and reflection. The new pope, Francis,  has signaled his papacy will emphasize service to the poor. Just yesterday, in a symbolic ritual, he washed the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome. And here in New York, Matthew Vann caught up with a group of Catholics who want to ensure humility and justice are on the agenda today.

[Fade up AMBI: Oath]

Rosemarie Pace is the director of Pax Christie Metro New York, the group of progressive Catholics.  Pace wasn’t surprised to see Pope Francis wash the feet of juvenile inmates yesterday.

PACE: I would say that we are kind of comrades on the same wave length but its not because he had any influence on us at all. We’re just thrilled that he did what he did because if anything it’s like he followed up.

Pace and the group are planning their procession to go up 42nd street. this year, the group decided to do something new with the group.  They’re stopping at different places symbolic of issues the city’s facing.

PACE: There are particular locations that can be representative of different ways that we are trying to remember pray for and transform the suffering of people.   

 The first stop on the procession was on the corner of 44th Street and Second Avenue.  They stop and sing a song and pray for the NYPD’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy.

[Fade up AMBI: Song]

One of the Pax Christi members part  the procession Beverly Mader is from Jamaica, Queens. Her neighborhood has seen more than it’s fair share of stop and frisks.

MADER: The petition between the police and the community is a very important thing that needs to be resolved and stop and frisk seems to have so many grey areas.

From there, they head for a Citibank branch where Nathan Schenider, a member of Occupy Catholics took the stage. He said he’s praying for the banking and finance world.

SCHENIEDER: We live in a city where our skyline our physical environment is full of these structures devoted to corporate greed.  And coming here and bringing this Christian witness to these places is a powerful symbol.

The symbolism became even starker when they went to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station on Broadway. It was there that they commemorated Christ being crucified to the cross. Matthew Vann. Columbia Radio News.

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Brooklyn Republican Leader Holds Out For His Man

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HOST INTRO: Mayor Bloomberg has less than a year left in office. A crowded field of contenders hopes to replace him. On the Republican side, five candidates are already vying for endorsements. But, as Matthew Vann reports, one Brooklyn Republican leader is holding out on supporting any of the GOP mayoral hopefuls.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group made up mostly of men, gather in the back room of Ceol’s Irish Pub downtown Brooklyn. The meeting of the Young Republican Club is getting underway.

[fade up AMBI: Pledge of Allegiance]

Members take their patriotism seriously and begin every meeting with the pledge of allegiance. They don’t have much time to determine who they’ll back for mayor. And they’re republicans in a very democratic city.

[AMBI: Glenn Nocera welcoming the group]

Glenn Nocera is the president of the Brooklyn Young Republican club – not to be confused with the Brooklyn Young Republicans Club. He’s 37-year-old and his members are more conservative than most other GOP political groups in the City. That’s why Nocera’s not endorsing anyone yet.

NOCERA: Every one of them, from my knowledge, is for abortion. And that’s one social issue that I’m certainly not for. A lot of them also for gay marriage. I’m not for that.

Of his fellow Brooklyn republicans, Nocera stands alone – he’s conservative fiscally and socially. And he’s waiting for someone to speak directly to the issues he cares about. That makes him more attractive to mayoral candidates like Joe Lhota, the guest speaker for this meeting.

[Applause for Lhota]

Lhota is warmly received but they are eager for him to get to the point.

[Nocera welcoming Lhota]

He steps to the center of the room and starts by playing up his connection to the neighborhood.

LHOTA: I moved to Brooklyn 25 years ago and I’ve lived in Brooklyn ever since.

And Lhota even caught Nocera’s ear with his opposition to a few of the most controversial policies of the Bloomberg administration.

NOCERA: I like that he’s against the camera lights and he want’s to do away with that soda ban thing.

But one issue Lhota is keen to address is the recent subway fare hike. It happened only a few months after he stepped as down as the MTA chief.

LHOTA: When I went there for the one year that I was there I did everything to keep costs under control. Discretionary costs in 2012 were less than 2011. The reason for the fare increase is directly related to the increase in pensions.

He knows it’s an issue likely to surface in debates with his fellow GOP candidates. And there are still a lot of them.

LHOTA: Is the field of republican candidates too crowded? No. I love to have a robust debate on issues. I think the concept of a crowded field is a good thing. (tight edit)

Thomas Hilton is a member of the Brooklyn Brownstone Republicans club. He’s not so sure of that.

HILTON: Some people think a big primary fight is good. I don’t. I think you need a lot of time to get a strong candidate out and before the public. And plus if the public doesn’t know who he is they’re not really gonna support him.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1, it’s not going to be easy for a Republican to win. And so far, it’s been a game of musical chairs when it comes to endorsements ahead of the city’s Republican primary in September. That’s why many of the republican candidates are meeting with Glenn Nocera’s Young Republican Club. Nocera knows the clock is ticking, but says it doesn’t solve anything to rush into an endorsement too quickly.

NOCERA: We need to be working together because we’re out numbered to begin with. We can’t be fighting like we’re in high school. And with that I’d gladly work with anyone that wants to help grow the Republican Party.

And he’ll have until September to see who fits the bill for his endorsement.

Matthew Vann. Columbia Radio News.

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Could Venezuela’s New Leader Change U.S.-Venezuela Relations?

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HOST: And with Chavez’s death, Venezuela must elect a new leader soon. I spoke with Latin American Affairs Professor Alejandro Velasco. And I asked him whether a new government could bring big changes to US-Venezuela relations.

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Redistricting May Hurt New York’s Asian Communities

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HOST: The Supreme Court, next week, will hear a case directly challenging the Voting Rights Act next week. President Obama in his State of the Union address called for sweeping changes to the long lines voters encounter on Election Day.
OBAMA: When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.
HOST: And here in New York, the City Council is considering a redistricting plan for the City. Some Asian American groups say the Justice Department should take a hard look at it. Matthew Vann has the story:

NARR: Every ten years, the census is taken. And then the New York City districting commission has to redraw the city’s voting lines. The biggest change over the last decade was the growth of the city’s Asian American population. And yet, the districting lines in some of the city’s Asian communities remain the same. Jerry Vattamala is a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He says that a lack of change in the lines puts Asian voters at a disadvantage.

A1: What we’ve seen traditionally is that Asian American communities have been divided into 2,3, 4, 5 even 6 different districts. So that the community–no matter if you get every single person registered and you get them out to vote on Election Day, they cannot affect the outcome of an election.

N2: AALDEF joined in a proposal with other minority advocacy groups to the City Council. It called for communities with common interests and ethnic populations to be combined into a single district.

A2: What AALDEF is proposing is for D1 and D2 to be combined into one district where the combination of Latino and Asian American demographics would be a coalition majority.

N3: That way, Vattamala says voters would be able to easily elect candidates of their choice. But officials on the city’s districting commission disagree. Executive Director Carl Hum says Manhattan’s District 1 has
already elected a Chinese American Council Member –Margaret Chin. He says leaving the lines in tact is necessary to continue the election of Asian-American candidates.

A3: There’s always an additional fix. There’s always an outstanding issue that we didn’t address. But on the whole I’m satisfied though.

N4: The next big hurdle for the City’s redistricting lines is in Washington at the Justice Department. Lawyers there will review the plan to ensure it complies with section 5 of the voting rights act. That provision requires minority representation in the new districting plan to remain the same or increase. George Mason University professor Michael McDonald says the department’s response could set a precedent by adding Asian Americans to the list of protected ethnic and racial groups.

A4: …It’s possible now to draw majority Asian American districts. That actually opens up a whole new line of legal questions because up to this point we’re really talking about voting rights for African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.

N5: Regardless of what the Justice Department does, Jerry Vattamala says his group is considering its legal options if the City’s plan is approved.

A5: We are conducting legal research to see if there’s a violation of the NYC charter. Specifically the provision that ensures that racial and language minority groups protected under the federal Voting Rights Act are ensured fair and effective representation.

N6: If the new district boundaries are approved, they’ll be set for the next 10 years. And the city’s voters will have to live with them.

Matthew Vann, Columbia Radio News.

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