New England comes to life in sound and verse on public radio

We hear the crisp, crunchy sound of a Volvo as it tiptoes its way onto the crust of frozen Lake Champlain. ''If this were two months from now, my car would be slowly sinking beneath the waves.''

That's Tom Looker talking. As host of National Public Radio's New England Almanac: Portraits in Sound of New England Life and Landscape (check local listings for premieres and repeats), he's dutifully driving out onto the lake to chat with the ice fishermen and test out Vermont's largest and most slippery winter highway.

For 13 episodes Thomas Looker, an independent radio producer and writer, takes listeners on this and similar aural adventures in New England. By the final program - a romp around the Vermont forest with an old-time woodsman-philosopher - he's done the unexpected. He has created a picture of New England as vivid and colorful as the most lavish TV documentary could. And in the meantime, he's tuned in his listeners to the sounds around them.

Although Looker used simple recording equipment, the sound on this series is superb - especially in stereo. The rushing of a mountain stream or the staccato sound of maple sap dripping into buckets is captured with crystal clarity. It's a very natural music that Looker has substituted for what could have been the efforts of man-made instruments. Another pleasant element in the show are frequent words from Henry David Thoreau (as read by Vermont actor Gilman Rood).

To be sure, Looker's is a limited view of New England: Much of it is the New England of calendar art and travel magazines.

Yet Looker doesn't always sand over the harsh edges. Maine natives tell grim stories of winter isolation. Old-timers debunk notions that turn-of-the-century farm life was anything but rugged. And the normally even-tempered Looker, as he narrates his voyage one early morning aboard a lobster boat, remarks with open disgust, ''The smell of the three-day-old bait is overpowering, indescribable, a nauseating stench ....''

Looker won a Peabody Award (considered the Pulitzer for radio broadcasting) for ''The Harvest'' segment of ''Almanac'' - and for good reason. With words poetic enough for blank verse, he describes autumn and gives us its sounds. Leaves fall during a jaunt through the woods. A '60s radical turned '80s Maine logger issues sharp whistles and brisk commands to his right-hand horse - which we hear dragging a log across rough terrain. A former high-ranking government official - now a writer, teacher, and cattle farmer - comments that the sound of cattle eating is the most peaceful sound in the world.

But on one Massachusetts farm there's the noise of two steers being slaughtered. It's a very difficult few minutes of radio to listen to. Yet it's clearly a part of farming, and Looker's comments help explain the practice. A chat with Tom Looker

Montague Center, Mass.

A quick tour around Tom Looker's apartment shows there's no room for clutter in this space. It's here, using relatively simple production equipment, that he put together ''New England Almanac.'' A modest-size clothes closet, just a few feet from his bed, doubled as a studio for taping.

Looker spent 18 months traveling New England's back roads, making friends, taping interviews, and recording sounds. He then spent a year at home packaging his travels into the superb 13-part series.

That Looker did it mostly by himself on a modest grant from the Katherine and Gilbert Miller Fund proves, he says, that small radio stations can make similar innovative programming. The series was originally done for WFCR - an NPR member station in Amherst, Mass.

''I'd long felt ... that a good sentence is worth more than an echo chamber in terms of making effective radio,'' Looker remarks. ''And fortunately it was cheaper, too ....''

He adds, ''Radio is a marvelous medium that's very underused in this country. There's such potential.... Even when you're listening to a commercial ... you have some picture in your mind, and to me that's very magical.''

But who will listen, Looker was asked, to a program so devoid of the frenetic excitement of, say, an ''Indiana Jones'' movie?

By way of answering, Looker explained that on certain New England radio stations on which ''Almanac'' has already run, he has received lots of mail by public-radio standards - and that ''most of the letters are from ordinary folks.'' He adds, ''I think an audience can change its habits if we give them a chance and you don't talk down to them.''

Looker, who spent his early years in another apartment 15 stories above ground in New York, has obviously grown to love his adopted region. ''It doesn't dwarf you like the West does. ... There is a sense of privacy and dignity and individualism which is, on the whole, pleasing.''

''We think of New England as being rural, Yankee, bucolic, Republican, and in fact - in terms of numbers - it's mostly ethnic, it's mostly urban, it's mostly industrial, it's mostly Democratic.''

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