Jack Straw photo by Jennifer Richard
“There isn’t a simple explanation for what we do,” says Joan Rabinowitz, director of Jack Straw Productions. “We tend to be that group that doesn’t fit into a box.” The enigmatic Seattle institution is many things to many people—and has been for almost 50 years. Given its low profile and multivalent mission, you’re forgiven for not knowing.
Jack Straw began in 1962 as KRAB-FM, one of America’s first non-commercial radio stations. After its transmitter exploded on the first day of broadcasting, KRAB went on a 22-year-long, non-profit run that saw a wildly diverse, progressive array of arts, sciences, and public affairs programs come and go. In 1984, the station’s frequency was sold, and Jack Straw emerged in its current incarnation as a community-oriented audio production facility based in the University District.
“Our origins are in community radio and ethnomusicology, which define who we are,” Rabinowitz says. “Our basis is in audio technology but our goals are around helping people tell and archive their stories, and working with artists to present their work, and offering educational opportunities so people understand what these projects are all about. We’re committed to helping people create and understand work that’s important to them. We’re an arts center that serves artists and students of all different ages, backgrounds, interests, and genres.”
“We don’t have a good elevator pitch,” she adds with a laugh.
As Jack Straw receives the 2011 Mayor’s Arts Award (“We’ve been nominated several times before,” Rabinowitz says. “Maybe it’s because of our 50th anniversary approaching. We’re hitting a high point.”), its programming is more diverse than ever. Most recent is a program that encourages students suffering from muscular dystrophy and spina bifida to interview each other and write and record audio dramas based on their experiences of life in a wheelchair.
Going back further, its artist residency program is 15 years old, as is the programming it does for blind and visually impaired children, “the only program of its kind,” Rabinowitz says. She describes programs on audio production for sculptors and storytelling programs for writers, which offer artists the facilities and training to produce professional-quality audio recordings, as “an artistic laboratory.” The space is a functioning visual art gallery for painting and photography and regularly hosts teacher training seminars and youth education seminars. “It’s exciting because we see all these things start to blossom and flourish,” she says.
“A lot goes back to the beginnings,” she continues. “The radio station was the place for people who didn’t have a voice. All those cultural things that comfort your soul, that we’re all living for. It was away to get that stuff out. There was nothing like it then.”
There’s nothing like it today.