A wonderful vehicle: Isaac Klein ’22 (M.A.) and his “VANITY” podcast series
by Barbara Wiedemann
“Hi! I’m Isaac Klein. When I’m driving around with my wife, Laura, we love to look for vanity plates and try to figure out what they mean,” recent UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media graduate Isaac Klein ’22 (M.A.) says in the introductory trailer for his five-part podcast series “VANITY: Stories Behind the Plates” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and other platforms (Isaac Klein and his wife Laura Hix in photo at right).
“Some of them seem straightforward at first,” says the East Hampton, New York, native on the VANITY trailer. “Some of them we can’t even begin to guess. Which only makes us more curious.”
VANITY: Stories Behind the Plates
On a drive with Laura last year, the 2006 University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduate was trying to come up with pitches for an audio journalism course he was taking with longtime UNC Hussman faculty member Adam Hochberg. He hit upon an idea. What if he reported the story behind not just one vanity license plate, but a whole series of them?
Bringing true stories to life and learning about the personality and life stories behind the plates — stories which turned out to be at times shocking, heartwarming and deep-down inspiring — would allow the UNC Hussman Park Fellow to showcase the skills he’d been crafting as a graduate student at Carolina. And Klein would be utilizing talents he brought with him after years of directing and writing plays, musicals and books, most notably as the assistant director of Broadway revivals Gypsy (2007) and West Side Story (2009), and as the author of “The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman.”
He thought the vanity plate podcast plan was too ambitious as a story for Carolina Connection, the weekly student radio program Hochberg has helped facilitate since 2008. But maybe he was onto something else entirely.
He checked the vanity plates idea out. First with Laura and friends. Then with professors he’d studied under, like Mark Robinson, director of the Media Laboratory in the communications department at Carolina; Tom Linden, Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Medical Journalism and the Director of the M.A. in Media and Communication program at UNC Hussman; and John Biewen, audio program director and host of “Scene on Radio” at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.
“I initially had trouble envisioning what an entire series about license plates would be, but found what Isaac came up with very impressive,” says Kate Sheppard, an adjunct faculty member and managing editor of The Assembly, whom Klein worked for as a teaching assistant for three semesters. “He did an impressive job of using what a driver says in that limited number of characters as a way into who they are and their life story. It's quirky, creative and delightful.”
Klein’s thesis project — the stories behind license plates MIONDOKO (N.C.), HIPPICHK (N.C.), GAME X (Cal.), 41N 72W (N.Y.) and OVER PAR (N.C.) — was born.
“It’s been a wonderful vehicle,” he says from his Chapel Hill home with a laugh. “No pun intended.”
“Hey, I like your license plate!”
“My name’s Isaac. I’m a grad student at UNC.”
So began the short flyer Klein began leaving on windshields of parked cars with interesting vanity plates, asking the car’s owners to contact him to tell their stories. He recruited family and friends to distribute flyers too, whenever they found a particularly intriguing plate.
“To my surprise, people got back to me,” says Klein. He ended up collecting 19 recorded interviews with people over the phone and Zoom. The tough part: curating it down to five tales that would bring a podcast season’s breadth of both content and tone.
“A lot of the stories were wonderful,” says Klein. “What a great problem to have!”
He reached back out to five drivers, all of whom agreed to meet with him to talk about their license plates and their lives.
“Isaac is a performer,” says Associate Professor Paul Cuadros, one of Klein’s thesis advisers, pointing out the recent graduate’s national Punderdome clips on YouTube. “He grasps the idea of how to recognize a good story and make it as fun as possible or see some humanity in it.” Cuadros adds, “He’s also a very patient person. He listens to people’s stories. A good part of his professional background in the theater and [as the author of a book about] Gerald Freedman had to do with that. You need to listen to someone to be able to tell their life story.”
Klein set the scene for each episode by layering in additional audio unique to each setting.
The sound of chickens clucking and scratching in the grass.
“You get to paint the picture of your own life,” Amy Montana, a self-described hippy and long-time chicken fanatic, tells Klein of growing into her HIPPICHK self, later meeting Klein’s friends Kate and daughter Zora’s backyard chickens, cradling one in her arms as she coos to it.
The roar of trucks passing by an Interstate-40 bypass.
David Wanjau, a native of Kenya, tells Klein about coming to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 15 years ago and making a living as a long-haul trucker. “When you’re driving, you think clearly—it’s like meditation,” he tells Klein about why he loved being a driver. He explains in his lilting voice that the loose translation of his vanity plate MIONDOKO is “road trip” — the express purpose of the Acura he bought for weekend travels with his wife and 12-year-old son, whose special needs require much of his parents’ time. “Some people dream about getting a boat or living at the beach. I dream about getting an RV,” says Wanjau.
The squeak of shoes on a volleyball court.
“It reminds me of him and how supportive he’s been,” Carolina volleyball player Emma Reynolds says about driving her Dad’s “sportsmobile.” She and her brother are both college athletes. Her father drove the blacked-out Volkswagen Jetta to undergraduate football, baseball, soccer and volleyball games all over southern California. Her mother took the other family car to make sure both siblings had a parent in the stands. The hand-me-down VW with the GAME X plates is how the public health graduate student, whose health struggles helped establish her own career path to becoming a medical doctor, gets around town now.
The “chunk” of a golf club sending a ball sailing down the fairway.
“I’m doing some things other than working,” says North Carolina native Maurice Briggs in a mellifluous Southern accent. “I’m having some fun with life, somewhere,” he says about his OVER PAR plate. The hospital chaplain, minister, mentor and teacher retired at age 80. He tells Klein the golf course acts as a “pause” button, allowing Briggs to be nurtured by nature. He has learned how to care less about the score of his golf game and more about finding peace of mind. “How to be okay with just living well and letting that be it,” Briggs says of what he is seeking at age 87.
The meditative sound of ocean waves rolling onto the shore.
41N 72W is 41 degrees north of the equator and 72 degrees west of the prime meridian, science writer Dava Sobel tells Klein. Sobel’s 1995 book “Longitude” “made all kinds of things possible, including a vanity plate,” she says. The longitude and latitude lines on her since-retired vanity plate mark the beach town at the eastern end of the South Shore of Long Island that Sobel calls home. She tells Klein about writing a story for Harvard magazine, which she had turned into a full nonfiction book six months later. When it flew to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, it changed her life forever. And his, as it turns out: Dava Sobel is Klein’s mom.
“What’s the feel?”
Music is another element Klein deftly weaves throughout the podcast series. He worked closely with fellow School of the Arts graduate James Stewart, a longtime friend, to capture the character of his podcast subjects and take the listener deeper into the story with mood-appropriate musical interludes.
“Isaac and I talked about it before he even had recorded any interviews,” says Stewart. “I asked him, ‘What are you thinking about?’ for each story. ‘What’s the feel?’” As Klein sent him stories one by one, Stewart proceeded to perform and compose original music for the series.
“Each has something to do with the story itself or the personality of the person he was talking to,” says Stewart.
The pair first met when Klein was commissioned to co-write a children’s musical about the Wright Brothers for Open Dream Ensemble. Since then, they’ve written four musicals together. Stewart, who went on to receive his doctor of musical arts, is Vermont Public Radio Classical’s afternoon host and continues to compose music.
He and Klein created a musical called “Legend of the Voice” together and went to the O’Neill National Music Theater Conference as writers-in-residence with it a decade ago. Stewart tapped his old friend to help him with his dissertation, “Contract with God,” a chamber opera based on a Will Eisner graphic novel. Klein wrote all the lyrics. When Klein reached out to Stewart to help him with the music for “VANITY,” Stewart was more than happy to pay it back.
“He kept a central musical theme going throughout the podcast,” says Klein. “And then created a different style of music with different instrumentation for each episode.”
“You can almost sing ‘This is VAN-I-TY,’ to it,” says Stewart, singing the central theme.
Stewart identified his inspiration for the music behind each episode. GAME X is rock, almost an AC/DC vibe. HIPPICHK grooves in a Cat Stevens way. OVER PAR leans to bluegrass, gospel and some straight-up gospel hymns. 41N 72W is piano-driven, with quotations from classical music. And MIONDOKO is inspired by the music David Wanjau listened to on long truck drives: reggae and African pop, specifically rumba.
“Isaac took each story and found something very human about each person,” says Stewart. “He made each story stand out. It is a very special project.”
Armed with multimedia tools and a master’s degree
“One thing I’ve learned so far,” Klein says in the trailer, “the story behind a vanity plate is never as simple as it seems.”
Neither is assembling a series of professionally crafted 10-to-20-minute podcasts, as it turns out. He worked hard to put together five compelling sound stories.
For Klein, graduate school at Carolina was about “adding more tools — cameras, microphones, editing decks — to my toolkit.” All of which helped him when it came time to create each of the five episodes.
Each podcast in the “VANITY” series required interviews, often on location. As he listened back over hours and hours of recorded conversations, Klein says he made giant spreadsheets with hundreds of entries by category to help him build an outline. From there, he narrowed down about two dozen strong story points each. He used them to build a framework that grew into each story, paring away sound bites like a sculptor carving into marble and then layering on levels of ambient sound and music.
He finished mastering, engineering and producing the series this spring and posted the series to a multitude of podcast platforms.
Klein successfully defended his thesis project in April.
“This project is totally Isaac,” says UNC Hussman Director of Journalism and James G. Shumaker Term Associate Professor Laura Ruel, one of Klein’s thesis advisers. “He has combined his talents for sincere, engaging storytelling with this quirky yet universally appealing idea. He was able to bring out the compelling stories in his interviewees. It has all the makings of something great.”
In May, Klein attended a friend’s wedding in New York City, grabbed a couple of hours of sleep, and flew back down to Chapel Hill to attend the UNC Hussman graduation ceremony in Carmichael Arena, with Laura and in-laws Debbie and Doug cheering him on.
Now, equipped with the skills needed to do multimedia storytelling and the curiosity he shares with his mother to find an interesting topic and bring it to light in a compelling way, Klein says he’d be delighted to work for an organization that needs his combination of leadership skills and storytelling talent.
Asked what he sees the storyteller with a fresh master’s degree in hand doing down the road, Cuadros predicts, “Down the road, Isaac will be an expert storyteller in audio as well as a producer who can conceptualize shows and lead them. He is capable of doing that now. He has a great understanding of what a good story is. Now he has more reportage journalism experience and skills under his belt from our graduate program. He’ll combine that with his theater experience to produce podcasts and other shows that delve into people’s lives and choices and the things they love and why.”
Editor’s note: Klein will put his multimedia storytelling skills to good use at PBS NC’s education and innovation division, where he will begin work as a digital producer starting July 25, 2022.
Photos courtesy Isaac Klein. Photo of Isaac Klein and Laura Hix by Marcus Roberson. Photo of Isaac Klein and Dava Sobel by Isaac Klein. Photo of Amy Montana with chickens by Kate Sheppard.