Intro from Jay Allison: David Kestenbaum is a good explainer. That's important in his work as science correspondent for NPR, and it's useful in his appearance as our new Guest on Transom. David got a PhD in physics from Harvard, but somehow got hooked on public radio. He worked for WOSU in Ohio, and "really just did radio and slept that was about it." He got very good at it, especially at the job of taking difficult subjects and making them interesting. In four minutes and thirty seconds. Part One of his Manifesto is called "The 4:30 FAQ" and it answers questions about how to make the most of that time slot on the radio. So read on, get an explanation, and ask questions.
Manifesto Part 1
Manifesto Part 2
The 4:30 FAQ
Try this experiment at home. Take a watch and stare at it for four and a half minutes. Don’t let your mind wander, just watch it. Seems like a long time, no? I often hear people say that there isn’t time to let a story breathe or get much across in 4:30. And I agree it’s pretty hard to cover all the bases of the news and have character, scene and emotion in that period of time, but you can do a lot. I’ve kind of come to love the short piece as a form. It forces you to write economically, to distill things.
I’m actually surprised how often I’ll hear a four minute story that feels like an eternity. Sometimes when editors say a piece has to be shorter, they’re not being stingy, they are saying it’s not working. Here, then, some thoughts on the workhorse of the radio newsmagazine, and how to make it gallop.
Q: OK, Its fine to say let’s be creative, but I have to cover a press conference.
DK: Press conferences are a real problem. People sound like they’re reading prepared remarks and standing at a podium, usually because they are.
Try to grab people afterward where you can have something like a more normal conversation or cover it as an event itself. Maybe the press conference is on a late Friday afternoon because the organizers don’t want it to be covered. Maybe they’ve laid out fancy hors d’oeuvres to try to attract reporters because poll numbers are dropping. When reporters grill the president’s press secretary – that’s a scene, not just a place to grab audio.
Q: Yeah but I’m not covering the president of the United States. And the press conference is about local water quality. Snore.
DK: Consider skipping the press conference. I’m serious. If you know the gist of what’s going to be said and you have a day’s notice, figure some other way to cover it.
I was once assigned a press conference where scientists were going to unveil the genetic map for Arabidopsis, which literally is a common weed that has become the white lab rat of biology. The event promised to be pretty routine. So I called around and found a researcher who was flying in for the press conference. His flight got in that evening, so I stayed late, biked over to his hotel and interviewed him in his room. It ended up being a pretty good scene, we went on a late night field biology adventure.
Q: Right. Look, my editor told me to cover this press conference. I have to go.
DK: Ok, possibly inspirational story number two: I was covering a press conference which happened to be on the latest picture from the Hubble telescope. There just wasn’t any great tape. The audio certainly didn’t live up to the image which showed galaxies at all angles, like they’d been thrown out of a cup onto a table. An hour later, I’m heading back to work on the train and am getting pretty depressed. Usually I try not to even make eye contact on the train, but I’m driven by the total fear that I will get back to my desk and not have anything great to work with. My fellow passengers are the only people around to interview. So I show the photo around. Six, seven, eight interviews go by, people saying what they think they should say, a little too earnest and dutiful. And then I try a guy at the end of the car. He takes the photo and just stares at it. “Amazing” he says “amazing!” (pause) “amazing!”, he says it 15 times in this really heartfelt way. “You know what this means?” he says, “this means we all have to love each other.”
Sometimes there’s no genius to getting good tape, you just have to keep pushing.
Q: Help, I recorded an interview and then I got back to my desk and there wasn’t anything on the tape. Argh.
DK: Ouch. This happened the other week and I punched a wall. Take a deep breath, explain to the person that you’re an idiot and redo the interview.
Years ago I was interviewing a historian at the Smithsonian about the birth of digital electronics. It came out that he was a big fan of Morse code (kind of a digital language) so I had him take a sentence and translate it. It sounded great -“dit daah dit dit dit daah.”
When I got downstairs I realized the MiniDisc recorder had been on pause. I cursed myself and called up from the front desk at the museum. The historian had to come down and get me again, which took about ten minutes. He wasn’t overjoyed but we redid the interview.
The story doesn’t end here unfortunately. During our re-interview I had gotten my cables mixed up and plugged the headphones into the mic input. Strangely the levels had looked OK when I was recording. It turns out (interesting but painful fact) that headphones can work as a microphone – well enough to get the levels moving on the recorder. I swallowed my pride, and went back over to do the interview a third time. Another lesson here: Always wear the headphones, even when you’re in a hurry.
If the tape you lost was of the space shuttle taking off or of some moment you can’t get again, realize it’s not the end of the world. A good description by a reporter can be just as powerful. Newspapers seem to manage ok.
Q: Help, my story is too complicated for radio.
DK: Hmm, there was a time when this seemed to be the case for most of the big news stories. Enron collapse, Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Valerie Plame leak. Try talking the story through with someone who knows nothing about it, this often helps me clarify what’s important and interesting. Maybe you can just dig into one aspect. John Ydstie managed to turn some recent Abramoff court documents into a nice yarn. It covers one incident in detail.
Q: Help, the person I’m interviewing just used the word “pro-active” (or “hypoglycemia” or “grow” as a verb.)
DK: John Nielsen, my colleague here, says that sometimes when an interview is kind of wooden he’ll say “do you have something to drink there?” The person will say “Oh.. sorry, let me get some water” “No,” John says, “I was thinking vodka.” Sometimes this works, sometimes it probably makes things worse.
The general problem is that as a reporter you end up interviewing smart people who know a lot about the subject at hand. But that knowledge means you’re likely to get tape that includes complex ideas with unexplained assumptions, and jargon – word’s you can’t even use in scrabble. And sometimes in covering the news, you’re going to have to ask pretty detailed wonky questions to make sure you understand things.
In general I try to make my interviews conversational. If I don’t use jargon, they’re less likely to. If I laugh, they may too. You can ask simple questions that are also intelligent. You don’t have to play dumb. This comes up pretty reliably for me when the Nobel Prize’s are announced, usually for pretty technical accomplishments. The Nobels can be like the class-five rapids of science reporting. Here’s what happened once when I asked “Could you explain what you are getting the nobel prize for?” I got a very noble response.
“What the heck is superconductivity?” would have been better, or something less technical. “What are you going to do with the money?”
Break the ice, seduce, laugh, poke, cajole, whatever you have to do – but don’t end the interview until you have something good or at least clear. You owe it to the person you’re interviewing to help them be the best they can. If what they are saying is unclear, say “what do you mean?” Repeat as necessary. If someone sounds like they’re reading from a press release ask “Are you reading from a press release?” That’s guaranteed to get you some interesting tape. And if someone keeps dodging your question, say “I don’t think our listeners will feel like you answered the question there.” Keep saying that until you get a good, clear response.
Q: That didn’t work. My story is fundamentally complicated, it’s about tax law.
DK: There is nothing wrong with indicating in a story “hey this is complicated.” Here’s one of my favorite examples – Joe Palca is interviewing this guy about why eggs stand up when you spin then.
Q: The person I’m interviewing is nervous.
DK: Often people relax after fifteen minutes or so. If not, you can try the old “Fake end to the interview” trick.
Acting like the interview is over can take the pressure off. If you say “That’s great, thanks very much – will you say your name and title for me just so I make sure I get it right?” THEN you can go on and ask another question in an off-handed way “Hey, so do you really think this bill will pass?” Often the whole mood will change, it’s like you’re suddenly after-hours.
A related example: I recently interviewed an economist who started off a little nervous – it came through in his voice. At some point I switched to interviewing his colleague who had come in to the studio with him and when I went back to him, he was much more relaxed. He actually said the little break had helped him, that he felt more himself.
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Manifesto Part 2
I found a surprisingly good guide to the craft of radio a while ago: The Army’s Psychological Operations manual. In addition to tackling the problems of enemies jamming your propaganda transmission – it says this about writing scripts:
“Power of suggestion. The mind of each listener is a vast storehouse of scenery. The radio writer, through speech, music, and other sounds, enables the listener to visualize each scene.”
It’s a cliché that “radio is a visual medium,” and my wife sometimes makes a gagging motion when she hears me say it. But I always think my pieces could be better if they were more visual and had real characters in them.
Q: The story I’m working on doesn’t have any scenes.
DK: If there isn’t a scene, make one. Take this story by Laura Sullivan on TASERS. And well…I’ll just let you listen to the tape.
Much better than just describing it in words. And the whole scene is just so surprising. I love it.
And here’s the story I mentioned earlier about how even privacy advocates don’t usually bother to encode their email. We end up going door to door at this civil liberties organization to see if anyone encrypted their email, none did. An idea, captured in a scene.
Ideally I’d like EVERY fact in my story to be made visual by some image. I once decided to do a story about nuclear plant licensing (don’t ask). On the wall, the reactor folks had a framed photo of a bunch of smiling guys in suits with their hands on a huge stack of documents – all the paperwork leading to a successful license. And when I went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – there it was again – the SAME framed photo, framed in the same way, same mounting. That one image made several points. A) You have to file thousands of pages of paperwork if you want to build a nuclear reactor. B) The government and industry had close ties here – though the NRC is also supposed to be watchdogging the utilities. C) Energy is a business (men in suits). And you remember it – guys in suits with their hands on a huge stack of paper.
And here’s a nice piece by Luke Burbank where he demonstrates the distance between Anaheim and Los Angeles in a totally amusing way.
In general, I beg people to DO something, anything.
Q: The story is in California. I live in Illinois.
DK: Non radio people sometimes ask me “so do you get to fly all around the country for your job?” Are you friggin’ kidding me? I sit at my desk most of the time talking on the phone, reading through stuff. A scene doesn’t have to mean you are there recording someone doing something.
I had a kind of revelation for how to do scenes remotely while on a treadmill at the gym. I was listening to a morning shock-jock show and they had sent a guy out to try to sneak into a secret corporate meeting somewhere. The guy had a cell phone and was wired somehow so it wasn’t visible. He could talk to the guys in the radio studio and to everyone out in radioland but it was all hidden. So on live radio they were egging him on “tell the security guard you’re looking for the rest room!” or “run for the elevator!” and then you’d hear the guy try it. It was completely hilarious secret agent stuff. And most importantly it was a scene with action. And because the guy was on a cell phone he was giving this kind of vivid running narration that we never get when we are standing next to someone with a microphone.
I tried something similar for this story on gravity waves. The audio quality stinks but its still pretty great radio.
Audiophiles hate cell phones, but I think there’s something magical about them. I always overhear people giving wonderful radio-style narration, no-matter how mundane. (“Yeah. I’m at the supermarket. The woman in front of me has a really strange dog.”)
Q: Hey you cheated, that story was longer than 4:30 – signal characters
DK: True. But sometimes all you need is a single line. I sometimes think of trying to come up with one-sentence biographies of people. My uncle, for instance, for years has thought about what the highest scoring Scrabble play would be if you could arrange the board before your turn however you like. That tells you a lot about him. Another friend of mine named Lars sets his clocks a full hour early (“Lars Standard Time”) because otherwise he never leaves enough time for things.
A side point here: It really pays to take the time to find the right character for a story. I once did a story about how DNA was sequenced – and I had heard you could extract DNA in your kitchen. I talked to a lot of educator-types who were willing, but just didn’t seem quite right. Somehow I got in touch with a researcher at NIH who said “hmmm we’d need a centrifuge. We could use my clothes dryer! Or.. my salad spinner!” Anyway – clearly he was the right guy, well worth all the phone calls.
I tried to make my wife the main character in a story but found she wasn’t the right person. The piece was about software used to patch up people’s singing. Professional studios use it with pop stars who sometimes hit a wrong note. My wife really can’t sing. I think if I played two notes on the piano she wouldn’t know which was higher, and it’s somehow adorable to hear her searching for the notes. My editor argued that the listeners needed someone they cared about and knew, and she was right. In the end (Morning Edition host) Renee Montagne bravely attempted “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Listen to the clip from NPR:
I think the key to all these shenanigans (as Ira Glass sometimes calls them) is that they have to make a point that’s essential to your story. The scenes or character details can’t be gratuitous. Especially if you’ve only got 4:30.