Not All Bad Things

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Intro from Jay Allison: The audio diary is a tricky form. Story and teller are merged in the moment, bound by voice. The voice of 12-year-old Payton Smith is disarming in its spirit and honesty. Payton recorded during a two-year separation from her incarcerated mother. Hear her voice in this collaboration between Payton and producer Chana Joffe-Walt, with help from Viki Merrick.

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Listen to “Not All Bad Things”

About “Not All Bad Things”

Payton and I met in the car. We got to know each other on rides to and from Washington state prisons. I was working with a Girl Scouts program for girls whose mothers are incarcerated. The girls have troop meetings and monthly visits to state corrections facilities; Payton had been in the troop for about four years.

Payton’s the kind of kid who wants to enjoy everything. She looks for pockets of fun in any kind of bleak situation and desperately wants everyone around her to be happy. She’s also the kid that taught me about how complicated it is to have a parent locked up. She maintained pure adoration for her mom when I met her although that changed over the first year I knew her.

Last summer when there were murmurs of her mom getting released early, I brought up the idea of her recording her thoughts about her mom’s release. At that point she was adjusting her countdowns each time the release dates changed on her. Still, she didn’t talk about disappointment, loss of trust, anger and endless frustration. She was always too busy trying to make sure everyone was having a good time.

“Not All Bad Things” is a mix of my interviews with Payton and her recording on her own for about five months. Once a week Payton and I would interview in the car parked outside a McDonalds or Subway. Sometimes we’d sit and listen to tape she’d recorded and talk about it (on mic). Those ended up being important moments where she’d say, “that’s not the point Chana, the point is…”

Joe Richman’s non-narrated, intimate Radio Diaries are what first got me excited about radio, and I’ve always wanted to do pieces like them. Producing a non-narrated piece that is true to Payton’s experience was fascinating and totally frustrating. I got lots of help: the Transom operation, (with Viki at the helm) swooped in and did their magic; my step-mom Ellen told me where the emotion was once I’d forgotten; Yvonne Vasquez shared my excitement for Payton and her stories; and my favorite man Lincoln listened over and over, then pulled me back enough so I could see.

Payton’s magic for me was that in conversation she brings this large bureaucratic system down to one twelve year-old: how it affects Payton. I want the piece to reflect that remarkable quality in her.

From Payton Smith

One day we were going to prison and Chana asked me to take a recorder around and record things while my mom is gone. I wanted to talk about my mom because I thought it would make it easier to deal with it. It would take it off my chest. I’d have a lot to say.

payton_b_150
I started recording my brothers’ birthdays, us at my cousins’ house and stuff at school. It was crazy, everybody kept trying to sing into the mic. My teachers thought it was a CD player and the principal even took it away for a while. It made me feel different because I was the only one who got to do it and everyone was like “oh you’re lucky.” During my interviews I felt special, I felt like a reporter from The New York Times.

In my interview with my mom, I found out she was going through a lot and was struggling while she was away. She was trying to get all her stuff together, figuring out where she was going to go and what kind of job she was going to get. The more I got into the conversation during the interview it made me realize how much I really love her and that it’s all going to be OK and that I really need to support her more than I have been.

My sister Jasmine was feeling different. She was like, “I know she’s not going to be here and there’s nothing we can do about it.” My grandma just talked about how concerned she was about us and how we should stay in church. She’s the type of grandma that likes to get her point across. If she’s not right, nobody’s right. It made me irritated at times. While Jasmin and Grandma was sitting there talking about how I have to deal with it, I was thinking of another way — like giving mom support.

My mother came home finally. Since my mom has been home I’ve gotten my own room, $5 for cleaning her room, money just because, and I get to go more places. My attitude has changed like I’ll clean up just because and I’ll get my brother ready for school just because. Its important for her to be in my life because without her we’d all be extra bad because a whole bunch of kids need parents guidance. You need some kind of support behind you.

From Viki Merrick

There have been a myriad of variations in approaching the edit on this tape. There are so many sides to Payton, a young girl finding her own path through these unusual circumstances. Payton’s revealment of hurt, defiance, acquiescence and resilience all in 10 minutes is extraordinary and exquisitely painful. From the very first, I felt like a guard dog making sure that the listener remain invested in Payton at all times and not be distracted by her sister Jasmin or Grandma or her Mom. That made for an interesting exercise. Chana would deftly move around the pieces like playing with the light on a diamond necklace; A process that lends itself to going after just one more gem to add to the string to make it better. The lack of chronological importance lent itself to us being able to try that – fodder for further discussion once you’ve listened to the piece. Come back and talk!


Additional support for this work provided by

Open Studio Project

with funding from the

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Chana Joffe-Walt

About
Chana Joffe-Walt

Chana Joffe-Walt is a reporter for NPR's global economics team Planet Money. She has done stories about FDIC bank takeovers, global piracy (the kind with boats), toxic assets and post earthquake Haiti. She recently won the Daniel Schorr Journalism prize for her investigative segment on AIG and the roots of the 2008 financial meltdown. Prior to Planet Money, Joffe-Walt covered education in Seattle for member station KPLU. She has a B.A. from Oberlin College.

More by Chana Joffe-Walt

Payton Smith

About
Payton Smith

I'm now in the 7th grade and I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with my auntie and father. I enjoy swimming, dancing, drill team and performing for people. In my spare time I swim and listen to music and hang out with my friends and family. My favorite singers are Chris Brown and Omarion, Sierra, Beyonce and Little Mama. I also enjoy school activities like Gear Up which helps you get ready for college. And I like cooking and trying new things.

Viki Merrick

About
Viki Merrick

Viki Merrick is an independent radio producer and editor. She began as a radio stringer for ABC News in Rome, Italy, while working as a location/production manager for film documentaries. Since the founding of Atlantic Public Media in 1995, she has been producing essays and features for national broadcast on NPR and for the Cape and Island public radio stations. Viki is an editor for Transom, and a collaborator on the two Peabody Award-winning series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. She was the Senior Editor on the NPR series This I Believe and is currently co-producing The Moth Radio Hour with Jay Allison.

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  • Jay Allison

    4.14.07

    Reply
    Not All Bad Things

    The audio diary is a tricky form. Story and teller are merged in the moment, bound by voice. The voice of 12-year-old Payton Smith is disarming in its spirit and honesty. The recording was done during a two-year separation from her incarcerated mother. Listen to Payton’s voice in this collaboration between her and producer Chana Joffe-Walt, with help from Viki Merrick.

  • Phyllis Fletcher

    4.14.07

    Reply
    Excellent diary!

    I’m glad I can be the first to congratulate Payton, Chana, and Viki on a beautiful slice of life. Payton, you did a great job expressing your thoughts, and getting your mom and grandma in there. Family pieces are some of the best things on radio. You are one of my new radio faves, right up there with my man Rocky Tayeh. (check him out!) Payton, please keep it up with radio. You’re very good. I hope you love it and come back to it again and again.

    The station where I work in Seattle is one that’s carried Chana’s Northwest regional reporting in recent months. It’s been great to have her stuff on our air. She is a versatile and crackerjack freelancer! I hope KUOW licenses this right away from PRX. We’d be lucky to debut this piece.

    Congratulations again–you all have collaborated to bring us something very special.

  • chanajw

    4.16.07

    Reply
    Update

    Thanks Phyllis!
    This piece was long in the making and a lot has happened since Payton turned off the tape recorder. Her mom Felicia got out January 2006. That spring she sent Payton to live near her dad in Milwaukee, then got locked up again, and just now got released. Payton’s four older siblings are spread out in western Washington now and the family baby Markese (who really can no longer be called a baby Payton!) still lives with their great-grandma Dora Slack.

    It was impossible to know how to get our arms around such a big shifting story and when to stop recording. It still is.

    Everyone misses Payton like crazy up here. She is going to try get on the web to send her own update too.

  • stephanie rowden

    4.16.07

    Reply

    Payton, your personality and spirit really shine. I agree with Phyllis that you are a natural for radio. I hope a lot of people get to hear this project.

    A question for all the collaborators: Can you talk about how you went about shaping all the material you gathered? (I’m going to guess you had lots to sift through.) I am also wondering how you feel the finished piece is like or unlike what you anticipated at the start.

    Thanks and congratulations to you all. This is a powerful and touching piece.

  • Johanna (Jones) Franzel

    4.18.07

    Reply
    Wonderful work

    Chana, Viki and Payton,

    Wow. What moving work. The story is deeply compelling, and Payton shines at its center. There is a moment when Payton interviews her mom that moved me to tears – the "would you be my shield" question – that reveals so much about both of them. It invites me as a listener to want to know more (I want to stick with Payton till the end!) Do you have any plans to continue recording?

    I’d also love to know what guided you, in terms of narrative and style, as you crafted the piece? (this sounds quite like Stephanie’s question above…) What were some of the harder decisions to make in the editing process (for example, not including why Payton’s mom is incarcerated)?

    Mostly, thank you so much for sharing this. It feels nuanced and engaging, and the care that you all have for each other comes right through.

    Your fan,

    Jones

  • chanajw

    4.23.07

    Reply
    editing process

    Thanks for all the great questions.
    OK, so the process: Payton recorded at school and at home and with me about once a week in the car. She recorded lots of the sounds of her life but for the most part it was clear to both of us that her sit-down interviews with family had the most depth. When we saw each other I’d make sure to ask her on tape how SHE was doing. This was important because Payton was incredibly skillful at avoiding talking about herself. Instead she would ask other people how THEY saw her (how can you reflect me back to me?). These moments were, of course, also powerful.

    In terms of your question about omissions Jones, that was pretty much Payton’s call. I would push with some questions (Aren’t you angry? Do you tell your friends where your mom is?) and sometimes she’d give and sometimes she wouldn’t. I tried to go with that. Her mom’s offense was left out honestly because Payton didn’t know. Her family had chosen to keep that from her and she was happy with that.

    The editing happened over time while we were still recording. Payton and I would talk about some bit of recording and then I would go home and produce a short scene. Then I’d bring it on CD the next time I saw her and she would give feedback. I think overall we probably had over 25 hours of tape but working on it over time made it less overwhelming. The hardest part of the whole process was actually once we had it down to 12 minutes or so. Viki jumped in with her magic but we kept trying to make the parts work together. There was no natural end (mom comes home and everything is great). And of course you want to know, what happened next? But that story is (and was at the time) ongoing. So that was a challenge and still feels, to me, like a rough element of the piece now.

  • Viki Merrick

    4.24.07

    Reply
    sequels

    I am curious about people’s reaction to the ending. The question really is about:
    i when do you stop?
    especially when the story keeps changing. And thank you life that it does. We have messed with additional endings, but I am wondering if it really matters beyond this time captured in Payton’s life. I think of it more like a photograph, but with a million times more dimension. What say you?

  • Joe Richman

    4.29.07

    Reply
    A few thoughts about diaries

    Payton, Chana, and Viki

    This is a really nice story. It may seem strange to say, since I do a lot of these stories, but… I usually don’t like to listen to audio diaries. And I really enjoyed this one.

    Here are a few notes that I hope you find useful:

    One danger with diaries and all non-narrated stories is that they can feel like run-on sentences. Scenes and transitions are key. The first half of this story fell into this trap. Nothing much happened. And, while I understand how difficult it is to record in prisons, it was frustrating to go there and not meet Payton’s mother.

    For me, the story really got good at the moment Payton’s grandmother began complaining that she should help clean the house more. That felt real, natural, and revealing. It was the first moment in the story that I heard something ‘happening’ on tape. I also love that you subtly learn that they sleep in the same bedroom. And then the grandmother ends with the beautiful line about giving flowers while she’s alive because she can’t smell them when she’s gone.

    The phone call was great. In diaries, I always try to avoid having interviews sound like interviews wherever possible. The first half of the conversation felt a bit too ‘nice’. So it was a genius question when Payton asked her mom if SHE had any questions. Hearing the mom ask Payton questions changed the tone… it became more intimate and poignant. And of course the time limit on the phone call was amazing. After hearing the ‘one minute left’ announcement I suddenly switched into producer mode and began hoping that their conversation would end the way it did… with the phone call being cut off. (How awful is that?) It was a truly wonderful radio moment. And I’m glad you didn’t include any reaction from Payton… it was the perfect ending as you left it.

    One final thought. I think the real value of doing audio diaries is simply that the diarist can record things you can’t, and say things that you wouldn’t even think to ask about in an interview. Diarists always find it easiest and safest to sit in their room and talk… like a diary. But the real magic is when they record things happening on tape, when conversation or scene or action unfolds in a way that lets the listener experience life along with the diarist. If you manage to get just a few intimate and true moments like that into a story you’re doing pretty well. Payton’s conversations with her grandmother and mother both had such moments.

    Best of luck with this and any follow up stories.

  • eve troeh

    5.05.07

    Reply
    the. end.

    Hi Viki, Chana and Payton.

    Congratulations on the piece. Payton, your personality shines through – makes me want to meet you and spend time with you in person! Thanks for having the courage to bring your life to us. The phone call and grandmother scenes were particularly insightful and special.

    A few years back I did a story on a man who’d spent 27 years in prison, and was then proven innocent and released. I had 8 minutes of air time to capture his thoughts in incarceration, freedom, prospects for the future. His situation was constantly changing – from having a job and car and girlfriend to none of those things, developing health problems, etc. There was clearly no clear ending, and no event or life-marker in the near future to hang the story’s hat on, so to speak. I ended with a comment about a short-term goal he had…and then the show’s host (this was on All Things Considered) stepped in with an outro that also helped bring closure. That’s the benefit of having a show, or some other type of sound – voice, music – to wrap around a piece like yours.

    Payton’s comment at the end about waiting did speak to the future. But to me the ending was quite abrupt. Maybe extending the Thanksgiving scene would have provided an ending. Did Payton comment on her mom not being at Thanksgiving? Or talk about past Thanksgivings or future ones? Or holidays in general – the idea of family?

    What were some of the other endings you thought about?

    Thanks again for a moving look at Payton’s life!

    Eve Troeh

  • Viki Merrick

    5.06.07

    Reply
    ending the ending

    Eve thanks for your story – life seems to keep going with no close until it’s over huh?

    There were more endings but they kept growing tails…I’m surprised you thought the ending was abrupt – made me go back to listen. I guess I felt the SOUND of Payton’s voice saying: everybody’s so tired, seemed to express the disappointment. Also, kids are abrupt, or terse anyway, especially when communicating electronically or telephonically which is part of my thinking that ending was in character. My hope too, is that a host could give an update in the BA and that would solve the issue.

    Chana maybe for the sake of the conversation we could upload the alternate ending….?

  • Viki Merrick

    5.06.07

    Reply
    meeting Payton

    Hey Joe, thanks for chiming in – you the mastah of diary….We almost agonized over the open but when we moved pieces around, I just thought if you didn’t have to sit with Payton and grow invested, the sister Jasmin, the grandmother, the PHONECALL (!) would not have carried the same slam without that wide albeit quick understanding of the varying sides of the girl. Her vulnerability, her stand-up attitude, all of it.
    So would you have woven that as interludes in between meeting the sister, the grandmother, the mom on the phone?

  • chana

    5.06.07

    Reply
    ending and diaries

    As for the start, I too feel that the beginning weighs the rest of the piece down. It was hard to get a good clear beginning out of Payton and generally to know how much coaching to do for something like that. Joe, I’m guessing you take what the diarists give you and take charge of coming up with scenes from there. But how much to coach a person when they haven’t given you’re in need of a beginning, ending or transition? And the idea that things need HAPPEN is so obviously simple but is also not something I had a good understanding of until you wrote it just now.

    Eve, several people have mentioned feeling the piece ends abruptly and it is hard to know what to do with that. We’re going to post another ending we tossed back and forth with tape from after Payton’s mom was out. We decided it was too much but I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts.
    Thanks for the great feedback and discussion,
    Chana

  • operations

    5.11.07

    Reply
    two alternate endings

    Here are two alternate endings for "Not All Bad Things." Thoughts?

    Alternate Ending 1
    Alternate Ending 2

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