Jonathan Groubert’s incredibly instructive Transom Manifesto takes you through the life cycle–from birth to death–of “The State We’re In,” an hour-long radio show that achieved the rare feat of success not only in Europe where it was produced but here in the U.S. as well.Transom asks its contributors to be USEFUL and Jonathan is useful in spades. He gives up all sorts of insider how-to’s on story selection, vetting, interviewing, and structure. There are examples of success and failure, with audio links, including: “Listen to an example of a terrible early show.”
Jonathan has valuable advice whether you are producing documentaries or talk shows, and if you want to start your own international journalistic narrative interview show, god help you, Jonathan will be your guide. –Jay A
The State We’re In was an hourlong public radio show whose brief run lasted from mid-2006 to the end of 2012. It went from being a well-meaning wannabe kind of program to something of a darling among narrative journalists like Ira Glass and Glynn Washington. The State We’re In also marked the first time a European program from a non-English speaking country got some serious airtime on the American public radio airwaves. The show was cancelled after Radio Netherlands’ budget was slashed by 70 percent and the organization’s focus shifted away from North America.
During the last three years of our run, we made some spectacular radio. This is the behind the scenes story of the show, and how we eventually developed a method, a technique, a….craft, that raised the simple long-form interview to something greater. We called it: the Talkumentary.
“Hey! Let’s Make a Show About….Um…Something?”
I was dropping off my colleague Michele Ernsting at the train near work in Hilversum, Holland way back in 2006, when we found ourselves sitting in the car a little while longer, deep in discussion about what to do about Radio Netherlands. The era of shortwave broadcasting had been handily superseded by the Internet. Everyone seemed to know except our employer, still plugging away, making Cold War era programs that fewer and fewer people wanted to, or given the declining sales of shortwave receivers, even could listen to. What’s more, podcasting gave us access to programs like This American Life, Radiolab, On the Media. We saw that our shows were antiquated and obsolete. In short, we were taking public money to make programming that was obsolete and that had a dwindling listenership. So Michele and I concocted a plan to save our jobs and, hell, maybe even Radio Netherlands.
The head of the English Service was retiring and Michele was taking over. We would end most of our old programming, and push those resources into one super show with a large editorial staff and, because my previous program, EuroQuest, had some American name recognition, I would host it. Our new super show would need to be good enough to compete with the best programs on the American domestic market.
It would’ve been a high bar for a domestic American broadcaster. No international broadcaster had successfully managed it. We hired American public radio consultant Jim Russell to help us meet the standards and figure out what the program should be about.
What was the distinguishing characteristic of the the Netherlands? After weed and prostitution, there was The Hague’s solid reputation as a home for international courts and human rights organizations. Voila! A show on human rights and international justice. Was there already a show like that on the American market? No? Then it’s settled. June 2006 The State We’re In was born and everyone was going to love it. Except we all hated it.
The production staff, long used to producing and presenting their own shows, were resentful of having their shows taken away and were dragging their feet. There was a lot of bickering and infighting. What’s more, we didn’t really know what we were doing. For two-something years we plugged along reformulating the show, shoehorning in short pieces, long pieces, packages, illustrated interviews with activists, victims, correspondents, representatives of various funds, spokespeople (who wouldn’t know a narrative if it hit them right in their bleeding hearts) and a cavalcade of causes. It was worthy. And it was terrible.
So how did we get good?
Enter Greg Kelly.
Greg Kelly was a CBC-trained Oxford Ph.D. and a co-creator of APM’s The Story. Michele had hired him to replace her and revitalize the show. When I met Greg, I told him I was quitting. I didn’t realize that literally everyone had said the same thing. He told me to give it a little more time. That we would meet, talk about interviewing technique and revise our entire working method.
People who wanted off the show were given leave to do so and did. Greg ensured they were replaced by staff who a) wanted to be there and b) were really good at one thing: finding amazing stories. We would teach them how to edit later.
Then Greg and I talked about interviewing method. Up until then, I had been operating on experience. But I knew, and could feel, I was winging it, just waiting to be discovered for the hosting fraud I knew I was.
Now we were going over the highs and lows of the interviews in each show. And Greg taught me a few key interview techniques, some of which are extraordinarily simple and I’ll share them with you in a moment. But not only did the interviewing get better, understanding what made a good interviewee got better. The editing got better. In short, understanding what made a good story, a good narrative, became clear. Then we worked on how to seduce the story out of the guest and then, finally, we got very good at telling that story.
And so, here, at Transom, the church of narrative journalism on the radio, I preach to you in this Transom Manifesto, the story of what made The State We’re In good. So let’s start with something very basic indeed.
What Is Narrative
This may be a cliché by now, attributed to many people, including Leo Tolstoy, but it blew my mind the first time I heard it.
THERE ARE ONLY TWO KINDS OF STORIES:
- A stranger comes to town
- A man takes a journey
The above had a revelatory effect on my interviewing. I suddenly understood the human story is universal. So when I sat down to interview the male Somali pirate, I could take the same approach I used with that female romance novelist. Sure, the tone, the details, the musical choices and chapters (more on this later) will be different, but the big human motivational questions are just the same for everyone, everywhere.
These two big story molecules atomize down to the following elements:
- Motivation – Who are you speaking with? From where? What did this person do? And perhaps most importantly, why does this matter? What happened to put this person on their journey? Why did this person want a stranger to come to town?
- Exposition – What happened along the journey? Who did he or she meet? Build detail upon detail, fact upon fact in a crescendo of events until…
- Life-changing Event – Feel free to call this: “turning point” or “unexpected twist.”
- Catharsis – How has your guest been changed by the journey or for having had this stranger come to town?
Didn’t we learn all this in junior high? This means that when you search for guests, you need to make sure that they have a story that fits the above template. If you do, it will always resonate with the audience.
We interviewed, Arunchalam Muruganantham, an Indian man from a small rural village who was in the process of becoming a millionaire because he invented a maxi pad that was affordable for the masses of Indian women who couldn’t afford it. Sounds like the simple story of an entrepreneur who came up with an idea whose time had come? Nothing simple about it. This was an incredible and slightly gross human odyssey that breaks down like this:
- Motivation – Our hero had no idea most Indian woman couldn’t afford sanitary pads until he caught his wife doing something unsanitary. He wanted to help her and all Indian women.
- Exposition – Our hero tries out all kinds of materials with female medical students. His wife finds out and leaves him. He invents a bag that makes him bleed like a woman and he experiments on himself. His village catches him leaking and kicks him out. Eventually even his mother walks out on him. He is alone for years, suffering, outcast, obsessed with cracking the problem, living on next to nothing until…
- Life Changing Event – He finally invents a machine that can create maxipad fibers for next to nothing in the same way the multimillion dollar machines in the big western factories do. Poor women all over India start buying his pads. The Indian press gets wind of his success. He becomes a star. He starts to make money. The president of India decorates him!
- Catharsis – His wife and mother come back to him, the village apologizes and he is totally and completely vindicated.
You can listen to this story here:
No Coincidence The Story Was Good
Almost every guest on The State We’re In has been thoroughly vetted. We knew Arunchalam Muruganantham’s story was good and….we also knew he could tell it well (and we also knew his Indian accent was so strong he would be incomprehensible to many listeners which is why he got a voice over). This brings us to our next list of important dos in the The State We’re In method.
- Find a story with a character (audition, research) – Arunchalam was a clear lead in a big narrative arc, so no problems there.
- Look for archetypes not stereotypes – Arunchalam was a three-dimensional person with an obsession that led him to do something unique. But he could also be the guy next door, who has problems with his wife and mother and the neighbors.
- Find out what’s at stake. Ask yourself: “Why does this story matter?” Arunchalam had everything to lose and, indeed, lost everything in his desire to help.
- Still intrigued? It’s time for a preinterview. This will reveal if your prospective guest:
- Is easy to reach
- Is willing to talk
- Is near a studio or stringer for a tape synch
- Can tell their own story well
- Can supply examples of what happened clearly. Flag those stories so you know to ask for them specifically during the interview.
- Look for the intimate moments – big stories are best told small. Can’t you just feel Arunchalam’s constant humiliation?
- Write your questions as you go through the preinterview. A timesaver!!
Crafting Talkumentary Questions
This is probably the area that created the most production bottlenecks because of the extraordinary level of care that went into writing. The segment producer would initiate the first round of questions and then pass it onto Greg who would make his changes and Greg would pass it onto me. Finally, we would all sit together and go over them yet again. This meant everyone had to read all of the background material (at least that was the idea) so as to fully understand the context and nuance of each question and be able to add or provide an informed disagreement.
Ashraf El-Houjouj was one of the Benghazi Six: the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical student accused in 1998 of infecting 400 babies with HIV in Libya. In reality he was a pawn in a plan by Mohammar Ghaddafi to leverage their lives against those of the Lockerbie bombers. El-Houjouj was arrested, tortured and detained for nine years before being released to Bulgaria and then settling in The Netherlands. He had just written a book about what happened and came into our studios in Hilversum for the interview.
So I read the book and carefully crafted the questions keeping in mind that he had been badly tortured for a very long time. I wanted to get him to be frank, but I had to be delicate.
This may seem like a lot of questions: it is. We took two and a half hours to interview him.
Notice that right at the top, just below all the contact information, is a reminder from Greg, or the segment producer who has done the preinterview, about what kind of attitude and philosophy I need to bring in with me to the studio. It reads:
WHO IS JONATHAN HERE? Diplomatic, empathetic, clarifier.
This is an exercise common in theatre in which you clarify the tone of your inner monologue, your persona. Sometimes this is duh! Sometimes it’s very useful.
Questions 1-4: Introductions, small talk, putting the guest at ease.
Questions 5-10: Creating context, getting the fundamentals of the story, and the 5 Ws.
Questions 11-13: Specifically about the show trials and creating the geopolitical context. More exposition to show his hopelessness yet steadfastness in the face of certain harm and death. Building toward a turning point.
Question 14: This is one question about torture. I kind of winged it on the subject of torture as it was low hanging fruit and he had plenty, maybe even too much to say. You can only put so much torture on the air before it becomes gratuitous. As it turned out, and as you can hear here, this question led down a path that knocked me out of my professional role as interviewer. Get your kids out of the room when you listen to this one.
Question 15: “Take me to the day.” This is a Zoom-In question and it is crucial. This is where you get your life changing event or major turning point or most keenly emotional moment.
Another note. I asked Ashraf, “Why didn’t you just tell them what they wanted to hear?” Be a surrogate for the listener. I thought listeners would be wondering why Ashraf would be willing to undergo such torture. I still wonder, to be honest.
Keep your lens wide here, then slowly zoom in as you build to: “At the moment you knew you were free”.
The next question makes a list of everything he went through and ends with “What kept you going?” Ashraf loses it. It’s a moment of real release for him.
Here is a highly edited version of the end of that interview.
More ways to “Zoom In”
1. Right at that moment, what did you think? Or what went through your head? Or how did you feel?
2. Tell me one moment that made it all worth it?
3. Is there one person/event/something that happened that really stands out?
4. When you did (XXXXX) what did your mother/father/family/friend say?
5. Have you ever convinced somebody XXXX? Yes/No? How did you feel about that?
Remember, Zoom-In moments are the ones that will give your sonic film humanity, beauty, tragedy, credibility and power. These are the moments that keep people sitting in their carport; the engine off and their keys dangling in the ignition, ignoring their ever increasing need to pee.
More Major Interviewing Rules of Thumb
- Listen for strong words – an interview isn’t just a list of questions. You need to listen for and react to words that reveal a strong emotion or event that may lead somewhere worth exploring. If someone casually says “rape” or “angry” or “funny” or “ugly” or “happy,” latch on and simply repeat the word, then let it hang. Nine times out of 10, you’ll be glad you did.
- Be honest. Be fair. You’re dealing with peoples’ lives here.
- Come ready to play. I mean it. When you feel that your guest might be fun, and the topic is appropriate, it’s party time! Check this interview out with Laughing Teacher Tita Begashaw.
- Ask questions that involve the senses. How did something smell, taste, feel. If someone is talking about a sound, get them to imitate it.
- Never interview a spokesperson unless they’re part of the story. They usually suck.
How to Cut a Talkumentary
Even if your interview consists of just one person, what you’ve got here is a David Lean biopic. This is Dr. Zhivago. So…
- Think cinematically – Break the story down into acts. Literally find a start, exposition, a turning point and a conclusion. Find the moments at the beginning when the camera sweeps across the burning battlefield. This sets the stage and creates context for the listener.
- Start with action – either in the audio or in the narration or in audio effects. Draw your listener in.
- Chapterize – as explained above.
- Music – spend time on it. It will be one of your major tools in creating color and light and darkness. Think like Rembrandt and throw music light on the center of your frame. Use music to close the diaphragm and create focus. Remove it to highlight moving onto a new subject.
- Have a whole stall of music beds to choose from. In the end, we had more than 200 files in our music folder. Remember, you’re David Lean here.
- End with a transformation or some kind of real catharsis.
The best example of epic cinematic talkumentary that we ever made was a show called “Two Enemies, One Heart.” The story is about two soldiers, one Iraqi and one Iranian, who meet on the battlefield. The Iranian saves the Iraqi’s life, risking his own in the process. That was 1982. Nearly 20 years later, and on the other side of the world, sheer coincidence brings the two men together again. I strongly urge you to listen to it.
The goal was to crack the American market with a great show and, for an all too brief period, we did that; we were the first program from an international broadcaster to get on most of America’s major markets, including WAMU, WBEZ, WNYC and KUOW.
But we failed to save our jobs or Radio Netherlands. It was once one of the big 5 international broadcasters. Today it is a stub of what it was, with a new mission, a relatively tiny staff and very little radio programming.
It is my sincere hope that you’ve gained something from reading about our experiences. Beyond the cathartic act of being able to talk about The State We’re In, I think we had developed something unique and, now the show is gone, I’m grateful to Transom for letting me pass on some of the truly valuable techniques we’d learned.
I can’t finish this without acknowledging the debt I owe to Greg Kelly, our editor and teacher, as well as our incredible editorial staff, Belinda Lopez, Diana Steenbergen and Mignon Aylen. Mignon should write her own manifesto on how to research an amazing, unique and moving story. Not in the final TSWI editorial lineup, but among the best and most enthusiastic who came and went, Anik See and the incredible Chris Chambers. I’d also like to thank Jim Russell and Susan Stone for their support right at the beginning and to WAMU, who gave us our first home in the US. Our show ended just as it was approaching its prime and was cut short by international cultural and economic forces that we failed to see in time. We were in the process of cutting a deal with PRI, so more’s the pity.
The good news is that narrative journalism and storytelling, once thought too expensive and time-consuming to produce, is on the march with the likes of This American Life, Snap Judgment, The Moth, Story Corps et al. and even include web-based storytelling sites like Cowbird. This makes me very optimistic. Finally, a quote I include from the great philosopher Dr. Seuss who said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it’s happened.” I’m smiling.
About Jonathan Groubert
Jonathan Groubert is a Brooklyn-born, award-winning radio personality, journalist, story-teller and former host of the international public radio show The State We’re In, heard in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia – as well as select markets in India and Africa. He recently won a Gabriel Award for Best Interview and World Gold Medal for hosting at the New York International Radio and Television Festivals. This American Life host Ira Glass called Jonathan, “…one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard.”