Radio Producer as Flâneur
At 99% Invisible we strive to find meaning inside the joints and seams that make up our built environment, to discover – as the show’s creator, Roman Mars, puts it – ”who we are through the lens of things that we build.”
We tell stories about objects, processes, places, and concepts. But, of course, these stories wind up being about people: people create and are affected by the subjects of our study.
In reporting stories about decidedly non-human things (e.g. broken escalators, prison architecture, pieces of the urban fabric designed to keep cities segregated), I’ve found that, rather than transporting the listener to someone else’s world, we can get listeners to see their own worlds differently.
In this manifesto, I want to share techniques for telling thing-based, perception-augmenting stories I’ve discovered in my own work, and in other producers’ work as well. These approaches apply to not only our show, but also documentaries, cultural reportage, and even hard news.
And it all starts with walking.
Connoisseurs of the Street
19th Century Paris saw the emergence of a “leisure class.” Men (and they were men) would amble aimlessly, on foot, noticing all the small fragments of their city. They took to calling themselves flâneurs, from the French verb “flâner”, meaning “to stroll, loiter, lounge, saunter, or dawdle.” Some flâneurs, it is alleged, strolled with their pet tortoises, leashes around their shells, to boast exactly how much free time they had.
Walking may never have gone out of style in the City of Lights, but appreciation for walking in the US is certainly on the up and up. Car companies are in a panic to figure out how to make cars cool again to young people. Neighborhoods have “walk scores” (mine scores 81!). An idea of “walkable urbanism” is at the center of new methodologies about how to redevelop our cities.
I say: put walking in your reporting. Become a flâneur as you report.
Two writers can tell us how to do this. The first is the French author and essayist Charles Baudelaire, who extolled the flâneur’s ability to cultivate an Epicureanism from the built environment. In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire writes:
[The flâneur's] passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito…Be very sure that this man, such as I have depicted him–this solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert–has an aim loftier than that of a mere flâneur, an aim more general, something other than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’…
Baudelaire considered the flâneur a “connoisseur” or “botanist” of the street, who engages with the immediate world by taking the time to walk, and look, and listen. Someone both of the world yet detached enough to notice what’s going on behind the scenes.
The second writer is the social theorist Walter Benjamin (pronounced: ben-ya-MEEN). Though German, Benjamin, too, was a great lover of Paris — particularly its arcades, which are somewhat like proto-shopping malls. He was fascinated by the disparate shops and places and people and architecture and ideas all mashed together. It was a mess, and he loved getting lost in it.
Benjamin spent the later years of his life writing a massive 1400-page opus attempting to describe the sociological phenomena that could be observed in the arcades. He called it The Arcades Project (first published 1982). He died before he could finish; it remains incomplete.
I’m no Benjamin scholar, but from what I understand, it wasn’t just the arcades’ jumble of urbanity that fascinated him; he was obsessed with the way one could build connections between these disparate entities by moving through them. For Benjamin, in moving through and experiencing the component parts of the arcades, one becomes an actor in connecting them. Put another way, there’s a constant interplay between the built world and the people who experience it. (In fact, The Arcades Project is written in such a way that the reader meanders through Benjamin’s ideas. There are no grand themes, overarching structure, or specific message brought to the fore; rather, it is an array of experiences that one can move through in any order. Ideas emerge through experiencing the work as a whole.)
As storytellers, we can draw from Baudelaire’s urban Epicureanism, and from Benjamin’s desire for us to weave together the urban fabric with our own bodies. By creating radio that meanders, that gets lost in the details, that doesn’t have a clear beginning-middle-end, we can realize a kind of radio that isn’t so much about transporting you to some far-flung location, as it is radio that gets you to see your own world differently.
I propose three tactics for object-based storytelling. First: make a pilgrimage.
The Way of the Pilgrim
There are a few obvious problems with telling stories about places or objects. You can’t see them on the radio. They can’t speak for themselves. And unless there’s an anniversary or reason for them to be in the news, they exist mostly in the background.
When dealing with stories about places or objects in a specific location, just finding it in situ can do wonders for jump-starting a narrative. Think of yourself as a pilgrimage — you’re adventuring to somewhere far away, and you’re going to make damn sure that you cultivate some kind of meaning from the experience. This is not to say the story is necessarily about you, the reporter, but your pilgrimage can frame the story.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice this. I would wager that using the field mic as a cause for an adventure is probably as old as the field mic itself.
In this 99% Invisible story I did with reporter Andrea Seabrook (with NPR at the time; now head of her own independent DecodeDC), we became pilgrims to tell a story about some bathtubs.
(Listen to the full story at 99% Invisible.)
When I set out on that reporting trip, I really had no idea if there would be any grand take-away. All I knew was there were some bathtubs in the basement of the Senate, and that Andrea Seabrook had promised me they would be really cool. But the framework of that pilgrimage became a way to see the bathtubs as a physical manifestation of a centuries-old debate about the role the American government.
So here, the framework of a pilgrimage — going somewhere to see something — became a way to not only see these bathtubs, but also to figure out what they mean.
If the religious connotations of the word “pilgrimage” are a turn-off, you can easily substitute a modern equivalent: “tourism.” Probably my favorite instance of tourism-as-storytelling is when Cheryl Wagner, a New Orleans-based writer reporting for This American Life, booked passage on a Hurricane Katrina disaster bus tour. In a really elegant twist, Wagner also gives her own tour of the city from her point of view as a local. Of course, her tour is out of the bus and on foot.
(Courtesy of WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life. Listen to the full story at This American Life.)
Moving on foot can give you perspective because it forces you to slow down and take in more. Nowhere is this apparent than in the recent Transom.org feature, Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man. My favorite part of producer Andrew Forsthoefel’s foot trek across the U.S. isn’t an interview. Rather, it’s the moment when he realizes a pattern: those who take him in are honest, good people, though they tell Andrew to be wary of the folks down the road — who turn out to be honest, good people, who in turn warn Andrew to be wary of the next folks down the road, and so on. It’s a piercing look into the soul of America, and the only way he could ever get that vantage point was on foot.
Flâneurism is great for getting close to the scene. And it’s even better if there is no scene when you show up.
Making a Scene
There’s a moment in Ai Wei-Wei: Never Sorry, a film about the eponymous Chinese artist, when Ai visits a government office to engage in some kind of hopelessly bureaucratic process; he documents these visits in video. An American art critic asked Ai why he goes to the trouble of even attempting to work within the system, when he (and anyone watching his footage) knows no good will come of it. Ai says, that’s precisely why he does it — to illustrate exactly how broken the system is. The only way to really show the true nature of the system, Ai Wei-Wei tells us, is to interact with it.
It’s a great lesson for anyone looking to do a story about a system, or process, or space. It’s on you to do the heavy lifting, to figure out how to make an abstraction give you good tape.
It’s on you to make a scene.
A favorite of such moments was in a 99% Invisible episode about POPOS — privately owned public open spaces. Snap Judgment‘s Stephanie Foo does the reporting here.
(Listen to the full story at 99% Invisble.)
I had nothing to do with the creation of that story so I don’t feel shy about saying I just love that moment playing badminton. Stephanie and her interviewee push on the space. And then the space pushes back.
Here’s another example of the same approach, done in the context of a straight-ahead reporter piece for Marketplace. Sean Cole reported this story about “Blu Cigs,” a type of electronic cigarette that can interface with your social media. Sean doesn’t just use the Blu Cig, he runs a simulation with it.
(Courtesy of American Public Media. Listen to the full story at Marketplace.)
This same approach can even work for deadline-driven pieces. Here’s the beginning of a story Ashley Ahearn did for Living on Earth. (Ashley Ahearn is now a reporter for EarthFix, a regional multimedia reporting collaborative.)
(Courtesy of Public Radio International. Listen to the full story at Living On Earth.)
…and then the piece goes on like a normal radio story about the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). But I just love that initial moment: giving the water cooler the evil eye. Not to get too deep into social theory again, but this reminds of something that Jacques Lacan wrote about how when you look at an image, the image looks back. So by giving the water cooler the evil eye, it can seem a little bit human because you’re interacting with it in a way that you usually reserve for other humans. And furthermore, you can imagine how the water cooler might feel if it had feelings about you giving it the evil eye. Right?
Interacting with the Living On Earth office water cooler also serves to humanize Ashley as the reporter, because she, like all of us, has to deal with the threat of BPA that is everywhere. She is putting us in her shoes and in turn, gets us to see our own immediate surroundings differently. That’s exactly what 99% Invisible strives to accomplish.
These stories are about specific places or things, but you can also make a scene to illustrate abstract concepts. Here’s how Radiolab unpacked some theoretical ideas about the invisible forces that give each city its own unique character. Spoiler alert: it involves a lot of walking.
(Produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Listen to the full story at Radiolab.)
Walking can help build a scene around an object, a place, or a theory. But you can also reverse the order –create a scene to discover hidden objects and places.
In his manifesto The Typology of New Public Sites: A Field Guide to Invisible Public Spaces (PDF), Baltimore-based artist Graham Coreil-Allen writes:
If a pedestrian is simply a person traveling by foot, a radical pedestrian is one who travels by foot … and tests the limits of and redefines public space through drifting direct action and insightful discourse.
I’m really taken with this idea of “radical pedestrianism,” of using one’s feet to suss out the invisible dynamics that shape how we behave and, to an extent, who we are.
We radio producers can become radical pedestrians by going to places that we would never otherwise have reason to go for the sake of gaining a unique perspective on something. And when you’re moving in strange territory, narrative gets baked into this process. If you climb to the mountaintop, you don’t just get the view, you get the story of climbing the mountain.
Here’s a story about radical pedestrianism, featuring the aforementioned artist, who explores marginal places, and then gives them names. We visit a “freeway eddy.”
(Listen to the full story at 99% Invisible.)
Now, there’s art school radical pedestrianism, and then there’s Kelly McEvers-grade radical pedestrianism. In 2012, Kelly went somewhere fewer Americans visit than freeway eddies: Yemen. Specifically, to a town that was still reeling from the aftermath of an American drone strike.
(Courtesy of NPR. Listen to the full story at All Things Considered.)
The interviews with the survivors are heartbreaking, but what really gets me are Kelly’s descriptions of the stuff that she finds in the rubble. It’s the mundaneness of what she lists — a doll here, some contact paper there — that tells you the most about what (and who) isn’t there. Experiencing the Yemeni town on foot, she tells a story of two kinds of inanimate objects: the unmanned drone aircrafts above, the flip-flops and silk flowers and cans of baby milk below, and the people caught in between.
(Making lists into her microphone in the field and using the tape as actuality is one of Kelly’s signature techniques; she spoke about it in depth at the 2012 Third Coast International Audio Festival in a talk called Making Radio Against Most Odds.)
On a very different note, here’s a piece by Benjamen Walker from his show Too Much Information. Again, we have a story about an inanimate object, a painting. We have some really radical pedestrianism: an attempt to go where, literally, no one has gone before. And therein lies an attempt to find the purest thing of all: transcendence.
(Courtesy of WFMU’s Too Much Information. Listen to the full story at WFMU.)
The Human in the Inanimate
Humans may not be the only animals that make tools or build things (orangutans extract honey using sticks, birds build nests), but we’re the only species that assigns meaning to, or cultivates meaning from, the things that we create. The same goes for walking: We may not be the only creatures that walk on two legs, but we’re the only ones who can tell the story of a journey.
Building and exploring are what humans do. By linking them together in our storytelling, we can find new ways to decode the world that is always, in some way, being rebuilt.
Become a flâneur, a meanderer, a wanderer and connoisseur of the streets — and of places besides streets.
- Become a pilgrim: go on a quest, and find meaning in it.
- Make a scene: push on the space and hear the space push back on you.
- Become a radical pedestrian: go places most people don’t, or won’t, or can’t.
[Note: The ideas for this manifesto were developed for a talk Sam gave at the 2013 Megapolis Festival.]
About Sam Greenspan
Sam Greenspan (@samlistens) is a staff producer at 99% Invisible, and helps curate the PRX Remix. His pursuit of a good story has led him to debate the merits of capitalism waist-deep in a dumpster, talk street soccer with displaced Palestinians in Brazil, and investigate claims of secret music inside public transit systems. (Twice.) Previously, Sam worked as a producer at NPR, where, among other things, he helped pilot the TED Radio Hour. His reporting has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and other national and regional public radio programs across the country. He got his start in radio at WSLR in Sarasota, Florida, and now lives in Oakland.