We asked the students at the Transom Story Workshop to share some of the most important things they’ve learned so far. Five weeks in to their eight-week course, here is what they had to say.
Derek Hawkins, Brooklyn, NY
Make your story universal. That’s my biggest takeaway. Of all the close listening we’ve done, the pieces that stand out to me, as the most effective, possess something at their core that makes them relatable to almost anyone. It could be an idea, a character or a piece of narration, or just something implicit in the story’s structure. Great pieces always seem to have it — the hook that makes that little sliver of the subject’s life feel like it says something about all of us.
There’s a wall that separates “relevant” and “universal,” and I think it’s our job to climb over it. That’s not easy to do. Coming from a background in hard news and beat reporting, I’ve had to push myself to get out of the mindset that relevance is good enough. It’s fine for a news story where the goal is to get the information out there, but radio is more successful when you take it further. It’s important to think about whether the story you’re telling will still be enjoyable to new audiences a month, a year, a decade down the road. It’s like a good song — make it universal and people will want to listen again and again. I haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s already worth the effort trying.
Jackie Mitchell, Brookline, MA
1. “That’s crazy.” ~ Sean Cole, independent producer.
No assignment has to be boring, no matter how much your editors think they want that rote, trend du jour story. Ask questions. Ask more questions. (Add “Huh?” to your list of questions. ~Rob Rosenthal) Ask different questions. Ask different people questions. Think sideways and backwards and upside down about stories. You will not only find a better story, you will find your own voice and style.
2. “Don’t be afraid. Fear is paralyzing. And boring.” ~ Kelly McEvers, NPR’s fearless Middle East reporter.
You may have heard Kelly reporting on the Syrian conflict while running down the streets of Aleppo and fleeing gunfire. When she tells you to suck it up, you pretty much do. You will not lose a limb asking a stranger questions on the mean streets of Woods Hole. Go do it.
3. “It depends.” ~ Everyone.
We happy few at Transom have access to the best and most experienced radio reporters and producers in the country. And they can’t help one iota until we start making radio—and making radio mistakes—for ourselves. Only with practice, missteps and problem solving will you train yourself to be any good at this. Only with experience, successes and failures will you train your gut so it can tell you when you’re on the right track. Better get started now. . .
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Ben Harden, Bristol, UK
A striking moment for me was in discovering that you can just be yourself in your story. It’s like you in real life, only on the radio, and probably the better part of you. I know it might sound stupidly obvious, but it really made a big impact on me.
I think having great guests, like Kelly McEvers and Sean Cole, was really enlightening in this regard. Here we have two people who’s voices really come across in their work and meeting them showed me what was possible when it comes to being yourself on the radio.
This made all the difference when it came to writing scripts. I learnt that I could write like I talk, I didn’t need to write like anyone else or how I thought I was supposed to sound. If I could be clear about what I was saying then I could say it in the way that was true to me. I learnt that I could be myself interviewing people. I could ask questions in ways I would normally ask questions of people I know.
Dylan Peers McCoy, Framingham, MA
I’m learning so much at Transom, that it can be hard to put everything into practice. When it comes to interviews, what I struggle with the most is my tendency to politely avoid topics that might make the other person uncomfortable.
When someone tells you something intimate in a pre-interview they don’t mention once they’re on tape, when they seem to be avoiding a topic, when you have to ask a really personal question—it is really easy to assume that they don’t want to talk about it.
I catch myself thinking “there’s no point in asking that, since they won’t answer it anyway…” all the time. But the only way to know what questions someone will answer is to ask. The person you’re interviewing can always say no. They have agency.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. Be empathetic. Be kind. But give your subjects the chance to decide what they’re comfortable talking about. It’s their story, after all.
Schuyler Swenson, Denver, CO
Be patient. No one likes to hear this, but after a month of living eating and sleeping radio, I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to wait things out before you get to the good stuff.
When listening to radio stories, there are times you have to listen to “broccoli” as we’ve called it in class: tedious facts, historical context, boring but nutritious info. Eventually, you’ll make it to the punch line or the “WHAT?!?” moment in a story. But if you tune out, mid-broccoli, you might miss the juicy part…
Patience is amazingly helpful when you’re interviewing someone; after your subject answers a question, pause before responding or moving on to the next question. If you wait to respond a little longer than you would in a normal conversation, those moments of silence can generate a deeply thoughtful response or reflection from your interviewee. When interviewing, give some time for these moments. They often result in the best tape.
And finally, as we’ve heard from many veteran radio producers, patience with yourself is essential when you’re first starting out. You have to get through your own broccoli before you get to your best stuff. You can expect to produce a lot of pieces that aren’t your favorite, and might be hard to swallow. If you stick with it and are patient with your work, you’re bound to produce something you really like.
Zach Hirsch, Burlington, VT
Two years ago, I came down with a bad case of the public radio Bug, and if you’re reading this, you might be like me. Here’s a little advice:
1) Start making audio stuff. Take comfort in the fact that it won’t sound great for a long time. And, even if you do make something good, remember: that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re over the crap hurdle yet.
2) Seek out radio peeps at all costs. Join up with a college/community radio station, apply for TSW, or just spend more time with friends who get excited about stories and sound recordings.
Now, fast-forward to you as a producer. You’ll need to know to be almost hyper-engaged in an interview. If your interviewee says something that’s sort of shocking to you, your listeners will want to hear more. Jump in and say “w-w-w-w-wait, that’s crazy!” That’s one of my favorite moves. It helps you be present in an interview – your subject will know you’re actually listening.
Plenty of pieces don’t need music behind them. Here at the workshop, we sometimes refer to music as “emotional fascism.”
There’s this thing I call the post-interview blues. When you finish an interview, you might be convinced it went poorly. It’s usually way better than you think – just listen to the tape.
Know that making a story out of sound is an emotional roller coaster. Hang on tight, and always look for other people’s perspectives on what you should do to make your story better.
Neena Pathak, Philadelphia, PA
I’m learning to appreciate uncertainty and all the things I don’t know.
When I’m driving to your house for an interview, I don’t know whether your story will work on the radio. I don’t know what I’ll learn when we talk because I won’t know what you’re going to say. During the interview, even after preparing, I won’t know everything about the subject at hand, and I’ll ask questions that show that I don’t know. I don’t know the themes that will emerge from our conversations. When I’m editing and mixing, I don’t know what parts of the story will resonate with others, and what parts will make sense to only me. When I’m finished, I won’t know how you’ll react when you listen to my piece. Sometimes I won’t know if I’m really finished either.
This uncertainty and all the things I don’t know make me listen better. They make me ask good questions and pay attention. When I don’t know something for certain, you usually help me figure it out.
Karen Duffin, San Francisco, CA
I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, mostly because I’m curious about a million different things, and storytelling is a great excuse to explore them all. But I’ve discovered here that there is a huge difference between an interest and a story. Gut check your idea up front; make sure there’s action, conflict, characters, progression — something that makes it a story, not just an interest.
Sometimes you have the opposite problem: a dozen potential storylines within one idea. It can be hard to choose, but … focus! Too many characters, main ideas, or storylines and you lose your listener. Keep only what serves your story and let the rest go (even if it’s so clever you can hardly stand it!).
Surround yourself with storytellers. This is the treasure of Transom, the chance to spend every day (and many evenings and weekends) with a community of radio makers. We brainstorm questions, poke holes in each other’s stories (gently), find angles others miss, listen to each other’s tape; we commiserate and cheerlead. How will I make radio without them? I have no idea. But priority one, wherever I go post-Transom, will be to find me a creative community.
Lilly Sullivan, Brooklyn, NY
The most important thing I’ve learned at Transom: the emotional arc of storytelling.
Before coming to the workshop, I was excited by the idea of starting something entirely different, mid-career. But also terrified. To be willing to be terrible for a—possibly long—while? It was daunting and humbling. But like a lot of us, I sensed that somewhere in the future, it would be deeply worthwhile.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that process is a good thing for a new radio producer. Actually, I go through a very similar process every time I start a new story. Stage one: I don’t know anything about this subject. Stage two: but I love this subject and want to dive in! Stage three: I pledge to work through feeling dumb. I will set aside my ego to research and listen, because I suspect the story is worth it. I trust that I will one day know why.
This writer I love, James Salter, puts it this way: “The icy beginning is where it is the worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy.”
Rob and Sarah are incredible teachers, committed to infecting their students with their knowledge of and passion for radio. Their advice to us as new producers is this: “Just keep moving forward. Just lean into it.” In our group, we feel inspired. Awakened. We feel like this Workshop, beyond radio, will change the way we relate to life around us.