Marianne McCune

Marianne_FEATURED

Intro from Jay Allison: Marianne is a radio reporter’s radio reporter. She gets the medium. And she’s done the daily grind. In her manifesto, Marianne gives us great advice for not being boring. Some of it is dead simple. Some of it is hard. But all of it helps expand the cookie-cutter approach. Whether you’re just starting out or have been at it so long you feel stuck, whether you’re a tiny local station or a national network news show, Marianne’s manifesto is for you.

Confessions of A News Reporter

I love Morning Edition. I love All Things Considered.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as in love as the next person with Serial and Start-Up and Invisibilia. And This American Life and Radiolab and the Radiotopia podcasts and more. I am truly excited by all the great storytelling I hear. But if I could have only one show, I think it would be one of those seemingly ancient, workhorse news magazine shows. Because I want to know what’s going on around the world and they tell me. Plus, they tell me things I didn’t know I wanted to know and they explain things I need to understand. I deeply appreciate that.

Only one problem: sometimes the stories are boring.

I think I understand why (because I’ve also told plenty of boring stories). It’s hard to go out and get to the bottom of a story and make it new and fresh and interesting, all in a day, every day. It’s exhausting. Reporters and editors are obliged to find ways to become more efficient (or risk burning out). And one tool of efficiency is a cookie-cutter. Make every story more or less the same size and shape; it comes off as professional, has the right ingredients, and it’s fast.

In some ways, cookie-cutter stories are great for listeners. They’re familiar and easy to follow. People understand how to extract the important information from them. But when stories cross from familiar to predictable, I think a lot of people stop listening. It’s just background noise if you’re pretty sure you know what comes next. It’s just blah blah blah.

If audio has the potential to permeate boundaries (and I believe it does!), cookie-cutters maintain them. Everything we hear is something we expect, pre-categorized and filed away and, ultimately, boring.

That sounds dramatic. But I believe it. So this is my anti-cookie-cutter manifesto. In the interest of helping to make my favorite news magazine shows as exceptionally wonderful as they can be (and in the interest of reminding my own self how not to be boring), I’ve come up with a list of anti-cookie-cutter tactics.

Introduce Us To Real People

People are infinitely varied and interesting (I know that not everyone thinks this, but I do). They are complicated and they contradict themselves and they change all the time. I believe that the truer you can make them in your story, the more compelling the story is, even if they don’t fit exactly into a mold that will demonstrate some key point. If they fit the mold exactly, they’ll be predictable. If they stretch the mold a little, they’ll be interesting.

Here are some ways I try to keep them as interesting in the story as they are in real life:

1. Let the people change your story instead of your story changing the people. When you’re looking for someone to demonstrate a point you’re making in your story, be willing to expand or alter the point to accommodate the person.

EXAMPLE: For Planet Money, I did a story about the Earned Income Tax Credit and how, despite the fact that it redistributes billions of dollars from wealthier Americans to poorer ones, it’s almost universally acclaimed by economists and elected officials, right and left. A reporter looks at the statistics on how beneficial the EITC is to the poor and thinks, ‘Okay, I need to find someone who gets the EITC, spends it wisely, and rises up out of poverty so that I can demonstrate these stats via someone’s story.’ I found someone ‘perfect,’ a single mom in New Jersey who spent her EITC refund each year to pay debts, go to school, move to a better school district for her son, buy his books and uniforms, and so on. But then there was this: she spent part of the refund on taking her son to Disney World. And that detail – the one that doesn’t necessarily fit the prescription – is what ended up making the story interesting.

Download
Listen to “EITC podcast excerpt”

*Note: This excerpt comes from the podcast version of this story. You can listen to the full version of this story here.

mccune-tweet

2. Include nuance. This is similar to #1. The point is, people are not pawns in your story. Don’t ignore the nuances in their circumstances or lives or personality. Do more than just slot them in.

EXAMPLE: On the third day of the blackout that Storm Sandy caused in New York, my editor (the wonderful Karen Frillmann) sent me to the Lower East Side to check on people living in the high rises in the area. I found 87-year old Margaret Maynard, basically stuck on the 8th floor of her building with no phone, no flushing toilet, not a lot of food, and no easy way to get down the pitch black stairs. She could have been a posterchild for people ‘forgotten’ and ‘in trouble’ during the storm. But the best part of the story may be her telephone conversation with her best friend, the Maid of Honor in her wedding.

Download
Listen to “Margaret Maynard Excerpt”

NOTE: You can listen to the full version of this story here.

One reason I think people responded so positively to this story is that it’s actually hard to decide whether she’s in trouble or a badass 87-year old who is happy to take care of herself. You’re not completely sure whether she should stay or she should go. It’s the nuance that makes her so much more compelling than if I had set her up as an elderly lady left to suffer alone in her building, then thrown in a cut of her saying “I can’t go down, it’s too dark.” Knowing that she also doesn’t want to leave her home adds complexity and some intrigue to the story.

3. Tell us more than you need to about people. When you interview people, don’t just talk to them about your story topic. Take the time to learn seemingly irrelevant things about them. Then use a few of those details (doesn’t have to be a long list) to paint a vivid picture of people.

EXAMPLE: In that same story from Storm Sandy, there are a lot of details you don’t need to know: that Margaret Maynard is still close friends with the Maid of Honor from her wedding, that she thinks she has some ham in her fridge but can’t find it, that she’s wearing slippers, that she has a radio. You could tell the ‘important’ part of the story (that she’s semi-stranded) without all those details. But without them, you couldn’t give people as memorable a picture of her and her situation.

4. Remember people are not just their tape. Sometimes people will say about a story, ‘Oh you had so much good tape.’ But you didn’t. Instead, they remember what you conveyed about the person in writing. That’s fine. Use your writing to communicate details you learned that make people exciting or surprising or compelling beyond their purpose in your story. Great tape is obviously great. But you can convey how compelling a person’s story is with only mediocre tape if you need to. I remember commenting on how great the tape was in one of Chana Joffe-Walt’s stories on disability for Planet Money and This American Life. She said, “It actually wasn’t.”

Download
Listen to “Chana Joffe-Walt’s Disability excerpt”

NOTE: You can find out more about the series this piece was part of here.

5. Let us hear people interacting with other people they know. People can be much more expressive with someone they know (as opposed to a reporter). You can learn a great deal about them just from their tone as they speak to someone they’re close to, not to mention what they say. So when you’re setting up interviews with people, don’t think you have to sit down with them alone! Maybe you’ll need to do that, too, but, if family or friends are around, work them in, not out. You can hear the value of that kind of conversation in a lot of Radio Rookies stories (and, of course, in all those great StoryCorps interviews). Technically you’re hearing an ‘interview’ – the Rookie interviewing someone else. But because Rookies regularly report on their own lives, the interviews are often conversations between people who know each other well. And, as a result, they can be incredibly compelling and revealing.

TWO EXAMPLES: This is a conversation I love from Bebe’s story about whether or not she should come out as gay (or bisexual or a lesbian or anything else). In this clip, she’s talking to the uncle she lived with at the time.

Download
Listen to “Bebe from Radio Rookies excerpt”

NOTE: Courtney Stein of Radio Rookies produced this piece. You can listen to the full version of this story here.

Bebe’s interaction with her uncle tells you so much about each of them. They both become such full, complicated people over the course of not-that-many seconds.

Another of my favorite examples is this conversation recorded by WNYC’s Beth Fertig (and then worked into my follow up story years later). The two people reminiscing are a School Safety Officer (Deborah Mete) and a Sanitation Officer (Charles Diaz). They met immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. And what a different picture you get than if you’d sat down to do a formal interview about what happened.

Download
Listen to “9/11 Buddies excerpt”

NOTE: This special was produced with Emily Botein. You can listen to the full version of this story here.

Turn At Least One Page

Radiolab is stellar at audio page-turning. They are so good at the twists and turns, executing many in each story. But it’s really hard to do this well! We should all try all the time. But if it seems impossible to achieve in every news story, let’s try instead to turn just one page. If just one thing happens in your story, make sure to tell us what happens next. Suddenly the story goes from that parachute-y, dropping-in, cookie-cutter feel to a feeling of following along a trail that leads somewhere unknown.

EXAMPLE: This is one of my favorite examples (from a story that has many other problems) because the follow-up is so simple and tiny but I think it has a big impact. The story was about a post-9/11 program called Special Registration that required people from a list of 19 countries to register with federal authorities. You could get in big trouble for not registering, but if you had overstayed your visa or failed to follow the rules in some other way, you could get arrested upon showing up. People were waiting all day and night long to register. Huge lines outside the building. No food allowed inside. I interviewed these guys while they were waiting outside:

Download
Listen to “Special Registration Excerpt 1”

NOTE: You can find out more about this piece here.

And then, so that I could get the story done in time, I just used these voicemail messages to ‘turn a page’ in the story:

Download
Listen to “Special Registration Excerpt 2”

NOTE: You can find out more about this piece here.

I think that, even though they don’t give us a whole lot more information, hearing these voicemails gives us a sense that these young men’s story doesn’t end with our conversation in line. They give a sense that the long line and the appointment with Federal officials is just the beginning of what they’ll be going through as a result of this policy. In a way (I hope), the voicemail follow-ups just remind you of the men’s humanity (as opposed to slotted-in voices).

Make People Feel Something

This is so obvious that I kept cutting it out of my manifesto as I wrote. But it’s so important, I kept putting it back in. The point is, if you are telling a story, you should care enough about it to be able to make others care. You don’t have to make them cry over it. Or laugh hysterically. But you must make them understand in some not-just-intellectual way why it matters. (Many cookie-cutter stories do set out to make you care, too. But they fail, I think, by not surprising you or pulling you in. You end up feeling like you’re supposed to care, but secretly you don’t.) There are so many ways to make people care — with your writing, your voice, other people’s voices, setting up stakes. I want to read ten versions of that manifesto. For now, I’ll just give you an example.

TWO EXAMPLES: I love Gregory Warner’s stories (he’s the East Africa correspondent for NPR) partly because of the way he always makes me care. In this story, he tells us about some Rwandans opening up an ice cream store. Sorta interesting but possibly a little whatever. Until he gets to this part:

Download
Listen to “Rwanda Ice Cream by Gregory Warner excerpt”

NOTE: You can listen to the full version of this story here.

That part goes straight to my gut. Suddenly, in the middle of what could be a cookie-cutter story, he breaks into this huge, other story: the story of Rwanda’s genocide. He makes me care by telling me how this little ice cream story is really related to Rwanda’s potential to heal. Maybe you saw it coming, but I didn’t.

Here’s another example I find instructive, from a story I reported looking at the impact of 9-11 ten years later. It’s about a young Palestinian-American named Osama who, with three friends, was pulled off a plane soon after the attacks because someone thought they looked suspicious. He went on to become a car salesman and started telling customers his name was Sam. And if you don’t care much about that, here’s the part that made me really care.

Download
Listen to “Osama excerpt”

NOTE: This special was produced with Emily Botein. You can listen to the full version of this story here.

I think hearing that he would never tell his wife that he hides their kids’ names really hammers home how deeply he’s been hurt by people’s prejudice and how conflicted he is about the choices he’s made. (*NOTE: I made sure he was okay with my broadcasting that piece of the interview. He later told me he and his family had all listened together and had a great conversation afterward.)

Confession: This Manifesto is Flawed

Those are the anti-cookie-cutter tactics I’ve come up with. Looking back over them, I realize that a lot of those listed could easily turn into cookie-cutters themselves. How do I deal with that?

Here’s how: I want you to think of these tactics as reminders. Reminders that the real goal, when you’re telling a story about real life and real people, is to let all that you’ve discovered and all the audio you’ve gathered define how you tell the story. Be true to what you’ve found, in what you say but also in how you say it.

So if your reporting took you on a journey, take us on that journey. If people laugh about a horrible experience, let them be funny. If you find two really compelling people on opposite sides of an issue, forget everyone else and juxtapose them (I did that here in a story about marijuana). If your story is complicated, admit it. If there are three important points, number them and lay them out.

Like I said, it’s hard to be so nimble when you’re doing this everyday or even every week or two. And, just to be clear, none of the tactics I’ve listed above will help you be more efficient. They won’t. You’ll have to talk your editors into giving you more time to report and maybe more time to tell. Maybe you’ll have to do the cookie-cutter story on the first day and the anti-cookie-cutter version the day after. That’s okay.

Use the cookie-cutter when you have to. But the next day or the day after that, wake people up with all the humanity that didn’t fit the mold.

Note: You can listen to Marianne McCune’s excellent presentation at the 2014 Third Coast International Audio Festival here.

Marianne McCune

About
Marianne McCune

Marianne McCune has spent most of the last decade and a half reporting in New York for NPR (most recently, Planet Money) and WNYC. She has followed her stories from the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn and the Bronx to Pakistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Colombia and elsewhere. McCune is also the founder and longtime editor of Radio Rookies, WNYC's award-winning series of stories from New York teenagers. Currently, she’s living in San Francisco and experimenting with a new medium: audio walks with a company called Detour. She just completed a Detour about San Francisco’s war on garbage. Next is a walk through several tumultuous decades of the Castro with Cleve Jones, aid to Harvey Milk and founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Website

  • Michael Kelly

    3.03.15

    Reply

    As an aspiring and green writer and producer, thank you Marianne for your insight and wisdom. The audio examples were especially helpful, and serve as a reminder to allow stories and the people in them to ebb and flow naturally instead of ending up at often predictable conclusion. Thanks again.

    • Marianne McCune

      3.04.15

      Reply

      Michael, I’m so glad you find this useful. My good friend and awesome colleague Kaari Pitkin of Radio Rookies summarized the goal this way (and I love it): ‘bringing messy people & their (our?) messy lives into stories.’ Thank you for reading and I look forward to hearing your work!

  • Ellen Horne

    3.03.15

    Reply

    Inspiring! You are one of the best of the best. Thank you, Marianne!

    • Marianne McCune

      3.04.15

      Reply

      High praise from someone so totally kick-ass. Thank you, Ellen.

  • Mark Hilan

    3.04.15

    Reply

    When Marianne was on, you stopped and listened – all the way to the end – because she told stories worth hearing. Period.

    • Marianne McCune

      3.04.15

      Reply

      Mark Hilan! Thank you for reading and posting (between drilling and sawing and painting and dusting?). Mark, you always made me stop and listen, too. Still miss you. Ready to come stay in your B&B so I can wake up to you again!

  • Jonathan Miller

    3.04.15

    Reply

    I was madly toggling back and forth between this manifesto and a script I’m working on, trying to restore some of the quirkiness and emotion. Even after decades in the business, I find it hard to strike the right balance between hitting all the points and letting a story live and breathe. It’s especially hard when you’re running long and need to go back through finding things to cut. Thanks, Marianne, for the reminder that humanity, in all its ambiguity and layeredness, can be more informative than a checklist of facts.

    • Marianne McCune

      3.04.15

      Reply

      Jonathan, it is so thrilling to think of you toggling back and forth. Really, I’m so grateful to know this can be useful even to someone so seasoned. I wrote this as much as a guide to myself as to anyone else. I know well the struggle to ‘strike the right balance between hitting all the points and letting a story live and breathe.’ There’s nothing self-evident about it because hitting the points is pretty damn important. When you’re done, please tell us what you cut and what you let live and breathe! And why. Meanwhile, thank you for your summary (I’m really loving reading how people make their own sense of this): a ‘reminder that humanity, in all its ambiguity and layeredness, can be more informative than a checklist of facts.’

  • S Bin Aksah

    3.05.15

    Reply

    Those are great tips!

  • Amy

    3.05.15

    Reply

    I love the way you tell stories! Even your ‘goodbye to Amy e.’ montage was a masterpiece! Do you have anything to say about non-narrated pieces?

    • Marianne McCune

      3.06.15

      Reply

      Amy P! Thank you. Here’s what I have to say about non-narrated pieces: I love them. And they are really, really hard to do well. I’ve done a few, with varied degrees of success. Especially in a news context, I think it’s very hard to make them live up to the standard that Joe Richman and company have set at Radio Diaries. Because, as he says, “ordinary life rarely unfolds as a coherent narrative. And most of the time it’s boring.” When you’re reporting, it’s a lot faster to dig for the best, most illustrative tidbits if you don’t also have to come back with all the tape that glues those moments together. It’s a lot easier to be the glue than get the glue. Make sense? (I mean obviously you have to figure out the glue and be truthful and illuminating, but you don’t have to make sure the glue is in your tape). That said, I always want more tape, less me. If all-tape works, I say go for it. But if you can make the story better by narrating some of it, do that. (WNYC’s former News Director Kevin Beesley always reminded us, “If they say it better, let them say it. If you say it better, you say it.”)

      Joe has an incredibly instructive manifesto on Transom about making pieces with no narration. (NOTE: Some of the things he says about people and how their ambiguity and mess are what make stories compelling are similar to what I’ve tried to say here – and that’s probably because I learned a lot of what I know from Joe and the Radio Diaries stories. They were part of the reason I came to radio in the first place. And they were part of the inspiration for Radio Rookies – which DOES use narration, but the narration is from someone who is also, usually, inside the story in some way.)

  • Bryce New

    10.17.15

    Reply

    Oh my!!! This is AWESOME Marianne (I actually can’t find the right words for how this has left me feeling). I think this is the most helpful Transom manifesto I’ve encountered. Also inspirational, grounded and tight (in the best possible way). Just a gift. Thank you!!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*