Short Of Breath

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I learned a few simple things making this story. Here are some of them:

Play the long game.

I started looking for people to interview by posting on Craigslist. It was like trying to fix a watch with a jackhammer: not that precise, definitely doesn’t work. Part of me expected people to waltz up, stories in hand. I needed a better strategy. At four weeks in, I’d combed through a good chunk of the Cape-based news coverage on the opiate epidemic. I knew everything there was to know about Narcan. I did my homework and honed my approach. I knew the names of a lot of support groups, treatment centers, police chiefs, EMS officers, and social workers. I sent out a bunch of feeler emails and made a bunch of calls. A lot of those emails and calls went unreturned for weeks. And then, as often happens when you play the long game, things started to break through. People started to get back to me. I talked to everyone who wanted to talk. At the end of every interview, I asked the interviewee who else I should talk to, and then I went and talked to those people. You can’t cut tape you don’t have, was my thinking. I ended up with a monstrous 20 hours of tape, and I’m not sorry.

Hack and slash.

When you have 20 hours of tape, you learn pretty quickly to let things go. Cutting the first 15 hours is a breeze. A good chunk of that sounds bad right away. It’s poorly worded. Hack. It’s not that interesting. Slash. You get better at letting go as you go along.

The last four hours and fifty minutes of tape were much harder to part with. In the course of ten interviews, I’d taken in a lot of information about the opiate crisis that I felt was really important. It wasn’t easy to let go of it. I went on long walks. I carried pieces of tape around in my head for days, knowing that I had to kill them because they just didn’t belong. But after all of that struggling, I could eventually cut them and move on.

In the process of making this story, I realized that none of the tape I had was as important and impactful as the words of the people directly involved: the victims of addiction and their families. After that realization, I dropped a lot of the informational stuff I had from doctors and EMTs. I stopped trying to feed my audience their vegetables, and geared my editorial eye toward telling the stories of the victims in the most effective way possible, both structurally and sonically.

If they want to talk, listen.

I had to earn the trust of the people I wanted to interview in order to report this story. People in the recovery community are accustomed to having their misfortunes used as a cautionary tale for others, their stories told with an anthropological sense of removal. A few were understandably skeptical of me. I understood going in that because of the stigma associated with drug use, the people I was reaching out to had a lot to lose and nothing to gain from granting me an interview. When I reached out to people, I told them exactly what I wanted and why. When they declined, I didn’t push them. When they accepted, I accepted the responsibility of getting their story right.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure that anyone would talk to me. I didn’t account for how brave people would be. A week before the deadline, I got a message from Jeanne Flynn, the mother whose voice you’ll hear near the end of the piece. I was honest with her. It was late in the game, and I said that if I interviewed her, I probably wouldn’t use her interview in the piece. I explained that I didn’t want to cause her unnecessary pain. When I started out to make this piece, I made a decision to go and listen to whoever wanted to talk. Jeanne still wanted to talk. She had a story she wanted to share, and you don’t say no to that.

Ryan’s Sonic ID

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I spent a day hitchhiking around and I ended up by the beach in Falmouth where Bob Pritchard was sitting with his two giant white dogs, gazing at the water. One of the dogs liked my microphone. The other wanted my flesh.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

Ryan Sweikert

About
Ryan Sweikert

Ryan Sweikert is a journalist and independent radio producer from Ghent, New York. He will pursue a master’s at NYU Journalism School in the fall, and will continue to make radio as long as there are stories to tell and people to hear them. You can find his work on PRX.

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