This American Life Tic Tock
I got the call many independent producers pray for late one Wednesday afternoon. It was Robyn Semian asking if I could do a last-minute assignment for This American Life. She wanted me to cover a first-of-its-kind conference on building a spaceship to reach the stars. It was to take place that weekend in Orlando, a four-hour drive away. Then Ira Glass would interview me about the conference for the opening story in the Adventure episode airing the following week. I swallowed my scream of joy and calmly said hell, yes.
What follows is a reconstruction of how the piece came together. I had always wondered how This American Life stories were made, and now I got a chance to have a front-row seat in that process. I got Ira’s permission to share our correspondence, but he asked me to clarify that this was an unusual, quick-turnaround piece. Most pieces for This American Life aren’t produced this efficiently, and the vast majority of his interviews aren’t scripted in advance. Here’s some of what Ira wrote:
“What we were planning was a scripted reporter interview, which is a standard thing on all the daily and weekly public radio news shows. It’s an alternative to having a reporter write and produce a story.…
“For most stories on the show, the editorial process is less efficient. But because this was a show open, which has such specific requirements, and we were on such a tight deadline, we had to imagine the thing pretty fully before even sending you out, just to be sure we could picture a version that would work. When something’s just four or five minutes, it’s also easier to envision the possible beats in advance and then just create the thing with those in mind.”
Step One: The Assignment
Robyn outlined the assignment in an email on Thursday:
“You’d gather tape, plug into and record some of the conferences, chat with some of the attendees afterward about what’s actually being considered that is practical, and what the obvious obstacle is to what’s being discussed. Then say Monday or Tuesday of next week, Ira would interview you about what you found, and you’d have some clips of tape ready to play for him.”
Ira then followed up with a phone call on Friday afternoon. He’d scoured the conference agenda – with panels on propulsion to near the speed of light, communication over cosmic distances, and light bulb design for centuries-long voyages – and he wanted a real reporter to walk around the conference. He told me:
“Dan, I want to know, and I’m seriously really personally curious about this: Is any of this real? Stay away from the philosophy and those other musings. I’m not interested in that. It’s all about: How are we gonna get there?”
I dwell on the This American Life assignment process because it’s so different from almost every other radio assignment I’ve ever gotten. Ira and Robyn knew exactly what they wanted, and they were specific, articulate, and crystal clear on that vision from the very beginning. Ira told me I should try to imagine ahead of time what a best-case scenario would be for my field reporting, then try to make that happen:
“The key to speed is to be structuring the story while you’re getting the tape. Even before you get it. You have a rough structure in mind that you can screw with later.”
When Ira talked about what questions he wanted answered, he was beginning to shape the final piece. From the very start, he had a sense for how the story would sound on air. The structure was right there all along.
Step Two: The Reporting
I arrived in Orlando on Friday night. I’d have just one day to report the story. Based on my conversation with Robyn and Ira, I jotted down a list of the main questions I knew I needed. This was what I call my “shopping list”:
• What’s most striking?
• What has the most potential?
• Is this a real thing that could happen?
• What are the most practical and probable solutions?
• Ask about the idea of adventure, whether there’s a whiff of that in the air.
(This last question tied into the overall theme of the show.) I started reporting early Saturday. By midday, I’d recorded a bit of the plenary session and spoken to a few scientists. I sat down in a quiet spot and wrote out what specific questions I needed to answer before I left. This became like a refined shopping list. Among the questions:
• How many people signed up for the conference? From where? What are their profiles?
• Who are the exhibitors? Why aren’t there more of them?
• Look for a female voice.
• What are the leading groups/thinkers/businesses in this field?
• What are the most advanced real-world applications to date?
• What’s just around the corner?
Armed with this refined list, I stepped up the pace and focus of my reporting. By the time I wrapped up at 7 p.m., I’d interviewed 12 people, recorded an “exotic science” presentation, and collected three tracks of ambient sound – a total of close to four hours of tape.
Step Three: Tape Logging
On the drive home Saturday night, I jotted down some back-of-the-envelope thoughts on “what was real” and “what was most striking.” Using those notes, I wrote Ira and Robyn a 1,600-word memo on Monday morning.
On Sunday, I logged the interviews, starring the best moments, and uploaded my sound to the show’s FTP site. Even though I’d logged the 12 interviews, a producer there, Miki Meek, began transcribing them.
While most of the process of working with Ira was marked by an almost ruthless efficiency, I was a bit surprised at all the transcribing. After all, Ira had mentioned in our first call that the final piece would likely only have a few bites. But extensive tape transcribing is a big part of the process at This American Life. It helps ensure that the very best tape makes it to air.
Step Four: The Preinterview
I spoke very briefly to Ira on Tuesday morning. He laid out how he imagined the interview playing out. He spoke in terms of “beats,” like in music. He said the first beat would set the scene and describe who was at the gathering. The second beat would tackle the practical question of propulsion systems. The third beat would be about other challenges the scientists were trying to solve, such as long-distance communication, protecting the hull against space dust and artificial lighting. The fourth beat would be a spin to the adventure theme. He suggested we identify 12 to 15 clips that we might air, and whittle it down from there.
Step Five: Pulling Tape
I worked with Miki on Tuesday and Wednesday morning to identify and isolate the best sound bites. We pasted the transcriptions of the cuts into a Google doc organized with subheads for each beat. Miki then pulled the audio of those bites and put them into a Pro Tools session.
Here’s what Ira wrote me later about identifying your best tape:
“When I’m in the field, I’ll write a list of favorite quotes immediately after getting the tape. Usually it’s just three or four things, but when I’m recording all day, I’ll take an hour or so at the end of the day and list everything I remember as great and as good. I try to keep the two categories very clear in my head: here’s the stuff I know that kills, here’s the stuff that’s possible. It’s surprising how often the story is simply the stuff I thought was great – that that initial list is the story. With just a few things from the “good” list, to fill a point out here or there.”
Step Six: Writing the Script
On Wednesday around midday, Ira, Robyn, Miki and I got on a conference call and listened to the tape Miki and I had pulled. Ira pasted the bites he thought worked best into a new Google doc. We then began to write a script together. Ira would ask me questions and write down a few phrases of what I said. It was like a slow-motion conversation. The process took about two hours.
I was struck by how collaborative this process was, and how good a listener he proved to be. Since Ira had such a clear and articulate vision of the assignment, I assumed he’d be similarly assertive with the script. And while he certainly steered the writing of the script, and he would tell me if he thought something wouldn’t work, he was very open to my ideas about the language we used, the details we highlighted and the bites we picked. And not just my ideas, but Miki’s and Robyn’s as well. Another key to the editorial process at This American Life seems to be collaborative edits. A lot of ears are better than one, even his.
As an editor, Ira Glass combines two seemingly contradictory strengths: a very clear sense of what he wants, and a very open and collaborative approach to getting it. These two qualities – rare in isolation, even more uncommon in combination – go a long way to explain why This American Life is so damned good, so much of the time.
Step Seven: Recording the Interview
I printed out the script, and we went into the studio. The recording session took an hour. We made our way through the script slowly, retaking some questions, trying out several different approaches to some parts of the script. For the fourth beat, we abandoned the script entirely and Ira just asked me some open-ended questions around the idea of adventure. We then retook the top of the interview, since we were all warmed up. It came out much better the second time.
Step Eight: Editing Time
I wasn’t part of the process of cutting down the hour-long raw interview to the six minutes that aired. When I heard it on air, I was impressed at how much information they crammed into the piece while still making it sound conversational and even leisurely. To save time, Ira would borrow phrases from my answers and incorporate them into his narration – a good strategy for any radio producer.
I asked Ira how he figured out what elements of our interview to keep. He wrote:
“I knew I loved the various meetings on the practical side of going to space, the light bulbs, the plasma shield, the dust – that’s what attracted me to the story from the start.”
This seemingly simple observation – “that’s what attracted me to the story from the start” – is actually quite profound. So often, I begin reporting a story because (as Ira said) “I’m seriously really personally curious” about something, but by the time I finally finish the piece, after hours of reporting-logging-writing-producing, I’ve kind of lost touch with what got me interested in the first place. And the final piece totally lacks that animating curiosity – the “I really want to know” – that inspired it. And it sounds flat. That was perhaps the biggest lesson of all: Ira never lost touch with what originally got him interested in the story. I mean, if we don’t follow our bliss, why bother? We might as well be bankers and make real money.
Dan Grech (Twitter @dgrech) is a reporting triple threat: he’s written more than 1,000 articles for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald, he’s produced 852 stories for the public radio show Marketplace, and he starred in 12 segments on neuroeconomics for the public television program Nightly Business Report. Now he runs the radio news department at WLRN-Miami Herald News. When he isn’t performing in an improv comedy troupe, he’s writing a memoir called “Hurricane Wilma: A Love Story,” about his two years wooing his now wife and rebuilding his hurricane-damaged South Beach condo.