Volume 2/Issue 2
- Join the Discussion with Deborah AmosIntro by Jay Allison
February 2, 2002
Ray Suarez once said that public radio is like Brigadoon. Everyone returns through the mist (indeed, we’re still waiting for Ray).
I remember feeling melancholy on hearing that Deborah Amos was leaving NPR. As listeners, we had come to rely on her voice, her steady presence especially in places where terrible things were happening. She was just plain trustworthy, maybe the most desirable quality in a news organization, and Deb stood for it. She was a loss to NPR and a coup for ABC. ABC has been very clever in this regard.
I asked for her ABC bio and she said, you’ll notice that it’s really a bio for NPR which is kinda weird considering I’ve worked here for almost eight years.
Deb has not gone far away. She pops up on American Radio Works and you can hear her voice on Nightline and Frontline, the two most radio-like news/documentary programs out there. Why are they radio-like? They respect words. They understand story and let the images serve it. They steal talent from public radio.
It’s a treat to have her here on Transom. I hope you’ll pick her brain mercilessly because she knows of many things at the mysterious intersection of sound and image.
And the fact that she convinced her husband Rick Davis to come too is a real boon. Here’s what Deb says about him:
I’ve been bugging Rick to write down his “career” – not so easy to give orders to a guy who’s 67 and has a mind of his own. You should know that his first job in television was to produce and direct Jack LaLanne when we was still a local guy (do you think anyone still remembers Jack LaLanne) and then he got into the t.v. bizz – in San Francisco – a foreign correspondent by 1979 – covering the Iranian revolution – we met in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon – we moved to the Middle east in 1984 – He’s been everywhere – covered most important foreign stories in the last twenty years…always known as an excellent t.v. writer.
Welcome to Deb Amos and Rick Davis. Here follows their joint Manifesto. By the way, I don’t know if she remembers, but Deb bought the first radio piece I ever did. Made on a borrowed portable reel-to-reel. I got $75. Thrilling!
Deborah Amos’ Manifesto
w/ Rick Davis
Television is Across the Room
deborah amos, February 8, 2002
I’ve been off the NPR staff list for more than eight
years. I still do some occasional radio work, a documentary
a year, hosting “American
Radio Works,” but I am an infrequent voice
on the public radio airwaves these days. Still, not
a week goes by when I don’t pick up the phone, calling
for an interview in my television job, and someone
hears my voice (not my name) and says, “I know
you, I heard you on NPR!”
It’s a tribal thing, the public radio audience, and that’s one explanation for the long memories. But I think the more likely explanation is that I’ve been walking around inside their heads. They believe they know what I look like, who I am, and, if I’ve been any good at my craft, they have imagined every place I’ve been with a tape recorder. They have imagined what it smelled like and what the people ate for dinner. And when the situation was dangerous, they imagined the danger and they worried. Once, when I was in China after Tienamen Square, a public radio listener showed up from Seattle. He had booked a vacation in China when the Tienamen crisis began. He decided to come anyway. “I heard you on the radio and I figured if you were here then it was safe.” It was a little more responsibility than I wanted, but that is what listening to the radio is all about.
Listeners are our co-authors, our co-conspirators, they engage, they imagine and participate with us. It helps to explains those “wait in the driveway until the story is over” moments. Television doesn’t work that way and not just because you can’t watch it while you’re driving.
Radio storytelling is powerful because it engages people one on one, deep in the imagination. You can read the newspaper and at the same time listen to music. The television is across the room, past the coffee table, and is subject to all kinds of interruptions. Radio is right in your head. No Rules Here.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this before working at NPR. Like so many who came to work for NPR in the late 1970′s, I arrived at the “M” street offices more by accident than intent. I wasn’t an NPR listener, it wasn’t on my radar screen in St. Petersburg, Florida. In fact, back then I didn’t listen to the radio at all. In 1977 I was new to Washington D.C., a little lost, and had started graduate school because I couldn’t think of anything else to do after a job as a local television reporter in Florida became a pointless way to spend eight hours while the sun was shining. But I needed a job and NPR had an opening: director for the weekend news. I don’t remember a formal job interview, but I was given a piece of tape to edit for a test. It was a raw interview by Ira Flatow and I cut it as I remembered hearing it from the night before on “All Things Considered.” That was it. I was in.
There is an old joke at NPR, that the golden age of NPR ended six months before you got there. But I believe I did work in some of the golden age of National Public Radio. Almost everybody there wanted to experiment with the medium, find new ways to use sound, and when we weren’t working on radio piece, we were listening to radio pieces. I remember the first time hearing the Kitchen Sisters take old recordings and remix and edit them into something new and exciting. This was a sound collage, without script, that had the power to evoke emotion simply by juxtaposition and editing choices. I particularly remember standing still near by bedroom radio all alone, tearing and transfixed by a piece they did one Christmas with old scratchy recordings from World War II. Robert Krulwich was experimenting with theater and the news. He would invent characters, sometimes using mice, to explain the complexities of economics. Then there were the documentaries; Keith Talbot’s “The Selling Game,” used radio in a way I had never imagined before. Clearly, there were no rules here.
We listened. We listened to everything we could, stereo documentaries produced at Sender Fries Berlin, news magazine programs from Canada. Some of it was god awful, boring, pretentious and ten minutes too long. But the point was there was permission to take risks. That is the definition of the Golden Age. And it didn’t matter back then that we seemed like the only ones listening. The audience was small and loyal, emphasis on small.
I always wanted to tell stories more than I wanted to report the news. I wanted to take a tape recorder to interesting places. A war in Beirut? Yeah, that’s a good one. A Palestinian uprising? Great idea. How about Afghanistan, the Russians have invaded there? You bet, a perfect place to gather sound and voices. And it always was because people had stories to tell, compelling stories, more powerful than any newspaper report could capture, more visual than any television dispatch could match.
Once, we were coming back to Mogadishu on a military C-130. The U.S. marines had landed in Somalia and producer Michael Sullivan and I had gathered tape in the Somali town of Bidoa. We were writing and editing on board, both of us with miner’s lights on our heads so we could see what we were doing, ear phones on so we could listen to the tape above the droning roar of the military. The interviews were roaming around in my head. It is that deep concentration, cutting tape, arranging the sound that set us apart from the other journalists on the plane.
After all this time away, I still feel part of that tribe, and after spending seventeen years of my professional life in public radio, those experiences shaped my views on journalism and writing, and what reporting is all about. I still think of myself as an NPR reporter working in commercial network television. (And when my TV bosses really want to insult a piece I’ve written, that’s how they see it, too.)
I work on a radio piece each year, using vacation time to do it. My producer and collaborator is my husband, a retired television correspondent [ed. Rick Davis, next up], and without ever talking about it, we seem to have the same sensibilities about producing radio. I’ve come to believe that the best radio is produced in collaboration. You need to talk out the best parts, make sure you get it all in, and have someone who will laugh when you’ve heard a piece of tape so often that you can perform a voice, the inflection, a moment that is priceless but is too inside for the audience.
Confessions of an EX Bubble Filler
Rick Davis, February 8, 2002
Radio writing is a craft I am trying to figure out late. It is another step on a path that goes back to failure. If there had been spell check on old Underwood typewriters, I would have been a newspaper reporter. You know. Is it I before E or E before I? That kind of stuff. I like to say the paper was just downsizing. By one?
So I had to find a place where you can fake your way with the spoken word. And me talk good. TELEVISION.
Now there is a writing skill in TV. I say it is a little like filling in the bubbles in cartoons. No. It is a lot like filling in the bubbles in cartoons. You know, those words above the drawings. Don’t think I am knocking cartoonists. Walt Kelly said more in one strip than a lot of writers do in a 300 page novel. But you need the pictures.
Now I know what a lot of you think about TV reporters. A bunch of bubble heads filling in the bubbles. But don’t tell me. I am a very sensitive person.
I have a friend—she is a veteran of television, radio, magazines, and books. She compares television writing to haiku. She is kind, but a little misguided.
Haiku? TV reporters know about those three lines and few syllables? Not many could tell the difference between T. S. Eliot and Robert Service.
A few years back this kind lady decided we should do radio documentaries together for National Public Radio. She shall remain nameless and thus blameless. Friends know it was an act of kindness to the elderly.
And so this attempt to learn the craft of radio writing began. First we returned to the Middle East and produced POLITICS OF MEMORY. We had worked there for many years and decided it was time for refresher courses in depression, violence, and corruption.
Other documentaries have followed and I am on a slow learning curve in radio writing. I am learning about the beauty and power of the spoken word. No pictures are available to help you fake it. In radio it is up to you, sisters and brothers.
I remember reading a line from Davia Nelson about radio allowing you to capture the smell of a place. I remember a day in Beirut–the scent of Jasmine and cordite blended in the warm air. I remember the smell of death a hundred yards away from Sabra and Shatilla–the hundreds of rotting bodies after a massacre. I remember the smells of too many refugee camps in too many countries.
I am also learning that the more beautiful and powerful the words–the more gently you must speak them. We all have heard the radio reporters who sound like Charlton Heston reading the Ten Commandments.
And with a little help from my friends I may be learning to write for radio.
There is more to say but —– the spel chek on mi cumpewter stopt.
A Conversation w/ Deborah Amos & Rick Davis
Your Voice Through Time
Nanette – February 9, 2002
Could you talk about the photographs of you?
Does it matter where they are? Are they typical scenes? Are they pictures of you “at home” as much as “away”?
I wonder how your voice (all meanings of the word) has changed over the years.
Depth to Discourse
Jackson Braider – February 10, 2002
I was very much taken with your effort to cross media barriers. As a long-time print guy, I personally was shocked that radio, according to one of my sources, deals in *fragments* — *fragments* I tell you! — ranging between 5 and 25 words. This was appalling stuff to the writing student who had passed, with flying colors, the 100-word sentence test in which I could use the word “and” only once.
There are obviously niceties print offers — luxuriant clauses and sub-clauses, internal arguments and happy resolutions — that neither radio nor television can possibly allow.
And yet radio is argumentatively compelling, even though the structure of writing for radio seems to eschew the argumentative structure of print prose. Thesis/antithesis/synthesis is so easy in print. My general sense of television writing is that there is thesis/support of thesis/restatement of thesis.
How, to your attuned eye and ear, does radio allow for the internal argument — if, in fact, radio does embrace the kind of contradiction that brings depth to discourse.
On the Satellite Aviary
deborah amos – February 11, 2002
The picture you see at the top of our “manifesto” was taken by an AP photographer for the ABC promos department. I am standing on top of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Behind me is an aviary of satellite dishes – cnn/fox/bbc/abc – this is what “hotel journalism” is all about – you read the wires – call a few people – then stand up on the roof of a hotel and broadcast a report. It’s a very odd way to conduct journalism – and it was the first time I had ever done it. (Not that I hadn’t stood on the top of hotels before – it was the disconnect with the story that was a first.)
I don’t take pictures. I don’t own a camera – I don’t really think with my eyes. It’s still with the ears.
However, I DO think my voice has changed over the years – I know that in my story selections – how I look at the world – more mature – and I hope – a better “bullshit” detector – just from more experience.
And You Can’t Write While You Watch TV
chelsea merz – February 11, 2002
You write: “Listeners are our co-authors, our co-conspirators, they engage, they imagine and participate with us. It helps to explain those ‘”wait in the driveway until the story is over”‘ moments. Television doesn’t work that way and not just because you can’t watch it while you’re driving. ”
Does this affect how you write for radio vs. how you write for television? And if so, in what way do your thought processes differ? How have years of radio influenced your craft as a television journalist?
Competing With Sleep
deborah amos – February 11, 2002
When I’m writing a television piece – I actually think a lot about the audience. Writing for Nightline? – They are sitting in bed – somewhat sleepy – I’m trying to keep them awake – it’s 11:35 at night! I watch out for too much complication – oops – I just lost them – their eyes are closing!! I think about reaching out again after the commercial – are they still with me. It’s a process of structure – more than thinking about the pictures – It means keeping the movement forward – linear – compelling… I’m competing with sleep.
As for radio influencing my craft as a television journalist – I’ve watched some old timers – both in American television – and with the BBC – and they really watch their pictures – almost talking out a script – talking along with the pictures. I wish I could do that because when it works – it’s first-rate television. I haven’t yet learned to effectively write to my pictures. I still structure a story around the “bites” – It’s the way I always did it in radio – the voices were the emotional and informational center of any report. I still do that for better or worse.
Beyond the Facts
Viki Merrick – February 12, 2002
I’m wondering about the methods you describe about writing for television. While you honor the method of writing to pictures – that is not necessarily a hands-on experience for a reporter – certainly not compared to having captured a real human’s thought/feeling sound bite and incorporating that into what you’ve seen, what you’ve smelled and inhaled. The story beneath or beyond the facts.
Perhaps you are being kind, collegial, diplomatic? Probably that too. But there IS something in your voice that makes me think I ought to pay attention, and I think it’s because you’ve eaten the local food so to speak, and willingly.
Will you tell a couple of “war stories” – meaning, the more significant or successful work (yours obviously) in your opinion, and why you think it is so?
Crossing Media Barriers
RICK DAVIS- February 12, 2002
I LIKE YOUR PHRASE—”EFFORT TO CROSS MEDIA BARRIERS”—STILL TRYING.
AND I UNDERSTAND YOUR CONCERN ABOUT RADIO FRAGMENTS. A LOT OF BROADCAST NEWS REMINDS ME OF THAT OLD BOB DYLAN LINE–”SOMETHING IS HAPPENING HERE–BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS–DO YOU MISTER JONES.”
NPR AND THE BBC ARE LESS GUILTY OF THAT THAN MOST. I THINK COMMERCIAL RADIO WITH ITS FAST PACED “ALL NEWS” FORMAT IS THE PRIMARY OFFENDER. IT TRULY IS “SOMETHING IS HAPPENING” AND WE DON’T GIVE MUCH OF A DAMN IF YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS OR NOT. WE HAVE TO GET TO THE COMMERCIALS.
AND ABOUT YOUR 100-WORD SENTENCE ONLY USING AND ONCE—I’M NOT EVEN SURE IF FAULKNER OR CORMAC MCCARTHY COULD MANAGE THAT. BUT AS FAR AS RADIO OR TELEVISION IS CONCERNED—ERASE THAT MEMORY. FORGET ABOUT IT. MASTERING A SIMPLE DECLARATIVE SENTENCE SEEMS BEYOND THE ABILITY OF SOME OF THE FOLKS I HAVE KNOWN OVER THE PAST MANY YEARS.
THERE IS A PLACE FOR THE LUXURIENT CLAUSE. RICHARD THRELKELD A FORMER CBS CORRESPONDENT WAS A MASTER OF THE BEAUTIFUL PHRASE DELIVERED SIMPLY AND THEN FOLLOWED BY THAT SHORT DECLARATIVE SENTENCE.
NOW ABOUT THE SUBCLAUSES. NO–LETS NOT EVEN TALK ABOUT THE SUBCLAUSES.
WHEN IT COMES TO THE RADIO AND TELEVISON TENDENCY TO STATE A THESIS–SUPPORT IT—AND RESTATE. I STAND GUILTY AND HAVE TOLD YOUNGER REPORTERS IT IS NECESSARY—AT LEAST MY VERSION OF THAT. IN BROADCAST JOURNALISM IT GOES BY ONCE. YOU CAN NOT LOOK BACK AT THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH TO GIVE YOURSELF A REFRESHER COURSE ON WHAT THE DEVIL THIS STORY IS ALL ABOUT. I THINK WHEN USING AN INTERVIEW YOU MUST GIVE THE LISTENER A HINT AT LEAST OF WHAT IS COMING UP. IF IT IS A MAJOR POINT BEING MADE—IT MAY LATER BE NECESSARY TO REMIND THE LISTENER OF THAT.
I REALLY UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEMS OF GOING FROM PRINT TO RADIO OR TV. I HAVE KNOWN A LOT OF GOOD REPORTERS WHO HAVE STRUGGLED HARD. SOME MAKE THE TRANSITION. SOME DON’T. SOME WASTE A HELL OF A LOT OF TIME FIGHTING A SYSTEM THEY AIN’T GONNA BEAT.
WHEN PRINT REPORTERS MAKE THE TRANSITION—THEY ARE THE BEST. THEY UNDERSTAND THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE AND HOW TO BLEND IT WITH PICTURES AND/OR SOUND.
SO IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT MAKING THE TRANSITION—DO IT. BUT PICK YOUR PLACE CAREFULLY PAL. TO QUOTE MY GREAT IDOL–GEORGE W. BUSH–THERE ARE “EVIL” PEOPLE OUT THERE.
The Beeb, the Neep
helen woodward – February 12, 2002
The luxuriant clause…
What a wonderful phrase, perhaps you could give us some examples of said clauses, on radio, tv and/or elsewhere.
And while we’re at it, both of you have mentioned the BBC, so do you see any obvious differences/similarities between the approach of the beeb and NPR to radio, either in news or other programming.
Turning Scarves Into Rabbits Out of Hats
ben – February 12, 2002
I’m so happy there’s finally a discussion about writing.
Rick wrote: “WHEN PRINT REPORTERS MAKE THE TRANSITION—THEY ARE THE BEST. THEY UNDERSTAND THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE AND HOW TO BLEND IT WITH PICTURES AND/OR SOUND.”
I think this is one of the hardest things for people to get.
Coming from print myself, I was very frustrated with what I saw as the “loss of the art of writing.” You don’t have that look-up-the-page thing, so you can’t do these long and beautiful sentences that bend all the grammar rules and say things in the most interesting ways.
So suddenly, there I was working in radio. And there I was working in TV every now and then. And I was getting very frustrated with the short declarative part of it.
But then I realized I wasn’t recognizing the trick of each medium. In print you write to the page, in radio you write to the tape, in TV you write for the pictures. And there are so many great and interesting ways that you can do each of those things. You can use your tracks and your tape (or pictures) to complement each other, to contradict each other, to fight with each other, or just have fun together. (Check out Krulwich’s piece on the third coast site, and any of the This American Life “Prologue” pieces for totally different and equally great ways of writing to tape).
Here’s a question: who are your favorite writers? Please choose one for each medium:
Extra Credit: Explain your choices.
They Dress Better, But Our Bags Weigh Less
Raquel – February 12, 2002
Is there anything (*gasp*) that radio people can learn from TV people? Not just the pros, but the work-a-day producers and reporters and documentarians we run into while doing our own sound-only work. When I see them in the field, I gloat about how all my gear fits in one small, lightweight bag…
I’m asking as a local, station-based public radio reporter who strives every day to write those elusive simple-declarative-sentences. When I go to journalism conferences, it seems I have more in common with the TV people than the print people. The words-on-page people are distant cousins and we have to catch up and be polite and make chitchat and sometimes the things they say are just plain weird. (You have a person who covers City Hall exclusively? What luxury!) But the images-on-screen people seem to come from the same kind of stressed-out, dysfunctional family (newsroom) that I deal with every day. They just dress better.
The Essence of Raw Emotions
deborah amos – February 13, 2002
A war story…
But first: I may have given the wrong impression about writing to picture. When I’m working on a television story – it’s usually a four person team – camera/sound/producer/me. So I am connecting to a human being in the interviews – although often the room feels a little crowded. It took a while for me to get used to having so many people around – in radio, it’s often knee-to-knee with a microphone in between – that makes for very intimate contact.
The writing to picture part comes when you’re trying to connect all those pieces of conversation. What did the village look like? Well, can’t write about that – we can see it. So making the pictures and the script work together for additional meaning is tricky – especially because – as I’ve learned over these past eight years – the picture will beat the words every time.
Now, for a war story: I’ve been thinking about this one because of the events surrounding the Danny Pearl kidnapping. Last December, – I wanted to report on the sentiment in some parts of Pakistan towards the war. It was clear that there were parts of the population who were totally against the U.S. bombing campaign – and this was going to cause big problems for the Pakistan government.
We arranged to go to northern Pakistan. Here, many of the religious schools had encouraged students to cross the border and fight along side the Taliban. It we were going to find opposition – it would most definitely be here.
So, we hired a local fixer to find some people we could interview. His suggestion – the families who had lost sons in the U.S. bombing raids in Kabul. That seemed like a good idea.
When we drove into town we noticed these colorful tin signs on the roadside. Our local fixer told us that these signs show where the “martyr’s” families live. These are death notices, with the details – name, age, time of death, but the signs look like party notices – this is the only real color in a drab little village.
Then we noticed that in some of the roadside cemeteries there are new graves decorated with something that looks like Christmas tree tinsel. These graves are clearly different than all the other graves. Our translator explains that these are the graves of the men who have been killed in the U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan. Again, I am struck by the feeling of celebration.
Then we meet the families. At the first house, the grave is in the front lawn. Like the others we’ve seen in town, the grave is decorated in shiny blue, red and silver streamers. The brothers tell us they are proud that their brother died as a martyr for Islam. And in fact, they have the support and admiration of the neighbors. I ask all the boys that have come to watch the interview how they feel about Osama bin Laden. “He’s a hero for Islam,” they all say. “Do you want to die for Islam,” I want to know. “Oh, Yes,” they all respond.
We spent hours in the village and then drove back to Islamabad to put the story together for Nightline. I thought the segment was fine – and conveyed the story – but this was a time that I knew the story would have been stronger had I written it. There was just no way to capture what was going on in that village with the limited technology of images – we were all swept away by the raw emotions of the place – it’s the essence that only words can convey.
The Small Detail
deborah amos – February 13, 2002
Not all tv is bad.
With the explosion of cable and web outlets I am finding the sensibilities of the people using digital hand held video cameras is much the same as reporters using sound. They are also looking for the intimate, the small detail. I think there is plenty to learn.
A Yankee Gourmand
deborah amos – February 13, 2002
To helen woodward
I remain a great fan of the BBC and am very pleased that we can see the newscasts now on cable television. I particularly noticed the comparisons in television journalism during the early part of the “War in Afghanistan” – The Brits have been in and out of Afghanistan for the last decade and it showed in the level of sophistication in their reporting.
I think when it comes to news, radio/television can not be beat. However, I still think that NPR runs circles around the Beeb when it comes to inventiveness. There is no show comparable to “This American Life” – maybe that’s the Yank in me, but I think there are segments of the NPR broadcasting schedule that are simply more challenging than anything the Beeb has to offer. So, like any gourmand, I pick and choose because the new media explosion allows for that.
Ordering Two Franks With Wooten, Krulwich, And Relish
deborah amos – February 14, 2002
I’ve always been a sucker for extra credit – so I’ll start with the quiz.
My favorite television writer (besides my husband) is Jim Wooten. I will always stop what I’m doing for a Wooten piece. He is best at the 2:30 range – his economy of language is stunning – and his use of a repeated phase is worth noting. I have studied his scripts to try to figure out how he does it. Magic.
Robert Krulwich is my favorite for long form television writing. No need to explain here – he’s just the best.
In radio – I would say Frank DeFord. I imagine that Frank talks the way he writes (of course, that is his craft at work) DeFord is who he is. I love to listen – and I’m no sports fan – in fact, I am sports-impaired – everything I know about sports comes from Frank DeFord.
At the moment, Frank Rich is my favorite print writer. He’s clear, he’s sassy and he’s often angry. It is a good way to start a Saturday morning to read Frank Rich.
Who, What, When, Where, How
Jay Allison – February 16, 2002
Rick and Deb,
Do you think of radio as one-to-one and tv as one-to-many (The television is across the room). Do you speak louder on TV? When I’ve done Nightline pieces, I’m struck by how LOUD the editing room is, filled with humming gear and you’re supposed to narrate over that. It seems symbolic of the level of communication. I used to fight against it because it made my delivery so presentational that it felt like I was bullshitting. I wasn’t talking in a real way.
How close is your actual voice to your radio/tv voice? What’s the difference?
What is the difference between the way you are writing here on this discussion board and the way you’d write for a tv/radio audience? Why is it different, if it is?
When you’re reporting, do you often have things you wish you could say/write that you don’t or can’t? What kinds of things?
Do you find that you know what’s expected of you, that you have an identifiable style and you’re good at it, so you simply do that? Do you sometimes break out of your style? Do you sometimes want to speak/write very differently than what’s expected and do you have the freedom to do so?
Finding A Different Delivery
deborah amos – February 19, 2002
To Jay Allison
I finally have time to think about the different voices I’ve had for radio and television. And there is a different voice. When I first got to television I tried out my regular radio voice – it was pretty close to the way I speak in person – but it wasn’t working on television – it was too soft – no authority – I’d get lost in the pictures. I had to find a different t. v. voice (and try not to have that “am I bull-shitting?” feeling… but I had to find a different “delivery” I think that it’s faster – and harder – edgier. (In one of Peter Jenning’s more unpleasant days – he called up to the voice booth to remind me that I shouldn’t use my “smarmy radio voice”.)
I don’t really feel that I have a style that I’m good at – I’m usually just grappling with the material – trying to make sense of what I’ve collected. I’m one of those writers who don’t really know what I’m going to say (or even what I think) until I get it on the paper. It’s always a surprise – so, if I had a style – I would definitely try to break out of it – but I don’t – so I just approach each story as chaos until the writing brings clarity.
The assignment was to report out the “Missed Opportunities” before September 11. We read everything we could find on the subject – determined who we wanted to interview -and tried to remember the surprises along the way. There are some things I wish I could have written on this one – but it’s usually a question of time. Even with a whole Nightline – there are still some details that had to go in the final production – but as you know, there is a lot of freedom at Nightline to report what you know. It’s the closest thing to radio that I know.
The Cutting Room Floor
Jackson Braider – February 20, 2002
Having just seen Nightline…
30 minutes minus seems so little given the amount of information you and others had gathered. Was there anything that hit the cutting room floor about material and information withheld from us?
This is strictly from the point of radio, where we never have to dress for the part — I found the on-scene talk shot at Ground Zero somewhat strange. It shows you on the trail, but…
The Human Graphic
deborah amos – February 20, 2002
To Jackson Braider
There was so much that hit the cutting room floor – but then, that’s all journalism – not just television. Coming from the inside – I figure getting 30 minutes of commercial television time and having a pretty free hand to put the material on the air was an accomplishment. You have to know that this one was a real team effort. ABC has an investigative unit – and they are really great reporters who mercilessly work their sources. And so, we decided to include what we knew to be new.
As for dressing the part – a lot of reason for the “stand up’s” – is because we have no pictures to cover that piece of information – so the correspondent becomes the human graphic. Ironic that you point out the one that was done on “location” – I thought the ones shot in the news rooms would stand out more oddly.
Susan Jenkins – February 22, 2002
One thing that you mentioned in your manifesto rang true for me as a new producer…the interest in finding STORIES.
I feel like I fall with my own interests on a “side”–there is “news” and then there are “stories” and I am definitely not interested in “news.” I came to radio producing as a writer, as an outlet for my writing. So reporting, which seems akin to “news” is something else.
I was wondering how you see this dichotomy between news and stories…both journalism, but with very different ways of communicating. Has it “always” been this way?
Fitting a Feature Peg In A News Hole
deborah amos – February 24, 2002
To Susan Jenkins
I don’t like the “news” much myself – although I’ve learned to do my share of it as the price for doing “stories”. I think there has always been a division between the news stories and the feature stories – and even the news features. When NPR had one outlet – “All Things Considered” (yep, I’m old enough to have worked there before Morning Edition) then all the stories ended up on the evening news shows. But, as you know, over the years – there has been “specialization” – making it harder and harder to just get a good story on the news programs because it’s always fighting with the news. I don’t know the answer for that one – This American Life – has done a great job specializing in stories – or narrative – and the kitchen sisters have found a niche for the “not-news” but it is a hard road to take because the outlets are so small. My only advice is to use your skills are a writer to get more “feature” in your news spots – or – what we try to do here at ABC is use a news peg to tell the story of somebody’s life.
Condie Can Wail
Jackson Braider – February 25, 2002
Surely unraveling news can make for compelling stories — like, for example, your Nightline piece. Eying, albeit in retrospect, a chain of events (which is one way of defining a “story”) where one couldn’t be seen before. The quashed tale of the co-pilot crashing Egyptair 990 into the sea while crying it’s all for Allah makes sense from here, post 9-1-1.
But what about another kind of story: I’m thinking of the Woodward/Balz fiasco that seemed to run interminably in the Washington Post about the White House in the days immediately following the attack. I was appalled — the supposedly true dialogue, the vision of Condie Rice singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with Ashcroft on the piano while the Cabinet prayed together at Camp David. Whatever it was, this wasn’t *news*, and the only kind of story it resembled to me was some kind of fairy tale (and that is looking at it charitably).
I guess what I am trying to say is that in pursuit of a story, I wonder if we sometimes lose sight of the facts of the story. “Story” as you describe it above verges on “human interest” — I don’t mean that in a bad sense (unless Condie starts pulling out the sheet music).
The problem is that we can only tell one story at a time in radio and on TV. Even if we try to tell both stories around such a story, one story has to lead — an editorial choice that implies which of the stories is more important.
Do we have the means, the sensitivity, the capacity, to tell different facets of the same story in a single telling, especially in the electronic (as opposed to print) media?
Without A and B, C=Chaos
deborah amos – February 25, 2002
You may be asking way too much of the news “Business” – it is almost impossible to tell all those different facets outside of print -in both radio and television “a” has to be followed by “b” and so on… otherwise – well – otherwise there is chaos. Now, I happen to agree with you on some parts of the Woodward/Balz series. It just shows that too much access is a bad thing.
The Constraints of Time
Jackson Braider – February 26, 2002
Rick alluded to one joy of print earlier: that one can always go back and reread. TV and radio accomplish this through repetition — and repetition, as we all know, is the mother of memory.
But I wonder: even in contradictory stories on the same subject, there are going to be common elements: superimposed images or cross fades can surely allow for such blending (I am thinking of that moment in Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” when the killer is breaking the rigored knuckles of a deceased to get a tie pin as the scene dissolves to the Scotland Yard type cracking the Italian bread sticks while his wife presents another strange dish from her cooking class).
Would such transitions be too “editorial”? Can’t we forget the constraints of time in this era of satellite radio, 3000 cable channels, TiVo and the web?
Jay Allison – February 26, 2002
Deborah, this issue of editorial blending might be a good segue into talking about “Father Cares.”
Father Cares – The Last of Jonestown:
For those who may not know, this was a groundbreaking radio documentary from NPR about the Jonestown mass suicide produced by Deborah, with Noah Adams and James Reson Jr. using the tapes that Jim Jones made in Guyana. I was talking to Skip Pizzi this week, one of the engineers on the project, and it broke ground in technical ways too.
My main question would be how you regard the piece now. Would you try anything like it again? Would NPR? How has radio (or TV, for that matter) journalism changed since then? For better or worse?
A Stand Against the Predominating Ethos
Susan Jenkins – February 26, 2002
“My only advice is to use your skills as a writer to get more “feature” in your news spots ”
Why not choose not to do news at all?
Putting “more feature in your news spots” sounds a little too much like fitting square pegs into round holes, where you have to force it against the predominating ethos.
Features in Dior with Hats by Chanel
Viki Merrick – February 27, 2002
Yeah and you could get a piece on once or twice a year. The reality is mainstream. The point is not to “be in the right place” necessarily, but infiltrate the mainstream with features dressed in news with a poignant story to it. Eventually, the straight news report won’t be enough for anyone anymore.
No News is Good News
Susan Jenkins – February 27, 2002
Or convincing the exec. producer of choice that the feature is timely/news… selling the piece -pitching well…
But what’s the role of the straight news if we’re all more interested in stories?
Working Out of Crisis
deborah amos – February 27, 2002
I’m still happy with our production and editorial choices – although we took a great deal of heat for it at the time (What? No sociologists, no experts explaining within the documentary??? – What did we think we were doing??)
Would NPR run this documentary now? I really doubt it.
We did break a lot of rules, but as I remember it, we really didn’t set out to break the rules – We just couldn’t figure out how to make this program.
I sat and listened to over 300 hours of tape one summer, and after being overwhelmed by the material – I figured the only format that I was truly comfortable with was the “ATC”- 90 minute clock – so I built the structure around that. Father Cares is built on the All Things Considered format. We designed an opening, left space for a newscast, opened the second half hour with another lead – and so on.
I don’t remember how we came up with the editorial approach – Was it Noah’s idea? Or maybe Chris Koch? He was our creative master at the time. But we were working ourselves out of a crisis – and came up with the solution. At the time, it really didn’t feel groundbreaking – it was nice to win the Prix Italia, though.
And, yes, journalism – radio journalism, has changed quite a bit. NPR is more like the radio of record than it was back then. The New York Times of the air.
The Bowlers in Almonte
deborah amos – February 27, 2002
susan, And then there’s this question. How do we negotiate all this and still make a living? What no one has said out loud here is that radio journalism (and certainly television journalism) is not art – it’s a living – and those are the constraints that we work in. NPR is as market driven as the commercial networks (well, maybe that is a little harsh) and, yeah, it would be great to just go buy some cassettes and “do good stories” but who is going to listen? I’m a fan of “broadcasting” – I want to reach a large audience – I want to be part of the national conversation. And as Frank M. used to say when he ran NPR – I want to reach the bowlers in Almonte. So, the art form is staying one step ahead of the conformity police.
Transcending the Format
chelsea merz – February 28, 2002
If something is done well–I’m not sure how to define this–but if something is done with integrity, soul, purity, etc…won’t it transcend the format of news and/or story and just be interesting? Do you think it’s easier to reach the bowlers in Almonte via television rather than radio? With news, with journalism is it easier to engage someone–to hook him or her visually?
It seems a bit unfair to say that journalism is inferior to the narrative form. Some of Ira Glass’ most memorable moments were in the day when he did a series on the Chicago public school system. (He still excerpts these interviews for TAL.)
The Spectrum’s Narrative
Susan Jenkins – March 2, 2002
Journalism is more than news reporting, though, isn’t it? I would argue a lot of TAL is still a form of journalism, way on the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps, but still in there. Writers for The New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, etc. are telling stories. Lawrence Weschler comes most easily to mind…he’s representative of what people call “creative non-fiction” but it’s research and reporting in what may be its highest art form. All this being a long way of suggesting that journalism can’t be exclusive to narrative, since it’s dependent on it.
I think of news as bits of abbreviated narrative presented with the least amount of context necessary in a given society.
Jackson Braider – March 3, 2002
The New Yorker contains reporting, but it is not journalism. The time constraints are minimal, which allows writers to delve deeply into their subjects. But it is reporting in the sense that with a few glaring exceptions, The New Yorker has been extraordinarily scrupulous in their fact-checking.
Reporting, as Susan says above, depends on research — it depends on getting the facts and the underlying issues straight. Ideally, in reporting, the facts and issues lead the reporter to arrive at conclusions supported by the elements in the story.
Against all this I would argue that we have another realm of narration ripping through our so-called “news” media that has nothing to do with either journalism or reporting. This is a kind POV narrative where the writer — say, Bernard Goldberg — selects certain facts or details to illustrate his “story” while disregarding any material that might contradict his point of view.
We need space to present the whole story; we need time to get the story right.
The question, Susan, I think you want to ask is whether news is journalism is reporting.
Certain Acts of Selection
Susan Jenkins – March 3, 2002
“… This is a kind POV narrative where the writer — say, Bernard Goldberg — selects certain facts or details to illustrate his “story” while disregarding any material that might contradict his point of view.”
Selection is inherent in any kind of narrative, some more seamless than others. A recent article in the NYT on the struggle of businesses near Ground Zero seems to cover a lot of territory with considerable depth. Only I know from working down there that what they strung their story on was just a select few places…in what seemed so random a range as to make me wonder just how they picked their examples. What can be criticized is not the act of selection so much as the rhetoric that certain acts of selection imply. Goldberg-type selection is poor because it is misrepresented; it is unbalanced on purpose but presented as balanced.
Don’t Shape the Stuff on the Floor
deborah amos – March 4, 2002
I agree that good journalism, readable, listenable, deep journalism needs space and time. However, I have been touched by short powerful reports….so it’s hard to make rules here. I listen to a news program because I want the news. I listen to TAL because I want something more. What difference does it make if we call all of this journalism?
As to choices…there is often an implication that the “best” stuff has been left on the “cutting room floor” – for editorial reasons – for personal reasons -or some kind of censorship reasons. I find the reason that most stuff gets left behind is very simple – it doesn’t fit.
Once you start making choices – imposing order on a mountain of material -then the choices get easier. When I first came to NPR and asked Smokey Baer, one of ATC’s best producers – how he made editing decisions he say “put the good stuff on the reel – and the bad stuff on the floor.”
Making those choices are personal – subjective – and there is no way around that. All journalists make a virtue out of objectivity – but – it’s those choices – those subjective choices that shape a story.
Sydney Lewis – March 4, 2002
Deborah, I caught a piece of a news report about ABC/Nightline/Letterman. The thought that ABC would dump Nightline creates an unpleasant sensation in my head and I’m wondering what it’s doing to yours…..
The National Conversation
Nannette – March 7, 2002
Your simple statement “I’m a fan of “broadcasting” – I want to reach a large audience – I want to be part of the national conversation.” speaks to me here.
Where else could the conversation be? And how could young and old audiences be brought together?
The Niche of News
deborah amos – March 10, 2002
The Nightline “news” hit the ABC news staff hard. All of us have been thru yearly budget cuts, making more news with less money, worries that network news programs could be cut altogether.
There was a false sense of rejuvenation after September 11th. Not that anyone wished this event to be the one that revived network news, but there was no doubt that audiences returned to the networks. There was no doubt that when events warranted, the networks still had plenty of talent and budget to broadcast a program that could ground the public and deliver the visual news.
The Letterman gambit blew this all out of water, and to mix a couple of metaphors, the writing was on the wall, or soon to be on the screen. Television news is, sooner rather than later, to be relegated to niche programming best left to cable television. No matter the final Koppel/Letterman resolution, this is the larger truth about the future.
The days following the news leak in the New York Times was particularly hard on the younger news producers and reporters. ABC management had declared that the pride of the news department, “Nightline” was no longer relevant. Heading for cable-land is no great option, either. Fox? CNN? The chattering talking heads of talk television?
The irony, of course, there is now more “news” available than ever before. I can sit at my computer and read any kind of news I want. I can tailor the coverage, go as deep as I want, as obscure as my interests allow. Can pick the time of radio broadcasts, “TIVO” my t.v. News at home.
The problem isn’t the lack of news, it’s the niche of news. I don’t like the idea that we will be without nightly national news programs. The argument is somewhat akin to the argument over public education. Everyone is entitled to a free education in this country, and I believe the country also needs national news programs that don’t exclude some viewers because it comes over the private cable channels. News is a public service.
I can still remember watching the national news broadcasts as a kid and that is why the story in the Congo has a strange relevance for me. (Stay with me here for a minute) I remember the cliche’ filled newscasts about the “mineral rich breakaway province of Katanaga” that dominated the foreign news just before I became a teenager. News is part of public education, of understanding the world, of feelings, for the first time, that we are part of a larger whole.
It is true that television news these days doesn’t care much about the Congo, or other foreign stories, but still, there is some nod to the old-fashioned “news” each night on the three networks. Now, all of these shows are in danger.
National Public Radio is the last great national dialogue – broadcasting in the real sense of that term. But, let’s face it, there are some worries for the future here, too. For one thing, the NPR audience is aging in the same way that the network news audience is aging. Does that mean that NPR becomes “irrelevant”, too? I leave that for another discussion.
The Proper Adversarial Tone
Jeff Towne – March 14, 2002
Deborah, I did a little recording for you several years ago in Philadelphia …There was a welfare-rights group that had taken up residence in a closed Catholic church, and you were interviewing several of the homeless people that were living there. I was struck by how your interviews were polite and kind, but still challenged the interviewees, and asked hard questions that were often a bit uncomfortable.
How do you find the tone, whether to draw people out by appearing to be on their side, or to confront them, or is it an improv based on the responses?
I started thinking about this again after the recent hoopla over Terry Gross and Gene Simmons. That exchange was a bit uncomfortable to listen to, but at the same time I realized that it’s not inherently bad to be adversarial in an interview.
Any thoughts on the propriety of being confrontational vs. supportive, and how to do either in the most productive way? Especially in the particular context of a feature story, not just a standard news interview with a politician who is trying to “stay on point.”
Really Pretty Curious
deborah amos – March 17, 2002
In “real ” life I’m not much of a confrontational person – more passive aggressive – emphasis on the passive – and my interviewing technique, if I actually have one, grows out of that approach to life. I never think of myself as confrontational – but I’m usually pretty curious by the time I get to an interview.
In fact – when I first went to television – I worked for a program called “Turning Point” and my first assignment was a piece on the homeless – all of these people were street beggars. The senior producer on the show wanted a little fireworks – and she told me I had to go back on the street and challenge these people – confront them with their past – and their “lies”. Ouch. I was horrified. This is exactly what I didn’t want to do in television – I was now living a cliche’!
So, being new to the business – I decided to write a very self-righteous memo stating for the record that I did not do confrontational interviews with people below the poverty line. God knows how I came up with that rule – but at the time I believed I was preserving some radio dignity.
Anyway, what we ended up doing is a background check on all these people (four characters in all) – and what the researchers came up with was pretty interesting. All of them were telling big lies about their lives. I did interviews with all of them – pushing them on the lies – a gentle inquiry and very uncomfortable – for me. I even found myself getting angry and doing a little more confrontation than I had intended with one mother-daughter team because I felt the mother was really taking advantage of the daughter by keeping her homeless and on the street as a beggar.
I was pretty happy with the final result – the interviews actually rounded out the profile of these people and made some of them more sympathetic. The program never ran on ABC – but on Frontline – on PBS, instead.
The experience taught me that you really can confront people – but the key is doing it not for a “gotcha” – but because you are really curious.