Ira Glass- Part 3
Ira Glass – 02:15pm Jun 19, 2004 EST
(#141 of 146)
And finally, the last installment in the Manifesto
3. What’s Not a Story?
Before we close down this discussion, there was one other thing I had notes about, that I want to write. It’s part of my answer to the original questions the people at Transom posed to me:
From all the submissions you get, you must have a sense of Things That Tend NOT To Work… and maybe some ideas for GETTING them to work. For instance, what moves the personal story toward something more? Are there stories that are just not worth pursuing and what do they have in common?
Weeks ago, as part of answering this, I turned to Julie Snyder, the Senior Producer of This American Life, who’s in charge of overseeing all the submissions. Much more than me, she actually knows the kinds of ideas people send in that don’t work. I also asked another producer on the show, Alex Blumberg, who teaches a radio documentary class at Columbia in New York, what kinds of things his students attempt that have little chance of succeeding. What ideas should they kill before they ever start work on them?
Julie told me that one common problem in the pitches we get is that often, people don’t understand that in a narrative story, something has to be at stake. They’ll say, “I’m going to be driving across the country and I’ve bought this tape recorder and I was thinking I’d record the people I meet along the way.” That kind of idea would be hard to turn into a narrative story because there’s nothing at stake. There’s no question driving it forward, nothing compelling that the characters are trying to figure out in these scenes. Also: there’s no conflict. Narrative can’t happen without conflict, without people who want different things, or see things in different ways.
Compare that pitch with one of the few travel stories we’ve done on the show, in an episode of the program we called “Trek.”In that story, two best friends went to South Africa for the first time, shortly after the end of apartheid. There were two things at stake in the story. First, one of the guys had found out he had distant relatives in South Africa and he wanted to meet them, hoping they hadn’t been racists and supporters of the apartheid state, but instead part of the political opposition. This was the mission/question part of the story. This mission actually gets them into some dramatic discussions with the guy’s family and with each other, scenes where it really feels like people are sizing each other up and talking and arguing.
The second conflict in the story comes from the fact that one of the guys was black and one was white. In America, as best friends, they’d never really talked much about race. Once they were in South Africa, they had very different reactions to the people they met and the things they saw, and started arguing about race a lot, and fighting for the first time in their friendship.
Julie also said it’s common for someone to pitch us a story that’s not really a story but just the germ of an idea that could lead to a story. They’ll write saying “I thought it’d be interesting to …” but haven’t worked out the characters or conflict. Like: “I thought it’d be interesting to check with a family that won the lottery four years ago, to see what happened to them.” That’s the kind of thing it’s hard for us to say yes to because again, there’s no conflict and nothing at stake. In this kind of case, Julie will suggest that the person pitching go out and find a family, to see if there’s anything surprising and compelling to report, some interesting experience they went through, with hopefully at least one person who’s a good talker.
Sometimes, Julie says, reporters who are used to a more traditional kind of reporting especially reporters who’ve worked mostly in print — don’t understand that one big difference between print and radio is that a radio story needs a certain amount of suspense and surprise to keep people listening. They’ll pitch descriptive kinds of feature stories that might work in print, but that aren’t inherently compelling as radio. An example: more than once, reporters have pitched us the idea of doing stories about the “sandhogs,” the workers who dig tunnels around big East Coast cities. Some families have generations of sandhogs in them. “It’s perfect for radio,” the reporters say, “because these guys have these great voices, and you’ll hear the echoes of the tunnels, and the sounds of the equipment.” Julie asks them, what’s the conflict, what’s the drama? And the reporters might point to some news peg a tunnel completed by these guys, maybe. But for our kind of show, that’s not enough. We need more of a narrative. Julie sometimes tells people that for a story like this to work in our show, it has to center around one drama, like a Hollywood movie does. If there were a feature movie about these guys, just meeting a few of them wouldn’t be enough. You’d need, I don’t know, an older guy who wants his son to get into the family sandhog business, or stay out of the family sandhog business, and the kid wants something different from his old man, and it’s all coming to a head. Or you’d need a woman who wants to join the union and do the work her father and grandfather did, work that’s always been done by men, and everyone opposes it at first. Those are corny examples that all sound like lost Elia Kazan films from the 50′s, but you get the idea: You need a drama, with specific characters. At least to do our kind of story. There are lots of other kinds of reporting. There may even be a nice way to do this on radio.
I feel like a lot of this advice comes down to saying: know what the story is, know what the conflict is, before you get your tape. But I need to also say to you: there are plenty of times especially as a beginner when you should just go out and record an interview, even if you don’t know what the story is. I sat down with Bradley and Yasuko (whose MP3′s appear earlier in this Manifesto) without knowing anything about what kind of tape I’d get. I just thought they were interesting, expressive, emotional talkers. I figured I’d ask them a bunch of questions and look for a story. Then, during the interviews, when I caught the hint of little stories, I fished around to make sure I had everything I needed to put the story on the radio: a beginning, middle and end … plus some moments where they say some ideas about what it all means. Sometimes you should go get the tape, and then pitch it to the big national program afterwards. With Bradley and Yasuko, I did the interviews and cut the interviews and then pitched them to Morning Edition. Even then, my pitch wasn’t much of a pitch. I explained that I had this tape and it was funny and sort of unusual and they should just listen. Because I had a good track record with them, and the tape was so short, that worked out fine.
And here’s another caveat. A few paragraphs back, I said that when people pitch us stories like “I’m driving cross-country and I’ll tape the people I meet along the way,” Julie and I always say no. But one of the best radio reporters in the country, Scott Carrier, began in radio by doing that very story: he hitchhiked across the country and interviewed each person who picked him up. What made his story work was the compelling quality of the interviews, and his writing, and the overall tone of the thing. It had its own sad, yearny sound.
It wasn’t a narrative story. It wasn’t the kind of thing we usually do on our show. In a sense, it was a harder kind of story to pull off. One thing that makes narrative stories easier than other kinds of stories is that the plot will pull listeners along. There are other kinds of stories, stories whose structure isn’t as strict. But even more than narrative stories, they require luck in finding interviewees and compelling interviews. You can’t rely on the overall plot to keep people listening so every moment of tape has to be pretty great.
Which is to say: There are other ways to make radio stories. This just happens to be the way we do it at our radio program.
Alex had a very different take on problem stories, based on his experience teaching at Columbia. He said a common problem his students run into is that they get seduced by the sound of things, by a kind of public radio documentary aesthetic. They think a good idea for a radio story is when they find an interviewee whose voice and delivery remind them of things they’ve already heard on public radio. If it sounds like one of those David Isay sound portrait stories where people are talking slowly and deliberately with a sincere sound in their voices, maybe in some sort of accent, the students focus on that sound more than on the actual content of what’s being said. So they end up with pretty sounding tape that doesn’t have a compelling story. At some point in the editing, they realize it’s hard to put together, because all the material is just okay nothing’s great, nothing’s terrible. There’s no central story that just kills every time they hear it, that actually gets them excited. There’s just a nice accent, plus meaningful pauses here and there.
Another problem: Alex’s students often want to do a story about an artist, or a subculture, or they want to hang out in a subculture, without any ideas about that subculture that would give the story meaning or make it feel like it matters. They want to spend time with Hells Angels, or people who collect Beanie Babies, or ham radio operators, or knitters. But it’s not enough to just visit with these people. The story has to have more in it than “here’s what they do.” They need to make up theories about the interviewees, Alex says, putting them in categories, comparing them with other things, attaching them to bigger ideas. They need to always be thinking “this is like this,” “this means that,” “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.” Especially “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.”
Some of his students get in trouble when their reason for doing a story is basically, that they just like the person in the story. One student wanted to do a story about a professor who had this theory the student found interesting. The professor said our problem today is that we have too much choice. We’re paralyzed by choice. In the end, the theory was too eggheady to work in the kind of interview and story the student was putting together. But it was hard for the student to see that. He wasn’t objective about the story and what was working and what wasn’t, because he liked the professor too much. It clouded his judgment about whether certain moments in the story were working.
Another student wanted to do a story about a Haitian-American artist in a Haitian-American artist collective. She did art that reflected her Haitian identity. Alex asked the student what interested her about the story. She said it was interesting that the artist was expressing her Haitian identity through her art. Alex asked the student if she really found that interesting. She said no. But it’s the type of story you might hear on the radio. That’s why she was attracted to it. She didn’t think it was interesting, but she thought one was supposed to find it interesting. It was like the answer to a question on a test: What should your public radio story be about? This one had art, culture and someone from a minority group. It was a triple threat.
Alex says this happens a lot. His students will pitch ideas and say that they’re interested in them when really, they’re not. They just think they’re supposed to be interested in them.
He says the lesson they need to learn is not just to trust their instincts … but also to know when they’re telling themselves the truth about what they’re feeling. A much better story pitch, he says, came from the student who declared that he wanted to find out how to become a major league umpire. All sorts of things make that a challenging story to put on radio, but at least it’s motivated by a sincere feeling, a sincere desire to figure something out. He’s not pretending to be interested in that subject; he’s truly interested.
Finally, Alex says that beginners should abandon their ideas way quicker then they usually do. He says that understandably, because they haven’t done many stories, they often blame themselves if a story isn’t working. They try to make it work. They stick with it. They think it’s their fault if they can’t find the story in someone.
There’s a myth that everyone has a story, Alex says. Everyone does have a story, sure, but it’s not necessarily a story that should be told on the radio. It’s important to know when there’s nothing interesting, truly interesting, in your tape, and move on. This is where playing your tape for other people and getting an honest reaction can be really helpful. Killing your story is nothing to be ashamed of. I figure, if I’m not killing at least a third of the interviews I do for the radio show, we’re not taking enough chances. Killing stories is just part of the process of finding great stories.
If one interview doesn’t work, try another, and another. Follow the things that interest you and attract you. Amuse yourself. Keep getting more tape until luck kicks in.
Luck will always kick in.
Jay Allison – 08:06am Jun 21, 2004 EST
(#142 of 146)
Useful or what!
What I like best about all this, Ira, is how really useful it is– filled with parables and concrete tips and jokes all in the same graf. Even little sentences hiding in there are just so simple and honest (“I just believed that there was something in this that I liked, and thought I could get better at. That’s kind of dumb, but it’s true.”) that they should give people courage and also show them something about writing for radio.
All of us at Transom thank you because you’ve been kickass guest, plus we’d like to mention that Ira, knowing Transom is financially strapped, did this all for free, which shows a real generous spirit and makes him even kickingassinger as a person.
by the way, Sydney Lewis is prepping the downloadable Transom Review which will be ready this week.
Sean Cole – 02:15pm Jun 21, 2004 EST
(#143 of 146)
Management oversight by Jay Allison, who was overheard at a recent John Kerry campaign event, admonishing the candidate and his wife this way…
“I’m sorry Senator, but I only serve one master and it’s called The Truth. And I’m sorry doll, I love you, I do, but there’s only one thing in this world that’s more important to me than you, and that’s getting the story right. And if I ever changed that about myself, even for you sweetheart, than I wouldn’t be the man you fell in love with in the first place, would I?”
Jackson – 10:26pm Jun 21, 2004 EST
(#144 of 146)
There’s a sign…
you’ll often see in semi-rural locations on commercially-zoned land. “40 acres lease available, Will build to suit.” Ira, my guess is that you are gone from here, but I hope you’ve signed up for the e-mail thingee that alerts you to a new post. That way, we’ll get every last ounce of comment out of you.
Hunter/gatherers like myself build to suit: A story for, oh, the dearly-departed Savvy Traveller, that addresses the mission of the program. A piece for one of the news magazines that, lo and behold! is 3:30 in length! Coincidence? I think not.
TAL hints that the opposite might be true: If you build the great story, we will come. Still, in the main, we at TAL have ideas for our program, and if you find a way into those ideas — in other words, if you are willing to build to suit — you might hit our air.
No complaint: it’s good to have an editorial policy.
But still: can you imagine a contemporary radio program that draws upon the broad range of stories currently being nurtured throughout the pubrad environment and yet that still follows the come-what-may aesthetic of early 70s FM programming?
Tommy Trussell – 01:32am Jun 22, 2004 EST
(#145 of 146)
The COST of popularity
Back in message 128, Ira wrote:
The Audible downloads net the show about $15,000 a year, which we split evenly with the contributors on those shows. The free RealAudio feeds cost WBEZ – simply for the bandwidth, not for the server or the webmaster or any other costs – over $100,000 a year.
The figures here have really stuck with me. For one thing, it makes me feel guilty for using the RealAudio stream to play excerpts of favorite shows for my family and friends. I should have bought the Audible files so TAL and the producers can split that pittance rather than subsidizing me! I financially support my local station. I own an expensive computer. I cannot rightfully argue that I cannot afford an Audible download. (Especially now that they’re in iTunes and the family owns a compatible computer I can’t even argue the technical points that kept me away from Audible before.)
If Ira or others from TAL are still listening — maybe you could somehow indicate on the TAL web site (right where you click to start the stream) how much it costs YOU to provide the shows online (either per stream or in aggregate). Maybe it will encourage more of us to consider Audible downloads. Also you might point out they’re available via iTunes, which is a downright convenient way to buy and listen.
Ira Glass – 12:37pm Jul 4, 2004 EST
(#146 of 146)
They’re just about to close this board and turn it into a pdf, so I have no idea if this last set of answers will make it under the wire. Hopefully.
David – you wrote about our Iraq contractors show:
You mentioned in discussion the other day the fact that the show ran well over ten minutes long five hours before the feed. I’m curious to hear some details. Such as: how much tape did Updike actually record? Did she do the bulk of the production solo or, if not, how large of a collaboration was it? And finally, with the last minute trimdowns, is there anything you all removed that really hurt? If this were a DVD we were talking about, what would make the “deleted scenes” feature?
I think Nancy recorded 30 to 40 ninety-minute cassettes. She did all the reporting solo. Producer Sarah Koenig and I talked with her a lot before she went into Iraq about what to try to get, and Sarah helped her get access to the companies and their people, which was hard and time-consuming. Nancy taped for three weeks, including lots of people and scenes that didn’t make it into the show. When she was still in Iraq, she’d call us now and then to talk about what she’d gotten and to brainstorm about what to get next, figure out what holes were still there, what questions needed answering.
As for the last-minute trimdowns, they were truly painful. The morning of the broadcast, with nine hours to go, we were still 17 minutes long. That’s long enough that we faced the choice of killing an entire story or trimming to the bone on every story. We chose the latter and I’m still not sure that this made for the best show. Some things we got obsessed with keeping, in retrospect, could’ve gone … like there’s a woman in the Hank story who talks about convincing a guy to let his wife stop wearing a burqua (I’m sure I’m misspelling that). That was a late addition that seemed to reinforce something we were saying about Hank … and the American presence … and we didn’t want to lose it. But it probably could’ve gone. We pulled out whole sections of Fluor and Karen and Jerry, sections that worked fine and probably helped those stories, but there was no time.
There’s a guy Nancy met named Scott at the Fluor table at the hotel who we heard from in the longer version of the story, who she just mentions in the shorter. I was sorry to lose that. There’s a whole extra section we had to cut of Jerry explaining – at length – all the problems they face in getting police trained. That was hard to lose.
After the show aired, we restored over eight minutes of that stuff, and if you buy the CD of the show, you get a 67 1/2-minute version. I think that’s the version that’ll go on the website as RealAudio at some point too.
Jackson – you wrote:
can you imagine a contemporary radio program that draws upon the broad range of stories currently being nurtured throughout the pubrad environment and yet that still follows the come-what-may aesthetic of early 70s FM programming?
Sure. In a sense, that’s happening on WNYC with Jad Abumrad’s Radio Lab or Jay Alison’s Sunday night show on WCAI/WNAN where he plays old stories and stuff from PRX. Gwen Macsai just started a show like that at WBEZ in Chicago, called Re: sound. In all these shows, the hosts play stories the way an old FM dj would play songs, on a relaxed Sunday night.
Tommy – you wrote about our RealAudio and Audible deals:
It makes me feel guilty for using the RealAudio stream to play excerpts of favorite shows for my family and friends. I should have bought the Audible files so TAL and the producers can split that pittance rather than subsidizing me!
That’s very kind of you to say, but we put the free shows up there so lots of people can have access to the program. No guilt!
If you’d like to help us pay for the RealAudio streaming, twice a year – during WBEZ’s pledge drive – we put a little box on the site and you can click to donate, to help pay for the streaming you’ve used. We arranged with WBEZ that anyone who donates that way won’t be put on the regular membership and mailing lists. It’s just a straight-up donation (with premiums offered at higher level donations). Though of course if you’re feeling VERY guilty, you can give to WBEZ anytime, at their website.
The second installment of Ira Glass’ Manifesto, more discussion…