Intro from Jay Allison: We're trying something a little different. Our Guest this month is not only Alex Blumberg, but also his entire class of students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Alex is a producer at This American Life, responsible for many great radio stories, and he's also a wonderful explainer (see his manifesto below). He and his class are setting up shop on Transom to sort out the basic, important stuff that somehow tends to get overlooked in radio journalism, like what makes a good story and what doesn't. They'll be posting the audio from their class assignments, and along with you, critiquing the process and the result. We invite you to join us for this master class within a master class.
The most embarrassing non love letter I ever sent was to the staff of This American Life. I sent it in 1997, and thankfully, it’s been lost by now. Knowing how things worked around there in 1997, there’s a high probability it was never read or even opened before becoming lost. But still, just thinking about it sends a flush up my neck. It was a pitch letter. And because I was trying to wow them, it contained not just one story idea, but maybe 10. They were all grouped thematically, with helpful suggestions for what to name the show they would fit into. And they all, I know now, sucked. The story pitch that makes me cringe the most was on community gardens in Chicago. Not A community garden, mind you. Community gardens in general, as a civic phenomenon. I don’t remember what, if anything, I wanted to say about them, or who I wanted to interview about them, or even what I wanted to ask whoever I did find to interview. And I also don’t remember why I possibly thought This American Life would want to devote any part of its hour on the air to a “story” without characters, ideas or conflict. But I do remember what I thought they should call the gardening-themed show that I thought my community garden story should go into. I thought they should call the show “Flowers from the Dead Earth.” I thought this was a line from the Wasteland, a poem by T.S. Eliot which I’d never actually read, and which it turns out, I’d misquoted. Badly, actually. Eliot’s wording was “lilacs out of the dead land,” which means I’d gotten exactly two of his original six words right: “dead” and “the.”
There are many lessons contained in this story, about the advisability of fact-checking, the danger of mixing pretension with ignorance, and the importance of trying, in some rudimentary way, to match the sensibility of the organization you’re pitching to. For example, a casual browse through the This American Life archives should tell a person that lines from classics of modern American poetry don’t ever become show titles. But for me, this story is mostly about how hard it is, when you’re just starting out in radio, to figure out what, exactly, constitutes a story.
A big problem that a lot of radio beginners have is the problem I had with my pitch to This American Life: confusing a story setting or premise with an actual story. Community Garden is not a story. It’s a setting, or maybe a topic to investigate, but to do a story on the radio about it, you need some specifics. And by that I mean, a character to talk to, and a situation to talk to them about. For example, maybe there’s a Haitian immigrant who left his family back home until he can save up enough money to bring them to the US, and he gardens because it’s the only place he can sort of imagine he’s back home. Or maybe there’s a community garden made up entirely of people who’ve never left their city neighborhoods, and then they went on a school trip to a farm and the were so impressed they decided to start their own garden when they got back home. Or maybe there’s a community garden where there’s an ongoing war between the flower people and the vegetable people. Or maybe there’s a community gardener who’s just so unbelievably charming, or funny or fascinating that she can sustain a story just by pure force of personality.
For the last two years, I’ve taught a documentary radio class at the Columbia School of Journalism, and one of the first things we try to focus on in class is simply recognizing what’s a story and what’s not. This April and May my class and I will be taking on the guest-host helm. So before I continue, let me introduce my co-guest hosts:
They’re all graduate students, mostly in the journalism school. And they’re all learning, very quickly the proud teacher in me feels compelled to add, how to produce good radio stories.
You can tell a lot about whether something’s a story entirely from the first question that occurs to you. And this is something that I try get my students to think about when considering a story idea. You’re the reporter, you get your recorder together, go to the site of your story, find someone to interview, and what do you ask? It may seem basic, but I find it very helpful to think about, even today. Literally, what’s the question that I want to answer, or the story I want to hear? If the questions seem obvious, chances are it’s a story. For example, here are the main underlying questions posed by several story topics the students chose for their first pieces this semester:
How did you end up homeless on the streets and then how did you eventually get off the streets and into your job as a well-adjusted mental health professional?
What did you think about Israeli Jews before you went to the Arab/Israeli peace camp, and how did your thoughts change by being at the camp?
What exactly is the difference between punk rock karaoke and just plain old punk rock?
Wait, tell me again how you ended up making out in the dressing room with the internationally famous Senegalese pop star Youssou N’dour?
Now, these stories may or may not have completely succeeded in the end, but they all satisfy the most basic prerequisite. There’s something to talk about. Let’s compare that to the community garden story. You get to the community garden, you find a gardener, what do you ask? What are you growing? Boring answer. How long have you been gardening? Boring answer. Why do you garden? High probability of a boring answer — probably something like “I feel peaceful out here in my community garden,” or “can’t beat the taste of a homegrown tomato,” or “where I’m from, we garden a lot.” Given the choice between the question suggested by a recent story in class, a story which you can hear below — “What was it like to be a female pimp at age 16?” — versus “How long have you been community gardening?” which story would you prefer?
Of course, satisfying that most basic prerequisite is just the first step. Just because something’s a story, or takes the form of a story, doesn’t mean it’s an interesting story. And so the second thing I try to tell my students is, don’t choose a story just because it sounds like a story you’ve heard before. In fact, just the opposite. Choose a story because it’s surprising. So consider the homeless story idea above. It’s very possible, even likely, that the answer to the question goes something like this: “I became homeless because I was addicted to heroin and then I got off the streets when I finally got treatment for my heroin addiction. Let me tell you all about my 12-step program … ” Now as person who’s seen the benefits of 12-step programs on my own friends and family members, I am in no way commenting on their undeniable social benefit when I say that they do not make for very exciting radio. This is a story we’ve heard before. And it’s not at all surprising.
Does this mean that my student shouldn’t do the story about the homeless person? Not necessarily. Maybe there’s a corner of the homeless person’s story that isn’t so familiar. It’s worth poking around to see if there’s something there.
I’ve developed a mathematical test to tell whether you’re on the right track. It’s called the “and what’s interesting” test. You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.” So for example, again, taking the homeless story, “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.
Y = “… and what’s interesting is there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.
Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he developed surprising and heretofore unheard of policy recommendations on the problem of homelessness from his personal experience on the streets.” Right track.
Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.
Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track.
In other words, who the hell knows what you might find out. Just don’t settle for the story you already know. Find the exciting or surprising or unusual moment, and focus the story on that.
There are two things to keep in mind here. First of all, a lot of times, your subjects themselves will be trying to tell you the boring parts. Sometimes the boring part is the one they find the most exciting. And sometimes they think the boring part is the part they’re supposed to tell the person from the media. After all, they’re media consumers too, and they’ve heard the story they way it’s generally told, and they want to conform to that way of telling it. You’re allowed to stop them. You’re allowed to say, “actually, I don’t want to hear about the 12-step program, tell me about whether you ever had a relationship while you were homeless.” Or something. I tell my students to try and pay attention to their own boredom. We public radio people are so used to being interested and curious about everything. And that’s good. But if you, a person with boundless natural curiosity about the world, are even slightly bored listening to someone talk, chances are the listeners will turn off the radio.
The second thing is a naive and dangerous belief of beginning public radio producers everywhere, the idealistic notion that everyone has a story, and a skillful public radio producer can bring that story to life and make it sing on the radio. I would agree that everyone has a story, but it’s not always that interesting a story, or one that they’re particularly adept at telling in other words, one that millions of people need to hear on their radios. If you want to do a story about the formerly homeless, and you’re interviewing a person who can’t tell you anything interesting or remember any good stories, find another formerly homeless person. I mean, give it the old college try. But don’t be afraid to give up and move on. I audition people for my stories all the time. And the difference between someone who’s a very compelling and honest narrator of their own experience, and someone who’s not that articulate about it is huge.
So, now you know basically what my students did, when they completed the first assignment in my class, a 4 to 6 minute profile. Students chose their own subjects.
The first story, a profile of a rare book dealer, produced by Mara Altman, is interesting in that it breaks, basically, all the rules I’ve outlined above, and yet, somehow, still works.
The second story, by Theresa Bradley, is a perfect example of a story that at first blush might seem a little familiar, but then becomes very surprising.
The third story, by Nazanin Rafsanjani, started out as an investigation of people trying to live on minimum wage. As Nazanin was talking to her subject, Evelyn Camargo, they got to talking about other jobs Evelyn had had. And that’s when they stumbled onto the subject that Nazanin focuses her profile on.
My students and I will be back with more to say about these stories, other stories in the class, and radio in general. But for now, we’d love to hear what you think about their work so far.
Manifesto Part 2: The Addendum
At this late date, now that Manifesto, part 1 is finished and I’m considering what to write in part 2, I finally figured out what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about two very important, but often overlooked elements of radio journalism. The subject of manifesto part one was how to choose a good radio story. The subject of today’s little manifesto, (in Italian, manifestissimo,) is how to conduct a good radio interview.
I feel the need to point out that there a billion more things to say about putting together a good radio story. There’s writing, structuring, pacing. But those are the aspects of radio production that everyone talks about. What they don’t talk about are the two things that come first.
To do a good radio interview, it’s helpful to know what you’re going for. I’d argue there are two main kinds of tape you’re trying to get. The first is emotionally honest tape. In tape like this, what the person is saying is secondary to the emotional tone they say it with. A prime example is Spelling Bee (NPR Morning Edition 05/30/1997)
Let’s just say, we’re not listening to this story because we’re curious how the word is spelled.
Emotionally honest tape doesn’t need to be overwrought though. It can simply be honest. Honesty is very audible on the radio. You can hear when someone is saying something they really feel, and you can hear when someone’s giving you a canned response. The most vivid tape is tape where you hear people saying something they really, really mean. Here’s another example of tape like this, from an interview Columbia graduate Anya Bourg did, for a show on This American Life called “DIY.” The story involved a wrongfully convicted man, Collin Warner, who was finally released from prison after 21 years, thanks to the tireless efforts of two men: his loyal friend from childhood, and a small-time lawyer in Brooklyn. In the interview we ask the lawyer if this type of wrongful conviction could happen again. His answer … well, it’s not the most groundbreaking information in the world, but the way he says it, it just stands out:
The second type of tape that you’re going for is tape that takes the form of an anecdote. The anecdote is the fundamental building block of good radio journalism. An anecdote is at it’s most basic, a sequence of actions that arrives at some point or conclusion or surprising revelation. We tell anecdotes to each other all the time, every day. “This morning as I was leaving my house on my way to work I heard these strange sounds. They were high-pitched, and chirpy, like a baby animal or something. When I went outside the sound got louder, it sounded like it was coming from under the porch. I bent down and saw a litter of kittens. An alley cat had given birth there during the night.”
There are two kinds of people in the world. People who talk in anecdotes and people who don’t. The people who don’t wouldn’t tell that story that way. They wouldn’t tell that story at all, in fact. They’d simply convey the information contained in that story, “Some alley cat gave birth to a litter of kittens under my porch last night. I heard them on my way to work this morning.” Now don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends don’t tell anecdotes, but on the radio you want an anecdote-teller every time. The reason is, we’re hardwired to listen to stories. And if you can get the information delivered in an anecdote, people will pay more attention.
Consider the following example. You need to know two things before listening:
1) the guy telling the story is from a working-class town in upstate New York, and was the first one in his family to go to college, and not just any college, an Ivy League school, Cornell University.
2) He and his entire family loved to eat meat.
The story takes place early in his freshman year, he’d just arrived, was nervous, didn’t know anyone, and wasn’t sure he belonged:
Once you get past a certain point in the story, you’re not turning off the radio until it’s over. That’s the power of the anecdote. It conveys lots of information – about the dislocation of freshman year, about the absurd lengths people go to fit in – but in a way that makes you want to listen. Imagine if the tape had simply been this: “yeah, in my freshman year of college, I was so nervous about fitting in that I told people I was a vegetarian.” It’s the same information, but not told in a radio friendly way.
The thing people don’t realize is that this radio friendly tape doesn’t just happen. Well, sometimes it does, actually. Some people are born story-tellers, and speak in anecdotes as a matter of course. And other people are irrepressibly heartfelt and emotional talkers who open up to people with microphones the same way they do with their friends and family. But most people, the vast majority of us, need help. And you as a radio reporter need to realize that one of your biggest jobs is to help the people you’re interviewing become good tape, which means 1) helping them talk honestly and emotionally, ie. like real people, and 2) helping them tell good anecdotes.
I. Helping people talk like real people
Let me begin with an anecdote. When I first started doing radio, I thought that in order to build rapport with my subjects, I should spend 5 or 10 minutes chitchatting with them, off the topic of what I was there to interview them about. But every time it seemed that at the end of the chitchat my subjects were more nervous, not less. I finally figured out why. It was because I wasn’t putting them at ease with my chitchat. Quite the opposite, I was confusing them. From my perspective I was just being, you know, casual, but from their perspective a stranger called them me up out of the blue, scheduled an appointment to talk with them, dragged his tape recorder all the way up to their office, just to ask them where’s the best place to get lunch in the area?
In other words, you’re fooling no one. You’re there to do a job, and the sooner you acknowledge it, the better it will go. Don’t pussyfoot. Take control. If they’re sitting across a desk, make them sit next to you. If their phone is ringing see if they can turn it off. Never ever, ever, ever, ever let them hold the microphone. It does NOT make them feel more comfortable. And it just insures that you’ll get mic noise. The more certain you are in your behavior, the more comfortable and relaxed they’ll be in the interview. The weird thing is, once you’ve bossed them around enough in the beginning – made them switch seats, turn off their cell phones, scootch closer so you don’t have to hold the mic way out; in short, all the things you’d wouldn’t do if you were just talking – the more it will sound like a natural conversation in the end. People do forget about the microphone, almost immediately, but only if you acknowledge it in the beginning.
The other very important thing to remember: if they don’t say something the right way the first time, you can go back. People will be stiff. They’ll stumble around. They’ll talk all formal, like they think you want them to talk. They’ll say “this individual” instead of “this guy.” They’ll say, “I was concerned, definitely” instead of “I was freaked out, yo.” You don’t have to let them. Get them to tell it again. Rephrase the question. Stop them and say, “I want you to answer that question again, but this time use the word sad instead of lachrymose.”
How much can you do this? A lot. Witness this tape from an interview NPR reporter John Nielsen did for a story about Avian flu in zoos. During an outbreak, people were afraid to go to zoos because they thought, wrongly, there was a higher risk of catching the disease in a zoo. Nielsen’s interviewing a zoo director, and he just needs the guy to set the record straight, say that zoos actually aren’t any more dangerous than anywhere else. But the guy’s a scientist type and isn’t talking like a real person. We’ll pick up the tape after John’s asked the question a second time, why is it safe to go to the zoo?
Notice, he’s never mean or rude or off-putting. And that’s very important. By bossing people around, I don’t want to give the impression that you should march into people’s offices after they’ve generously agreed to give you time out of their busy day and start making petty demands. But simply to realize what they already understand, you’re there to do a job, and to do it right, you need them to follow your lead. John’s final piece NPR Morning Edition (10/02/2002).
The zoo guy comes in at the very end.
II. Getting people to talk in stories
I did a story a while back about a mailman in Chicago. I spent a day on his route with him. It was in a working class neighborhood in Chicago, relatively high crime, and there were a lot of drug dealers around. The mailman, Henry, had a very complicated relationship with them. On the one hand, he was afraid of them, because they were federal felons with guns and he was a federal employee with nothing but mace. He was afraid to even call them drug dealers on tape, he called them boys in the hood, or businessmen instead. On the other hand, he saw the same guys hanging around the same corner every day, and since they were both working the same neighborhood, they’d developed a somewhat collegial respect for one another. I wanted to get across in my story this peculiar and complicated relationship. So I put in this anecdote:
Henry was a wonderful man, and I loved spending the day with him, but he was not an anecdote teller. And the story you just heard did not happen the way you heard it. To prove it, I’m going to play you the raw tape of the way he first told me about this episode. There are two things to pay attention to here. First, the climax of the story, that the boys in the hood came to Henry’s aid, is the very first beat Henry gets to in his uncut telling of the story. This is a classic move with non anecdote tellers. They tell you the point, and then fill in the details later. For a good story, you want the details first, and then the point at the end. So a lot of what I do in the raw tape is get him to back up and fill in the details of the scene. One of the most helpful things my boss, Ira, ever told me was this: you know you’re getting good tape when people are quoting dialog to you. You can hear me prompting Henry, “then he said what? Then what did you say back?”
The second thing to listen for in the raw tape is how the story Henry wants to tell me is totally different from the story I WANT Henry to tell me. I want him to tell the story about what happened that day with his angry customer. He wants to tell me a story about proper procedure for submitting a change of address card. Henry was a very, very good mailman, and this part of the story was interesting to him. But it’s not interesting to me, and since I’m the professional journalist in the equation, part of my job is being a proxy for the rest of the people listening, and that means, if I’m good at my job, what’s interesting to me is what’s interesting to my listeners. Anyway, here’s the tape the way it actually happened:
This story, which ended up being sort of pivotal in the final piece, wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t been on the look-out for something to turn into an anecdote. And I think that’s one of the most important things of all to remember. A lot of what you’re doing during a radio interview is simply picking the moments you want to make into stories. So always be on the lookout for moments that seem somehow meaningful, or poignant, or pivotal. And when they come up, make sure you get the details.
Now that the class is over, I’m especially curious to hear from the students. I’m curious about a couple things specifically, and maybe you guys could post a little about this. First, what if anything did you guys learn from the documentary class. Second, what are you all doing now that you all have graduated? And finally, are you able to apply anything you learned in class to your jobs/lives post Columbia?