Intro from Jay Allison: Come read the compiled, downloadable Manifesto on the use of the first-person in radio storytelling, including responses to all the good questions Transom visitors asked Sean during his tenure. This is a very useful back-and-forth, full of encouragement and caution. In responding along the way, Sean writes, "In my incredibly humble opinion, the only hard and fast and immutable rules are being accurate and fair, telling the truth as well as possible, and making sure that your storytelling choices benefit the story. To me, the facts are the structure and the rigor. And I think it’s almost incumbent upon us as radio reporters to at least try to use the medium to its fullest advantage and give listeners more than what they’re expecting, i.e. something memorable, beyond the information we’re conveying."
All in Favor… Say I!
I’m a very regretful person, and one of the things I regret is the way I responded to Sandy Tolan at the 2007 Third Coast International Audio Festival. Sandy, many of you know, is a veteran radio producer and journalist – one of the great practitioners of our craft. I’ve already expressed my regret to him in person. So,hopefully he won’t mind my doing so here in virtual public.
I was delivering a talk called “The Wonders of Narcissism,” a very flippant title but the point was sincere: radio reporters should feel freer to say “I” and otherwise acknowledge their existence within their stories. Ironically, I argued, “I” isn’t about self-aggrandizement. It’s a generous pronoun – a key to invention in our stories, a key to images, to intimacy with our interviewees and listeners. It’s an immediate route to the “why” of our reports. At least, I believe it can be all these things, when deployed appropriately.
Anyway, about six minutes into the talk I threw out a question to the audience, in which Sandy sat.
“Traditional, historic arguments for not saying “I” in stories, not referring to yourself?” I said.
“Who cares!” someone called out, “Why would people care about what you have to say or feel about this thing?”
“You’re supposed to be the omniscient, objective voice,” said someone else.
“It’s not about you,” said Sandy.
I meandered on, in high-minded, analytical theory-speak about why I thought those ideas were outmoded. But I shouldn’t have. I should have explained why I was talking about any of this stuff in the first place. Sandy is why. In 1999, when I was starting out in radio, he did a three part series for Marketplace about underwriting in public broadcasting. And near the beginning of part three, he said something I could hardly believe. First we hear from Jim Russell, who created Marketplace and was still running the show back then. Here’s that clip, and the narration track that followed it.
We all have little “shock of recognition” moments when a world of possibility reveals itself. Sandy Tolan asking, “can you believe me?” on the radio was one of mine. I didn’t know you could refer to yourself in a radio news story. I didn’t know you could “break down the fourth wall” like that, that you could be so direct and frank with your listeners; that you could suggest that you were anything but an incorporeal voice. But listen to that moment again. It’s not about Sandy. It’s acknowledging a question that every listener, right then, was surely asking. It’s a crucial point about the inherent dangers of reporting on oneself. He could have said something more benign like, “There are inherent dangers in reporting on oneself,” and the most interesting thing that happened to me that day would have been my sandwich. His choice was so much more elegant, intimate and, above all, arresting. Paradoxically, Sandy asking, “can you believe me?” is what made me believe him. (Plus, he went on to explain the editorial process for the series.) His “me” did that work for him.
Now, I am not, in any way, suggesting that every story requires some self-referential moment. I’ve done plenty of stories in which including myself wouldn’t have worked, so I stayed out of the way. Some of the best radio pieces I’ve ever heard have no narrator, just the voices of the interviewees puzzled together by a selfless magician. What I mean is, all of those “traditional, historic arguments” against reporters saying “I” contain genuine concerns. “I” can derail the story. “I” can be too self-indulgent. And, yeah, the story isn’t about “I.” Also, saying “I” comes more naturally to some reporters than others. So if it doesn’t feel right, please ignore me.
But if it feels right to you, if the story is begging you to include yourself as a character, if doing so will actually benefit the story, then why fight it? Throwing that tool out of your utility belt because of tradition seems foolish to me. The key word here is “benefit.” “I” has to earn its keep, as it does in this Marketplace Morning Report story by Chana Joffe-Walt. It’s short, and begins with the host intro.
And in those few minutes Chana exemplified everything else that I want to talk about in this manifesto. (I love that I get to write a manifesto. “The only tyranny is greed! Brake for the harmless! Conscript the under-tanned!” Ahem.)
It breaks down into four main points:
- Tell me what you’re doing
- Include your questions
- Interview your friends (Say they’re your friends!)
- Always Be the Guinea Pig
So let’s take these one at a time:
Tell Me What You’re Doing
What I love about Chana’s story is its total lack of pretense. It doesn’t bother to dress up like anything other than a radio story. From the get go, the reporting is transparent. She says, “I’m gonna do this so come along with me. But wait there’s a problem. Oh, I got through it. And here’s why that’s relevant.” And then, things change. Her friends go from being skeptical about the new technology to embracing it. Amazingly, the piece is a real story story, with a beginning a middle and an end. (I say “amazingly” because it’s three minutes long and it’s about Twitter.) The reporting is the action of the story. There’d be none otherwise. And there’d be no protagonist if she didn’t take on that role herself.
So, “I” can be a key to narrative, to story stories. It’s often said that narrative is our favorite way of receiving information. It’s the form of fairy tales. It’s transfixing. Again, starting with “this is what I’m gonna do” or “the reason I want to do this story is X” won’t always work. In fact, most of the time it won’t work. But sometimes it’s the only way into a story.
For example, I did a story for Marketplace recently about Christians who believe that the financial crisis might be a sign of the coming apocalypse. I thought I should explain the Biblical prophesy part up top. So in my first draft, I began the story this way:
“In case you’re not familiar… the book of Revelation talks about a 7-year period of tribulation… which is also known as the “end times.” And when the faithful rise to heaven… that’s called the “rapture.” So when the financial crisis really took hold… I joined a website called Raptureforums.com to see what the faithful were talking about. This was right after the house voted down the first bail out bill and the Dow tanked. Here are some excerpts.”
My editor (who’s great and smart) was instantly confused. She said it was too much information too soon and she was getting lost. (Not to mention the fact that the “end times” and “the tribulation” are two different things.) I told her, well, maybe I should just start by saying that when the financial crisis took hold, I got to wondering what people who believe in the “end times” were thinking.
“Yeah,” she said, “But that’s not true.”
“No, it is true,” I said, “ I always think that when something like this happens.”
“Oh,” she said, “well then just say that. Do it first person.”
When it finally aired, the story began like this:
It just felt more honest to tell people why I wanted to do the story. It gave them a context, a reason, right at the top, as to why they were hearing this on the radio.
Include Your Questions
There’s that part at the end of Chana’s piece that sort of catches her in a candid moment at her desk. I don’t know if that part was planned or not but it sounds unplanned. So I’ll use it to introduce this next point. We want our interviewees to relax, to behave as they would if we weren’t around. But we rarely demand this of ourselves. We forget that we are human too and the sound of unguarded human behavior is exciting.
One way of catching yourself, unguarded, on tape is to record your questions while you’re interviewing people. I try to include at least one of my questions, or some interaction with the interviewee, in every story. Again, it doesn’t always work. But when it does, the results can be gratifying. Listening to two people interact on the radio immediately puts those two people in a place. And even if that place is a studio or phone line, suddenly you can imagine them in conversation.
The key, though, is the interviewee’s reaction. You’re just there to set up him or her. If s/he doesn’t have an interesting or enlightening response, then the exercise is moot. Here’s an example from David Kestenbaum, one of my favorite NPR reporters and someone who’s really good at this. In short, these two economists at the University of Maryland thought the best way for the government to buy up toxic assets from banks would be to hold a “reverse auction.” So they held a dummy auction in which a bunch of grad students pretended to be banks.
First off, you can hear the surprise in his voice at the beginning of the cut. It’s a genuine, unguarded reaction that describes a wowing aspect of the study better than writing could. Secondly, there’s actual reporting in that tape. We learn that the students can get 800 dollars each and that there are 16 of them in the study. And finally… there’s the funny part, which is just so human and endearing. Again, the best part of that tape isn’t David. He’s just the straight man. The best part is the student making fun of himself, and everybody laughing along with him.
Talk to Your Friends (Say They’re Your Friends!)
Something else Chana conquers in her Twitter story is the age-old prohibition against interviewing your friends for news stories. The prohibition is well-founded. Including your friends in a news story, if you do it the wrong way, can be unethical, or at least lazy. That said there are two big presumptions behind the rule. 1) You didn’t disclose the friendship and 2) Your friend isn’t the best person to interview for the story.
The way Chana involves her friends makes sense. Twitter was built so that you can keep in constant touch with your friends. Also, they’re the perfect guinea pigs because they’re so resistant. If they were totally game, it’d be harder to make the point of “why would anybody want to do this?” Also, she says they’re her friends. She’s not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
I’m not suggesting that you reach for your personal rolodex whenever you begin reporting a story. But sometimes there are compelling reasons to interview friends. 1) You might already know the story they’re going to tell you. Maybe you were even there when it happened. So you can tease out all of the most pertinent parts. 2) You already have an easy rapport with that person. So they might feel more comfortable around you than a stranger would.
An example: A couple of summers ago I was reporting a story for Marketplace Money about how much money couples spend on their wedding bands. (Not the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” kind of wedding bands. I mean the rings that you exchange at the altar.) So I’m talking to my pal, and work-mate, Gabe O’Connor about the story and he reminds me that he’d lost his wedding ring and had to buy a replacement one. Gabe and his wife, Becca, are really dear to me. In fact, I performed their wedding. They are also, in my opinion, terribly funny people. So I asked if I could interview them for the story and they said yes. Here’s what came out of it. The sound quality isn’t the best.
First of all, I think their story is really great and that they beautifully elucidate what they learned from it. Beyond that, interviewees rarely shout, “Go away!” when a reporter knocks on his/her door for a pre-arranged interview. And when they do, the reporter rarely walks into the apartment anyway. I like to think they felt more at ease with me than they would have with a stranger. I think I myself felt more comfortable than I normally do during interviews. My point is that I didn’t interview them in spite of their being my friends. I interviewed them because they are my friends.
I’ll play you this part too. Most of this cut didn’t make it into the story due to time constraints. This is right after I’d told them about the most expensive rings at this one jewelry store in Newton, MA: $26,000 a piece.
I just think that’s really funny.
Always Be The Guinea Pig
It might sound really Regis and Kelly, but this is one area in which I think it’s crucial to involve yourself in a story. Chana could have interviewed other people who’ve used Twitter but she wouldn’t have experienced how interruptive it is. You can’t effectively describe how something tastes unless you taste it. You can’t effectively describe how something feels until you’ve felt it. It’s just good reporting. Does that mean you have to chomp down a hot dog from Gladys Handlemeyer’s world famous, soon-to-be-defunct hot dog stand even though you’re a vegan? No. Don’t go crazy. But if you happen to be a beer-drinker, and you’re doing a story on the new Samuel Adams beer glass that’s supposed to make the beer taste uber-super-special-delicious? Drink the beer out of the glass.
This also brings up a somewhat more esoteric and controversial point about the media’s role in our lives. Good or bad, we seem to have made a silent, psychic deal with reporters that anything they say deserves special consideration. When the reporter tastes the beer we’re listening to a first hand account of that experience. But when the reporter asks someone else what the beer tastes like, we’re listening to a second hand account. Our ear is the same distance from the radio, but we tend to trust the reporter more than we do the “source.” (Or I do anyway.) A journalist’s job is to tell the truth. S/he doesn’t always do so, but that’s the job. So when a reporter says “Yes, the glass makes the beer taste different,” it carries a different weight.
This is the best example I can possibly offer. A few years ago, Laura Sullivan at NPR did a story about Taser International trying to break into the consumer market. You can see where this is going. And I have to say, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to follow my own advice in this case.
I think the operative line in that clip is “Neither is entirely accurate.” Laura told the truth in this story as well as she possibly could. And she did so by including herself, by not letting traditional protestations about objectivity get in her way. I don’t think there’s anything editorial nor self-aggrandizing nor spotlight-stealing about what she did. The story remains fair and, unfortunately for her, it’s also painfully accurate.
Laura and David and Chana and Sandy and I are very lucky. I shouldn’t speak for them, but apparently we all have editors who let us include ourselves in stories. Not every editor will. And not every editor will let every reporter do it. Some good editors protest the “I” in some cases for good reasons. Others may be adhering a little too zealously to received norms. The point is: try “I.” If you think it might work, try it. If it doesn’t work, try it again next time. If it does work but someone tells you not to do it, try it again with a different editor. Frankly, I’m not a very confident person, and I’m not sure any advice I ever offer is worth anything. But in case it is, I’d say: do not become your own most restrictive editor. Listen to the more creative angels of your nature, not the doubtful, cynical ones who’d hold you back. I say this to myself as much as to you. Every day, I sit here at this very desk worrying that millions of people find me annoying. If I’m honest, the only reason I employ any of these tactics is because I never learned any other way to be a reporter. And now that I’ve written this manifesto, I’m sure that the next story I attempt to tell will fall apart in my hands. But (knock wood) maybe it won’t.