Sean Cole

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."

Download “All in Favor… Say I!” Manifesto (PDF)

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.

Listen to “Clip from Sandy Tolan’s piece”

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.

Listen to “Chana Joffe-Walt”

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 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:

Listen to “Clip from Sean Cole’s piece”

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.

Listen to “Clip from David Kestenbaum’s piece”

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.

Gabe and Becca photo
Gabe and Becca

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.

Listen to “Clip from Sean’s wedding band piece”

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.

Listen to “Another wedding band clip”

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.

Listen to “Laura Sullivan”

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.

Sean Cole

Sean Cole

Sean Cole was hired as a newsroom intern at WBUR in Boston in 1997. For some reason, they later began paying him. He worked at the station for nine years as a producer and reporter, spending two of those years with WBUR’s award-winning documentary series Inside Out. Along the way, he has also contributed to This American Life, All Things Considered, Only a Game, Studio 360, Weekend America and other shows. At this writing, he is a regular contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. Sean also writes poems and, sometimes, bios like this one.


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  • Rekha Murthy


    Nothing Wrong With It

    Great post, Sean. I agree there’s a line to toe and tastes vary. But the assumption that not saying "I" makes you more objective isn’t necessarily true.

    FRONTLINE/World’s approach, which encourages reporters to be front and center in the story they tell, works really well. It help shift my own thinking on the topic.

    Two stories that come to mind:
    Arun Rath in India

    Sarah Chayes in Afghanistan

  • Katie Ball



    First off I am thrilled to see you as a guest here on Transom, Sean. As I mentioned when we met at Third Coast I wholeheartedly believe that you are helping to clear the way for other well-meaning quirky producers who sometimes despair if our brand of uniqueness could ever be palatable to a larger listening audience – so first and foremost THANK YOU.

    I’ve been trying to do what you’re suggesting here, use the "I" when needed but trying to be careful not to assume it should always be there. But what I’ve been getting more and more (particularly when I experiment with pieces that are strictly tape-to-tapes with say only an intro) is that people whose work I admire say they want me in there more, and then there are other things I do that are little more than an audio diary where I’m spewing out my guts. These different approaches often feel totally separate from each other. Do you think in time the two will meet more and more in a more natural fashion? And at what point in the grand scheme of things do you think the listening public started gravitating toward stories that break that fourth wall?

    On a side note: What I think you totally excel at is sounding somewhat normal for a fair bit but then letting the truth slip out some (your "Are Animals Creative?" comes to mind).

  • Jake Warga


    Keeping it Real

    "This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts."
    RTNDA Convention
    Chicago, October 15, 1958

    I’m all for the “PPI”, what I was instructed to avoid in my first and only writing class on non-fiction: The Personal Possessive “I”
    A slim but strong mark, an un-bleeding slash on the page, a weapon of confession on the air. Your stories have always worked for me because YOU’RE IN THEM. Or “This Reporter” as Murrow was fond of saying in place of “I”

    One of the failures in journalism, I (there’s that incriminating mark) believe, is the stubborn practice of adopting the “Third person” voice in a story. That we are not there, that we talk differently than we normally do: authoritative, from our un-beating chests. For me (I), the best stories come when the reporter talks in the voice they normally speak with, hence a first-person—not the elevated narrator-as-god third-person. I’m (there it is again) not talking about the number train reading of the top of the hour death-count news, but about real stories about real people told by real reporters. Thanks for being real. Keep it up, keeping it real.

    A fan,

  • Scole


    Re: Nothing Wrong With It

    Hey Rekha!

    Thanks for posting the links to those documentaries. They’re wonderful. And to be honest, those are the first FRONTLINE/World stories I’ve seen. I didn’t realize that they encourage reporters to involve themselves in their pieces. Arun’s, I think, is so much more thought-provoking and instructive because of his personal "journey" for lack of a better word. He’s got one foot in each world, watching the opera as both an Indian and an American, which adds a whole new dimension to the story that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Love it.

    Somehow, the Sarah Chayes piece reminds me of Nancy Updike’s astonishingly good story about private-sector workers in Iraq.

    Sadly I don’t know how to do the fancy link stuff that you did.

    But looking over the HTML instructions, I did learn that this site offers a whole plethora of emoticons. This one is called "Worried." :worried:

  • Scole



    Oh… maybe I do know how to do the "fancy link stuff." Just don’t know how to change the name of the link. But I digress.

  • Scole


    Katie Ball’s Message

    Hi Katie!

    Well, Thank YOU for saying all of those wonderful things. I appreciate it. And I’m so happy to hear that people are telling you they want more of you in your stories. Hold onto those people. They may not be the rarest individuals in the world, but sometimes it feels like they are.

    I’ve definitely done stories that are more audio-diary-type spewing as well. A while back I did a story for Weekend America about shooting a gun for the first time (at a firing range) that was pretty much about… me. And my fears of various things (i.e. guns, the dark, etc.) I didn’t include that piece in the manifesto because I think of those stories as very different from the news stories I do for, say, Marketplace. Obviously, in a story that’s about you, saying "I" and talking about yourself and talking to your friends is natural and expected. But where news and first person fuse, that’s where it seems like there has been, historically, a rub.

    I do think that’s changing. These days you’ll hear a lot of NPR staff reporters acknowledging their existence in their stories. More than before, it seems. It’s never gratuitous, thankfully. They’ll do it either to advance the story (as in the Laura Sullivan piece) or to avoid the uncomfortable contortion of saying "this reporter" or "a reporter." To me, those are just awkward ways of saying "I." Also, sometimes, a piece is calling out for an idea, or a moment of reflection. And in my opinion, that idea or reflection is so much more tangible when it belongs to someone, when it’s the reporter thinking out loud about the story s/he’s working on.

    At the risk of overloading everybody with tape, here’s an example. It’s one of my favorite NPR stories of the past few years and it’s really short. Listen for the longish piece of narration a little more than halfway in — the part where the story takes this revelatory turn.

    In terms of when listeners started gravitating toward stories that break down the fourth wall… I have no idea. Probably when reporters and editors decided that it was okay to do. I like to think that listeners like to be spoken to directly. As in, "Here’s why this story is important to *you*." At least, *I* like to be addressed directly like that. It reminds me "Wow, that voice inside my radio belongs to a person who has taken the time to dig around to find some things out. And now s/he wants to tell me about them."

  • Scole


    Jake Warga’s Message


    Great to hear from you. Thank you for the props. And for your beautifully worded and persuasive post. (And I’m a fan right back atcha, as I hope you know.) And yes I think that we sometimes are different people on the air than we are in person. And that’s too bad. I think I also suffer from that, as much as I’m touting honesty and verisimilitude here. I think my voice changes when I go into the tracking booth and, moreover, I become some condensed and abbreviated version of myself. I suppose that’s to be expected. Except you, sir, sound exactly the same on the air as you do in person, both in terms of what you say and how you say it. And that’s refreshing.

  • Jesse Dukes


    onto some big ideas


    This is a great manifesto and I’ll stand in solidarity and proclaim that greed *is* the greatest tyranny.

    But to the issue at hand: you’ve thought out and written what could be read as a very practical guide to how to use the "I" in journalistic radio–it’s clear, well reasoned, makes sense. It offers specific guidelines and hints and some great insights about why the guidelines make sense. I also sense that whether you’re trying to or not, you’re saying something about some of the underlying issues in journalistic storytelling. Things like the relationship of truth, honesty, and objectivity or what makes a story memorable and illustrative. So I also read your essay as a contribution to our canon of knowledge about how to do journalism, useful even if we’re not using the "I".

    In that spirit, I’d like to try to get closer to some of the underlying issues with some open ended questions.

    1. What do you think of the idea of "objectivity". Does it have value and if so, how do you define objectivity for yourself?

    2. In general, when use of "the I" works, what is "working" about it? I guess I’m trying to get at what we mean when we say a story "works"–something we all tend to intuitively feel but struggle to explain. Is the "I" always doing the same basic thing, or is it something that works completely differently in different situations?

    Thanks and onward,


  • Nick van der Kolk



    I took that picture.

  • Scole


    re: onto some big ideas

    Jesse, these are really great and really difficult questions. I’m not sure I can answer them sufficiently but I’ll give it a shot.

    1. What do you think of the idea of "objectivity". Does it have value and if so, how do you define objectivity for yourself?

    It’s probably a cliche’ by now to say "there is no such thing as true objectivity." But… I think there is no such thing as true objectivity. Reporters are also human beings and as such we’re going to have opinions about either side of every story we do (presuming the story is polemic like that). The idea, historically, is to check those opinions at the door and behave as though we are objective (i.e. write the story as though we have no opinions). So what we’re really talking about is a pretense of objectivity. Now, that might be a valuable pretense, but only because of what it’s really trying to achieve — which is fairness. The way I was taught, the first rule of reporting is "Be fair and accurate." The second is "Be accurate and fair." And to me, admitting you exist, and even admitting you have an opinion in a news story, is not incongruous with being fair.

    There’s a story I have coming up on Marketplace about packaged goods companies that shrank the sizes of certain products and are selling them at the same prices. At one point, I say to a pricing and marketing consultant, "I guess my follow up question to all this is ‘What the hell?!’ Like, is that okay?!" I said that because a) I thought it, and more importantly b) I thought it was what most people listening to the story would probably think at that moment. The consultant responds with “To be perfectly honest I think it is okay.” And we go into his reasoning, with no more side-commentary from me. Also, I took pains to contact every the company who is mentioned in the story, and many who are not. None of the companies in the story would go on tape. So I say that, and then I summarize their statements. I guess what I’m saying is, I tried very hard to represent every side of the story fairly. And I don’t think leaving myself out of the story would have aided that attempt.

    2. In general, when use of "the I" works, what is "working" about it? I guess I’m trying to get at what we mean when we say a story "works"–something we all tend to intuitively feel but struggle to explain. Is the "I" always doing the same basic thing, or is it something that works completely differently in different situations?

    You’re right. It’s a struggle to explain what works about a story. And there are different kinds of self-referential, admitting-you-exist moments so, no, I don’t think the “I” is always doing the same thing. In general though, I think what works about it is that you feel, as a listener, that you’re being to instead of talked at . Because you are. Also generally, I think that when a reporter admits, in some way, that s/he is a human being, all of the other people in the story become more human too. They’re not just “sources” anymore, they’re people. And in listening to that happen, I feel like I’m not just “the listener” anymore. I’m a person too. In a way, when it works, it’s as though we all kind of drop the act and go to dinner together. And maybe we argue at dinner. Maybe there’s someone at dinner that I really don’t like. But no longer do I think of that "someone" as a faceless drone who represents a certain idea or, more to the point, who represents no idea. That someone is a person like I am.

    I hope that at least some of this is making sense and that it’s not all reading like the babblings of an insane person.

  • Scole


    Re: Ha!

    Best photo credit ever.

  • Marsha


    Just replace "reporter" with "student"… read on.

    Great article! As you may remember, I left WBUR years ago to become an English teacher. As I was reading your "manifesto," I kept thinking of the similarities between your approach to reporting and my approach to teaching student writers. You may remember that in school (as in reporting), students have been forced away from using the "I". However, this often leads to soul-less, boring essays. I encourage (okay, really I force) them to put themselves in the essay — to make sure that they are in the essay. I grade them on how well they use their voice — how well they enliven their argument or analysis or whatever it is that they’re trying to do. It’s scary that they (most of them, anyway) don’t know how to do this. And it’s just fabulous when they start to get it and run with it. Sometimes too far, but I’d rather this than no personality whatsoever.

    Just thought you’d find this analogy interesting.

  • Jesse Dukes



    Thanks Sean. Great answers, and great use of HTML. I love the idea of listeners and reporters going to dinner together.

    As a corollary, what you wrote made me wonder whether the kind of exaggerated demonstration of objectivity that was common in the reporting of the 1940’s and on was in itself a reaction to a prior age when journalism was really more about opinion. I don’t know much about the Yellow Journalism period except for from watching Citizen Kane twenty times, but my sense was newspapers then were really pretty unabashedly opinionated and even propagandist.

    Maybe Murrow’s use of "this reporter", which sounds so self aggrandizing and absurd now, was and attempt to reach for something a little more humble. To literally get out of the way of the story.

    In any case, great answers, great thoughts. Thanks again.

  • Ben Markus – Hawaii Public Radio


    I just can’t agree

    Putting yourself in the story is effective. I’ve done it three times in three years on the job. In every instance I got good reviews. But this idea that it should be anything other than a rarity is outrageous. Public Radio is already the height of "selfness." As reporters we research the story, we pitch it, record the interviews and sound, edit the interviews, transcribe the interviews, write the script, narrate the story, and edit it all together. We do everything. It’s our work, our voice, and our name and reputation on the line. What more do you want? The more you make yourself part of the story the more you become an unnecessary character in this drama. What’s worse is I’ve been hearing this in NPR stories almost daily. STOP already!! I don’t need to hear the reporter’s question before the soundbite. Show some creativity within the rules, so when you you do color outside the lines we take notice and it’s more special.

  • Scole


    Re: Just replace "reporter" with "student"… read on.

    Hey Marsha!

    Great to hear from you. And I’m so happy you’re challenging your students like this. I remember writing those essays and trying to sound authoritative. In the end, I think I just sounded ridiculous. Especially when I was a teenager with no idea what the hell I was talking about, nor what authority and accuracy were. And then there were the college papers, which are barely decipherable now. Somehow, I managed to write them in the thickest academic-ese, completely muting any passion or curiosity or vitality.

    Maybe this all comes back to the idea of dropping pretense, of not trying to put on an authoritarian act if it feels forced.

    Anyway… you rock Miss Marsha!

  • Robert McGinley Myers


    Annoyed by the I

    I agree that reporters putting themselves in the story can be grating. But I think David Kestenbaum’s rule of thumb for including the reporter’s question is a good rule of thumb for including the I in general. He said that he never includes the question if it’s just there to make himself look good. And I think generally if you’re including yourself as a character in a way that makes you look exceptionally witty or smart or brave, you’re probably doing the story a disservice. It’s always better if you’re just humanizing yourself, demonstrating that you’re not a news generating robot.

    All that said, my favorite kind of radio story is the personal documentary, in which someone is reporting on (not merely reading an essay about) something in their own life. And with the passing of Day to Day and now Weekend America, it’s sad to see a shrinking market for those kinds of stories.

  • Scole


    Re: I just can’t agree

    Hi Ben,

    Firstly, apologies for the delayed response. Have been running all around because of the holidays. Secondly, so glad you wrote in with this points. And certainly, all of this used to be a rarity for me. Really, I used to only put myself in stories in order to get out of a jam or to get around some problem (as in the "end-timers" example). And I do think that including yourself can be a useful tool for getting around narrative roadblocks. Later, I guess I just became more comfortable with it. But as I said, it’s not right for every story and there are many stories in which I just stay out of the way. Also, it’s not right for every reporter. I know one reporter who HATES including himself in his stories and he is one of the most brilliant, creative, innovative and thoughtful reporters I’ve heard on the radio.

    Regarding the pitching, recording, transcribing, editing, etc… True. In the end, we have control over every element of the story — which interview clips to include, the order in which facts are delivered, the framing of events. All of that is the work of any journalist in any medium. And, if you’ll forgive me, I think this confuses the brute carpentry of journalism with the art of storytelling. I don’t think including oneself in one’s story is hubristic because we have control over every other aspect. I think it is only hubristic when it is noticeable — which is to say, when the reporter becomes the main focus of a story that wasn’t about the reporter in the first place.

    In terms of including reporter questions, I hear you. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But my rule is that any reporter question or reaction or what have you is worth one narration track. Here’s an example. Last year I did a story for Weekend America about Louis Klein, a 20-year denizen of the overnight queue for Saturday Night Live "stand-by" tickets. There’s a whole culture of the queue. There are regulars. Relationships are formed, etc. At one point I interviewed Bill Hader, one of the SNL cast members. In the first draft of the script, that section read like this.

    "ACT 11
    BILL HADER: Heeeey you got glasses?

    COLE 11
    Around 11 o’clock Bill Hader comes down from rehearsal to hang out with the kids. He might the friendliest guy on the cast. Friendly enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about Louis. He says he took a picture of Louis with his parents once. He says he felt anointed when Louis first said hi to him. And yeah he says… Louis is no sycophant.

    ACT 12
    There’s no fawning at all… no fawning at all. It’s very much like (IMITATING LOUIS) ‘I I I I didn’t like that last week.’ you know? ‘I I I I thought that was really bad. I didn’t like that at all.’ so uh yeah he’s a good guy though."

    So, I play the story for my editor, Peter Clowney, who said "Do you have tape of him saying he has a picture of his parents with Louis?" I said yeah, but that the tape part was a little convoluted and hard to edit around. Peter said that, as much as possible, he wanted that whole scene to play out using only tape. So I went back to my Pro Tools session and just stretched out the tape from that part of the interview. On the air, the scene played out like this:

    "ACT 12
    BILL HADER: Heeeey you got glasses?

    COLE 12
    A few hours later Bill Hader… the guy who imitates Al Pacino on the show… comes out to spend time with the kids. He might the friendliest guy in the cast.

    Act 13
    HADER: I think my parents have a picture with them and Louis.
    SEAN: Really?
    HADER: Yeah yeah I took a picture with my parents and Louis.
    SEAN: It’s interesting because he was saying that he thinks of y’all as people.
    HADER: Yeah.
    SEAN: And that must be really refreshing as…
    HADER: Oh totally yeah…
    SEAN: …opposed to being fawned over.
    HADER:Oh yeah he doesn’t… There’s no fawning at all… no fawning at all. It’s very much like (IMITATING LOUIS) ‘I I I I didn’t like that last week.’ you know? ‘I I I I thought that was really bad. I didn’t like that at all.’ so uh yeah he’s a good guy though."

    So, we conveyed the same information. And I’m "in the story" as much as I was before. But instead of being in the story as a narrating reporter in the studio, I’m in the story as an interviewing reporter "on the scene." In my opinion, the latter is more dynamic and vivid, and varies the tone of the piece. But moreover I think it’s more honest. We know exactly what Hader is responding to when he says "there’s NO fawning at all!"

    Finally, in terms of there being rules to this — 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 you’re 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. But again, that is just my incredibly humble opinion. Of course feel free to disagree.

    Happy Hollandaise to all,

    — Sean.

  • Scole


    Re: Annoyed by the I

    Hey Robert,

    I totally agree with you, and David, on this. And again, by demonstrating that you’re not a disembodied voice in a story, I think you also demonstrate that your interviewees are more than disembodied voices. Moreover, in an ideal situation, the funniest and/or most sagacious person/people in a given story is not me. It’s the interviewee(s). That is, when I listen back to stories I’ve done that I think worked out well, may favorite parts are what the interviewees say. Not what I say, be it in script or "in the field." So, in that way, I feel like I’m just a facilitator.

    And a hearty "Amen" to what you said Day to Day and Weekend America. So sad to see those two shows passing, as both allowed for different types of storytelling and production methods. Weekend America was especially open to personal narrative. And as a former WA staff reporter I have a soft spot in my heart for that show and am sad to see it go.

  • rkrulwich



    I think Sean’s got it right; use the "i" word when necessary, but don’t make it too necessary too often and when you use it, use it to solve a specific transition, to switch your point of view, to create an element of surprise, to solve a grammar problem, but don’t use the ‘I’ to talk about yourself. Use yourself to talk better about others.

    That said, what I really like about Sean’s stories…and Ben of Seattle, please take note: there is a joy to doing this kind of work, to slipping into the world every day to see what’s happening and to come back with a story that tickles or scares or concerns or shares. To do that you have to learn how to talk in colors, not just in blacks and whites, and Sean shows an astonishing range in language, pace, cutting techniques and sheer piss when he tells his tales. Ben, the reason it’s sometimes important (not always, but sometimes) to hear the reporter’s question before the soundbite is you want to know who’s asking, with what attitude, with what information. The reporter is THERE, as you perfectly point out, he’s part of the story and it is more honest, more revealing, to see both the reporter and the subject make their moves together. It’s not about ego, it’s about truth. It’s also about catching and holding the audience’s attention, using voice, surprise, breaths and Sean, with his ‘I’s and without them, does it very, very nicely. That’s my view anyway.

  • roman mars


    Sean Cole is my hero

    You are the person I’m trying to emulate and/or impress when I do a reported story. Here’s why: when you use “I” in a piece, you are not you, you are me. You may be you too, but when I hear you interacting with an interviewee, you are asking MY question. When I hear you describe a set up that led you to a story, you are bringing me with you. So, your “I” works because it’s all about me. I don’t consider it self-aggrandizing at all. That’s one reason why your pieces are so engaging. You are a naturally interactive storyteller, both with the interviewee and the audience.

    Having listened to my share of radio docs, I would say that the “I” doesn’t work when I don’t buy the “I,” when it seems forced and unnatural. I think this happens often when the reporter is trying to sound more astute, aware or sensitive, so the David K. heuristic is a good guideline, but I don’t think I care if you “make yourself” sound good. Just sound real and tell the story.

    Here’s my question to forward the plot: is the “I” really you? I have to say, for me, “I” is often a bit of a character. The things “I” says aren’t false, but they are amped up and more passionate than I tend to be in real life. Does that matter?

  • sarah reynolds



    Sean, thanks for the manifesto.

    As someone who is pretty apprehensive about being in a story at all, I do see the value of "I" through the clouds! Roman makes a good point – it works for me when "you" are asking a question that we might ask if we could be there and the asking of this question is needed to show the gravity of the response. As a reporter, you are there because we cannot all be there, so we have to get the real story and it is impossible for you, as a reporter, not to be a part of it (so maybe we hear you, as well).

    It’s hard for me to see the value of my own presence in a final story, as I mentioned. So with all this talk of saying "I" or not – when do you make this decision in your interviewing/editing process? Do you try to be in or try to be out from the start?

    Thanks again, Sean Cole!

  • Scole


    Robert and Roman are two, true-blue heroes!

    Firstly – Happy New Year to all!

    Secondly – I’m sorry, once again, that it’s taken me so long to respond.

    Thirdly – Thank you so much, Robert, for such high praise (both of what you said and because it’s you saying it.) Anyone who wants to hear true joy and wonder in reporting, along with masterful storytelling, prestidigitatorial cutting and editing, and a genuine sense of cinema should listen to Robert’s NPR stories. Run, don’t walk, to his podcast:

    Thirdly – I’m actually glad, Roman, that it took me this long to respond. Because I got to hear your fabulous Weekend America piece in the interim. Talk about using the "I" to great affect and being the proxy for the listener (i.e. me)! For those who haven’t heard it, Roman’s piece was a kind of predictor of which music we’ll be listening to in 2009. Please check it out here:

    This topic is a staple of newspapers and radio shows this time of year. And it can be pretty dry in a bands-to-watch-out-for kind of way. But in Roman’s hands it transforms into something else. Listening to this story, you can hear his own love of music, and the particularity of his tastes. More importantly, Roman manages to bring out his interviewees’ love of music, and that specific, electric feeling of discovering a new band, closing your eyes, and wishing it onto the charts.

    Finally, that one moment, Roman, when you call up the record store clerk and beg for just a minute of his time… of course you could have called up ahead of time, off-tape, and scheduled an interview. But, to me, the way you did was so much more satisfying. A little personal conquest that I felt on this end of the radio too.

    So, I hear you when you say "you are not you, you are me." Right back atcha. And bless you for saying that because it makes me feel as though I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do. We often talk about being the "proxy" for the listener — so often that I think we might glaze over the full heft of what that means. It does mean asking the listener’s question and bringing them by the hand into the story. Back to the dinner party analogy, and your point about interactivity: as a reporter it’s like you’re the host of the party, making sure you’re taking care of everyone’s needs (listeners, interviewees) and being responsible to both. Not necessarily their wants mind you, but their needs.

    Here’s my question to forward the plot: is the “I” really you? I have to say, for me, “I” is often a bit of a character. The things “I” says aren’t false, but they are amped up and more passionate than I tend to be in real life. Does that matter?

    I totally hear what you’re saying. And this reminds me of a conversation I had with Peter Clowney, my splendiferous editor first at Marketplace and then at Weekend America. In one of our early edits, I told him (paraphrasing here) "You know, we’re always talking about writing how you’d normally talk or voicing a script the way you’d normally talk. But that’s NOT what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be way more engaging and articulate than we’d ever be in normal conversation. And way more performative." And Peter said, well, we’re trying to be our best self. That is, it’s still you. Your personality, your mind. But it’s the best aspects of that personality and mind. And the ones that are the most useful, again, at a dinner party. As opposed to, say, a coat closet.

    All of that said… I think the real answer to your question is, it depends. Yes, sometimes I listen back to stories and think "that’s not me. That’s a condensed, hyper-real version of myself." And then sometimes I listen back and think, "that’s really who I am in my day to day life." And, to come full circle a bit, it’s really the latter I’m striving for — that ability to be truly yourself in front of the microphone, which we demand of our interviewees all the time.

    The best example I can think of from my own stories is this interview I did for an hour long documentary on abstinence pledging. I talked to this one girl (I called her Abby, though that wasn’t her real name) and she was really ambivalent about taking an abstinence pledge at this big pledging event called The Silver Ring Thing. She said that maybe it’d help if she heard from a previous pledger about how the pledge benefited them. Then we hear this:

    "Abby: I think that’s the only way it’d basically change my mind or make me feel strongly enough to say okay I’m gonna take this pledge or whatever you wanna call it. [LAFFS.] Yeah.
    Sean: That’s they call it.
    Abby: Yeah. The pledge. Oh man.
    Sean: Are you nervous?
    Abby: Well I hope it’s not a whole group of people standing up and saying I pledge that I will not… where everyone says the words together. That would feel kind of pressured into doing it. Instead of… if you wanted to decide to put this ring on then there you go. If you don’t, then don’t."

    For some reason, whenever I picture that part of the interview, I’m not wearing headphones or holding a microphone in the picture. We’re just sitting on the couch talking, unmediated and un-self-conscious. I think that’s partly because, for once, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to say next. I was just fully in the conversation. And I like to think that my being myself helped her be fully herself, and say how she really felt about the whole issue.

  • Scole


    Sarah Reynolds’s message

    Hi Sarah!

    Great question. There are definitely times when I know that I want to put myself in a story, and I know just how I want to do it, as in the wedding bands piece. And there are times when I know I definitely don’t want to put myself in a story. And then there are times when I don’t know. (God I sound like Donald Rumsfeld here. "And then there are unknown unknowns.") But in those cases, I tend to operate as though I will somehow involve myself. I can always decide later to take myself out of a piece. But it’s harder to put yourself into a piece when you haven’t prepared to do so. Thus, I always insist on recording my own questions, whether I’m doing a remote interview (ISDN, tape-synch/double-ender, what have you) or I’m recording the interviewee in person. I may also plan to ask a specific question, something that I hope will elicit a strong response. Not a "gotcha" question, mind you, but something out of the ordinary that I think I might include in the story. Again, if the interviewee doesn’t have a good response, the exercise is moot.

    The example I gave in the Third Coast presentation was about Clocky. A few years ago, a grad student at MIT invented an alarm clock on wheels that rolls off of the bedside table and hides from you after you hit "Snooze." Peter Clowney was my editor for that one as well. And in preparing for the interview, I told him I was thinking of asking ‘How long have you been a sadist?’ as the first question. He said "Sounds good. Or how about, ‘First question: why do you hate people?’" So I asked the question that way in the interview. The inventor laughed and said a lot of people had asked similar things. So we immediately got to a common response to her invention and, hopefully, we did it in an entertaining way.

    This can backfire majorly. I did another Marketplace story about Cold Stone Creamery and its requirement that all of its employees sing in unison after they get a tip. The area manager told me that they hold auditions for these jobs. "You’ve got to be willing to belt one out," she said. So the question I asked was something along the lines of "Do you have a Simon Cowell who says something like…" and here I put on a horrible English accent, "’I’m sorry dear. Your voice is atrocious Baskin and Robins is down the street.’" They were actually embarrassed for me. And they were so taken aback that they looked at each other and kind of tittered nervously without answering. It was horrible. I did not put that moment in the story.

  • bartona


    losing its edge?

    Editors have a big role in this as well.

    I edited Roman Mars’s piece on new music for Weekend America–and we did some rearranging. The way the piece starts now–"I’m sorry, I love radio…" was buried in the middle, and I made Roman move it to the top. It was a very nice moment, very in your face, and even more so at the top of the story.

    A lot of times I end up toning down or cutting out personal reflection in a story when I feel like the reporter is kind of standing in the way between the audience and the subject. But other times the device can be effective. However, I think its effectiveness will change over time as it becomes more of a convention and listeners become used to it, tired of it, or just expecting it. What do you think, Sean?

    Maybe I just listen to too much public radio (though it’s actually never enough). Things can go quickly from edgy to everywhere to downright annoying. Like the phrase "Here’s the thing." A great indicator of thesis statement, a demand to stop what you’re doing and listen, but also 13 years after we started hearing it on TAL, totally overdone. If I hear another story starting with the words "Here’s the thing," I may do serious damage to my car radio.

    So please, a plea from the editor: don’t blow all your Is and recorded questions in one year! Conserve and protect our precious rhetorical resources!

  • Scole


    Re: losing its edge?

    Editors have a big role in this as well.

    Absolutely, Julia! Thank you for making this point. And I’ve always been happy that you, and all of the editors at Weekend America, know the value of well-used personal reflection and self-referential moments in story-telling. (Another example: that bizarre and funny moment in your Cassandra’s story this past weekend when Peter Schiff told you to stock up on batteries. The turn you took afterward — "So do I? Seriously… do you ?" — is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of using "the I" to drive home a point or otherwise benefit a story. Fantastic. Everybody listen…

    And yes you’re right to tone down or cut out self-referential moments when they get in the way. Of course, reporters and editors will have their differences as to whether a personal reflection (or anything else for that matter) belongs in a story. My only beef is with editors who cut out "I" categorically — based on an overly-applied principle — as opposed to taking each instance on a case-by-case basis. (If that makes sense. Kind of a convoluted sentence there.) I am categorical about a few things myself. I insist that anyone who has a fireplace in his/her dwelling must use it on a regular basis. A fireplace is too cozy a thing to waste. If you’re not going to have fires in there, move out and let someone who appreciates fireplaces inhabit your dwelling. I insist on walking on the sunny side of the street if there is one. Because too often there is not. I also abjure tailgating, boy bands and foie gras. Other than that, I am not a fan of categorical rejection. Somewhere in The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. says breaking syntactical rules is better than writing awkward sentences. (As in "That is something up with which I will not put.") But I can’t find that reference now so I’ll throw out this one from the same book:

    "The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Let him start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead, although he may make a nice living."

    Speaking of which, yeah, I totally hear you on the overusing memes tip. I’m definitely guilty of stealing handy lingual ticks and using them too often. I can’t remember hearing "Here’s the thing" at the tops of pieces but definitely lower down in the body of a story. And yes, I can imagine a day when self-referentiality is conventional in radio stories. But I don’t mind it becoming conventional. I think there’s a line between conventional and cliche. It may be a fine line but it’s there. Certain conventions persist because they’re satisfying, or necessary, or somehow lend clarity to a piece. Ending with narration instead of tape is a convention. Saying your name at the end of a story is a convention. That is to say, I don’t mind if it becomes normal or common to refer to yourself, in some way, in a story. As long as it’s not gratuitous, like you said.

    I guess what I’m saying is, there are times when including yourself is really surprising and prominent and spectacular, as in the Laura Sullivan example. And then there are other times where it’s just part of what’s going on. And listeners might not even notice that you did it. But they would have noticed if you didn’t do it. If that makes sense. And in this latter case, I doubt that it would ultimately becoming annoying or sound cliched. But perhaps I shouldn’t sound so confident about this.

  • bartona


    The Cassandras

    Thanks for the props, Sean. Good point about conventions vs. cliches. I also think I’m making too much of the "here’s the thing" thing–it’s really more of a pet peeve.

    On a side note, there’s an error in my piece that makes me embarrassed as an editor…it’s really obvious if you listen to the piece closely, but almost no one has caught it, including MY own editor, or me when I was tracking the damned thing. Another lesson in how much audio just washes over us and leaves few details in its wake. (The error has been corrected in the print version, so you won’t find it there.) Or maybe it’s more related to the fact that both I and my editor have small babies and are sleep-deprived. We’ll see if anyone can hear it–though it pains me to admit to a stupid mistake!

  • Jackson


    What? No Heisenberg Principle?

    Sean — long time listener, first-time caller, great stuff. Still, all these brains sploshing about here at Transom, and yet what is the "I" with a recording device among so many? Lovely story, the Marketplace piece about changing the volume/content of a product without changing its appearance. So much more fun when you took it out to the parking lot, away from the management henchmen.

    How have you managed to overcome the Heisenberg effect? Which is to say, simply by being there and watching upon what you see, you are supposedly altering the trajectory of what you see simply by being there and observing — hence the acknowledgement of Herr Doktor Heisenberg.

    I know your animal charm, sir, and that counts for much here. But still, my feeling is that you have created an entirely new definition of the "I" in a pubrad story. The proverbial naval-gazing constitutes one domain of the use of "I" in public radio (to wit: This American Life), and yet, whether it’s between guinea pig or simply modest interlocutor, you have created something other.


  • Scole


    Re: What? No Heisenberg Principle?

    Hi Jackson,

    Major apologies for taking nearly two whole weeks to respond. This is a great question. And once again I’m not sure I’m smart enough to answer it but I’ll give it a whirl.

    Really I think any reporter present anywhere is subject to the Heisenberg Principle. Just by being there, any reporter will affect the situation in some large or small way. People might put on their best face because you’re there, or ham it up more. They may become nervous and less articulate than they would be otherwise. We’ve all had the experience where someone is mild-mannered and moderate when we’re interviewing him/her and then the recorder goes off and suddenly s/he springs to life and becomes wildly entertaining. (One way to guard against this happening, of course, is just to hang around and record for a long, long time. Documentary style. But not everybody has that luxury.)

    So, in the end, I think it’s just a matter of admitting that we affect the situation — that is, not trying to pretend that we don’t have some sort of impact on our surroundings. That’s where the "I" comes in. By saying, in effect, "yes I’m here, and maybe things would have been different were I not here, but this is what I saw," I think we’re being more truthful, and also more respectful of our listeners — as opposed to asking them to believe that things would play out exactly the same way without a reporter present.

    And thanks for your compliment on the product downsizing story. That was a fun one. Though, in the end, I got kicked out of the parking lot as well… right after finishing up my last interview with the shoppers there.

  • Jackson


    Meanwhile, the illustrative photo

    Sean: Sites post editorial cartoons in pursuit of a caption; here at Transom, there you are, in a room full of guns, mic in hand. It’s not that you’re all alone in the photo — but hey, you are — it just looks like you’re waiting for one of those things to go off and then you’ll be golden.

    I could — and will — ask what brought you to be recording in a gun shop, Heisenberg Principle yea or nay.

    But your choice to appear in a particular environment touches upon something that emerged in other Transom discussions, especially about how stories eventually begin to gravitate to the reporter, once they have walked a beat long enough to wear tracks into the pavement.

    So: Is hanging out in gun shops how you start your search for all your stories (and why were you there without wearing camouflage? Was it just because we couldn’t have seen you in the picture otherwise?) or is there some special Sean Cole type antenna that drives stories to you, and that antenna led you to that shop?

    Or is it all a huge pubrad metaphor — like, here I stand, with a shotgun mic, in a room full of real shotguns?


  • Robert Wright


    Darth Vader

    When I saw the name Sean Cole on the Transom main page, I remembered the Darth Vader piece.

    And that was years ago and I never remember names, but the piece was so fresh, original, unpredictable and funny, yes, the name Sean Cole rang a bell.

    But if I’m mistaken and it wasn’t Sean Cole, well, I’m really bad at names.

    Regardless, I’ll always remember that piece.

  • Scole


    Re: Meanwhile, the illustrative photo

    Thanks for these questions, Jackson. (And apologies again for taking so long to respond.) It’s funny you should ask what led me to that gun-store. That story was sort of antithetical in terms of how I usually come across stories. (Actually, there is no "usually" in that regard. But more on that in a sec.)

    Basically, my dear friend and colleague Nick van der Kolk emailed me and said that he wanted to go on a man-cation at a shooting range in New Hampshire. He had been up to this particular shooting range before to record a segment for his podcast Love and Radio (which you should really check out if you haven’t yet. It’s ingenious and deeply entertaining, in my humble. I said "sure." And then thought I should do a story while I’m at it. I was a staff reporter for Weekend America at the time. And my pitch to them was pretty soft. Something like "Hey! My friend Nick invited me up to a shooting range to shoot guns with him."
    "What’s the story?" they rightly said. At which point I realized there was a story. It’s embarrassing to admit this but I am a total scaredy-cat who often worries about night time break-ins, even though (knock wood) I live in a pretty safe area. And pretty much every night I lay awake wishing I had a gun on my bedside table to protect myself. The problem is I’m also afraid of guns. In any case, all of this led me to the idea that I should probably know what it’s like to shoot one. The story ran a couple of years ago:

    It’s funny because, as much as I advocate including oneself in stories, this is the most I’ve ever done so — and I worried that it was too much. Too narcissistic or too navel-gazey. That said, I love the tape of my friends (Nick and also Tim Terway) in this piece and the proprietor of the gun-shop was an absolute dream. Meeting and interviewing him was, for me, worth any embarrassment over my "over-sharing."

    In any case, I hear and/or read about stories in various places. As far as Marketplace goes, I’ve gotten more than one story out of business journals and press releases and the newspaper. Traditional ways. Friends will suggest ideas. Now and then some sort of internet viral meme will assert itself as a potential story and I find those hard to resist. Here’s an example of that:

    I think I just stumbled across the video that this piece is about by accident. Lucky. As soon as I saw it I thought, "this has to be a hoax. Surely Starbucks put this guy up to it." So that’s the whole reason I pursued it, which I touch upon in the piece. But also, I just found the guy’s story irresistible. And he’s a great character. The self-proclaimed "Singing Rocky."

  • Scole


    Re: Darth Vader

    Hi Robert,

    Yes the Darth Vader piece. My only foray into fiction since college. Benjamen Walker was the brains behind that one. His idea. We collaborated on the writing. Really, I was just helping Ben realize his mad scheme. Many people who know him have said the same thing at one point or another.

  • Scole



    I also have a thing for numbers that are divisible by three and so will selfishly increase the number of postings here to 33 – an extremely auspicious and lucky number from where I sit.

    I also want to thank Transom for asking me to maunder on here and to everybody who read and wrote in and otherwise commented. Y’all are great. Love to everybody,

    — Sean.

  • Jay Allison


    34. sorry.

    This was a good one, Sean. We’re compiling into the Transom Review which will be out shortly. thank you!

  • Rogi Riverstone


    I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

    "Amped up," not so much as refined, honed, tightened and focused more sharply: edited. I’d think. You are REPORTING on being you; you’re not BEING you.

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