Two years ago, I was the Latin America correspondent for Marketplace. It was my dream job. But I found that I was frustrated. I wasn’t telling the stories I wanted to tell. It turned out that the ideal place to tell those stories was right under my feet, at the local station in Miami where I was based. So I left Marketplace. I helped start a local news feature segment called Under the Sun. Our brand of intimate, character-driven stories about place was so popular, I was hired to bring that kind of storytelling to the WLRN news department as a whole.
That process has shown me that local can be better than national; you can take bigger risks, you can have a closer relationship to your audience, and you can have more fun.
But there’s a corollary to that: local is harder than national. Good local radio has to do all the same things as stories on national air. The same benchmarks of quality, the same journalistic rigor and depth, the same creative use of sound. But local has to do something else: It has to evoke a Sense of Place.
In making the transition from national to local, I’ve gleaned some principles about how to make local radio really sing. I’ll share the two tips that really matter most.
Tip One: Place is not (simply) a Place.
It took Under the Sun co-founder Alicia Zuckerman and I nearly a year to produce two pilot episodes of Under the Sun. We were so proud. But when we sent the show to our radio mentor, Jim Russell, a.k.a. the Program Doctor, this is what he had to say: “The show seems lacking as a program. The stories have nothing to do with each other, and the show’s reason for being is unclear. The only uniting characteristic is that all of these people live in Florida… In other words, you have – at best – a collection of good writing, good stories, good craft and a good ‘cast.’ But these elements don’t all gel into a single show.”
The Program Doctor wrote, “All of these people live in Florida.” Isn’t that sense of place?
Well, no. We were wrong. Place is not simply a place.
Jim pointed Alicia and me to a study commissioned a few years back by the Public Radio Program Directors. Listeners were asked what they value in local radio. The findings filled 84 pages. But their answer boiled down to just three words: Sense of Place.
If we’d read the Sense of Place study more carefully, we’d have read this nifty graph (and saved ourselves a year of work): “The dimensions of each place are mental, and the maps in the minds of public radio listeners do not match political geography. We found that dimensions of environment, history and culture are more important than standard boundaries like city, county and state.”
When you’re producing local radio, you can’t define place simply by geography or the setting for a story. By “place,” what listeners are asking for are stories that evoke the shared lived experience of a region or a people. Rather than think about place as geography, at Under the Sun we think about place as a set of themes.
I know, I know: This seems unnecessarily abstract. But local radio producers, myself included, fall into the habit of thinking about place as simply the setting for a story. A book author comes to town and we do a local story. But what connection does the book or author have to our community? We often don’t even ask that question.
Once you absorb this habit of thinking about place as a set of themes, it will have real, everyday implications for how you report, edit and produce local radio stories. Take this early feature from Under the Sun, brought to us by a talented Miami Herald reporter named Robert Samuels.
Here’s the outline of Robert’s story: A young married couple moves to Miami in the 50’s. They have a baby girl, but she dies of pneumonia at age two, and the family buries her in a local cemetery. The mom is so distraught the family moves from Miami. A few years later, the dad returns to visit his daughter’s grave. He looks and he looks, but he just can’t find the grave. Now he and his wife have to live with this crippling burden: they lost their baby daughter twice. Fast-forward half a century. The couple now lives in North Carolina. They’re in their 70s and making preparations for their own passing. Their son-in-law hears the story of the lost grave, begins making calls and finds the cemetery in Miami where the baby girl was buried. The cemetery manager sends the family a photo of the gravesite.
This is a powerful story about love and loss, about the bond between a parent and a child, about how we mourn death. But all the present action is in North Carolina. What in the world does the story have to do with South Florida?
I’m going to pause here, to point out the crucial importance of asking this question about place. This question is the only essential difference between a national and a local feature. And asking this question like a mantra at every stage of the reporting and editing process will create feature stories that do something distinct from a national piece on the same topic. Too often, local reporters forget about this Sense of Place mandate until too late in the process, and their pieces feel disconnected from the local community.
Fortunately, this question about place came up early in the editing process of the baby story. We decided that the lost grave showed how quickly the landscape in Miami can change. We wanted to hit that theme home in the section of the piece where Ruben unsuccessfully searches for his daughter’s grave.
Here’s a first draft of how Robert scripted the scene where the father visited Miami to search for his daughter’s grave.
“Ruben saw a new Miami. There was an interstate now. Cow fields had been overtaken by highways and housing. He drove the road he believes he remembered to what he believes was the cemetery. He walked the path he believed would lead to Melissa’s bronze marker. But it wasn’t there. He walked past graves and graves and graves until the sun set. He found nothing.”
Alicia and I co-edit all the pieces for Under the Sun. One of us takes a turn as the principal editor, the other as a second reader. The second reader basically acts as the Sense of Place Police. I was the principal editor on Robert’s piece. Alicia came back to me with this critique of Robert’s first draft: she said the Miami-as-a-changing-landscape theme felt forced, kind of stuck in there, parallel to the story but not part of it. After all, Alicia said to me, doesn’t every place change?
She was right, of course. We were forcing our sense of place. Robert and I considered Alicia’s critique for a long, long time. I asked him a bunch of more focused questions, Robert re-read his notes with a Sense of Place filter. And then, clear as day, we had it. It took just two short sentences, a mere 10 seconds of narration, but it made the piece:
“Ruben confronted what many people in South Florida face when they leave and return. Shock, at how quickly the landscape gets scraped clean and built anew.”
We were able to connect the lost grave to a universal Miami experience: the feeling that nothing in South Florida is so sacred that it can’t be buried or bulldozed or scraped clean. Not even a child’s grave.
Tip Two: Mine your local themes.
How do you identify your themes?
Alicia says to pay attention to what locals first talk about when they pick up a visitor at the airport. Weather, traffic, sports: those themes can define a city.
My favorite approach is to interview a poet who writes about your city. Poets spend all day thinking about this kind of stuff.
I asked Campbell McGrath, a MacArthur genius grant winner who teaches poetry at a public university in Miami, what defines Miami. Here’s what he said: “There’s a quote from the famous studier of myth Joseph Campbell that says something like, ‘Human societies depend on their local mythology to sustain them.’ That’s not an exact quote but that notion of, in other words, not just the grand epic mythology but a local mythology. Because mythology leads to a sense of the sacred. And I believe this is Florida’s huge flaw. It doesn’t see anything wrong with constantly scraping flat the landscape and rebuilding it. It’s never going to say, this version is sacred, this version is necessary and needs to be preserved. Until we can make that leap, then I think we’re going to keep repeating the same error.”
(Yes, we stole his language about “scraping” clean and rebuilding. In a longer version of this presentation, Tip Number Five is Steal Good Ideas.)
It’s really not rocket science to figure out the themes in your corner of the world. Take a second now and think about what a few of your themes might be. Go ahead. Grab a scrap of paper and jot some down.
Don’t overthink this. Most themes are obvious. If you’re in Boston, a theme is sports. If you’re in Washington DC, it’s influence. If you’re in Seattle, it’s rain. In Miami, of course, it’s hurricanes.
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Every region also has themes that are more literary, often contradictory and (arguably) more profound. Here are some from the Sense of Place report: “In the high country of Flagstaff it is ‘Poverty with a View.’ In family-friendly Minneapolis it is ‘Minnesota Nice.’ Bostonians are proud to be living in ‘the Athens of America.’” This reminds me of a joke we like to tell in South Florida: the best thing about Miami is how close it is to the U.S. Miami is American served with a café con leche.
At Under the Sun, we know our themes cold. Here are some: Miami is a place to start over – and it’s the end of the line. Miami is international – and it’s parochial. It’s the land of the fake and con. And it’s ground zero for the American Dream.
Now, you’ll notice Tip Two is “mine” your themes. In your reporting, you want to dig for your local themes. You also want to blow them up. Local stories that go against the received wisdom, against the caricatures, against the ossified ways of thinking about your city are just as much about Place as those that tap into and reinforce those themes.
It bears repeating: Mining your local themes is the sort of thing a national story on the very same subject will never do. Morning Edition might air that story about the lost baby, but no NPR correspondent would ever ask: How is this a Miami story?
That’s your job. Universal stories aren’t enough for local listeners. They want to hear local stories that illuminate and offer insight into their hometown, that enrich their experience of local life. That’s why local is harder than national. And better.
So when you’re pitching a story, be sure to include a line about how it touches on your city’s theme. Before you do an interview, brainstorm some questions that tease out the local angle. When you write your script, state your theme. Go ahead. It sounds simple. But it works.
This piece is adapted from a session Dan Grech did with Under the Sun’s Kenny Malone and Alicia Zuckerman at the 2010 Third Coast Audio Festival, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Local Radio.”