Story Workshop Fall 2011: Insights

We asked the students at the Transom Story Workshop to share some of the most important things they’ve learned so far. Five weeks in to their seven-week course, here is what they had to say.

Mary Helen Miller, Chattanooga, TN

We’ve learned the crucial skills: how to use the gear and software, how to put a story together, how to approach a stranger, etc. But the most important part has been the listening. Every day in class, we listen to other producers’ work and talk about it. (We even do a little “extracurricular” listening and discussing sometimes while we’re hanging out at home.) We’re learning how to listen hard for what makes a story good. The ideas that come out of those discussions are the most valuable.

Will Coley, Santa Monica, CA

One thing that struck me early on about the workshop (and radio in general) it’s a great excuse to talk to strangers.

I came to the Transom Story Workshop after years of working for various nonprofits that focus on large social and political issues. So the challenge for me has been boiling larger issues down to a story with one main idea (“that a seventh grader could grasp”). It’s so much more than pointing a mic (or a video camera) at someone and collecting their testimony. It’s about crafting something that gets at the heart of their story and pulls the listener in. That ain’t easy… but Rob’s making it much easier to tackle.

Katie Klocksin, Chicago, IL

Planning. The radio story I tried to make on my own before this workshop went something like this: find people who knew the (deceased) person I was interested in, show up at their house with a microphone, and grope around in the dark hoping to stumble onto something that could be turned into a story. Guess what — that story never happened.

The original idea for a story can be terribly vague. I’ve learned to take a big, nebulous idea like, “this woman was fascinating..” and break it down into manageable steps. What are the ideas? Who are the characters? Can they speak well about the topic? What are some potential scenes? Add a rough outline and some interview questions, and that’s enough to get started for real.

Lori Ann Brass, Woodbridge, CT

1. When you work in radio, you have three essential tools: a microphone, a recorder, and headphones. On my second day out in the field, I packed up my gear and drove to South Wellfleet to interview a woman named Susan Maggio, the caretaker of three rental cottages in South Wellfleet. She was overcome with emotion as soon as she started talking. It didn’t matter that I turned on a recorder, sat in her living room for two hours wearing headphones, or held a bulbous looking microphone uncomfortably close to her face.

She was honored that I had come to her house. She was eager to tell her story. Her life meant something.

Like all of us, people want to be recognized for what they think and feel, and especially for their work. Their stories really matter.

I thought I knew all of this before attending the Transom workshop; I had worked as a print journalist many years ago. But when you add the human voice to the story, there is a different, more intimate connection. The minute you put on your headphones, you can feel the difference.

Now, for the less sentimental lessons:

2. In radio storytelling, you send signals to your listeners in subtle ways, telling them for example that you’ve changed locations through both ambient sound and narration. Collecting and using ambient sound is an art form, and it’s one of the biggest challenges going from print to radio.

3. Writing for radio means collecting 80 percent more information than you’ll probably use. But somehow that portion of unusable material informs your story.

Whitney Jones, Salem, OR

Last week at the Transom Story Workshop we were all sitting around a table doing live edits with Jay Allison. I had tried something with my tape that I thought was interesting. But I got nervous and pulled most of it out at the last minute. When it was my turn to read through my story Jay commented that I needed to be more aggressive with what I was trying and that I needed to have more fun with it. This experience highlighted for me a couple important things I have learned so far at the workshop. First: the importance of taking chances. When I removed the tape that made me nervous, I did breathe a little easier, but the story got less interesting. Second: the importance of being around other public radio believers who want to make good radio. At every point in the process my stories have benefitted from the input of teachers, guests, and other students.

Erin on a recording mission photo
Erin on a recording mission

Erin Cisewski, Ithaca, NY

We have been talking a lot in class, lately, about how to ask difficult questions when doing an interview. I don’t mean like “explain your views on the intersections of spirituality, ego, and quantum non-locality” although that’s a hard question too. But when someone vaguely responds by saying, for instance, “…and after college I went through some really hard stuff, but now here I am.” It’s usually my nature to let that rest, to not ask the person to go back or elaborate, especially if they have moved forward in their story. But, I have learned through this course, that often people are leaving little invitations for you to ask deeper harder questions. Not everybody is likely to pour the contents of their hearts, their histories or purses out for you, unless you ask the hard questions. They’ll tell you if they really don’t want to talk about it.

I was surprised to learn that Rob Rosenthal is not only a thoughtful radio producer; he’s a cutting edge fashion designer too! He shared with us that when you, the narrator, show up in a piece, you should come dressed in mirrors. What he means is that what you are narrating shouldn’t detract from the story or become about you. Your words should reflect what is happening in the story, or illuminate a broader or deeper understanding of the scene and characters — like a circus fun house on the radio.

Joel Supple, Melbourne, Australia

It’s difficult to isolate a couple of things from all the stuff I have learned since starting, but there are two things that stand out to me right now. First, how hard it is to write for radio. It goes against the grain of all the writing I have done before. Short direct sentences. No big words. Only using language you would use if you were speaking it. It should be really easy but it’s hard to shake the formality of my writing. It works so much better for narration though if you can. And second, how you might have the best tape or idea in the world, but if it doesn’t fit with the story you’ve got, no one is going to let you keep it in there no matter how many different ways you try and sneak it in. Like a houseboat in a story about music. I tried.

JP Davidson, Toronto, Canada

  • Asking someone to talk on tape can feel like an imposition, or worse, an intrusion. But really, most people want to talk, and appreciate being heard. Some will refuse – but they don’t bite.
  • You can fit an awful lot into four and a half minutes – and being six seconds over may drive you bonkers for hours.
  • Phone – don’t email.
  • There are stories everywhere! Pursuing two or three is a safe bet in case something falls through. Pursuing all of them is a form of procrastination.
  • Radio nerds are the best people in the world.


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  • Maggie



    Thanks so much for sharing these gems of reflection on 5 weeks at the Transom Story Workshop. Wish I could have been there.

  • John



    Those are great lessons for those of us who wish to learn more about putting an interesting story together. Great insights. Can’t wait to hear you stories. Thanks.

  • Lucy



    I loved reading each of these responses. The ideas each student judged as most valuable to them were so varied and that made them interesting to read. While I relish listening to public radio, making public radio is not something I ever wanted to do. And yet, as I read these little nuggets of wisdom, it made me envy the students for having this opportunity. The nurturing atmosphere and feeling of community mixed with solid teaching shines through.

  • Heather



    I love hearing about everyone learning so much…..if you (the students) and you (the teachers) are ever in California – please come and give the workshop here!

    ~ Heather
    aka, Fan

  • Laura



    Loved the comments, particularly because they provide a peek at the breadth and depth of the course – so thanks for providing them. I’m wondering do you cover anything about the business aspect of being an independent radio producer?

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