Intro from Jay Allison: We have a series here at Transom we call “Short Lists” where you hear a list of things and then find out how they’re connected. Hairpieces, Coyotes, Village Portraits, Grind Core Punk, Personal Tragedy, Songwriting, Fibromyalgia, Singing at Funerals, Roller Derby… okay, that’s a list of the stories produced by the Transom Story Workshop this fall. The students came here from all over the country (and two from Canada this time), somehow discovered these stories hidden away on Cape Cod, and then, using the skills they just learned, turned them into radio. It’s quite a trick—to go from never having done it, to doing it well. I’m amazed every time.
About “The Village Portrait Project: Painting a Community, Bringing Together a Village”
To create this piece, I interviewed Jon Goldman for 11 hours over the course of two days. That’s a ridiculous amount of time for a less than five-minute profile.
During our over-the-phone pre-interview I had picked up that Jon could be a dominating speaker. But I told myself, walking up to his door, “You’re prepared. You’re perceptive. You’re a journalist.”
I got steamrolled.
Interviewing Jon was like standing in front of a speeding train. Huge, spectacular, barreling towards me. And I was left hanging onto the side rail for dear life as it hurled into the unknown. It was not a dignified sight.
Jon is a talker. By a talker, I mean a 20-second question elicited a 20-minute answer, off-shooting in wild tangents, all sounding equally brilliant.
I wasn’t agile enough to derail the conversation, to steer it towards a constructive course. And with every tangent, I’d spiral into another idea of what that course could be, constantly remapping my storyline until it tangled into an unrecognizable hairball. My hair, pulled out from trying to make heads and tails of this piece.
It’s not that I hadn’t prepared.
I had walked into the first interview with a story outline, characters, conflict, obstacles, and seven typed pages of questions. But I didn’t want to parachute in with a preconceived idea of the story, gather the sound bites to support that story, and leave. I wanted to accomplish what we had discussed in class — noticing what we notice, flexibility, adjusting our pre-fabricated outline with what we actually encounter.
So I was wide open. But I was so open that I stood “infinite in all directions,” as Rob says. Everything became a possibility, every word essential. With no discrimination, I was overwhelmed, buried in so many options that I lost all perspective.
Eight hours later, I left, exhausted and furious at myself for not taking control of the situation. And I needed another interview. The piece was on Jon’s current portrait series. I’d spent most of the day on his back-story.
Amazingly, Jon agreed to meet me the next day.
So I wrote out 10 pinpoint specific questions and carried that list into the second interview.
I got steamrolled. Again. But I got the story.
I believe Jon let me interview him for over 11 hours because he was seeking media attention for his project. Usually, I wouldn’t touch a story that wanted to be a story, but I was interested in the project, and the attention might help raise funds to print the portraits.
I’m glad I decided to do it. It’s a beautiful project. Jon was immensely generous with his time. And I learned a lot from the process.
Here’s what I learned:
- If you get off-topic, just say, “We’ve veered off-topic,” then re-ask your question. Radio-wise, few things people say are precious. So respect both you and your interviewee’s time, and stick to the subject.
- If tangents keep occurring, then just say so. Voice the situation. Alix Spiegel told us, “You can say anything if you have the right intentions.”
- If you aren’t getting good tape, you probably aren’t asking good questions. Ask great questions.
- If you record it, you have to log it. Eleven hours is a lot of tape to relive.
- Knock. I was terrified to knock on Jon’s door that first day, terrified because I wanted to create something amazing, and I didn’t know if I could hack it. But the most over-told, boring tale is, “I was scared, so I didn’t do something.” And that story never makes radio. So knock.
- The generosity of time people offer reporters is ceaselessly amazing and can never be taken for granted. Jon, thank you.
Take nothing for granted.
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Anna Rose’s Sonic ID
When I told my best friend that I was going to Cape Cod for two months, she told me that I had to meet her friend, Sarah Treadwell. When I arrived on the Cape, Sarah left me a voicemail. From her first three words, I knew I had to record her voice. I drove to Wellfleet, and after we talked at her kitchen table for hours, I pulled out my microphone, and she told me this story.