Lessons Learned While Making A (The) Daily

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Intro from Jay Allison: Andy Mills has shared his work on Transom before, but that was when he had more time. Recently he transformed from a producer with weeks or months to produce a story--to a producer with a DAILY deadline, i.e. "The Daily" from the New York Times.

Andy breaks down the differences for us, including the revelation that he hasn't had to give up his ambitious and artistic storytelling tendencies even amid the grind. His Transom feature is filled with excellent advice--like the tricks to a good opening, finding emotional connection, taking chances, and teamwork. Lots of audio samples here too. This is a great tutorial for any producer, no matter what your deadline.

To begin:

You Can Still Be An Artist

Obviously, I’m an artist — I’m wearing a blanket as a scarf while making a podcast! Photo by Michael Barbaro

I was inspired to become an audio producer by hearing things like Sherre Delys’ If.

And Scott Carrier’s Running After Antelope.

And Jad Abumrad’s infectious Sometimes Behaves So Strangely.

Sure, I wanted to make stories that moved and informed people — but I wanted to do that as someone with a creative approach, someone pushing the medium to new places, someone that might still be called an ‘artist’ (whatever the hell that means).

So naturally, I never even considered making daily news. That seemed like such dutiful and responsible work — better suited for the humble, straitlaced producers of our world. After all, how could anyone with such a tight deadline ever have the time to do any of that daring, envelope-pushing stuff?

This turned out to be another one in a long list of things I’ve been wrong about in my life.

At Radiolab I had the chance to work with some of the most amazing producers on some really great stories, but anyone who worked there with me could tell you that I was not fast. I never had a deadline tighter than a week and sometimes my deadlines would stretch out to months. And still I’d turn in drafts to my editors at the last minute, with plenty of excuses about their quality.

At The Daily our team has stumbled into this alchemy where our overly ambitious desire to make something truly great continually smashes up against the unrelenting urgency of the clock and ignites an athletic sort of creativity that I don’t think we’d otherwise ever experience.

The Power of a Good Top

On a very practical level, a daily show often means that you won’t have time to drench your story in magical audio production — so you’ll need to pick a few spots to really bring the scenes to life. When we started creating the show, we learned right away that one of the best places to put those efforts was right at the top.

Why the top?

On a personal note, I grew up a latchkey kid and like many in our tribe, I watched way too many movies. One thing I learned somewhere along the way was that the first few minutes of a movie were the key that unlocked the rest of the film. That’s when the movie’s magic started to enchant me and take me away. I’m sure this is something people learn in film school and maybe it seems totally obvious, but hear me out.

Like look at this:

Raiders of the Lost Ark just started and we are already in an ancient cave tripping over things as we run from a huge boulder. Right away we learn so much about Doctor Jones: He is both very lucky, and very unlucky. He is courageous but afraid of snakes. He is a self-serious man and he’s the butt of the joke. He is our heroic contradiction and we are along for the ride.

Or look at this one:

Hitchcock opens Rear Window with a nearly wordless look around this corner of the world we are going to be spying on for the rest of the movie, and in short order he brings in narrative tension and tons of information about his main character.

And then there is the opening scene from one of my all time favorite movies:

Right away the movie is okay with our being confused. It is in no rush to answer our questions. We are taken to a world that is shrouded in mystery and suspicion. We are lurking in the dark corners. We are running for our lives. And also: DID SHE JUST FLY OR SOMETHING?! What the hell is going on? (Seriously, The Matrix is amazing.)

This technique is something my colleagues and I sometimes tried at Radiolab:

Download
Listen to “Top of ‘Outside Westgate’”

Click here to hear more of this story.

You can hear there that we are going to be traveling to Kenya, that our main voice is a reporter who is caught up in his own story, that the stakes are going to be high, all before we have even heard from the hosts or met our guests.

At The Daily this sort of top has grown to become part of our signature sound. A perfect example comes from my ever-inspiring-colleague Lynsea Garrison:

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Listen to “Top of ‘Planning The Perfect Death’”

Click here, to hear more of this story.

From the beginning, one thing that all of our tops have had in common is that we try to use TONS of tape, especially if you’ve got tape of someone with an arresting voice. This one was found by the one-and-only Rachel Quester:

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Listen to “Top of ‘Hitting A Bullet With A Bullet’”

Click here to hear more.

We’ve also often tried to start at a specific time and in a vivid place:

Download
Listen to “Top of ‘Making Sense Of The Gorsuch Pick’”

Click here to hear more (this one is the first top from our first episode!).

Sometimes it is nice to travel through time to bring context to a moment:

Download
Listen to “Top of ‘Harry & Newt On Health Care’”

Click here to hear more.

We’ve also always enjoyed trying to be playful with how we use music:

Download
Listen to “Top of ‘Elizabeth Warren’s Moment’”

Click here to hear more.

And how we use tape:

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Listen to “Top of ‘It All Comes Back To Goldman Sachs’”

Click here to hear more.

One of my favorite things: When we know that one of our reporters has discovered something that is making headlines all over the world, we love to catch them in the middle of what they are doing and tell people where they are:

Download
Listen to “Top of ‘Loyalty Verses Honesty’”

Click here to hear more.

But my favorite way we start is with the most basic and simple question:

What happened?

And then we do our best to soak the answer to that question in as much emotional, visual and compelling tape as possible. Maybe the best example of this was made by my colleagues the Monday morning after the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest weekend:

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Listen to “Clip of ‘Violence in Charlottesville’”

Click here to hear more.

Which leads to my next lesson:

Emotional Information Is Key

I think that maybe one of the reasons I didn’t want to do daily news is because I assumed that in daily news, there was neither time nor space for big and/or confusing feelings (I sure love a good cry). But yet again, I was wrong.

One of the things I’m most proud of in our work at The Daily is how we’ve tried from the start not only to convey the factual information about a story, but also to turn our microphones toward the often very complicated emotions embedded in that story.

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Listen to “Clip of ‘View Of Kabul’”

Click here to hear more.

You can hear in this clip that we are using some of the moves that make for a good top: We are traveling around the world, we are traveling back in time, we are hearing from someone we don’t often hear from — but right away we are also starting with the mixed emotions at play in the story.

Not only does daily news reporting have room for emotional information, but I am now convinced it is essential for regaining the trust that the media has lost.

That said, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that this is a very hard part of the job. I believe that much of television news tries to lean on emotional information to the point where they’ve largely earned their reputation for sensationalism. And sometimes public radio news can be emotionally distant in a way that feels cold, or when emotions are brought in, they’re often edited down to such a small part of the story that they tend to become quite precious or one dimensional.

I’m still trying to find the right balance. But I believe that the more of these we make, the better we get at finding it. Which brings me to my next point:

Take More Risks

The daily deadline has taught me that most risks are worth trying. With the podcast medium so young, and the daily news podcast medium even younger (just a baby!), I believe we should all be trying to cultivate a culture of experimentation. . . even though that means on occasion, we’ll fail.

Here’s a risk that I think worked:

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Listen to “Bill O’Reilly’s Ouster”

Click here to hear more.

That’s Barbaro, Steel and my butt!

Emily’s investigative reporting had directly contributed to the firing of one of the most powerful television hosts in TV history — and she was busy. We kept trying to book her in the studio but she was writing a story for the front page, fielding dozens of phone calls and waiting on information from sources. She was hesitant to leave her desk, so we decided to just go interview her there.

Now maybe this doesn’t sound all that risky — but we’d never done anything like it before and when you only have one day to put your show together, you know that you can’t get the time back that you put into something like this. Additionally, there was a documentary crew there with cameras, Emily kept getting phone calls and a crowd of people from the newsroom had gathered around.

Pulling that off was both creatively satisfying and the podcast producer equivalent of a real thrill!

We’ve been embracing this sort of risk taking from episode one:

Download
Listen to “Clip from ‘Making Sense Of The Gorsuch Pick’”

Click here to hear more.

In the middle of this interview on our very first day of publishing, Hobby Lobby CEO David Green called out The New York Times as a place that was more interested in pushing an agenda than in reporting the more complicated truth. For context: President Donald Trump, after a long campaign in which he was very critical of the media, had just begun calling The New York Times fake news. And now a Trump voter was openly displaying his personal frustrations with the news media to the news media.

Mr. Green caught Michael off guard and something in this moment seemed perfectly honest and raw in a way that reflected something bigger about the current state of America. But this was also our very first episode — and we had to ask, are we the kind of show that leaves that in? Or cuts that out?

There are many reasons that I’m proud to work with Michael, Lisa and Theo — and our united decision to publish that moment is one of them.

However. . . sometimes these risks don’t work out:

Download
Listen to “Clip of ‘Hitting A Bullet With A Bullet’”

Click here to hear more.

This story was amazing (and I don’t think we’ve had a cooler title than “Hitting a Bullet with a Bullet”) and it included a few short science-y explainers that we thought would be well served by employing a playful amount of sound effects. Yet, on hearing it the next morning, we decided that it just wasn’t quite right. Even though most of the effects I used were actual sounds from actual rockets, I also used a washing machine noise, the whistle of a firecracker and I enhanced an explosion to sound. . . well, to sound cooler, ya know? The team decided that we didn’t ever want our listeners wondering if the gunshots that they heard when we did a story from a war zone were added for effect (to be clear, we would never do that) and if we wouldn’t fake the sounds on a battlefield, we might as well not fake them when explaining a nuclear bomb. But I’m glad we tried it, so now we know.

Then there are the risks that split the crowd:

Download
Listen to “Clip from ‘The Coal Miner’”

Click here to hear more.

For a long time, this was our most popular episode. It generated more positive emails, tweets and compliments than any before, and stayed our most downloaded for many weeks afterwards. However, it was also the first story we published that made a noticeable number of people angry.

Slate wrote a finger-wagging article that literally blamed this story for “Why We Won’t Stop Climate Change.” An alarming number of folks (including some of my professional colleagues) wrote saying we had made a terrible error in publishing the story. Some fans on Twitter said that they were disappointed in Michael.

I think some of that criticism was warranted and some of it was not. But I’m glad we took the risk for what we saw as us publishing the confusing emotions that authentically sprang up in Michael as he was caught up in a conversation with a man whose life was very different than his own. Much like with David Green in our first episode — there seemed to be something unspoken about how divided our country has become in the wake of a volatile election. About how people saw their identities as such important factors in not only how they voted, but how they perceived what was true from what was untrue. I believe we learned something from making it that was worth the trouble it got us into, and that moving forward it’s made us better (as did some of the criticism, I’m sure).

Trust Your Team

Back when we first launched and our team was just Theo, Lisa, Michael and I, we knew that the only way we were ever going to sleep at night was if we learned to divide and conquer.

This started in the morning with questions like: What do I need to know tomorrow morning? What’s interesting to us about this thing that happened? Who do we want to talk to about that? Where might this story take us? What’s the larger idea embedded in it? Why now?

Then Theo would lead us in the act of getting down to business: How much extra reporting will we need to do? How many scenes might there be in this story? How many voices should we get? How deep do we want to go into this topic? Do we know what tape we need to hunt down? Should this be two segments?

Then we’d move: Michael knows the reporter we want to talk to so he’ll deploy his uncanny ability to write them a charming email that will somehow convince them to make time for us in their very busy day. Lisa will start writing out interview questions and begin shaping the story arc of the episode. I will run off to hunt the internet for archival tape and start building out a Pro Tools session. Theo will somehow quickly find a tape syncer, make a Google Doc for the day’s episode that includes notes from our meeting, and make contact with someone in the area who can give us their personal take on the situation.

It is going to be a busy day and we all have to trust one another to do our part to pull it all together.

A requirement of that trust is that I set my pride to the side and just do the work. I am not going to come up with all the right answers today. I might not find all the right tape today. I might not have the most compelling vision for the episode’s arc today. And worst of all: I may have to share a draft that I think sucks today.

One of the reasons I was so slow before The Daily is because I’d get stuck in the middle of building a scene or making a turn and I’d just freeze. I’d go on a walk. I’d sweat through the pits of my shirt. Then if things got really bad I’d tell myself that I must not be a very good producer. I’d start thinking: “Maybe this just isn’t the career you were cut out for Andy. . .”

But at The Daily there is seriously no time for my damn existential crises. GET OVER IT AND GET TO IT, ANDY! Just finish the damn draft and pass it to Theo and Lisa who are going to help you edit it! Trust their ears instead of getting stuck inside of your head!

Eventually, this trust extended to our new producers, and over time it turned inward, leading to the next point:

After learning to crawl out of that “This story isn’t going to work and it’s all your fault/maybe you should have stayed a bartender” stuff by learning to trust the wisdom of my collaborators, I eventually realized that I was not only wasting time with my existential angst — but I was also often just wrong. My instincts were not nearly as off as I feared they were. And if you are reading this right now as a young producer wanting to break into this field, I suspect that yours are not as bad as you fear they are either.

Odds And Ends

Narration is hard, time consuming and often sounds. . . contrived. I’m sure you’ve noticed that sometimes the scripted two-ways of public radio feel like the uncanny valley between human and robot (oh, the fake laughs!). Well, we’ve learned that the less we lean on Michael (or anyone else reading narration from a script), and the more we use people speaking extemporaneously, the more engaging our stories sound, the more relatable our reporters sound, and the more time we save.

Ask yourself: What don’t I need? We’ve learned that nothing steals more time from your day, slows the plot of your story, or flattens the emotional energy you are trying to share than burdensome over-explanations. This is part of the reason we do not feel the need to identify each and every voice you hear on The Daily. If we say that republicans in congress have been critical of the Affordable Care Act, then we play tape of voices saying critical things about the law — we do not name and explain the speaker of each voice. We trust that the audience is very capable of understanding that those voices are republicans in congress being critical of the ACA.

Don’t be afraid to restructure. Even though time constraints mean that you must have a plan when going into interviews and when starting to build out your story in Pro Tools, you must also be willing to abandon that plan. An interview might not be headed where you thought it would go. You only have a limited window to record this interview (and often you are counting on this interview to be the bulk of your piece!). Don’t force it to go to the place you planned. Instead, follow what’s interesting about what you are learning. Look for an idea that feels contagious.

Similarly when building the story, even though all day the plan has been to start in the past and work our way to the present — if the tape you’re working with is not bending to your will, try flipping the order. So many of our best stories were made special by our (and almost always the freakishly-talented Lisa Tobin’s) decision to totally rework the order of the story at 1 am. It’s a hard decision, it will indeed hurt a little, but it’s worth it.

This stuff is easier said than done. I’m now working again on a new project with longer deadlines. Writing some of the things in this article were good reminders of what I’m already losing track of. To make something good inevitably seems to be hard. Following one’s own advice inevitably seems to be hard. But as hard as it is to keep moving forward with the tools of urgency, even when there is time to doubt and procrastinate and spend time spinning your wheels in place — my experience leads me to think that it is wise.

Afterwards

This article could have been called: “Lessons I Learned While Working With Theo Balcomb, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison And Michael Barbaro,” because nothing I write about here comes from my experience but from our experience of creating this show together. On top of being people of great character and talent, they are by far the hardest working team in the biz (and I would be happy to have words with anyone who says otherwise). Our team is now growing with more producers like Annie Brown, Ike Sriskandarajah and Christopher Werth and I believe that we are only at the beginning of figuring out this thing we are making together. Our best is yet to come.

photo of The Daily Team

(Look how happy we are!)

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  • Will Lyons

    10.11.17

    Reply

    Great read! Thank you for taking the time to put this together. I appreciate the honesty and humility you present this lesson with, one of the most helpful “how to”‘s I’ve read in a long time.

  • Gregg McVicar

    10.14.17

    Reply

    Re: Coalminer Interview — That’s some compelling stuff, but the sweet ol’ miner with black lung pulled a classic switcharoo on Barbaro: “Well have YOU ever been to a coal plant?” I think a good answer might have been, “Well, no sir I haven’t, but this story is bigger than you and me. It’s about what many say is a dying industry that triggered global climate change.”

    The same ‘you’re not one of us so your perspective doesn’t count’ rhetoric is often heard in the gun debate…’well are YOU an expert on these weapons like I am? Then how can you people get off telling us that they’re too dangerous to have in circulation?’

    A deft interviewer won’t get tripped-up in that one, while at the same time respecting that the interviewee’s identity and worldview are very much connected to the topic at hand.

    Having said that, (The) Daily is awesome and we listen every day!

    • Andy Mills

      10.15.17

      Reply

      Mr. McVicar, I do not share your views on the intensions behind Mr. Gray’s question. Throughout the interview we did with him, I found him to be a sincere, open and generous person. I found no evidence that he was trying to trick Michael with any “switcharoos” (although, I do like that word).

      I’m convinced that Mr. Gray was authentically displaying his strong sense of identity as someone who spent his life mining coal so that the world might have electricity, and his family might have money. Like many of us, sometimes our strong sense of identity can blind us from certain facts in the world.

      I don’t think any of us have figured out exactly why Michael got so choked up in that moment in the interview (MB included) – but I know something about it felt familiar to an experience I was having. Many people wrote in to say that they were moved. Many people wrote in to say that they were annoyed. Those views seem valid. But I do respectfully disagree that Mr. Gray was engaging in any “you are not one of us, so you know nothing John Snow” sorts of things here.

      Most importantly, thanks for listening!

  • Jed

    10.24.17

    Reply

    For me, “The Daily” really stood out because of the focus on one story and the emotional moments that brought it to life. Words can be cold, copied and pasted everywhere. It’s also interesting how they’ve been able to build trust that we’ll find value in their chosen topic. Some episodes work better than others, but the publishing model makes it easier for listening to become a daily habit. Which is an incredible accomplishment.

    This relentless workflow reminds me of the Neo-Futurists who churn out new scenes every week. There is no time to overthink.

    My question is, what is the split between working on the following day’s episode vs working on a larger story (Indiana Steel Plant Episode)?

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