Intro from Jay Allison: In her reporting, This American Life's Zoe Chace has a combination of friendliness and fierceness. She's a dogged questioner, but also nice. I'm always glad when she reports on some opaque, schematic story, because I'm sure she'll bring light and humanity to it.
Want to know some of her tricks? Okay. Check out her new Transom Manifesto "How To Talk To A Politician For A Radio Story." Honestly, it could be called, "How To Talk To People Like They're People," but in the political realm, that's no easy task. As Zoe says, "How do you get great tape in a situation that is almost diabolically designed to prevent that from ever happening?" Well... here's how.
How To Talk To A Politician For A Radio Story
This essay is not to teach you how to get quotes from a Senator or Congressperson for breaking news coverage. It’s about how to make the sort of up-close, get-to-know-them, feature stories that we do on This American Life, stories with scenes and plot and ideas and — hopefully — feelings.
There’s a long tradition of doing this in print, of course — starting, I suppose, with Theodore White’s
The Making of a President, in 1960. (White later thought he’d sort of created a monster, called
“New Journalism” but that’s the print reporter’s problem, for now.) Doing it for broadcast (or podcast) presents one special challenge and that is, how do you get great tape? Because most memorable radio stories require memorable tape. How do you get great tape in a situation that is almost diabolically designed to prevent that from ever happening?
NB: I haven’t been doing this for very long. These are the thoughts of someone in the middle of learning how to do a thing.
NB2: I’ll be referring a lot below to this one hour I did on Senator Jeff Flake in late 2017/early 2018.
1. Make sure the politician is in an extremely interesting situation.
Politicians are bad tape. They are guarded. They either do not want to make news or they only want to make the news they want to make. They do not want to be regular, flawed people. So, walk into this knowing that they are not going to be good tape. The way to mitigate around that is to make sure the politician is in an interesting enough situation that even the bad tape becomes good. Or the situation is so emotional, that again, anything they say is good tape because the situation itself raises the stakes so much that their reaction is something you want to hear.
Example: Before I followed Senator Jeff Flake through his attempt to get a DACA deal, I followed Rep. Will Hurd through the 23rd district of Texas — El Paso to San Antonio. Through Marfa, Marathon, Big Bend National Park. It was beautiful. The best. Tacos, sunsets, hills. Will Hurd was doing town halls at Dairy Queens, mostly, 20 town halls in ten days, something like that. The pictures were great. The tape was not. I kept wanting him to admit that it was “awkward” for him to have to talk about the Wall so much when he didn’t support the construction of a Wall on the southern border. Because it would be unusual and interesting for a politician to admit that they were in an “awkward” situation. That’s more of a thing regular humans like to talk about. Will Hurd was totally game to spend time with me. Happy to talk. But didn’t deliver those sorts of quotes. He gave different versions of his stump speech, in interview form, which makes sense, because he was giving speeches all day.
With Flake, the situation he was in was inherently interesting. The stakes were higher. He was bargaining with senators and with the White House to try to get a deal for DACA kids, which, just through the action of it, provided insight into what the White House is like right now and what the Senate is like right now and what the Republican party is like right now. All I had to do was ask him, okay, catch me up. Tell me about the last two hours. That’s really different from tasking the congressman to be insightful about himself — “How do you feel when you say the word ‘WALL’ when you don’t actually want to.” That’s expecting too much. That’s me trying to put an interesting spin on an uninteresting situation. Not going to work if your tape is coming from politicians! Hurd was only doing town halls, which wasn’t inherently interesting. (One other thing that’s hard — talking to politicians after they’ve just done a cable news hit. They are in talking points mode, not reveal-their-inner-feelings-of-conflict mode.)
2. Make a deal.
In order to show how a politician is a person, you gotta wear them down with your presence. In my opinion, anyway. Because the best tape is gonna be the action-y, sometimes off-mic tape that demonstrates what they’re going through — moments you capture that reveal some tiny piece of honesty, of who they really are. It’s not gonna be much of the sit-down interview tape you have — they just have too much experience with that format to be revealing, usually. The deal I made with Flake was: I’m not gonna air this until this whole thing is over. Either you have a DACA deal — or the DACA deal is dead. (I was pretty sure it would die, given recent history of bipartisan immigration bills). And I will not air anything, or talk about any of this, until that time. It’s “embargoed.” So, he could tell me the ins and outs of what’s going on, and not worry that it’s gonna be news. By the time it airs, it will be a recap — a really good, honest one, you hope. My experience thus far is, you can’t get good tape without this deal. They will just be too guarded.
Also, what’s nice about following them over time is, they will relax around you and your microphone. They see you’re not betraying the deal, and they’ll uphold their end of the deal. They’ll get more frank with you. They’ll invite you along. Sometimes.
How do you make a deal? You meet with their people, off the record, a bunch of times. You outline what you’re going to need. I think the most helpful thing to my case was, saying to them, I want to be IN THE SHOWER WITH HIM. They found that a little forward, but it stuck. They got it. I could just say, “in the shower,” and remind them of our deal. What I was thinking about, when I said that, was this influential, intimate tape from Nancy Updike that takes place in the shower — I was like, I want to be as close as that sounded.
3. Do the emotion yourself.
This is a general rule for interviews on the radio — and can get you in trouble if it seems like you’re
endorsing what the politician is up to. But they probably won’t emote in a human way at the right time. So you may have to demonstrate it. Something along the lines of “You did it!” excitedly, at a moment that’s supposed to be triumphant, or, concernedly, “Are you okay?” to demonstrate a down and out moment.
Example: I did this most successfully I think after a plan that Flake had outlined to me seemed to fall apart very spectacularly the next day. This is not going to look that exciting on the page — and not sound that exciting, possibly, if you hear it either! But here it is anyway:
Zoe Chace: So, you’re running around the capitol saying you’ve got a deal.
Jeff Flake: Yeah.
Zoe Chace: Why are you doing that?… Drive slow. What were you doing today?
Jeff Flake: Oh, man.
Zoe Chace: Why did you do that?
Jeff Flake: Why did I do what?
Zoe Chace: Why did you tell everyone you had a deal?
Jeff Flake: Because we have an agreement. We do. We do. The six of us — between us. We had the agreement.
Zoe Chace: I know. I just thought that you were going to wait for the president to talk about it before you talked about it.
Jeff Flake: All I said is we pretty much have an agreement when I was asked about it. That’s not going rogue I wouldn’t think. I’ve gone rogue. This wasn’t rogue.
I made myself sound more annoyed than I was. I mean, I was annoyed, because clearly something major had happened overnight or in the morning, and he wasn’t talking to me. I was just seeing on cable news and Twitter that he had changed strategy. But I also knew that he would act, on tape, as if his abrupt change in strategy wasn’t abrupt, and made perfect sense. So I had to act like he’d done something appalling, in order to make the tape sound dramatic. And he did sound defensive — emotional in a way he would not usually have been. I knew this would be a big plot point — he was so pleased the night before (which I had also hammed up for the tape — remember, he’s always somewhat guarded, I’d been like — “So you really think this is gonna work, huh! You must be so excited” — something along those lines). Anyway — I knew that I’d have to make this plot point work — like a dive downward after the high. So as pleased as I’d been the night before, I had to be as annoyed as I could be the next day. On tape, I mean. Both to demonstrate to him what I wanted him to do, but also as a failsafe — in case he couldn’t perform it, I’d perform it for him. Cause I’d probably have to use this moment somehow.
4. Record all the action.
To be honest, even doing all those things I describe above — the piece almost didn’t work, this one hour I did with a senator in Washington. It’s just too hard for him to be vulnerable. The thing that made it possible to do a story anyway, as my editor Brian Reed told me, was, “You just recorded everything.” I tried to stay as close to him as possible, all the time. It was annoying, for his staff and for him. I’d just, walk with him from a meeting in his office down to the senate floor. And then wait. And then walk him back. Ride in the car with him to a speech he’d be giving across town. Record all that. Record the speech. Record him walking in the room, record him leaving. All those little in-between moments, they illustrate what it’s like to be him as he moves about the world. They’re intimate. Intimate-ish. I mean, it’s a senate hallway. But because I recorded so much, because I was always there, I was there late at night before he went to bed, and even just the description of an up late-at-night senator provided a bit of the kind of the intimacy you expect from radio. A note from Ira: mention WIRELESS MICS. It is a revelation when you are able to get a wireless mic on a politician, and record their interactions with the crowd, on mic.
Example: Omigod, I just went to grab that section — there’s no tape! I had tape from that night, we just cut it from the piece I guess. But because I was there, I could write a section that provided, again, just a little bit of the intimacy that we expect radio to provide.
We meet back in Flake’s office at 2:00 AM. His staff is lying on the floor in the dark, watching movies. Flake’s hair is spiked up on his head from running his hands through it for hours. See you tomorrow, Flake yells as I leave. He sleeps in his office.
Oh, man, the government is shut down, I say to Flake’s scheduler on the way out. What a time to be alive, she says back. In the outside world, people are wondering what the shutdown means. Who is going to be furloughed? What’s this going to cost?
5. Ask tough questions.
Now, almost everything I’ve said is about, how do you make the personal and intimate sounding radio tape that we love. The thing is, it’s not worth it if you don’t also ask the questions that are hard to ask, the questions they don’t want to answer. Politicians avoid answering questions for a living. I don’t say that in a judgmental way. Former senator Al Franken writes about this very persuasively in his memoir about becoming a politician: he’s describing how his aides helped turn him from a straight-talking comedian to a talking-points-y, fuddy-duddy senator. It’s just baked into the job. Unavoidable. So, they all dissemble and misdirect. Some of them lie. All of them sell. Even the ones who are basically honest are selling you an idea of themselves, and what they stand for, that they are trying to sell to voters. No one is going to want to listen to your piece if you don’t address the things they might be wrong about, the criticisms people have of them, the things they’re not totally honest about, even with themselves.
You have to point that stuff out. One of the bedrock rules of journalism is: Anything shitty you want to say about someone in a story, you have to say it to their face. Or try to. In this case, anything you’re going to point out in your story, you have to run past the politician, and give them a chance to respond and explain. Not to be like AHA I GOT YOU. But to understand the whole person. The goal is, for the listener to understand this person better. So, you have to ask them all the hard things. The things that are the opposite of what they are selling.
You also have to speak for the listener, who might think the politician is full of shit from the jump. Something that frustrated a lot of liberals recently, I know, was that I didn’t have Senator Flake on
tape in the last story I did about him, responding to how partisan the new Supreme Court Justice, Judge Kavanaugh, sounded in the testimony he gave before the Judiciary Committee. Specifically, his charge that these allegations against him were the “revenge of the Clintons.”
Of course, I asked Senator Flake about that. I had to. Unfortunately, the answer was not particularly illuminating. To Flake, Kavanaugh’s apparent partisanship on that day was simply not as important as other things about him. Which was true for nearly all the Senate Republicans. This wasn’t an interesting or surprising enough response to end up in my story. And his answer wasn’t helpful at all to the story I was actually trying to tell, which was how he decided to call for the FBI investigation, and how there was no center lane for him to occupy between left and right. So I left that tape out. But if you don’t ask them all the hard questions, you won’t have the confidence to know that you are telling the right story, even if you don’t include that particular exchange in your final piece.
6. Understand how little you know and how small you are; be slightly embarrassed.
When you talk to a politician, whoever they are, you will be around beat reporters who cover them all the time. They know more than you. You have a different job than they do. You are trying to explain who this person is and how they think. Mostly, the beat reporters break news about the politician. In fact, they are probably how you knew enough about the politician to pursue doing a long-form radio story about him. The politician needs beat reporters, as part of his* policy making. He probably doesn’t need you. It’s embarrassing to be hanging around and not be a part of the codependent, well-worn ecosystem. So, know your place, and befriend the expert beat reporters, ask them for guidance and insight and wisdom, and then thank them. Don’t get too hung up on making news, even though that’s the environment you’re in. The news you’re trying to make is a new insight about our politics. Be cool! Know your place. And ask for help.
*this pronoun for convenience and from my thus-far limited experience
7. Find the Grizz.
Michael Lewis wrote a wonderful book about the 1996 political campaign — Trail Fever. If you’ll
remember, it was not a particularly close election. Clinton won by a landslide, Bob Dole knew he was going to lose. Lewis followed around the Republican primary candidates. He spent an inordinate amount of time with a candidate who had no chance of winning. The Grizz. A tire CEO. Hard to explain him, especially since I’d just be drafting off Michael Lewis. The Grizz was honest and wild and funny. Sometimes you find a great character and then you don’t have to employ so many tricks. Just grab them and don’t let go, follow him/her wherever they lead. That’s not just for politicians, that’s true for telling great stories generally (ever hear of S-Town?). Only these last two years, where I’ve been focusing on how to make radio with politicians, have I really truly appreciated how rare the Grizz is. I hope I know him* when I see him*.
I actually put the Grizz in a piece about tariffs against Chinese tires a couple years ago and he was good tape still, long after 1996! Such good tape that David Kestenbaum forced me to call him back and ask him if he was drunk when I interviewed him. Nope. Just that good of a talker.
One more thing:
I want to leave you with a spectacularly good example of how to think about politicians: which is that they are humans with very human emotions in human situations — but in a setting that is totally bizarre. I’ve been listening lately to the wonderful podcast Slow Burn about the Clinton impeachment. One episode features a ton of tape from Hanna Rosin, who covered the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal for The New Republic.
The way she talks about the specifics of the Clinton and Lewinsky affair is how, in my dreams, I’d be able to describe current politicians. It’s so personal. It’s loving and caring without seeming voyeuristic. It feels very real — both the emotions of the moment, and the vividness of the setting: the claustrophobia of the White House, the angst of Monica, Clinton’s raised eyebrows. They just seem like real people. And in the end, that’s what you’re striving for.
Real people, striving...
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