When I arrived at Transom, I felt like I needed to knock the Workshop out of the park. My two stories had to be perfect. They had to represent everything I was capable of. And they had to be serious, journalistic pieces. So, imagine my state of mind when my first story idea fell through, and Ira Glass of all people was coming to hear our pitches in less than a week. The only other story idea I had was about . . . red foxes. I thought, “Alright, this isn’t the groundbreaking piece I thought I would do, but I’m going to try to make it serious and investigative!” I’d explain a recent, local phenomenon to my audience. Everything was going to be okay.
But the story didn’t unfold the way I wanted it to (spoiler: they usually don’t). There was hardly any conflict. No “man versus nature” battle for the ages. My subjects were relaxed, even intellectual about what was happening to them. I did almost a dozen interviews over the next two weeks. The whole time, I never felt like I was uncovering anything big. I had all this tape that I had expected would be dramatic. Instead what I had was funny, even silly at times. I was rolling my eyes at what my story had become.
Even then, every time I sat down to write my script, I wrote it like straight news! I included facts about animal population peaks, species names in Latin, and state wildlife management policy. “Just the facts, ma’am,” Rob called it. The story stunk, and I hated it. I had hit the depths of the “how I feel about my story” curve that every radio journalist experiences.
At some point, in an editing group with Rob and other students, I realized I needed to follow my tape. And more importantly, I needed to follow the feelings I was having about my story. It’s a silly story with lower-than-normal stakes. I had to communicate that to my audience. So I made my script more playful. I highlighted the humor in what my subjects were doing. I trimmed down the story broccoli. I separated beats to create movement in the story where there hadn’t been any. And I still tried to teach the listener something, even in a story as ridiculously titled as mine.
So here are my Transom lessons: listen to your tape. Be open to the emotions you’re having about your story. Don’t write a story based on how you think you “should” do it. Sometimes a story calls out to be silly and lighthearted. Make the best version of the story you have in front of you.
Some other lessons I learned: think about your music early, and consider what specific emotions you want it to communicate to the listener. It will take longer than you think to find the right music, especially if you’re musically inept, as I am. Listen to your story draft on studio headphones, with crappy earbuds, and in your car. Tell your story to a family member on the phone, no notes, and pay attention to how you tell it. That can give you a push to shake up your script when you need to.
About Michael’s Sonic ID
Mackenzie was someone I’d contacted for my first story idea. She responded on Facebook about a week later, after I’d already moved onto a new story. For some reason though, I felt I had to interview her. I drove all the way to Provincetown to do a 30-minute interview. It all ending up being worth it, because she gave me three sonic IDs. Lesson learned: whenever you can, take the interview. You never know what people are going to say.