Making radio after a lifetime of not making radio is like going from a dead stop to a full-on sprint. It’s hard! But man, is it fun to finish. My story had a lot going on: I introduce a concept that some listeners will find strange, and at the same time, I bring forward a specific character’s story. The biggest challenge in making this piece was making sure my listeners fully understood the concept of Youth Court, with all of its inner workings and jargon, while also being fully integrated into my main character’s story and lived experience. And I only had nine-ish minutes to do it!
One thing that really helped was thinking of sound more as a visual medium. It sounds obvious, but I had to be really strategic about which sounds I used, and where, in order to bring listeners on a journey from room to room without confusing them. At the beginning of the story, my character, Kenny, is getting ready before his first case. I had planned to record him getting ready at home — combing his hair, explaining his outfit, listening to music to pump him up. But that day, he had a family emergency and we weren’t able to meet. Instead, I narrated him getting ready, and used music to establish his character. I was a total music mixing rookie, but it ended up being a decent way to make up for scene tape I was unable to get. Music appears in my story whenever Kenny is living his life outside the courtroom. By the way, Erika Lantz is an absolute music mixing genius.
I think my biggest takeaways from this whole process are these:
1. Be flexible.
Everyone tells you this all the time, and if you’re anything like me, you’re like, Jeez I get it, I’m totally flexible! But then a day of planned reporting totally falls through, and you find yourself crying a little in class. It happens. I had to stop focusing on what tape I couldn’t get and start focusing on what tape I already had, which was, luckily, the bulk of tape from the courtroom.
2. Make your story about something you’re interested in.
I taught high school for five years and think young people are the most genuine, hilarious, astute people ever. I knew I wanted to make a story centered around them. That said, I had to make sure I had an actual story — I couldn’t just stroll up to a group of teenagers and be like, Let’s chat! I found the Youth Court program (thanks Google), called the program’s director and asked if they’d be interested in working with me. They were, but then I told them that I needed a central character — a piece only focused on the program itself wouldn’t fly as high as one about an actual human. Luckily, the director said something along the lines of, “Have we got the kid for you!” And they did!
3.Producing a single radio story takes a lot of time and work.
Again, this was something I heard all the time. And I was like, Of course it does! But I didn’t truly understand the amount of labor involved, from the first pitch to the final mixing. It’s insane. I thought about this story 24-hours-a-day (yes, even in my dreams/nightmares) for six weeks. And this leads nicely into my final takeaway.
4. Let people help you.
I realized pretty early on that I’m just not great at everything that goes into making a good story. Very few people have all of the hundreds of skills you need, at the highest levels, to do something like this alone. I had to get really good, really quickly, at taking and enacting feedback from other people. On the other hand, you have to have some innate knowledge of what you think is good, and what you think is not good. Sometimes, twenty people will give you twenty different pieces of feedback, and you’ll have to rely on yourself and your taste to decide what to do next. So, it’s a balance — but the bottom line is, asking for help doesn’t make you look bad. Making good radio takes a tribe!
About Jessica’s Sonic ID
This was the very first tape I got in Woods Hole, on our first day of class. I met this gentleman by asking him what he usually ate for breakfast, and we ended up on a totally different subject. I’m really glad I kept recording and engaging him in conversation even when he’d already answered my initial questions.