Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

June 28 2013

14:32

Radio storytelling: When is a story just a story, and when do listeners expect more?

Jay Allison, who produces The Moth Radio Hour and founded Transom.org, once said, ”In public radio, our signature is story.” 

He entered radio in the 1970s, from the theater. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute — it’s exactly the same, because it’s a medium in time.’ In order to hold attention (radio storytelling) must at least recognize theatrical values like rhythm and pace and climax and scene and character, and story,” he now says. “A lot of radio simply didn’t — it adhered to newspaper values, and as a result, I think not that many people listened. Bit by bit, the understanding was that theatrical values — by which I do not mean fiction — were incredibly important to holding attention, even to conveying information, to creating expectation and then to finally creating a memory. All of those scene-painting skills were the very heart of radio.”

And they still are. With so many storytelling shows on the air — The Moth, Radiolab, This American Life and, rising quickly, Snap Judgment — here’s a question that programs have been dealing with lately in the new “golden age” of public radio: What happens when a story turns out not to be true? Or true-ish? What level of accountability do listeners expect? How is the storyteller’s compact with the listener changing?

Allison remembers a radio story whose teller described passing through Customs at a certain Washington, D.C., airport, when in fact that airport had no Customs unit, as a skeptical listener pointed out. The storyteller “did get it wrong, and that mistake seemed to undermine her veracity in the mind of the listener for the entire story,” Allison says, “even though it was just something that happened in the flurry of extemporaneous storytelling.” An egregious example of listener betrayal is, of course, the This American Life excerpt of Mike Daisey’s stage show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, parts of which proved fabricated. Producer Ira Glass devoted an entire show to a retraction, and to understanding why and how the deception happened.

A lesser known example involves Snap Judgment, the Oakland-based NPR show with a stated mission of presenting “compelling personal stories — mixing tall tales with killer beats to produce cinematic, dramatic and kick-ass radio.” The show has taken off, especially among listeners age 33 to 42. Its founding producer is Glynn Washington, himself a riveting storyteller. He came to public radio with a University of Michigan law degree and a background in nonprofits, and last week The Atlantic wrote:

… Washington, a proud student of (Ira) Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, Snap Judgment, Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

A couple of years ago, Snap Judgment aired a segment by Jeff Greenwald, a San Francisco freelance journalist and travel writer who founded a nonprofit called Ethical Traveler. In “On the Road,” Greenwald told the following story: While hitchhiking once, at age 21, he and his girlfriend accepted a ride with a young couple who turned out to be mental-hospital escapees, and murderers. The story hinged emotionally on Greenwald’s incredulity at being left alive, and on his affection for the couple, whose names he believed to be Tony and Sue but that turned out, he said, to be Bella and Sam. (“We loved them,” he told listeners. “We loved those killers. And they loved us.”) You can hear the story here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 3.32.12 PM

A former Seattle newspaper reporter and blogger named David Quigg heard the story on the radio. As he later wrote in a blog post, the story, to him, did not ring true. Nor did the story feel quite right to another listener a few weeks ago, when a slightly different version aired on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Definitely Not the Opera. A third version of the story lives in a 2003 Lonely Planet guide called The Kindness of Strangers. After some empty Googling in search of the details, Quigg tweeted at Snap Judgment, asking whether the show could vouch for the piece’s veracity. The show responded: “Vouched.”

“Big, big mistake,” Washington says now. The word ”vouched” implies that the producers had checked out the story and were good with it. They hadn’t. Should they have? When, and to what extent, should storytelling shows verify information, and to what extent do their disclaimers absolve them of such an obligation? Moth Radio Hour airs and stages stories “as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” This American Life describes itself as a teller of “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.”

We chatted with Washington the other day about some of this. He said an intern probably sent the “Vouched” tweet, back when Snap Judgment’s social media controls were looser, and that while the show makes no journalistic claims, the same kind of mistake wouldn’t happen today. Here’s part of the conversation, lightly edited for length:

Washington: The stories on the Snap Judgment show — we’re not reporters; we’re storytellers. We don’t check things the same way. In the course of putting stories together we have our own BS meter and if something doesn’t ring true we’ll put that in the context of the story itself, like, “I don’t know about this.” Our stories are constructed to be true to the person telling them. Like, someone will say their grandmother had magical powers and that she knew that her husband would be flying over her head at a certain time in a field 40 years ago — we’re not gonna fact-check that. We’re not. That’s a tale from that person and we’re gonna accept that as it is. It really is different. For us as a new program, what we don’t wanna do – I think the blogger is correct, because what we don’t want to do is mislead people. If we have dubious content we’ll — I really enjoy, let’s say, a protagonist who has, oh, a precarious relationship with the truth; I have to be sure that in that situation I’m acting as an everyman so that the audience understands to some degree that this is to be taken with a grain of salt. And that was probably the issue with the Jeff Greenwald piece. I think the blogger has a really good point. I mean I think it was a mistake.

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington

Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington

How did it happen?

When we were first starting … the controls weren’t in place to stop that sort of thing. And stupid things like this happened. You’re not gonna hear that piece ever again on Snap Judgment in the same context. If we do run that piece we’re gonna put some sort of disclaimer or something on it. I love the piece itself, as a piece of storytelling, but I think the blogger is right. We did not do enough due diligence to present that as straightforwardly as we did.

What would you do differently today?

I think, No. 1, we would ask some more questions. Jeff had been a regular contributor to the program and we probably dropped the ball in not asking the same types of questions as we do to every single person who comes through the door. The same Internet search that the blogger did? I did it too. I did it too late. I did it after the piece had aired. And that’s why we were like, Ugh. We were like, Okay, we’ve got to revise our policies enough to say not just new people but every story, every person, gets the same level of review. That was a change for us. That story was one of the fairly early stories in our program, when we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. That’s the thing with our show. We want the stories to be true to the person telling them. That’s for sure. Are we gonna fact-check every single thing? No. But if you’re telling me that the killer picked you up on the side of the road, I want to know that the basis of that story happened, or we’ll present it as straight fiction. Whenever we do a story as fiction it’s generally a fantastical story, like, I shot Superman with a God bullet, or something like that.

Greenwald says his brush with killers definitely happened, and that if he had thought he was being held to journalistic standards he might’ve told the story differently, so as to avoid being confronted with listeners’ doubts. “That’s been really thorny,” he says. “And at this point I find myself a bit red-faced. Because I’ve gone through the police records, I’ve looked through the list of hitchhikings and murderers at that time; I have done as much due diligence as I can in my spare time … and I have not come up with a lot of proof for the story.” (On Monday, he began making inquiries to the FBI, for records.)

The hitchhiking happened in 1974, he says, five years before he became a journalist. The killers stole his backpack, which contained his journals recounting the episode, he says; his father, who knew the story, died in the ’80s; Greenwald lost touch with his girlfriend and didn’t track her down before telling the story. “So there’s no documentation,” he says. “People can do with it what they will. I never felt I presented it as a piece of authoritative investigative journalism. I presented it as a story that I remembered.”

He said, “At what point is a story simply allowed to be a story?” A possible answer: When it doesn’t involve real-world events or stakes. A story about a genie popping out of a bottle presumably has zero stakes for the listener, whereas a story about serial killers or a near plane crash does. In the hitchhiker story, a listener might reasonably expect to learn — at the very least — the suspects’ full names and, perhaps also, when the event happened and what became of Tony and Sue.

Greenwald calls this the difference between storytelling and journalism, but not all listeners make the distinction, even when a show signals its intentions:

Washington: There’s definitely a strict line between, say, This American Life and Snap Judgment. Ira Glass is a reporter. He’s the best features reporter in America. And I’m not. I’m not a reporter. Ira uses storytelling tools; I use certain tools of reportage. But we say, “This is not the news; this is storytelling with a beat” for a reason: to set the listener’s expectation of what these are. This is a story. It’s not reportage when you’re having a conversation with your friend or your mother or your spouse or your lover, whatever. It’s a different type of communication, and that’s where we are. But again, where the blogger’s right: We should have done more homework on that piece. Because it’s all about, for me, am I meeting the expectations that the listener has? Generally people get where we’re coming from on this thing, but some of the early episodes we’ve got stuff like genies popping out of things, and people telling that with a straight face. This happened to them; that’s true to them. No one has ever just related in a Vulcan world of straight facts; we relate through narratives, and narratives have beginnings and middles and ends. But like I say: The issue there is expectation. Especially as a newer show, we were in a new kind of dialogue with people as to what to expect from us. In fact it was a big question when we were first starting the show: What do we mean by “truth?” One early idea was to say we didn’t care about truth. But it wasn’t true. We do care about truth. We just think there’s a different way oftentimes at getting at it. That’s the whole basis of the show, is that there’s a different way to get at what happened.

Describe the typical Snap Judgment story.

That’s the whole thing! We can’t be typical! My Snap Judgment stories are generally based upon my own life experiences. Generally every episode or so I’ll tell a story about things that happened to me. It’s interesting, this whole aspect of memoir. I mean Oprah might James Frey me if I sat down on her couch but I’m telling stories of things that happened 30 years ago, and in those stories I’m telling, “She said this, this happened here, that’s the way it went down.” Now, I’m not trying to deceive anybody. Actually it’s kind of funny. I have a close crew of friends. We lived together in Japan — we started there in a program in 1989, so I’ve known these guys for a while. One of them used to say, “I’m gonna catch you in an exaggeration. I’m gonna catch you. I’m gonna do it. Because I know every one of your stories.” And it’s been a long time and he ain’t caught me yet. I mean did so-and-so say things in the order I’m putting them? Probably not. But did the essence of the event happen? Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of like an Angela’s Ashes situation, where (Frank) McCourt went in and started putting words in people’s mouths from 50 years ago, back in Ireland. Beautiful piece of work as a type of memoir, but not a piece of reporting.

So, audio memoir.

That’s one way to put it. My pieces are audio memoir. But there are other aspects that go into it. The whole thing about storytelling — this is what we don’t want to do; this is how we actually spend most of our time, as far as fairness is concerned: What I don’t want to do is have a person tell a story that in some way implicates another person in wrongdoing. We have a hard time with this. Fairness ends up being really difficult in storytelling because oftentimes you’re implicating somebody else in your situation. So because of that we will say, like, “the names have been changed,” or “this happened in such and such place.” I’ve started off a story by saying I’ve had to change the details of the story; the basic thing did in fact happen but I don’t want to implicate.

Transparency is often what’s missing in, for example, memoir.

Right, and it ends up being really difficult sometimes. Here’s the thing, too: Journalism 101, for audio journalism, is that you use the sound from the places where you’re doing the story, but you don’t go later on and start adding a bunch of made-up stuff. This is what we do all the time. It ends up being a clue, to some extent, that we’re not gonna be following regular journalistic prohibitions. We soundscape the heck out of pieces, and it’s certainly not sound sound.

Example?

Okay, so there’s a story that I told — I have a goddaughter who was born extremely prematurely. The mother of the baby, her partner was out of the country and she asked me to go to the (neonatal intensive care unit), to see the baby. The hospital had rules that only parents could go into this unit. So I told the hospital that I was the parent. And I went there. And when we were telling this piece we had hospital sounds come in the back. And I say that I saw her and she was hooked to various monitors. And you can hear the monitors. When I picked her up the monitors started going crazy, until they placed … her on my chest, because they said the thing that was good for preemies was skin-to-skin contact. So the whole time there were heartbeat sounds, there were monitor sounds — there was all kind of soundscaping that happened with that piece. It’s the first three minutes of an episode that we did called “Close Knit.” But that’s not reportage. Like, journalism students would be properly aghast if that was passed off as a reporting piece.

What kinds of staff conversations do you have about this kind of thing?

We had them a lot early on because we were defining the show. That sort of Jeff Greenwald issue, I don’t think that would happen today, because a lot of this stuff has been worked out. We ourselves understand our show better than we did when we were starting out. We’re not here to fool anybody. We are setting a different relationship than other NPR programs are setting with their audience. Garrison (Keillor) does the same thing. Not to be too critical, but it seems like there’s a big (David) Sedaris pass that happens. David’s not trying to fool anybody. What did he say — it was something to the effect of somebody asked, “Is this true?” and he said, “True enough.” I mean none of this is hard-and-fast stuff. Look, if David Sedaris were telling me the news on the ground in Baghdad, I’d be upset about it. But if he’s telling me, “This is what happened to me last week,” as a story, I don’t have any problems with that. The closer we get to news, and the closer that things actually matter in a real-world context apart from a personal story, the more careful we have to be. Like recently we were doing a story on a pollution triangle in Louisiana where there’s like a triangle of cancer happening in a certain community, and various chemical companies were suspected of elevating the cancer risks in this area. All of a sudden, yeah, we had to kind of put our reporter hat on and be really damn sure we’re getting our facts right.

Right.

No. 1, I can’t get sued by Dupont.

Yeah, that would be bad.

But in a broader sense, when we’re talking about the news, or newsy topics, we’re talking about something that has relevance beyond a personal story. A lot of our stories are aimed at the heart. A person can find different types of resonance. But when we’re taking a broader look at things we gotta check things out more. This is not the news, but if we’re telling certain stories that have real-world implications, we have to use certain journalistic tools to make sure the integrity of the piece is correct.

NPR, meanwhile, is grappling with these issues on a broader scale.

“All these shows get into a realm of audio storytelling that is fairly new territory for us,” says Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming. “…There is no question that there is a rightful expectation of NPR programs that they be truthful. … How do we clearly identify the sourcing of the material, and in a way that doesn’t get in the listener’s way? That’s what these growing pains are addressing. Is Snap Judgment a work of journalism? No. Is it accountable to many NPR standards? Of course.”

In some ways, NPR is navigating its own legacy. “One of the issues is that these things are appearing within the context of public radio, which achieved its stripes in news and journalism,” as Allison puts it, “so that the audience starts to feel that everything they hear on public radio must be journalism. That’s a misapprehension.”

He says, “I mean, my big interest is this: You don’t want to inhibit the great art of storytelling with people just slavishly adhering to facts and details where they don’t matter and where they have no potential to create harm or even a misimpression. If it all becomes about that, then the focus on the remembering and the retelling may become inhibited by people becoming almost frightened that they’re gonna be taken to task. Now that’s different from, obviously, making up a story or changing major details, especially details that potentially affect the lives of others. That’s a whole different phenomenon. Everybody needs to guard against that.”

Check back soon for Part 2 of our conversation with Washington. Discussed: how growing up in a cult influenced his storytelling, the traits of great storytelling, aiming at the heart, and “seeing your own narrative.”    

 

February 03 2012

18:16

Audio danger: NPR’s Kelly McEvers on trauma and the calculus of risk

[The second installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]

The title of this series, “Audio danger,” is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But not in the case of Kelly McEvers. McEvers now works as one of NPR’s correspondents in the Middle East, and she’s opened the network’s first bureau in Beirut. But I first ran across her name in 2006, when she was a freelance journalist in Russia on an International Reporting Project fellowship. McEvers had been detained in Dagestan, a rough part of the North Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Local officials with the FSB, the federal security services, accused her of traveling in neighboring Chechnya.

“They interrogated me for like 14 hours a day, and then at night they’d say, ‘You’re free to go,’ but they had my passport. And then they would follow me home. The car would stay parked out front for a few hours, and then they would call the next morning and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

McEvers didn’t suffer any violence during the four-day ordeal, but the threat of it was very real. (She also had to surrender all of her notes and equipment before she was allowed to leave Dagestan).

These days, McEvers interviews many people who’ve been through horrible experiences: child brides who’ve survived rape in Yemen; protesters tortured in Syria. McEvers lets their stories unfold with an understanding of the way real danger – unlike the kind we often see in the movies – has deep effects that can make it hard to talk about.

“I can see when someone has experienced trauma,” McEvers says. “I think I’m able to empathize a lot more with people because I have been through some of this stuff.  Nothing like what they’ve been through – I mean, people aren’t cutting my relatives into pieces. But I know what it’s like to just be numb, or to blame yourself.”

McEvers’ patience paid off last year with this feature she pursued for months in Iraq. It introduces us to Uhud, a 19-year-old woman from a tribal area of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad. Uhud fell prey to a sex-trafficking scam, the details of which we will never figure out. That confusion, in fact, is central to the story.

“Some of what we’re about to tell you might not actually be true,” McEvers says at the very top of the piece. “The reasons for this will become clear as the story unfolds.”

According to Uhud’s convoluted account, she was kidnapped at gunpoint while out shopping, then beaten and later taken to Irbil, in Kurdistan. There she says she worked in a Christian-owned café somehow affiliated with a brothel. A famous soccer player later rescued her, Uhud says, and a few months later she ended up back home in Diyala.

“When she first came, the whole family had one thing in mind: We assumed she had been raped. So we thought of killing her,” one male relative tells McEvers in a matter-of-fact way, via an interpreter. “She has a brother who would kill her as easily as drinking a glass of water. But then we calmed things down.”

Sort of. When we revisit Uhud a few months later, she’s basically living under family house arrest. She says an uncle spits on her whenever he sees her and threatens to slit her throat if her story doesn’t check out. As McEvers leaves Uhud, she’s up on the roof setting pet pigeons free. “They fly in the sky for a while, then they come back home,” McEvers translates for Uhud over the sound of flapping wings.

We’ll never know Uhud’s real story, but of course that’s not the point: By living with her for seven minutes, we viscerally feel the way shame and sex-trafficking thrive off one another.

Foreign correspondents for radio face special hurdles. The people they interview often don’t speak English, so we lose the direct narrative force that propels so many audio stories. And most of us have never been to places like war-torn Iraq, so even with great descriptive copy, our minds still tend to fill in the background with stereotypical images from TV news or “National Geographic”: deserts, burqas, bullet-pocked walls.

Of course, correspondents can’t only focus on personal narratives, and McEvers does her share of big-picture, geopolitical reporting. But stories like Uhud’s are one way to slice through the obstacle of listener confusion (and, let’s face it, indifference) when it comes to reports from abroad.

“I try to make those personal stories have a larger point, but just to reach that point through personal narratives. People in Dubuque are going to remember that more than a talking head,” McEvers says.

And radio has one major advantage when it comes to McEvers’ frequent focus on the plight of women in the Middle East.

“A microphone is so much easier than a camera,” she says. “You never get to take pictures of these women. Never. Especially those women with a shameful story.” McEvers sometimes spends a lot of time explaining to her sources how they will sound on the other end in America. “You know, ‘It’s just your voice – it’s going to be dubbed into English.’ I draw pictures of what it’s going to sound like, (their voices) fading under (the translation).”  Sometimes reluctant sources will agree to whisper, or speak broken English, to hide their identities further.

But especially as the Arab world changes so rapidly, McEvers says she can face a different problem – people so desperate for someone to hear their stories, they won’t let her leave. “In Iraq, there are so many widows, or mothers who’ve lost children. No one’s listening to them.”

These days McEvers’ own personal narrative is affecting the way she thinks about trauma and danger in her profession. She now has a 2-year-old daughter. Questions about her ordeal seven years ago in Dagestan elicit a snort.

“It should’ve been instructive, but it’s not. I didn’t learn my lesson,” she says. “But none of us do.” It’s something few foreign correspondents talk about openly, McEvers says: Simply put, editors – and by proxy, the rest of us – too often reward them for putting their lives at risk in pursuit of the story.

“When you have little children, you think a lot about positive and negative reinforcement,” she says. “And we foreign correspondents are positively reinforced for bad behavior.”

Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads the “Audio danger” series on Storyboard.

January 04 2012

17:51

Audio danger: stories from the edge of listening

[As part of our mission to look at storytelling in every medium, Storyboard is pleased to introduce Julia Barton, who will bring us several posts in 2012 focused on developments in and examples from the world of audio narratives. –Ed.]

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

But it’s very hard to accomplish, especially these days, when more and more audio comes to us via that distraction machine, the Web. Hence these posts. In the Storyboard spirit, I’ll be talking with audio producers and editors about how they accomplish their best stories, what obstacles they’ve overcome and the strategies they’ve learned along the way. I should point out that conversations about audio craft have long been underway on sites like Transom and airmedia.org. And there’s a great new podcast, “How Sound,” from longtime audio instructor Rob Rosenthal, who also interviews intrepid producers. In the posts I’ll be doing for Storyboard, I’ll simply be adding to (and sometimes echoing) all those worthy explorations.

I got my start in radio in 1995, while pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. Doing airshifts at WSUI, the university’s then-analog AM public radio station, was for me just an amusing side trip on the way to a blurry future in magazine writing. But then we started airing a new show, “This American Life,” at 6 a.m. on my Sunday shift. I had a huge list of things to do during that hour, but I kept forgetting about my impending newscast and listening to the radio instead. The stories, at once mesmerizing and funny and surprising, actually endangered my work. So I had to start putting TAL on cassettes to hear later, like a portable, or pocket – or what’s the word? – cast.

Since those days, I’ve been a radio reporter, an editor, and contributor to such programs as PRI’s “Studio 360” and “The World.” Still, every time I sit down to craft a new audio feature, it feels almost as hard as the first time. Every piece is its own hellish puzzle.

That said, audio – especially broadcast radio – is a pretty conservative medium. Listeners appreciate familiarity and tend to punish experimentation (see below for one example). On the upside, I really don’t have to try anything new. On the downside: well, not to offend anyone, but there are plenty of places on the low FM band where, format wise, it remains 1979. That’s fine for many; I don’t want it to be fine for me.

So I sometimes go in search of the subtle shifts that amount to major trends in our hidebound world of audio storytelling. To that end, I talked with two people with their ears especially open: Julie Shapiro, head of the Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) in Chicago, and Roman Mars, who was a judge for TCIAF’s awards competition this year – and who produces a successful and innovative podcast of his own, “99% Invisible,” about design. (Full disclosure: I’ve edited Roman’s work and also did a story for him).

Hundreds of aspiring Next-Big-Thing audio producers submit their best work to TCIAF from around the world. When I asked Shapiro and Mars what trends they’re hearing, most of their answers fell under one surprisingly simple category: the “Radiolab” Effect. WNYC’s “Radiolab,” in case you haven’t heard it, is an occasional broadcast and regular podcast about science, and it’s as highly produced as anything on the radio. Most “Radiolab” stories are crafted from hundreds of hours of audio, a ratio that that’s hard for even the most accomplished programs to pull off. Ira Glass recently confessed in Transom, “If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio.”

So Shapiro and Mars aren’t hearing a replication of of Radiolab’s labor-intensive production values, but they are hearing another trademark of the show, its conversational style. You’d think, since the talk radio format is mostly talk, that this would be a given. But radio evolved in the age of oratory, when a stentorian delivery helped pierce the broadcast static, and that’s what listeners still expect.

In the age of HD and earbuds, though, producers are finding they can sound more like themselves. “Radiolab” co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich break down complicated stories through a relaxed Socratic dialogue, an approach that’s also been popularized by NPR’s “Planet Money” and APM’s “Freakonomics.”

“People are starting to recognize you can have fun and talk about interesting things as well,” Shapiro says. Or as Mars puts it, “In America, we explain things a lot. So much that we need two people.”

Shapiro and Mars also hear a big “Radiolab” Effect in the deeper integration of music and storytelling, far beyond the musical scoring that’s a hallmark of “This American Life.” You can hear Jad Abumrad’s Oberlin music composition degree in the show’s use of original music to explain concepts (this segment from the episode “Loops” is a good example). That technique is showing up in more TCIAF award winners, like this independent piece, “Kohn,” about a man with a disability that causes him to speak slowly but also causes his brain to hear himself as speaking like everyone else. Producer Andy Mills reached out to the band Hudson Branch to compose a song about Kohn’s brain, and the spoken story acts almost as a setup for the performance.

TCIAF’s winning story this year, “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” takes the musical approach a step further, remixing whole swaths of an interview with an underworld character who runs (or ran) a strip club out of his Detroit home. The nervous, disorienting result crystallizes at the point when Thunderbolt pulls a gun on his interviewers.

“None of us could stop listening,” Mars says of the piece. “It solved problems in really creative ways. Almost every step was chancy.”

“Chancy,” of course, thrills the veteran producers behind TCIAF, and it’s their job to reward it. Yet flagship programs such as NPR’s “All Things Considered” get a lot of flack when they showcase even mildly risky work. So it’s to the show’s credit that it teamed up with the independent producers at Long Haul Productions to air their story about the relationship between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes in rural Arkansas. The piece breaks many formats: it’s non-narrated, meaning interviewees and “found sound” do all the talking; and it features a commissioned song interwoven among the interviews. Listeners were quick to vent their fury at NPR. “I don’t want artsy, stylistic reporting; I want factual reporting,” said one.

“How Sound” podcaster Rob Rosenthal later interviewed the producers, Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, about the experience. The upshot? It sucked, but ATC’s editors are standing by the team, and maybe next time they’ll make more effort to explain experimental formats ahead of time.

At least the angry ATC listeners were, well, listening. And maybe catching a whiff of how dangerous that can be.

July 25 2011

15:02

Tidbits from this year’s Mayborn Conference: how deep is too deep?

Hanging out at orgies with people who smuggle lizards in their pants. Befriending a convict with an Anne Frank tattoo. Doing drugs with a source. You never know what you’ll hear about – or which writers will surprise you – when you go to Texas for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Immersion journalism was the theme of this year’s Mayborn. Attendees heard accounts of journalists being pushed, falling or jumping into stories, courting the unexpected consequences that make immersion narratives riveting – and sometimes problematic. We’ll be writing up several of the sessions in the coming days and weeks, but here are a few highlights:

Gene Weingarten presented the audience with real-world ethical case studies, using moments from two stories in his own career. In one he said he was offered (and took, and smoked) a source’s hash pipe, which he knew constituted a firing offense. In the other, he extracted evidence of corruption and bribery from a delusional patient in the hospital, a man who believed Weingarten was a doctor even after he had explained that he was a reporter.

Joshua Foer entered a memory competition for a story he was working on – and unexpectedly won the contest. “I had been approaching it thinking I was writing about this bizarre subculture of weirdos,” he said. “And now I was their king.”

Mandalit del Barco played an NPR piece that rose out of her carrying letters and gifts between Haitian and Los Angeles County schoolchildren after the 2010 earthquake. Using storytelling soundscapes, she showed how audio paired with a story script can carry listeners into another world. “If you close your eyes now, what can you hear?”

Ted Conover talked about traveling an unpredictable path from observer to participant: riding the rails with hobos, crossing the border with coyotes, and getting slugged by an inmate during an undercover stint as a prison guard. “This doesn’t require an advanced degree,” he said, “just the willingness to do something crazy.”

We think the subtitle for this year’s conference should have been “When Things Get Messy.” Stay tuned for in-depth posts on these presentations and more.

December 18 2010

02:10

Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullins on interviewing for story

Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” spoke with Storyboard by phone last week about taking a narrative approach to interviews. We included some of her comments in an earlier post on “Interview as story.” While we don’t want to present this as her carefully considered interviewer’s manifesto, she said a lot of interesting things about how she approaches interviewing for story, and we thought we’d pass some of her tips along to readers.

Whatever your medium, if you interview people for your stories, there’s probably something here for you. These excerpts from our conversation have been edited for clarity and structure.

Some craft tips for pulling narrative from daily news Q-and-A’s:

I tell them ahead of time what I might want. If we’re on deadline, and the person we’re going to be talking to is what we call a kind of “normal person,” maybe part of a couple in Dublin who is talking to us about how the seismic financial cuts are affecting them personally, they may be reluctant, they may be shy, they may be reticent to reveal too much. If I say, “What I’d like to leave the audience with is an idea of what your life is like right now,” then they will start telling me the information I need in the form of a story.

Then I become the person who teases them along and directs them in terms of questions, who fleshes it out. They become much more relaxed, so they’re going to make it more of a narrative. They’re not on edge, thinking that I’m going to ask them a question they can’t answer or that’s beyond them. They know that what I want is just a personal tale. It’s much easier to elicit from somebody when you give them a heads up that it’s not a gotcha interview.

On the other hand, if it is a gotcha interview, if it’s a government representative, or the foreign minister of Finland, or a State Department official, you can still have a narrative, and you can plan for the narrative, but it’s easiest in the execution when you can get the subject disarmed enough to just have a conversation. Sometimes that means interrupting a bit. Sometimes that means saying, “Hold on, I want to ask you about that in a few minutes, but let’s get back to this other point.”

Then people will speak more naturally to you. They’re not going to talk sound bites. You have a conversation where you can take yourself out or leave yourself in, but the idea is to get them on the bicycle with you and pedaling. And then, even if there are significant challenges, or even if you take a little side route, you can easily come back, because they understand the thrust. You can intentionally move someone off to the side and then move them back in when you’re engaging them more easily.

In terms of a long or more documentary-style interview:

Again, sometimes I give people a heads up on what I want to get out of it. Usually I’ll speak to them off the top of my head, so they can get an idea of the natural cadence in my own voice as I’m talking to them. We like to have our introductions written ahead of time, something like: “OK, we’re rolling tape in three, two, one:  I’m Lisa Mullins. This is ‘The World.’ In Uruguay a group of high school students has been learning a lesson in finance…”

With that kind of intro, suddenly things become arch and uncomfortable. I want to have set the tone prior to that, so that someone knows my regular conversational style, and they’ll get in sync with me as soon as I ask the first question. I’d like to keep that conversational tone going. That’s how you get the narrative; that’s how you get someone to start from the beginning, to tell you the story, and not just give you what they expect you want to know.

When they’ve practiced or repeated so much of what they have to say that they’re speaking on automatic pilot, that detracts from the interview. When I can get them speaking in terms of chronology, in terms of a thought process, in terms of watching a story unfold and then maybe bringing it back to the beginning, that’s when the audience is naturally going to listen. People have an ear for storytelling, and everybody wants to hear a good story.

I find Q-and-A’s incredibly intriguing, written Q-and-A, because they’re easy to follow. There’s a logic to them. I’d say the same thing for Q-and-A’s that you hear on the radio, even more so, I think, than on television. You get nuance, you get meaning in silence, in pauses, and sighs, in tension. You can hear conflict when there’s nothing on the air.

If there’s a sense of conflict in the interview, very often listeners will listen even more carefully, and they’re surprised there might be a resolution at the end. “Gee, the person was taken aback,” or “Maybe someone was drawing the wrong conclusions.” And “Hey, at the end, it wasn’t as bad as all that.”

So, look! You were transported somewhere. There was a different end to the story from what was expected, based on not just what was said but what wasn’t said, where the silent irritation was, where the withdrawing was on both sides. I think that’s as much a part of the narrative of the story as anything.

Ideally, I would love to have listeners come into an interview and feel intrigued, maybe projecting where they think the interview might go. And then at the end not even being aware of how much time has elapsed, thinking, “Wow. Where did I just land?” That usually happens when you’ve taken them on a mini narrative journey.

Generally speaking:

I want the producer to find everything that he or she possibly can about the subject that we’re going to be talking about. I read as much as I can and have time for, but if the interview is bearing down on me, I just start a mind purge and write down questions immediately with the ones that are most obvious to me. Those are the ones our listeners will probably be most interested in.  I will type out several questions of my own. I get everything in front of me, and sometimes don’t even look down again after the first question. I do like to have a solid launching point for the first question, though, and I try to figure out where I want to go.

How many angles are too many angles? When is this going to be watered down because I’m putting too many hats on this person? The job for me is to contain information and to keep it on a straight road, almost putting blinders on. You remain open to any slight turn or twist, but you have to be as disciplined as possible to know when you’re letting yourself go too far in one direction or letting the interviewee go too far, for a bunch of reasons:

One, it doesn’t serve the audience. Everything’s being diluted if you don’t have the trajectory. Two, my producer is going to kill me, because the piece is going to be cut down to 4 1/2 minutes regardless of how long we record. Also, because I want to have a story, a nugget, from that person that people will listen to.

If I’m disciplined, and they kind of know what I want, then they’re not flailing around. A lot of the fear in interviews happens when the interviewee doesn’t know if he or she is giving you want you want, and there’s a lot of meandering and uncertainty. Even the most kind of squidgy seemingly open-ended interview really has to have a certain amount of discipline around it to be successful. It’s a lot harder than doing a “What did the White House say today?” interview.

Narrative doesn’t mean arduous planning necessarily. Narrative means having your path cut out for you, but not necessarily where exactly it will take you, just knowing that you want a place to touch down. By the way, that end point may lead you to infinity – to more tension or some nonresolution. Everything doesn’t have to be tied up in a bow, but I want us to be able to land somewhere at the end.

December 16 2010

20:40

Interview as story: on radio, online and in print

Insane Clown Posse

Whether they use full-on storytelling or just crib a few literary devices, interviews have their own narrative arcs and angles. From political drama (think the Frost-Nixon standoff or “The Fog of War”) to Studs Terkel’s cultural layering, interviews create a kind of permanent present-tense experience for viewers.

Two recent magazine interviews underline the narrative potential of the form. The first, “Insane Clown Posse: And God created controversy,” runs through a dizzying talk with the rap duo on The Guardian’s website.

The conversation jumps off with the acknowledgement that despite their ultra-violent lyrics, the pair are evangelical Christians. Reporter Jon Ronson moves on to reveal that the performers suffer from depression. As the story unfolds, even those who contest the importance of hate-spewing clowns may find the interview compelling, funny and disturbing, and perhaps not in predictable ways. Here’s an excerpt of Ronson’s dialogue:

Violent J shakes his head sorrowfully. “Who looks at the stars at night and says, ‘Oh, those are gaseous forms of plutonium’?” he says. “No! You look at the stars and you think, ‘Those are beautiful.’ ”

Suddenly he glances at me. The woman in the video is bespectacled and nerdy. I am bespectacled and nerdy. Might I have a similar motive?

“I don’t know how magnets work,” I say, to put him at his ease.

“Nobody does, man!” he replies, relieved. “Magnetic force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Magnetic force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your f**king face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a f**king force there. That’s cool!”

Shaggy says the idea for the lyrics came when one of the ICP road crew brought some magnets into the recording studio one day and they spent ages playing with them in wonderment.

“Gravity’s cool,” Violent J says, “but not as cool as magnets.”

The struggle between interviewer John H. Richardson and actor Christian Bale in Esquire’s December issue is more convoluted. As Richardson attempts to build a narrative that illuminates Bale as a person, the temperamental actor throws up roadblocks, refuses to participate, and ends with an insult to his interviewer’s efforts to reveal anything at all about him.

The narrative builds and destroys itself, eventually piling up a kind of story:

BALE: Why are you questioning those things?

ESQUIRE: Just curious.

BALE: Why are you putting all that muddle in your brain thats not needed to be there?

ESQUIRE: I guess you just look at the choices people make and wonder, Whats up with that?

BALE: But why are you worrying so much about everybody else? Lets start looking at you for a minute, all right?

A standoff ensues not unlike the scene in Antonionis The Passenger when Jack Nicholson is interviewing a witch doctor who clearly thinks hes an obnoxious idiot. “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me,” the witch doctor says, turning the camera around so its pointing at Nicholson. Major existential moment as Nicholson stares into the abyss between sign and signifier. But we have seen this movie, and it does not turn out well — the spell must be reversed.

BALE: It should just happen. It should just happen. If somethings true and sincere, it happens regardless of marketing. The more I talk about it, the more Im telling people how they should react. And that is an asshole.

ESQUIRE: Not to argue, but that’s not really true.

BALE: Are you calling me a liar? Am I lying?

ESQUIRE: Sometimes the ground needs to be prepared. And youve laid down these onerous rules on me — all I can do is a Q&A.

Actually, these are forbidden words that you are reading right now. Bale is in the habit of requesting that his media interviews be printed in a Q&A format. He also prefers to conduct them at the same five-star luxury hotel in Los Angeles, and makes it known that he dislikes personal questions.

Both these interviews end up far afield from straight transcription. The interviewer’s after-the-fact insertion of connective tissue between segments of the Q-and-A shape the story arc and set the tone.

Very long long-form

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager” a book-length series of interviews, falls into an even longer-form category. Keith Gessen, editor of the political and cultural journal n+1, conducted a series of interviews in which a financial player chronicled the economic collapse and its aftermath.

In a phone conversation last month, Gessen described how in small and large ways, events in “Diary” began to take a narrative turn not just in chronicling the meltdown but in the hedge fund manager’s outlook and life. Asked to what degree he imagined the book as narrative during the interview process, Gessen said,

I was very much thinking of it in terms of Studs Terkel, and there’s another book that I read some years ago, an updating of Studs Terkel called “Gig.” That book is amazing. These people have these crazy jobs, and as they talk about them, details of their lives emerge.

With “Diary of a Very Bad Year,” initially, I just wanted to find out what was going on with the financial crisis. I knew I didn’t know what was going on, and I had this sort of acquaintance who I thought could explain it. After I did the first interview and transcribed it, I was surprised. It had a lot of information. He had a very charming way of explaining the financial system. Some very talented financial people need to be able to tell stories about what they’re doing – that’s just part of him being good at his job. He was so good at explaining it that you could see how he thought, his mind at work. I thought that was exciting.

At first, I just thought we’d put the interviews in the magazine. Halfway though, he became very frustrated with his job. At the end, he quit. I didn’t know for sure where we were going initially, but when he decided to quit, we had a whole narrative arc.

Contrasting doing long-form interviews with the kind narrative features he’s written for the New Yorker, Gessen noted the different goals of the interviewer:

I’ve done a fair amount of traditional journalism where you’re interviewing people. There’s a very specific way in which quotes are used in a New Yorker article. They’re partly there to be informative; they’re partly used to reveal the character of the person who’s being informative.

When you do those interviews, you’re looking for a particular thing, a particular moment, from that person. You more or less know what you want from your subject. And I wouldn’t say it’s manipulation – that’s too strong a word – but because the frame that you’re putting on the story has so much weight, your subjects become characters in the story and have particular roles to play in it. When you’re doing those interviews, you’re waiting for them to say a particular thing, as if they were fictional characters who were uncooperative.

With the hedge fund interviews, I wasn’t waiting for anything. I was waiting for him to be interesting. I wasn’t waiting very long. In a way, it was more pressure doing those interviews, because I wasn’t going to be able to write around him. So he had to be the one who was interesting.

Gessen was pleased enough with the hedge fund interviews that he searched out people from other fields, only to find not everyone was as engaging when it came to talking about work. But with the right interviewee, “to hear a live and intelligent and very particular human voice,” Gessen said, “that’s very exciting to a reader and very immediately accessible – as accessible as anything.”

Radio Q-and-A’s

Though they have a long tradition in print, interviews own a sizable share of other media, as well, and many of them are narrative. Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” makes it a goal to frame real-time narratives as she interviews subjects. Talking by phone last week, she outlined her approach:

When I’m preparing an interview, I want a beginning, a middle and an end. It may not stay that way when I actually execute the interview, but it always helps to have an arc to the story and have some kind of a narrative. Sometimes that narrative centers on a subject – meaning the issue that we’re talking about – or sometimes the narrative unfolds from the person’s own thoughts and history. It can go either way, but I like to have a start and a finish and then a takeaway – something that the audience will come away with at the end.

I honestly don’t believe that we always need a neat and poignant ending. We need some kind of end that doesn’t sound random. It has to be something that makes the interview whole, that gives it a sense of direction and gives listeners a sense they’ve taken a mini journey someplace, even if they haven’t gone anywhere, even if it’s just a Q-and-A on the telephone.

Mullins doesn’t employ storytelling out of a sense of duty to tradition. Her motives, she admits, may be a little more selfish:

One of the reasons I really cherish the practice of interviewing as narrative is, frankly, ego. A lot of what we do is to convince people that they will be interested, entertained and edified by whatever we’re presenting. But it’s not a given. I don’t take that interest for granted.

So my goal is to give them what I know is going to attract any listener, a really interesting story, especially around an issue they didn’t know they could be interested in. By working with this rubric of storytelling and narrative, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to get a much better interview for yourself, you’re going to have a more cooperative interviewee, and you’re going to get the listener paying attention. It’s not like they’re being spoon-fed; they’re just being informed and entertained in the most natural way of all, and that’s through storytelling.

Mullins also emphasized the real-time role of the interviewer and the importance of discipline when a Q-and-A is going to be the final product – not to block spontaneous surprises from emerging, but to string a narrative thread that the audience can clutch, giving listeners “a place to touch down.” Interviewers have a narrative role to play, even when they’re not the ones telling the stories.

[Check back tomorrow, when we'll post a list of tips for doing narrative interviews.]

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl