BONUS: Winners of The Sarahs and the Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest will be featured on PRX Remix — PRX’s 24/7 stream of the best independently created audio stories — airing online, SiriusXM 123, and broadcast stations around the country.
If I met Don Schonenbeck on the street, I’d probably step right past him. I’d walk by never understanding why he’s chosen to wander west coast highways — how a series of painful deaths thrust him toward alcohol and into depression. That’s why I appreciate stories like the one producer Clay Scott made about Don. (You should take five minutes right now and listen to it.)
When we workshopped it in our Second Ear program, I pushed Clay to go back to Don and dig up some tape we could use to restructure the piece. What Clay found when he went looking for Don wasn’t what we’d hoped, but it completely changed the nature of the story. It’s a lesson in how powerful revisiting a story can be. If you follow a person or a topic over time, the story will be richer — and truer.
Clay will explain in a moment. But first, a taste of what we talked about.
Narrative structure. Hooking the listener, clarifying chronology, and pacing emotional peaks.
Asking why, and then asking it again. People respond to death differently. That’s what makes death so interesting. Get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
Leading with sound. Start with the ambi, and don’t identify it right away.
Give emotion to the acts, use narration for the facts. Hey, it rhymes. But what I mean is that you can summarize a sequence of events, but only your subject’s voice can lend real emotion. So don’t overextend acts to explain boring info. Just keep the gems.
Recognizing the weird. When Don said he wanted to put himself in situations he could neither predict nor control, he was subverting a lot of human instinct. That’s something I want to hear more about in a raw, honest way.
Your turn. Take a listen to the “Before” and “After.” What differences do you hear?
I’m used to working alone, so it was an incredible treat to have Erika Lantz and Genevieve Sponsler lend their astute ears to “I Ain’t Leavin My Road Dog,” a profile of Don, a homeless Montana man.
I thought the original story (which aired back in January in my series “Mountain West Voices”) was pretty good. Listeners found it powerful and moving. People told me they appreciated hearing the type of voice they don’t often get a chance to hear.
In particular, my audience seemed to like the symmetry of the story: A man endures unimaginable tragedy, falls into a depression, and wanders the back roads of America for 20 years before deciding to settle down. When we leave him, he is working on a grant to help him open a small business. It’s almost a Hollywood ending, and it was very satisfying. In fact, the other two profiles I’ve done of homeless people in recent months had similar happy endings.
But when Erika and Genevieve asked me to follow up with Don to add more depth to the story, I found that he had fallen off the wagon, and that he’d been kicked out of the shelter where he was staying. So much for the happy ending! I spent a few days looking for him, before learning that he had been seen walking out of town along the highway.
After consulting with the Second Ear team, we decided that I still had a story, and agreed that I should add a sort of post script or epilogue to the original piece.
In the end, I think the re-worked piece turned out to be much more powerful than the original. Instead of the happy ending (appealing though it was) we have a story that is much more reflective of the reality of homelessness: a story about how easy it is to lose your moorings, and, having lost them, how incredibly hard it can be to find your way again.
A few additional notes: I didn’t mean to imply that we left the original story intact, and simply tacked on a postscript. Like the top notch radio brains they are, Erika and Genevieve were able improve the flow and pacing of the story significantly with a few deft and subtle changes: switching these two acts, bringing up the ambi a couple beats earlier here, tightening this track, lengthening this fade, etc. All in all, a wonderful experience to work with the Second Ear team.
[You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.]
Secret Soviet radio signals, lonely spies in the Arctic, and an art exhibit with pulsing disco lights. I’m ready to listen. But you can have all the ingredients and still feel a story isn’t quite “there.” We talked ideas with Veronica; she took or scrapped our advice and came back with a new version of her story.
Hear a difference? Here’s some of what we talked about.
1. Find the story. An artist might be doing something fascinating, but if you don’t find a narrative arc with characters, conflict, and surprise, you won’t keep my attention.
In Veronica’s case, I saw all this potential for compelling stories and intimate moments that were glossed over. So we talked a lot about how to find tension, emotion, and narrative, and she actually interviewed Michael a second time to get tape that would help.
2. Avoid art speak. Don’t let the artist speak in sterile or hyped-up language. Work the interview to pull out the emotion and concrete reasoning. And certainly don’t use jargon in your own writing. (We asked Veronica to cut lines like “his current work is focusing on” or “enter the dialogue.”)
Say things plainly. Clear images, simple language, and strong ideas—not pretense—will bring depth to the piece.
3. Help us picture it. Slow the artist down during the interview to get specific moments and vivid details. Record yourself describing and experiencing the work, and focus on the senses. Help us listeners construct the visceral experience in our imagination.
4. Be skeptical. Be wary of adopting the language of the artist as your own. Just because an artist claims she’s breaking apart some radical notion with her art doesn’t mean that you should say she succeeded.
To get interesting tape, find time to ask the artist questions from the perspective of the guy who thinks this type of art is a load of hooey. Then, if you like, ask the artist what frustrates him about the way people view art. Maybe you’ll find tension not only in the story’s central conflict, but also in a deeper conversation about what art is.
You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.
Genevieve and I had a blast working with Claire Navarro in Second Ear, our monthly mini-workshop for producers. She hosts a podcast about all the cool research happening at Washington University in St. Louis.
I’ll hand this post over to Claire.
I was totally thrilled when I first heard from Erika that she and the PRX team had selected Hold That Thought to be one of the first Second Ear participants. I’ve been producing and hosting the show weekly since fall 2012, and I knew it would be enlightening to get some outside professional feedback on a typical episode’s content, tone, and format.
One of the most helpful parts of my conversation with Erika and Genevieve was that instead of commenting just upon the final product, they understood and had thoughtful tips relating to the entire process of making the podcast: preparation, interviewing, scriptwriting, recording, editing. Each episode of Hold That Thought is basically a one-woman production (either taken on by myself or my coworker, Rebecca King, with excellent audio assistance from our third team member, Sean Garcia). Each step requires its own special attention. The Second Ear mini-workshop allowed me to step back and think about those pieces individually, which from week-to-week can sometimes be hard to do.
I have to admit, recording my parts for the revised version of the podcast was a wee bit nerve-wracking. (Since this is actually my job, I decided to not take Erika and Genevieve up on their advice to take a shot first.) In the podcast, I’ve always tried to keep the focus on the professor or the research, rather than myself. Going off-script – and using the dreaded *I* pronoun – felt like a major departure. But even though it felt strange, I totally get the point and the appeal. In most podcasts I enjoy, the host does have some sort of personal connection with the listener.
The other difficult part of following Erika and Genevieve’s advice was – unsurprisingly – the cutting and slashing. In “The ABC’s of Reading and Writing” I got lucky, in that there were clear sections, and to make the piece shorter I basically just chopped two chapters. But, as the PRXers rightfully guessed, in a typical interview there’s so much interesting content that finding the “story” is a major challenge. Hold That Thought is one of the only outlets we have on campus in which professors can talk about their fascinating work in their own voice, and part of me always wants to get as much into an episode as possible, just so it’s “out there” in some way. But in order to grow our audience and get this work the exposure it deserves, I understand that making a tight, compelling story line should always be the goal.
So overall, thank you so much Erika and Genevieve! If anybody else out there has further thoughts or advice on Hold That Thought, I’m all ears. I still think it’s amazing that Washington University in St. Louis (Arts & Sciences in particular) had the vision to create a project like Hold That Thought, and I’m always looking for ways to improve and spread the word.
We asked Annie to share a few thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.
Should I have taken the whale out? I still wonder. Participating in PRX’s Second Ear made me realize for the zillionth time that I’ll never be completely happy with anything I make. Except maybe cookies.
“Here Be Danger” was an attempt to create something out of the very ordinary human experience of heartbreak. I went about interviewing a whole bunch of people I knew who were, or had been, brokenhearted. I even interviewed my ex-boyfriend about our own breakup. As you can imagine, these interviews were pretty heavy. If I was going to make this thing I knew that I needed someone to pull this heaviness and melancholy up into the land of metaphor—where heartbreak is easier to look at, somehow.
So with all these sad interviews floating around in my head I attended a storytelling circle here in St. John’s where I met an animated older fellow who told his story with great energy and wit. That night, as I sat at my kitchen table listening to the foghorn sounding in the harbor, I thought about all the brokenhearted people in the city and how they all must hear this foghorn from their own kitchen tables. And then I thought, heck, I’m going to call that guy up and see if he has anything interesting to say about foghorns and heartbreak. And lucky for me, he did.
One of the best things I learned while speaking with the wonderful Erika and Genevieve at PRX is to pull the thesis or core of the story to the front. My instinct is always to build up to the heart of something rather than flash it at the beginning. But as I began to edit the piece again, I remembered something Rob Rosenthal had said during a Transom workshop: “the front of your story has to do a whole lot of the heavy lifting.” Telling people what the story is about is not going to make them not want to listen. It’s going to make them wonder how the thing will play out.
Second Ear also taught me to say no. I took notes during our talk about the piece—I thought about all their advice and suggestions. Sometimes the two of them would disagree and suggest opposite things (whale in, whale out), and at first I thought, oh geez this is impossible. But this pushed me to move forward with what I thought worked. I’ll never be totally satisfied, but it did feel good to follow my gut on a few things.
The whale. I’m still not sure whether or not I should have kept it in. The story I was making didn’t have an ending—a lot of real-life, ordinary stuff doesn’t really end. (In my experience, heartbreak just sort of peters out after awhile—not a very satisfying conclusion.) I felt I needed something tangible to hold on to, some symbol of hope, of vibrancy and change and surprise being there even if you can’t see it through this liminal fog that is your life. The whale became that symbol. I tried to make it feel like the listener was drifting through the piece, encountering little islands of heartbreak along the way, but I still sort of think the whale comes up out of nowhere. But maybe hope can come from nowhere too…
I admit it. There’s not much I love more than a good murder mystery. I’m a sucker for detective novels and forensics shows.
So I was instantly intrigued when I came across Criminal, a new podcast devoted to crime.
Lauren Spohrer, Phoebe Judge, and Eric Mennel worked together until this October on The Story with Dick Gordon at WUNC. When the host, Dick Gordon, moved back to Canada, the eight-year-old show went off the air.
“When the show ended, we had this sort of restlessness in us,” Eric told me over the phone. “The podcast was a great way to harness that restlessness.”
Lauren had the idea to start a show about crime. Because who doesn’t love a crime story? Breaking free from the broadcast clock with an indie podcast would let them dive deeper in the long form they’d come to love at The Story.
The three of them have day jobs, with Eric and Phoebe still working at WUNC. That means they’re making pop filters out of tights and coat hangers, recording in Lauren’s closet and mixing stories at one in the morning.
“I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel,” Eric says. “Some of the oldest stories in print are crime and mystery stories.”
You hear that in Episode 1, “Animal Instincts,” which finds odd parallels in two crimes five hundred years apart.
But unlike typical whodunnits, Criminal isn’t interested in solving crimes. Once you dig into a story, Phoebe says, you realize it’s hard to pin down the truth.
“A lot of times, when we read crimes stories, we read headlines, we read just the facts: this man was convicted, this is the crime he committed, this was the victim,” Phoebe says. “It’s never simple. In crime stories, there’s victims, there’s perpetrators, there’s the other people who are affected. When you are able to give time to a complete story, you start to see all these different ripples, the ripple effect of it. We’re learning that you can’t just say this guy is guilty because of x, y, z. It’s always more complicated than that.”
With that mantra, and with the show’s slow, driving rhythm, Criminal is a little dark, a little playful, a little melancholy, and entirely engrossing. Episode 3 comes out Friday.
I attended to take part in a panel on sound, but left buzzing with ideas that pushed me outside my radio comfort zone. Here are a few.
1. People pay attention to games, says Kunal Gupta, director of the games exhibition collective Babycastles—and failing to see that means losing potential audience. Too often, media makers don’t see games for what they can be: entire worlds, or art that empowers people and communities. If you want to make an impact, don’t discount a game.
2. “Games are not good for facts. Games are good for feelings.” Colleen Macklin warned against looking to social impact games to teach information, or serve as “Games for X.” A game is a system with moments of choice that create an emotional, visceral experience. Society’s biggest problems are systemic, she said, and games encourage systemic thinking — especially when players start to make their own rules.
3. To engage different age groups, use a variety of media.Marissa Valeri says a comic can jumpstart engagement and mobilize a new audience. While some people will latch on to an image, others want to read information themselves. Greg Pak produced the graphic novel app Vision Machine, but pointed out that for all the fancy stuff you can make, sometimes a simple comic strip can reach the most people.
4. People are breaking the boundaries of their medium in new ways all the time. Take Operation Ajax, an interactive comic book for ipad that brings together all sorts of media — comics, sound design, video, archived documents — into what creator Daniel Burwin calls a “curiosity path for the audience.” The result is pretty magical.
How do you think we radio producers can use these ideas to make better stories? Let us know in the comments.
Remix’s Rhode Island debut is part of a whole new weekend lineup of superb shows, including some from PRX: The Moth Radio Hour from PRX, and Snap Judgment, a show from PRX and NPR that’s hosted by Glynn Washington, winner of PRX’s Public Radio Talent Quest.
We’re thrilled to start working with the folks at RIPR. Rhode Islanders, tune in Saturdays at 6 a.m. or Sundays at 8 p.m. for an hour of mind-bending interviews, found tape, cool sounds, and the some of the best radio stories from PRX and beyond.
Those of you living outside The Ocean State, take heart: PRX Remix airs on radio stations across the country. You can hear us streaming 24/7 at PRX.mx, on XM Channel 123, and in your pocket. And there’s no harm in asking your own public radio station to put some Remix on.
The first striking thing about this story is that it starts with 30 seconds of trumpets.
The second striking thing is that suddenly James Franco is copping to it. “You’re probably saying to yourself, seriously? Is this for real? Trumpets? And I’m saying, yeah.”
But of course it only gets stranger from here. In no time at all, Franco is conjuring images of horses galloping through thunderstorms, and surreal dialogue happening in parking lots that might or might exist–all while extolling the virtues of the medium of radio.
And then Franco admits to you, “gentle listener,” that he is the Angel of Death.
This strange piece of radio fiction is part of The Organist, a new podcast from The Believer magazine and KCRW. The Organist is an odd mix of arts reporting, celebrity interviews, and other audio oddities, all told with the McSweeney’s moxie that we all know and love. Listen for The Organist on PRX Remix (stations, download it for your audiences here).
Welcome, new Assistant Producer!
We are thrilled that Erika Lantz is joining Roman Mars and Sam Greenspan to make Remix even more awesome. Read her introductory blog post (a rite of passage for all PRX newbies) and say hello sometime.
Thanks to all who applied – it was quite a group!
We went mobile.
Many of you know that we recently launched a new name, new look, and new mobile apps. And a new website: http://prx.mx Short and sweet, so you can tweet
Roman, Erika, and Sam are Facebooking , tweeting , and blogging recent Remix additions and general audio faves.
We’ve updated the license terms.
The new terms more clearly capture Remix’s expanding cross-platform nature. Please go here to review the new language. You can always manage your Remix permissions in My PRX under Outside Purchaser Preferences, or in Edit Piece.
PRX treats your work with respect and care. Remix is breaking new ground in the public radio and story listening experience, and we’re grateful for the role your work plays in this effort.