Erika Lantz posted on Monday, June 16th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
If you like art, you should check out Veronica Simmonds. She’s spending all her time chatting with artists and making radio stories about them. (Jealous yet?) To top it off, she found this guy who’s so obsessed with shortwave radio he designed an immersive art piece around it. She produced the story, and we workshopped it together in this month’s Second Ear.
Veronica’s taking over the rest of this post to tell us about it:
There is a big difference between a topic and a story. Big difference…but one that I’m always struggling to understand.
I’ve been producing a podcast for Visual Arts News for over a year now. It’s a great gig: I get to interview all the rad artists working in Atlantic Canada. I interview them about the cool ideas behind their projects, then weave those together with music and ambient sounds, and the result is usually an interesting audio journey. But are these stories? Not really.
I reached out to the Second Ear program because there was one piece I produced for Visual Arts News that I thought had legs. It was about an artist named Michael McCormack who makes work about shortwave radio. As a radio nerd this was enough to get me interested. But, what was really curious was how Michael connected to his grandfather. As he talked about the different elements of his work, they all somehow linked back to his grandfather’s experience as a ham radio operator.
When I first produced the piece, I focused on the topic of shortwave radio: what it is, why it’s important for people, and what Michael is doing with it. Talking to Erika and Genevieve from PRX was totally invaluable because they challenged me to focus instead on the relationship between Michael and his grandfather. They encouraged me to see the art and even Michael’s identity as an artist as secondary to that relationship. As simple as that may seem it was actually a total revelation for me. I usually start these podcasts by naming the artist and saying what their working on, but this new approach was totally freeing and I think led to a way more compelling listen. People first! Projects second!
All this to say, I still don’t know exactly what a story is, but I’m a little closer. From now on, I’m going to start my pieces with people, not their projects. Stories happen with people: what are their intentions, why do they do what they do, what’s changing for them. Cool art projects come from people, but the people should come first. Power to the people! (and their stories!) —Veronica
Erika Lantz posted on Friday, June 13th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, PRX Remix, Second Ear | 1 Comment
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.
Erika Lantz posted on Friday, May 23rd, 2014 | Blog, PRX, PRX Remix, Second Ear | No Comments
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.
Erika Lantz posted on Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 | Blog, PRX, PRX Remix, Second Ear, stories | No Comments
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…
Erika Lantz posted on Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
We already loved Annie McEwen’s piece when we sat down with her for a Second Ear edit session. It’s a non-narrated mix of voices, tones and music that she calls an experiment in heartbreak.
At PRX Remix, I live ever in the shadow of the skip button. For those of you who don’t know (and you should—go listen!), Remix lets listeners click ahead when they’re not into a story. It means stories have to be that much better. Grab ‘em in the first few seconds, or you lose ‘em for good.
With stories like Annie’s, I want listeners to decide to stay. To close their eyes and drift with her into a watery inner world.
So that was my first goal: make the top so enticing you can’t help but slow down and sink into its rhythm. In my mind, the story needed a hook a bit sooner, something for the listener to grab onto. We suggested using a different opening line, and then streamlining some tape near the top to get to the main story faster. We also took issue with the repeated clip that starts “There once was a young girl…” If that was going to stay, it needed to be cut down near the top—when the listener is still figuring things out—and brought back later. And I wanted just a few more specifics that helped the listener visualize what they were hearing and then feel the loss all the more sharply.
Annie got great tape: beautiful lines developing the foghorn metaphor. She had so many of them that she had a lot of options for closers. In fact, during my first listen, I thought I’d reached the end only to be startled to learn I was barely halfway through. That kept happening.
I felt the piece ought to carry me seamlessly, so that the whole thing grew in one long musical phrase. Of course there would be swells and pauses and plateaus, but the larger arc had to be there.
A lot of our notes were micro-edits. We thought she could make it shorter by tightening clips and cutting repetitive lines. We tried to refine the structure by trimming and reorganizing sections. But we told her what we tell all Second Ear producers: revise how you see fit. Use our suggestions, throw them out, rework them as your own.
Here’s what Annie came up with.
Erika Lantz posted on Monday, May 12th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
Claire Navarro has taken on a huge task with her podcast Hold That Thought. Each week she interviews a professor about research at Washington University in St. Louis. I know I’m going to learn something cool each time I listen.
But even with fascinating subject matter, hosting a show like this is tough. Claire told us she wants to make research interesting to listeners tuned out of the academic world. So when we dove into an episode for Second Ear (our monthly mini-workshop for producers), we used that lens to talk about writing, hosting, interviewing, and mixing. Here are her original version and the revised version. Take a listen and read about our process and more below.
When I listen to Hold That Thought, I occasionally get the sense that Claire has so much material that it’s hard to know what to do with it. Each researcher has investigated a number of compelling topics, and it’s hard to incorporate them all.
Our advice? Find the story. Instead of profiling a professor and his research, devote each episode to a single story — one with a beginning, middle and end, with characters, conflict, and surprise — and let that guide the structure. Be okay with the fact that a lot of great research won’t make the cut.
Once you know what that story is, get to it. Hook the listener as quickly as possible. Don’t dillydally with a long formal intro before getting to the meat. Then never let the suspense fade.
Then we talked about writing and hosting. Claire has taken on a beast writing about academia. Her voice has to carry drama when the research gets dry. And, especially for radio, she has to translate jargon to colloquial speech. Claire already knew she had to write like she talks, but she pointed out that she’s so entrenched in the academic world, words like “collaborate” and “examine” do sound colloquial to her. So Genevieve and I suggested to try again what she already knew: sit down with a friend — maybe even take a shot first — and just tell the story. Let yourself be silly. Record yourself. Then listen to your tape and pay attention the words you used. You can even use that recording in the final mix.
In her second version, Claire takes this to heart. She introduces the show in just one line. Then she jumps into a story about herself. And what a difference! I feel like she’s talking to me, Erika.
Claire wasn’t going to have time to interview her subject again, but we talked through ideas for next time. Interviewing professors can be a challenge. They’re used to talking about their research a certain way, so you have to help them break habits. And then you have to dig around to excavate the story that will drive your piece. For a story, you need emotion. Claire understands that as well as anyone, and she works to make every limited minute with her subject count. Here’s what we talked about.
- When you meet her for the interview, project the emotions you want to get out of her. If you want to her to sound excited, be excited, interested, animated. You’ll set the tone.
- Ask how she started. How did her own story lead to this work?
- Ask what surprised her. How were her own notions challenged by the data?
- Ask how the research is personal. Was there a moment when she got emotional about her findings or while working with the kids and their parents?
- If it’s not personal to the researcher, who is it personal to? Who will this affect?
- Ask for an “aha” or breakthrough moment.
- Ask her for the funniest moment she remembers. Even if it doesn’t end up being relevant to the story, it might loosen her up. And if it’s really funny, it might be just what you need in the final version.
- Ask who would disagree with her and then have her respond to their criticisms. Or find the opposing researcher beforehand, interview him, and play the tape for her so she can respond.
- Set up hypotheticals. For example, if she could tell parents one thing to do to improve their kids’ reading, what would it be?
- Set up metaphors. If this looked like x, what would y be?
- Tell her to pretend she’s explaining the experiment to a ten-year-old.
- Ask what she couldn’t put in the published paper that she found interesting.
- Find an example, perhaps in pop culture. If it’s video or audio, play it for her. Have her react. Is the example connected? Is it missing the point?
- Ask her to describe scenes vividly. Slow her down to take it moment by moment. Ask for senses — taste, smell, sight, feeling.
Finally, we told Claire what we tell everyone: make it shorter. It will force you to tighten. Plus, it’ll make the story more attractive to purchasing stations. Claire made it look easy. She got her ten-minute story down to under five.
Stay tuned for more from our next Second Ear producer this month! Follow us with #SecondEar on Twitter.
Erika Lantz posted on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
Time sure flies. It’s been a month, and Second Ear is back.
Got a radio story you’ve been meaning to polish? Want some some fresh expert ears to listen to your piece? Send it our way. If chosen, you’ll get a private editing session, a blog post about your work, face time on our homepage—where stations scout for stories—and lots of social media love.
We’re open for submissions May 1-5. Just answer a few questions and send us a link. The process is painless and, well, darn fun.
Image from Shutterstock.
Erika Lantz posted on Thursday, April 24th, 2014 | Blog, PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
We had so many great submissions to Second Ear—our monthly mini-workshop—we couldn’t pick just one. So we’re kicking it off with two producers. Congratulations, Annie McEwen and Claire Navarro!
Annie’s been working on “an experiment in heartbreak” with non-narrated meditation and metaphor. Claire hosts her own podcast about research at Washington University in St. Louis. They’ve got two different approaches to very different topics.
After listening on repeat and scribbling notes, we workshopped with both of them today. Annie and Claire are heading back to the studio for clipping and cutting and lots of re-writing. We’ll see what they come up with in two weeks.
You can track #SecondEar on Twitter to follow along. What would you like to hear in Draft 2?
Genevieve posted on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 | PRX, Second Ear | No Comments
PRX’s Second Ear — a monthly idea-sharing session & mini-makeover for an audio piece — is open for submissions now! We can only take 15 submissions, so get ‘em in early.
If you have any questions, please comment on this blog post so others can see, or write to us.
Genevieve posted on Thursday, March 20th, 2014 | Blog, PRX Projects, Second Ear | 2 Comments
Introducing PRX’s Second Ear — it’s like a mini-makeover, without the reality television!
Are you a producer looking for perspective and ideas on an audio piece?
Each month, PRX will work with one producer on a piece to improve it. We’ll provide feedback based on criteria like music, transitions, script, hosting, etc. We’ll also help with the piece’s presentation on PRX — the image, description, your profile, and so on. Then we’ll go over our ideas with you, have you post the improved piece as an “after” to the “before”, and share it with the world.
Here’s how it’ll work:
- We’ll take submissions online starting the first of each month. Producers will have five days to submit a piece under 15 minutes in length and a little pitch about it. One submission per person only. Submissions will be capped at 15 per month. Plan ahead: Here are the fields you’ll have to fill out when you apply.
- From the sixth to the fifteenth of the month, PRX staffers will choose one piece from the 15 submissions, listen to it a ton, and take notes on items to improve.
- Once we’ve got all our suggestions, we’ll arrange a 30-min. phone call with the producer to talk ideas. Producers will get input from John Barth (Managing Director), Genevieve Sponsler (Content Coordinator), and Erika Lantz (PRX Remix Assistant Producer).
- Before the end of the month, the producer will post the improved piece. We’ll provide a homepage feature, a blog post, and social media shoutouts.
Check out the FAQ we made below. To participate, follow us on Twitter, where we’ll post the link to apply and more details April 1. We’re thrilled to start this new project and can’t wait to work with you.
Some anticipated FAQs:
- Why are you capping it at 15 submissions?
PRX is small, and we want to be able to make sure we can read all the submissions in a timely fashion and have time to work with the producer. If you miss it, apply the next month!
- Can I submit more than one piece?
No — only one piece per month per person. Since we are capping it at 15 submissions, we want 15 different producers to be able to apply.
- Why do pieces have to be under 15 min.?
Pretty much the same answer as above — we want to be able to provide feedback on the whole piece in a short amount of time. Additionally, we have stats that show stations are much more likely to buy pieces under 10 minutes if they’re buying short pieces, and we prefer pieces under 15 minutes for Remix.
- Will you do one per month?
Yes — our plan right now is to do one Second Ear per month. We’ll see how it goes and may adjust accordingly.
- If my piece is chosen and I make changes, will it get licensed by stations?
We wish we could guarantee that, but we can’t! We can guarantee that you’ll get valuable input from PRX staff that you can use to improve your piece.
- If I work with you guys, do I have to credit PRX in the audio?
Nope, it’s still your piece. But we would ask you to put “Part of PRX’s Second Ear” somewhere in your piece description so that others can learn about the project.
- Does my piece have to be on PRX when I apply?
Yes, submitted pieces must be on PRX before the application process. That way we’ll be able to do a before and after comparison with listen and license statistics.
- Do I have to have a paid PRX account?
No — but we will remind you that in order to get royalties, you’ll need one!
- What are the criteria you’ll be looking at when choosing a piece?
Sometimes the best stories are creative pet projects. Those stories deserve an editor as much as your daily news spots do. We’re looking for complete stories that you’d like to make even stronger by getting an outside perspective. We aren’t a school so we won’t be able to teach you how to do radio, and we aren’t looking for first drafts. We are interested in working with producers who want to get pieces on the radio or want them considered for Remix.
- What’s the goal?
Better pieces heard by more people! We are a team of experienced radio distributors and producers helping out. It’s about making good stories even better.
Image from Shutterstock.
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