Congrats to Annie and to all of the winners, whose specific awards will be announced on Nov. 9 in Chicago at the Third Coast Conference. And hey, stations: many of the winners are available now to license on PRX — and you can look forward to the annual Best of the Best broadcast coming in November.
“It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river.
It’s been years since I’ve gone fishing. But hear a line plop in water, the rapid click of a reel, and I feel like I’m there. That’s what sound does.
Yes, other things—the smell of the river, the view of dark trees lining open sky—make fishing tranquil. But to me, it’s the sound—what you hear while you silently wait for a bite—that centers and calms.
Jessica Murri sent us this story about military vets, and in our Second Ear edit session, we tried to make that sound sing. We trimmed narration and music, re-structured to clarify the narrative, added ambient sound and slimmed the character list down from four to three.
I have a bit of a love affair with radio going. Even though my day job is staff writer at the Boise Weekly (in little known about but really amazing Boise, Idaho), I still miss radio.
It’s my favorite medium for telling stories because it’s one of the truest ways to put a person in a place. For this story about a few military vets going fly fishing, I couldn’t resist bringing along my recorder.
I wrote this story for print as well, but I couldn’t make the reader really hear how George Nickel told me about being in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department. I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.
In print, I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.
Turning on my recorder for four hours really takes the listener to the Boise River, I hope. You can say “the birds chirping” all you want, but sometimes it’s just better to be there.
I don’t get to do much radio working in print, so I end up doing these little side projects for myself, just for fun, and then they sit on my desktop and no one ever hears them. Well, Erika and Genevieve wanted to! And after, like, 50,000 emails back and forth, they made my little radio project something more than a, well, little radio project.
I’m really glad I got such professional help on this story. I hope it makes it to a wider audience so I can share a piece of Idaho life.
Explore Jessica Murri’s other work here. 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.
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.]
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
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…
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.
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.
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.