10 Ways Not To Start A Radio Story

Let's keep those listeners glued to their headphones.
Let’s keep those listeners glued to their headphones. (via Shutterstock)

I listen to radio almost nonstop for my job, and the more I listen, the more I notice trends. Producers can fall back on patterns that have worked and feel good.

We all know the ingredients of a good story: characters, conflict, hooks, turns, surprise, visual or sensory details, scenes, reflection… It’s easy to start listing these as checkboxes in our minds.

The problem is that once we operate according to checkboxes, we start making boring radio. We settle for an obvious descriptive detail, or check off the “surprising box” with a structure that isn’t surprising. Great intention can lead to lazy execution.

Here are 10 openers I’ve heard again and again from public radio producers and podcasters. They’re easy. They’re appealing. They’re overused.

1. The “Not Your Typical”

The concept behind the “Not Your Typical” beginning is that a character seems average—but there’s a twist. Often I’ll hear a reporter take some time to set a scene, then drop what’s supposed to be the big reveal—that this story is different.

Other times, a story might even open with a sentence like “Jane Doe is not your typical biker.” Even if this is the best concept to begin with, there must be a more compelling way to write or illustrate it.

More fundamentally, it’s not enough for a piece’s only “surprise” to be, say, that old people are doing something young people typically do. That kind of surprise wears off. It’s a reason to start reporting, but it alone won’t justify putting the piece together. A story needs another nugget, maybe an emotional one, to sing.

2. The “I’m Standing Next To”

“I’m standing next to the oldest building in the city. It’s been here for three hundred years…”

I get the sense that this just feels like a solid way to use natural sound. But you can put that ambi under literally any words you want. Better to use the little time you have to set up an interesting observation or metaphor.

There are infinite other ways to begin, so why not come up with some truly fantastic sentences?

3. The Physical Description

Including visual detail for the sake of checking of the “visual box” isn’t useful. When used well, an image can and should knock you over, change the way you see something, unsettle you or pull you in so that it’s impossible to move on with your day until you learn everything you can about it.

Unless the physical traits of a main character are extremely unusual or central to the story, hold off—and even then, resist if you can. Most of the time this isn’t the most interesting way to begin.

4. The Directions

“To get to Joe’s house, you drive five miles west of town until you hit a dirt road winding toward the base of the mountain, then…”

An extraordinary number of stories begin with the reporter giving directions, in some cases for no ostensible purpose. Even when directions do reveal something valuable, visualizing geography requires a lot of imagination on the listeners’ part. It’s too much work to require before you’ve convinced them the story is worth listening to.

Often, I zone out.

5. The Warm And Sunny

Isn’t weather what we talk about with strangers when we can’t think of anything interesting to say? Yes, radio thrives on sensory scenes. But producers need to write them vividly and with precision and purpose. If you want to stun listeners with the top of your story, don’t start with a weather report.

6. The “Okay! So…”

Starting with an off-the-cuff “Okay! So…” is huge right now. It’s colloquial, it’s personal, and it signals we’re jumping into action.

Brilliant producers use this line on brilliant shows, and it works.

But the Okay So has become such a go-to that to me, it’s starting to feel inauthentic, even cliché. When I hear it, I can feel a little manipulated, and I start focusing on the production instead of the story. Unless there’s a really compelling reason to begin with these words—and often there is!—avoid this one.

By refusing to rely on a trick, you’ll force yourself to write something new and strong.

7. The Long Intro

If you listen to PRX Remix, you know that I’m moving toward short intros—or often no host intro at all. I’m all for diving right in and letting a little mystery linger.

8. The Non-Narrated My Name Is

This one’s simple. Except in rare circumstances, start with strong tape, not a self-ID.

9. The Very Important Information

There are lots of issues I care about, but rarely will a story’s importance alone keep me listening.

Don’t start with a fact-vegetable and then assume that I’ll stay with you because I know vegetables are good for me. Start your story with an amuse bouche—a tiny appetizer that bursts with flavor when I pop it in my mouth and leaves me drooling for the main course.

And then I’ll probably eat my vegetables—er, listen to the facts.

10. Anything that isn’t stunning

A first sentence should transfix your listener. It’s competing with music, television, and all of the internet, so find the hook. Pick the detail you can’t stop thinking about and move it to the top. Challenge yourself to find new ways to write about things—which often means pushing yourself to push beyond the first few drafts—or to go deep right away.

So when I’m working, I repeat to myself:

Don’t start the way you think you have to.

When in doubt, write it better.

When uninspired, think Nancy Updike and her talk Die, Mediocrity, Die. (She has tips for what you should do, not just what you shouldn’t.)

When it’s worth it, break the rules. Even mine.

Younger Ears and Different Dollars: Funding Public Radio in a Mobile Era

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Is public radio on the cusp of expansion or disruption? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Current.org‘s Mark Fuerst talked about listenership and public radio funding models on the PRX couch.

From crowdfunding trends to historical comparisons between public television and public radio—some of their observations might surprise you. Listen here, or read the transcript below.

Jake Shapiro: I’m really excited to be sitting down on our couch with Mark Fuerst, who is the director of the Public Media Futures Forum and former executive director of the Integrated Media Association, and a longstanding public media maven, researcher, occasional provocateur.

We’re talking about taking a fresh look at the public media/public radio audience opportunity for this moment we’re in, which still feels like a shift, in a way. We’ve been thinking a lot about that at PRX, around how to help producers navigate their way towards new audiences and their habits of consuming and supporting the media that they love.

I think you were saying that you see some historical comparisons in public television two decades ago.

Mark Fuerst: One of my jobs is to call people and ask them what they’re thinking about in terms of making investments at their stations or working with networks. I think it’s widely shared in the industry that we’ve lost a bit of track of what people are actually using. And some of that is podcasts, because asynchronous use of audio is very hard to track.

Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.
Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.

There’s also the problem of when people move across platforms, there’s no continuous way right now to look at a person who might in the morning listen to Morning Edition, during the day listen to downloaded audio, come back and listen for a few minutes in a car on the way home, but maybe listen to something totally different in the evening.

The reason why that’s so important is that the more people use public radio the more they are likely to support it, and individual contributions are the largest factor in the business model.

JS: And how big is that business model? Can you talk a little bit about just the sort of sizing of the public radio economy?

MF: I don’t remember what the total number, Jake, for the whole economy is; it’s more than a billion dollars right now. The individual giving sector is 350 million, 360 million dollars and has been growing fairly steadily.

JS: And I think you said there are about 3 million givers?

MF: Just slightly under 3 million I think. So there are about 3 million people contributing, it’s the highest it’s ever been.

What’s happened now is that across the system, there is a topping off, there’s another leveling we’re hitting where the number of people who are contributing, it’s not going down but it’s not growing very much, but the amount of people are contributing is going up because of sustainer programs—most people listening to this going to know what that means—and huge growth in major giving.

So the question really becomes, of the younger people entering the public radio, audio world—can we bring those people into the same relationship of appreciation support that so many people have developed over the last 30 years? And we don’t really know because we don’t actually even know what they’re doing.

We know when they listen to radio station, because Nielsen or Arbitron is going to measure that in some way. But when they move to other use forms—going to website, or listening to downloaded audio—we don’t know what they, we don’t know what they really value. That’s a hugely important piece of information.

I found information in the spring that showed that the peak of donations to public television occurs in 1993 at 5 million members. It had been growing in the previous decades. And then it begins to decline, so that from 1993 until now its been reduced from from 5 million members to 3 million members, almost the same now in public television and radio. And what I was asking myself when I saw that was, what happened in 1993? Why does that occur?

And my hypothesis is that this is related to the explosion of delivery capacity. Because that year literally is the beginning of digital cable. We go from analog cable systems that would deliver 70 radio channels to digital cable systems that delivered 500 channels.

We seem to be in the same moment. The advent of the phone as an audio device as opposed to something that you use to talk to people, that seems to me to be somewhat similar to the expansion of analog to digital cable.

And what I’ve been asking my colleagues is are we seeing something like that happen now with membership? Because what happens is you don’t originally begin to see your membership money go down, your individual giving, because you’ll figure ways to get people to give more and more. But the group of donors begins to contract.

Well, I don’t think we’ve seen contraction yet. There’s a flattening. So the question really now becomes how to take the people who appreciate public media and serve them in new ways and keep them appreciative enough to donate as they make their own transition to new usage patterns.

JS: It’s a fascinating hypothesis which I hope is born out by further research.

It illuminates all kinds of other ways to think about that lost opportunity in 1993—how public television managed that transition—and then what that might say for the opportunity have now.

In the last 10 years, which is the arc of PRX’s own evolution, there were a  bunch of false starts sensing that that moment had come. Whether it was XM satellite radio being this kind of “is that the cable television of radio that’ll change the game?” No it didn’t really, partly because adoption didn’t happen fast enough.

Podcasting, when it first emerged, seemed like that was going to be this huge democratization of distribution, of expression, and that actually really flattened out and never took off for a good six, seven, eight years—until the mobile platform has transformed because of its huge penetration, because of its ability to a consumption, distribution and production device.

That has some interesting parallels, but also huge differences in that it’s not sort of top-down controlled, major players who only are the ones through cable channels that you have to lobby to get programming approval or massive investment in order to even mount the kind of content creation that you’d think for that.

So where PRX is sitting, we see this as part of our challenge with public radio. Within that universe, where do you see PRX’s opportunity to help navigate this?

MF: First of all I think you’ve already established yourself as a center of independence, meaning independent thinking but also independent producers. Attracting a lot of talent. We were discussing this over lunch. PRX has a character that is different than the built-in system of public broadcasting.

The built system of public broadcasting is a geographically based system. PRX is not. The digital world is not a geographically based system. So that there’s universal reach to almost every single producer.

So for PRX, I think you’re positioned to begin to look at how do you take talent and give them the support—some of it’s going to be coaching around making great programs, but some of it’s also going to be technical support, marketing, delivery capacity—to reach people.

And 99% Invisible is a great example you’re using. The audience for people who are really interested in how design affects life is large enough to be an audience for a podcast but might not be large enough to be an audience for a radio station.

If you look back now to the digital cable thing, no commercial network ever had a cooking show. After 1994, there were cooking channels. Because the audience size needed to support a cooking channel was a fraction of the audience size needed to support a million-dollar-per-episode sitcom.

So there’s a shift in the fundamental production dynamics. There’s a release of a certain amount of creative energy. You need structures through which people can accomplish things. You know not everybody’s a genius to do everything. So I think PRX represents this structure that can attract capital.

And the reason why we’ve been talking is there is is also a level of understanding of what the market looks like. Who are the audience members? What do they think? How do they use this stuff? What would they prefer? You need people to collect that information. Most producers are not going to do that. They are just going to produce programs. So PRX has to play some kind of role there, some galvanizing role to pull these pieces together.

JS: You did last year talk about the effect or non-effect of the sort of Kickstarter economy on the larger public radio giving economy, and that there’s a potential misperception of how influential that is. So you took a look at that and said, despite what seems like a potentially very disruptive piece of how giving is happening as it migrates to some direct-to-producer support, this is actually not, when you talk to stations or talk to listeners, threatening the edifice of that cornerstone of the economy.

MF: Well, I never talk to any listeners except for my wife and a few other friends. I talk mostly to PDs, program directors.

The people who make decisions as to what to put on the air view the relationship between distributors and the audience as basically a wholesale retail thing. “We buy programs, we put them on air, and we retail them—we give them to people in exchange, and people give us the money that we pay you in fees.” And the direct relationship between some of the best producers and their audiences—and there are a few, not a lot—that do bring back some substantial dollars—that seems a violation of that model.

But when I would ask people, “Do you see any deterioration in your membership revenues or your membership relationships based upon that violation?” The answer was universally “no.”

But remember, Jake, you just were referring to something: There’s almost always a very big lag between the emergence of a disruption and when it really starts to happen. So, while Kickstarter or other forms of financial relationships that could support new production models may be small now, you have to draw the trend line up. And then where does the trend line become strong enough that it begins to undermine the other business model? I don’t know that we would see that for years, but it’s certainly nothing to ignore, and every subsequent discussion I have with people, I’ve included questions about whether you, for example at a station, would want to start doing Kickstarters. And I’d say half the people say we’ve at least thought about it.

Most producers, even station people, don’t realize the size of the public radio economy. The program economy’s $500 million. So if there are producers taking $5 million in Kickstarter and direct contributions, it’s just not really rockin’ the boat. Is there within ten years a possibility of that changing? It’s not inconceivable.

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

When Quotation Marks Just Don’t Cut It

“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.

It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river. I hope you take the time to listen.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

_________________________________

Producer Jessica Murri
“I have a bit of a love affair with radio,” says Boise Weekly reporter Jessica Murri.

Here’s Jessica:

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.

Jake Thacker
Jake Thacker (photo by Jessica Murri)

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.

A Golden Age: How to Join the Podcast Revolution

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They call this the golden age of audio. How did it happen? What’s in store for podcasts—and how can producers and public radio stations be part of the movement? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn, Midroll Media‘s VP of Business Development, sit down on the PRX couch and talk radio (listen right here or read the transcript below).

___________________________________________________________

Jake Shapiro: Hi. It’s Jake here at PRX, and we’re very excited to have a guest in our offices, Erik Diehn, who most recently was at WNYC and, as of I think three or so weeks ago, has taken the plunge to join Midroll. So we’re gonna riff for a couple minutes on podcasting.

Erik Diehn: Sounds Good. Yes, it’s Midroll Media technically speaking, which is the parent company of the Midroll business which is the ad sales business, and Earwolf, which is the consumer-facing comedy podcast network and brand. We brought you shows like Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made, Who Charted?, Analyze Phish, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, and we have probably another dozen, half-dozen shows in the pipeline.

Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn
PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Midroll Media’s Erik Diehn

JS: Earwolf has a couple dozen shows, and then Midroll represents something like over a hundred different podcasts?

ED: Yeah, I think the total number of podcasts at this point is probably 120, 130.

JS: Part of what I wanted to just have a quick conversation about is podcasting itself, because we’re in this ripe moment.

In the minutes before walking in here to chat, we had American Public Media just launching its new podcast network, which I gather Midroll is representing on the sponsorship sales side. We were just excited here in the office because Bill McKibben at The Dish just wrote a rave review of Radiotopia—he’s talking about the golden age of audio, and of course Radiotopia being PRX’s podcast network we launched earlier this year.

So it seems like this convergent moment, a revival, in a way, because podcasting kind of leapt out of the blogging world right around the time PRX was getting started, but it feels like there was this arc where podcasting emerged, there was all this hype and hope, and then it kind of stalled out for a long time.

ED: It was always about to blow up. Next year, it was gonna be big, for a long time.

JS: I feel like you would probably agree with me, but I’d like to hear what you think about it. What do you think of podcasting, and why are we in this moment?

ED: Yeah, I think the reason it didn’t ever get larger than it was back then is for a couple reasons. First is on the commercial side, when Apple just decided podcasting was going to be free. That doomed it, in a way, to being an advertiser-driven business, at least in the initial run. Doom is probably the wrong word, because I think there’s been a lot of good to come out of that decision. It’s become something people can find now much more easily than things that are tucked away behind some monolithic paywall.

But the other reason for its late-blooming success was, I think, just the technology. As everyone knows it’s much easier on a smartphone to get to a podcast. The interface has shifted form this complicated one, where you have to download onto your iTunes and then sync it up. Well, you’ve already lost 97% of the American consumer when you have to do those steps.

Friction is the enemy of all products these days, and I think podcasts had a lot of friction for a long time. The plus side of that is the people who did come to it were really devoted fans. The intimacy of the medium, the fact that it was a really opt-in experience—versus the lean-back radio it’s just on in the car means the people who listen to podcast—those are your biggest fans.

And that’s part of what’s made Earwolf successful. A comedian can find a fan base there. They can engage them in a way they’re not necessarily gonna engage them on a Comedy Central stand-up special, and that drives all the other parts of their business. And obviously for public radio, it’s been a natural transition, because the audience is already so engaged. So I think that’s a  reason public radio was early to the game and continues to be such a huge part of it.

JS: So what would be your advice for producers who are now feeling like, “Well, maybe this actually is a viable path for me, no longer waiting to get on public radio.” What’s your advice for them?

ED: That’s a good question. Scarcity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having scarce air time means it’s really hard to get through the gatekeepers. It’s hard to get on air. Same thing with television. When there’s scarce number of channels, it’s hard to get in there—but once you do, the money starts to come in. Podcasting absolutely gets rid of all that. The barrier to entry is super, super low. You have to know how to record audio. So there’s this huge long tail of 99,000, 100,000 podcasts.

So if you’re a producer, one of the things you have to do is make something that’s good. That doesn’t guarantee it will find an audience. So actually what you really have to do is make something that 50,000-100,000 people find good.

If you put out a piece of audio content and within two to three weeks, 50,000 people download and/or stream that content, you have found an audience that can lead to some level of sustainability. That does not mean that you’re going to be a millionaire, and if you have a ten person staff, you’re not going to break even with 50,000 people listening.

But given where podcasting is today, and the growth that I personally expect over the next five years, today’s 50,000 threshold may be 250,000 a few years from now. A small show may be two to three times larger. And suddenly I think the cutoff between sustainable and not sustainable will go a little bit farther down the distribution curve.

So, you have to make something good. It helps if it’s not your only thing. If you’re a comedian and you’ve got a stand-up business and a movie business and all these other things going on, then podcasting is another angle. If you’re an audio producer, thinking about live events, thinking about ways to engage the audience in digital fora, or through other revenue streams, is super important from day one.

When I was at WNYC, what we were looking for as we looked to bring in producers for new shows—shows we sort of quasi-acquired—was real entrepreneurial, self-starter people who were just gonna do everything they could to make a show grow. And people who were also writing books on the side, and having video projects on the side. And people who have multiple streams for both their audience to consume and also to generate revenue are going to be healthier than people relying on just trying to get something on terrestrial radio.

So, first rule of podcasting, make sure it’s not your only job until probably a few years from now, when it can be. But the good news is today, it’s not a zero-dollar medium either. I don’t want to call it real money but there’s dollars coming in. Advertisers are interested, and the audience continues to show willingness to pay in some form or fashion.

JS: Anything else about frequency and length of podcasts, or other insights to gain from seeing this whole network you’re helping manage?

ED: Be consistent, and try and be regular, so the audience knows when to listen. If you put something out, and six months later, you put something else out, it’s going to be hard to build an audience. But if you do something every other week, that’s OK, as long as you do it every other week.

And then consistency in format. If the audience expects a ten-minute show, don’t suddenly go to two hours. But beyond that, I think there’s huge flexibility.

I was talking to somebody a couple weeks ago who had heard about this podcast called the 12 Hour Podcast, that is two guys who just mic themselves up and record their day, for twelve hours. And you would think, well, no one would possibly listen to that. But they know somebody’s listening because in hour nine of one of the episodes, the guys is transacting with a store clerk—because by hour two they actually forget that they’re recording—and he gives the store clerk his phone number. And he starts getting text messages, because people are listening in hour nine of this thing.

So there’s a whole lot of freedom. You’re not fitting into a broadcast clock, but you’ve gotta figure out what the audience wants, and then keep it consistent.

Now, given all that, you have to think about when people are listening. Commutes are 30-40 minutes. If you’re gonna do a produced, packaged show that people are engaging in, maybe keep it that length. On the other hand, there are people who like to have talk on at work for two hours in the background. Even some of our comedy shows can do quite well even though they’re multiple hours.

JS: Given your vantage point on the whole ecosystem that seems to be growing around podcasting, what are things that you’re excited about that you see on the horizon, and what are some things that you think remain a big challenges?

ED: I’m super excited about cars, in general. That has been such a huge place of listening for so long. I think Volvo’s releasing its first model with Carplay, which is the Apple iPod integration, where you’ve got the indash experience. Podcasts is among the seven apps you see there. And all of the sudden it becomes easier for people to listen. That’s gonna take several years to really take hold. I think the move away from cached downloaded listening to just it’s something to just I’m gonna hit play and listen—that helps all of us because it helps with content availability. It’s going to take a while for broadband to be widely penetrated for us for that to be universally true, but I think over time more and more listening will be that way.

I think general consumer awareness continues to increase. I’m excited because I keep talking to people who I wouldn’t expect to be listening to podcasts, and they say, “Oh, no, I listen to this and this and this and this.”

I really wish we had a better name. Unfortunately, we can’t just say audio, like people who make web video can. You know Netflix is, yeah, it’s movies and TV shows. “Podcast” still has that connotation. I guess we just have to embrace it, and eventually it kind of takes on a new meaning.

JS: Having now crossed the bridge from public radio out into the wide world of podcasting what’s your sense of what public radio’s opportunity or advantage or challenge is?

ED: Public radio has one of the most engaged audiences. That audience is increasingly going to shift from lean-back, linear, terrestrial streaming to on demand and digital streaming. And I think public radio needs to keep moving with the audience. The membership model’s gonna be a challenge, no question. The economics of the system are built for that terrestrial world. It’s gonna be really hard to navigate, and that’s part of what I enjoyed doing while I was there.

But I think creating that bridge between producer and audience is the critical task of public radio. And remembering that you can be a local station that produces great content for not necessarily a national audience. You can still be a producer without being a distributor. The more that stations understand their role in that ecosystem and understand that they need to start investing in content, that they need to start filling in gaps that newspapers, for example, are now creating in their disappearance—the more that happens,  the healthier the system will be in the long run.

It’s not about the transmitter. It’s about the good content, the audience, and having funding models that do not depend upon content that is purely commercially viable.

JS: Thanks so much, Erik. You are our debut guest on the couch in Jake’s office. And it was awesome.

ED: Thanks for having me. I love you guys, too. And I listen.

 

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

A Snapshot of Homelessness: Finding the Richer, Truer Story

Don
Don Schonenbeck (photo by Clay Scott)

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?

BEFORE:

AFTER:

___________________________________________________
Here’s Clay:

Producer Clay Scott
Producer Clay Scott

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.]

Power to the people! (And how to find a story)

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:

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Producer Veronica Simmonds
Producer Veronica Simmonds (photo by Katie McKay)

There is a big difference between a topic and a story. Big differencebut one that Im always struggling to understand. 

Ive been producing a podcast for Visual Arts News for over a year now. Its 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 grandfathers experience as a ham radio operator. 

When I first produced the piece, I focused on the topic of shortwave radio: what it is, why its 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 Michaels 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 dont know exactly what a story is, but Im a little closer. From now on, Im 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, whats 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.

4 Ways to Make Your Art Story Sing

Photo by Michael McCormack
Photo by Michael McCormack

Each month, PRX editors workshop a radio piece and share the before and after with the world. This month’s Second Ear producer was Visual Arts News host Veronica Simmonds.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

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.

Photo by Veronica Simmonds
Veronica’s subject had plenty of clues and history behind the art for a story. She just needed to put them together. (Photo by Veronica Simmonds)

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.

Hear From The Producer: Challenges of Hosting A One-Woman Show

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.

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Claire Navarro
Producer and host Claire Navarro

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.

How to Edit an Experiment in Heartbreak

Each month, we at Second Ear work with a producer and share her work with the world. Annie McEwen brought us her beautiful piece “Here I Am and Here Be Danger” for our first month.

We asked Annie to share a few thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.

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Producer Annie McEwen
Producer Annie McEwen

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…

Onwards!

Annie

Behind the Scenes: PRX’s Tech Director Talks SubAuto and the Future of Radio Distribution


I hope you heard our big news that PRX will be distributing all of WFMT‘s programs through our SubAuto system. The WFMT Radio Network produces daily and weekly shows for 300 stations and 15-18 million weekly listeners.

That’s a lot of audio going to a lot of stations via SubAuto. How exactly does it work, and what does it mean for the future of radio distribution? Here’s Andrew, PRX’s technical director, to talk through that story. Take a listen.