Here Be Danger

Photo by Annie McEwen
Photo by Annie McEwen

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.

BEFORE:

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.

AFTER:

Hold That Thought: Before & After

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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.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

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.

Our Second ‘Second Ear’

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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.

Round one producers will be revealing their work soon! Follow @prx and #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest.

 

Image from Shutterstock.

Foghorns and Your ABCs: Second Ear, Round One

Photo by Annie McEwen
Photo by Annie McEwen

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?

 

This Is Criminal

I admit it. There’s not much I love more than a good murder mystery. I’m a sucker for detective novels and forensics shows.

So I was instantly intrigued when I came across Criminal, a new podcast devoted to crime.

Lauren Spohrer, Phoebe Judge, and Eric Mennel worked together until this October on The Story with Dick Gordon at WUNC. When the host, Dick Gordon, moved back to Canada, the eight-year-old show went off the air.

“When the show ended, we had this sort of restlessness in us,” Eric told me over the phone. “The podcast was a great way to harness that restlessness.”

Lauren had the idea to start a show about crime. Because who doesn’t love a crime story? Breaking free from the broadcast clock with an indie podcast would let them dive deeper in the long form they’d come to love at The Story.

The three of them have day jobs, with Eric and Phoebe still working at WUNC. That means they’re making pop filters out of tights and coat hangers, recording in Lauren’s closet and mixing stories at one in the morning.

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“I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel,” Eric says. “Some of the oldest stories in print are crime and mystery stories.”

You hear that in Episode 1, “Animal Instincts,” which finds odd parallels in two crimes five hundred years apart.

But unlike typical whodunnits, Criminal isn’t interested in solving crimes. Once you dig into a story, Phoebe says, you realize it’s hard to pin down the truth.

“A lot of times, when we read crimes stories, we read headlines, we read just the facts: this man was convicted, this is the crime he committed, this was the victim,” Phoebe says. “It’s never simple. In crime stories, there’s victims, there’s perpetrators, there’s the other people who are affected. When you are able to give time to a complete story, you start to see all these different ripples, the ripple effect of it. We’re learning that you can’t just say this guy is guilty because of x, y, z. It’s always more complicated than that.”

With that mantra, and with the show’s slow, driving rhythm, Criminal is a little dark, a little playful, a little melancholy, and entirely engrossing. Episode 3 comes out Friday.

Four Takeaways from Media That Matters

 

I’m back from the 2014 Media That Matters conference at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact. I got to spend the day there with experts in film, social media, games, comics, and interactive experiments.

I attended to take part in a panel on sound, but left buzzing with ideas that pushed me outside my radio comfort zone. Here are a few.

1. People pay attention to games, says Kunal Gupta, director of the games exhibition collective Babycastles—and failing to see that means losing potential audience. Too often, media makers don’t see games for what they can be: entire worlds, or art that empowers people and communities. If you want to make an impact, don’t discount a game.

2. “Games are not good for facts. Games are good for feelings.” Colleen Macklin warned against looking to social impact games to teach information, or serve as “Games for X.” A game is a system with moments of choice that create an emotional, visceral experience. Society’s biggest problems are systemic, she said, and games encourage systemic thinking — especially when players start to make their own rules.

3. To engage different age groups, use a variety of media.  Marissa Valeri says a comic can jumpstart engagement and mobilize a new audience. While some people will latch on to an image, others want to read information themselves. Greg Pak produced the graphic novel app Vision Machine, but pointed out that for all the fancy stuff you can make, sometimes a simple comic strip can reach the most people.

4. People are breaking the boundaries of their medium in new ways all the time. Take Operation Ajax, an interactive comic book for ipad that brings together all sorts of media — comics, sound design, video, archived documents — into what creator Daniel Burwin calls a “curiosity path for the audience.” The result is pretty magical.

How do you think we radio producers can use these ideas to make better stories? Let us know in the comments.

Remix in Rhode Island

Big news! Starting March 1, you’ll hear two hours of storytelling radio from PRX Remix on Rhode Island Public Radio every weekend.

Remix’s Rhode Island debut is part of a whole new weekend lineup of superb shows, including some from PRX: The Moth Radio Hour from PRX, and Snap Judgment, a show from PRX and NPR that’s hosted by Glynn Washington, winner of PRX’s Public Radio Talent Quest.

We’re thrilled to start working with the folks at RIPR. Rhode Islanders, tune in Saturdays at 6 a.m. or Sundays at 8 p.m. for an hour of mind-bending interviews, found tape, cool sounds, and the some of the best radio stories from PRX and beyond.

Those of you living outside The Ocean State, take heart: PRX Remix airs on radio stations across the country. You can hear us streaming 24/7 at PRX.mx, on XM Channel 123, and in your pocket. And there’s no harm in asking your own public radio station to put some Remix on.

Introductions

Hello! I’m Erika, the new Assistant Producer for PRX Remix. I feel very lucky to join a team of such imaginative people.

I grew up in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes and Minnesota Public Radio. I spent a lot of time making music and thinking about words, and feeling torn between the two. Then it hit me that words and sound work together all the time. I turned to radio.

I got my start at KFAI in Minneapolis. Since then, I’ve spent time at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, APM’s Performance TodayState of the Re:Union, and, most recently, WBUR.

I’ve worked in other media, but sound affects my emotions more than any other thing I perceive. There’s no better way to get drawn into a story, a perspective, a place. Good radio makes me feel connected, in some new way, to the world around me. It seems to me most of us spend our lives looking for connections like that.

PRX Remix lets you roam a sonic world more immersive and surprising than you find on traditional radio stations. There’s a whimsy to the random curated stream. You can bump into subjects you might not have thought to learn about, trip over shows otherwise unencountered, and get lost in archival sounds from the past. I’ll be spending my days scouting for new producers and sounds. I’ll share the best on PRX Remix.

Beyond building new platforms, PRX keeps looking for ways to push the medium while supporting storytellers. In the few days I’ve been here, I’ve already learned about upcoming projects I think you’ll want to hear about. I’m excited to get to work. Stay tuned.