Early Bloom


It never ceases to amaze me the lengths producers will go to get it right — to make stories sound exactly how they want them to sound. “Early Bloom,” a story about plant communication by Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver, is a great example.

As Peter and Robbie were producing the story for PRX’s STEM Story Project, they decided the piece needed some music. Specifically, they wanted music from a synthesizer that sounded like plants communicating.

Of course, you could go online and try to find the right music. But, what’s the likelihood of finding that exact music? Slim to none. So, Peter and Robbie composed the music — even though neither of them are musicians.

That’s what I mean when I say I’m amazed at how much effort producers put into their craft.

Hear that backstory and more on this edition of HowSound.



HowSound Live!

photo 1_NJPMichael May (l) reads his pitch for the story “Death of a Bangalore Law Student.” (Photo courtesy Neena Pathak.)

Michael May deserves a medal. Michael was the first guest recorded live in front of an audience for HowSound. He should get a medal for graciously being my guinea pig and making it easy for me.

A few years ago, Michael produced a story for The World set in India. It posed some real challenges for him including a sticky journalistic dilemma. Micheal reveals the whole backstory to “Death of a Bangalore Law Student” on this edition of the podcast.

However, not only will you get to hear Michael’s backstory, I also pull the curtain back on how this episode was produced. It’s not very flattering, I must say.

I ‘m sending a million thanks to the good folks at AIR (The Association of Independents on Radio) and the Boston radio listening group, The Sonic Soiree,  who hosted the live HowSound event. They provided a great space, lots of delicious food, and a warm and casual environment for the three dozen radio producers who attended.

With this live HowSound under my belt, I am SO ready to host a couple more episodes at the upcoming Third Coast International Audio Festival, November 7-9 in Chicago. I’ll chat with winners from this year’s competition. I hope you’ll stop by, listen, and ask questions. See ya there!






Compassionate Release

prison-time_375 (1)

In some respects,  Natasha Haverty seems an unlikely candidate to win an investigative journalism award. And, not just one — two!  She’s unlikely because she’d never produced an investigative piece before.

Natasha is a reporter at North Country Public Radio. When she first started there, she produced stories on dairy princess pageants and ribbon cutting ceremonies. She was a “cub reporter” and North Country assigned less substantive work to her. But, when an opportunity to work on the “Prison Time Media Project” came along at the station, North Country took a chance and brought her on board.

Natasha says she learned an incredible amount diving into the deep end like that. “One big thing I learned really early on,” she told me, “is just to be so skeptical, so skeptical of everything. And not romanticize anybody on any side.”

Writing to the tape was something else she came to understand — keep it simple and just connect the best quotes with narration. She said her best quotes from interviews easily fell together in a classic narrative. “Here’s somebody who wants something. Here’s what the obstacles are to get it. Here’s why these obstacles are there. Here’s the guy on the other side who’s having to make pretty tough decisions all the time.”

Then, she says, with the quotes in that order, start writing. “Just do what you can to kinda… swing from one branch to the other. You don’t need a lot of bells and whistles for a story like this, I felt. Just get us to the next voice.”

A final takeaway for Natasha was to get out of the way of the story. Recognize where the essential story is, not necessarily the one you pitched to your editor. And that’s what Natasha talks about on this edition of HowSound.

Listen up!  — Rob



The Hitchhiker

IMG0059Somewhere before San Antonio, the sun goes down behind us and I think:

‘This guy’s a 1960s model, just like his car. Neither one of them are making it very well into the 1980s.'” — Scott Carrier, “The Hitchhiker”  


I’m often asked “How can I get into radio?”  Typically, I respond with things like “Just start making stories. Take some classes then get an internship. ”

What I don’t say is “Interview a lot of people then show up at a radio station and ask ‘Can you help me produce a radio story?'” That seems unlikely to work.

But, maybe I should give that advice because that’s how Scott Carrier got his start in radio back in 1983. Only instead of knocking on the door of a radio station recordings in hand, he went directly to the mothership — NPR.

On this edition of HowSound, Scott and Alex Chadwick, producer of Weekend All Things Considered at the time, tell the legendary backstory of producing Scott’s first radio piece. Not only will you say “Whoa! Really? He did that?!” you’ll also ask yourself “Could that happen today?”

In fact, after listening, let me know what you think — could someone show up with a heap-o’-tape and have the door open like it did for Scott?

Cheers, Rob






Hard To Say

On this edition of HowSound, a real tearjerker. Despite how many times I’ve listened to Bente Birkeland’s story “Hard to Say,” I get choked up. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Hard to Say” was produced in 2004 when Bente was a student of mine back when I taught at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. It was Bente’s first story ever. And, it won a “Best New Producer” award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

I didn’t have time to interview Bente, but I vividly recall the backstory to the piece that includes reinventing the story twice during the reporting process. The piece is produced so well you’d have no idea what it took to make it.

Happy 10th anniversary to Bente and her documentary classic “Hard to Say.”

Best, Rob





Set the Wayback Machine for 1914

N28562_-_Fonograf_-_Edison_-_foto_Dan_JohanssonEdison Standard Phonograph (Photo by Dan Johansson, Creative Commons)


The idea is ridiculously simple. Make Kurt Andersen sound like he’s hosting Studio 360 in 1914. Carrying out the idea? Not so simple.

In June, Studio 360 rolled back the clock for an hour of arts and culture stories from a hundred years ago. David Krasnow, the program’s senior editor, says when he looked at the major cultural events of 1914, he noticed several major pop culture trends of the 20th century started that year.

“Animation was, sort of, arguably born in 1914,” David said. “The blues for the first time becomes a really big national thing… Charlie Chaplin invents this tramp character and really at that point becomes the first movie star…

“We kind of put all those things together and said what if we did a show that was about all the exciting stuff that was happening in culture — which is what we do on a week to week basis on Studio 360 — and said what if that show was actually being made in 1914 and we were reporting on those things as though they were happening at that moment.”

They accomplished that conceit, primarily, by altering the sound of Kurt Andersen’s narration. And, it’s quite an accomplishment.

On this edition of HowSound, the staff at Studio 360 walks us through the metamorphosis of Kurt’s voice. Senior Broadcast Engineer John DeLore dissects the production process including the use a cone from an Edison Standard Phonograph. David talks about writing in the diction of 1914. And, Kurt describes narrating in a stilted and formal voice.

Beware. After listening to this episode, I predict you’ll imitate Kurt at random moments throughout the day much to the annoyance of your family and friends.

Cheers, Rob




3rd Grade Audio

David Green - Hot Chocolate House

David Green is the third grade teacher you wish you had in elementary school. For ten years, David has taught eight and nine year olds at the North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois how to produce radio stories — short lists, audio tours, documentaries, and more. Frankly, what David accomplishes with “3rd Grade Audio” is remarkable.

On this edition of HowSound, David talks about working with young people and his process for teaching kids how to be curious with microphones. Along the way, we hear stories about drawing, getting old, stuffed animals, and what you should do when you get a magnet stuck up your nose. “3rd Grade Audio” is proof that we need more youth radio on the air!







Five Things

On this episode of HowSound, a story prompted by my daughter, Gwen.

Gwen’s only ten but she’s already a freak for good radio stories. She and I listen to lots of shows together: This American Life, 99% Invisible, Radiolab, The Moth. Gwen occasionally attends my classes at the Transom Story Workshop. She even comments about student work — after class. She hasn’t quite found the courage to talk in class yet. Soon, I hope.

The other day Gwen asked what my favorite student stories are. Prompted by her questions, I rifled through a slew of old work and came across Matt Largey’s story “Five Things.” If I had to pick a story for a “Top Ten Favorite Student Features,” this would be one of them because of its incredible intimacy.

I featured this piece on the very first edition of this podcast, back when it was called Saltcast. Even though I already featured the piece and even though it’s ten years old, it still a remarkable story and well worth the listen.

I don’t want to give the story away in this blog post. I’d like you to listen to “Five Things” cold. It’ll be more surprising. So, after you listen to the podcast, watch this video from 2013 that has an update on the story’s main character, Bill Picard.

Ciao, Rob



Bringing Wes Home


Wes Vose, two years before his death in an automobile accident. (Photo courtesy the Vose family via Jakob Lewis.)


Wes Vose was well-loved by his family and by the community where he grew up in Woods Hole, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Everyone was stunned when Wes died late at night in an automobile accident in 2012. He was twenty-two.

Wes’ burial was moving and memorable. The family prepared his body and built his casket. Dozens of people walked along side the pick-up truck carrying Wes and his mother as they made their way to the funeral. Hundreds of people attended — an overflowing crowd. When Wes died, a part of Woods Hole died, too.

Then Jakob Lewis showed up, about a year and a half later. A stranger with a microphone.

Jakob was a student at the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole in the spring of 2014. He learned about the funeral soon after he arrived. Jakob was simultaneously fascinated by the way the Vose’s and the community grieved yet wary of trespassing on the family’s privacy.

Ultimately, Jakob’s curiosity won out and the result is “Bringing Wes Home.”

Jakob’s approach to the story offers valuable insight for others “parachuting” into a community to report on a traumatic event. He says he “walked with” the Voses into their fear and sadness and anger. “I felt like a counselor or pastor.”

After listening to this edition of HowSound, listen to Jakob’s podcast, “Neighbors.”

Best, Rob


Love Is A Battlefield

Alix Spiegel’s stories about human behavior on NPR stand out from the pack. Why? Well, they’re stories not reports.

The difference is this. A report moves along from one idea to the next: Something new happened. And, this person or group sees things this way. This other person or group sees things that way. Often a third point of view comes, typically an expert. And so on. That’s an over simplification but it’s not far off.

A story, on the other hand, has characters who move through a sequence of events. This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened…. Eventually, they run into trouble and attempt to work their way out of the predicament — sometimes successfully, other times not.

Alix says producing a story as a sequence of events requires a significant amount of planning. In other words, the story doesn’t just unfold in front of a microphone magically (though there are exceptions). Instead, a producer needs to diligently prepare. They have to think everything through and craft a series of questions that will prompt specific answers from an interviewee — answers that, later, will allow a reporter to fashion a narrative not a report.

Alix, by the way, is a science reporter for NPR. Her stories focus on human relations. Prior to working at the network, she was a staff producer at This American Life. And the piece featured on HowSound today — Love Is A Battle Field — was produced while she was at TAL. Her tips on preparing and conducting interviews will, without a doubt, help you with your next interview. So, listen closely. Take notes.



PS – Alix and producer Lu Lu Miller are launching a new program about human behavior for NPR. It’s called The Intangibles. Listen for it this October.