Barbara, Kalia, and Destiny outside their home in North Carolina in 2012. Photo by Pat Walters.
Sometimes, I wish there was a quadratic equation for journalism ethics. Just plug in the variables and the equation spits out the answer: “No. Don’t do that — ever.” Or, “Yes. This is allowed in this circumstance.” Wouldn’t that make ethical decision making easier?
Take, for instance, use of the pronoun “I.” In so many cases, using “I,” is verboten. Yet, with greater frequency, “I” appears in more and more pubic radio journalism. Seems like “I” now exists in a gray area — perfect for the ethics quadratic equation.
But, what about personal opinion? Isn’t that forbidden? I don’t hear too much of that. It appears that line is relatively clear. But, then again…
Listen to the Radiolab story featured on this edition of HowSound. It’s called “What If There Was No Destiny?” The line on opinion is blurred slightly in this story when reporter Pat Walters says: “I asked Barbara about some of the things she said because, to be totally honest, they kind of turned my stomach.” And, there’s more. You’ll have to listen.
After you do, will you please apply your quadratic equation for ethics to this and let me the answer you arrive at?
Talk to any radio old-timer and they will wax on and on and on about “localism.” I think it’s in their blood.
Localism, is, essentially, a commitment to local public service, the idea that a radio station exists to serve its community. Localism holds that programming should be informed by the needs and interests of the citizens living within the “footprint” of the station’s signal.
But listen to most stations — commercial and public — and you have to ask: “Where’s the localism? Where’s the local content that serves this community?”
Most commercial, FM broadcasters air music and typically not a lot of local music. Maybe they have a talk show on Sunday mornings at 6am where, for example, the local Red Cross chapter has an opportunity to talk about an upcoming blood drive. And, of course, there’s local weather and public service announcements. But, all that is just an extremely small part of the broadcast day.
Commercial AM stations tend to fare better in terms of localism. They often have morning talk shows that tackle local issues. They may even have a reporter or two producing local news reports throughout they day. But, AM stations are apt to be a “pass through” for network programming originating in some far-off city.
Then there’s public radio. Public stations also tend to be a “pass through” for national content — think Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm, Car Talk, This American Life….. Do the math some day. How much local airtime on your public station is set aside for local programming? What distinguishes your station from other stations across the country?
I don’t have time now to explain the disconnect between a broadcaster’s commitment to localism and the dearth of local content. Suffice to say, a lot of it has to do with ownership limits and media economics. Fortunately, there’s a growing recognition that if radio is to exist into the far future, stations need to reinvigorate their love of the local.
Enter Localore, a project of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) and several funders including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of AIR.) Localore funds dozens of public media projects across the US in an effort to, among many things, foster the production and broadcast of local content.
On this edition of HowSound, we listen to a story from the Localore project “Curious City” based in Chicago at WBEZ. The story is about Chicago’s distinctive accents. Jennifer Brandel, the lead producer for the series, says “Curious City” looks to ‘hack’ the prevailing public media model by bringing the community in as content generators.
As an old-timer with localsim in his blood, I think Localore, projects like “Curious City,” and the turn toward the local in broadcasting is clearly the right direction.
PS – Here’s a link to an excerpt from the Bertolt Brecht essay on radio I read from in the program.
If that’s true, and I think it is, what about a radio story? Or, more specifically, what about how a radio story is produced adds information? Can the way you cut and mix and use sound say something more than just the sound itself? I think you’ll answer with a resounding “Yes!” when you listen to “Three Records From Sundown,” a documentary about singer and songwriter Nick Drake produced by Charles Maynes in 2009.
Charles crafted the exact right pacing, he fashioned the perfect sound design elements, he EQed (changed the sound of recording) in just the precise manner to evoke “Nick Drake.” It’s almost as though Drake and his producer, Joe Boyd, were in the studio recording a Nick Drake documentary like it was a Nick Drake song.
In this podcast, I refer to these production choices as “tone” and “sensibility.” They’re production elements producers should consider when assembling a story and Charles nailed “tone” with this doc (which won a Third Coast Director’s Choice Award, by the way).
“Tiny Spark” host and producer, Amy Costello. (Photo taken by UNICEF)
What impresses me the most about the podcast “Tiny Spark“ is the depth of reporting by Amy Costello. “Tiny Spark” is long-form storytelling digging deep into issues facing the work of foundations and non-profits. It’s an unusual beat and Amy’s asking tough questions.
Amy is the producer of “Tiny Spark.” She’s also the host, editor, and reporter. Amy brings to bear several years of reporting for public radio and television in the States and abroad and it shows in the podcast.
On this HowSound, Amy talks about “Tiny Spark’s” mission and shares some of the behind the scenes workings. We also listen to a story that’s generated a lot of chatter at the “Tiny Spark” blog: “Tom’s Shoes: A Closer Look.” The story offers critical analysis of the philanthropic efforts of a shoe company that donates a pair of shoes every time a pair of shoes is purchased. I think you’ll be surprised at what Amy’s investigation turned up.
After you’re done listening, be sure to subscribe to “Tiny Spark!”
All the best, Rob
PS – If you like “Tiny Spark,” be sure to check out the “Latitude News” podcast. In depth, international stories well told.
Lot 180 from Florida’s Unclaimed Property Auction, 2009. Photo by Kenny Malone.
On the face of it, a story about an auction is a pretty simple assignment. Half the work is just showing up. Then interview the auctioneer, people managing the auction, some buyers, and you’re done.
Well, you’re done if you want to produce a boring story.
In 2009, WLRN reporter Kenny Malone produced a story about Florida’s Unclaimed Property Auction and it’s anything but run-of-the-mill. Kenny reveals his approach to creative storytelling on this edition of HowSound. His method centers around a clever over-arching question, structuring a narrative with motion, and a connection to place.
It’s possible I have a problem. Have you ever noticed how many HowSounds feature stories where death is a theme? It must be approaching ten. Is that a lot? And guess what this episode is about.
Not too long ago, an email came to me from Heather Radke. In it, Heather talked about the death of someone she did a story on while she was a student of mine at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. “It’s a strange loss, his death,” she wrote, “one that’s hard to describe to others. We all spend so much time with our Salt subjects and yet they don’t fit in any traditional definition of friendship.”
Soon after, I learned that Sara Archambault had a similar experience. Sara, too, was a student of mine and, like Heather, a character in her story had passed away. From what I could gather from their emails, both were attempting to figure out what they should be feeling and how exactly they should respond. At issue was their relationship to these people. A character in a documentary story is not a friend — or are they?
Hear what Heather and Sara have to say on this edition of HowSound. And, as a gift for slogging through another HowSound about death and dying, I’m featuring two stories rather than one. Of course, one of them is about…..
“I have a small swastika tattoo on my left arm that I want to have covered up.” From Bruce Roderick’s Craigslist ad. (Photo by Emily Hsiao.)
Here’s what I want to know: On the radio, why don’t we hear more conversations with interesting people? Not newsmakers, not academics, not pundits, not authors…. interesting as they may be. I’m thinking of people telling stories about what journalist Walter Harrington calls “the momentous events of everyday life.”
Emily Hsiao’s radio story, “Leaving A Mark,” is just that. On the face of it, the story is a simple conversation between Emily and Bruce Roderick. But, there is SO much more going on. In fact, you should listen twice.
As you listen, keep in mind, this is Emily’s second story ever. Her first, and this one, were both produced at the Transom Story Workshop this fall. If we don’t hear more stories from Emily — and soon — I will personally hunt her down, put a mic in her hand, and make her start interviewing strangers. Her interview with Bruce is THAT good.
PS – The Transom Story Workshop is currently accepting applications for the Spring 2013 Workshop. Registration ends January fourth.
PPS – “Leaving A Mark” is not for the feint of heart, even after I beeped all the expletives.
Audie Cornish gets my vote for the best smile in public radio. Audie is co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered. (Photo by Doby Photography/NPR)
The interview may be the core of what we do as radio producers. Conduct a solid interview and the rest will follow. Blow the interview and you may have blown the story. Even clever writing might not save the day if an interview goes south.
With that in mind, I figure you can never have enough information about interviewing. And who better to talk about interviewing than Audie Cornish who says she conducts a solid fifteen interviews a week for NPR’s All Things Considered. So, get out a pencil and paper because Audie offers some solid tips from years of experience and a gazillion interviews.
Okay, we’re goin’ in! Grab your earbuds and don your spelunking light. Our destination? Jad Abumrad’s brain.
This could get weird.
Jad’s a co-host and the producer of Radiolab, a science (and more) program produced at WNYC. Several years ago, Ira Glass was quoted as saying of Jad “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Why? Jad’s production style. Stories on Radiolab fall of the edge of the earth, zip back, swirl around your head, and worm their way into your ears.
Arguably, an episode of Radiolab is equal parts story and composition. On this HowSound, Jad talks about the composition element and what influences his one-of-a-kind production style. If you’ve wondered why Radiolab sounds the way it does, Jad explains all.
Below are links to the full Radiolab episodes excerpted in this show as well as the music Jad references.
C’mon, you know you wish you were at this seance! (Photo courtesy Bob Carlson)
I wish I could tell you there are hundreds and hundreds of opportunities for independent producers to get their work on the radio. Sadly, I can’t.
But, one consistently good outlet for indy work is KCRW’s “Unfictional” radio program and podcast. Weekly, Unfictional features a half hour of creative and ear-catching work from freelancers and the program’s producer, Bob Carlson. In fact, I feature Bob’s superb story “The Seance” on today’s HowSound — it’s your Halloween treat.
And, speaking of opportunities for freelancers, maybe there’s one right in your backyard! Check out AIR’s Localore Project. Localore is a national initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio fostering connections between indies and local stations.
Enjoy this HowSound then go get your own work on the air!!
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Rob is a radio teacher and freelance producer. He's the lead instructor at the Transom Story Workshop. Previously, he launched and taught in the radio program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. In his freelance work, Rob produces documentaries, podcasts, audio tours, and multi-media stories. Reach Rob at email@example.com.