Just Another Fish Story

I remember the day Molly Menschel said she wanted to produce a story about a dead whale. I thought she would fail miserably.

Molly was a student of mine at the time back in 2004. The whale in question had beached itself in Lubec, Maine a good ten years earlier. I thought “Who would she interview? Who the heck will remember a dead whale from that long ago?”

But, Molly was convinced it would work, that she’d get good tape. So, off she went to the hinterlands of Downeast Maine with her microphone, a tape recorder, and a steadfast willingness to interview everyone she encountered.

In the end, Molly produced one my all-time favorite radio documentaries. “Just Another Fish Story” stands out from the pack because it’s timeless, universal, and oh-so-well-produced. Frankly, I don’t know exactly how she did it. It’s rather mind-boggling that this piece was produced by a student — just her second story ever.

Okay, truth be told? I’m jealous. Listen and hear why.

Best, Rob



Love + Radio



“Word of the Day” goes to Nick van der Kolk. Nick recently used “auteurship” while we were talking about his podcast Love + Radio.

“Auteur” or “auteurship” are not words you hear too frequently in radio circles. I’m not sure why. It’s mostly used in film when describing how a director’s unique vision and style is evident in a movie. Think Hitchcock and Kubrick. But it could easily apply to radio producers like Kitchen Sisters, Ira Glass, and Jad Abumrad.

I’d add Nick to that list, too (along with his collaborator Brendan Baker). Listen to a “Love + Radio” podcast and you’ll hear why. There’s nothing like it in audio storytelling — the production style and the subject matter immediately say “Love + Radio.”

On this edition of HowSound, Nick and I talk about what makes “L+R” unique — why the edits that sound like mistakes when compared to standard public radio editing, and why such creepy characters?

After you listen HowSound, be sure to subscribe to “Love + Radio.” Then, watch Errol Morris’ First Person, a TV series that heavily influenced Nick, and read Victor Kossakovsky’s Ten Rules for Documentary Filmmakers (or watch a Kossokovsky interview about the list). And, while I’m in linking mode, check out Megapolis, an audio festival Nick has a hand in. Plus, Nick works at Snap Judgement.

Okay. Enough links already. Go listen!

Best, Rob


Witness to an Execution


Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Open Society Institute

The most amazing thing happened while I was listening to “Witness to an Execution” many years ago.

I was teaching radio storytelling in a youth jail in Maine with Claire Holman of Blunt Youth Radio. We played “Witness” for about a dozen students.

Smack-dab in the middle of the story, three of the students asked us to turn it off. In fact, one student stood up, waved his hands, and said something like “Stop it. Stop it. I can’t listen anymore!”

The story was too vivid, too powerful, too disturbing. I’d never seen a response like that to a radio story and it stayed with me — and so has the documentary.

“Witness to an Execution” presents, in un-yielding detail, a minute-by-minute account of lethal injection procedures. The story is told by the prison warden and staff at a jail in Texas.

Stacy Abromson and Dave Isay produced the documentary in 2000. It’s easily one of my “Top 10″ best radio documentaries. Have a listen and hear why.

Best, Rob



The Loneliest Creature On Earth


Spectrogram of 52 Hz “whale-like” signals. From NOAA.

Some solutions to audio problems are easy.

Got hum from a refrigerator in your tape? Piece of cake. Run a notch filter at 60hz.

If your tape is hissy, throw a high-cut filter on the file.

Someone pops a “p”, cut it close and, maybe, roll off the low end. The p-pop is likely to disappear.

But, what if you have a recording that is well-recorded but you can’t hear it. I know. Sounds like an oxymoron right? But that was Lilly Sullivan’s problem.

Lilly was a student at the Spring 2013 Transom Story Workshop and she produced a story about a whale that sings at an unusual frequency — 52 Hertz. In fact, that’s the whale’s nickname.

Lilly obtained a recording of “52 Hertz” from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and it’s a perfectly fine recording. But, the frequency the whale sings at is too low for most audio speakers. (It’s about as low as the keys on the far left of a piano.) In other words, if you listen to the recording on, say, your built-in computer speakers, you may not be able to hear it. The speakers, to put it briefly, don’t go that low.

Well, how do you fix that? How do you produce a radio story about a sound that most radio’s can’t reproduce? Well, you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out.

And, I should mention, aside from this arcane audio problem, the story of the whale is a humdinger. I’m certain you’ll love it. Lilly did a great job.

Now, go hook up your best speakers and have a listen.

Cheers, Rob


Balance and The Minnesota Marriage Amendment

Aslanian by Polydoroff

Sasha Aslanian, much too happy for a radio reporter. (Photo by Christopher Polydoroff.)


“Take that bumper sticker off your car,” I was firmly told by a reporter friend many years ago. “It’s fine to have opinions. Just keep them to yourself.”

 I remember replying: “Just because I do some reporting, doesn’t mean I have to give up my right to free speech. I’m still a citizen, ya know.” He shrugged.

Years later, I now offer his advice to students and others. My thinking has changed. I’m still a citizen. I still have opinions. But, when I show up to report a story, interviewees should believe I’m going to give them a fair shake. No bumper sticker (or button or t-shirt or statement or….) should cause them to think otherwise.

But, keeping a bumper sticker off a car is easy. What about fairness in the reporting itself? How does a reporter make sure the story they tell is balanced? Sasha Aslanian has some good answers.

Sasha is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio (and producer of a great documentary Divorced Kid.) Over the last couple of years, Sasha has reported extensively on the contentious issue of gay marriage in Minnesota. Balance was front and center for her while reporting that story.

On this HowSound, Sasha talks how she worked to achieve balance — from choices she made in the field, to writing, to voicing. We’ll also listen to a story she produced about how the gay marriage debate played out in Hibbing, Minnesota.

In addition to listening to this addition of HowSound, please read Sasha’s excellent speech (posted below) about balance and reporting on Minnesota’s gay marriage amendment. She delivered it to the “Best of the Midwest” conference sponsored Associated Collegiate Press in February of 2013. This might be my favorite quote from he speech:

“Here’s the thing. You are an anthropologist. You are dropped into two warring villages. You get to go behind enemy lines on both sides– something no one else gets to do. You try to figure out what language the people are speaking. What are they fighting over and why?

Shut up and listen. Listen to how they talk with each other when they (almost) forget you’re there.”

Please read on:


On my birthday, in May of 2011, the Minnesota legislature voted to put an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman on the November 2012 ballot. I guess they gave me a present as a journalist—a great story to cover. The next day I went into our news director’s office and said I wanted to be the reporter to cover it. I’m not a political reporter. I have a background in documentaries. He looked bemused by my moxie, raised his eyebrows and said “Okay…?” A few weeks later, my editor Laura McCallum suggested I cover it, and I jumped at it.
For those of you who haven’t breathlessly been following Minnesota politics, the amendment on last November’s ballot was a constitutional amendment that would have prevented same-sex marriage from being legalized in Minnesota.  A vote YES would have added the man-woman definition to the state constitution. A  NO vote would leave the constitution alone. Minnesota law already defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and that law would have remained on the books whether the amendment won or lost. (UPDATE: On 5/14/13, Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize gay marriage. The law goes into effect 8/1/13.)
So—why did I want to cover the fight over the marriage amendment? As I said, I’m not a political reporter.  I’m a straight woman married to my college boyfriend.
Simple: I knew it would going to be one hell of a race. As a journalist, you want to find the best story you can possibly cover and this one had everything.
I see the debate over gay rights as one of the defining issues of our times. It’s one of our culture wars. If you buy into the idea that journalists write the first draft of history—and I do—then this would be a chance to write a chapter a lot of people might want to read.
I also had an approach I wanted to test out:
How many of you have heard of James Fallows? He’s national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a regular commentator on NPR. In 1996, Fallows published a book called “Breaking the News.” It’s a critique of political journalism. It’s an old book, I probably read it a decade ago, but I think his critique remains true today. Journalists tend to cover the horse race—who’s winning, who stands to gain politically on an issue. That style of journalism is fast, relatively easy—it’s fish in a barrel to go record the dueling news conferences or talk shows– it’s filled with conflict, which journalists love, and you feel like you’re in the game.
But Fallows argues that this horse-race style coverage, with its shouting matches,  candidate X said this, candidate Y said that and no real sense of where the facts lie, turns people off.  Voters throw up their hands and say, “they’re all a bunch of lying thieves.” So we do a disservice to our democracy.
It takes a lot more work to dig into the issues, test candidates’ words against their records and show readers or listeners what’s at stake.
The marriage amendment was a chance for me to test out Fallows’ prescription for doing it better. What was at stake in the marriage battle? Why do people care so profoundly about this issue? (I think every story we did on the marriage amendment got the top web traffic that day.) And what’s the history of this issue that’s led us to where we are today?
My editor assigned me to cover the marriage amendment more than a year before the election. We had a long lead time, and none of our competitors were doing much on the issue. This turned out to be a big advantage.
I got busy introducing myself to the players in the two campaigns as they began to build from the ground up. Minnesotans United for All Families was the vote NO side formed by two gay rights organizations: OutFront Minnesota, and Project 515, which stands for the 515 laws that treat gay and lesbian families differently.
Minnesota for Marriage was the vote YES side. Minnesota for Marriage was formed by the MN Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Family Council, which is an evangelical Christian values group, and the National Organization for Marriage. Sure I’d cover the tactics, the ads, and the money race. But I wanted to take my coverage beyond the campaigns. I wanted to hear from quote—”real people.” This was a local story in every community. Every community has gay and lesbian people, or people related to them, and every community in Minnesota has a Catholic Church. (It’s the single largest religious denomination in the state.)
I was particularly interested in what made people feel so passionate about this issue. On the one side, we had LGBT people and their allies who believe in their bones that giving gays and lesbians the right to marry is a matter of fairness and equality.  For the other side, the pro-amendment side, there are people who believe just as deeply that marriage is designed by God as only between a man and a woman.  They believe it’s tradition, and what makes society strongest—children raised by a  mom and a dad. They feel their very belief system is threatened by efforts to open up marriage to people of the same gender.
Here’s something I pulled together from some of my early reporting. Here are 14 voices, they pretty much alternate between the two sides, although there are a couple of married couples who speak on the same side of the issue…
I was interested in the contours of this debate. How was the marriage debate playing in families, workplaces, churches, political parties, whole towns? The demographics interested me—older, conservative men in greater (rural) MN were most likely to vote for the amendment. Younger, urban, liberal and female voters were likely to vote against it. It cut across party lines, and had strange bedfellows— stuff that I love.
My editor and I drafted a list of enterprise stories that I would work on in and around my other coverage as a metro reporter. I wouldn’t go fulltime on the beat until a few months before the election.  There would be no shortage of angles. I knew I wanted to get up to Hibbing, a socially conservative Democratic town on the Iron Range. I figured the struggle could be really wrenching in a place like that. I knew I wanted to go down to Iowa. Right across the border, we can see what same sex marriage looks like & what’s changed since the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage  in 2009.
I wanted to know how the marriage debate was playing out in ethnic communities. The Latino community was fascinating—predominantly Catholic, but Hispanics are also the fastest growing segment of the evangelical church. Catholics and Evangelicals made up the backbone of the vote YES coalition. But the vote NO side–Minnesotans United for All Families–wasn’t ceding an inch of ground. They had hired a Latino organizer, had young Latinos volunteering to do bilingual phone banks. The largest Spanish-language media company in the state had taken a stance against the amendment, and its owner said the company hadn’t heard a peep from the audience since producing a gay pride edition of their newspaper a few years ago. And Spanish language media was changing. A popular Mexican soap opera now includes a gay grandpa character. Argentina has legalized gay marriage. There were lots of surprises in covering that story.  We also spent time in the Hmong community, and with leaders of black churches for other stories.
MPR went broad geographically. I’m a metro reporter, but I was really conscious that the metro area, with all its orange vote NO lawn signs didn’t represent the rest of the state. We teamed up with the local NBC affiliate, KARE11 and visited five Minnesota cities to report stories for television and radio about how different communities were wrestling with the marriage amendment.  
We also went deep in telling small stories, like how the amendment was playing in one family. Our Public Insight Network sent out a query asking people how they’d vote on the marriage amendment. Eileen Scallen, a 50-something law professor in Minneapolis wrote to say she’d be voting NO. She’s a lesbian who’s been with her partner, Marianne Norris, for more than a decade, and Marianne was accepted as a member of the family, but Scallen didn’t know how her staunchly Catholic siblings were going to vote on the marriage question. She wrote to us, “maybe you want to ask them?”
Of course I did. I wanted to hear from people who had a lot at stake: these are people whose Catholic faith is core to their identity and they have a beloved sister, who’s a lesbian who wants to marry her partner.  Four out of her five siblings agreed to talk. And the one who didn’t, it wasn’t for the reason I thought.  When I sat down with each one, I had absolutely no idea what they would say. As a reporter, my favorite thing is to be surprised. And every one of them had something different to say. We aired the story right before Christmas in 2011 when we thought lots of families might be having these sorts of uncomfortable conversations around the holiday table, or leaving it unspoken.   
Scallen said the story ended up being really helpful in her family because we raised the discussion she found too painful to bring up on her own. She couldn’t bear the thought of learning that her siblings might vote against the most important relationships in her life. Her story hit home with our audience, and I got lots of notes from people describing it as a “driveway moment.” You really couldn’t get out of the car until you heard how this woman’s siblings were going to vote! Spoiler, one voted NO (so with his sister), one was going to leave it blank as protest vote, which also counts as a NO, two weren’t sure, one of whom won’t say to this day, how he voted.
I also wanted to go deep into the history of the marriage issue. No story pops up unconnected to what’s come before.  I was struck reading a book published in the 90s by the first gay lobbyist in the state, Steve Endean, how much the sides hadn’t changed over time. In fact, these two groups really began squaring off in the 1970s, over issues like the human rights ordinance that would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment.
In the U.S., we often think of the gay rights movement as something that happened in New York with the Stonewall riots in 1969 when police raided a gay bar and the gay community fought back.  Or in San Francisco with the assassination of city alderman Harvey Milk. But flyover land has its history too.
The first gay couple in the United States who fought for the right to marry were from Minneapolis. In 1970, Jack Baker, a law student at the University of Minnesota, tried to marry his lover, Mike McConnell, a librarian at the University. At the time, Minnesota’s marriage laws didn’t specify gender because nobody imagined a gay couple would apply for a marriage license. It was a fringe idea even in the gay community. The Hennepin County Clerk said no. So did the district court. The MN Supreme Court’s Baker decision set the precendent against same sex marriage in Minnesota and still stands. Baker and McConnell appealed their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but the highest court in the land declined to hear it “for want of a substantial federal question.” The court felt marriage was a matter for states to decide.
I think you’re probably all aware that this year, more than 40 years after declining to hear the Baker case, the US Supreme Court has decided to hear two cases that have to do with same sex marriage, so it will be an interesting year.
I tried like crazy to get Baker and McConnell to talk with me. I had a colleague hand-deliver a letter to their house. I sent my most charming emails. Heck, I even offered to record their whole oral history and GIVE it to them, but they declined.  I did end up striking up a very nice correspondence with Mike McConnell –the now retired librarian–who explained that they were done talking with the media. Many journalists had gotten their story wrong over the years, they were done with our ilk.  They are now writing their own book. I did end up quoting from some of McConnell’s emails where he explained how he and Jack saw what they were doing.
MPR has one big advantage over other media. We have a tape archive that goes back 45 years. We have the voices of people debating gay rights going back to the 70s in our vault.  We have tape from 1970 when the DFL—the Democratic party in MN– endorsed gay marriage at its state convention. (That was something that embarrassed party leaders and led to some changes in how platform resolutions were approved!)
Mining our archives on the marriage issue was a chance to let listeners hear these voices…they could hear what’s changed– the rhetoric– and what hasn’t—the essential players are still the same. 40 years later, it’s still primarily the gay community versus Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders.
Two weeks before the election, we aired an hour long program called “The Deep Roots of the Marriage Debate”…
We got an incredible response from listeners after that program aired. One of the responses I didn’t expect was  from gay and lesbian people who said they appreciated being reminded that it took Minnesota twenty years to pass human rights protections for LGBT people. It gave them comfort heading into the election they thought they’d lose, that even if the amendment prevailed, to quote Dr. King  “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I heard less from the other side, but I was struck that no one had tried to put together a local history of how evangelical Christians had organized and become a political force in the 70s and 80s around moral issues, particularly gay rights and abortion. That story needed to be told too.
I want to say a word about balance.
This was a super-charged issue with strong emotions from all sides, including fellow journalists, people I go to church with, and people in my own life.
I got a lot of people asking “how could I stand to talk with blah-blah-blah.”
Here’s the thing. You are an anthropologist. You are dropped into two warring villages. You get to go behind enemy lines on both sides– something no one else gets to do. You try to figure out what language the people are speaking. What are they fighting over and why?
Shut up and listen. Listen to how they talk with each other when they (almost) forget you’re there.
I signed up for every email newsletter for every group affiliated with both sides.  This is how they talk to their supporters. You can eavesdrop. One Christian radio station promoted an event for pastors to talk about the marriage amendment. I called up and asked if I could go. I was the only journalist there, and the surprise guest turned out to be Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Bachmann– fresh off her presidential campaign—was the original author of the marriage amendment back when she was in the Minnesota state senate in 2003. This was an intimate gathering of evangelical pastors and Republican lawmakers. These are people whom she trusts and who love her. The energy in that room was incredible. People where shouting out prayers from back row and she was calling back “Alleleuia!” At one point, she’s in this petite little tailored suit and she’s down on one knee testifying.
It was electrifying. And we got it on our air.
On the vote NO side, the access was much easier to come by. They were the underdogs (at least in polling, not when it came to dollars raised) and they wanted the use the media to get their message out. They let me in to record their volunteer training. They talked about what worked, and what didn’t work to convince voters.
As a journalist, you’re after personal stories too. Those are what carry a narrative, and make a story memorable and compelling. Sometimes my editor and I struggled to make sure the storytelling we gathered from both sides was equally powerful. That could be hard to do.  A gay man talking about the time he was in a coma and his partner was asked to leave his side in the hospital because they weren’t married is pretty intense. The vote YES side didn’t have quite the ready-made narrative so it took more work to go and listen deeply. What we heard were stories of deep faith, love for their families and a desire to safeguard their children in a world they mistrust.
Sometimes the battle over same sex marriage is compared to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I wondered how those journalists covered it. I went back and read a book called “The Race Beat” that talked about how the white press, the black press, the northern press and the southern press covered the civil rights movement. It came as a surprise to me that it was considered innovative to talk with black people. The people at the very heart of the story weren’t always sought out for comment. I think one way to be balanced is to make sure you’re talking widely with as many people as you can for as many angles as you can. Then you can’t go too far wrong.
In covering the marriage amendment, I would read my scripts over and over to comb for subtle biases.  My editor and I would make sure we switched off who got the last word in a story. We stuck with the kind of clunky language explaining what the amendment would do—define marriage as between one man and one woman– rather than doing what other media did—calling it an “anti-gay marriage” amendment. Your audience will decide for themselves whether it is or isn’t that.
Your reward for balance is the trust you build with sources and the audience. You’ll get continued access. I did have one press secretary email me, “great story, too bad you had to include the other side.” Smiley-face.
MPR has a news staff of about 70 people statewide. That compares to several hundred for each of the daily metro newspapers. There are about 27 of us who are reporters, either for radio or web. For MPR to take one reporter and commit to covering the marriage amendment was a gamble. That’s a lot of focus on one issue. I think we felt as a news organization we’d made the right call. As I mentioned, listener interest in the topic was intense. But also, because I’d been working the story for a long time, when things heated up I was really fluent in the players, the tactics, the money and the race on both sides.
Some of our competitors split their coverage between political reporters and religion reporters, and I never felt like they quite fit their arms around how the story cut across all the beats. It was politics, business (when companies like General Mills and Target got involved) it was a faith story on both sides, it was education and bullying, it was a greater MN and a metro story.
On election night, I truly didn’t know which side would win. The polls had been deadlocked for weeks. My editor sent me to the Vote NO side—Minnesotans United for All Families– and one of my other colleagues covered to vote YES side, Minnesota for Marriage.
On election night, about 1:45 in the morning, the vote NO ballroom was going to close down at 2:00 a.m.. The vote YES side had already packed up and gone home to reconvene the next day. I was sitting at the broadcast table and my engineer said, “There’s a lot of hugging going on on stage.” I looked up. They’d seen on their smartphones that AP had just called the race. The amendment had been defeated. The NO side won with 53% of the vote (very importantly, this includes those who left their ballots blank) and the YES side had lost with 47% of the vote.
It was a long shot that the NO side would win. 30 other states had passed these amendments. It was an unbroken string of victories. As journalists, you know if the rare thing happens, that’s news. We had gathered tape with Minnesotans United the week before the election just in case they won. It was a gamble to spend a day gathering tape you might never use, but we rolled on their last staff meeting, as they cheered the 12 million dollars they’d raised (this was the most expensive ballot campaign in state history. They raised more than twice what the other side raised), and talked about their army of get out of the vote volunteers who would canvas the state in the final 168 hours or whatever it was before the election.
After they won, I had a couple days to grab that tape and pull the highlights from 18 months of reporting to make a story about how they did it.
The Friday after the election, we aired a 23 minute special report called “18 Months to History.” We looked at how the amendment was defeated.  The money involved. The omni-partisan approach, the role of the faith community, the research, the ads the messaging.
So, lessons to impart:
  1.  Pick a great story and own it. If you see something that has the marks of really engaging people, ask for the assignment and dive in.
  2. People want to hear what’s at stake. Why does Eileen want to marry Marianne? Why do Allan and Patty feel so strongly that they shouldn’t? Talk to real people and not just officials. The lawmakers and campaign chairs have all been interviewed a million times. People who’ve never been interviewed are more likely to tell you what’s in their hearts. This isn’t just another political race to them.
  3.  Really listen. Expand yourself. Keep asking questions. Empathize. How would it feel to be in their shoes? This is where I’m probably giving you very different advice from the usual stay at arm’s length style of reporting, but if you can’t empathize how can your audience empathize when they read your stories?
  4.  The story you cover has roots. What’s come before? Who was involved? Where are they now? What’s happened in other places? What’s changed.
If you’re not bored, your audience won’t be either.

Josh: Growing Up With Tourette’s


Have tape deck, will diary. Josh Cutler, the subject of Joe Richman’s “Josh: Growing Up With Tourette’s.”

“Happy Sweet 16!” to Teenage Diaries, the remarkable radio documentary series where young people were given tape decks to document their lives.  The series, produced by Joe Richman in the 1990′s, is a stunning collection of stories that have become part of the radio documentary canon.  I’ve listened to the stories time and again and never tire of them.

To mark the anniversary, Joe checked in with five people — now adults — who were featured in the original series. These new stories, Teenage Diaries Revisited, air this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

To join in the party, I dug up an interview with Joe from 2009. On a previous incarnation of this podcast (Saltcast), Joe and I dissected one of the teen diaries, “Josh, Growing Up With Tourette’s.” Joe, as always, let loose with a ton of radio goodness during our chat — all kinds of tips and tricks and behind-the-scenes observations about the production of these diaries.

When you’re done listening, be sure to check out the new series and all of Joe’s work.

Happy Birthday Teenage Diaries!!




The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael A. Baronowski


 (Photo courtesy of Tim Duffie)

It’s ridiculous to even try to make a Top 10 List of favorite radio documentaries. I think my head might snap back like a Pez dispenser if I tried – there are too many good ones to pick from. But, regardless of the challenge, I know for certain the piece featured on this HowSound would make the list.

“The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael A. Baronowski” includes live field recordings from the war that are incredibly honest, genuine, unrehearsed, visceral, funny, devastating…. In short, they’re remarkable.

The story was produced in 2000 by Christina Egloff with Jay Allison as part of the Lost and Found Sound series. It received a Gold award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival. And, despite the fact that “The Vietnam Tapes…” is thirteen years old now, the staff at PRX tells me stations still acquire this piece to air around Memorial Day — as well they should.

Please put aside what you’re doing and make time to listen deliberately.

Cheers, Rob

PS – Two of my fav Lost and Found Sound stories are Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later by the Kitchen Sisters and Listening to the Northern Lights by Barrett Golding.




Recording in Remote Locations

 DCF 1.0

Science reporter Daniel Grossman surrounded by his field recording gear. (Photo courtesy of Daniel.)

I have field recording envy. Daniel Grossman has recorded science stories in so many places on my travel list – Greenland, the Arctic, Madagascar, Mongolia…. I just might secretly stow away in his bags next time he leaves to report. Of course, the problem would be finding space.

Dan says he usually carries about fifty pounds of recording gear when he reports in remote locations. Much of it is back-up equipment because, as he says, anything can go wrong. Dan doesn’t ever want to be left unable to make quality recordings so he’s built a serious amount of redundancy into his set-up.

On this HowSound, Dan shares some of his favorite field recordings — calving glaciers, stick throwing howler monkeys, penguins, and elephant seals — along with his overseas reporting tips for gear and how to prepare.

And, while I’m on the subject of science, PRX recently launched the STEM Story Project. They’re eager to fund stories about science, technology, engineering, and math. Got a story idea along those lines up your sleeve? Then hurry because the deadline is April 22, 2013.




My Kingdom For Some Structure


Napkin #1 – This American Life

Bradley Campbell says drawing story structure is like using Google Maps for directions. Structure offers a path, a way to figure out where to go… what to do with all the tape. To help him plan out his stories, Bradley thinks pictorially. He makes story structure drawings in his head. I asked him to make a few napkin drawings of how he sees structure. Indeed, that’s how he first learned about structure — in a bar on a napkin.

Many years ago, Bradley was a print reporter. He says everyone he worked with kept talking about structure. He knew they meant the way in which a story is organized, but that left him with a question: Organized how? So, he asked a friend of his from the Village Voice “What’s structure?” The guy grabbed a napkin and a pen and made a drawing. “Click!” Suddenly, it all made sense.

Now, Bradley’s a radio reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio.  (Update: Now Bradley works for PRI’s “The World.”) He says he’s listened long and hard to stories on public radio to understand how they’re configured and to create skeletal renderings of their structure.

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).

On this edition of HowSound, Bradley talks about his napkin drawings for TAL, All Things Considered, and “The e” (on a napkin below labeled “Transom”). And, as a bonus for you because you’re reading the blog, I’ve also included his napkins for Morning Edition and Radiolab.



Napkin #2 – All Things Considered

To be sure, Bradley’s drawings are not approved by the shows they represent. These are not official. Nor are they the only way stories are told on these shows. But, for Bradley, they depict frequently heard story arrangements.

Here is his All Things Considered (ATC) napkin. It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.



Napkin #3 – The e

Bradley named this napkin “Transom” for Transom.org. It’s fair to say that’s a misnomer. The stories featured at Transom vary widely and can’t be summed up on a single napkin (which is true for all the shows listed here).

However, I teach at the Transom Story Workshop and since “The e” is probably my favorite structure, you can hear that approach to story in a lot of the pieces produced by Transom students, hence Bradley’s label.

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.



Napkin #4 – Morning Edition

Even though this napkin looks different than the others, Bradley’s Morning Edition structure overlaps with the others.

The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.

What’s cool about mapping structure like this is that the pieces are moveable. You can rearrange the parts like they’re Tinkertoys. In the Morning Edition structure, for example, you could open in a scene, then introduce two people with other views (like the lines on the right of Bradley’s napkin only on the left). Then the “V.” Then a return to the first character and the lines again. Or, maybe you start with the “V” then meet a character…. See what I mean?



Napkin #5 – Radiolab

If nothing else, the Radiolab napkin looks cool, right?! Here’s what Bradley told me about this drawing: 

“Radiolab! Oh man…. I mean, who hasn’t spent an evening driving in their car and all of a sudden Radiolab pops on…. And you’re just listening to it and the stories just get, you know, they start to build out kinda small and then it feels like you’re going on a roller coaster and you approach this one sort of “Whoa!” and then it gets even cooler and then it’s like KSSSHHHSSHSH!

“…And all this chaos comes through and there’s all sorts of sounds and noises and excitement that’s building… and then it starts to get even bigger and it builds on top of that…

“(You know when) you approach the final incline of a roller coaster and then you shoot down and then it ends? Sometimes it feels like when I listen to Radiolab it’s like the roller coaster is just shooting off a ramp! And it’s like the whole coaster goes “whoosh!” and they just launch you!.. and you’re like “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Where am I? Where am I?”


Looking for more structure in your storytelling life? Try this link to a Google Image search I did for “story structure.” It’s crazy.

And, John McPhee, a master of narrative non-fiction, recently wrote an article about structure for the New Yorker. It’s worth the read.

Oh, and here’s a link to the song by They Must Be Russians featured in the podcast.



Generation Putin



In a nutshell, a lot of radio reporting involves some research, a drive across town for an interview or two or three, then writing and producing the piece. Sometimes, it’s even less complicated if you conduct the interviews over the phone.

I’m currently working on a project that’s a little more challenging. It involves about 1500 miles of driving, crisscrossing the the state of Maine collecting a couple of dozen interviews. My hair’s turning gray trying to schedule so many interviews in so many different locations and I got stuck in a snowbank, but still, it’s pretty easy.

International reporting, on the other hand, is an order of magnitude more challenging. There are so many more issues: language, transportation, passports, visas, freedom of the press….

Reporters Jessica Partnow and Sarah Stuteville of the Seattle Globalist have spent the last several years reporting from more countries than you can shake a stick at. They’ve clearly developed an expertise in overseas reporting and it’s readily apparent in their latest documentary, Generation Putin.

The hour-long doc, produced in conjunction with PRX, reports on young people and politics in the former Soviet Union. On this HowSound, Sarah and Jessica chat about their reporting travails from Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

If you’re looking for more info about overseas reporting, check out Gregory Warner’s presentation at the Third Coast International Audio Festival a few years ago, Found in Translation.

Ciao, Rob