The Elusive Digital Stradivarius


Photo of Joseph Curtin by David Schulman.


I always admire producers who pushes themselves, who try something new. So, David Schulman automatically gets a thumbs up from me for a story he recently produced.

You may know David from his “Musicians in Their Own Words” series. He says he’s produced over a hundred stories on music for that series and many other public radio programs. All of his work is non-narrated.

Then, earlier this year for PRX’s Stem Story Project, David stepped out of his usual role as a hidden producer with his narrated story “The Elusive Digital Stradivarius.” On top of that, it’s a science piece — David’s not a science reporter.

On this HowSound David talks about how he simplified complex information about acoustics and he offers an incredibly solid tip on interviewing musicians…. interviewing anyone, actually. Listen up.

Ciao, Rob


This Story May Be Recorded… To Save Your Life

Meron-1Journalist Meron Estefanos reports on Eritrean hostages held captive in the Sinai Desert. (Photo by Trabelsi Productions.)


Yowei Shaw amassed 325 pages of transcripts after she completed logging her tape for a recent This American Life story. Yowei had help from TAL producer Brian Reed and Eritrean reporter Bealfan Hailey. But still, 325? That’s a lot!

The transcripts were for Yowei’s piece “This Story May Be Recorded… To Save Your Life,” which aired on This American Life in August of 2013. Yowei tells the story of reporter Meron Estefenos and the Eritrean hostages in the Sinai Desert that she’s attempting to rescue through her reporting and a public campaign.

In some respects, logging the recordings was the easy part for Yowei. First, she had to get all the audio files from Meron — hours and hours and hours of it. Then it had to be translated — all the calls were in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea. On top of that, Yowei along with Brian and Bealfan, had to figure out the story as they sifted through hundreds of phone calls with some 200 people!

And then there’s the content of the recordings. The hostages describe torture and beatings and their longing to be free — their begging to be free. The tape is brutal to listen to.

On this HowSound, Yowei describes her behind-the-scenes process and how the grueling effort to assemble this story took its toll on her.

Be forewarned. This program has descriptions of graphic violence.

Regards, Rob

PS – Some time ago, This American Life published a comic book on audio storytelling. It’s genius. Do yourself a favor and get a copy.


Clarification: The translation of Meren’s phone call recordings took place in both Silver Springs, Maryland and New York City, not just Silver Springs. And, Meren Estefanos is not a freelance reporter but, rather, works for Radio Erena.


Hafid is Free


I’ll be honest, for the life of me I can’t remember where I picked up Mark Kramer’s tips for stories without a narrative hook. Was it at a conference (Kramer currently directs The Power of Narrative conference at Boston University)? In his book Telling True Stories? My notes don’t say but, regardless, I’ve found Kramer’s suggestions insanely valuable. In fact, I think they’re so useful, this is the second time I’ve talked about them on HowSound.

Kramer proposes that a story without classic narrative can be successful if it contains sharp images, strong characterization, and anecdotes. I like to add a couple items to his list: a unique or strange setting as well as artful and clever production.

Lee Fuoco’s 2004 story “Hafid is Free” meets Kramer’s test. Lee produced this when she was a student of mine back in 2004 and it’s stayed with me all this time despite its lack of narrative primarily because of the strong characterization and creative production.

Have a good listen!

Cheers, Rob






Who said “Radio is the theater of the mind?” Was it Orson Welles? Regardless, it’s true. A recent edition of 99% Invisible proved the point.

Alex Goldman produced the story I’m talking about called “Heyoon.” It’s about Alex’s teenage hideaway – a mysterious, hard-to-find building in Ann Arbor, Michigan that he and his friends hung out in back in high school.

Alex interviewed many of his old buddies about the place. Then, when it came time to produce the story, he did what most producers might do: in an early draft, he put together a montage of quotes at the start of the story to paint a picture of Heyoon and establish the mystery.

Over at 99% Invisible headquarters in the Bay Area, Sam Greenspan and Roman Mars were editing the story when Sam had a eureka moment — recreate a visit to Heyoon in Roman’s back yard! A well-acted and recorded dramatization would tap into radio’s capacity to be the theater of the mind.

Sam rustled up a few non-actors who performed an excursion to Heyoon based on the recollections of Alex and his friends. The result is a lively, visual, radiophonic telling of events from many years ago. While a montage of quotes would have worked well, the dramatization definitely takes the story to the next level.

Listen to what Alex and Sam created and how they did it on this edition of HowSound and then, because I don’t feature the whole story, listen to all of Heyoon over at 99% Invisible.

Stay rad.





Nodding Syndrome


Robert Oyo, 17, lies on the floor of his home in a village in Pader District, Uganda. A chain runs from his ankle to the roof of the hut. Robert suffers from Nodding Syndrome, a rare disease effecting young people in east Africa. Parents sometimes chain their children to prevent them from wandering aimlessly, a symptom of the disease. (Photo by Matt Kielty/John Alexander Project.)


I vividly remember the open sore on Benson’s chest. He was sitting in front of me in a jail in Malawi, the tenth poorest country in the world. Benson told me about the night he killed someone in self-defense and how he turned himself in to the police. They locked him in this jail and left him there. By the time I interviewed him, he’d been incarcerated for 28 months and had yet to see a judge or go to trial.

Jails in Malawi are notoriously unhealthy and overcrowded so in those conditions, Benson contracted scabies.  His chest sore oozed pus. So did the sore under his arm that he gingerly covered with a napkin.  I tried not to stare.

When the interview was over, guards escorted Benson out of the room. I climbed into an air-conditioned pick-up truck and eventually returned to my gated hotel where I ate a full meal sitting next to a swimming pool — all expenses paid. I felt dirty.

The dichotomy of my life and Benson’s life has stayed with me ever since that moment a few years ago. My privilege was never more clear. And, I was being paid handsomely to report his story while he remained locked-up. Worse still, as I write this, I’m uneasy because I don’t know what has become of him.

Perhaps because misery loves company, I was pleased to learn that reporter Matt Kielty had a similar experience after reporting in Uganda late last year. Matt traveled there to report on Nodding Syndrome for the Above the Fray Fellowship — a partnership between NPR and the John Alexander Project. He returned to the U.S. confused and troubled about “objectification.” As he put it “… making a name for yourself and trying to further your career… on the backs of these people who are suffering immensely.”

Matt shares his concerns and confusion on this HowSound. And we feature one of the stories he produced on the syndrome. (Here’s a link to the other story.)

While you listen, I’m going to find out what happened to Benson.

– Rob




Autism Grows Up



Producer Catherine Stifter has an enviable job. She’s been hired by Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California to guide a change in the sound of the station’s reporting for their documentary program “The View From Here.” Catherine says her task is to “innovate and experiment.” Who wouldn’t want that gig, right?

In addition to changing up the sound, Catherine is building a new approach to reporting. Her partner in the task is jesikah maria ross (she doesn’t capitalize her name) the station’s community engagement specialist. Catherine and jesikah bring reporters together with people from the communities they report on as part of the reporting process. It’s a unique approach that flattens the hierarchy, if you will, between the station and audience.

On this edition of HowSound, Catherine talks about the sound she’s after — less narration, more verite-like scenes — and we listen to examples of that approach in the documentary “Autism Grows Up.” Also, Catherine and jesikah describe the community engagement process they’re utilizing for an upcoming documentary on the high school dropout crisis in the state.

Listen up!





stylus_mediumThe last thing I would tell a new producer is to produce an hour-long program. Invariably, my advice is to start small and there ain’t nothin’ small about an hour of radio.

I certainly wouldn’t advise a “newbie” to produce an hour-long program on silence, the nemesis of radio producers everywhere. And, without a doubt, I would send up flares, stomp my feet, and shake my head “No” about a hundred times if they wanted to approach producing an hour-long program on silence without narration. I’d tell them, point blank, “You’re foolhardy!”

Guess who the fool is. Me.

Conor Gillies and Zack Ezor did everything I would have told them not to do and they kicked radio ass doing it. While Conor and Zack have done some radio production for WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, “Stylus” is Conor and Zack’s first full-on foray in to radio storytelling and it’s nothing short of stellar. Frankly, I’m jealous.

Once you’ve finished listening to the excerpt featured on this edition of HowSound, march over to PRX and listen to the whole program (and listen, too, to Conor and Zack’s influences John Cage, Glenn Gould and Paolo Pietropaolo).

Cheers, Rob




Dari Whitehouse and her son Jerry Peckham at Dari’s 50th birthday. (Photo by Zach Hirsch, 2013.)

Zach Hirsch jumped right in the deep end when he was a student at the Transom Story Workshop last spring. Even seasoned journalists might have had difficulty with Zach’s task: interviewing people who have been traumatized.

Zach’s story, “100%”, details the emotional and psychological challenges faced by two victims of the Boston Marathon bombing — Dari Whitehouse and Jerry Peckham, a mother and son. Interviewing anyone can be a challenge for a new producer never mind traumatized people. Zach’s delicate approach offers insight into how to reach out and chat with individuals who’ve experienced disturbing events.

Bruce Shapiro also joins us on this HowSound. Bruce is the Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia School of Journalism. “We expect the Boston Marathon to be a safe place,” Bruce says. “And when it’s not, the social contract is ripped up, violated. A reporter who goes in and does an interview that in some sense violates a sense of what’s right a second time is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of distress,… anger and betrayal because people who have been traumatized have already been betrayed by the world once.”

There’s another side to this story: the impact of trauma reporting on journalists. I didn’t touch upon that subject in this episode but I encourage you to listen to Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondents Dilemma by Kelly McEvers with Jay Allison. Kelly’s is heartfelt, honest, and direct. The story of her struggles reporting from the Middle East are required listening.

Best, Rob

PS – I think it’s important for me to say, as Zach’s instructor (and a citizen), I’m very thankful for Dari and Jerry’s willingness to be interviewed, especially by a student. They didn’t have to share their story. I’m grateful they did.





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