Hanging Out at Warp Speed

When I listen to Radiolab, I feel like I’m in the studio with them while they tinker, banter, and generally have a good time, and for years I’ve been perplexed by how they can accomplish this; they take their stories to some of the biggest and smallest places in the universe, and the entire time they make it feel like they’re all just hanging out! How is it that they can possibly maintain a casual/comfortable vibe in a show that’s so densely packed with material?

I recently discovered somewhat of an answer to my perplexity, and I wrote this blogpost to share it. If you want the tl;dr version, it’s the following: they tell their stories to each other instead of telling them directly to the audience, and they do that over and over again, until it’s just right.

For the longer version, read on:

On Radiolab, producers tend to tell their stories to each other in the studio, rather than narrating directly to the audience.

There’s a brilliant blogpost by Lulu Miller, who used to be a producer at Radiolab, all about how they discovered this part of production style. It tells the story of how they struggled to finish one of their first pieces, Goat on a Cow. What happened is that the audio-produced version of the story didn’t do justice to the excitement that the story’s author and producer, Laura Starecheski, had for the piece, and so they asked Laura into the studio to just tell them the story live, without text, from the beginning. That conversational version of the story sounded immensely better than the scripted version she read into a microphone, so they used it. And now they use this technique on basically all of the stories they produce: just get the producer into the studio, and ask them to tell you the story, from the beginning.

When I read Lulu’s blogpost, it was a major “aha” moment for me. I’ve personally struggled a lot with how to tell a story in a way that sounds natural, like you’re just telling it to another person, and this innovation (…literally just telling it to another person!) seemed so simple and brilliant.

But there was something more to it. Something a little bit tricky.

I noticed it when I was listening to one of their stories from earlier this year, Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl. It’s is one of the best things I’ve heard on the radio in a long time, and I wasn’t even a little bit surprised when it won an award at the Third Coast Filmless Festival in October.

It’s about this two-year-old girl who was adopted at birth. Even though she lived with her adoptive parents for two years, the parents were forced to return her to her biological father, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. It’s a brilliant story, and you should seriously listen to it if you haven’t already.

The thing that caught my ear, when I was listening to it, is kind of a tiny moment, and it’s not even directly related to the story itself.

The story’s producer, Tim Howard, is telling the story to Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Again, you can feel the dynamic style of storytelling that can only happen between two people. Jad occasionally objects, gets clarification, or laughs, and all of these little things  remind us that this is a live storytelling experience, and they help us feel as if we’re sitting right there in the room with Tim while he’s telling the story.

About twenty minutes into the piece, The moment happens. Tim says to Jad, “I was trying to get in touch with [the biological father]; I was pestering his lawyers… this went on for weeks, and they were basically like, ‘He doesn’t want to do interviews. He doesn’t want to talk.’”

Jad responds, “…so you didn’t get him.”

After an exhale and an elongated pause, Tim says, “Yeah I got him.”

Jad laughs, and the story continues; Tim travels to Oklahoma to meet the girl and her father.

Did you notice the tiny moment? Probably not — it’s ok. It’s the moment where Jad says, “…So you didn’t get him.” When I heard it, I was thinking about Lulu’s blogpost, and how it’s so important to have the story told to a person, rather than read to a microphone, and I thought, Wait a second: There’s no way that Jad could have not known that Tim got the interview in Oklahoma. After all, these people work on the same production team!

Jad *must* have already known whether Tim had gone to Oklahoma or not, and if this was true, it would mean that the producers on the Radiolab staff are playing a theater game, acting as if they’re telling/hearing these stories for the very first time, even though they have already told/heard the stories many times already.

I couldn’t be sure this was the case without asking someone who actually works there. I wanted to ask Jad, but I was scared because he’s kind of a hero of mine; so I asked Lulu Miller instead. After all, she wrote the blogpost about this thing.

…But then Lulu said that I really needed to ask Jad…

And so I did. I sent him an email with a simple question: Is it very common for Radiolab producers to tell each other stories that they’ve already told each other?

He responded within five minutes, giving me his phone number(!), and the next thing I knew, I was talking to Jad, frantically typing notes on what he said.

He said that they absolutely tell each other stories the’ve already told each other. When a producer gets toward the end of a story’s production, he’ll sit down with him or her and say, “Okay, I know you know this story, but just tell it to me chronologically, and I’m going to interrupt you a bunch of times.”

He said that after several tellings of a story, “little asides and stumbles start to come out” and the producers get a better idea of which parts of the story are the most compelling and the most relevant.

And what about that specific moment?

“I’m Tim’s editor,” he said, “so I knew exactly where that story was going.” He confirmed what I had imagined: even though what he said was “…so you didn’t get him,” he knew that Tim was going to tell him he got the interview.

So they’re acting! Right? Well, Jad actually disagrees with the word “acting” to talk about what’s going on. He emailed me to make this point extra clear. “We’re not actors,” he wrote. “The goal is not to get ‘the best performance.’ The goal is actually to get the producer to a place that’s emotionally authentic. Where they’re as genuinely engaged and energized by the story they’re telling as they were when they first encountered it.”

Some people might suggest that it’s dishonest to engage in this process of telling and re-telling stories in front of an audience, and I’ll admit that part of me felt a little tricked when I first caught on. Right now, though, I think of this process just like I think about writing, re-writing, and editing a text version a nonfiction story — these re-tellings can actually get you closer to the most honest version of the story, especially with the help of an editor.

So if you want to get a good handle on which portions of your story are the most compelling — both to you and to your listeners — tell your story again and again to your co-producer, and notice the moments where you and that person come alive. Keep those moments, and share them with your audience. No matter how complex or deep or philosophical your story is, those moments will invite your listeners to join you in the sheer delight of the storytelling experience.

Article written by: Will Rogers on 11/7/2013

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