Enhancing the Magic of the Interview

I recently sat with my grandfather and asked him to tell me his life story. It only took about an hour, but that hour was perhaps the most significant hour of our entire relationship.

It’s an honor to interview another person, and there are a million little things that can make the experience more powerful and effective for both interviewer and interviewee. Rob Rosenthal has actually developed a pretty canonical checklist of how to set yourself up for an excellent interview experience, and that’s a fantastic way to prepare yourself.

Here’s a selection of my personal favorite interview tips that I’ve collected over time, hopefully some of which you’ve never heard before:

  1. The essentials are essential. When I was researching for this blogpost, I talked to Jeremy Helton, who facilitated the interview that became this story from StoryCorps (one of my favorites), during his stint as a StoryCorps mobile facilitator. He told me that the most important aspect of an interview experience is that you want the interviewee to feel comfortable, listened to, and respected. Everything else you do in an interview should build on these three things.

  2. Practice is crucial. Get super familiar with the equipment, then get extra super familiar. This is so you can be more fully present with the interviewee, and not thinking about or fiddling with your gadgets. If you have an iPhone and you want something that won’t require too much technical experience, I recommend downloading the Griffin iTalk app (pay version or free – both are good), and sitting down with someone to just have a regular conversation. Practice keeping the microphone 4-6 inches from the speaker’s mouth and avoid popping p’s (Remember: the iPhone mic is on the bottom of the device). If you budget extra time to get familiar with the equipment, you and your interviewee will both have a much better time.

  3. Sharing your own stories can be useful. The oral historian Studs Terkel was famous for being a talker; and people used to ask him, “How can you gather so many great stories, when it seems like you’re doing all the talking?” The reason is that when you share a story from your life with people, they will be more comfortable opening up and sharing their stories with you. It may seem a little manipulative, but it works, and it will actually deepen your personal connection to the interviewee.

  4. Silence can be awesome. In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says “Let silence do the heavy lifting.” Sometimes silence can be the best way to show your interviewee that you care about what they are saying, and it opens a wide door for them to express their thoughts. It’s tremendously uncomfortable for some interviewers, so I recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with Silence. Make friends with just sitting there, waiting. Practice it here, at a website where the goal is to do nothing for two full minutes.

  5. Sentence fragments can be perfect. You can’t always just be sitting there in silence, waiting for the other person to talk. So, when you talk, what are you supposed to say? Do you need to think of awesome questions to ask? Actually, some of the best ways to steer an interviewee is not to think of great questions (which often puts the spotlight on the interviewer’s skills, not what you really want to do), but just to give people little contact statements that remind them that you’re listening to what they’re saying. Try just repeating the last handful of words that your interviewee just said, and that will get them talking again – that can work wonders. In the above story from StoryCorps, notice how the one moment where the interviewer steps in – he’s essentially saying a sentence fragment: “So your father thought that the shock of meeting him…” He’s reassuring the interviewee that he’s listening and interested in hearing more. That’s all it took to get the ball rolling again.

  6. Multiple endings can be spectacular. The Kitchen Sisters like to say “this is the last question” when they actually have plenty of questions left. This is because people relax when they think the interview is nearly over. They relax even more when the interview is actually over. That’s why, even after saying “thank you so much,” The Kitchen Sisters keep the tape rolling, so that when the interviewee starts talking again about the same topic (eg, “you know this is really great that we’re doing this interview, because…”), they can just pick up the microphone and keep the interview going.

  7. Keep the story in mind, throughout the interview. If you’re doing a StoryCorps style interview, you can basically let the interviewee guide the experience. But when you’re the producer of a story, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you frame your questions such that your interview will provide the killer tape that you need for your story. I started this post with Rob Rosenthal, and I’ll finish it with Rob Rosenthal. Rob has his own important set of guidelines on how to steer the narrative ship during an interview. It’s called “Imagining the Story.”

Did I follow all of these guidelines to a T when I interviewed my grandfather? No way. In fact, if anything, I think I followed tip #4 too much, because there were several moments of silence where my grandfather said, “I guess that’s about all I have to say.” This isn’t because he’d run out of stories (he’s ninety-five), but because he didn’t know how to keep the momentum going, how to keep thinking of stories. If I’d spoken more, there likely would have been fewer of these awkwardnesses.

But every interview is followed by those “I should have said that” moments. More important than any tip-list or to-do list is to focus on being present during the the interview, interacting with another real, actual person. In fact, the most powerful moments of connection between me and my grandfather — like hearing him talk about how he never met his father, and how has always wanted to — had nothing to do with my skill as an interviewer, and everything to do with the simple fact that we were sitting there together, just to talk.

image via flickr

Article written by: Will Rogers on 12/4/2013

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Unexpected Logic

I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts, and I can count on one hand the ones that have brought tears to my eyes.


The first time I listened to This American Life’s ‘Kid Logic’ was back in February. I was walking around Stanford, streaming it on my iPhone. The first piece, called “Baby Scientists with Faulty Data,” is all about how kids use their own brands of “logic” to come to scientific conclusions. For instance, an African American woman talks about the first time she saw white people, and how she assumed they must be ghosts.



In the last four minutes of the segment (starting at 13:11), Jack Hitt recounts the time he told his four-year-old daughter about Jesus. Now, it isn’t every day that I hear about Jesus, Christianity, or any religion on the radio or on TV. And on the rare occasion I do, religion is often cast in a tentative, skeptical light. As a religious person, I’m used to bracing myself for the moment in radio pieces in which religious beliefs are undercut.


But that’s not what happened here. In fact, if anything, the opposite happened. By the time Hitt finished his story, I noticed tears welling up in my eyes. I was touched. I was surprised. I felt like this little short segment was a personal shout out to listeners who believe in Jesus, like me. This level of surprise is part of what made me cry, but later I realized that the surprise in this story is functioning on other levels too, namely at the level of character.


Here’s a quick synopsis of the story. Hitt tells his daughter the story of Jesus, and when he subsequently tells her about Martin Luther King, Jr., he explains that King’s message was “You should treat everybody the same, no matter what they look like.” His daughter replies, “Well, that’s what Jesus said.” Hitt pauses to consider what his daughter said, and (spoiler alert!) after a minute she looks up at him and asks, “Did they kill him [King], too?”


A few weeks later I ran into Anish, a friend of mine who is an atheist. We both love This American Life. He told me, “I heard something on This American Life recently that was one of the most moving pieces in radio that I’ve heard in a long time.” I flipped through my mental catalogue of shows in an effort to try to guess which episode he was referring to. His answer caught me off guard — the piece he found moving? “The one where the little girl talks to her dad about Jesus.”

As I chatted with Anish, I realized that the reason this piece moved me and Anish had little to do with our religious beliefs, and a lot more to do with Hitt’s narrative technique. In less than 4 minutes, Hitt had managed to tell a story that was at once believable, yet very surprising. But what gives this surprise such emotional weight?

A surprise happens when expectations are created, then inverted. The surprise in this story functions primarily at the level of character construction. There is something so innocent, and so unadulterated about a little child making this connection between Jesus and King– but there is also something so unexpected about the connection too.

One of the reasons the exchange between Hitt and his daughter is so moving is that his daughter is only four-years-old. Hitt makes sure to emphasize this fact throughout the piece – he does everything from speaking in an excited, childlike voice when he narrates her parts, to pointing out that her pre-school celebrates MLK Day. Hitt never says, “I thought she was too young to draw insightful connections,” but from the way he presents her, we, as listeners, subconsciously make that assumption. We don’t expect Hitt’s daughter to be able to make those deep connections between Jesus and King, so we are completely floored when she does.

I believe that Hitt was genuinely surprised by his daughter’s observation, but notice that he doesn’t say, “I was surprised.” Instead, he shows his surprise by painting an innocent, charming picture his young daughter, and surprising us with a few well-crafted lines of dialogue.

If you want to surprise your audience (and perhaps make them reach for a tissue), try it through characterization: create a set of expectations about your character, then turn those expectations in-side-out.


Podcast: This American Life,Baby Scientists with Faulty Data

Time: Jack Hitt piece begins at 13:11 (4 min)


Article written by: Victoria Muirhead on 11/19/2013

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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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Promises, Promises

Some people have superpowers, and Ira Glass’s superpower just might be framing and introducing stories. We have been so awed by this superpower over the years that we finally decided to concatenate a bunch of Ira Glass intros, listen to all of them back-to-back, and see what kinds of lessons we could glean. We decided, in other words, to x-ray that uncanny knack he has for duct-taping us to every story This American Life presents.

This exercise is hard for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s like turning on the song of the siren and trying to not get hypnotized. While we were working on this, we had to remind ourselves, ‘No, we’re not here to listen to the stories. We’re here to listen to the introductions.’ Glass puts you right in that place where you care about what happens next… and then you have to listen to yet another introduction. The process is incredibly frustrating, and that’s because Glass is doing his job incredibly well.

Another reason the exercise is hard is there that Glass doesn’t use a formula—it’s not like the introduction to a sitcom or an NPR news show. He does, of course, use the structure of “’Act… Title of Story…” then give the name of the storyteller, as well as a couple other details—the location, maybe an important character or two, and the basic setup. But these are not the elements that get us hooked.

We noticed two elements occurring over and over in every introduction: a promise and a consistent sensibility.

Glass is a master of promising. Let’s focus on this aspect first: there’s a promise in nearly every sentence of every intro, which builds into one big promise, and the story is what ultimately delivers on that promise. Here’s one of the introductions, as an example, with our comments in bold:

Glass: “Act 1: Hasta la Vista Arnie. Scott Miller was not an experienced therapist back when everything you’re about to hear took place. (I’m about to tell you what he was.)

He was a beginner, a grad student, starting off at a local psychiatric hospital, when this patient came in. (I’m about to tell you more about the patient.)

A guy who had been doing ok, leading a more or less normal life, when one day, the guy snapped.” (Curious? Don’t worry, you’ll get details on what I mean by this.)

Scott Miller: “He would go on and on babbling about how he was the Terminator.” (Are you even more curious? Better listen to the story then…)

It’s a little like carrying a candle into a magical cave – every step shows you something that makes you want to take yet another step inside.

The other element, sensibility, is a bit more complicated to describe. It has to do with the kind of thing he promises: authentic, human-level drama. Listening to these, you get the sense that the discoveries Glass promises are the kind of things that he genuinely cares about. You see this sensibility in the foreword to Glass’ book, The New Kings of Nonfiction. Whenever he describes why a piece has been selected, these are the words that consistently appear: discovery, curiosity, empathy, transparency, human drama, and pleasure.

Here’s another example from the concatenation; this time our comments, in bold, attempt to pull out the sensibility that is inherent to the intro.

Glass: “Act 1: ‘I’m the Decider.’ You know there are all kinds of situations where we step in as reluctant proxies. (It’s good to help other people, even though sometimes it’s not convenient.)

As a favor to friends and family, taking over a chore that they don’t want to do, taking their kids or their pets off their hands for a while. (It’s good to help other people with their everyday responsibilities.)

Doing something because it’s the right thing to do and nobody else is stepping in. (Sometimes other people won’t step in to help when it’s needed, but it’s good if you do.)

That’s what happened to Davy Rothbart, more or less.” (Meet our story’s main character, who is about to do a good thing, by stepping in to help somebody.)

This story is about Davy Rothbart trying and failing to help a friend. But notice that Glass’ intro doesn’t give away the main character’s ultimate failure in the intro, but focuses instead on his sense of duty, which is the positive vein of the story, and the thing we can all relate to.

So there is no formula per se, but there is the perpetuation of promise, and more promise, and more promise. Alongside a genuine appreciation for the generous, altruistic side of human nature.

We can all mimic this, of course, in our own ways. You don’t have to be passionate about the same things Ira Glass is. Take the energy of what you love about your story, and exude that in your introduction. Your listeners will identify with your enthusiasm, disbelief, and joy. Then don’t reveal too much, just promise us that what’s coming next is worth sticking around for.

Host intros pulled from the following This American Life episodes:

15 Dawn
77 Pray
159 Mother’s Day
263 Desperate Measures
319 And the Call Was Coming from the Basement
327 By Proxy
480 Animal Sacrifice
495 Hot in My Backyard

Article written by: Bonnie Swift and Will Rogers on 10/23/2013

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The Most Engrossing Horrible Vacation

The infamous story of Typhoid Mary has been told and retold so many times that many people believe they understand the whole story (that she started the outbreak of a disease she didn’t even experience). However, in “The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation,” the Radiolab team paints a new picture of Typhoid Mary, one much more relatable and personal than any I’ve heard before.

How do they make it so intimate? By recreating Mary’s point of view through reenactments of her perspective and weaving in historical documents.

The piece starts in the present, on a now-abandoned island that once quarantined victims of contagious disease, including one Mary Mallon. It then transports us back to the turn of the 20th century to Oyster Bay, New York, where several cases of typhoid emerged, all leading back to Mary Mallon as the carrier. What then ensues is a harrowing battle of wits as Mary desperately tries to convince the government that she is not, in fact, contagious.

The fact that it begins in the present elevates the listener from a mere passive bystander to being a thoroughly engrossed participant — you’re there with the producers on the island. One of them has very same view that Mary Mallon experienced, while she was quarantined. “Holy Moly!” he says, “If this is where her cabin was, then one window of it looked exactly onto Manhattan… you can see the traffic on the streets.” And by reenacting Mary’s perspective, he is recreating her point of view, giving listeners a chance to stand beside her and see what she saw all those lonely years.

Seeing what Mary saw helps listeners to begin to understand what she might have been thinking, but historical documents show us exactly what she was thinking. For example, after she is first placed under quarantine, she fights for her own release, and in the piece, an actress reads Mary’s letters to her lawyers. “I have in fact been a peep show, for everybody,” Mary’s letter says. At this point, it’s as if Mary is telling the story herself. This correspondence helps us visualize the people around her, and the time period, the way they talked.

Every story happens in a specific time and place, and in this story, the historic documents take us to the time and the reenactments take us to the place.

By the end of the story, I didn’t feel like a detached spectator, but rather an involved witness and confidant to the trials of Mary Mallon. So what actually became of her in the end? It wouldn’t do much good for me to tell you – better to let you go there yourself, and get the story straight from the source.

Podcast: The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation
Produced by: Sean Cole, Lynn Levy, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich in 2011 for Radiolab
Duration: 15 minutes

Article written by: Tina Tran on 10/10/2013

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How to Tell a Heartbreaker

This country’s history is filled with stories that are difficult to read. I’ve been trying to finish Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a year and a half now, and can only get through one chapter before I have to set it down. It takes me a month or so before I have the energy to pick it up again. These kinds of stories take tremendous effort to absorb, and yet these are important stories and we should know them.

But how do we convince our listeners to listen to stories that yield an immediate jolt of sorrow and shame?

One way is to couch them in more hopeful narratives, as evidenced by pieces like this, which tells the extremely difficult story of Chief Joseph within a more buoyant, contemporary framework.

What NPR’s Alex Chadwick accomplishes in this one is amazing. His first strategy is to set the story in the present, so that it is not simply a retrospective piece, like many documentaries. The action here is ongoing, so as listeners we have an investment in how it will unfold.

It begins when a local archaeologist proposes that the government officers of the Clearwater National Forest and representatives from the Nez Perce tribe take a trailride along the historic Nez Perce Trail together, so that the tribe can explain some of what is in forest to the federal employees. This comes after many years of poor relations between the two groups, and the Forest Service is hoping that stories from the Nez Perce might provide a missing link in the broken chain of communication between them.

Chadwick tags along, and we are privy to the small steps these two groups take towards reconciliation during their four days together. We listen to their ceremonies, their discussions along the trail, reports on the weather (rain), and descriptions of the passing landscape. We hear them enjoying each other’s company around the fire, their singing, and of the periodic awkward silences between them. Through the first half of this story, we become increasingly convinced that some kind of peace will be brokered here.

It’s at this point [11:00], that our narrator Chadwick brings in the agonizing story of Chief Joseph, his flight through the mountains, and his eventual capture. And this is Chadwick’s second brilliant strategy: he withholds the central trauma of the story, and approaches the difficult material only after he’s established a positive tone for the piece. As listeners, we get our lesson in the gruesome side of American history without feeling trampled by it, because we are already feeling optimistic about the present-day part of the narrative. We can absorb the tragedy of the Nez Perce War, because we have already been given a sense that something is being done to understand and remedy its fallout.

On the fourth and final day of their journey, there is an exchange of gifts, and the tribe is eager to broach the difficult subject of maintaining the historic trail in collaboration with the Forest Service. There is an openness which neither side has experienced before. As they reach the end of their ride, there is an acknowledgment of the lingering bitterness and anger felt by the tribe, but a mild sense of transformation is also palpable.

When you are given a heartbreaker to tell, you can try these two tricks: set the retrospective action within a current, ongoing narrative, so that your listeners have a stake in the story’s outcome. Then postpone the most painful part of your story, and embed it within a chorus of brighter notes. Getting acquainted with history is crucial to the ongoing reconciliation process, and stories like this will make the learning process more accessible to a wider audience.

This story reminds us that history is not over, or as one character in the story, Ben Horace, says, ‘Even today, we’re still on a journey. We need to have courage.’

Podcast: Nez Perce Trail: Rediscovery,” 2001
Time: Hearing Voices: Native America: Our Nation’s First Nations, starts at [2:30] Host: Alex Chadwick; producer: Carolyn Jensen Chadwick; editor: Christopher Joyce; engineer: Suraya Mohamed.
Duration: 19 min

Article written by: Bonnie Swift on 9/26/2013

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Studs’ Nova

Sometimes you don’t really get to know someone until after they die. Sometimes a person’s death can be like the nova of a star, an explosion that broadcasts the star’s existence to places that had never seen it before, right before the star’s light goes out forever. It’s kind of sad when you don’t find out about someone until their death, but it’s also a kind of beautiful and special connection.

Such is the case with my connection to Studs Terkel, a radio broadcaster and oral historian who died in 2008. It was this wonderful hour-long radio program about his work that put him on my radar. Produced after his death by Transom.org, it brings listeners into the inner circle of Studs’ working community, so that you can feel like you’ve gotten to know him. “Working with Studs” feels kind of like a eulogy, and I feel privileged to get this glimpse into Studs’ life. One of the biggest ways it accomplishes its particular style of intimacy is by taking its time: it doesn’t rush the sensitive information, because that level of intimacy backfires if it comes too early in a piece.

There’s an image, early in the program, of Studs walking out of the elevator, talking as he walked. He does it as if to announce his presence on the floor… but also as a way to think, and to process his own ideas. This is a brilliant way to introduce Studs, as a character. He was an extrovert’s extrovert: he never stopped thinking out loud, and he cared deeply about other people’s reactions to his work.

So this story establishes Studs’ character by beginning with the most noticeable aspect of his personality: his talking. Then, midway through the piece, one voice starts adding a little nuance, asking, “If he was always talking so much, how did he get people to open up to him as well as he did?” Then another producer describes Studs’ tactic for getting intimate with interviewees: he shared a little of his own life in order to gain access to a particular aspect of theirs.

It’s after this that we approach the bigger paradox about Studs’ character: he wasn’t the greatest listener, and wasn’t very comfortable in his own skin. Even though he knew how to evoke emotions in other people’s stories, he didn’t really know about his own feelings.

Notice that this level of nuance doesn’t come until the last section of the piece, after you’ve gotten to know Studs’ more relatable and appreciable aspects. If the piece had introduced Studs as “a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin, who was also good at putting other people at ease,” it would be almost disorienting. You need to ease into that sort of complicated idea.

So don’t always jump straight to the most interesting stuff. Your characters can develop in a way that’s just like getting to know a person in real life. Start with the apparent, the things you notice first, and after that you can work your way toward the more paradoxical, intimate material.

Podcast: Working with Studs
Producted by: Sydney Lewis for Transom.org in 2010
Duration: 54 minutes

Article written by: Will Rogers on 6/20/2013

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Timelapse Niece

I was ten the first time I ever saw an imax movie. At the beginning it did one of those timelapse cityscapes, where the cars become blurs, flying through the city’s streets like blood cells through veins and arteries. It was meant to “wow” the audience and get us settled into our seats for the main feature, but I was so “wowed” that I have no recollection of what the movie we watched was about. I wanted the timelapse to continue. I wanted to watch a whole movie of it… I love timelapse.

Since then I’ve fallen in love with audio, too, and I have sometimes wondered how you could create a similar effect in sonic medium. Now I wonder no more, because producer Tony Schwartz has proven that it can be done, in “Nancy Grows Up.” This piece represents, according to Schwartz “Thirteen years condensed into two minutes and thirteen seconds,” and I think Schwartz is being modest when he says that he’s “using the timelapse technique” in the piece – timelapse is a simple mechanical process that involves shooting film at a slow frame-rate, then playing it back at regular speed so it appears fast. Schwartz’ technique, as you’ll see, is much more creative than this.

Schwartz achieves an effect that’s a lot like timelapse, but the technique he uses to get there involves a higher level of sophistication and manipulation. Schwartz recorded his niece once a year for 13 years, then condensed those annual recordings into a 2 ½ minute piece. He uses editing to create a seamless flow between clips, so that it sounds like she’s abruptly growing an entire year in the space between two phrases.

If you know about timelapse photography, you’ll know that it involves shooting individual frames at regular intervals (say, once every minute, hour, or day) and displaying them at motion-picture speed (usually 24 or 30 frames per second). That way it makes it look like things are moving much more quickly than they did in real-time.

Schwartz also recorded at regular intervals, with a full year between recordings, then stuck the recordings together without a space between them. With motion pictures, the image stays on the screen for just a tiny fraction of the second, in order to create the illusion of motion. You can’t do that with audio, unless you want the words to become indecipherable. So Schwartz used sentences and phrases as his “frames,” then cut those frames together in a way that breezed past a year’s worth of developments at a time.

Sometimes it takes years for a story to unfold. Or more. Take on a long-long-long-term side-project, because the world needs storytellers who can slow themselves down enough to let certain kinds of stories take their time. These stories paint a sped-up picture of reality; and the audiences of these stories will experience a new, fresh perspective of time itself.

Podcast: Nancy Grows Up
Produced by: Tony Schwartz in 1970
Duration: 3 min 30 sec (including Schwartz’s charming 1-minute introduction)

I first heard this story via The Kitchen Sisters, then later on Radiolab.

Article written by: Will Rogers on 06/04/2013


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Hello Space, Goodbye Time

There’s a strong impulse right now to organize stories by space, rather than time. Check out This American Life’s Story Globe, or the various wings of Localore. It seems a natural extension of our communication technologies to map our environments with stories, and (attempt) to chronicle the fantastic volume of human experience that takes place all around us, all the time.

I think this trend in storytelling is also part of a broader cultural move towards organizing our lives according to space (eating local foods, supporting local economies). But the impulse to put a story on a map can be taken one step further; it can be applied to the structure of a story itself. You can organize a story by the space in which it took place, rather than by the order in which it unfolded in time. Careful, though: when space becomes the supporting structure of your story, you’re unlikely to end up with a traditional narrative arc. And if you don’t have that, then you might have to find something else to keep your listeners in their seats.

Out of the Blocks does a great job finding that something else. As a tour of the 3300 Greenmount Avenue block in Baltimore, it’s an experiment in spatial story structure and employs some innovative modes of capturing listener interest. Host Aaron Henkin literally walks us down the block. We visit a hair salon, a restaurant, tattoo parlor, pawn shop, check cashing business, licensing office, and meet a passel of characters on the street. Through these interactions, we develop a regard for the diversity that’s present in this tiny plot of urban space. But there’s not a lot of action or suspense in this story, and it risks becoming a list-like parade of character portraits. A promise of another kind keeps our attention through the hour:

Wendell Patrick’s luxuriant use of sound.

This story holds our attention not by the usual hook of plot suspense, but by sonic variation. Sound, either through intensive editing, manipulation of voices, or wonderfully immersive music, places emphasis on certain passages, provides chapter markers, and cultivates the continual promise of surprise. Through this assemblage of sounds, we develop greater insight to and greater appreciation for each person we meet.

A shining example of this is a phone conversation starting at 14:35. A woman at the licensing office answers the phone and quickly tires of her customer’s questions. We hear her become frustrated as the conversation escalates, and she hangs up the phone. “Thirty-one minutes and thirty-seven seconds with this chick on the phone!” she says (at 15:35). This cues us into the kind of editing that Patrick put into this piece: that thirty-one minute conversation took only one minute for us to listen to. He literally cut 97% of the original tape, and yet through the snippets that remain, we get a great sense of this woman and her day-to-day frustrations at work. And portraits of such microcosms keep coming, and keep expanding, and always with as much of a sonic twist.

The expansive quality of each vignette keeps us curious, and we come out of the story with a real appreciation for this single Baltimore block. This is not to say that you can’t create a story that is organized by space rather than time, and have your traditional narrative arc too (I’d love to hear it!). But this is to say that if you want to investigate a particular space, and you find yourself creating a story without an arc, then there are other modes of generating promise.

Out of the Blocks
Aaron Henkin with music by Wendell Patrick
Hearing Voices, July 2012
52 min

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