The Comfort of Consistency

On the occasional days I got out of class early in high school, I would listen to The Writer’s Almanac, a minuscule daily segment that ran from 2:55 to 3 p.m. on my local public radio station. The Writer’s Almanac, narrated by Garrison Keillor, whose melodious and calming voice is better known for the menagerie that is A Prairie Home Companion, follows a very rigid structure: a song, an array of histories, a poem, and a mantra.

The familiar consistency of this format imbues each new episode with a sense of a nostalgia. Even as I learn new stories each time I listen to the Almanac, the ritualistic elements of its craft always make me feel like I am returning home. Even in the experiencing of something so brief, my understanding of the show’s unchanging structure makes me feel snugly nestled in cozy and literary microcosm.


Every episode opens with an elegant piano version of a Scandinavian folk song called “Ge Mig En Dag ” (Give Me a Day), over which Keillor recites the introduction, “And here is the Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, the fourth of May, two-thousand-fourteen”—or whatever the correct day may be for the given show; episodes date all the way back to 1993. The main portion of the Almanac follows, with Keillor describing the significance of the current day in history. He then reads a poem, sometimes related to the content of the main section—for example, he recently read an excerpt of Anne Frank’s diary on the anniversary of its first publishing in English—but more often than not, a piece that stands completely alone. Finally, a reprise of “Ge Mig En Dag” rises up from the moment of silence following the poem, and over this Keillor reads the brief credits for the show and closes with the incantation, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Most of the tiny stories that comprise the Almanac are biographies of writers whose birthdays occur on the day of the show, but other events are recognized and brought to life as well: The birthdays of Duke Ellington and Leland Stanford, the founding of the United States Post Office and the ending of the Civil War, the discovery of DNA, the first performance of Amazing Grace—basically anything that could be deemed notable in the grand scheme of the world. The Writer’s Almanac makes this variety of content accessible by marrying it with a familiar and consistent framework.

The consistencies of the show give it a personal and familiar mood; it easily becomes a sort of aural comfort food. “Ge Mig En Dag” now triggers a Pavlovian nostalgia in me whenever I hear it: I feel like I’m in my car, driving home from school and unwinding after a long day, and also like I’m sitting by a warm fireplace with good friends on a winter day; the former feeling is a product of the actual circumstances in which I’ve heard the song so many times, the latter a product of the perfectly languid and cozy composition and performance of the music itself. Moreover, Keillor’s voice has a tranquil and hypnotic tone, and he reads with an experienced patience that entices and holds the listener’s attention. Finally, the initiation and completion of each episode with exactly the same flowery, non-perfunctory language every time gives the Almanac an air of ritual and sacredness. By creating a mood of peace and respite, The Writer’s Almanac takes a very simple concept and makes it into a cathartic ritual with a unique aesthetic.

There is certainly a lot to be said for novelty—for inventive storytelling and for surprising one’s audience. And the idea of repetition, of doing something the same way every time, does not seem like it would be very engaging. Nevertheless, if you embed your narratives with consistent idiosyncrasies—a song to open, a proverb to end, a constant tempo—you will create tiny traditions for your audience to hold on to, little anchors that tie their hearts to your stories.

Article written by: Alec Glassford on 6/6/2014


Tell Us How You Got There

Tell Us How You Got There

In 2010, This American Life hit their 400-episode milestone. To commemorate, TAL staff decided to take on a challenge: produce stories pitched by their parents. Ira Glass shared an awkward story about losing his suit on a train, Nancy Updike came up with a jingle about the Erie Canal, but the far-and-away winner of this challenge was Lisa Pollak, who accepted a pitch from her mother to create a piece about “funny funerals.”

In addition to being completely hilarious, Funny Funerals offers aspiring podcast producers, like me, a rare insight into how to tackle a difficult story. Lisa Pollak reveals that even if you lack the ingredients of a good story (protagonist, dramatic arc, etc.), all is not lost!

I used to think Lisa’s piece was about funny funerals. It wasn’t until I listened to it about half a dozen times that I realized it was not a piece about funny funerals, but a piece about Lisa Pollak’s search for funny funeral stories.

Even though Lisa’s piece is filled with funny funeral stories, you’ll notice that the central protagonist isn’t a funeral-goer, a funeral director, or even a corpse; the protagonist is none other than Lisa herself. She is the protagonist and this is her quest: to find the ultimate funny funeral story.

Take a look at this rough story arc as you listen to Lisa’s piece:

Inciting Incident: What prompts Lisa to undertake the funny funerals story challenge? A conversation with her mom, where her mom recalls a funeral so funny she “bust a gut” laughing. Lisa wants to find a funeral story of the same caliber.

Rising Action: Lisa pores over old newspapers and books, calls experts and asks people around her for leads. Along the way, Lisa shares her findings with the audience, and although many of them are funny and interesting, she doesn’t quite yet uncover at the “bust a gut” level story she’s looking for.

Climax: Lisa is “just about to give up looking,” when she receives an unlikely tip from a TAL intern, Brian Reed. Brian suggests Lisa make one more phone call to two friends of his who supposedly have the exact story Lisa is trying to find.

(If you listen closely, you’ll notice that Lisa plants doubt and suspense along the way; for instance, a funeral director tells her she will never find a funny story. Suspense raises the stakes!)

Falling Action / Resolution: Lisa interviews Brian’s friends, who share a really hilarious story (rife with unintended innuendo) about a Ukrainian funeral. Lisa calls her mother to share what she’s found.

Reflection: Was it a “bust a gut” type story? Lisa’s mom laughs, but it is unclear if this story was as funny as what Lisa’s mom witnessed at the funny funeral she attended. Oh well. Lisa ties up the loose ends by cleverly suggesting, “she didn’t bust a gut, but maybe for my mom that only happens at funerals.”

So, maybe you’ve got a lot of content, but aren’t quite sure how to present it? Consider crafting your story arc with details from your search. Make yourself the protagonist. Because honestly, who doesn’t love a story about a smart protagonist trying to tackle a tough topic? Your journey might be just as interesting as what you find.

Podcast: Funny Funerals,” This American Life, 2010 (11 minutes)

Article written by: Victoria Muirhead on 3/5/2014


The Virtuoso of Multitasking

Head Full of Symphonies

What do you get when you combine a ragtime piano performer, classical symphonies, and a neuroscientist? A feat that pushes the boundaries of the human mind. Radiolab’s “A Head Full of Symphonies” left me breathless with its lush sounds and tight reporting. I have forever been enthralled by feats of fortitude and wit and this story does not disappoint.

With its signature rich sound effects and suspenseful narrative, Radiolab is at its finest. In this blogpost, I want to point out a technique in which Radiolab anticipates the audience’s questions. When the facts are laid out before us, the results are so unbelievable, they cause spontaneous expletives from Jad. Those expletives give the audience a feeling of “Yeah! I feel that way too!”

We are introduced first to Bob Milne who quickly turns from an unassuming man from Michigan to one of best ragtime players in the world.


He is deemed a national treasure by the Library of Congress not for what his fingers can do, but for what his mind contains. He has an intimate and emotional relationship to music, and slowly, listeners are able to glimpse how his brain processes music.

At one point in the piece when the researcher attempts to explain Bob’s unique talents, Jad asks, “Did he just say he can hear TWO symphonies in his head at one time?” an exclamation that echoes the audience’s potential incredulity to which Jessica Benko, the reporter, affirms to drive the point home. Jad also acts as an ambassador on the audience’s behalf to clarify any possible points of confusion. For example, instead of just accepting Bob’s talents, Jad asks, “Can he hear the entire symphony or just the melodies?” and “all in his head?” infusing the exchange with just the right amount of skepticism and gut reactions (“Huh!” and “I can’t believe this!”) that ultimately make the story not only compelling but relatable.

These short bursts of questions and requests for clarification force the neuroscientist and the reporter to slow down and repeat the most important details of the experiment. By anticipating what the audience would ask, listeners are increasingly invested while simultaneously becoming more familiar with the experiment’s finer points. The spurts of dialogue that interweave the reporter’s explanation also add a human touch to an otherwise dry and analytical scene.

The next time you’re producing a story and need to break down a technical or complex concept, try anticipating your audience’s questions, and interweaving dialogue that will slow the action down. These strategies will help clarify the technical details for your listeners, and will increase their investment in your story’s outcome.

Podcast: A Head Full of Symphonies

Produced by: Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, Jessica Benko, and Mark Phillips at WYNC’s Radiolab 2013

Duration: 18 minutes

Article written by: Tina Tran on 2/24/2014