Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Storytelling Tips from Ira Glass

Four short videos and a three-part written manifesto on the construction of story from This American Life's master story-teller Ira Glass. Great stuff.

Couple of notes:

-There are two building blocks of story. The first is the sequence of events. The second is the why or the moment of reflection. There is 1) what happens and 2) why it is important. Successful stories must have both. To quote Ira:

"I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened. Or, put another way, there’s the action of the story and there are the conclusions. And both have to be pretty interesting. A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work for radio. Or, anyway, it’s not going to be as powerful as the best radio stories. The best radio stories have both. So one way to get an ailing story to work (and to determine if it’s a story at all) is to figure out what surprising conclusions about the world might come from that story."

-You need a sympathetic character.

-Surprise is important. If there are no surprises the story is boring.

-You should always be asking, "What's the conflict? What's the drama?"

-How does the little issue speak to the bigger issue?

Here are the four short videos:

And here is the entire manifesto, cut and pasted into this post. Notice that most of the links don't work. You can read the original entires, with embedded audio and working links, here, here, and here.

Ira Glass's Manifesto

Rather than talk about radio in a Big Picture way, I'm going to start with some simple things that might be useful to the radio beginners who come to Transom. I'm going to try to avoid repeating things I've said elsewhere about making radio stories, but I'm guessing some repetition is going to be inevitable. Elsewhere on the web you can find an old (and deeply edited) speech about making radio more fun here. There are some pages from the This American Life " How to Make Radio" comic book here.

1. Learning Curve

I started working at NPR's headquarters in Washington when I was 19 but I wasn't competent at writing and structuring my own stories until I was 27. I've never met anyone who took longer, and I've met hundreds of people who work in radio. Back then, I made my living by filling in as a production assistant on the various national news shows, and by taking day jobs as a temp typist around Washington. I was sort of hopeless at all the basic tasks of recognizing and shaping a story.

If this sounds like exaggeration, here's a typical report from when I was in my mid-20's. If you listen to the first minute you'll get the idea. The writing's stilted. I'm a horrible reader, underlining every other word for emphasis. The people in the story are two-dimensional props, used to make an argument. It's hard to even tell what this story's about. I refer to things that no one's ever heard of (like "the international debate over meat and grain production") as if we all have heard of them. The tone of the thing is all wrong. There's no pleasure, no sense of discovery, no humor, no genuine human moment, no fun.

Listen to the Supermarket Excerpt in MP3 - 1:03 (764 kb) http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ supermarket_excerpt.mp3

A few years ago, one of the producers of This American Life, Alix Spiegel, had an idea for a story about chickens and I remembered that I'd done a story on a similar subject as part of this supermarket series. I dug up a tape. She listened. "There's nothing in here," she reported to me, "showing any talent at all. There's nothing in here that indicates that you were ever going to get it." (For a sense of what my aesthetics were like when I was 19 and first worked at NPR, here are two radio spots I did back in college, a month or two before I first set foot in the building. These are possibly the most embarrassing things I could possibly post on the Internet. I was a very corny wannabe humorist. I appear in both spots.) In retrospect, I'm not exactly sure what kept me going. Part of it, I'm sure, was that I didn't have any other prospects. I certainly didn't have any other skills.

Listen to the WNUR Spot #1 - :49 (580 kb)
http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ wnur_spot1.mp3

Listen to the WNUR Spot #2 - 1:03 (400 kb)
http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ wnur_spot2.mp3

I bring all of this up to say that if you're someone who wants to make radio stories (or do any kind of creative work), you're probably going to have a period when things might not come too easily. For some people, that's just a year. For others, like me, it's eight years. You might feel completely alone and lost during this period -- God knows I did -- and I hope it's reassuring in some small way to hear that what you're going through is completely normal. Most people go through it. And there are things you can do during this period of mediocrity that will get you to the next step, that will drive you toward skill and competence.

Force yourself to do a lot of stories. This is the most important thing you can do. Get yourself in a situation where people are expecting work out of you, or where you simply force yourself to do a certain number of stories every month. Turn the stuff out. Deadlines are your friend.

Create your own projects. Some of these can be based on what you're good at. I was always a very good tape cutter. It was the one part of making radio that I got right from the start and did well. I was an okay interviewer and, as we've established, a horrible reader and writer. So I invented this series of stories where I'd interview people and then edit myself out of the tape completely. They'd tell stories and reflect on what the stories meant. No script. No narration.

Here are two of those stories, done several years after the supermarket stories. You can hear something in their tone that would eventually morph into This American Life.

Listen to Bradley - 5:27(3.7 mb)
http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ bradley.mp3

Listen to Yasuko - 5:29 (3.7 mb)
http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ yasuko.mp3

Half the people I'd interviewed for this series didn't work out. Their stories weren't interesting enough. That was something else I learned through this series, that lots of things will never be radio stories.

Have your own agenda. By the time I was in my 30's, I was getting reporting assignments from NPR and on any given story, in addition to whatever my editor wanted, I had my own goals. For instance, every story, even the stories thrown together in one day, had to have a tape-to-tape transition. (That is, the story would go from one quote directly to the next ... or from a quote to location sound, to another quote, with no narration. This was to keep me alert to pacing. Too many radio stories just go back and forth from script to tape to script to tape.) Every story had to have some moment that was there to amuse me -- a funny moment, an emotional moment, some original observation I'd made on the scene that no other reporter had. It could just be a nice moment in the script. Every story had to have someone who was more than a talking head, spouting out their point of view on the issue of the day. To make them more human, it sometimes only took a line of description, an original thought about who they were and why they believed what they believed, a surprising moment, a funny moment on tape.

What I'm saying is, there was lots I was bad at and I consciously set out to make myself better. For a while, I forced myself in every story to have some moment where I interacted with someone on tape during the story. I did this because I'd noticed that in other people's stories, usually the most interesting stuff came when they talked to the people in the stories, where there was a back and forth. Like most beginning radio reporters, I didn't like to hear myself on tape. I didn't like how I sounded asking the questions. So much of the time I was awkward or cloying. Trying too hard in one way or another. It was embarrassing. But at some point I decided that omitting this kind of tape meant I was accidentally omitting a kind of drama from my stories, neglecting some of the tools at my disposal, neglecting part of the power and fun of the medium, and I forced myself through it, in story after story.

Even today, if I had to give just one piece of advice to beginning reporters about the single fastest way they could improve their stories, it'd be to get themselves into the quotes. Asking tough questions. Cajoling the interviewee. Joking with the interviewee. Thinking out loud and chatting with the interviewee. The daily reporting on public radio would be so much more fun to listen to, and so much more informative about the character of the interviewees, if there were more of this.
Imitate others. Painters do it. Why don't we?

Back when I really didn't understand how to write a radio story, one thing that helped a lot was to mimic other people's writing. I specifically remember stealing this one move I'd heard Alex Chadwick make in a story. It's a good move and I encourage you to steal it too.

To understand the move, put yourself in Alex's position for a second. He's writing the intro to a story about frogs. That story: A high school girl refused to dissect a frog in class. She thought it was inhumane to kill the frog. A judge ruled that she still had to do the assignment, but the school had to provide her with a frog that died of natural causes. I was working at All Things Considered and saw this item in the paper and thought it was pretty funny, that some school administrators were now going to have to find frogs who were just on the verge of dying, or just recently dead, and so I produced a little story with Alex about it. We went out with a naturalist to a swamp where frogs live, to look for some recently- dead or dying frogs, to illustrate the new hell this school science teacher would now find himself in.

So okay, you're Alex Chadwick. You have to write the opening of this story. Most of us would be kind of, I don't know, workaday and boring about it. We'd write something summarizing the court case, maybe along the lines of what I just wrote above:
Earlier this week in Victorville California, a high school girl refused to dissect a frog in class. She thought it was inhumane to kill the frog. She ended up in court, where a judge came to this Solomonic ruling: she still had to do the assignment ... but the school had to provide her with a frog that died ... of natural causes. But does such a thing even exist? We decided to figure it out.

Okay, that's lame, I know. But I'm making a point. Listen to Alex's version of the opening. I remember when he showed me the script, I was stunned at how long it was. I figured he'd knock it off in three or four sentences, but he was taking so much time. (And needless to say, because we were on All Things Considered, we needed things to be short.) I thought he was nuts. But what he did was so much more engaging than what most radio writers do, because, for one thing, it actually has a human voice to it. He sounds like a real guy telling you something he's interested in, not a news-robot.

Listen to the Frog Intro - 1:03 (1.2 mb)
http:/ / sounds/ 2004/ guests/ 200405_glass/ frog.mp3

In addition, he makes that move, the one that you're going to steal. It comes here: "It bothered her that any creature should have to die so she could cut it open for study. It was a matter of principle. And as with many such issues, it wound up in court." I know it seems like a small thing, but that's the move. Namely, when he says "as with many such issues," he steps out of the facts of this particular story and toward a big general point about How Things Work. Also, framing it as a matter of principle makes it seem bigger and grander and more like a story with something happening in it. This is so much a part of the style of the radio show I work on now that if I open my script for last week's show, I come to an example of it immediately, in the intro to Act One:

And now ... the story of a man with a simple mission: to give a little special treatment to a group of people whose contribution to society is often overlooked: the men and women of the food service industry.

Not the greatest piece of writing, but a decent one. Thanks, Alex.

2. What’s a Story?

The people who run Transom had this suggestion:

From all the submissions you get, you must have a sense of Things That Tend NOT To Work… and maybe some ideas for GETTING them to work. For instance, what moves the personal story toward something more? Are there stories that are just not worth pursuing and what do they have in common?

Some stories definitely aren’t worth pursuing. These are stories where everything reminds you too much of other stories you’ve already heard, and stories where there’s no sympathetic character (it’s hard for the story to carry much feeling if there’s no one in the story to relate to), and stories where everything kind of works out as you’d sort of expect. Surprise is important.

And some stories just have a kind of, I don’t know the word, charisma or something. There definitely is a X factor, some extra exciting something in certain stories, that when you tell a friend the story, you feel yourself get charged up. It’s got some juice in it. Sometimes it’s the alchemy of the characters and the situation and the plot turns. Sometimes it’s just one moment where someone says something or does something or realizes something that’s so perfect and pleasing to think about. Understanding what it is that attracts you to the story in the first place is a big part of making the story work.

One simple way to test whether your story is worth telling on the radio is to tell it to your friends, and notice how you feel. Do you feel like you’re dragging through one tedious moment after another, always on the verge of losing their interest, and sometimes you’re not even sure what the story’s about or why you’re telling certain parts? Or are your friends laughing and buying you drinks and begging you for more details about the characters? When you’re done, does everyone at the table launch into an excited discussion of similar things that happened to them? Heed these signs. If you can’t tell the story compellingly to a friend, it means either you haven’t figured out what the story is really about, or ­ much more likely ­ it never will be possible to tell this story compellingly over the radio.

(Also notice, incidentally, the way you tell your friends the story: where you begin it, what background facts you feel compelled to throw in and where you throw them in, what parts of the story you tell in what order, what parts of the story you leave out, what parts of the story seem weaker when you tell them. The way you tell the story to your friends is often the most structure for the story on the radio. Sometimes, when someone’s stuck on writing a story for our show, I or one of the other producers will have them put down their notes and logs and just tell us the story, to hear the structure they naturally use in telling it aloud.)

And yes, there are ways to get a story to work. Often this means you have to think about what the heart of the story is about, and figure out how to make that more present. This can involve adding moments and scenes that build up the central conflict (and pruning away the ones that don’t). It can mean making explicit what the story means, stating more directly what the point of the whole thing is. More about that below.

Some Basics About Story Construction

I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened. Or, put another way, there’s the action of the story and there are the conclusions. And both have to be pretty interesting. A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work for radio. Or, anyway, it’s not going to be as powerful as the best radio stories. The best radio stories have both. So one way to get an ailing story to work (and to determine if it’s a story at all) is to figure out what surprising conclusions about the world might come from that story.

Here’s an example of a personal story that reaches for bigger, universal ideas. It’s a pretty old story, one I did for Morning Edition with a reporter named Margy Rochlin. The pacing and music choices are a little less dynamic than I’d probably go for today. (Years later, we collected this story and a bunch from the same series into the Liars episode of This American Life.)

If you listen, you’ll hear that this lays out in two clear sections. There’s the plotline about the narrator’s freshman roommate, and how he told this big lie, and how the lie unfolded, and how it was discovered. Then there’s the idea section of the story. If you haven’t listened to the story yet, but think you will someday, you might want to skip down four paragraphs to avoid some spoilers.

There are three ideas in this story. The first is about life in a small town, and how lonely it is, and how it can lead you to this kind of lie. That’s a nice one because it’s so anthropological. I love when the narrator says “Have you ever been to a really a small town? If you’ve ever been to a really small town and you’re a different kind of kid … ” I love how he leaps to a big general principle he’s noticed, based on his own experience, an experience that’s so different from mine.

The second idea made more sense years ago, back when this story was produced, because the Kennedy legend was a little shinier then. Our narrator talks about the power of the Kennedy myth, and how “if you’re going to try to embroider a life, a life in America, what myth are you going to try to hook yourself onto?” The soundmix in here ­ where the second voice comes in ­ still makes me really happy, every time I hear it. This is the sparkliest of the three ideas, the most original, I think.

The third idea explains how our narrator was complicit in the lie. How he kind of enjoyed the lie. Which is nice because it makes the drama of the story more complicated.

It’s best to try to figure out the possible Big Ideas in your story before you go out and start interviewing people, because knowing what the Big Ideas might turn out to be will shape your interviews. Any idea that happens in a radio story, you’ll want tape to illustrate. That’s as true in this kind of story as in a news report on Morning Edition. You’ll need tape of your interviewees talking about the Big Ideas.

And yes, lots of times when you get in the field, you discover that either no one in the story has anything interesting to say about what happened, or the facts of the story turn out differently than you thought, or some other damn thing fails to fall into place and your story just dissipates into vapor. Probably half the interviews I do never make it onto the air for this very reason. Some moment in the story is interesting, but there’s nothing interesting to say about it.

It’s helpful to build into the way you think about stories the notion that lots of ideas aren’t going to pan out. Our show’s acquisitions budget, even at very beginning when we were still struggling for every dollar, was set up to commission a fourth more stories than we’d ever run, with the assumption we’ll be killing lots of ideas.

So How Do You Find the Ideas Inherent in a Story?

Consider this story. It’s about this guy, Adam Davidson, whose mom is Israeli and whose dad is American. When he was a teenager, Adam read the biography of David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel. Ben-Gurion was a compulsive diarest and in Adam’s diary at 16, Adam wrote with the quiet conviction that he, Adam, was destined for a fate like Ben-Gurion’s. Someday he would be the Prime Minister of Israel.

Adam’s a regular contributor to our show and this whole story was mainly an excuse to read his really funny, cringeworthy teenage diary entries on the air. Here’s a sample:

So interviews for this style of story (and by that I mean most interviews I do for our show) generally take the following form. For a while I get the person to lay out the plot of what happened, getting them to be very specific about the turning points in the story and about any other moments and details that interest and amuse me (including, in this case, reading from diary entries). I comment and I get them to comment on anything intriguing that comes up along the way.

And then there’s the part of the interview ­ really, it can be interspersed throughout the interview too ­ where I look for the Big Ideas.

So once I had Adam explain the diary and read a bunch of funny excerpts, I started in on the Big Idea part of things, which mostly involves a lot of fishing around, asking every idea-oriented question I can possibly think of.

To come up with these questions, mainly I just imagine the story from Adam’s perspective. I try to imagine what it would mean to be that 16-year-old version of Adam, and what the story says about kids like that. The questions can be as direct as: “Why you? Why were you the one kid who thought he’d be prime minister of Israel?” Or one can ask the same thing in a more abstract way, to elicit a more general kind of answer: “What sort of teenager do you think ends up writing a diary like this?”

In the end, out of all the questions I asked, two areas led to interesting thoughts you could say on the radio. One came from these questions about what sort of kid he was. Adam said that he was the sort of awkward kid who never could get a girl to kiss him, and so it was nice when he was 16 to have this space where he was “one of the greats.”

But the really beautiful and original and surprising part of the interview came by accident, out of a question that was actually kind of a throwaway.

Honestly, if you’ve never felt that feeling, that way of looking at your parents, then you were not a teenager in America. It’s so big and universal and easy to relate to. This moment takes a funny story and makes it really huge and special. And that’s not just because of that sappy music I put under it.

But to get that nice answer on tape – to get so lucky – I had to try dozens of different things during the interview. I threw out all sorts of half-baked questions and speculations and proddings. To give you a sense of just how far-ranging and ill-conceived some of these are, I put together this montage of all the Big Idea questions that went nowhere in that one hour interview. Note that the reason there are lots of questions about cringing is that the theme of the show this was recorded for, was Cringes (though it later ended up in a different show).

In putting this montage together for Transom, I found many of the things I said to be embarrassing. I’m trying so hard. Some of the ideas I throw out there are really too far out. But this, honestly, is typical for me. I don’t want to sound dumb on the air, but I’m willing to sound dumb during an interview. And trying a lot of different ideas of various sorts is the only way I know to get the kind of tape I want.

3. What’s Not a Story?

Before we close down this discussion, there was one other thing I had notes about, that I want to write. It’s part of my answer to the original questions the people at Transom posed to me:

From all the submissions you get, you must have a sense of Things That Tend NOT To Work… and maybe some ideas for GETTING them to work. For instance, what moves the personal story toward something more? Are there stories that are just not worth pursuing and what do they have in common?

Weeks ago, as part of answering this, I turned to Julie Snyder, the Senior Producer of This American Life, who’s in charge of overseeing all the submissions. Much more than me, she actually knows the kinds of ideas people send in that don’t work. I also asked another producer on the show, Alex Blumberg, who teaches a radio documentary class at Columbia in New York, what kinds of things his students attempt that have little chance of succeeding. What ideas should they kill before they ever start work on them?

Julie told me that one common problem in the pitches we get is that often, people don’t understand that in a narrative story, something has to be at stake. They’ll say, “I’m going to be driving across the country and I’ve bought this tape recorder and I was thinking I’d record the people I meet along the way.” That kind of idea would be hard to turn into a narrative story because there’s nothing at stake. There’s no question driving it forward, nothing compelling that the characters are trying to figure out in these scenes. Also: there’s no conflict. Narrative can’t happen without conflict, without people who want different things, or see things in different ways.

Compare that pitch with one of the few travel stories we’ve done on the show, in an episode of the program we called “Trek.”In that story, two best friends went to South Africa for the first time, shortly after the end of apartheid. There were two things at stake in the story. First, one of the guys had found out he had distant relatives in South Africa and he wanted to meet them, hoping they hadn’t been racists and supporters of the apartheid state, but instead part of the political opposition. This was the mission/question part of the story. This mission actually gets them into some dramatic discussions with the guy’s family and with each other, scenes where it really feels like people are sizing each other up and talking and arguing.

The second conflict in the story comes from the fact that one of the guys was black and one was white. In America, as best friends, they’d never really talked much about race. Once they were in South Africa, they had very different reactions to the people they met and the things they saw, and started arguing about race a lot, and fighting for the first time in their friendship.

Julie also said it’s common for someone to pitch us a story that’s not really a story but just the germ of an idea that could lead to a story. They’ll write saying “I thought it’d be interesting to …” but haven’t worked out the characters or conflict. Like: “I thought it’d be interesting to check with a family that won the lottery four years ago, to see what happened to them.” That’s the kind of thing it’s hard for us to say yes to because again, there’s no conflict and nothing at stake. In this kind of case, Julie will suggest that the person pitching go out and find a family, to see if there’s anything surprising and compelling to report, some interesting experience they went through, with hopefully at least one person who’s a good talker.

Sometimes, Julie says, reporters who are used to a more traditional kind of reporting ­ especially reporters who’ve worked mostly in print — don’t understand that one big difference between print and radio is that a radio story needs a certain amount of suspense and surprise to keep people listening. They’ll pitch descriptive kinds of feature stories that might work in print, but that aren’t inherently compelling as radio. An example: more than once, reporters have pitched us the idea of doing stories about the “sandhogs,” the workers who dig tunnels around big East Coast cities. Some families have generations of sandhogs in them. “It’s perfect for radio,” the reporters say, “because these guys have these great voices, and you’ll hear the echoes of the tunnels, and the sounds of the equipment.” Julie asks them, what’s the conflict, what’s the drama? And the reporters might point to some news peg ­ a tunnel completed by these guys, maybe. But for our kind of show, that’s not enough. We need more of a narrative. Julie sometimes tells people that for a story like this to work in our show, it has to center around one drama, like a Hollywood movie does. If there were a feature movie about these guys, just meeting a few of them wouldn’t be enough. You’d need, I don’t know, an older guy who wants his son to get into the family sandhog business, or stay out of the family sandhog business, and the kid wants something different from his old man, and it’s all coming to a head. Or you’d need a woman who wants to join the union and do the work her father and grandfather did, work that’s always been done by men, and everyone opposes it at first. Those are corny examples that all sound like lost Elia Kazan films from the 50′s, but you get the idea: You need a drama, with specific characters. At least to do our kind of story. There are lots of other kinds of reporting. There may even be a nice way to do this on radio.

I feel like a lot of this advice comes down to saying: know what the story is, know what the conflict is, before you get your tape. But I need to also say to you: there are plenty of times ­ especially as a beginner ­ when you should just go out and record an interview, even if you don’t know what the story is. I sat down with Bradley and Yasuko (whose MP3′s appear earlier in this Manifesto) without knowing anything about what kind of tape I’d get. I just thought they were interesting, expressive, emotional talkers. I figured I’d ask them a bunch of questions and look for a story. Then, during the interviews, when I caught the hint of little stories, I fished around to make sure I had everything I needed to put the story on the radio: a beginning, middle and end … plus some moments where they say some ideas about what it all means. Sometimes you should go get the tape, and then pitch it to the big national program afterwards. With Bradley and Yasuko, I did the interviews and cut the interviews and then pitched them to Morning Edition. Even then, my pitch wasn’t much of a pitch. I explained that I had this tape and it was funny and sort of unusual and they should just listen. Because I had a good track record with them, and the tape was so short, that worked out fine.

And here’s another caveat. A few paragraphs back, I said that when people pitch us stories like “I’m driving cross-country and I’ll tape the people I meet along the way,” Julie and I always say no. But one of the best radio reporters in the country, Scott Carrier, began in radio by doing that very story: he hitchhiked across the country and interviewed each person who picked him up. What made his story work was the compelling quality of the interviews, and his writing, and the overall tone of the thing. It had its own sad, yearny sound.

It wasn’t a narrative story. It wasn’t the kind of thing we usually do on our show. In a sense, it was a harder kind of story to pull off. One thing that makes narrative stories easier than other kinds of stories is that the plot will pull listeners along. There are other kinds of stories, stories whose structure isn’t as strict. But even more than narrative stories, they require luck in finding interviewees and compelling interviews. You can’t rely on the overall plot to keep people listening so every moment of tape has to be pretty great.

Which is to say: There are other ways to make radio stories. This just happens to be the way we do it at our radio program.

Alex had a very different take on problem stories, based on his experience teaching at Columbia. He said a common problem his students run into is that they get seduced by the sound of things, by a kind of public radio documentary aesthetic. They think a good idea for a radio story is when they find an interviewee whose voice and delivery remind them of things they’ve already heard on public radio. If it sounds like one of those David Isay sound portrait stories where people are talking slowly and deliberately with a sincere sound in their voices, maybe in some sort of accent, the students focus on that sound more than on the actual content of what’s being said. So they end up with pretty sounding tape that doesn’t have a compelling story. At some point in the editing, they realize it’s hard to put together, because all the material is just okay ­ nothing’s great, nothing’s terrible. There’s no central story that just kills every time they hear it, that actually gets them excited. There’s just a nice accent, plus meaningful pauses here and there.

Another problem: Alex’s students often want to do a story about an artist, or a subculture, or they want to hang out in a subculture, without any ideas about that subculture that would give the story meaning or make it feel like it matters. They want to spend time with Hells Angels, or people who collect Beanie Babies, or ham radio operators, or knitters. But it’s not enough to just visit with these people. The story has to have more in it than “here’s what they do.” They need to make up theories about the interviewees, Alex says, putting them in categories, comparing them with other things, attaching them to bigger ideas. They need to always be thinking “this is like this,” “this means that,” “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.” Especially “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.”

Some of his students get in trouble when their reason for doing a story is basically, that they just like the person in the story. One student wanted to do a story about a professor who had this theory the student found interesting. The professor said our problem today is that we have too much choice. We’re paralyzed by choice. In the end, the theory was too eggheady to work in the kind of interview and story the student was putting together. But it was hard for the student to see that. He wasn’t objective about the story and what was working and what wasn’t, because he liked the professor too much. It clouded his judgment about whether certain moments in the story were working.

Another student wanted to do a story about a Haitian-American artist in a Haitian-American artist collective. She did art that reflected her Haitian identity. Alex asked the student what interested her about the story. She said it was interesting that the artist was expressing her Haitian identity through her art. Alex asked the student if she really found that interesting. She said no. But it’s the type of story you might hear on the radio. That’s why she was attracted to it. She didn’t think it was interesting, but she thought one was supposed to find it interesting. It was like the answer to a question on a test: What should your public radio story be about? This one had art, culture and someone from a minority group. It was a triple threat.

Alex says this happens a lot. His students will pitch ideas and say that they’re interested in them when really, they’re not. They just think they’re supposed to be interested in them.

He says the lesson they need to learn is not just to trust their instincts … but also to know when they’re telling themselves the truth about what they’re feeling. A much better story pitch, he says, came from the student who declared that he wanted to find out how to become a major league umpire. All sorts of things make that a challenging story to put on radio, but at least it’s motivated by a sincere feeling, a sincere desire to figure something out. He’s not pretending to be interested in that subject; he’s truly interested.

Finally, Alex says that beginners should abandon their ideas way quicker then they usually do. He says that understandably, because they haven’t done many stories, they often blame themselves if a story isn’t working. They try to make it work. They stick with it. They think it’s their fault if they can’t find the story in someone.

There’s a myth that everyone has a story, Alex says. Everyone does have a story, sure, but it’s not necessarily a story that should be told on the radio. It’s important to know when there’s nothing interesting, truly interesting, in your tape, and move on. This is where playing your tape for other people and getting an honest reaction can be really helpful. Killing your story is nothing to be ashamed of. I figure, if I’m not killing at least a third of the interviews I do for the radio show, we’re not taking enough chances. Killing stories is just part of the process of finding great stories.

If one interview doesn’t work, try another, and another. Follow the things that interest you and attract you. Amuse yourself. Keep getting more tape until luck kicks in.

Luck will always kick in.

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