institute for documentary studies

{Week 11: Radio}

Week 11: Radio

Are there certain conversations in your life you wish you could revisit? In radio, you have that luxury. Everything is recorded – well, almost everything—hopefully the most intriguing and informative parts. You carry these lessons in your pocket. And when you return to Salt after a day of fieldwork and transfer raw audio files from your recorder to your computer, that period of five to eight minutes is laden with more anticipation then Christmas. It’s a simple maneuver, but I tend to hold my breath as I upload my tape and watch the blue bar inch closer to completion, invoking the spirit of Terry Gross that the interview is:
1) Easy to hear – i.e. loud, but not too loud (too loud and the audio recorder will let out a banshee wail that means the sound cup runneth over)
2) Easy to see – i.e. visually stimulating (through descriptive power, scene setting, storytelling, or emotional candor. It should set a film reel rolling in the listener’s brain and cast mental pictures)
3) Easy to understand – i.e. able to be understood by almost everybody when put in context (Men, women, children, old, and young. The public in public radio).
Good tape is all three and great tape, the gold-minted kind you run home giddy to tell your roommates, your radio buddies, your radio instructor about, has an additional, though elusive, quality: It teaches you something important. It’s a flash of clarity – penetrating, but also magnanimous. It cuts right to the marrow of someone’s life and by extension, all our lives.
In the Salt radio program, these kinds of moments happen all the time. Sometimes they happen with other radio producers. Our instructor Michael May invites reporters, freelancers, editors, and sound artists to speak with us on a weekly basis. These hour to two-hour conversations mostly take place over Skype (sometimes in person), but they are always enlightening. This supplementary education by the public radio community is one of the major perks of being a Salt student. It’s school unlike you’ve ever seen it before, in which the lectures are participatory and the subject matter ever changing. It’s exciting. You feel like an apprentice on the verge of joining a guild.
One of the reasons I love radio journalism is because it’s an extension of school and I’m reluctant to stop calling myself a student. As a reporter, it’s your job to learn something new everyday. Your mind must be open and willing to understand something new. And by dint of recording people’s voices, you stand a better chance of remembering what they taught you later on. Some of it might stay with you for your life.
During these Skype calls, I take rigorous notes. I pan them for potential radio mantras to imbibe, as if preparing for future tests. Sometimes all I need to get over a reporting or editing hump is that one nugget of wisdom and I’m hoping that with enough scrutiny, I’ll be able to summon these words in moments of paralysis. It’s advisable to write and record everything – EVERYTHING – you can at Salt.  That way, when Salt is over and it’s just you and your number 2 pencil, you’ll be ready.
“There may be naïve people in your story. You don’t want to be one of them.”
- Andrea de Leon, NPR’s Eastern Bureau Chief
“Hash tags are like the address of a party.”
- Jeff Howe, Contributing Editor to Wired
“Imagine what would be the most awesome thing to happen on tape and what kinds of questions would produce that tape.”
- Robert Smith, Correspondent for NPR’s Planet Money
“A pitch should say who is doing what for what reason and why the audience is going to love it.”
- Peter Clowney, Director of Arts and Ideas at American Public Media
“Is there a way to record what the salmon hear?”
- Charles Maynes, Independent Radio Producer
“Always read the plaque.”
- Sean Cole, Independent Radio Producer
Don’t say, ‘I hate to ask you about this’ in an interview. It’s about them. Not about you and your reaction.”
- Shea Shackelford, Salt alum and Founder of Big Shed
“You know you have the story when different people are saying the same thing.”
- John Burnett, NPR Correspondent
“Come into your stories with genuine questions and genuine interest. We’re animals and we need to smell each other.” 
- Nancy Updike, Producer on This American Life