institute for documentary studies

{Week 8: Radio}

Week 8: Radio

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

- Ira Glass


Writing is running, with each writer excelling at various levels of speed and distance.  A daily writer for the Boston Globe moves his pen across paper (or fingers across keys) with the rapidity and fire of an sprinter: quick out of the gate, picking up speed as the clock ticks, and ending strong. Short quick bursts of energy expenditure. The writers for the New Yorker are marathon runners. They churn out long-form articles of innumerable pages, pacing themselves but pressing ever forward.

Each of our radio features has a glass ceiling of 7 minutes, not a second over. It’s an ideal length for radio amateurs—a race that leaves us neither too winded nor too fatigued—but the real challenge is not in finishing the race, but in covering the distance in a powerful way. This is what makes the difference between someone spinning a yarn to a sleepy-eyed crowd at the bar room and someone captivating the airwaves of National Public Radio: blue-ribbon storytelling that is unmistakable when you hear it, but very difficult to achieve on your own. In order to tell stories that appeal to everyone and not just to your own sensibilities, seeking the counsel of others is essential.

Though I knew in advance that Salt was a highly collaborative environment, I didn’t anticipate how I would rely on other students and how much of my time would be spent in editing boot camp. Our seven-minute pieces begin as scripts, about 2 ½ pages long, and are combed over weekly by our peers and Michael, our radio instructor. By routinely critiquing the pieces of fellow students and receiving feedback about my own pieces, I have become a better editor and self-editor. I’ve learned how to identify the story points of a story, the weak points of a story, and developed a rough notion of how to solve narrative problems. Critique is a huge part of learning process at Salt. In times where my skin could molt from its own thinness, I try to remind myself of this. “It’s nothing personal, its just critique. Nothing personal.” It’s become a mantra, best deployed in moments where my opinion of my work and my opinion of myself are one in the same.

Sometimes it works, but this week, it didn’t.

We came to class Tuesday with the latest copies of our scripts and a mix of our piece. As we went around the room, listening, reading, and critiquing each other’s work, I was astounded by the unity of other students’ pieces. I gazed sheepishly down at my own patchwork of quotes. The words I chose didn’t service a coherent story. My script was in its fifth iteration and I had already hacked it apart more times than I cared to admit. I stared at the floor, looking for the false bottom. There was no escape. My turn came and I plugged my computer into the external speakers. The volume was cranked up, the radio equivalent of putting a specimen beneath a microscope.

“Back to the Future” music and mention of time travel provided an amusing diversion, but with time, the weaknesses of my piece (which was 3 minutes too long) became the loudest thing in the room. People seemed to shift in their seats as they listened, perhaps uncomfortable beneath the structural defects of this ramshackle house. Or was I fishing for visual proof that my piece was flopping? Brows knitted together, or so it seemed. I watched their faces in agony. My brow was deep enough for a farmer to plant seeds. Some ugly thoughts sprouted. Did I really just make THAT – that terrible thing? The more we listened and the more there was for me to be ashamed of, the more heat I could feel creeping into my face. The piece eventually finished and everyone began offering advice, but I was only half listening. My intestines had assumed the intractable shape of a Gordian knot. There wasn’t anything anyone could say that would convince me that this piece was anything but horrific.

When you enter a creative profession, it’s important to be self-aware and assess the quality of your work objectively. A healthy dose of honesty makes for the best editing, but there comes a point when the honesty is too brutal. Or (as was the case for me this Tuesday): When the determination to poach your work and declare it awful becomes just as delusional as a blind faith in its own brilliance. It’s inadvisable to allow your ego to get in the way, but its equal parts unwise to demean yourself. If you stand a chance in this profession, you have to honor your ability to make something. Give your creative work the respect it deserves.

Another student tracked me down in the lounge afterwards and despite my insistence that coming to Salt was a colossal mistake, looked me square in the eye and said that my piece was far from terrible, just disorganized, and that feeling like a failure is a part of the process. She affirmed that making mistakes was a good thing and in fact, making mistakes was the only way to learn radio production. There were no shortcuts, only formative experiences that build your radio musculature. Furthermore, she reminded me that the only way to truly fail at Salt would be to abandon your story before you gave it the opportunity to grow. I revisited the script several times over the weekend and sure enough, it came together. It isn’t perfect, but it’s complete and salvaged it from the wake of self-destruction. That was a crucial lesson to learn. I’ve been much kinder to myself in radio class every since.

I promise you that if you come to Salt, no one will let you call yourself a failure and get away with it. Your Salt radio editors—your instructor and your fellow classmates—are your running coaches. They will monitor your story’s health and put it through its paces. They will correct its form. They will police its energy expenditure and give your story a well-deserved slap on the butt if it needs to pick up the speed. Under their tutelage, your story will stand upright and strike hot asphalt with its heel. It will hug the turns and pick up speed towards the end, ending strong with its arms held aloft. And while you may not leave the Salt training ground a champion, you will at the very least have crossed the finish line.