Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?
by Julia Barton
Some of us have been lucky enough to work long past midnight on a radio feature that needs to air later that same morning. We finish the script at midnight and, not wanting to bother anyone, record the tracks and throw it together. Around two, we leave our desk covered with highlighted tape logs and greasy bits of take-out bok choi, go home to sleep for four hours and 33:30 minutes, and then turn on the radio. What we hear is utter crap. When the story is not excruciating and boring, it’s goofy and pathetic. It makes no sense. All that work for nothing.
I’m not being sarcastic when I say one is lucky to have this experience. In our age of digital tweaking and re-tweaking, not everyone gets sliced by the refreshing guillotine of broadcast deadlines. They force us to stop being producers and hear our work as listeners. Only when our minds stop composing and filling in blanks can they start to comprehend what is happening—and failing to happen—in an audio feature.
There are almost immutable rules that govern how we best absorb information and ideas via audio. But even the best of us have a hard time following these rules when we’re composing a story. I’m pretty convinced that’s because we are actually different people when we’re composing. We’re using a different side of the brain than what the listener is using when he or she hears our story.
If only there were some kind of formula we could all follow in our blindness. But there isn’t. Studio 360 editor David Krasnow has been doing this kind of work for 20 years. “Every piece feels like reinventing the wheel,” he tells me. Every story has its own constraints and its own best structure.
That said, you can get great insight into the process by reading the words of experienced producers. But one of the most relevant things I’ve read about our craft actually comes from playwright Tom Stoppard. “It’s about controlling the flow of information—arriving at the right length and the right speed and in the right order,” he recently told the New Yorker. “If the audience is made to do not enough work, they resent it without knowing it. Too much and they get lost. There’s a perfect pace to be found. And a perfect place that is different for every line of the play.”
For Stoppard, the long give and take of rehearsals and previews are part of the editing process. We should be so lucky in radio. Many of us get no editing at all, or a cursory deadline once-over for length and basic errors. So we, our own selves, may be the only editors in sight (unless certain members of Congress decide to take over this role).
Teaching Yourself to Listen
Longtime public radio editor Deborah George gave a great talk at Third Coast in 2008 about editing called “Just Listen to Yourself.” (When you have 48 minutes to spare, I urge you to listen to the whole thing.)
“As an editor, I have work that has come in and I can tell that the person has not really listened to it themselves,” George says. But, she admits, it takes some “mental trickery” to be able to do that.
She (and others) offer some exercises here to help us better get into the mindset needed to edit our own work. Even if you are working with an editor, teaching yourself to think like an editor is essential. George cites Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman, who says, “An editor can’t create your work for you.” An editor’s role is to take an already strong piece and “make it lovely,” as George puts it.
Before trying George’s exercises and others here, though, I think it’s best to figure out what kind of writer and producer you are. For lack of a better classification system, I like the one Carl Linnaeus used to divide up the natural world: Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral. In my work as an editor, I’ve come across two main types of producers in public radio: those who feel more comfortable working with ideas and information—let’s call those folks Mineral—and those who work more musically and intuitively, from the audio itself (Animals—why not?).
Producers by Type
You could call NPR science blogger Eliza Barclay a Mineral. She came to radio from writing for newspapers and magazines. “It’s really ingrained in me,” she says. “It is truly different….Writing tight for print, you can still do things that you can’t do in radio.” You can throw out a bunch of numbers, names, and titles, for example. But it’s deeper than that.
Barclay had a great piece on The World in November 2009 about Mathias and Guillaume Craig, brothers from the U.S. who single-handedly created sustainable sources of electricity in some of the remotest parts of Nicaragua. But “single-handedly” was the problem—the Craigs forgot to ask the Nicaraguans whether electricity was what they really needed. Their projects had unintended consequences, such as the newly electrified poor spending their life savings on TV sets.
The story was memorable, but Barclay spent four months with The World’s science editor David Baron getting it that way. She was kind enough to share the first draft of her script with us. You can view the draft here.
All the ideas are there, but we’re not really on a journey with anyone. And as listeners, we’re overwhelmed with all the details of how this development project came to be. It’s like looking at a pile of rocks without any clue to the scale of it.
Or what’s lurking beneath this pile of rocks. “A common issue I deal with is that I find reporters give too much away early in the story,” David Baron says. “There’s a tendency to want to say everything up front. That just robs the rest of the piece of mystery and tension. A well-structured story doesn’t just tell you what you need to know—there are things you want to intentionally withhold.”
Here’s the final script Barclay and Baron worked up together.
It flows: from the Craig brothers’ original urge to build windmills for coastal Nicaragua, to their technological successes, to a debate about whether they actually did any good. And in the end, we learn what they learned. We’ve been on a journey with them.
Barclay says she had to do more interviews, probing the Craig brothers about what went wrong, to get the tape that gave the story its impact.
But impact is not all you need. I often hear stories that have an emotional impact, or are trying to have one, but leave me just feeling vaguely manipulated. Or—and it’s hard to listen to a lot of public radio features once you recognize the pattern—they sound like nothing more than an amalgamation of zippy sound bites and atmospheric moments. A sure sign that an Animal producer (probably on a tight deadline) is at work.
“Often what reporters will do is sit down, take their best tape, and put it in order,” Baron says. The editor in all of us has to ask, “What is the story I need to know? It shouldn’t be about ‘This is the best tape I have, how do I order it?’ For the listener, it’s ‘What do I need to know next for this to make sense?’ It may sometimes mean a big block of copy. It may mean using not-great tape, but you need something else to make that point.”
I probably sound like a mineralized hard-ass at this point. But when I produce my own work, logic and ideas still go right out the window. Recently I did a piece for Studio 360 about the TV show “Dallas” for their American Icons series. I grew up in Dallas, so I knew who to talk with there to get great tape. And through dumb luck, I got to go to Romania and visit a “vacation park” modeled on Southfork Ranch. I wrote with complete confidence how the piece should begin and end.
I just forgot to put a whole lot of information between. Like, what was “Dallas” about? What is significant about it still, and why should you stick with me for 12 more minutes to find out?
Here’s the last page of one of the many drafts I went through with Studio 360 editor David Krasnow. You can see me and him trying to wedge all kinds of missing ideas between bits of tape.
And here’s the last two minutes of a scratch-mix I did of a later draft:
Oh, please! Now that I’m getting to the ideas, I won’t shut up. Still, this stage of the process is vital, even if it results in messy writing that mostly will be cut. Without saying the big ideas out loud, you won’t know what they are. So if you think you’re an Animal-type producer, you need to lean on yourself early on to articulate more clearly what your story is about and why it matters. Even before you start reporting.
I got to sit down with David Krasnow before I went out into the field—if one can use that term when reporting about a dead soap opera. He urged me to write about “Dallas” in the same breathlessly amused voice I was describing it to him right there. That’s the other job of the features editor—to keep us from losing our personalities completely.
“You lose your voice just struggling with the Lego blocks,” Krasnow says. “When you go to the bar with a friend, you always sound like yourself. When you’re struggling with tape, you’re just a constructor.”
Here’s how our story turned out in the end.
And I do mean “our” story. For all this advice about being your own editor, I don’t think we can produce good work alone. Radio is a two-way process, and I’ve come to relish the collaborative aspect of it.
So which are you, Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? I look forward to your thoughts below.
Yes, I did forget to define Vegetable. Vegetable is what you are after a rigorous editing process. But better that than the miserable you who just heard your unedited mess go out on the air.