Blogs 2013
Two Truths are Better than One
Written by Charlie Mintz   

A great story is like a hidden fossil -- except instead of buried in the earth, stories are buried in people. Like an archaeologist, the interviewer must map out where to search, determine the outlines of the story, and ever-so-carefully bring it into the light. Retrieving just one story -- intact, with all its delicate edges preserved -- is the task of an expert. But the truly exceptional storytellers have an extra sense. They can recognize when the fossil they're extracting is not the only one. They know when to expand the operation, and when to dig deep.


That's what we're going to explore today: how do you develop the ability to get the whole story? How can you sense when a little more probing can yield an entirely new layer of astonishment? We'll be answering that question by looking at a recent story from This American Life called My Ames is True, told by the eminent Michael Lewis.


Ending Stories
Written by Bonnie Swift   

So far this blog has been about great stories and how they work. Each blogpost has focused on a craft element of a story that we love. But with winter in the air, we’ve decided to open up "Inside Story" to discussions of storytelling in a broader sense. We will still write about great stories and how they work, but instead of solely focusing on craft, we will also write about the role these stories take on in our lives and the world. With that in mind, this week I came across some articles about the use of stories in medicine, and I’ll share some of those findings with you here.


Because stories are the medium by which we express and absorb meaning, they can have a healing quality. It’s not surprising that storytelling is becoming more widely used in medicine, especially in end-of-life care, where the need for meaning-making tends to spike, the focus of care is less curative and more palliative, and the physical, psychosocial, emotional, and existential aspects of wellness are viewed in a more integrative way.


Enhancing the Magic of the Interview
Written by Will Rogers   


I recently sat with my grandfather and asked him to tell me his life story. It only took about an hour, but that hour was perhaps the most significant hour of our entire relationship.


It’s an honor to interview another person, and there are a million little things that can make the experience more powerful and effective for both interviewer and interviewee. Rob Rosenthal has actually developed a pretty canonical checklist of how to set yourself up for an excellent interview experience, and that’s a fantastic way to prepare yourself.


Here’s a selection of my personal favorite interview tips that I’ve collected over time, hopefully some of which you’ve never heard before:


Unexpected Logic
Written by Victoria Muirhead   

I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts, and I can count on one hand the ones that have brought tears to my eyes.


The first time I listened to This American Life’s ‘Kid Logic’ was back in February. I was walking around Stanford, streaming it on my iPhone. The first piece, called “Baby Scientists with Faulty Data,” is all about how kids use their own brands of “logic” to come to scientific conclusions. For instance, an African American woman talks about the first time she saw white people, and how she assumed they must be ghosts.


Hanging Out at Warp Speed
Written by Will Rogers   

When I listen to Radiolab, I feel like I’m in the studio with them while they tinker, banter, and generally have a good time, and for years I’ve been perplexed by how they can accomplish this; they take their stories to some of the biggest and smallest places in the universe, and the entire time they make it feel like they’re all just hanging out! How is it that they can possibly maintain a casual/comfortable vibe in a show that’s so densely packed with material?


I recently discovered somewhat of an answer to my perplexity, and I wrote this blogpost to share it. If you want the tl;dr version, it’s the following: they tell their stories to each other instead of telling them directly to the audience, and they do that over and over again, until it’s just right.


For the longer version, read on:


Combing the Dragon's Hair
Written by Bonnie Swift   

I heard a story once about a professor who had trouble getting enrollment in a course, which was titled something along the lines of, ‘Representations of the Mythopoetic in Prose and Poetry.’ So few students enrolled that the course was nearly canceled. The following year he taught the exact same course, but this time he titled it ‘Combing the Dragon’s Hair,’ and it filled up right away. There was even a waiting list.

Last week we focused on strategies for framing our stories and capturing our listener’s attention. This week we’re focusing on titles. You know the old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ It’s true, we shouldn’t judge people, courses, or stories by their titles. But we do, and so does everybody, because there’s something in human nature that gives tremendous weight to first impressions.


Promises, Promises
Written by Bonnie Swift and Will Rogers   

Some people have superpowers, and Ira Glass's superpower just might be framing and introducing stories. We have been so awed by this superpower over the years that we finally decided to concatenate a bunch of Ira Glass intros, listen to all of them back-to-back, and see what kinds of lessons we could glean. We decided, in other words, to x-ray that uncanny knack he has for duct-taping us to every story This American Life presents.

This exercise is hard for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s like turning on the song of the siren and trying to not get hypnotized. While we were working on this, we had to remind ourselves, ‘No, we’re not here to listen to the stories. We’re here to listen to the introductions.’ Glass puts you right in that place where you care about what happens next... and then you have to listen to yet another introduction. The process is incredibly frustrating, and that’s because Glass is doing his job incredibly well.

The Most Engrossing Horrible Vacation
Written by Tina Tran   

The infamous story of Typhoid Mary has been told and retold so many times that many people believe they understand the whole story (that she started the outbreak of a disease she didn’t even experience). However, in “The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation,” the Radiolab team paints a new picture of Typhoid Mary, one much more relatable and personal than any I’ve heard before.

How do they make it so intimate? By recreating Mary’s point of view through reenactments of her perspective and weaving in historical documents.

How to Tell a Heartbreaker
Written by Bonnie Swift   

This country’s history is filled with stories that are difficult to read. I’ve been trying to finish Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a year and a half now, and can only get through one chapter before I have to set it down. It takes me a month or so before I have the energy to pick it up again. These kinds of stories take tremendous effort to absorb, and yet these are important stories and we should know them.

But how do we convince our listeners to listen to stories that yield an immediate jolt of sorrow and shame?

One way is to couch them in more hopeful narratives, as evidenced by pieces like this, which tells the extremely difficult story of Chief Joseph within a more buoyant, contemporary framework.

Studs' Nova
Written by Will Rogers   

Sometimes you don’t really get to know someone until after they die. Sometimes a person’s death can be like the nova of a star, an explosion that broadcasts the star’s existence to places that had never seen it before, right before the star’s light goes out forever. It’s kind of sad when you don’t find out about someone until their death, but it’s also a kind of beautiful and special connection.

Such is the case with my connection to Studs Terkel, a radio broadcaster and oral historian who died in 2008. It was this wonderful hour-long radio program about his work that put him on my radar. Produced after his death by, it brings listeners into the inner circle of Studs’ working community, so that you can feel like you’ve gotten to know him. “Working with Studs” feels kind of like a eulogy, and I feel privileged to get this glimpse into Studs’ life. One of the biggest ways it accomplishes its particular style of intimacy is by taking its time: it doesn’t rush the sensitive information, because that level of intimacy backfires if it comes too early in a piece.

Sonic Spotlight
Written by Bonnie Swift   

Writing for radio is much like writing for the stage. The decisions you have to make are very similar. You have to set a scene, develop characters, and create a strong narrative arc. The format is also quite similar. You need to indicate ‘entrances’ and ‘exits,’ music breaks, and the like.

As a playwright, you would have a variety of visual tools to add weight to the events on stage, like costumes, a set, and blocking. The spotlight, for example, is a great way to amplify the important elements of a scene. But in radio, all of your dramatic queues must exist in the realm of sound. What is the audio equivalent to a bright beam of light, focused on the speaker centerstage?

Let’s call it the sonic spotlight.

Timelapse Niece
Written by Will Rogers   

I was ten the first time I ever saw an imax movie. At the beginning it did one of those timelapse cityscapes, where the cars become blurs, flying through the city’s streets like blood cells through veins and arteries. It was meant to “wow” the audience and get us settled into our seats for the main feature, but I was so “wowed” that I have no recollection of what the movie we watched was about. I wanted the timelapse to continue. I wanted to watch a whole movie of it... I love timelapse.

Since then I’ve fallen in love with audio, too, and I have sometimes wondered how you could create a similar effect in sonic medium. Now I wonder no more, because producer Tony Schwartz has proven that it can be done, in “Nancy Grows Up.” This piece represents, according to Schwartz “Thirteen years condensed into two minutes and thirteen seconds,” and I think Schwartz is being modest when he says that he’s “using the timelapse technique” in the piece - timelapse is a simple mechanical process that involves shooting film at a slow frame-rate, then playing it back at regular speed so it appears fast. Schwartz’ technique, as you’ll see, is much more creative than this.

Hello Space, Goodbye Time
Written by Bonnie Swift on 5/21/2013   

There’s a strong impulse right now to organize stories by space, rather than time. Check out This American Life’s Story Globe, or the various wings of Localore. It seems a natural extension of our communication technologies to map our environments with stories, and (attempt) to chronicle the fantastic volume of human experience that takes place all around us, all the time.

I think this trend in storytelling is also part of a broader cultural move towards organizing our lives according to space (eating local foods, supporting local economies). But the impulse to put a story on a map can be taken one step further; it can be applied to the structure of a story itself. You can organize a story by the space in which it took place, rather than by the order in which it unfolded in time. Careful, though: when space becomes the supporting structure of your story, you’re unlikely to end up with a traditional narrative arc. And if you don’t have that, then you might have to find something else to keep your listeners in their seats.

X because Y, but Z
Written by Will Rogers on 4/19/2013   

I was always averse to studying the elements of a story. I still remember a kind of icky feeling from 7th grade, when I first learned the basic plot diagram (you know, initial events, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement - don’t forget the second “e”) because let’s be honest, stories don’t really HAPPEN according to a pre-set formulas... right?

But once I actually started telling stories, I realized that formulas are extremely helpful. It’s a big part of why I write these blogposts. So today I am going to write about a formula that is used in many stories — and prove to you why, even though stories don't occur according to formulas, formulas can still be your friend.

Here’s the formula: “Someone does something because, but...”

I picked up this week’s nugget of storytelling gold from Rob Rosenthal, the producer/teacher behind the podcast How Sound. He pulled it from a CBC style book (That's "Canadian Broadcasting Company"), and in order to help unpack it, I'll give you an even more distilled version of the formula: “X because Y, but Z

A Short Pause
Written by Bonnie Swift on 4/12/2013   

Sometimes when I’m reading an article or book, I take a moment in the middle of a paragraph to think about what I’m reading. Sometimes I’ll even read good a paragraph twice. It’s like my brain needs a moment to organize and process the information it’s acquiring. But when we listen to a spoken story, we can’t necessarily take that pause when we need it. As writers and producers of spoken stories, we have to anticipate those moments when our audience will need a moment to think about things, and give it to them. These are the pauses that give the audience space to make meaning, to move from witnessing the story to understanding the story.

Or, in the words of the wonderful Ira Glass, “An image will stay with you a little longer if we put in more of a pause.”

Leverage Your Discomfort
Written by Will Rogers on 4/6/2013   

I feel like a lot of radio people harbor some deep-seated awkwardnesses. If you’re among them (among us), I’m here to tell you that not only is this ok, it can, in some circumstances, actually prove quite useful.

You’ve probably heard that an audience mimics the emotional state of the speaker. It’s true. If you’re watching someone speak confidently, you’ll feel more confident, and if you’re watching someone who’s uncomfortable, you’ll feel uncomfortable. What you probably have not heard, though, is that feeling uncomfortable can help you tell a more dramatic story.

This is one of the reasons I love this story by Noah St. John. You’ll probably want to go ahead and listen to it before reading the rest of this blogpost, because there are major spoilers coming up.

Ditch The Narrator
Written by Bonnie Swift on 3/27/2013   

It’s time to get a little bit personal. This week I’m going to write about one of my own stories. I had more fun producing this story than any other story I’ve produced.

It’s called People Find the Drum who Need to Find the Drum, and it hails from waaaaay back in the Stanford Storytelling Project’s archives --- Hannah Krakauer and I made it in 2008. It’s about a visiting artist at Stanford, John-Carlos Perea, who leads a 10 week course on pow wow music. He teaches his students the history of pow wow music and dance, then how to play the drum and sing pow wow music. We followed the course for several weeks, and witnessed the transformation that the students underwent during this time.

In the process of scripting this story, Hannah and I scratched our heads and labored intensely over how to tell the story of Perea and the students we’d interviewed. We sorted and resorted our piles of transcripts, and went through several writes and rewrites of the story’s narration. And then, one evening at my house, over our tenth cup of tea, it dawned on us: this story was best without a narrator. The characters could tell their story themselves.

Indirect Imperatives
Written by Will Rogers on 3/18/2013   

I just finished re-listening to my absolute favorite audiobook, A Wrinkle in Time, read by the author, Madeleine L'Engle.

I feel a little embarrassed for broadcasting my love of a children’s audiobook, but I challenge you to name a better one. Seriously. I have listened to lots of audiobooks, and I have yet to find anything that approaches it, especially in the realm of fiction.

This book sings to the depths of my heart, and I share it with anyone who is going on a roadtrip or having trouble getting out of bed or excited about space travel or struggling through teenage awkwardness... I recommend it to basically anyone, and this is why: L’Engle’s voice.

Rehearsed Spontaneity
Written by Bonnie Swift on 3/13/2013   

Poetry and jazz. Makes me think of a crowded basement, deep in the city, a man with a cigarette, tapping his foot, nodding toward a trio of musicians. We tend to think of the poetry and jazz combination as the epitome of the avant garde. But actually, it descends from the longest tradition in human communication, where the storyteller is a singer, a songster, a minstrel, a bard.

I have always been intimidated by the poem-song, because it has the potential to go so terribly awry. But my interest was recently revived when I came across this rare gem: San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, live at the Blackhawk. The year is 1958, Rexroth is a center of gravity in literary San Francisco, a reluctant mentor to the Beats, and is performing here at one of the era’s most serious jazz venues.

I suggest starting with the poem-song, ‘I didn’t want it…’ It’s fun. You’ll find yourself both tapping your foot to the rhythm and nodding your head at certain lines in the poem. Both the spoken word and the music become catchier through their combination. How is this done?

Can You Give Me a Hypothetical?
Written by Will Rogers on 3/6/2013   

Sometimes the best thing in a story is something that doesn’t actually happen in the story... it’s something that’s imagined-as-happening.

I noticed it recently in a David Sedaris story, Accidental Deception. Even though what occurs in the story is wonderful and hilarious, it’s the moment when Sedaris describes what kinds of things could occur, that the story becomes one of my favorites.

Fresh Air Extraordinaire
Written by Bonnie Swift on 3/3/2013   

A while back, I wrote a post about the expert kindness of Ira Glass, where I said that Glass’ gentle touch was the secret to his success in a risky interview situation. But I’d like to revise my argument here, to take into account the tactics of another interviewer par excellence, NPR’s celebrated Terry Gross.

Terry Gross is kind, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not gentle in the same way as Ira Glass. She has a way of probing her interviewee about their apparent contradictions, or their less than noble deeds, and once identifying a difficult point, she does not stop after a single question, but tends to push the point, and then push it again. Somehow, her persistent jabs do not come across as attacks.

How is this possible? Is it the neutral tone of her voice? Is it her genuine curiosity? Is it that her critical questions are preceded by and interspersed with praiseful ones?

Two Unraveling Characters, Interwoven by Music
Written by Tina Tran on 2/27/2013   

There’s some magical quality in radio, perhaps the softness of the voice or the raw emotion in every vibration that can evoke a visceral reaction. That magical quality comes out really strongly in “Unraveling Bolero”, by Jad Abumrad for Radiolab. It explores the intersection of creativity and neurology, and the eerie similarities between two artists. The music used to connect the two stories is what creates that magical quality.

Unraveling Bolero is the story of two lives, woven together in a haunting echo of one another across time and space. The first is Anne Adams, an incredible cell biologist, who after a series of events became a full-time artist. Soon afterwards, her obsession with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero began as she meticulously deconstructed the composition into a striking visual representation. The second is Maurice Ravel himself who, in the 1920’s in France, became consumed by the very same repetitive melody, during the process of writing the piece.

Off to a Good Start
Written by Bonnie Swift on 2/20/2013   

I think that the most challenging part of a writing a story for radio is formulating the introduction. The stakes are very high: your listener will decide within a few short seconds whether to stick around for your story or whether to turn the proverbial dial, and so you must do everything you can to persuade that listener to stay, and you must do it quickly. A good introduction has the magical power to seize a person’s attention and keep them curious about how your story will unfold.

I came across a great example of this in our own archives, in The Human Map, by Raj Bhandari. Within the first 30 seconds, Bhandari introduces himself, his topic, his character, and, perhaps most importantly, promises us that we will learn something new if we continue listening. So what else can we do but stay?!

Here is the transcript of the first 30 seconds. I think it’s worth reading closely, because it is so packed with top-quality craft elements.

On Repetition in Storytelling
Written by Martin Shaw on 2/13/2013   

From the SSP blogging staff: In preparation for our event this Friday with Coleman Barks and Martin Shaw, SSP blogger Bonnie Swift held an informal interview with Martin Shaw, asking him about repetition in the oral tradition, in the light of Shaw’s telling of the Handless Maiden myth.

What follows is the full text of Shaw's response.

The raw ground of many of these stories I tell are to be found in oral culture. A time when human speech was clearly a note in a far wider music - the roots of these tales carrying the croaking-burrs and twigged silver musings of the magpie tucked tight in their thinking. The teller was placed within, rather on top, of the web of sound the living world creates. This base-line consciousness creates a very vivid negotiation with the wider psyche of sea foam and black bear. Everything is intelligent, animate, communicating.

Details Awaken the Senses
Written by Victoria Hurst on 2/10/2013   

I was tired, and honestly, I thought I would just fall asleep while listening to this story. I was okay with that.

I was mostly listening so that I report back to my Canadian friend who told me about The Vinyl Cafe - I’d never heard of it and my expectations were low. Ready to check one more thing off my list, I put on my headphones and got in bed.

But by the time I finished listening to "Roger Woodward and Niagara Falls", I realized that I had been drawn out of my sleepiness and into the story - I was wide awake.

Not Having Legs Can be Seriously Hilarious
Written by Sophia Paliza-Carre on 1/27/2013   

I spent the last minutes before the beginning of winter break in my usual chaotic frenzy to download enough free online podcasts to stave off boredom on my flight. With headphones in my ears, eyes closed, I find it easier to survive the stale airports and the rickety, small planes that for some reason airlines also choose to fly to my tourist hot-spot hometown of Indianapolis.

Scrolling through the random Moth podcasts I had downloaded, I jumped into the story of Aimee Mullins performed live on the Moth Radio Hour, without any clue as to who she was. I was just looking for a distraction, something to drown out the emergency evacuation instructions, but I found myself suppressing giggles in my seat, disguised eloquently with coughing. But I also found myself twisted up inside, twisted by the emotional pendulum-style of her storytelling, from light to dark and back to light. Comedy and Tragedy intertwined.

Hypnotic Satire
Written by Will Rogers on 1/14/2013   

When I first started listening to The Fourth Tower of Inverness, I felt sure that it had been produced within the last few years. It’s a radio drama that seems to campify the New Age movement, and all of the meditation/inspirational tapes that were produced in the 90’s.

But the story is from 1972 - long before self-help tapes became a Thing. It’s as if the writers have a prescient understanding of the hypnotic power of sound, and they use some classic guided meditation techniques to weave that power throughout their playful narrative.