Writing Vivid Scenes from a Distance: Lessons from Audio Producers

 

I have a confession to make. During the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns emptied streets and silenced theaters, there was one day when I listened, for nearly 10 hours straight, to two seasons of a podcast. It’s not my proudest memory, but it’s certainly a vivid one. I made my bed, cooked breakfast, did the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, and wandered around the Brooklyn apartment where I was living while my brain stayed plugged into the story of Exxon’s cover-up of its early knowledge of climate change (the podcast was Drilled). As a human surviving the pandemic, I used the story to feel like I wasn’t trapped in my small apartment. As a journalist struggling to write a long narrative feature from that same small apartment, its reporting inspired me to analyze the methods the producers use to draw listeners into a story they’d reported without experiencing it firsthand.

Despite the lockdowns, other podcasts that normally rely heavily on narration, scene-building, and fieldwork managed to create content that still felt true to their essence. As I listened, I wondered how they did it. Could any of their techniques help me rethink my work as a science writer struggling to write narrative journalism while relying only on remote reporting?

As I learned more about the craft of audio producing, I learned that, in radio and podcasts, remotely interviewing someone—even the protagonist of a narrative feature—is common. Within the world of audio, it’s normal to hire someone to do a “tape sync,” a recording of the interview on the source’s end, while the reporter producing the story and asking the questions sits miles away. Because that tape will form the foundation of their stories, producers work especially hard to master the art of interviewing. “When you’re doing print journalism, you can always fall back on your writing,” says Washington, DC–based freelancer Lauren Ober, a former newspaper writer who pivoted to audio a few years ago. In audio, you’re more constrained; not getting the exact quote is not an option, she says. After all, you really can’t paraphrase a recording.

When the pandemic arrived, it added new constraints. While remote reporting of narrative stories is not a new concept for journalists, the pandemic amplified the extent to which this happens. Lulu Miller, a co-host of RadioLab, says that crafting science narratives during the pandemic has felt like writing a haiku: trying to make something beautiful and meaningful under very rigidly contained conditions. As a consequence, she and other audio producers had to adapt in creative ways—using a combination of established interviewing techniques; new, pandemic-friendly versions of on-the-ground reporting; and some innovative reporting methods—to make listeners stay tuned for hours. Science writers have managed to craft engaging narrative stories while staying home, as well (as I discovered in my interview with science writer David Quammen about the way he looked into the past to write features for The New Yorker and National Geographic without leaving his home in Montana), but there’s a lot we can learn from the techniques that audio reporters use to create gripping stories from a distance.

 

Creating a Scene—a “Million Little Questions” at a Time

Scenes are the building blocks of narrative stories. They ground a story by creating a sense of place and the passage of time, offer a way to introduce characters, and provide a vehicle for establishing the story’s deeper themes and turning points in a way that feels emotionally significant. Scenes are a “deeply sensory, usually visual depiction of a sequence of events for a character,” says Ellen Horne, who founded the audio-production company Story Mechanics and who teaches narrative audio journalism at New York University and Columbia University.

Scenes are a “deeply sensory, usually visual depiction of a sequence of events for a character,” —Ellen Horne

Horne says most writers have “been taught to focus on the who-what-when-where-why kind of details, when actually the thing that’s going to make that information deeply salient to the listener is whether there’s any emotion to any of those details.”

In addition to creating an emotional connection, scenes in science stories are the best way “to seduce the non-scientist into the world of questions and the world of discoveries,” says Miller, who also co-created Invisibilia, a podcast that fuses narrative storytelling with science to reveal the “unseeable forces that control human behavior.”

Science stories centering around a series of discoveries (or a single one), or around the questions that drive the evolution of a field, can also include scenes that make them feel like “little detective stories,” explains Miller. In science stories, she says, the plot familiar to readers of mystery novels or viewers of TV shows like Law and Order is often present: There’s a central question that someone has to solve based on hunches and clues and deductions. “There’s always a little bit of drama guaranteed.”

But unearthing that drama requires a particular kind of interviewing technique. Eleanor Kagan, senior producer of Welcome to Your Fantasy, a podcast reconstructing the convoluted history of Chippendales male strippers, sums it up as asking “a million little questions.” During interviews, she likes to hear the broad strokes of a story first, and then she asks the source to go back and re-tell the scene. “I always say in advance, ‘Oh, I’m going to interrupt you a lot to ask really specific questions about this.’”

Through those questions, she aims to make a scene tactile: something that a listener can not only picture, but also experience through sounds, scents, temperatures, and textures.

Through those questions, she aims to make a scene tactile: something that a listener can not only picture, but also experience through sounds, scents, temperatures, and textures. To achieve this, says Kagan, find ways to encourage people to replace adjectives with descriptions of actual experiences. For example, if they describe something as “loud,” ask them if their ears rang afterward or if they had to yell to whoever they were talking to. If they say something is “bright,” inquire how bright: Does that mean you had to squint your eyes like when you look directly at the sun? Or was it more like the light at the end of a tunnel?

Miller describes the act of interviewing as being like trying to keep the scaffolding of your interview intact—asking the core questions you need to understand the way the narrative unfolded—while simultaneously trying to blow it up: breaking it into pieces and taking the interview in new directions that might reveal key moments in the story. Tangents leading away from the main story can turn out to be surprisingly fruitful, she says, even if they don’t seem that way at first. “I think it’s important to listen through boredom a little bit, because sometimes stuff happens like one or two questions down a line of inquiry that you aren’t really loving,” she says.

 

The Almighty Zoom Tour and the Slow-Burn WhatsApp Interview

Even if the pandemic didn’t significantly change the kind of questions audio producers ask to re-create scenes, it did deprive them—just as it did writers—of the kind of rich material you get when you visit someone’s home or office or follow them as they do their fieldwork. “What we had to do was build up scenes and entry points into the story from scratch,” says Ober, who produced the second season of Spectacular Failures, a narrative show about business failures, during the pandemic “basically from my closet.”

To find those entry points, Ober turned to a popular reporting techniques during quarantine: the Zoom tour. This involves asking your source to virtually show you around a home or office or lab to try to enhance your understanding of who that person is.

To do a successful Zoom tour, you have to “remember what you would have done in real life,” says Ober, adding that just because you’re not physically present doesn’t mean you have to be a passive observer: “Remember your curiosity and say, ‘Hey, show me that!’” Ask questions that help you engage your senses just as you would if you were really there.

Emmy Award–winning radio producer Ike Sriskandarajah, one of the producers of Reveal’s investigative series American Rehab, prefers to ask the interviewee to “paint a picture of the room that we’re in.” This allows him to record a source’s perspective and voice. He’ll often ask them for a sort of show-and-tell, asking them to show items relevant to the story to bring new colors to the interview, instead of a monochromatic back-and-forth conversation. If he can, he’ll bring his own version of this as well, showing up to an online interview with something that might elicit an unexpected response. For American Rehab, an exposé about modern addiction-treatment centers that have turned recovering addicts into an unpaid workforce in the U.S., Sriskandarajah interviewed Hollis (Kandy) Latson, one of the early members of Synanon, a pioneering drug-addiction program that turned into a religious cult in the 1970s and inspired key elements of the modern rehab industry. Before the Zoom interview, Sriskandarajah had amassed a significant amount of archival information about the program, including old footage of a then-young Latson participating in group therapy there. So when Sriskandarajah sat down to talk with Latson about his days at Synanon, the journalist was able to show him the recording and get his reaction on tape. “Those are really satisfying [moments], when they go in, when there’s genuine surprise,” Sriskandarajah says.

But there are also times when you don’t want to recreate or discuss the past, but to cover things that are actively happening in the present—even if you can’t personally be there. In those instances, inviting the source to keep a voice-note diary of the things that they’re doing and experiencing might prove useful. That’s what Mariana Zúñiga, a producer of the podcast El Hilo, which focuses on stories from Latin America, did to narrate the story of Orlando Pimentel, an immigrant from Venezuela who decided to walk all the way home after the pandemic closed off all the income sources that had been sustaining him in Ecuador. She was inspired by a story she read many years ago, about Syrian migrants who shared their voyage with a journalist using voice memos they recorded along the way. In her case, she exchanged WhatsApp voice notes with Pimentel every two or three days. He would also send her photos and short videos of what he was experiencing. As the days went by, she noticed that he started sharing many intimate thoughts through the voice notes—as if he was creating a diary for himself, too. Eventually she had nearly 80 hours of recording that she could edit to tell the story of his nearly 400-mile walk. A print reporter wouldn’t need to carefully edit the tape, but could still use this technique to accumulate a lot of raw material for building a narrative.

Miller, of Radiolab, is also fascinated by the intimacy that voice notes, instead of back-and-forth interviewing, can create. During quarantine, she used voice notes in an interview about her recently published book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, and felt that the delayed response times of this interviewing technique made her more able to articulate her inner monologue. She thinks this technique works not only because it allows the journalist to enter a space they can’t physically visit, but also because it allows the reporter to peek into that place without her or his presence influencing the way people speak or behave. “You can’t be physically [in the place] because it’s not safe to fly to Texas or whatever,” she says. “But it’s also about documenting a space you can’t be metaphysically—because when you’re there, you’re going to change it.”

 

A Balancing Act

Once you have captured the emotional and sensory details that form the building blocks of a scene, you have to write it. Writing compelling scenes is a balancing act of providing enough details and information about the characters and the setting to get a film rolling in the mind of the listener (or reader) and showing the actual event unfold, Kagan explains. Her team worked on more than six drafts until they reached the final version of Welcome to Your Fantasys opening scene. “You can get too much explanation and not enough action, or [you can be] jumping into the action too fast, and then [the audience] is like, ‘I don’t know who anyone is, why I’m hearing about them,’” she says. “We went through a lot of [script] drafts to try to get that balance.”

The scene’s structure needs to be directed by the ethics of retelling something you didn’t experience firsthand.

The scene’s structure needs to be directed by the ethics of retelling something you didn’t experience firsthand. In audio, Ellen Horne says, it’s easier than in print: “You literally use the voice of the person who experienced it, so then it’s quite clear whose point of view is being expressed and whose experience is communicated.” However, building a scene, either for audio or print, often requires cross-examining sources’ accounts: How consistent are the details that two sources provide? If there are significant differences, you can omit the detail or explicitly state the difference. This is what Kagan’s team did when they realized that when relating important moments that they all witnessed at Chippendales events more than 40 years ago, their sources remembered those incidents very differently. As a result, the host of Welcome to Your Fantasy, Natalia Petrzela, tells the audience in the first episode that the story is not based on documents, but on the often-faulty memories of multiple people.

But how do you know if your scene is serving its purpose? All of the producers interviewed for this story say that they test if a scene works by paying close attention to their bodies’ reactions when they listen to it. “I think that a lot of it has to do with trusting your gut, like listening to your emotions and being like, is this working for me?” Kagan says. “Is this hitting me in an emotional way? Or am I thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch?”

“Does this story take physical hold of your body in some way and move you physically?” —Ellen Horne

Among some radio producers, that scene-vetting process even has a name: “the body test.” Horne describes the test this way: “Does this story take physical hold of your body in some way and move you physically? Sometimes you notice that you’re holding your breath a little bit, or you feel your stomach go in a knot, your eyes tear up a little bit. You have, actually, a physical response. And that’s evidence of the depth of connection that you’re having to the narrative.”

As pandemic conditions allow, many audio producers and other journalists will undoubtedly embrace the opportunity to get back into the field. But there will always be times when being there in person isn’t possible, whether for health and safety reasons or for economic or environmental ones. In such cases, lessons learned during the pandemic will continue to help storytellers find creative ways to bring life into their remotely reported stories. “At first, it almost felt like a roadblock, a complete shutting down of reporting,” Miller says about working in the times of COVID-19. “But now, it’s so creatively exciting to me, because it opened up the door to what we can do.”

 

 

María Paula RubianoMateo Guerrero

María Paula Rubiano A.

María Paula Rubiano A. is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is a freelance science journalist writing about biodiversity, environmental justice, food, and sustainability for Science, Yale Environment 360, Audubon, Atlas Obscura, El Espectador, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @Pau_Erre.

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