At the Third Coast Conference, I won a raffle for a 20 minute editing session with Jad Abumrad of WNYC’s Radiolab. The plan was this: I’d bring my most recent radio story and he would tell me what he thought of it.
I wasn’t nervous before the meeting. And I wasn’t nervous when I introduced myself to him and sat down at the conference table. Then, he asked me to put the CD in the CD player and press play. Then, I got nervous.
My feature was good, but it didn’t hold a candle to Radiolab, I thought. I had given myself a long tutorial on Abumrad’s work the night before. (I had heard the show before but wasn’t a weekly listener.) Their production style was powerful, creative, sound-rich–everything radio should be. I, on the other hand, only have a few feature stories under my belt. I’m two years out of graduate school and still navigating the tricks of the trade.
We listened to my feature, and he didn’t leave the room in disgust.
Score one for Shuka!
No, seriously he was very gracious and exceptionally helpful. He had a lot of positive feedback to give, but more importantly, a lot of advice on how I can strengthen the story. Before I go into details, it might help to hear it first.
As part of KQED Public Radio’s program on Native American health in California, I produced a feature exploring prenatal care for American Indian women in rural Northern California:
Abumrad said that first and foremost, I should bring the characters voices out more in the story. Let them tell it, don’t do it for them. The characters are more important than statistics, he said. Yes, one out of every three California American Indian women isn’t getting early prenatal care, but listeners want to hear more about Toni Bettega, the young mother who didn’t know about her first pregnancy until she was eight and half months along. She’s the interesting one.
“Here’s what I remember when I hear the story,” said Abumrad. “She was eight and half months pregnant and didn’t know it. She was scared of the windy roads; and maybe I’ll remember something about infant mortality rate.”
Abumrad said I should find a way to sublimate the stats. Everything should be presented through the experience of the characters. He said when the character is dropped and the narrator delves into numbers and facts, the listener is left wondering, “What about that person I just heard from? What about her over there?”
Abumrad also explained that I should have acknowledge a bit more that eight and half months is a long time, and that the baby was lucky to survive. A lot of people in the community aren’t as lucky. That acknowledgment could be a smooth transition into discussing mortality rates. But he reminds me again: don’t get bogged down in the numbers.
“You don’t need stats if what your doing is trying to connect to me,” he said. “Editors want to get the stats. They want to see the numbers. But listeners don’t want numbers.”
Instead he said to focus on what drives the story. In this case, we have two main characters, “Lady number one in need, and lady number two who wants to help,” said Abumrad. “Zoom in on both of them and give only the information you need.”
Abumrad also had suggestions on gathering sound. “You could keep the audio of the sonogram going underneath during narration,” he said. “Even with idle chat between them in the background. That keeps me in the experience.”
“And don’t dissipate the story,” Amburad says. “She feels prepared, unlike her first pregnancy. She’s lucky. Not everybody is. That’s it.”
So in a nutshell: Weave the facts into and around the character’s story. Don’t start off and bookend with a personal story, instead have that personal story carry the piece from beginning to end. And get ambi, ambi, and more ambi. Too much is better than not enough. I couldn’t agree more. It’s easier to have the “extra” sound and not use it than to drive eight hours along windy mountains roads to get more ambi from a rural health clinic in Covelo, California.