Sunday, May 16, 2010

Forget it Jake. It's... Chinatown

I spent this weekend at the D.C. studios of NPR in an amazing workshop on audio storytelling. I was excited - and appreciative of the good folks at the NAHJ and NPR who thought my body of work merited this growth opportunity, but I had no idea what I was in for when I rolled into the NPR parking garage at 8:30 on Saturday morning.

Leading the class, Sora, NPR's training director and and an amazing - and incredibly kind -instructor, started immediately with the anatomy of an NPR story: Character, Narration, Scenes, Ambience, and Actualities. My professional experience is equally divided between writing and editing, so while I felt immediately at home I could also tell that I would be learning more - a great deal more - than I had expected. After listening to a few quintessential NPR stories (driveway moment kind of stuff) we were asked to dissect the stories; break them down into the five elements and how they kept us, as listeners, engaged.

We talked about audience and the need for a clear sense of direction. Focus. Active Voice. The difference between writing for print and for The Ear. Our teachers shared an analysis and comparison on a particular story as it was reported in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. The print stories were multiple pages, with photos, graphics, and gave multiple takes on the event at hand. The radio version was, when presented in the same font size and column width, two columns and took up about half of an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper. You can always put down the paper and come back to it. If you decide to answer the phone when you're listening to the radio, the story is gone forever.

The truth is, I'm a wordy writer. Those last three paragraphs could have been boiled down to one. This, I think, was what I was really there to learn. Our assignment: listen to a pre-recorded interview with a local historian about the history of DC's Chinatown (where we were located), pick an element of that history, go get some interviews, and write your story. Sure, I picked up some great interview and writing techniques, but when we came back from our street interviews, I was torn; just as with my last "assignment", I was seeing stories everywhere, and in everything. I was trying to be artistic, poetic, and comprehensive all at the same time. The writing contained all the things I love to read and no one has the time or attention to listen to. One producer sat down next to me as I wrestled with my script, and in minutes half of it was gone. One thought per sentence. Active voice. What's the action? Leave space for... space.

Once my story was disemboweled, NPR anchor and all-around awesome person Lakshmi Singh stopped by to check on my progress. "What's it about?" I really couldn't say. I had my selected interviews, I had the bones of a story, and in a minute she distilled it for me - listening to my 60 seconds of interviews she saw what I couldn't see for the fog of trying to write what it was not.

We finished the day by turning in a file of our selected interview clips and reading our story live to the class, cueing Rolando, an NPR producer and one of our fantastic trainers, to play back our clips as we would have them appear on-air (complete with the anchor intro, which was a bit weird, as I had to introduce myself, but hey - we're there to learn how to do it when we really submit a story to them, so that's pretty cool). We were all given the same assignment, and the class came back with six wonderful and incredibly different stories of this neighborhood and the people who live in or pass through it. After I read my story to the class, wrapped the workshop and got back to the hotel, I had to keep working on it and hear it in (nearly) finished form, complete with the NPR logo I created in Logic. This is the finished, but rough, draft:

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