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AIRblast Presents

Welcome to "AIRblast Presents". Here you will find the feature article in the December 2007  AIRblast.


December 2007

Crossing Media: from Public Radio to NYTimes.com

by Amy O'Leary

Amy O'Leary, a member of AIR since 2003, is currently working as a multimedia producer for The New York Times. Her radio work has been heard on On The Media, This American Life, Weekend America, Radio Lab, and on WNYC's Evening Music as the producer and host of "The Tristan Mysteries" in 2007. She was a staff producer at This American Life and has done freelance production work for Radio Lab, Radio Rookies, and Studio 360.  

The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." I am inclined to agree with him, and though it may strike fear into the heart of radio producers, I am trying to unlearn some of my radio habits right now.

I don't think my current job existed before I started working at it. But before June 2007, I don’t think anyone had been working as a full-time audio producer for a newspaper. That's when my colleague Sarah Kramer (formerly of StoryCorps) and I began working at The New York Times. It's a job that uses every skill I acquired as a radio producer and independent, and also some skills I picked up when I was working at a software company in Minnesota.

Our title is "Multimedia Producer," and Sarah and I are still figuring out exactly what that means. On some days it means training The Times' reporters and photographers to gather audio in the field - in Baghdad, in Alaska, or in a car with Hillary Clinton. We frown at their Olympus digital voice recorders and try to "scare them straight" into wearing headphones. We coach reporters narrating script over the phone in Riyadh. On other days our job is trying to help produce something moving or beautiful within the constraints of the daily newspaper deadline and the modern attention span. We collaborate extensively on every single project. We are learning about new technology. We are learning about newspapers. We are relearning how to tell a story every time we step up to the plate.

 THE THINGS I'VE STOLEN

I got my start at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, (SALT) where I learned that making radio was not an innate skill - because, if it was, I didn't have it. My first story was a pretty miserable failure, and I learned that whatever ability I was going to have as a radio producer would come from learning how other people operate. I've only been working in radio for about four years, and have spent most of that time stealing tricks and knowledge from more experienced producers.

I was lucky enough to do some internships at some great shows. I learned how to take a mess of tape and build a structure for it. I learned that if you can find a way to sneak in your favorite piece of tape, you've scored a victory that day. And I read hundreds of terrible story pitches, which I believe is the best possible way to learn how to pitch something that's real, compelling, viable, and surprising.

The biggest secret I've discovered, though, is the virtue of transcribing tape. As an intern and a freelancer, I have transcribed mountains and mountains of tape and I've come to the conclusion that it's the single best way to become a better interviewer. Who needs J-school when you can listen in on raw interview tape with Nancy Updike, Robert Krulwich, Sean Cole, Jad Abumrad, Ira Glass, Larry Josephson, Alex Blumberg, and Alex Kotlowitz.

It's the best kind of voyeurism. It was a relief to hear established producers occasionally make mistakes, ask bad questions, and sometimes even botch interviews entirely. It was also phenomenally instructive to hear Ira Glass draw out the key moments of a story, show honest surprise, and respond to an interview with deep empathy. It was inspiring to hear Robert Krulwich throw out a dozen wacky metaphors before the interviewee started throwing them out, too. It was so helpful to hear Jad Abumrad, one of the smartest people I know, show genuine curiosity about idea he had already researched for months, and I will never forget hearing Nancy Updike convert her curiosity into fearlessness, while always leaving the tape running.

But the most concrete thing I learned in radio - which is so essential at The Times - is how to shepherd someone else's story through the production process. When I was briefly working as a producer at This American Life, the reporters I worked with were sometimes totally new to radio (just like many Times reporters). The exercises of developing an initial plan, coaching interview questions, directing sound-gathering efforts, collaborating on scriptwriting, and coaching narration are vital skills. Without these skills, I'd only be able to report my own stories, and probably wouldn't be of much use to The Times and its armada of reporters who are beginning to produce multimedia work.

HUNTING FOR A NEW KIND OF JOB

A few people have asked me how I found and applied for the job at The Times. Honestly, I don't know if I can recommend my process, which others may call borderline obsessive, but I call "abundantly thorough." I had been watching The Times' multimedia closely for about a year, and had applied to work there on two separate occasions. The job I have now did not yet exist when I began this process. I Googled the masthead of the Web site extensively; I read their thoughts and opinions about multimedia in other venues. I watched The Times' multimedia and its primary competitors for about a year before I came in to interview. I think with emerging jobs like multimedia, it pays to be thinking ahead of the organization that might need your talents, so you're ready for them at the moment they're ready for someone like you.

The kind of radio producers who would be best suited for multimedia, I believe, are the same ones who are best suited for journalism writ large: They have a strong sense of story and character, and they have the tenacity to refuse the gravitational pull of mediocrity. But just like in radio, or photography, technical fluency is important as well. I think the kind of radio producer who would most enjoy multimedia work would have a high tolerance for technical troubleshooting, a low sense of proprietary ownership of their work, and desire to work on something truly new.

And finally, I think you have to be able to both learn and teach on a daily basis, because you'll be collaborating with lots of folks who've got vastly different experiences and strengths, and it's the job of a multimedia producer to pull all of that together.

MULTIMEDIA: AN AWKWARD WORD FOR WHAT WE DO

The word "multimedia" is a terrible one. Dry and Latinate, it suggests only that we really haven't defined what we're doing when we put stories online. Unshackled from a radio transmitter, a printing press, or a TV antenna, all kinds of things can happen to a story. And that's much more exciting than the word suggests.

All of us working on the Web are then forced, every day, to ask: What's the best possible way to present this story? Is it video? Audio and photos? Interactivity? Database-driven graphics? Where does the story lead us?

It's presidential debate season, and while TV has its purchase on the proceedings, and there are many fine stories and blogs that are capturing the events in print, a team here developed this entirely new way to dive deeply into the debates. Video, analysis, and data collide: Democratic Debate: Analyzing the Details

Many times, multimedia material with audio is presented as an audio slideshow. Like this or this or this. But how do you present great audio and great photos that don't necessarily work together in tandem? Two multimedia producers in our group, Monica Evanchik and Tom Jackson, developed this way of presenting audio and photos for us, and it gave me a lot of flexibility to produce the audio with Oscar Hidalgo, the photographer involved: The Little Rock Nine, 50 Years Later.

I'm learning that each medium has its own distinct strength. The written word can offer perspective, insight, analysis, context. Data can offer depth, demonstrate patterns, and refract a world of experience through the lens of numbers. The voice can offer nuance, emotion, personality, humanity. An image can offer beauty, horror, clarity, a moment. My job is to work on those stories that call for the sound of the human voice and find the most complementary way to incorporate it with the other Times reporting.

"THE TROUBLE WITH OUR TIMES IS THAT THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE." - PAUL VALERY

Things are changing. I know radio reporters who tote cameras to their interviews. I know print reporters who are shooting video now. I know photographers who are getting very good at recording audio. This is already happening. I would love to eradicate the word "multimedia" and just replace it with "journalism." And maybe that will happen someday. I can imagine a future where every journalist is versed in more than one kind of work - be it audio or photographs or Flash programming or statistical analysis or computer-assisted reporting or video or graphics or some yet-to-be-invented form of media.

But how can a radio producer get involved? Just like everything in this field, that's still evolving. At The Times, we are not yet accepting freelance multimedia pitches. There is no budget or infrastructure for handling these types of pitches. We don't typically run Web-only features, so there has to be a story in the newspaper before we'll start working on something. We have had a few radio producers work for The Times, but so far, either they've been writing a story for the paper already, or they've been in the right spot geographically to help out on a story that's already set to run in the paper.

The good news is that I've met some editors at The Times who consider multimedia a plus when considering a freelance pitch (so for those of you who write, take heart). The bad news is that many print editors are still learning (as is everyone!) about what it takes to produce great multimedia work. From the point of view of an editor, it may not make sense to send a freelance radio producer to a story when you're already sending a reporter and photographer. If you don't know the subtleties of the craft, an audio producer sounds like expensive overhead. And anyway, why can't the photographer just record some sound?

Coming from a radio background, that's hard to hear, but it's the state of things. As a radio producer, I think there are two approaches to this dilemma.

(1) Get defensive.

"That's ridiculous. You can't just stick a recorder in someone's hand and expect them to get good audio."

"When are people going to figure it out and hire real audio producers for multimedia work?"

(2) Get creative.

Grab a freelance photographer; collaborate, sell the story together.

Grab a freelance reporter; collaborate, sell the story together.

Grab a camera. (Be warned though. photographers may say, "Hey you can't just stick a camera in someone's hand and expect them to get good photos.")

Grab a pen and start writing your stories as well. Pitch a multimedia angle with your print story.

THE CHERISHED SKILLS OF A RADIO PRODUCER

There will be all kinds of competition in the multimedia world, and soon. Photographers are picking up our craft quickly, and well. But I do think radio producers bring something special to the mix. Interviewing for radio is a much different activity than print interviewing. Print reporters are generally working to confirm their knowledge of a topic, on deadline. They move fast. They interrupt when needed. They ask a lot of questions that pack the narrative in the question ("So, today you went to the rally, got up on the podium, and when the protester threw the tomato, you were feeling surprised, right?")

Audio producers, by contrast, are good at encouraging their interviewees to tell their own story. (Tell me about what happened today, what surprised you the most ...?) Audio producers, like good photographers and good long-form magazine writers also know how to make their subjects comfortable and follow them for a period of time. In the world of newspapers, this makes us good at working on certain kinds of stories. I'm always looking to get involved with stories that have strong characters and moments of revelation. That's where my skills are best employed.

Audio producers are also experienced in the haiku-like format of writing for the ear. The skill of writing short and writing for the ear is fundamentally different than writing an excellent breaking-news story or even feature story.

Audio producers also know how to take a slew of raw material and build a single narrative out of it - something that understands how listeners and viewers take in information. We're used to judging what information you can skip, what facts are essential, and what story points are most compelling. This skill can often be reapplied to multimedia.

Audio producers know how to edit sound. This is the most niche skill of all. Few photographers or reporters are taking this final step to learn the craft of editing audio, and without it, multimedia can sound sloppy and amateurish.

So, you have skills that make your work valuable in creating multimedia, but potential collaborators and editors may have no idea of your process or the value you bring. Remember, these people are learning and unlearning and relearning, just like you. We all have a lot to teach each other - and figure out together.

Click here to return to the December 2007 AIRblast.