Feature article from the April 2013 AIRblast

Make It Real

By Jeff Emtman

This month's Spotlight is on Jeff Emtman, a photographer and independent producer based in Boulder Colorado. Jeff is a practitioner of a field he calls "social portraiture," in which he incorporates visual and aural elements to tell stories. His podcast, "Here Be Monsters," features audio documentaries about fear and the unknown and is heard by listeners on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, and other outlets as well. But you can find ALL of Jeff's combined work on his website. We were curious about how he thinks about his site: the decisions he makes as he constructs and updates it, and how it fits into the larger scheme promoting and distributing his work. We told him that a lot of producers were mystified by creating websites — and we asked him to share some information with us. So he wrote us an open letter.


Dear AIRsters,

I've been looking at your websites, a lot of them. And as a whole, you really need to up your game.

Don't get me wrong; I'm no saint myself. But often, when I talk to producers, I get this vibe that they view their websites as mere formalities or some kind of necessary evil. A talented reporter I know recently compared building a website to planting a virus in the Matrix. Our robotic overlords have gotten a bad rap — Blade Runner didn't help.

So, if you've ever plotted to "accidentally" drop your computer out of a second-story window, keep reading. And if you're looking to create a new site or rework the one you already have, I'm going to do my best to save you some of the late-night teeth-grinding sessions that I endured while building my own sites.

My goal is to convince you that technology doesn't have to be a black box, or something to compete with, or even something that's terribly confusing.

There are striking similarities between producing a story for radio and building a website. I'm going to lay out seven lessons from the world of radio journalism that translate perfectly into the world of Web design.

1. Persistence

I grew up in the '90s. If my PBS-fueled, self-esteem-building childhood taught me one thing, it was to believe in myself. I do, and you should too. So, do it; believe in your self. I'm willing to be forever thought of as AIR's Big Bird if it means that I can pass that one lesson along to you. Building a site isn't easy, but too many producers give up before they've even started.

Early in the process of creating a website, it's normal to feel lost and confused. But once you get over the initial hump of learning the terminology and the grand concepts, it gets easier. I swear it does.

2. Realistic Expectations

When you produce a story, you don't expect your listeners to drop everything and lock themselves in a quiet room with nice headphones. People listen in the car, while they're doing dishes, or as background sound. Too often, when radio folk design their sites, they fall prey to hubris, thinking that their site will be some sort of Mecca for radio seekers. This just isn't the case; people will glance at your site, try to get the gist of it quickly, and then move on. Nearly all of my own traffic stems from iTunes or SoundCloud or Stitcher or Facebook. Listeners only rarely visit my page to hear the show.

"So why have a Web page at all?"

Here's how I see it: My website is an opportunity to brand my work. When someone happens upon my show on iTunes, it's like looking down a row of Army cadets standing at attention — everyone has the same haircut, everyone has the same uniform. You might be able to see some name tags, but really, my show looks just like all the rest. Conversely, on my own site, I get to make all the rules. And on my own site, the soldiers talk back and wear bright colors — just how I like it.

A website is an opportunity to create your show's utopia, where a listener's experience is tailored exactly to the show's aesthetic. Just be aware that visitors will probably wind up listening on iTunes eventually.

3. Empathy

Have you ever met someone who talks exclusively in monotone? Maybe they're a scientist, or a mathematician, or possibly even a logician — because they're just so practical, pragmatic, unemotional. You might think to yourself, "Gosh, I bet their brain works just like a computer. They're like a robot." But you're wrong. That's not how computers think.

Instead, think of the worst person you've dated. If your computer were your significant other, it would invite you to dinner and show up an hour late. Then it would tell you that something's wrong, but refuse to explain. You'd try to fix things, but it would just ignore you if you used bad grammar. And you would certainly be picking up the check. If you're going to call someone "robotic," save it for the temperamental, the emotional, the grammar snobs — because that's how computers are.

Instead of aggression or competition, empathy should always be your first approach when it comes to computers. As a human, you have to do your best to understand exactly what needy computers need. And then, you have to find the perfect words to say it. Just like a significant other or even an interviewee that is emotionally vulnerable, computers often need your help to sort out their thoughts and organize them into something useful.

Despite their quirks, computers are actually incredibly valuable collaborators in effective storytelling — albeit collaborators who often play dumb and hard-to-get. Just remember, they've had a rough life. Practice empathy.

4. Research

Sometimes I'll meet a reporter who has gone undercover for years to unearth corruption in a foreign government, or embedded into a drug cartel, or exposed a corporate scandal. I'll be genuinely interested and then ask if she has a website where I can see her work. Sometimes she'll say "yes," but more often than not, I'll hear, "Oh that's too hard for me. I don't get that stuff."

My big piece of advice is, use your journalistic super powers, dammit! Sorry to swear, but there's really no magic behind Web design. There's no Hogwarts for aspiring nerds — they learn it the same way you do: through research. Actually, researching Web design is a million times easier (and safer) than researching government corruption. The information is right there on the surface. All you have to do is ask for it. Just don't freeze up when you find terminology you don't understand.

As a part time gig, I work as a Web designer for a woman who sells conversation hearts online. You know, those candies that taste like chalk and say things like "FAX ME" on them. (FYI: They are made out of cow hooves.) She often asks me to do X, Y, and Z for her. I'm no genius, so, I type into Google, "How do I do X, Y, and Z?" Most of the time, the first result will answer her question, so I type it up in an email and bill her for it.

Here are two freebies. These are great resources as you build and update your site:

Getting Started: Building a Website from Scratch

HTML and CSS help: World Wide Web Consortium

5. Boiling down

As you know from producing radio stories, some sources are great, some need grains of salt, and others are just plain wrong. As you develop a site, you'll gather a lot of research from different sources. Your job as a Web designer is to boil down all that raw information into something compact and cohesive, something with a low barrier to entry.

In reporting, fluff and jargon are hints that the reporter doesn't fully understand the subject they're covering. This is true for websites as well. Go look at some radio sites. Do you see fluff? Unnecessary bits? Confusing buttons? Form without function? A confident designer uses all the tools necessary and none that aren't.

As you design your site, look constantly with fresh eyes. Has any visitor ever used that 3-D tag cloud? Or is it there because you're afraid of having a blank spot?

Best Practices for Radio Websites:

- Make your content as visible as possible. The bigger the "play" button, the better.

- Explain your purpose succinctly — no excuses. On my page, the first thing any visitor sees is the name of the show, followed immediately by "A Podcast About Fear and the Unknown." It's as easy as that.

- Be Intentional. Make your pages relevant and to the point. No one wants to read the radio.

6. Skepticism

At some point, you'll probably need to shop for a Web host. A Web host is a company that puts your website on their computers and makes it accessible to the world.

There are some big-name hosts that we've all heard of. And we know their names because women in tight T-shirts advertise their services on TV. My advice is again to use your journalistic skepticism. If they need to use sex to sell their product and if they need to advertise it directly to you, it's probably not a great service. Furthermore, some Web hosts prey on their clients' lack of knowledge in the same way that a bad auto shop might try to sell you a "premium oil change."

Generally speaking, look for a host that offers plenty of disk space and unlimited bandwidth — but do your research. Don't get upsaled. Explore your options.

7. Humility

I fully realize that, so far, I've been building you up, giving you lots of pats on the back. But I also want to be realistic — maintaining a website can be time consuming. To be a good webmaster or a good journalist, you must be cognizant of your limitations. You have to know when to call in the professionals.

When I was developing my own radio page, I coded it all myself. And then, on the eve of its launch, I had this moment of lucidity when I realized how poorly it was held together behind the scenes — lots of figurative Scotch tape and Silly String. I called up a Web designer friend. For a couple hundred bucks, he reworked my chicken scratch into something solid. And now, he's saved me immense amounts of my own time.

Moving Forward

The big lessons here are fairly simple and completely applicable across all the work we do in radio: Be inspired, be empathetic, have realistic expectations, research thoroughly, keep it simple, maintain skepticism, and know when to ask for help.

So where should you go from here? I've really shied away from solid recommendations in this letter. And that's because the world of the Internet is filled with a blinding bevy of choices. But here are two recommendations good for anyone starting out online.

            A) Learn WordPress. WordPress is an incredibly powerful (and free) tool that organizes content into nice looking pages. It's easy to learn and is becoming a de facto standard for building simple sites.

            B) Learn HTML5 and CSS. These are the most basic languages of Web design, and they're also surprisingly easy to learn with the right teacher. The two websites in Section 4 are great places to start learning.

But most of all, learn to ask the right questions, because building an effective website is difficult. But come to think of it, so is being an independent in radio — and I'm never disappointed by the radio work of my peers here at AIR. So take it a step further — big-spoon your computers tonight. And say "hi" to 'em for me.


Jeff Emtman

P.S. If you have questions, or just want to get in touch, I'd love to hear from you. Send me an email anytime:


Jeff Emtman is a radio producer, photographer, Web designer, host, and occasional handyman at Here Be Monsters — a podcast about fear and the unknown.