I first heard “Debatable,” an episode of the RadioLab podcast about a black, queer student debater named Ryan Wash, while I was on a run in the woods of mid-Missouri. I kid you not – as I reached the end of the hour-long episode, it began raining and I found myself crying as I ran through the now-muddy forest, Wash’s words pulsing through my earbuds.
The episode, reported and produced by Abigail Keel, dives into the story of Wash and his efforts to change the college debate community, which is traditionally dominated by a set of brilliant yet privileged students.
While still debating the given topic, Wash and his partners started to discuss the intricacies of debate itself and how marginalized students are often excluded in debate, a sport that can require extensive money, resources and time.
The episode opens with a role reversal as Wash grills RadioLab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich about why they wanted to report the story now and ends with a clip of Wash passionately talking about how he fits into debate as a queer, black, first-generation college student.
The idiosyncrasies of college debate are interesting enough, but Wash’s attempt to change the game raises the stakes; debate becomes personal, relatable and emotional. The audio is piercing and proves this is a story that could not have been told solely through print.
Abigail Keel graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in May 2015. Later in the year, she moved to New York City to begin an internship with RadioLab, where she pitched and reported “Debatable” with help from the RadioLab team. Keel now works as a full-time producer for the Longest Shortest Time podcast.
Keel spoke with me by phone about radio narratives and the techniques required to bring a reader inside a story. This interview has been edited and condensed.
You start off the episode with the subject interviewing you and the two hosts, Jad and Robert. How and why did you decide to start the episode with this reverse questioning?
Well, I guess because that’s how the story really started for us. Ryan was the first person that we interviewed on tape for the story, and the first thing that came out of his mouth was a question for us, and it definitely changed the dynamic in the interview. Something that’s maybe an inside scoop about radio in general is that this interview wasn’t conducted in person. We connected with Ryan through what’s called ISDN. Basically it’s a way for radio stations to connect with one another digitally so it sounds like we’re in the same room but really we’re in separate studios. So there’s already this sort of separation when you’re not doing the interview in person. Then for him to come in and start off with asking us questions, we could automatically tell he was not just there to tell us anything we wanted to hear. He had a story to tell, and he wanted to make sure that nobody took that away from him. It was such a memorable moment for all of us and really intrigued us that we just thought, what’s the best way to get the audience to feel the same way we felt?
Within the first two minutes of the episode, listeners find out this happened a few years ago. What made you want to pursue this now, and why did you think it would be a compelling narrative now?
There are two answers. One is exactly what Jad says in the piece, which is we found this now. I never did debate; I didn’t know anything about it in college. But a close friend of mine did debate in college, and I was spending time with her. She coaches debate for middle-schoolers, and she encouraged me to come to a tournament and be a guest judge. And I thought, what is this weird sport and why are these middle-school kids using vocabulary words that I’ve never heard before?
[My friend] just told me all about college debate and about the intense competitiveness, the insane amount of time the students devote to it and the work that goes into it. Then she started talking about what she calls “performance debate,” which is what some people call the style of debate that Ryan participates in. I could tell that it was something in this little world that was really divisive, and I was really drawn to that. I just kept thinking about it, and then as some of the college campus activism emerged over the last few months – I guess really over the last few years – I just started to see parallels between those two movements.
Ryan won the NDT (National Debate Tournament) in 2013, and Michael Brown was shot a full year later. [Editor’s note: Michael Brown was an 18-year-old black teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death spurred protests around the nation.] It was interesting to me that they had debated this topic on the precipice of the Black Lives Matter movement really grabbing hold of the country’s attention. I thought it added to Ryan’s story. But I think that Ryan’s story is important and interesting outside that movement as well. It was sort of like this lucky strike of timing.
Nobody in a RadioLab pitch meeting is saying, “Wait what’s the hook for today?” They’re just following whatever they find interesting and curious and maybe something that’s difficult to grapple with. Those are the kinds of things and the kinds of feelings that they like to talk about on their show. The whole podcasting medium definitely has followed that train and is able to look into things that might not make it into the NPR newscast.
I think if you start in a way where you show some tension and you don’t resolve it, then you hook someone in, and they’re going to stick with you until it’s resolved, because I think that’s our natural instinct. We want to see how it ends.
The episode is structured as if you’re telling the story to the hosts, which is typical of RadioLab stories. Can you talk about that as a storytelling technique, the advantages to that and how you technically do that?
It’s basically like your listeners are coming to your show, and we have to assume that they don’t know anything about debate, because most people don’t. It’s a really complicated and complex sport, and it has a lot of detail, some of which is really important to understand if you’re going to understand our story, and some of which is less important. So my job is to wade through everything and then discern: What do you need to know if you’re going to try to understand what we’re trying to tell you about debate and this guy who made an important impact in this world? And also, what are the sprinkles on top? The interesting, exciting stuff that maybe you don’t necessarily need to know but is fun to hear or gives it life. My job is to collect everything and bring back the gems or the most important parts, and Jad and Robert, the hosts, help me to tell the story by asking me questions that a listener might have. Their job is to say: What about this? Or maybe play devil’s advocate at a part where it may be natural for a listener to have a contrarian thought, and then I can jump in and help explain things.
The main character, Ryan, we tried to use his voice as much as possible because we felt like we were trying to tell his story as an example of a larger story. So we wanted as much of it to be told in his own words as possible. My role was to jump in and say something faster if Ryan said it in a lot of words in real life. Or if he said something that was really academic or jargony that would be hard for someone to understand, I would jump in and try to explain it in fewer words or in a simpler way.
The episode’s an hour long, and you say to the audience about 36 minutes in that you’re about to get into “the whole reason you’re telling this story.” When there’s so much build up to your climactic moment, how do you go about keeping an audience engaged and still listening?
I think if you start in a way where you show some tension and you don’t resolve it, then you hook someone in, and they’re going to stick with you until it’s resolved, because I think that’s our natural instinct. We want to see how it ends. We want to know what happens. Toward the beginning, there’s the anecdote of Ryan in debate with Marshana in high school, the first debate where he’s learning and he sees her do this performative speech. She’s talking about race, and she’s talking about sexuality and all these different things that don’t really relate to the debate at hand. I think the listeners know there’s a reason why we’re telling them that, and they want to stick around to hear why. The long buildup helps make that climax moment even more interesting. The listeners are investing in that 36 minutes of information and little anecdotes and background information on all the characters, so they want to stick around for the payoff. Is he going to win this big debate? If he does, what does that mean? And then I think the fun part about a lot of RadioLab stories, including this one, is that you get this payoff at the end where you hear what happens, but then you get punched on the other side of the face. He wins the debate, but did it change anything? Is the debate world totally transformed? And the answer is well, maybe not. You’re building up, building up, building up; you hear what happens, and then you’re sort of led down another rabbit hole.
You play audio of him talking in the last debate, which is very emotional but the quality isn’t great. How did you decide to play that last bit even though it’s a little hard to hear?
It was something we talked about a lot, and we looked really hard for other versions of the audio where you could understand him better. But honestly, even if it had been stellar quality, he is talking so quickly that for just a lay person, you still can’t really even understand what he’s saying. He’s using a lot of debate terminology, he’s using jargon, so even if it was the best-quality tape, it wouldn’t be 100% comprehensible to the random listener. But what I think is totally comprehensible is his emotion, his passion, and that’s kind of his whole argument, that this part of the debate matters, and you have to be able to feel something in addition to think something. Even if you can’t understand what he’s saying, you understand that it’s really, really important to him, and it’s very compelling to hear that.
Madison Feller recently moved to New York City after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism with a specialization in magazine journalism and a minor in computer science. She now works as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan.com. She spends her free time co-hosting her own podcast, Tiny Circles, and scoping out the city’s best red velvet cupcake.