[The third installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]
A ghostly crowd of voices parades across the public radio airwaves every day: politicians and hosts, foreign correspondents, callers, singers. Sometimes they catch our interest, but as soon as one voice is gone and replaced by the next, it’s usually forgotten.
Not so the voices in Daniel Zwerdling’s stories. They persist. They are not especially remarkable people: a veteran’s wife who insists on huge holiday displays although her family is poor; a military doctor giving a dull PowerPoint demonstration. You may not remember their names, but you have imagined them – their voices stay alive in your mind.
This is because of something we call, in the business, “good tape.” Good tape is the golden currency of audio stories. Without it, they are just another forgettable drop in the day’s torrent of sound.
Zwerdling, who started out as a staff writer at The New Republic, is now part of NPR’s special investigative unit. Zwerdling’s reports on topics as diverse as NASA, pesticides and the Department of Homeland Security have won nearly every broadcast prize, including the DuPont, Peabody, Polk and IRE awards. Maybe it’s just the result of more than three decades in the field, but he seems to get great tape no matter what he puts on the air. So I called him to see if I could glean the Yoda-like secret of his craft.
Turns out, the Yoda thing is not exactly a joke.
“I’m short, and I have short, stubby arms,” Zwerdling admits in his trademark amiable voice. “And in order to mic (interview subjects) closely – because I always mic closely to get very clean sound – I sit right, like, almost on their laps. Big, burly generals will literally grab my arm and start pushing me away and say, ‘Do you have to do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, but it’ll make you sound better!’ I’ll sit right next to them, as close as I have to, to hold the microphone right at the side of their mouths. So it’s very intimate.”
There’s no getting around a central factor in audio interviews: Microphones make most people nervous. And, although broadcast journalists may not like to admit it, the act of recording – with all its cables and headphones and microphones and checking input levels – makes us nervous, too. Zwerdling says he learned how to face down these jitters from another Jedi master.
“Robert Krulwich taught me my first day at NPR, which was in December 1980 – he took me into a little room and said, ‘Don’t just walk in and have pleasant chitchat, and then say: ‘All right, now we’ll do the interview.’ … Walk in, and as you’re chatting about whatever – cupcakes, the weather – as you’re unzipping (the equipment) bag, taking out the microphone, you know … scratch your back with the microphone.’”
Seriously? Scratch your back with it?
“No, really,” Zwerdling says. “Show it’s an extension of your body. So that’s sort of what I do. I call it the Robert Krulwich Moment.”
One thing that’s clear as Zwerdling talks about interviews: He listens on many levels. He’s fascinated by what people are telling him, and comfortable if they get emotional. But he’s also thinking about the needs the rest of us will have later – the way that we require concrete information, chronological accounts and vivid details to enter another person’s story. If Zwerdling has to ask basic, “obvious” questions over and over to break that story down on tape, then it’s fine with him.
When sources stare at him like a simpleton, Zwerdling tells them, “You’ve got to remember, my listeners are driving in the car, they’re making dinner for their family. They’re distracted – you’ve got to grab them and tell them, ‘Folks, THIS is what happened. This is why it’s important!’ And then they kind of get into it.”
All of Zwerdling’s interview and reporting skills are on display in a story he did with T. Christian Miller of ProPublica that aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on March 22, 2011. “Suicide by Cop” is nearly 20 minutes long and worth your time. Go ahead and listen. We’ll wait.
The piece is part of an ongoing series about an epidemic of traumatic brain injuries among recent combat veterans, and the veterans’ struggles to get diagnosed and treated. “Suicide by Cop” starts out, literally, like an episode of the reality show “COPS,” with the ragged sound of a police radio in North Dakota. The main subject of the story, an Iraq veteran named Brock Savelkoul, is standing by his pickup truck with several guns, surrounded by officers in a standoff. We won’t know until almost the end of Zwerdling’s piece whether he lives or dies.
Along the way, we learn about Savelkoul’s life from his sister Angie and his father, Bruce. We hear how he and his fellow troops sustained concussions after a rocket blast near their Army trailer, and how Savelkoul started to break down later, while on leave in Thailand. We hear how he walked away from a treatment facility in California and ended up back home, discharged from the military and more than 200 miles from the nearest VA hospital. And then we hear how Savelkoul’s father came home one night to find his son gone and their shared home trashed.
The clip of Savelkoul’s father speaking lasts 90 seconds. It’s rare, in a story on a nightly news program, to hear any one person talk for that long. And it would have been easy for Zwerdling to cut the last several seconds, when Bruce Savelkoul, a licensed gun dealer, describes the features of each weapon his son took out of the house that night. Zwerdling’s original draft of the story was far too long, and he needed to make cuts. So why did he save this part?
“I wanted the details. Let us really confront what guns they had in the house, and what guns the soldier put together, and why a bunch of people with the highway patrol would feel so threatened by him,” Zwerdling says.
Great tape torques our minds in different ways all at once. On the one hand, we’re getting all this detailed information about the firepower Savelkoul carried. On the other, we’re noticing how his father takes the time to list each gun. Beyond that, in the rhythm of this story, such a long piece of tape hammers at our subconscious expectations: It goes on for too long. As will the 2 1/2-hour standoff with Savelkoul about to come.
Zwerdling often interviews people while they look over original documents, photos, or videos. In the case of this story, it was dashboard footage from the North Dakota Highway Patrol – no easy thing to score, as any journalist who’s worked with police departments can tell you. Zwerdling sat down with state trooper Megan Christopher to watch the standoff. Christopher recalled how she tried over and over, in the dark sleet of an empty field, to get Savelkoul to give up his weapons. He finally did – at which point another officer rushed out and tasered the veteran. This is painful to hear. But then we learn what Christopher did next.
It is at this point, nearly 18 minutes into the story, that the chaotic impact of a faraway war fully punches us in the gut, along with relief that for once, it didn’t result in more tragedy. Only after that, in the last two minutes of the story, do we hear directly from Brock Savelkoul. First he’s in the VA hospital where he’s finally getting intensive treatment. Then a few months later, he’s on the road to recovery (literally, in the truck where he piled all those guns the night of the standoff) hoping to become an advocate for other veterans with brain injuries.
Zwerdling says he probably got 12 hours of raw tape for the 20-minute final story. He made three trips to North Dakota over a few months. Sometimes we get great tape through luck, but usually, Zwerdling says, it takes persistence, time, and someone higher up willing to spend the money for that. But of course there are other factors money can’t buy.
“The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested,” Zwerdling says. “If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too. If you come in with some kind of persona that’s not you, then nothing will happen.”
As Zwerdling watched video of the North Dakota standoff, he sat close by trooper Megan Christopher’s side. “We would start the video and then stop it, start it and stop it. And then when I could feel something changing in her body language, that’s when I would stop it, get away from the video, turn to her and just talk together,” Zwerdling remembers, and then pauses. “I just got a Christmas card from her today.”
© National Public Radio, Inc. Excerpts from NPR news report titled “‘Suicide by Cop’ Leads Soldier on Chase of His Life” by NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling and ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller were originally broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered” March 22, 2011 and are used with the permission of NPR. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.