One morning this summer, I got on the elevator with a colleague at WNYC, where I’m working as an interim producer for national programs. My elevator pal had just gotten off the subway and was running late for a meeting he’d scheduled. I stared at him, and we burst out laughing – because this was Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, and the night before I’d watched him pack the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the rafters. You’d think, after turning a 2100-seat opera house into a live-radio nerd-rave for two nights in a row, Abumrad might take a day to kick back in his limousine. But things don’t change that fast in public radio. The half-life of an afterglow is still very short.
Yet as Abumrad and his co-host, Robert Krulwich, stepped out onto the stage for “In the Dark,” I remember thinking how much shows like these do, in fact, change everything. The show, which has been on tour on and off for a little less than a year, takes Radiolab’s exploratory storytelling mode and expands it with a troupe of dancers, a rock band, and an audio-laden laptop.
I agree with some reviews that the show could be more – more visual, more daring, better paced to match the itchy needs of an audience stuck in seats as opposed to your average multi-tasking podcast listener. But the content and presentation were almost beside the point. The audience – a surprising number of excited teenagers and their equally excited parents and grandparents – were seeing the human manifestations of Jad and Robert, previously just voices in their heads. And just as importantly, Jad and Robert were seeing them.
Almost all of broadcasting’s basic vocabulary comes from the stage – we produce “shows” and “programs.” We have “hosts” and “audiences.” But despite many productions that still bear the live-radio torch – A Prairie Home Companion, Whad’ya Know?, or the new series Wits, for instance – most radio has been severed from its theatrical roots. We producers spend far more time interacting with our recording gear, our editing programs, and each other than our audience. And the truth is that after a while, “audience” can recede into a dark, nebulous cloud somewhere far beyond our glass-walled studios, a cloud that largely tends to emit bursts of irritable calls, comments or emails.
A live event turns that dynamic on its head. Live events tend to attract core listeners: people who can give isolated producers a different kind of feedback. “It’s really important to be able visualize who you’re talking to every week,” says Chris Bannon, WNYC’s vice president for content development and production – one of the managers here who prods shows to do live events.
Like more and more public radio stations, WNYC has built its own performance space. When a locally produced program such as Studio 360, for instance, does a live show there, Bannon says some of the most valuable moments come afterward, during the spontaneous “hanging out” time with audience members. “They begin to tell us about their lives, and many of them are creative. They listen to us while they paint or while they garden or while they repair the car. You start to think, ‘What can I do that will turn what they’re doing into something that would be interesting for the rest of the audience?’ ” The result has been more listener engagement projects on the regular, pre-produced version of Studio 360.
But a producer or reporter doesn’t need an entire stage show in order to benefit from live storytelling. WNYC transportation reporter Jim O’Grady regularly wins storytelling bouts at The Moth. It’s great to see the glint in his eyes as the audience laughs at his descriptions of PSE – his “Pre-Sexual Era,” or his portrait of a formidable yet cat-fearing nun. In fact, O’Grady says, live storytelling gave him the skills he needed to make the leap from print reporting to radio. Here are the main things he says it taught him:
Story structure: “In (print) journalism, the lede is paramount,” he says. “Not so in storytelling. Of course, a strong beginning is better … but far more important is the end of a spoken story. The way you end a story is what the audience is left with.”
Voice work: To meet The Moth’s strict five-minute story limit, O’Grady learned basically to memorize his work. But of course, to engage the audience, he had to learn to sound the opposite. “Be prepared, sound spontaneous,” he says. The approach works as well when he goes on the air: “The more relaxed you get, the more you can forget yourself. That takes so much practice.” O’Grady also learned to vary the pitch and speed of his read, to lose the monotone delivery that kills even the best-written story or radio feature.
Failure: “Everyone bombs,” O’Grady says. “If you do this long enough, you will bomb.” One night at The Moth, O’Grady says, his story fell flat, and he immediately knew why: “I overreached. I tried too hard for effect. I went for the maudlin and sentimental instead of something more truthful.” So he rewrote the story – the audience reaction immediately helped him.
This risk of failure is by far the most important benefit of live performance. In our age of digital permanence, a deadly perfectionism becomes almost irresistible. But we can tweak the life out of our stories – which, in the end, not everyone is going to like no matter what. That spontaneous, uncontrolled moment of creation between listener and producer, audience and performer, is what makes audio such a powerful medium. When radio storytellers put out the immense effort and take the risk of going on stage, they remember that. Plus, if they’re lucky, they get something very rare in this business: applause.
Then they head back to their quiet studios, stick on their headphones, get back to work.
Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads Storyboard’s “Audio danger” series. She last wrote about Radio Diaries and the Olympic boxer Claressa Shields.