For our second annual Best of Narrative roundup, our selectors reported an anguishing task: so many great pieces, so few berths. Enjoy these top picks from 2013. And Happy New Year!
Guest editor: Julia Barton, the story and social media editor for The Life of the Law, is a correspondent for PRI’s The World and a contributing producer for Studio 360. She writes Storyboard’s Audio Danger column.
Public radio has occasionally been mocked for a slow and leisurely pace, but the truth is, radio stories have gotten much faster-paced in the past decade, with a big emphasis on day-of turnaround. That’s probably as it should be for broadcast — but with the rise of podcasts and digital downloads, there’s also more room for long-term projects. As I thought about some of the best stories of 2013, they all seemed to share this “slow journalism” factor: Not that these pieces sound slow, but many took months, if not years of reporting to produce. A longitudinal approach to storytelling has always been magical in audio, and a new willingness to invest in stories like these bodes well for 2014. — Julia Barton
“Harper High School,” This American Life. To create this two-episode, multisegment documentary, reporters Linda Lutton, Ben Calhoun and Alex Kotlowitz spent five months at a school in southwest Chicago where the students live — no exaggeration — in a war zone. The previous school year, 29 Harper High students had been wounded by bullets and eight died. By spending real time at the school, TAL brings us deep into the life of an institution trying to provide an island of order amid the chaos of splintered gang conflicts and civic neglect.
“The Hospital Always Wins,” State of the Re:Union (WJCT and NPR). Producer Laura Starecheski spent close to a decade following the story of one patient at Creedmoor mental hospital in Queens, N.Y., and his struggle to be released from custody. Starecheski comes at his story from many angles but ultimately lets this fascinating man — a talented artist and musician — tell his own disturbing story.
“Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” NPR’s Planet Money. This project, more than three years in the making, tells the encyclopedic story of the clothes on our back. Planet Money’s effort goes far beyond audio, tackling its subject via .GIF, videos, an app and an epic Kickstarter. (And … Stephen Colbert, who asks executive producer Alex Blumberg, “Why do you want to make the invisible hand of the market visible?!”) But audio for me remains the most satisfying part of this remarkable project, as PM’s reporters take us everywhere from cotton warehouses in Indonesia to factories in Colombia to the used-clothes economy of Africa, to unpack what money really has done to our planet.
“American Icons,” Studio 360 (WNYC and PRI). This series, which has been around for a while, got a new tranche of stories this fall, many of which were also a year or more in the making. (Disclosure: I edited one new Icons piece and have reported another). It’s hard to single out individual pieces when the field here is so rich, but Sean Cole’s story on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and this hour on the Vietnam War Memorial (produced by Eric Molinsky) exemplify what the series does best: explore what’s surprising and strange and wonderful about works of art we only think we know.
“Jack and Ellen,” Love + Radio (WBEZ). The edgy and masterfully sound-designed podcast is on a mission to disturb, and it certainly does that in this interview from the underworld of online blackmail. Producers Nick Van Der Kolk, Brendan Baker and Mooj Zadie take us into a morally unpleasant place in a vivid way that broadcast radio never could.
Bonus! Audio nominations from abroad! From her (until-recent) perch as artistic director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, Julie Shapiro has been exposed more than most to great stories from the English-speaking world. Every culture has unspoken storytelling conventions and the U.S. is no exception, so producers and listeners who hope to get out of a rut in 2014 should give Shapiro’s recommendations a try:
“Lullaby,” In the Dark Radio (UK). “Most beautiful execution of form + function,” Shapiro says. “The musicality of voice has been well-covered, but this one particularly demonstrates how pitch, inflection, rhythm and a simple story can transfix your ears from start to finish, all in service of song. The minimal musical accompaniment gives shape and direction. The twinkle in his (Colin Dexter‘s) voice lodges somewhere deep.” From producer Phil Smith.
“Private White Folk,” ABC’s 360documentaries (Australia). “Here’s one of the most simultaneously touching and disturbing stories I’ve ever heard,” Shapiro says of this essay from producers Catherine Merchant and Timothy Nicastri. “I almost couldn’t listen, but ultimately couldn’t stop. Subtle sound design enhances the menace … and though I heard it months ago, this one’s still fresh in my mind.”
“The Whale’s Choice,” CBC’s The Sunday Edition (Canada). “Talk about radio taking you places. … Here’s a patient and personal story of an unforgettable encounter, with live tape that takes you right to the surface of the water with the narrator. Found this incredibly meditative, and a welcome change of pace. The production is very loyal to the story.” From producer Jennifer Kingsley.
Guest editor: Cristian Lupsa, founding editor of the Romanian magazine Decat o Revista and a 2014 Nieman Fellow. His annual Power of Storytelling conference (a one-day October event, in Bucharest) convenes craft-talking storytellers from around the world.
“Jahar’s World,” by Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone. There was the cover scandal, and there was the story — a thoroughly researched narrative of how an immigrant kid who lost everything (his parents, his friends, himself) became a terrorist.
“Requiem for a Dream,” by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker. The fractured story of the fractured life of an Internet whiz who couldn’t figure out what it meant to be at peace with others and with himself. “There is no point at which this is a clean story,” a former girlfriend says in the piece.
“Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building,” by Wright Thompson, ESPN The Magazine. A moving piece about the difficulty of stepping aside, and the nostalgia of an aging athlete. “I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball,” Jordan says, and you believe him.
“Last Song for Migrating Birds,” by Jonathan Franzen, National Geographic. Birds are slaughtered indiscriminately in Albania and Egypt, where migratory species usually stop to rest before continuing their journey home. Franzen looks at how laws and culture change, and what birds mean to us.
“Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.,” by Mac McClelland, Mother Jones. A riveting look at how the mentally ill are packing jails across the country, and what the alternatives (and their costs) are.
“A Loaded Gun,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker. Keefe spells out the catch of this murder tale eloquently: “When violence suddenly ruptures the course of our lives, we tend to tell ourselves stories in order to make it more explicable. … Faced with the same tragic facts, those who concluded that Amy Bishop murdered her brother and those who concluded that she didn’t both took messy events and turned them into a story. But neither story was especially convincing.”
“Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker. A prose poem of adventure, independence and motherhood.
“Gentlemen, Gentlemen, Be of Good Cheer, for They Are Out There, and We Are in Here,” by Chris Jones, Esquire. Leave it to Chris Jones to find the tragic aspect of Hugh Heffner’s life at the Playboy Mansion, a make-believe paradise that has begun to show its first serious cracks.
“The Way of All Flesh,” by Ted Conover, Harper’s. Conover gets a job as a USDA meat inspector and works for a couple of months in a Nebraska industrial slaughterhouse, cutting heads and livers, and learning how beef gets made. He is certain the experience will make him a vegan. Does it?
“The Elvis Impersonator, the Karate Instructor, a Fridge Full of Severed Heads, and the Plot 2 Kill the President,” by Wells Tower, GQ. This sentence says it all: “[Perhaps] Tupelo was just too small a town for two conspiracy-minded, snappy-dressing, nunchuck-swinging rock ’n’ roll men to coexist in harmony.”
“The Last Clinic,” by Maisie Crow and Alissa Quart, The Atavist, about Mississippi’s efforts to shut down the state’s last remaining abortion facility. About the project Barbara Ehrenreich said, “I’ve been involved with the movement for women’s reproductive rights for over 40 years, both as an activist and a writer, and this is by far the best reporting I have ever seen on the subject.” And here’s a CJR piece on how Crow and Quart got the story, plus an excerpt.
“The Jockey,” by Barry Bearak, the New York Times, about Russell Baze, the “winningest jockey in U.S. history.” With stunning images by Chang W. Lee; production by Xaquín G.V., Jon Huang, Graham Roberts, R. Smith, Catherine Spangler, and Josh Williams; photo editing by Becky Lebowitz Hanger; copy editing by Victor Mather; music composition by Thomas Gamble; and additional reporting and video by Shan Carter, Mike Bostock and Peter DaSilva. Elements: still photography; video; clean chapters/design; original score. Favorite touch: Video opens certain sections, narrated by Bearak reading a passage from the story. And wow, what video — horse paddocks, stables, misty mornings, hoof clop. In Chapter 4, there’s a cool “live” graphic of Baze’s history of injuries, with the standing jockey turning 360 degrees and his doctor, in a voice-over, narrating the extraordinary physical cost of racing.
“Trials: A Desperate Fight to Save Kids & Change Science,” by Amy Dockser Marcus, the Wall Street Journal — a six-year project following parents and researchers as they seek a treatment for the rare and fatal genetic disease Niemann-Pick Type C. Story editor Sam Enriquez; visual editor Sarah Slobin; executive video producer Jill Kirschenbaum; senior producer Jarrard Cole; producers Linda Freund and Evan Simon; additional camera by Monika Vosough and Johnny Cruz; developers Lakshmi Ketineni, Michelle Chen, Palani Kumanan, Dov Friedman and Hani Lim; photo editor Matthew Craig; photographer Melissa Golden; illustrator Lilli Carre; graphics Mike Sudal; designers Kurt Wilberding, Sarah Slobin and Laura Holder; consulting editors Michael Allen, Jon Keegan, Jovi Juan, Alex Martin, Allison Lichter, Kate Ortega and Erin White. Elements: compelling display GIFs; clean chapters; still photos; video; abundant opportunities to share via social media; side-rail opportunity to contribute to the discussion, view reader comments and join the conversation on Facebook. Favorite touches: font play in the header; surprising audio (a doctor, singing); endnotes, sourcing the reporting; the dynamic cross-page portraits of young people with NPC; the small black-and-white sketched GIFs as section-break art elements.
“The Course of Their Lives,” by Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about a class of medical students and gross anatomy. With photo/videos by Rick Wood, graphics by Lou Saldivar, print design by Nick Lujero, copy editing by Dan Kwas, digital production by Emily Yount, and project editing by Greg Borowski. Elements: clean chapters; appropriately clinical-yet-haunting music loop; interactive photo gallery; video; display photography; diagrams; unobtrusive section-break flourishes. Favorite touch: color images that fade away to grayscale.
“A Game of Shark and Minnow,” by Jeff Himmelman, the New York Times, about a rusting World War II-era ship which the Philippine government uses as an unlikely sentry in the South China Sea. With photographs and video by Ashley Gilbertson; production by Mike Bostock, Clinton Cargill, Shan Carter, Nancy Donaldson, Tom Giratikanon, Xaquín G.V., Steve Maing and Derek Watkins; and editing by Joel Lovell. Elements: huge, gorgeous display photography; clean chapters; maps. Favorite touches: pop-up audio/video loops (waves and wind; flopping, fresh-caught fish; a small-plane sortie from a grass-strip runway); and Google Earth-y interactive maps showing strategic positions for the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“The Fall of the House Tsarnaev,” by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen, the Boston Globe, about the lives of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. Elements: cleanish but not super-inspired chapter delivery; still photos; video; color illustrations, “re-creations of scenes from the Tsarnaevs’ lives.” Favorite touch: the clear, top-rail chapter breakdown between brothers, “T” for Tamerlan (eight chapters), “D” for Dzhokhar (seven chapters), with silhouette icons as markers.
Panos Pictures’ multimedia projects are worth a look. The photo agency has expanded to video storytelling on social-issues projects around the world. We love this one, “After the Forest,” on Cameroon’s Baka pygmies, who’re losing their woodland home to logging.
Guest editor: Ben Montgomery, a Tampa Bay Times reporter who co-founded Gangrey.com, which highlights great features writing. His book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, will be published in April by Chicago Review Press. It’s the true story of Emma Gatewood, who in 1955, at age 67, became the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail alone.
10. “His Saving Grace,” by Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune, about Curtis Duffy’s rise from a troubled youth to star chef.
9. “Woman’s Dying Wish: Dinner At Olive Garden,” by Joe Kovac Jr., the Macon Telegraph, about a favorite last meal.
8. “Nightmare in Maryville,” by Dugan Arnett, the Kansas City Star, about a small town’s backlash against the family of a teenage girl who accused a football star of raping her.
7. “A Soldier’s Wife,” by Chris Goffard, the Los Angeles Times, about a family’s struggle to cope with an Army sergeant’s return from Iraq.
6. “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” by Dan Zak, the Washington Post, about three aged peace activists and a break-in at a nuclear-weapons facility.
5. “At 99, a St. Petersburg Man Finds Meaning in the Working Life,” by Lane DeGregory*, Tampa Bay Times, about a janitor at Bama Sea Products.
4. (a) “102 Hours in Pursuit of Marathon Bombers,” by the Boston Globe staff, about an historic manhunt.
4. (b) “A Quest For Care,” by Meg Kissinger, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, about a mother’s efforts to get help for her mentally ill son.
3. “The Last Voyage of the Bounty,” by Michael Kruse*, Tampa Bay Times, about the fatal journey of a storied sailing ship.
2. “Invisible Child,” by Andrea Elliott, the New York Times, about a homeless 11-year-old girl in New York City.
1. “After Newtown, Mourning Parents Enter into Lonely Quiet,” by Eli Saslow, the Washington Post, about one family’s struggle to cope with the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Disclosure: Montgomery works with both DeGregory and Kruse at the Tampa Bay Times, and considers them close friends.
“Coronado High,” by Joshuah Bearman, The Atavist, about 1970s California surfers turned drug smugglers:
Dave Strather could see it through binoculars, the sails ghostly against the water. He was sitting on an exposed cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was dark, and the beach was deserted for fifty miles in both directions. This was the Lost Coast, a vast swath of rugged, uninhabited, magnificently forested Northern California, the kind of place that made you understand why people have always been drawn to the Golden State. Dave chose the spot for landfall precisely because it was so empty. He and his team needed secrecy.
“Hana’s Story,” by Kathryn Joyce, Slate, about the horrific life and death of a young Ethiopian adoptee:
“… children adopted by some religious subcommunities—isolated homeschoolers with large families, deeply conservative beliefs about discipline and obedience, and a practice of adopting multiple unrelated children at once—may find themselves in families unprepared to give them the care they need.”
“Unity with the Universe,” by Wright Thompson, ESPN.com, about a paralyzed Montana man who makes fly-fishing rods with his wife:
“A small epiphany waits at the end of their time with Tom, if they pay attention to the signs. There is no his life and their life, just life. The rods don’t provide answers, only questions, about how you lived it before you arrived, and how you might live it after.”
Guest editor: Susie Banikarim, a 2014 Nieman Fellow and an Emmy-nominated network television and video producer. Most recently she was the editorial producer for Katie, where she helped launch and oversee hard-news coverage for Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show. Prior to that, she was deputy director of editorial operations and executive producer of video at Newsweek Daily Beast.
“Hers to Lose,” by Brent McDonald, the New York Times. This documentary about Christine Quinn’s failed attempt to become New York City’s next mayor is a gentle reminder that our politicians are more than just the caricatures they often become in news coverage. It is an intimate portrait of Quinn in the final month of her campaign, focusing less on the issues and policies at stake and more on how easy it is to lose sight of the basic humanity of public figures in the heat and passion of political campaigns.
“Raising Adam Lanza,” Frontline. Frontline’s coverage in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings (in partnership with the Hartford Courant) was excellent, and this in-depth look at the shooter’s mother and first victim, Nancy Lanza, was the best of that work. It is a chilling look at a seemingly devoted mother whose misguided attempts to connect with her troubled son may have ultimately led to the terrible tragedy in Newtown. (Honorable mention also goes to “League of Denial,” Frontline’s report about the prevalence of brain injuries among former NFL players, and the league’s continued attempts to minimize the publicity surrounding the crisis.)
“Baltimore Slumlord Watch,” The Atlantic. This video follows Carol Ott, a mother of two, as she photographs abandoned properties in Baltimore for her blog, Baltimore Slumlord Watch. Beautifully shot and edited, this is a small story that explores the larger issue of urban blight and its impact on many American cities.
“‘My Son Is Mentally Ill,’” by Wayne Drash, with video and photography by Evelio Contreras, CNN.com. This profile of a mother coping with her 14-year-old son’s bipolar disorder is a profoundly moving exploration of the impact of mental illness on families. Stephanie Escamilla and her son share their story in an attempt to fight the isolation that can result from seeing these issues as shameful family secrets and, in doing so, show us that there is no shame in illness — mental or otherwise.
“The Curious Case of Lonni Sue’s Amnesia,” by reporter Michael Lemonick, with Jim Fields (director, camera, editor) and Aline Johnson (family videos and photos), Time. Lonni Sue Johnson is an accomplished illustrator who suffers from profound amnesia, the result of a near-fatal illness in 1987. This video looks at the impact of that memory loss on her and her family. The result is a meditation on memory, joy and how we choose to define a meaningful life.
STORYBOARD SELECTS: bonus notables worth your time
“The Refugees,” by Ben C. Solomon and Sergio Peçanha, the New York Times, about three of the 2 million Syrian war refugees now living in Lebanon.
“Alone on the Hill,” by Shaun McKinnon, the Arizona Republic, about the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 elite firefighters.
“If He Hollers Let Him Go,” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The Believer, about the search for comedian Dave Chappelle 10 years after he walked out on his own show.
“Beyond the Finish Line,” by the New York Times‘ Tim Rohan, about a Boston Marathon bombing survivor’s struggle to recover.
“The Dream Boat,” by Luke Mogelson, the New York Times, about the brutal conditions Afghan refugees face when trying to flee to Christmas Island via Indonesia.
“A very dangerous boy,” by Amy Wallace, GQ, about a California 10-year-old who murdered his neo-Nazi father.
“Naturally, J.J. Cale,” a New York Times animated op-doc by Drew Christie.