Boxing stories leave me cold. Like many sports stories, they seem to assume an audience of fans who will be thrilled − rather than sickened − by a narrative built on grueling workouts, bloodied lips and head injuries. So I downloaded “Teen Contender,” about a 16-year-old girl trying out for the USA’s first Olympic boxing team, with some reluctance. I listened on the train. By the end of the nearly 16-minute piece, I was hiding tears from my fellow passengers.
The story aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Feb. 27, as part of the ongoing project “Radio Diaries” produced by Joe Richman. Richman created NPR’s groundbreaking “Teenage Diaries” series after working on programs including “All Things Considered,” “Weekend Edition Saturday” and “Car Talk.” For the past 18 years, Richman has been giving recording devices to people − mostly teenagers − and crafting stories from the results. More below on what makes Richman’s genre of audio storytelling special. First, let’s look at “Teen Contender,” which Richman co-produced with Samara Freemark and Sue Johnson at womenbox.com.
Claressa Shields is a high school junior in Flint, Mich. Early in the piece, we hear her singing along with her morning alarm:
Claressa doesn’t have to tell us her life hasn’t been easy − we can tell right away, by listening to her describe her living arrangements. We then hear, through her energetic teenager’s voice, how she manages to set the chaos aside and focus on her goals. This establishes the narrative hook: The character wants something. How will she get it? What stands in her way?
She heads through the snow, singing a little, to her dad’s house. He’s a former “dirty fighter” who once made the rounds of illegal boxing matches in abandoned warehouses and Army bases. He served time in prison and got out when Claressa was 9, at which point they developed a rapport:
Claressa goes through all the things that boxers do: practice-sparring, working out, enduring endless lectures from coaches. But she also goes to a black church in Flint to raise funds for her Olympic trials. Claressa’s coach provides another layer of narrative substance by telling us there is much more at stake than a boxing match:
Claressa tells her own story in her own way, answering questions that have not explicitly been asked:
“When I step in the ring it’s like I step into a whole different dimension. It’s like everything outside the ring’s black. Can’t nobody else get in there and help you. Coach, he can’t get in the ring and fight with you. You don’t have your dad, mom. When you get in the ring, you don’t have nobody but yourself.”
What we don’t hear at all is Richman: He does not narrate any of his stories. He’s among a small, talented group of public radio documentarians (among them the Kitchen Sisters, Long Haul Productions, Love and Radio) committed to staying behind the scenes in their work.
People in the radio world call their work “non-narrated,” but this is a misnomer, since stories like “Teen Contender” do have narrators; they’re just the subjects of the stories themselves. I prefer the term “unscripted,” because what sets these stories apart is not their lack of narrator, but their lack of writing. And the script is the place where audio producers write, as opposed to fiddling endlessly with sound files on a screen.
For those of you who’ve never encountered a radio script, here’s the first page of one I just did for PRI’s “The World.” It maps out all the elements of the story: the reporter’s narration (tracks), excerpts from interviews (actualities, or “acts”) and natural sound (ambience, or “amb”):
As you can see, narration is a big part of the story, as it is for most public radio features. I came to radio from print, and I love writing the script. This is where I get to take control − finally shaping my mess of research, recorded interviews and observations into a story. I try to keep my voice tracks to a minimum but can’t help thinking of them as my little darlings. Yet as I listen to unscripted stories like “Teen Contender” I realize how much writing is the enemy of so many audio narratives.
First of all, words work differently on the page than in the ear. (For example, with its long introductory clause, not to mention parenthetical nature, this sentence that you are reading right now would be a broadcasting disaster. As are the estimated 145.7 million figures, percentages, and dates presented in the passive voice by radio reporters since 1968. Those numbers are total bullshit, of course, but were I reading this paragraph on the air, you wouldn’t be paying attention by now anyway. Wait, did someone just say “bullshit?”)
Also, writing can stand between us and our audio and tempt us to tell stories like a puppeteer. “I’ll use character A to make this point,” our writing brain thinks. “Then I want to get to this funny moment − that dude will crack people up.” Characters come and go without really inhabiting the listener’s mind.
Delivery can stand in the way of story power, too. There’s that whole voice-acting business of reading our writing aloud. A “natural”-sounding script takes more work − and creativity − than you realize.
Yet when a character like Claressa Shields narrates, we’re put directly into Story.
So why don’t more radio producers ditch their scripts and work with pure audio? Many reasons. First of all, it can be very time-consuming to do well. For “Radio Diaries,” Richman says he and his team sift through, on average, 80 minutes of recorded material for every one minute that makes a final piece.
Secondly, the form just doesn’t work for many types of stories, especially news features or stories with many characters or complicated timelines. Richman says he feels the strain when he produces historical documentaries. He and his team once spent a year and a half gathering stories and material about Nelson Mandela. They originally intended a biographical series, but the more compelling material revolved around the larger story of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. Most of the biographical bits about Mandela eventually had to fall away. “You can’t do the tangents as easily,” Richman says. “You can’t do the side roads. With a script, you can say, ‘While this was happening, this was also happening.’ (Without a script) you sort of follow this one train, this one narrative train, and it’s hard to get off it.”
With unscripted work you’re stuck with what you’ve got, and woe to the producer who isn’t thinking ahead while out in the field. Interview questions need to elicit the complete responses that will stand alone. Subjects need to describe their worlds in a clear way, without all the digressions and backward references that muck up so much of our natural speech. The producer has to listen closely to help people open up in a way that will carry a story.
Producers who do unscripted work tell me there’s a certain joy in trusting their interview subjects that much. And that trust is clearly reciprocated in the stark, truthful moments that often appear in these stories. Producers Ann Hepperman and Kara Oehler once spent two weeks interviewing people in Chattanooga for an unscripted NPR story about homeless people who live along Main Street, resulting in a moment like this from a man named Ernest:
“I’m ashamed of it, but it don’t change nothing. I’m a drug addict. I’m going on a drug run. Honesty is what y’all are looking for in this, right?”
When audio storytellers disappear behind their narratives like this, they give the world a gift. In “Teen Contender,” by the time we hear Claressa actually fighting in the Olympic trials we’ve been living in her rough world for a quarter of an hour. We step into the ring with her. We want to see her make it to the Olympics. We want Flint, Mich., to watch her in the Olympics. My palms were actually sweating as the story built to its finale with suspense and grace and the hard exhalations of this teenage girl.
I still can’t say I’m a fan of boxing, but I’m now a big fan of Claressa Shields − and of producer Joe Richman for bringing me into a story I otherwise would have resisted.
Julia Barton (@bartona104), who writes Storyboard’s Audio Danger column, has been writing and producing for more than two decades. Her work airs on PRI’s “Studio 360,” “The World” and other programs including “99% Invisible.” She’s been an International Reporting Project fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, a staff reporter at WHYY/Philadelphia and an editor at American Public Media’s “Weekend America.” She’s also led extensive media training in the former Soviet Union.