EDITOR’S NOTE: This month, Pushkin Industries published “The Best Audio Storytelling: 2022,” an audiobook compendium of English-language nonfiction. The collection’s curator, Pushkin’s Julia Barton spoke with creators of work in the collection about their storytelling choices and challenges. This is the second of four posts that revive “Audio Danger,” Barton’s Storyboard series on podcasting published a decade ago. The first installment, posted last week, updates the status of podcasting as a journalistic form.
By Julia BartonThe 2022 podcast “Will Be Wild” (from Pineapple Street Studios/Wondery/Amazon Music) is a powerful, deeply reported eight-part series about the people who saw the U.S. Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021, coming — both those who tried to stop it, and those who took part. The series’ narrators, Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, are veteran public radio reporters who previously co-hosted a series at WNYC Studios, “Trump, Inc.”
I admire the drive and scope of “Will Be Wild,” reported mostly in the year following Jan. 6 riots, for its remarkable sourcing even as suspects were apprehended and Congress began its investigations. Bernstein and Marritz each carve out beats of their own, alternating episodes as they help listeners navigate the disturbing cacophony of disinformation and violent rhetoric that came to a crescendo that day — and remains a ever-present threat.
As a story editor myself, I found the fifth episode, “The Tunnel,” particularly fascinating. It’s a great candidate for Pushkin’s best-of collection as a distilled and structurally remarkable example of what this series does so well throughout.
Framing a story through a tunnel
The episode starts with Bernstein and ex-District of Columbia police officer Michael Fanone watching footage from his body-cam on Jan. 6. Fanone, normally an undercover vice-squad officer, had responded to distress calls on his radio and volunteered to back up officers under attack at the Capitol. He wound up in the short tunnel that leads to a landing overlooking the National Mall — the same tunnel presidents walk through before taking the oath of office at inauguration.
“We were calling this episode ‘The Tunnel’ very early on” in production of the series, Bernstein says.
The reporting method Bernstein uses at the top of the episode, that of watching or looking through records of an event with the subject, is one that works especially well in audio. It allows people to re-enter their memories of an event and narrate them in present tense. In this case, Fanone’s memory is horrific and painful: Rioters pull him from the line of officers, rip off his badge and radio, and threaten to kill him. Then someone Tases him in the back of the neck. We can hear him scream. After the crowd finally releases him, we hear Fanone back safely in the company of his fellow officers. But he has suffered a traumatic brain injury and, as he finds out soon in the hospital, a heart attack from being Tased.
“Both Hannis Brown (the series’ sound designer) and I felt that putting together this episode was one of the most intense things we’ve ever done,” Bernstein says. “Listening (to the body cam video) over and over and over and over again… Mike Fanone is narrating to me everything that happens, but of course, he’s being attacked. So I have to ingest his version, but also look at the whole scene.” Which meant re-examining the attack as recorded by multiple other videos that surfaced of the same incident.
Days of reporting for 10 minutes of story
These hours and days of intense reporting are in service of the first 10 minutes of the episode. The story then turns to the man who held the Taser that gave Fanone a heart attack: Danny Rodriguez, who had traveled with right-wing insurrectionists to D.C. from California and who believed, he tells FBI interrogators, that President Trump needed them to “save democracy.”
Bernstein says she had been pursuing an interview with another of Fanone’s attackers. But then a judge allowed journalists access to raw video of Rodriguez’s four-hour interrogation. After watching that, Bernstein had a realization, one that went far beyond the violence of the man’s encounter with Officer Mike Fanone.
“In the course of my last six to seven years of reporting, I have interviewed probably hundreds of people who have had an encounter with Donald Trump,” she says. “And each of them comes to kind of the same conclusion as Danny Rodriguez: ‘I was caught up in what (Trump) was saying, and I thought I would be the one to carry it out.’ And then all of them find themselves cast aside.”
That insight leads to a second, powerful layer to this episode: As narrator, Bernstein wants us to pay attention not only to what happened but to how disinformation and the former president’s charismatic hold on his followers led to violence. After introducing the interrogation tape, Bernstein turns to the audience and explains that listeners will not be hearing all of it, but directs them to the show notes to find links to the whole thing. Bernstein makes journalistic transparency and context a part of her story, as she narrates in the podcast:
Because part of the story of January 6th and the lead up to it and the aftermath, is about fake news and media manipulation, we want you to know we’ve kept the meaning of what people said intact.
I found that a deft move, simple and direct, but also a reminder that part of our job as listeners is to think about how a story is being constructed. Bernstein then lets us listen in on Rodriguez’s alternately self-loathing and self-aggrandizing version of events. By the time he’s done confessing to the FBI, we’ve spent 10 minutes with him, the same amount of time that we spent with Mike Fanone. The symmetry is subtle, but powerful.
The rest of the episode unpacks the biographies of both men, raising many ironic connections along the way. Both are close in age, around 40. Fanone voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Rodriguez was fond of attending “Back the Blue” rallies. But he also has a history of encounters with the law. He might have been, in another version of his life, the kind of petty criminal Mike Fanone arrested or, just as likely, used as an informant in one of his undercover vice-squad investigations. (Earlier this year, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to several federal counts and still awaits sentencing.)
A deadline ending
Every piece in Pushkin’s “Best of” collection has storytelling moments that I might send a young producer or editor to listen to for inspiration, like a small master-class. “The Tunnel” is full of such moments, but the one that stays with me comes at the end of the episode. Bernstein is just about to wrap up the story of Mike Fanone, who’s reflecting on the “gift” of Jan. 6, which he says opened his eyes to how angry he’d been and the cost of that anger on the body politic. This is his comment from the podcast:
“We really need as a country to re-embrace compassion and empathy in our interactions with one another.”
And that could have been a triumphant ending. After all, Fanone had testified before Congress and been on the cover of TIME.
But close to the episode’s production deadline, Bernstein had the instinct that she needed to talk with Mike Fanone one last time. By then, he’d resigned from the D.C. police force and become an on-air contributor to CNN. He’d received several death threats and seemed to be struggling to figure out how to negotiate his new notoriety. There were rumors he was writing a memoir (which was indeed published in October 2022, long after “Will Be Wild” came out).
In March 2022, Bernstein met with Fanone again and played him tape from their previous interview, the one where he’d spoken about the need for compassion and empathy. He told her he’s still proud of his conduct and that of the other officers in the tunnel on Jan. 6. But of his earlier self on tape, he says in a grim tone:
“I was still optimistic that we could change as a country. Unfortunately, I think things have just gotten worse.”
Just a few seconds of vivid sound design separate Mike Fanone’s voice in the first interview from his voice in the second. The effect is bold but not confusing. The episode collapses the passage of time in its last moment, giving us just a taste of how it feels to be either Mike Fanone or his assailant, Danny Rodriguez. For both, one split-second encounter changed their lives forever. After that, the past — no matter how well recorded — feels like a land forever out of reach.
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Julia Barton is the executive editor of Pushkin Industries, following a long career in public radio. She helped develop “Revisionist History” and “Against the Rules,” among other chart-topping shows.