Thursday, August 26, 2010

The story of an NPR story . . .

Arnie Kahn
Thought you might be interested in knowing the way an NPR story develops when it originates at a local station. In this case, I'm the reporter and WMRA is the station.

From the beginning. . .

I know JMU psychology professor Arnie Kahn mostly from the campus gym, UREC, where we both go to work out. He and I occasionally chat about politics or NPR or the latest Civic Soapbox. I always value what Arnie has to say, either in person or as comments on the WMRA blog or Facebook page.

A couple of weeks ago, Arnie asked when I was going to start reporting again.

Hmmmmmm. . . to coin an expression. Arnie had just made me realize how long it had been since I'd done an actual on-air story. Maybe it was time to squeeze one in amidst all the writing, blogging, Facebooking, and editing?

 * * * * *

Jessica Francis Kane
A couple of years ago, Jessica Francis Kane did a fine Civic Soapbox called "Raising the Stakes."  She has since moved to New York City, but we kept in touch and she sent me a galley of her first novel, The Report, which tells the story of the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Tragedy. During which, 173 Londoners were mysteriously crushed to death as they sought shelter from German bombs. The cause of the disaster has never been satisfactorily explained. And that lack of explanation  is what drives The Report.

Jessica's debut novel was recently shortlisted for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, and was named a Winter 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers title. 

Hmmmm, again. This was a novel that deserved some national on-air attention. Yet it's terribly difficult to get a first novel on NPR's air. But how about a story on first novels? Why not put together a story focused on two first novels, one historical (Jessica's) and one more traditionally autobiographical (I chose Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel). HarperCollins Publicity Director Jane Beirn, who knows my taste in novels, had sent me a galley months ago. (The ending of this novel, by the way, made me cry.)

* * * * *

I sent a note pitching my story idea to Laura Bertran, the on-air editor with whom I now work at NPR. My suggestion was that I talk to both novelists about why, out of all the stories running around in their writerly heads, they'd chosen the ones they had for their first novels. I'd then talk to someone who's published a boatload of novels about what they remember of their own first one.. And lastly, I'd talk to someone who teaches at a prominent MFA writing program and get their thoughts on first novels in general.

Laura liked the idea.

The next step in getting the story commissioned was hers. Laura shopped the story around to the various shows -- all iterations of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Late last week, I got word that Weekend Edition Sunday wanted it. Which meant -- huzzah! -- the story was a go.

Laura and I talked again, and she suggested also talking to a publicist for one of my chosen first novels, to see what she/he does differently to promote a first novel. And about whether the Kindle release is simultaneous or delayed.

* * * * *

Now onto production logistics. National interviews are mostly done through ISDN lines (Integrated Services Digital Network). This is a "phone" line that allows people thousands of miles apart to sound as though they're chatting in the same room. So, in order to do the interviews for this story, I had to find out where my interviewees are physically located, where the closest ISDN line is (most larger local stations, including, thankfully, WMRA have them), and then find a time when the ISDN line is available and the interviewee can come to the studio. All the while keeping track of different time zones -- which I usually manage to royally muddle.

Much e-mailing, phoning, scheduling and rescheduling later, I'm ready to go to work. 

I always prepare for interviews by reading everything I can find about my interviewee. I go into the studio with a list of questions, but as this is a short, pieced-together feature story, not a talk show, I'm only looking for about 45-seconds of really engaged conversation. With this in mind, I ask any of my questions I absolutely must have answers to, and then listen closely for what my interviewee likes talking about so as to let her/him lead the conversation.

After the interview I transcribe the tape, which is a pain in any body part you care to name, but, I've learned through long experience, saves time in the long run and makes for a better use of tape. When all the interviewing is done, I assemble the story. Piecing together my chosen snippets of  interviews with a script that I will later read as part of the piece.

Laura and I then have an edit, where I read my script over the phone and then play my actualities (those bright pieces of my interviews). She'll make suggestions, I'll rework the story; we'll have another edit. It usually takes about three edits to get things absolutely right. And the story is always better for Laura's editing.

Next, I go into WMRA's studio for an ISDN hook-up with NPR. I read my script over and over until whoever's at the other end likes the read. I then send all those pieces of bright conversation up to NPR through my computer. A very picky NPR technical person mixes all the sound together, and viola!, Weekend Edition Sunday has its story. 

My first interview for this story is this morning. I'll be talking to Jane Beirn, the HarperCollins publicist who sent me Stiltsville, who will be in a studio at NPR New York. So, I'd better stop blogging and get ready to start reporting again.

Hope you're happy, Arnie. I certainly am.


  1. It's fascinating learning the process behind a 45 second feature. Thanks Martha. I must say I was stunned to see my photo under WMRA on Facebook.

  2. Good stunned, I hope. And it's about a five-minute story, Arnie. A 45-second one would be for the top of the hour news and it tends to be much less complicated to produce, although not always.

  3. Hi,
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    Steven Cirile