cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Ben Kilgust

But for a curious link click among the flow of twitter

As my friend Darren Kuropotwa asked, I do not even know who “AWoolridge” is except I am finding excellent storytelling resources in his/her twitter stream, so thanks.

Where this link led was a blog post/article on Transom (a key resource for learning about and teaching audio) that is almost 10 years old.

Yeah the web, it’s just about the moment, it is so ephemeral.

A post from 2004 really knocked me on the floor with how powerful it is for understanding and teaching key elements of storytelling. This is the web I love.


The Transom Review looks like an online version of a journal, this one devoted to Ira Glass, the legend 9at least to me) behind This American Life (TAL). Without a doubt TAL is a cornerstone to my teaching of audio storytelling, the power, style, and sheer listenability to this show is everything I’d like my students (and myself) to get about creating audio.

We already use his four part video series in ds106

But I got even more from this Transom piece. I might just quote every other paragraph.

He starts off by admitting how long it took him, too long in his mind, to get competent and writing and producing radio stories– 8 years. He shares examples of his work, and rakes them over the coals (though his radio bumpers sound like the stuff we play at in ds106). The inclusion of his audio clips in this piece really make it valuable, to hear what he is describing in terms of technique,

But he stayed with it 8 years, working as a production assistant and pitching stories at the NPR station in Washington DC.

I bring all of this up to say that if you’re someone who wants to make radio stories (or do any kind of creative work), you’re probably going to have a period when things might not come too easily. For some people, that’s just a year. For others, like me, it’s eight years. You might feel completely alone and lost during this period “” God knows I did “” and I hope it’s reassuring in some small way to hear that what you’re going through is completely normal. Most people go through it. And there are things you can do during this period of mediocrity that will get you to the next step, that will drive you toward skill and competence.

(My emphasis for all quotes).

For those that desire EASY buttons… suck it.

Read the suggestions. They are practical, not theoretical esoteria. And he goes into what you understand is his technique, if you listen to This American Life– as an interviewer he is present in the dialogue, and gets to what makes that work

What I’m saying is, there was lots I was bad at and I consciously set out to make myself better. For a while, I forced myself in every story to have some moment where I interacted with someone on tape during the story. I did this because I’d noticed that in other people’s stories, usually the most interesting stuff came when they talked to the people in the stories, where there was a back and forth. Like most beginning radio reporters, I didn’t like to hear myself on tape. I didn’t like how I sounded asking the questions. So much of the time I was awkward or cloying. Trying too hard in one way or another. It was embarrassing. But at some point I decided that omitting this kind of tape meant I was accidentally omitting a kind of drama from my stories, neglecting some of the tools at my disposal, neglecting part of the power and fun of the medium, and I forced myself through it, in story after story.

Even today, if I had to give just one piece of advice to beginning reporters about the single fastest way they could improve their stories, it’d be to get themselves into the quotes. Asking tough questions. Cajoling the interviewee. Joking with the interviewee. Thinking out loud and chatting with the interviewee. The daily reporting on public radio would be so much more fun to listen to, and so much more informative about the character of the interviewees, if there were more of this.

And yes, the radio show style of This American Life is not news style, but in our work of audio storytelling, it feels more engaging to feel like you are in the room of a conversation, not listening to some pure extraction of a conversation. We naturally are conversant beings, so be present in your audio.

This was demonstrated extremely well in the opening section of the ds106 Headloss show last Fall by Sandy Brown Jensen and her interview of Karen, it feels on listening that I am sitting very close to them in the studio. (starts at 2:20):

DreamScape 106 Show (headless ds106 2013)

Next Glass relays how the writing of a colleague, Alex Chadwick, ran against the textbook norms of reporting. It was a story about a high school girl who refused to do frog dissections on a principle that it was inhumane to kill an animal so she could study it. It went to court, and as courts do, they designed a legal but illogical solution- the school had to find frogs for her to dissect that had died naturally.

Glass provides one of his golden tips:

In addition, he makes that move, the one that you’re going to steal. It comes here: “It bothered her that any creature should have to die so she could cut it open for study. It was a matter of principle. And as with many such issues, it wound up in court.” I know it seems like a small thing, but that’s the move. Namely, when he says “as with many such issues,” he steps out of the facts of this particular story and toward a big general point about How Things Work. Also, framing it as a matter of principle makes it seem bigger and grander and more like a story with something happening in it. This is so much a part of the style of the radio show I work on now that if I open my script for last week’s show, I come to an example of it immediately, in the intro to Act One

That taking the story from reporting a series of events to a larger human or societal concept is the core of this American Life. Getting to a “big general point about How Things Work”.

In Part 2 of the manifesto, Glass zeroes on on what makes stories work. This is a function his staff must continually do to process ideas that are submitted to them. To him, if you are not attracted to the story at a deep level, it won’t work

Understanding what it is that attracts you to the story in the first place is a big part of making the story work.

His test of a story is to try telling it to your friends. If you cannot make it interesting in the telling to them, it’s ot going to work on radio:

One simple way to test whether your story is worth telling on the radio is to tell it to your friends, and notice how you feel. Do you feel like you’re dragging through one tedious moment after another, always on the verge of losing their interest, and sometimes you’re not even sure what the story’s about or why you’re telling certain parts? Or are your friends laughing and buying you drinks and begging you for more details about the characters? When you’re done, does everyone at the table launch into an excited discussion of similar things that happened to them? Heed these signs. If you can’t tell the story compellingly to a friend, it means either you haven’t figured out what the story is really about, or ­ much more likely ­ it never will be possible to tell this story compellingly over the radio.

That is not hard to do. And telling is not tweeting or emailing. You have to do it in person. You have to check in to the body language of listeners.

More about the “How Things Work” that is what TAL stories focus on- a story that operates on the plot level AND the meta level of what the universal story it taps into.

I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened. Or, put another way, there’s the action of the story and there are the conclusions. And both have to be pretty interesting. A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work for radio. Or, anyway, it’s not going to be as powerful as the best radio stories. The best radio stories have both. So one way to get an ailing story to work (and to determine if it’s a story at all) is to figure out what surprising conclusions about the world might come from that story.

I see this a lot in people trying to create stories. It is a string of events, a summary laundry list of steps. This is by no means easy, and I cannot claim I know how to do this. It is hard, and it cannot be blatantly obvious, like a giant arrow sticking in it.

Glass breaks down that interview style, which is more than just turning on a tape recorder or having a list of written down questions, with his background story on the Adam Davidson interview– and audio clips of Glass trying all kinds of questions to get to the Big Story.

And in part 3, Glass breaks down what does not work for storytelling. He relays what his producer Julie Snyder describes as her role is in sifting the many submissions This American Life gets for shows:

Julie told me that one common problem in the pitches we get is that often, people don’t understand that in a narrative story, something has to be at stake. They’ll say, “I’m going to be driving across the country and I’ve bought this tape recorder and I was thinking I’d record the people I meet along the way.” That kind of idea would be hard to turn into a narrative story because there’s nothing at stake. There’s no question driving it forward, nothing compelling that the characters are trying to figure out in these scenes. Also: there’s no conflict. Narrative can’t happen without conflict, without people who want different things, or see things in different ways.

This of course is some of the Freytag triangle stuff, the three act play, but as many times as I have tried to describe it, I do not feel like I am getting the idea across. The conflict, and a character having something at stake, is key.

And that example is where I have been stuck for 2 years, after having spent half of 2011 doing that kind of trip, driving around the US and Canada and gathering material in my blog, photos, and the StoryBox. I have touched on some of the themes, but to shape this in a story, I need to go deeper in myself for that conflict, the thing to drive a narrative. That is into easy work, but it is so critical. Think of any novel, show, movie that really got to your gut. Someone had to deal with something big and crises like. They have to have something to lose, something at stake.

And way too often, we give the story away at the outset, like a frigging set of PowerPoint bullets about our conclusions. No!

Sometimes, Julie says, reporters who are used to a more traditional kind of reporting ­ especially reporters who’ve worked mostly in print “” don’t understand that one big difference between print and radio is that a radio story needs a certain amount of suspense and surprise to keep people listening.

If you cannot tell, I am raving about this article. Read it and listen to the examples. I got so many things, some I knew, but Glass frames them in a clear way that drives them home.

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by ricky montalvo

The other related thing is that I am going to see Ira Glass speak January 25 in Flagstaff– of all things (and I found out about it via a tweet from Grant Potter in Nova Scotia, go figure).

Maybe I can get an autograph on my ds106radio t-shirt. Or get Glass to record us a bumper. Or… just enjoy the show.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Yesterday I was angsting w my sister about not having the interview skills to do DST around them, and she reminded me of my radio interviews of artists. Next day, out of the blue, comes this nice nod and rich discussion of deep interview structure.

    i agree that the hero’s journey or Freytag’s triangle are at the heart of story, but you will get there almost by default if you are listening deeply and responding spontaneously from your authentic curiosity.

    This blog post was interesting because you were diving into somewhat of a knot of thought strands; the unraveling of the strands at your own pace was the compelling journey.

    I will listen to IG’s material this evening as a special treat.
    Thank you!

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