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How I Made It: Winning a 24-Hour Radio Race

Every summer, KCRW puts on the 24-hour Radio Race, a weekend-long scramble as producers are given a theme and rush to report, mix and submit a story against the clock. The 2016 audio contest will start at 10 a.m. PST on Aug. 6. Registration is open, with a registration discount for AIR’s network.

When the 2014 theme was announced, AIR producer Anna Boiko-Weyrauch set out in a borrowed blue Honda Civic with her audio kit, a laptop, and a cell phone.

Here’s an edited and condensed account of how she won the Radio Race — and its $1,000 prize — with a story about a chemical spill, a shower that smelled “exactly like sugar-free Red Bull,” and the creation of an environmental activist:

 

At first, I had no intention of entering the Radio Race.

It seemed kind of like a lot of work and when you make radio as your job, it becomes less attractive to make radio as something you do for play.

But I had been working as a temporary production assistant on the investigations desk at NPR. It had ended and I was in the process of looking for something else, and I was like, oh, well, I have the time. No big deal. I guess I’ll do it.

It was a grand adventure.

 

Step 1: Pre-race preparations

My strategy was that I listened to all of the previous years’ winners. Without planning what I was going to do the story on, I wanted to get a sense of what the style was and what the elements were. So I spent some time prepping and listening to previous years’ winners.

You have to have something at stake in the story, something real.

It’s fun to do fluffy pieces but if you can connect it to something way deeper, then you will set yourself apart. If you can connect to deeper themes, even if it’s love or family or memory or identity, then I think you’ll set yourself apart.

I knew I wanted to have one compelling storyteller. I thought that would be the best use of time, to do something that was non-narrated, but one person’s story — if I could get them to walk me through their experience, step by step. I thought it would be good to have a scene, if I could go somewhere with somebody or at least have natural sound of what they were talking about.

 

Step 2: “Frantic googling”

When I was waiting around the day of, I thought, “I might have to get in the car, I might have to go somewhere, I’m going to be sure I’m ready, I’m going to be sure I’ve taken a shower and I have lots of snacks in the car and make sure my batteries are charged.”

Then the theme came in and I did maybe an hour of research and made some calls. It felt like things fell into place, that I was able to reach people really quickly.

I had been following the news from Charleston, West Virginia, because there had been that massive chemical spill months earlier. And I read a book called “Night Fire” [Ed. “Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, and Margie Richard’s Fight to Save Her Town”], about this community that bordered a chemical plant in southern Louisiana and it mentioned something called the Right to Know laws. When I learned that the theme was “You Should Know,” I kind of free associated Right to Know laws, oh, the chemical spill, oh, OK. Let’s see what other stories surround the Right to Know laws.

I think that with all the sort of radio stories I try to do anyway, I look for some broader issue to attach to, something that’s timely and perhaps a little depressing and catastrophic.

 

Step 3: Survive the trip

I hopped in the car and went to Charleston, which is a five-hour drive away, and ran into a massive rainstorm with whiteout conditions. It got a little dicey.

I feel like I got lucky in a lot of ways. I hadn’t lined up an interview yet. I’d made calls and left voice messages, and I was coordinating with this activist who knew people, but she was on a camping trip. She was in and out of reception.

I thought, “I think one of these women she’s trying to secure for me is going to work out, so I’m just going to keep driving.”

It ended up me meeting this woman, Karan, at her house. She became an activist after this spill, so she had a video of her speaking out and I recorded that off of YouTube.

 

Step 4: Stay up all night

You have to really focus in. I didn’t really sleep through the night. The hardest part was getting sleep-deprived and working on mixing the different sound elements and the music together, fine-tuning that. That felt like it took forever.

The whole night, I bounced around from different 24-hour restaurants in Charleston. At first I was at this McDonald’s that was really sketchy. Really high, shady people came in in the middle of the night and there I was with all of my radio equipment and my fancy computer.

Then I went to a Pancake House, which was really hopping at midnight in Charleston. In the wee hours of the morning I found myself at a Bob Evans and I was doing the final touches there. They had wifi. I was so close to submitting it, and the waitresses kept coming by. I was sitting there for like two hours and they came by and were like, “Can we get you anything, ma’am? Do you need anything, hon? Are you doing alright there, hon?”

I was like, “I’m fine! I just have some work I have to finish. I’m fine, I’m great.” Then they’d come over again. “No, no, no, I’m fine.”

At the very end, after I submitted it and went to pay my bill, one of them was like, “Ma’am, what is your job?” like “What the fuck are you doing at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning at a Bob Evans?”

I said this radio thing and they were like, “Oh, OK, that’s really interesting.”

That was the piece; it was done. I just sent ‘em the high-fidelity sound file and I haven’t touched it since those last fateful minutes in the Bob Evans in Charleston, West Virginia.

I went to go find a place to nap in my car and I was driving around and found a parking lot by this church. I woke to these flashes of red and blue lights. I was surrounded by the Charleston Fire Department. Apparently I’d found myself in another sketchy area and somebody had called the cops: “There’s a lady passed out in the back of a car here.”

So then Karan, her boyfriend had a studio downtown and I took a nap on his couch and drove back to Maryland.

Like I said, it was a grand adventure.

 

Appendix 1: Some notes on gear

My usual kit is a Marantz PMD-660 that was modified by the Oade Brothers, a shotgun mic — a Rode NTG2, which is my favorite mic. Sony headphones. XLR cables.

At that point, I was using ProTools; on my current job, we’re using Audition.

I definitely used Audio Hijack to get a news report from YouTube that I laid underneath there. I don’t know if I did anything fancy with, like, EQ or reverb, any sort of sound distortion or modulation things. I got the sound off of a podcast-safe music site.

 

Appendix 2: A little advice

It felt like every minute I spent planning saved me five minutes of noodling around. Having spent a little bit of time figuring out, OK, what is my angle to this theme going to be? Who is going to be my main voice? How am I going to do it? What are the elements I want to be sure that I get? That really helped.

Keep it simple. I think at the beginning, when I got into radio, I wanted everything to be like “Radiolab” and I wanted it to be the listener being bombarded by sound, enveloped by sound all the time.

But you can do a lot with just notional elements, if you have just a little bit of music here and there, or a little bit of sound here and there. New producers shouldn’t get caught up in technical aspects, because that can really sap a lot of time.

Focus on finding who is the best talker, the best storyteller. Get them to talk in a way that’s linear with a beginning, middle and end so you can cut down the story to what is it, 3 or 4 minutes. Then leave the technical parts, don’t leave them to the end but the heavy lifting in the story comes from the person themselves.

 

Appendix 3: To team or not to team

Initially, the people who first told me about the race, I thought they would be my team, but it turned out that one of them had a wedding and someone else was out of town.

As I was doing it, there were some parts where I wished I had a partner just to help with driving, help with navigating, maybe I could take a nap and they could mix some more. But it would have to be somebody I felt really good working with, we already had figured out our team dynamics way before the Radio Race.

I also kind of feel like I had an advantage in that it was just me. If I had an idea, I just went with it instead of collaborating.

 

Appendix 4: On winning

I had been looking online to see if I was in the Top 10. I was in my room on the internet, and saw that, and I was really excited. Then I got an email and I read and re-read the email to be sure, whoa, that’s me.

I won! Lots of high-fives. I got $1,000, which was pretty cool. My boyfriend at the time bought me a bottle of prosecco and we celebrated on the roof of his apartment building, which was really nice. After that boyfriend and I broke up, it helped me impress my current boyfriend.

 

• Anna Boiko-Weyrauch is a multimedia investigative reporter for Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. She has reported stories from Alabama to Togo for NPR and others. In 2010, she created the popular KUOW series “Why Music Matters” as part of a Live Interactive residency through AIR. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Registration for this year’s 24-Hour Radio Race is open (with discounted fees for AIR producers). The winner will receive, among other prizes, a $1,000 contract for the piece to air on KCRW’s UnFictional, one-year PRX Producer Account, Soundcloud Premium account, KCRW T-shirt.