How to Tell a Story? Let Me Count the Ways…

AmandaUnionDocs is a bustling media center operating out of a storefront in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Last year, AIR partnered with them to develop a new, weeklong immersion in “Full Spectrum” storytelling to give producers a chance to cultivate their chops and bring new imagination to translating and distributing their stories. NYC indie Amanda Aronczyk stepped up to lead a stellar team of instructors, including WNYC’s John O’Keefe, multimedia artist Ben Rubin, podcaster Jonathan Mitchell, and indies Ann Heppermann, Emily Botein, Michael May, and more. In our March AIRblast, we asked Amanda to lay it down for us:

In the beginning

It was 1998. I lived in Montreal and had my first steady, decently paying full-time job. No more folding other people’s underwear at the Laundromat or slowly washing dishes at the vegetarian cooperative restaurant (providing quick, reliable service was for losers, who equated “success” with having “customers”). Now I was building websites for the Canadian government, my boss having found the perfect balance between what the clients didn’t know (anything about websites) and what we could therefore charge for our services (a lot).

The Web was still young — there were dozens of search engines (remember MetaCrawler? what about HotBot?) and we were the cutting edge. But after a year or two living in HTML and Photoshop, I hit a (pay?) wall.

I wondered, where is this whole Internet and digital media thing going? Clearly nowhere quickly, I thought. And so that was it. I was out. I headed to where the future was truly bright — a place where I could try to be creative, make stories, try new things: public radio.

And then there was: Full Spectrum

Today, of course, there’s no separating the Internet from the stories we tell for radio. AIR has known this for a long time, transforming public media for several years, first, with the widely admired Localore project, and more recently with Full Spectrum, a weeklong intensive workshop for audio-based people stretching themselves beyond ax and trax.

I’ve had the great fortune to act as coordinator/lead instructor/camp counselor for the biannual workshop, as 14 radio, film, video, and Web producers assemble at UnionDocs in Brooklyn. The last session brought people to New York from all over the United States and Canada, with one reporter/producer traveling here from the Northwest Territories in Canada.

The thinking is this: Telling a story in audio is (obviously) different than telling the same story with an online map (for a great map example, check out WNYC’s Transit Time map. While not as personal as audio stories, these maps do tell stories too, sometimes on their own and sometimes as enhancement. And the tools to make these maps change very quickly: if you want to stay current with the latest in digital mapping software, you need to upgrade practically every six months. So while we do discuss the latest and greatest tools at Full Spectrum, we focus more on understanding what questions you need to ask when you tackle a story in a new medium.

How is your particular story better told with a map? How would you collaborate to make it? And from what experts, what storytellers, can you learn these skills? Those were some of the criteria that UnionDoc’s director, Christopher Allen, AIR’s Erin Mishkin, and I used when recruiting instructors. Who is thinking deeply and innovatively about the media they use? And what can we learn from them?

A lot, it turns out. And to demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to tell you the same story in four different ways, as inspired by the great instructors who teach at Full Spectrum.

Here’s the story — it’s a classic:

A teenage girl meets a teenage boy while on summer vacation. Freed from the social burdens of their respective high schools and social scenes, they fall for one another. They walk on the beach, hold hands — you know, summer loving. They never expect to see one another again. Flash forward to September. The girl’s parents decide they like the town, so now not only does she live in the same place as the boy, but they are also attending the same high school. What will they do? And will their summer love turn into something lasting and more meaningful?

New Story Approach #1:

Me. My Story. As told by me. Did I mention me yet? One of the first Full Spectrum presenters was Ann Heppermann, who has made a career off of beautifully crafted, primarily non-narrated stories like this one. Ann discussed the importance of guiding someone while they record an audio diary, presenting the diarist with questions and tasks to accomplish.

In Ann’s hands, perhaps the girl in our story would keep a radio diary of the events, possibly starting with the first day back at high school, or perhaps the night before. (Perhaps she suspected that she and the boy might see each other again?)

Ann might ask the girl to record her most intimate feeling and thoughts. Will the boy notice her? Should she get a leather jacket? Each lit cigarette, each scorned advance, every overheated sigh would be fodder for an intimate portrait of a girl trying to fit in in a new school and reclaim her summer love.

New Story Approach #2: Story, told backward

During Full Spectrum, we spend a few sessions discussing new ways to structure a story. According to NYU teacher and New York Times podcast producer Jocelyn Gonzales, you can lay your story out on paper (or possibly with Scrivener) by scene, then cut it up and move the elements. What’s the emotional arc? What part of the story is revealed when? How are the story exposition and emotions working together? Would this story be better told starting at the end?

This story begins at a carnival: music, rides, the obligatory cotton candy. Our young lovers are locked in an embrace, their matching leather pants entwined, varsity jackets recklessly tossed to the ground. But was their love always this simple, always this pure?

New Story Approach #3: Map it

John Keefe, senior editor of the data news team at New York Public Radio, WNYC, says that mapping can sometimes lead the story. In this Ailsa Chang report for WNYC, “For City’s Teens, Stop-and-Frisk Is Black and White,” she was able to pinpoint schools where students were being stopped at a much higher rate than in other neighborhoods.

Can mapping illuminate our story?

This high school has a gang problem. Perhaps there’s a way to collect all of the home addresses of the high school kids, put them in an Excel spreadsheet, then add the town’s census data, also broken down by ZIP code. We can then explore the socio-economic factors behind the gang affiliations. What neighborhoods do the gang members live in, and will mapping this info reveal a regional trend in star-crossed lovers?

According to John, just because you can make map, doesn’t mean you should. Yes, there are gangs in this town, but they ultimately prove powerless against true love. But maybe it’s just the wrong approach; perhaps this would be a better map to complement our story?

New Story Approach #4: Your story in space

During the workshop, we invite an artist or two who is outside the traditional radio/audio world, and in the most recent session, artist Bayeté Ross Smith presented the brilliant transmedia work titled “Question Bridge.” In this collaborative video installation work, African-American men ask and answer somewhat sensitive questions that they might not ask or answer of other people (i.e., “Why is it so difficult for black men to be themselves?” “How do you know when you become a man?”).

In this story approach, traditional narrative is set aside and the questions that traditionally work best for drawing out a personal narrative (Where did you two meet? What was the first thing you noticed about one another?) are too personal in this format. Bayeté’s work is ethnographic and broad. While narrative journalism has tended to move toward the narrower and more detailed story, “Question Bridge” is expansive. Moving from a linear broadcast format to a video installation creates a completely different experience.

You walk in a room. There is a series of faces looking at you from video screens. They’re all teenagers waiting and wanting for love. Or at least for some heavy petting. Some are great dancers and others know how to fix up a Ford De Luxe convertible. They ask each other about what it’s like being teenagers. They are a sea of faces and needs, and the story they tell collectively is very different from the story of our one boy and our one girl in love.

And here is where I summarize

There are countless other ways to attack a story, of course — far too many to list here. The point is, as radio journalists, we have options, perhaps more options than ever before. And the choices we make in how we tell our stories will ultimately dictate the success of those stories. It’s not just about the interviews we seek or the questions we ask. It’s about the approach.

It took years for me to comfortably return to making stories for anything that wasn’t radio. But now, the Web and I, we go together like

Amanda Aronczyk is a public radio reporter, currently working on a series about the state of health care in the Bronx for WNYC.