BY KELLY CREEDON
My tattered road map of eastern North Carolina is covered with notes scribbled in black ink next to towns that are barely a dot on the map and yellow highlighter connects the dots along the Historic Barbecue Trail. I’m reminded of a similar map that Val Wang and I worked on in 2012, mapping hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeouts around Boston for “Planet Takeout.”
These maps, and the projects they represent, led me to practical lessons that I know will serve me as I grow as a producer. Working with Val on Localore‘s Planet Takeout was a crash course in collaborative, community-based, public media production. This summer, as a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, I ventured into the field again on the team of “Whole Hog,” a multimedia exploration of energy and relationships in the North Carolina pork industry. Both projects explore our cultural connections to food and the complex relationships around food production and consumption. Both projects challenged me to map unfamiliar landscapes and exercise producer “muscles” I didn’t know I had.
AIR invited me to share some tidbits from the field:
No. 1: Get outside
One of the tenets of Localore was to get out of the station and bring a broader range of voices to the public media conversation. This is especially important when we tell stories about food and community: everyone is an expert.
Our fieldwork for Planet Takeout involved many days of hanging out in takeouts. At one of our favorite spots, Yum Yum, we noticed a steady stream of teens ordering from the dollar menu. We asked about their favorite “dollar plates,” and soon we were hearing about the symbiotic relationship between Yum Yum and the youth center across the street. Teens go there because they feel safe and welcome, and the takeout caters to their limited budget.
In exploring rural communities for Whole Hog, we looked for spaces where people come together. We found a yard sale and, after selecting a few choice finds, chatted with the owner about the local economy and the community’s relationship with hog farming. We left with the name of the best breakfast place to hit for local gossip, and an invitation to church the next day.
No. 2: Listen before taking out your gear
In both projects, we encountered lots of folks who didn’t want to talk to us. For Planet Takeout, takeout workers were the most hesitant; they had little reason to trust us and many reasons to believe we might be immigration officials, health inspectors, or potential competitors. For Whole Hog, everyone seemed to have something to lose: farmers feared we might misrepresent them; workers and residents feared losing their jobs or suffering repercussions from the industry.
At 7:30 one morning, as writer Jess Clark and I pulled into the driveway of a farmer we were scheduled to meet, we got a text saying he was unavailable. While we sat deflated in the driveway, the farm manager pulled up in his pick-up truck and glared down at my tiny Honda. We rolled down our windows and explained why we were there; after a long pause, he told us sternly why he didn’t think we should be allowed on the farm. People want to think their porkchops come from Walmart, he explained. In his view, anything we recorded on the farm could be misinterpreted and have disastrous consequences for the industry. “This is your little project, but this is my life,” he told us.
For the next two hours, we baked in the sun in our respective vehicles, talking through his fears and concerns, communicating our goals, and getting to know each other. By the time we left, he invited us to come back later in the week to film the hogs going to the processing plant. By the time we picked up our gear to record, we had built a base of mutual trust and respect and were ready to work together to tell the story.
No. 3: Multimedia is a team sport
One of the gifts of both of these projects was the opportunity to work closely with talented people in complementary disciplines. I discovered the secret to multimedia was to find and manage relationships with collaborators, NOT in knowing how to do it all by myself.
For “Whole Hog,” we produced a story about a farmer who makes electricity from hog waste. While we used video to capture his character and what drives him, the text dug more deeply into the political and economic context, and motion graphics illustrated the actual technology. The result was a much richer package than any of us could have developed alone.
When we began working on “Planet Takeout,” I didn’t know what a wireframe was. But through ongoing dialogue with the developers at Zeega, we developed a shared language and a shared vision that guided both our documentary fieldwork and the creation of the web platform.
No. 4: Let the story drive the format
In an era of exciting new storytelling tools and platforms, it’s important to remember that story is still the heart of what we do and try to find the best tools to tell the story, rather than fitting the story to the tools.
Here, managing producers Brian Boyer and Josh Davis dish on the process behind developing the impressively simple “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” project. “We wanted to use each medium we had available to us to its best,” says Boyer.
Start with reporting to identify what you think the story is and what you want people to take away from the media experience. Once you’ve answered those questions, look inside your storytelling toolbox to find the best media to capture the story.
For “Planet Takeout,” the vision was to create an experientially driven narrative that brought the audience inside the takeout. Immersive videos allowed the audience to jump behind the counter and explore, while also adding their own photos and voices to the evolving collective narrative.
With “Whole Hog,” the story involved a lot of data-driven reporting, leading us to showcase motion graphics and data visualization alongside in-depth text stories. Video helped deliver the more character-driven, emotional elements of the narrative.
Being part of the Localore experiment opened my mind to the possibilities unfolding in the world of interactive public media. With “Whole Hog,” I found myself revisiting many of the same questions: How to connect with people and convince them that their stories are valuable? How to capture those valuable stories in a media experience that will engage? How to make media a two-way conversation?
Ultimately, my goal is to allow the characters and the audience to have their own conversation, with me (the producer) getting out of the way. As I move into future projects and build on these lessons, I’ll keep looking for ways to simplify and distill that human connection. See you on the road.
• Kelly Creedon, a former Localore producer, is a Roy H. Park Fellow pursuing an MA in Visual Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently received an Award of Excellence from the Alexia Foundation for her current documentary project that chronicles the life of a young Black aspiring performer coming of age in Durham, NC.
Meet the Localore: Finding America teams at FindingAmerica.AIRmedia.org.