Listen Like a Teacher

By Emily Kwong

Emily KwongThe story that made me want to teach radio starred a teenager named Bebe. I was listening to WNYC’s “Morning Edition” in my car when a sassy voice singing along to “Poker Face” commandeered the airwaves and said, “Lady Gaga says you can be whatever sexuality you want. I think she makes it less scary for kids to come out.

Though I had heard stories about LGBTQ teens before, I had never heard one actually made by a teen — with all the flavors of her personality intact. I was bowled over by the disarming honesty of her report and how fluidly it referenced her actual world, featuring friends and family members with nary an expert or a public official in sight. How did she produce such a unique story and who helped her do it?

Teachers, it turns out — at Radio Rookies, although there are many other organizations, institutions, and individuals teaching the craft of radio to newcomers.

Now, in order to “listen like a teacher,” you need to travel back to the days when making your first story was akin to making meringue. The whole process was time and labor-intensive, straining muscles never used before and requiring absolute faith in the idea of transforming shapeless egg whites into something miraculous.

As a teacher, your goal is to help the Bebes of the world whip their storytelling potential into shape and to produce an original comment — something authentic and complete. Whether a story is a non-narrated diary or an enterprise report, a successful piece of newcomer radio retains the individuality of the person who made it, while meeting standards of clarity and production for broadcast.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, but one that’s entirely possible if you stick to a few principles while listening like a teacher (and for you students — while listening to your teachers). A special thanks to some brilliant current and former teachers, including Marianne McCune, Brett Myers, Jenny Asarnow, Courtney Stein, Kaari Pitkin, Jones Franzel, and Joe Richman, for advising this article.

Listen for authenticity

Have you ever heard a story “made by a teen” that’s riddled with clichés or stereotypes? Where the heavy hand of an adult is evident in the writing and the teen reporter is just reciting someone else’s ideas? To me, that is a lost opportunity and a sign of a failed teacher.

Every teacher I talked to for this article placed a premium on stories that sound natural and authentic to the person who made them. Give up editorial control by trusting the voice of your student. Let that voice breathe. Doing otherwise denies your students the chance to learn radio for themselves and waters down their work.

You can do this with your student at every stage of production, but authenticity is most pertinent when writing the script. The writing should suit the age and personality of the student.

Brett Myers at Youth Radio said that script edits come first, well before any mix edits. He asks the student to read the whole thing out loud, saying, “I often close my eyes, trying my best to hear and evaluate the story and what sounds natural in the young person’s voice, which can be hard to predict without a live read.”

Since not all students are comfortable typing on a keyboard, teachers can transcribe what they’re saying and write the script aloud together. In my student Marvin’s story about being a teen father, he describes his daughter as “mad adorable, mad loveable” and spoke a few lines in Spanish. These lines of narration were directly lifted from Marvin himself.

As you’re listening and writing together, strip away clichés or word repetition. Maintain quirks and the phrases that illustrate who your student is and how he thinks. When I was producing for the Radio Rookies workshop, we sometimes asked students to take their recorders into an empty classroom and record a “Truth Booth” or a diary entry about some aspect of their story. Those recordings can be wellsprings for some raw, surprising writing.

Take for example ”Incarcerated Youth Speak Out,” by Blunt Youth Radio, or Orlando Campbell’s piece ”Hope Out Of The Box,” which asks about the nature of hope amid Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president. I’ve never met Orlando, but if you listen to his story, you’ll hear the highly original way he articulates his ideas. By the end, you feel like you know him better. And as Youth Radio’s Brett Myer’s put it, “If an adult told that story, it wouldn’t have been as good.”

Listen for intention

I remember being in English class and my teacher saying, “Nice essay, Emily, but what’s the thesis?” It can be a challenge for reporters, especially new ones, to figure out the focus of their story.

Jenny Asarnow of KUOW’s RadioActive said, “To me, being a teacher means trying to hear the intent of the producer—because they might not have the skills to make what they want to create.”

So, have meaningful, exploratory conversations with your student right off the bat. Help your students comb through the thicket of their thoughts by being a second ear, a holistic and critical listener. This is especially true if you’re teaching young adults or kids and doing a bit more handholding:

 • Listen to all the tape they record, even if it’s just 45 minutes of them playing Super Smash Brothers

• Listen to how they talk about their story. Pay attention to which facets excite them and animate their features

• Listen to all the rest of it: their rants, reflections, and favorite rap songs. Marianne McCune, the founder of Radio Rookies, said, “In the first round of editing, I listen for signs of what this story is truly about.” These signs can come in the form of something unrelated to their story, from a passing joke to a belief they hold dear. Jot that down and ask about it later. Maybe there is a connection or a theme your student can explore that will tie the story together

Jones Franzel, who was at the helm of Generation PRX for a decade, reminded me that it’s important for a student to truly be engaged with their story. Ask yourself, “Does she care enough to propel this forward in a convincing way?”

Don’t be afraid to change topics if the answer is no. One of the most powerful stories made by a teen in recent years was inspired by something she saw on Facebook and complained about the next day in class. Temitayo Fagbenle and her producer, Courtney Stein, quickly put a 9-minute piece together to meet deadline. The story sparked a national conversation about “sexual cyberbullying,” a term Temitayo invented to capture the abusive nature of an online crime that mainstream media only knew as “slut shaming.”

Also, keep the following in mind:

 • If a student is doing a personal story, he or she may be venturing to territory that is painful or unprocessed. While probing for their intention, remember to tread with kindness, humility, and an open mind.

 • If the workshop is several months to a year long, which many are, the student may undergo dramatic changes throughout the reporting process and lose momentum. Adapt to changing circumstances and don’t give up if he or she ultimately wants to finish the story. Fight for your student. Value the learning and the healing process equally to the final product, and take breaks. Sometimes the most valuable way to spend class time is by doing something else — going bowling or eating tacos, making a family tree, helping a student edit a resume, talking about something weighing on his or her mind. The best way to listen as a radio teacher is to fiercely listen. To all of it.

Listen for structure (and for scenes)

I think students — even if they are adults and have prior experience in journalism, etc. — can feel daunted by the process of putting a story together. What are the best cuts of audio? Who are my characters? What is the takeaway? Add to it the novelty of interviewing someone with a microphone and it can be especially difficult to comb through hours of recordings, scaffolding the tangle of “real life” onto a narrative structure.

Here’s how a teacher can help: 

When I was a radio student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, I turned in a draft of a seven-minute story about a museum that was over 12 pages long. When I did a live read in class, it clocked in at 20 minutes and meandered in more directions than Pac-Man. It was mortifying.

My instructor Michael May came to the rescue. We had a long conversation about the beginning, middle, and end of the piece. Then, he helped me identify which scenes could push that narrative forward.

“Good scenes are mini-narratives, with their own beginnings and endings,” said “Radio Diaries” creator Joe Richman in his Transom manifesto. When listening with your students, help them impose structure by mapping out scenes from the raw material they have already recorded.  Identify scenes they could record in the future.

When I was working with Marvin, the teen father whose piece I mentioned earlier, we even created a “scene list.” He knew he wanted to make his daughter a central part of the story, even though she couldn’t talk yet, and so we drew up a list of all the kinds of moments he should try to record: brushing Hailey’s teeth, dancing with Hailey to “Blurred Lines,” Hailey crying, etc. A lot of these made it into the story as scenes or ambient sound to punctuate an idea. Marvin even managed to capture the first time he heard Hailey speak.

Below are two stories that have superb structure and scene work, but are put together very differently.

• Emily Hsiao’s “Leaving a Mark,” produced for the Transom Story Workshop

• Angela Nguyen’s “Water is the Sound of Freedom for My Ba,” produced for RadioActive

For teachers, there are some fantastic online resources for bringing radio storytelling into your classroom. Check out:

• Radio Rookies DIY Radio Toolkit

• Youth Radio Innovation Lab and DIY articles

• ”This American Life” Educator Resources

• ”Shout Out: A Kid’s Guide to Recording Stories and Transom”

• ”Listen Up! For Audio Educators”

• StoryCorpsU

Finally, an important question remains for those of you who haven’t taken a student under your wing: Why become a radio teacher at all?

• Because teaching someone how to produce a radio story will make you a more ruthless editor of your own stories.

• Because in order for radio to reflect the ebb and flow of our planet, we need to pass along the tools and skills of production to more producers with diverse backgrounds. Teachers keep the radio ecosystem operating.

• Because if you walk this road, you will be more than a teacher. You will be a snack guru, a cheerleader, a mentor, and an occasional human tissue. You will witness moments of triumph and failure, personal transformation and boring, godawful monotony. It will ask more of you than almost any relationship you’ve ever developed with any other subject on any other story. And it’s downright beautiful — a chance to experience radio production in a whole new way.

 Emily Kwong (@emilykwong1234 on Twitter) is a radio producer and youth media instructor. A former production assistant for Radio Rookies at WNYC, she is currently reporting in Sitka, Alaska as a community journalism fellow at KCAW. She was awarded “Best New Artist” at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2013. She is a member of AIR’s network, a member of the 2014 class of AIR’s New Voices, and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.