Class is in Session: Kelly McEvers
I listened to a podcast tonight with a great lesson on storytelling. I wanted to share.
One of the most recent podcasts that I've subscribed to is Embedded, with NPR's Kelly McEvers as producer. In each episode, McEvers embeds herself into a news story, going deeper than what a typical NPR news story could do. It's a great series, and plays to her strength as someone who can go into risky situations and find a story that grabs you.
In the episode "The Arctic," McEvers does something a bit different than in previous episode. In this episode, the first part is a story by reporter Rebecca Hersher. In the second part, McEvers interviews Hersher about the rest of the story. The story, by the way, is about the elevated suicide rate in Greenland.
So, Hersher's initial story is about the suicide on a Greenlander that rocked a small, close-knit community. It's a serious subject, and should grab the listener's attention. However, the initial story, or rather, anecdote, was in my opinion poorly done. While there was some interview tape, most of what you heard was a long narrative by the reporter. And the narration wasn't expressive. And the story was written for the page -- that is, in a style that lets everyone listening know clearly that it was written down first (or rather, not good for the radio). By the end of it, I was thinking, "I'm not good at this yet, but I'm good enough at least to know this isn't great."
Harsh words from a rank amateur. I know. But I'm at liberty to be as much of a jerk as I want to when I'm listening alone in my car, amirite?
But as they say, pride comes before the fall. My arrogance was completely shattered by what came next.
Now, Kelly McEvers did tell the audience at the beginning of the episode that there first would be Rebecca Hersher's story, followed by Kelly's questions. It was in that second part -- the Q&A -- where everything changed completely. All of a sudden, there were stakes. Lots of stakes. Hersher uses a character in her story as her translator. She and the translator go in way over their heads in a charged group discussion about a recent suicide involving the translator's friend. The translator goes missing the next day, and we're told that suicides go in clusters and the translator's at risk. Calls and texts to the translators go unanswered all day long. And then... the translator is ok. He needed to get away for a day, so he turned his phone off and went hunting alone.
An amazing story, amazingly written, amazingly narrated by Hersher and McEvers, with an amazing interview and amazing editing. It was night and day against the first ten minutes or so. So, why the duality?
Here, I think something very interesting was done. So, the whole point of Embedded is to take a typical news story that would get a few minutes of air time and go in real deep. So, Hersher's original story played out like a typical morning news story. It was the nut graph. The Q&A afterwards was the meat.
Now, was this episode purposely edited to have two very different feels to emphasize that the audience was going deeper into the story? That seems far-fetched to me, but on further reflection, this is a podcast produced by stone-cold professionals. These folks know what they're doing. So I wouldn't be surprised if this really was a conscious creative decision on their part. If it indeed was, then holy crap, that was risky. I mean, it's like intentionally giving up a few points at the beginning of a game to make the last half so much more exciting when you start dominating. But what if the fans decide to go home disappointed before the second half?
I gotta stop judging things too early.