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One thing I learned today… tell a story by zooming in to the extreme

April 15, 2011

I’m away from Rhode Island this week to take a crash course on science journalism for radio reporters.  I’m trying to write  a post every day to let you know what I’ve been up to.  Today, how to tell a really personal science story-

We spent hours yesterday with Mary Beth Kirchner, an independent radio producer in LA.  She’s done both radio and TV work, talking about science stories through the lens of an individual.

What impressed me the most about Mary Beth’s stories was her ability to tell an incredibly human story about things like brain surgery and how med students learn to be doctors.  She managed to follow a brain surgeon through the entire surprisingly noisey process of his work (we heard the sounds of a mallet as he built scaffolding for the patient’s spine!) but that’s not all she did.

She really introduced us to this guy as a human.  He doesn’t eat all day, then he drinks as many coca-colas he can on the drive home.  He works till about 11pm and wakes up at 5am to do it all over again. Mary Beth says after the piece aired, the surgeon called her up and said “Mary Beth, that radio piece was me.”  It’s something we all aim for, but she does it really really well.

Here’s a link to a more recent example. It’s another extremely personal story about a scientist named Dr. Barry Gordon.  His expertise is in how the brain works to create language, but his son Alex has severe autism and can’t speak.  Gordon has spent the last 8 years of his life designing the ideal program for help kids like Alex, and it’s worked in a very limited sense, but it’s so expensive he can’t offer it to his own son.  What follows is a story full of difficult questions about the nature of research and the role of a parent in general.

So how does she do this?  Here are a few things I gleaned from her talk-

  • Look for characters that are GREAT- don’t just ask for talkers, ask for people with powerful stories, people who stick out.  Don’t be afraid to talk to a bunch of people before you find the right person to illustrate your story.
  • Build trust quickly with your sources.  Sometimes it just take s a face to face conversation. Once you’ve gained their trust, ask THEM to convince the PR folks it’s a good idea to give you the access you need.
  • Use an extreme close-up to tell a story. Instead of interviewing three neuroscience, spend an entire day with one compelling person with a human story. Don’t dehumanize your story.
  • Be prepared to use your intuition and throw out everything if a new, better story jumps out at you.
  • You and the subject are in this together. Kirchner says she’s still in touch with a lot of people she’s done stories about.
  • Practice telling your story to friends to get a sense of when they perk up and when they get lost. Pay attention to HOW you’re telling this story.  What words or phrases are you using that work?
  • Sometimes it takes a while for the story to unfold- the piece on the scientist and his autistic son didn’t make it to the air until 12 years after she first heard about him.  Just keep checking in with folks until they’re ready to talk or the topic has reached the point where it’s a story that works.

Of course, her work is very different from the day to day news journalism that I do, but there’s a lot that can inform the kind of reporting we do at WRNI. I left with the feeling I should be more daring about finding people for my pieces and asking permission to record very personal or high stakes moments.  That’s where good radio lives. It’s just hard to get in there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Albert permalink
    February 24, 2012 10:51 pm

    Hey Megan,

    Stumbled across this today (about a year late). Nice post.

    Jason Albert

    • February 27, 2012 10:21 am

      Thanks Jason! Hope we can catch up when you’re on the East coast!

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