Bethel Habte: The first draft will be absolute trash that is a given. I had to accept that pretty quickly. And the second one will be infinitesimally less trash. The third will be a little better and you'll be get it'll get better because your editor will give you notes maybe you realize something in the shower and like you're like, “Oh we have to change everything.”
Getting to the heart of a story can take a lot of work and time. I’m Tanzina Vega, and this is Werk It: The Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
In this episode, find out how Radiolab producers thought and re-thought about how to create a new conversation about the widely covered topic of consent in a post-#MeToo moment.
Becca Bressler: Hey I'm Becca Bressler.
Bethel Habte: And I’m Bethel Habte.
BB: And we're with Radiolab. And first we just want to thank everyone for coming both Bethel and I actually have only been with the show for a little over a year and we're super excited to be here and learning from all of you as well. So thank you to the Werk It staff for having us.
BH: So why we're here. We're here to tell you about what we figured out in that year and it's the thing that makes or breaks a story for Radiolab. And it's a really simple idea but we apply it to every step of the story making process. And we thought that we'd share it with you today.
Surprise! That is the North Star. The Beyonce of Coachella for Radiolab. And we're going to explain that
BB: Yeah, today with the story that both of us worked on. We want to show you how this lovely thing worked its way into our story. So we were on a team that put together a series a three part series that explores consent called “In the No”. And it was inspired by and featured the work of a brilliant radio producer named Kaitlin Prest and her team over at The Heart. They put together the ‘No series.’ It was just really gorgeous and moving exploration of of this topic. Has anyone here listened to the no series? Want to give it a round of applause?
BH: If you haven't heard of the ‘No series.’ It's amazing. And that's like the first thing you should do when you leave. It really impacted us. And we thought that more people should hear about these extremely personal moments. But you know most people wouldn't have access to that talks a little bit about what it's like to be in a sexual experience that is going wrong and how to navigate situations like that. So we thought like let's just tell our bosses about it and have them feature it because we've done that with shows in the past like 99 Percent Invisible [that always sounds so hard to get out of my mouth]. Um, and what else? Reply All. A ton of other shows like we've just straight up put it on our feed and we thought let's do that with this, too.
BB: But actually to our surprise once Jad listened to it he came back to us and asked us to do original reporting on this topic. The thing about the No series is that it actually came out before #MeToo happened and so he was really curious kind of what these conversations looked like in this really fraught time, in the wake of #MeToo.
BH: And so “In The No” was born it ended up including clips from The Heart in episode one and then our own reporting in episodes 2 and 3. And it took us seven months to report and produce it. And we did it all while #MeToo news continued to break and through the Kavanagh hearings and the aftermath of that was pretty emotionally taxing. But we made it through and we're going to like share what we learned.
BB: Yeah we want to show you how looking for the surprise in this story helped us find something new to say about what was a much buzzed about topic.
BH: And it would probably be helpful to explain exactly what we mean when we say that.
So here are the pitch guidelines for Radiolab. You can find all of this on the Radiolab website under Pitch Us with an exclamation point. So basically stories should just be concrete, visceral, surprising, elicit mixed feelings, and be something you can access. But -- by the way you like now that you know all that we want out of a pitch this is our pitch e-mail. So please definitely pitch us. It’s email@example.com; we read the inbox. All right you got that down? So when we were thinking about doing a story that deals with sex and consent, we actually zoomed in on two of these things in particular. It needs to be surprising, really surprising. Close your eyes and ask yourself honestly does it really surprise you. Like in your most cynical of minds. Make you think things you haven't really thought of before. And I think the second one is surprise’s cousin. It is, um. It helps a lot. If you aren't sure what to think or how to feel about it and it should make you and then all of us think hard and feel conflicted at least for a little while. And if you ever had that cognitive dissonance of suddenly getting your worldview completely flipped on its head, you know that that's the feeling we're after. This feeling like a story is getting complicated in ways that you've never thought it could before.
BB: So we knew that if we were going to do a story about #MeToo it couldn't be about what we all knew was really terrible and horrible. We had to make it an exploration into the part of this topic that was a little bit more difficult to process. So how do we say something new about it? What felt non-obvious about the news that we were reading and for us what really stuck out to us were these much grayer and nuanced situations.
So, take Aziz Ansari, for example, and that article that came out about him. Was it sexual assault? What made it hard for her to leave his apartment? There was just so much to think about and feel confused about when reading that article. And so that gray space in all stories really is is very fertile ground for discovery for us.
BH: So we're going to get through the Radiolab production process and then through that process we'll show you where we applied this idea into our two -- these two ideas -- into our stories. And maybe a long way you can pick up some of those tools and questions that we asked ourselves to help you break new ground in your own reporting and production. So this is a simplified version of the Radiolab production process. This is the crazy version. I'm not going to make your brain break like Jeremy Beremy with Chidi so we'll just concentrate on this one. And so. The first part we’ll start out on is what we learned from gathering while we learn. Sorry. First of all, this whole thing doesn't include like final mixing and like final QC’s and all that, just for space. And what we're going to talk about today. But this first bit about gathering the raw tape was mainly Becca’s jam. She and our colleague Shima Oliaee worked on one particular part of that process that was that we thought was pretty interesting so she's going to take it over from here until she’s done and then I'm going to take over again.
BB: I appreciate you saying Shima’s last name. I always get it wrong.
BH: Oliaee like Hawaii. Jad says it wrong in the episode. It’s very embarrassing.
BB: I do want to give a quick shout out to Shima. She couldn't be here but she was my co-reporter in the series and I really am speaking for the both of us today. OK so with an issue like consent -- very widely talked about today, but kind of like as I was saying before, we wanted to get into sort of the Aziz Ansari territory. And it didn't feel like there was a ton of talk about how truly confusing navigating sex can be.
So we thought it might be interesting to get college age men and women together who maybe are trying to figure sex out in the wake is #MeToo to help us figure out where the root of some of this confusion comes from. OK so we went to three different cities. We got three groups will six men and women together and we try to make these groups as diverse as possible we were thinking about geography, race, sexual orientation. We actually recruited some students in each of these cities to help us put together these groups.
So our first move was to put Kaitlin's work in front of these college students. That was the work that really inspired us and we thought that it would be a really great -- it would help jump start this conversation. So this is this is actually how that went when we did that [audio clip] How do you guys feel? <murmur> I feel like that really aged me. It was exhausting. [end of clip]
So if you didn't catch that last part she said it was exhausting and Kaitlin's piece is beautiful but it's also really heavy. And we found that starting a conversation with a roomful of exhausted people wasn't the greatest start. We also learned that sort of by sharing someone else's story first you were sort of priming them for a very particular type of conversation. So we heard a lot of people who were talking about Kaitlin, what they thought about her experiences, reflecting on which of their own experiences echoed hers. And so that -- it kind of kept people from talking strictly from their own experiences. And we also found by using Kaitlin's piece first, by the end of it (we shared the second episode “Inheritance”), she really talks about this concept of consent. And what we found is that by putting this word “consent” in front of a group at the very beginning also lead to a really particular type of conversation. We found that using a word like that so early on made it so that people were maybe more likely to regurgitate things that they had heard, things they had said before, and they they were kind of staying away from their own -- the nuances of their own personal experiences. Jad actually shared with us that after our first stop, he did the same thing he shared Kaitlin's piece and from his perspective it sounded like a lot of the young men were saying what they thought they were supposed to say, instead of actually how they felt.
OK so we went to our next stop. We decided to change up our approach a little bit and we want to share that with you. [audio clip] Who is like has a thing with someone but they're not in a relationship? I do, so can you tell me <fade out> [end of clip]
So I like cringe every time I hear myself ask a question and I'm very grateful that it got cut from the final episode. But the difference between the two really struck us like the energy in the room shifted. These women felt excited to talk and this was our way into moving into this conversation, into these very nuanced gray spaces, which is where we wanted to drive the conversation all along. And something else that we found really interesting that came out of this approach is that it actually took about an hour -- we looked back at our transcripts after the fact -- it took about an hour before the word “consent” even emerged in the room. People were strictly speaking from their own experiences and puzzling through them and feeling confused. And that's actually where we wanted to go along.
BH: The next thing we do like after we gather raw tape is that we make selects of that tape. And when I first got to Radiolab I heard this word being thrown around and I had no idea what that meant. But essentially it's just taking a very long interview and smooshing it down into the most important bits for the story.
But with Radiolab stories you're also selecting for stuff I've heard Jad affectionately referred to as “little shit”.
So little shit is tape that may feel completely irrelevant to a story or maybe even feels completely disruptive, like you've just thrown people off. But it may reveal little quirks about your characters. Maybe somebody has an adorable laugh or like talks to their dog in a very funny way. But there are these tiny moments when you see something really revealing about someone that they didn't actually mean to reveal. So here's an example of that that made it into episode three. We've just heard from college women and captured some of their frustrations with like sex culture right now and then suddenly we hear this [audio clip] <buzzing sound> Whoa. Hello? Got a buzz there? It's like a B52 bomber buzz. Oh that sounds better. Alright. OK hi. We did it. We did it. Did you feel it. I always feel like after these technical snafu there's like a bonding that happens to it I feel but it's you guys. Well statistically true thing that people suffering together feel bonded to one another. Well there you who. Who are you by the way, what do you do? My name is Julie Finnel. I'm an associate professor of sociology at Gallaudet University and I've been studying the BDSM community since about 2012. [end of audio clip]
BH: So Julia reveals a little story related to that moment. That tells you something about the kind of person that she is before she tells you anything about herself. So she cites statistics. She's really smart and academic. She knows something about group dynamics that says something to like what she's about to tell us. And it's a nod to like what she's specifically about to talk about -- shared experiences and what they do to us. So now the listener gets the satisfaction of the puzzle pieces coming together and that feels really nice. So it's subtle, but if you find ‘little shit’ that helps you when you're trying to settle in with a character, it can really add to the texture of your piece. So. Storyboard.
BB: OK so the next thing that we do is we storyboard which means we listen to all the selects of the raw tape that we've gathered and we try to shape a story out of it. It sounds really simple but we actually go back and forth and back and forth and pull people into rooms to have conversations throughout the entire process about updating storyboard, rejiggering it, and all that sort of stuff. So in this first stage for this for this project, when we listen back to the selects from our group interviews, we were listening for moments that truly surprised us. So for these groups we started to think of them like, like a Greek chorus. The group in a classical Greek Greek play that sort of pops in and out and expresses a collective view or feeling. And they really helped us understand the wider world of this conversation. And it was super useful for us to think about where someone deviated from this chorus and where the voices sort of crescendo together around an idea or theme or problem that maybe hadn't been solved. So those both pointed us to places we knew to think of as important and new. So we want to show you a couple questions we sort of asked ourselves: Where the crescendos and what are the outlier voices saying?
BB: So our chorus at one point in the conversation was talking about how hard it is to say no or stop when they're close to having sex or they've already begun and they realize that it's not what they want to be doing. But then one woman brought up this anecdote that everyone started rallying around.
[Audio clip] Like I was hooking up with him but I was like obviously I was like super cross-faded and everything. And then in the room we were like I was almost like yeah fuck like I'm just going to do it. But then he was like oh like I don't have a condom and it was almost like a relief because then I was like OK like I'm getting the fuck out of here like I'm not going to have sex with this guy like this is my perfect out. Like I can I'm leaving like right now. [end of audio clip]
BB: So for these women we realized that there was a script in their head for a situation like this. Where there wasn't a condom. And when when you talk about about safe sex this is what you learn. Use a condom. But there isn't a script for saying no to having sex that you just don't want. At least I know when I learned about safe sex didn't really cover emotional or psychological safety. And so this same script didn’t really apply for these women. And there isn't one that you can sort of grab on to in these situations. So this was sort of where the group rallied around an idea and told us something new that we hadn't thought about before. And and they they were actually the ones that brought up this idea of a missing script. And in this way, this group dynamic, from a group interview took on this problem solving flavor which I think is really useful. People just like making connections and sharing and I've found it to be a really useful way to sort of move and move a conversation forward. And this, this concept of a script is actually what led us didn't make it into our piece. But we talked to app makers who are trying to design. Like mobile apps to help you have this conversation before you have sex if you're curious look up “We Consent” it's kind of an interesting concept.
So our next question: what are the outlier voices saying? We found someone who actually sort of proposed a solution to this problem that was brought up in the room. One woman just said, “Hey I'm hearing what all of you are saying. But I practice BSM and consent is really well advocated for in that community. And you are constantly needing to ask people if they're okay with what's happening,” and that is actually what led us down the path into looking into the BDSM community. We talked to Julie who you heard from before. We talked to a couple that practices BDSM. We actually went to a workshop ourselves and we really looked at how consent works in that subculture. And this was the bulk of our third episode.
There are a couple of pitfalls with group interviews that we thought are worth mentioning. Even though we tried to diversify these groups, by the end of the four hours that we talked to them, they took on a flavor that felt kind of like us versus them, men versus women, masculinity versus femininity. And it happened towards the end, but it is just something to look out for. And and sometimes people that might have controversial viewpoints might feel a little nervous sharing those in front of the group. But, speaking of saying things that you might be afraid to say, one quick note that I want to make is while putting the story together when you're in the storyboard process, even in the reporting process, you're also thinking about what voices are missing. What do you need to really flesh out this story and make it surprising. And so one way that we did this was we'd question or premise.
So for me, at the beginning, I think one of my assumptions is that there's absolutely nothing wrong with affirmative consent. It seems so clearly good and right. And so we tried to step back and find like a really thoughtful person who could articulate well why maybe this isn't the best solution. And this is where we found Hannah Stotland. She's an educational consultant. She mainly helps young men who were kicked off of campus for sexual misconduct violations re-apply to school. So she helps them write their check the box essay which is essentially like, “Were you kicked off campus? Yes. All right. Tell us about why.”
And we had her walk us through some of her grayer cases and we found that she was just a really surprising character that forced us to see gray area where we hadn't really seen it before and it actually led to a pretty electric conversation with Kaitlin Prest. This is our second episode. It’s the two of those women talking sort of about affirmative consent and questions of culpability. And it's it was a really great conversation.
Questioning the premise also forced us to sort of stop and ask ourselves who might be standing on the outskirts of this mainstream conversation like waving their hands saying, “Yoohoo! Look over here! Like you're kind of missing this really big problem and this is an unproductive conversation for x y and z reason.” And thinking about that led us to a professor named Joe Fischel.
So Joe actually wrote a book called “Screw Consent,” and he shared with us that he thought consent was actually the wrong word. So he gave us a really interesting example which I want to share here which is about Louis C.K. and you look at that you look at what Louis C.K. did, and a lot of the reporting that came out about it shared that he asked for the affirmative consent of women before he started masturbating in front of them. And so when you think about consent in that case, you realize it's not actually doing all the work that you want it to do. It's not keeping this like truly awful thing from happening. And and we found and he and he said that there was plenty of consensual sex out there that still unwanted and bad and violating for people. And we found this to be really surprising. And this is actually where we landed our third episode. So these were just a few questions that we asked ourselves or formats you might consider using to help you find something new to say or find surprising things about your topic.
BH: All right. So another thing you want to think about in the storyboard process is the overall mood and emotional arc of the story that your journey that you're about to take listener on. So back in episode three we present the BDSM world as this ecosystem and this sort of utopia where people can like, at least in the end, protect themselves emotionally. So we planned like very deliberately for the mood to sort of seem like a bit of that utopia and then have that same person who created that utopia for us like help us crash it down and show us the pitfalls that exist there. The thing is, it's really hard to be able to map that mood if you are using scripts. So one thing I learned once I got to Radiolab is this: Trust of the words and --- don't and. Sorry. Don't trust the words -- it’s the total opposite -- and trust the tape. So we don't use scripts. We transcribe our tape to figure out where things were said and when to easily find it again. But we don't reorder acts and tracks in a google doc and that's because you have no idea what tone or mood someone is using while they're saying the words that they're saying. And maybe someone says something that looks really boring on the page, but how they're saying it and the way their voice cracks a bit or like the emotion that they're using or the dismissive way they're talking about something doesn't come through. And maybe you look at your transcript and you see what looks like a money quote. But the way that they're saying it is really deflating and doesn't capture exactly the mood that you want to set.
So words lie but. Tape don't lie. So in order to know the essence of the tape you kind of have to like be working with it constantly. And that brings us -- Shakira brings us -- to a tape string out. So a tape string out is what happens after you storyboard and it's a bit like what it sounds like. Listen to all of your selects you know the logic of the story and then you sort of want to. And you have the idea of the moods you want to evoke and you created a rough order in which the voices in the moods are gonna go and so you plaster around the tape to reflect that.
And there's another trick to the string out the helps you elicit surprise and help you move helps you move through a journey. And it's something I didn't fully understand until I submitted a string out to this story and my editor Soren Wheeler. He sent me notes. And I want to share a bit of those notes with you.
So he said, “When considering tape to pay pay careful attention to what it's doing.” Some of the tape that I included was “proclaiming and blaming and giving lessons. And the real challenge here is to create a sequence that poses questions, describe situations that are our problem, and then goes looking for solutions, then wonder about those solutions, and then give a new -- and then provide like a new question. So that's the thing that's going to drive people from one thing to the next.” So to back explain a little bit when I got my hands on all this material and a bunch of brilliant young people talking about what they find right and wrong about their sex lives, I really wanted to create something. I couldn't wait to tell the world I was like, “This is how consent stuff should work!” So in this string out out I like kind of dip my toes into what was confusing and then I ran back out just to say like “this isn't that hard!” Like “just listen and be respectful during sex.” So in the words of a song I found and actually inserted into the first string out “if you're not sure it's not rape, don't do it.”
But in the end like this approach kind of didn't give the listener that sense of satisfaction in terms of understanding the problem more deeply and what we were after. And so we wanted to focus our attention on what makes it both surprising and difficult and telling people how to feel doesn't make for good surprising storytelling for Radiolab. I think there's a place for it for sure for those voices to exist out there. But what we're after doesn't exactly give it to us so that the that's going to give your story momentum is like the dissatisfaction of having all of the answers all at once. And that momentum to feel like you're getting closer to maybe what is the answer.
So we have to respect the difficulty of something that's complicated even though it can be so easy to try to build a world where everyone does everything right.
So you might be wondering why -- off to the next thing -- why there's an asterisk next to drafts and that's because there's so many drafts. If I were to extend this out, it would be drafts and drafts and drafts. Even episodes themselves are cut into pieces and there are several drafts of each piece of each episode. And that's again because: Shakira. Like the draft become our scripts. So we work within each of those drafts, listen to it, experience the tape, and then revise based on that previous version. So yeah. And we even have like mics set up at our desk to put in scratch narration for like what we imagine a reporter or a host might say.
So yeah the first draft will be absolute trash that is a given. I had to accept that pretty quickly. And the second one will be infinitesimally less trash. The third will be a little better and you'll be get -- it'll get better because your editor will give you notes maybe you realize something in the shower and like you're like oh we have to change everything. Or like the storyboard changes on you and so you want to change the draft to reflect that. And so then you make a fourth and fifth graft. Graft -- draft -- getting feedback from your editors each step of the way and then you make yourself feel better. By making this sign which says “make things without hating yourself.” So one day I was really frustrated and I turned to Annie McEwan and Simon Adler, two very amazing humans and producers at Radiolab and I asked them for a mantra to like kind of help me work through this. And this is what they gave me. So I stuck it on a PostIt note on my computer. And it's helped me keep going. And I feel like this is pretty universal just like we as creatives don't need ourselves to get in the way of our creative process and like reminding ourselves of that. And you know it is good.
But at a certain point like maybe draft 9 or 10 the draft become less about what sounds clearly better and more about editorial moves.
And this is a point where you might find yourself being surprised by something that isn't actually necessarily a good surprise. Because maybe it frames a character in a way that you might think is unfair. Or kind of brushes by a problem that you think deserves more attention.
So in a story like this there is bound to be those moments of disagreement. And there were. And that's when I found it really important even given my position as an assistant editor -- assistant editor -- assistant producer to speak up.
So this slide says feel something say something I've been told to repeat the slides because it's going to be on a podcast. So say it.
So for the producers out there, maybe you're really early in your career like me and maybe you're working with male editors, or editors outside of your generation, or those of a different race or culture, or in my case all of the above. And you have to say when something is bothering you. And you can do this in a number of different ways in order to amplify your voice. So like there was some, there's a piece of there, there's a decision that was about to be made at the end of the homestretch and I was like “oh no this can't be.” And so I sent like a very measured email describing that I like felt very strongly about this thing like and describe my reasons why but then I also followed it up with a text from my editor being like, “Hey I really really visceral reactions of this not being in the piece,” and and he's just like yep, got it.” Like. And it ended up working! Like that totally worked.
So there is there were these moments when I said -- I said something, I was listened to, and we change what we did. And there were times when I said something, I was listened to, and we didn't change what we did. And in both instances I felt really heard and empowered to speak up. And if something stayed in the story -- the reason why is because like if something stayed in the story -- and I sought out these answers. I really like asked for the reasons why. I wanted good reasons for why something was the case, especially if I felt like it was if I felt really strongly about it. At Radiolab we're the lucky to be on a team that supports one another when there are these moments of disagreement. And were people first and employees second. And those bounds of hierarchy don't really exist. We take everyone's opinion really seriously. And with work like this especially it's hard because everybody comes in with their own experiences. And it can be hard when editorial decisions like truly feel like personal ones. I think it's different if you're working on a story about time or space as we've done in the past, but when you get into like emotional rawness, it can get tricky. So it's definitely worthwhile to recognize each other in that process and to feel that out. And for the editors in the room, leave space for your team to voice their opinions and like open up the floor, because if that floor doesn't exist, they might not feel like there's room for that. And if you decide to make a decision in the final cut that you know that people had problems with you should do what my editor did, and like have really long G-Hang conversations to explain like all of the ups and downs and considerations that it took to get to that point. And seeing that process and that push and pull and tug of like the things he was factoring in -- it was really good. It was good to see that there was struggle and that there was something there. I mean of course like dependent on time and impact and like we have a lot of time on Radiolab to do all that, but it's really important just to feel make people feel like they're being heard. I mean truly like actually were heard and their things were considered.
So that happened for us with this story. I really hope that happens for everyone in this room. So to recap: Identify what's surprising -- like, actually surprising -- in your most cynical cynical minds; consider group interviews as a way to elicit some surprise and kind of pull from the consciousness of the population that you may maybe trying to understand better; question your premise; less preaching, more storytelling; iterate for better work; and listen to each other. Thank you.
BB: Thank you.