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  • Brandon Spars

Learning Another Side of Storytelling

Updated: Dec 3, 2019


For the past two years I have been co-teaching a class called Authentic Voices with the Sound Engineer at our school. My responsibility has been to focus on the storytelling, and Spencer Nilsen, the engineer, trains the students in Logic Pro X, which he has bolstered with a library of sound effects from the Hollywood Library. The main assignment has been for the students to produce a ten to twelve minute podcast. 


To prepare for this we have the students do two live events: one is a Moth-like storytelling event; the other, a TED talk. The students then add interviews and commentary to either one of these performances to produce their podcast. The stories are meant to be true and compelling. 


Today we had the Managing Editor from Snap Judgment, Anna Sussman, come to our class and speak to them about the art of interviewing. In preparation, we listened to more than five episodes of Snap Judgment, including one produced completely by Anna titled, "Big Girls Don't Cry." Anna listened to interviews that the students cut together prior to her arrival, and, as she started to speak to them she was able to directly reference the work they had produced in Logic Pro. 


Though the students were a bit starstruck, the fact that Anna was referencing their work broke the ice immediately, and the eighty minutes flew by. Nobody's attention wandered as Anna gave them tips and tricks that only the best in the business know. Anna differentiated different aspects of a well cut interview, which include: verite, ambiance, actuality, and narration. She taught them to capture the room tone, and to do this at the end of the interview after asking their subject if there was anything else they wanted to say. This gives the subject a full two minutes to think while the interviewer is recording the sound of the room, which is crucial in cutting and mixing the interview. Anna discussed Snap Judgment's process, which takes six hours of interviewing and cuts it down into a "buddy edit," and then "a group edit." Perhaps the most important takeaway was a concept of having a "North Star," which is essentially a concept that guides you through what Jad Abumrad of Radiolab calls the German Forest that is created by the hours of tape one inevitably accumulates for a story. 


Also an instructor at the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, Anna instinctively brought the students into an activity that put this all together for them. She played a piece constructed out of interviews with women in prison and their children who have to live in the free world without their mothers. After each segment, she would pause and identify the verite contained in a moment that was captured when a mother scolds her son for not having taken his medicine. "This was not in response to a question that I asked," Anna said, prompting the students to call out that it was an example of "verite." "Very good," she smiled. 


Anna riveted our group of young storytellers with anecdote after anecdote from her busy life as a journalistic storyteller. She gave an account of her favorite episode of Snap Judgment in which she traveled to Hawaii two years ago after there had been the false missile scare. Basically people thought they had fifteen minutes to live. "We created our dream list of people to interview," she said, meaning she had brainstormed all the people she would like to interview to make a complete story: school teachers, husbands, wives, tourists who had gone their on vacation. And then she set up as many interviews from California as she could. She hit the ground running in Hawaii, and, after just twenty hours, she returned to the Oakland office with hours of tape. 


"When you do a story," Anna advised them, "...keep asking yourselves, 'Am I getting the story? Am I getting gold?'" By gold, she meant the secret ingredient of podcast storytelling: an authentic moment. These moments are not contained in the words, but what is happening inside the words of the interview. These moments are invisible in a transcript of the interview because the transcript does not contain the pauses, the hesitations, the laughter, or the tears... Ultimately, according to Anna, to make a good story, you need to understand that audio is emotional. "When we break up with someone, we don't go and read a book... We listen to a song over and over again. Audio is emotional. We hear things and feel things in the womb before we are even born."


Anna taught us today that the best audio stories do not report things that happened. Instead they create living scenes in which the audience hears someone caught in the act of thinking. The best stories contain raw human emotion that allows the listener to relive the experience as the story builds. The best stories contain an interesting series of events, but the magic that happens between the words is what gives them meaning. 


Class ended. The students left knowing they had been privilege to knowledge that probably takes years to learn. And I, as the teacher who was lucky enough to have Anna as my guest, was able to say that yes, I was delivering good content to the students, and, yes, because I had brought them Anna Sussman, I had brought them "gold."


Sonoma Academy's Authentic Voices: Documenting & Crafting True Stories Class Guest Speaker, November 22, 2019