Transcript for the Piece Audio version of #25 - Stand-Ups
FROM PRX, THE PUBLIC RADIO EXCHANGE, THIS IS HOWSOUND.
WELCOME TO HOWSOUND, THE BACKSTORY TO GREAT RADIO STORYTELLING. I’M ROB ROSENTHAL.
I HAVE TO LET YOU IN ON A LITTLE SECRET. I SCRIPT EVERY HOWSOUND. I WRITE OUT MY NARRATION. EVEN THIS SENTENCE RIGHT HERE. IT’S WRITTEN.
I DO MY DARNDEST TO NARRATE SO THAT IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE I’M READING. BUT I'M NEARLY ALWAYS READING.
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, I’LL GO SO FAR AS TO LOOK AT MY SCRIPT, SEE WHAT I NEED TO SAY, TURN AWAY FROM THE SCRIPT, AND TALK, NOT READ. THAT’S AN OLD NARRATING TRICK TO HELP YOU SOUND MORE NATURAL. BUT, MY SCRIPT IS ALWAYS NEARBY.
FRANKLY, I THINK I’M AFRAID TO NARRATE WITHOUT A SCRIPT. I’M CONVINCED IT’S NOT GOING TO WORK. I’LL BE TOO VERBOSE, TOO UNFOCUSED, UNCLEAR. AND, IT WILL TAKE LONGER. I’LL HAVE TO REPEAT MYSELF A GAZILLION TIMES BEFORE I GET IT RIGHT.
SO, WHEN I HEAR RADIO STORIES WHERE A REPORTER IS NARRATING WITHOUT A SCRIPT, I’M INSANELY JEALOUS OF THEIR SKILLS. IN REPORTER LINGO, NARRATING ON LOCATION IS A “STAND-UP.”
“I believe it comes from a TV term.”
THAT’S NPR REPORTER ROBERT SMITH. IF ROBERT ISN’T THE KING OF THE STAND-UP, HE’S MOST CERTAINLY THE PRINCE.
“We’ve all seen this when the TV reporter stands there live and just describes the scene around them. That’s why it’s called a stand up because they are actually standing. And it has a rich tradition in radio, too. A lot of news radio used to be live and unscripted. And, then, you know, National Public R adio, what we do in public radio became more and more scripted. Every moment was thought out edited and read into a very nice microphone in a studio like I’m in. And, we lost a little bit of that live momentum.
In fact, when I first started in public radio, a lot of people weren’t even including their questions any more. They would say “This reporter asked this person this question” and they would go to the tape. And, so when I started a lot of reporters weren’t micing themselves in any way when they were out in the field….
And, um, I guess I was faced with a number of stories early in my career that I thought were, I’ll put it this way, I though my reporting of them was more boring than the event itself. And that’s why I started to try and record more of myself in the field, my interactions. And, eventually, record narration out in the field sort of improvised.
ROBERT SAYS A STAND UP HELPS A STORY COME ALIVE. IT TAKES A LISTENER OUT OF THE HERMETIC BOX OF THE STUDIO.
HERE’S THE OPENING FROM A STORY ROBERT PRODUCED ABOUT COCONUT WATER. HE COULD HAVE EASILY WRITTEN A SCRIPT AND RECORDED NARRATION IN A STUDIO. INSTEAD….
Clip from coconut water story.
NOTICE THE ACTION – ROBERT’S DOING HIS BEST TO CRACK OPEN A COCONUT. ROBERT SAYS IT’S THE ACTION THAT MAKES A STAND UP.
Robert – If a reporter does a stand-up in the traditional sense. They stand in place in and describe it. And, I hear a lot of these on the air where someone just says “I’m standing on the corner and it’s cold and the wind is blowing and… the sky’s blue and the embassy is across from me and that is where the news is happening. Those are fine, but they don’t add anything to the story, I think. It may sound a little more live and improvised. And, you may hear the sound of the traffic. But, it’s not much better than narration.
… The stand-ups that work for myself and other people, the stand-ups that work involve some kind of action. Not a description of a place. They’re a description of something happening. So, it’s someone walking along with a street paving machine saying “This is how they fix the pot holes. I can see them shoveling the pavement in one side and scrape it out the other side.” There’s a sense of action, something happening.
Or, the person doing a stand-up involves somebody else. They say “I’m standing on this corner and with me is the police officer who is always stationed here” and you have this moment with them. And, once again, that feels live, that feels like momentum, feels like something is happening. Not just the guy standing there waiting for something to happen.
HERE’S ANOTHER EXAMPLE. BACK IN 2008, A LOT OF PEOPLE SUSPECTED NEW YORK CITY MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG MIGHT RUN FOR PRESIDENT. ROBERT DECIDED TO FIND OUT. HE FOLLOWED THE MAYOR AROUND FOR A WEEK LISTENING FOR CLUES IN HIS SPEECHES.
Clip from “Candidate Bingo: Is Bloomberg Running”
Robert – Bloomberg is giving his State of the City Address. And this is perfect place to do this stand-up because he was in this giant, giant room. And so I could plug a recorder into the “mult-box,” get his speech but also be in the back of the room at the same time with a different recorder sort of doing the play by play.
And the secret to it, which made this work, was that they give you a copy of the speech right before hand…. So I was sort of reading ahead and I knew where he was going with things and I was able to do a play by play during the speech.
ROBERT MAKES IT SOUND EASY, DOESN’T HE. FLAWLESS. IT’S ALMOST LIKE HE’S A PLAY-BY-PLAY SPORTS ANNOUNCER.
Clip of Bloomberg almost kissing a baby.
BUT ROBERT’S NOT FLAWLESS. HE SAYS STAND-UPS ARE OFTEN A MATTER OF TRIAL AND ERROR – EMPHASIS ON ERROR.
Robert – I make a ton of mistakes. When I do stand-ups on the radio, I’ve probably recorded ten, twelve of them maybe. I mean it depends. If there is someone standing next to me I may do it once or twice. But if it’s just me describing something, I’ll do it short. I’ll do it long. I’ll try it this way. I’ll try it that way. Because once you’re back in the studio, you have no option. So, the number one rule is probably to give yourself as many options as possible. If you’re going to include some narration in the field, ya know, you can write notes, just don’t script it. But, do try it many different ways. You’re editor will thank you for that.
Rob – And, so what do you think the ratio is. Bad stand-up tape to good stand up tape when you’re out in the field.
Robert – Oh, um, thirty-to-one, forty-to-one maybe?
Rob – Whoa whoa whoa. Wait a minute. Forty to one?
Robert – I probably record forty times as many stand-ups as I end up using in a story…. Yeah, I probably throw away the vast, vast, vast majority of stand-ups.
BOTH OF THE CLIPS WE’VE LISTENED TO HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON -- ROBERT. IN EACH CASE, ROBERT IS CREATING ACTION. HE DOES THAT AGAIN IN THIS NEXT EXAMPLE FROM 2005.
ROBERT SAYS TRANSPORTATION STORIES CAN BE TOO NERDY. THEY’RE ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS AND PUBLIC MEETINGS. TO AVOID ALL THAT, ROBERT RACED A BUS.
Clip from Bus Showdown: New York vs. Los Angeles.
Rob – Talk to me about the idea of manufacturing a scene like that. Generally speaking, reporters head out into the world with their microphones to capture a scene as it unfolds. It’s not our job to make the scene, it’s our job to document it, if you will. But, in this particular case, you created this scene.
Robert – As to the ethics of doing this. I don’t know, it just seemed like a fun thing to do. I guess I could have just followed her on the bus and done a straight up interview. “How slow is the bus?” “Aren’t you upset at the bus?” That sort of thing.
That would have been fine. It would have sounded like a lot of transportation stories…. Ideally, it would have been someone else racing the bus. It didn’t seem like that was going to happen so I did it myself.
Rob – So when do you think it’s okay to manufacture a scene for the sake of a stand-up?
Robert – Ya know, you keep using the term “manufacture a scene.” I guess it’s a manufacture. But, it actually happened. Ya know. Laughs. It’s not like I recreated it in a studio or scripted the people involved or hired a fake bus or anything. Laughs. This is me actually being in the world and describing my experience. But, I get what you’re saying.
When is it okay? I think you have to be transparent. You have to say exactly what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I think it needs to be central to an idea you’re presenting in a story…. And, I think it has to be real in a sense that I’m a surrogate for the listener. I think in general it has to be something a listener could do too. That it’s plausible that somebody could be in that situation and react the same way. In a sense, I don’t try to be Robert Smith the person doing this. It’s more, ya know, Robert Smith the reporter surrogate for the listener, “Come along with me. Let’s try this thing together.”
Rob – When shouldn’t you do a stand up?
Robert – I don’t think you want to do it in a story that has a lot of information involved in it, is complicated, is maybe a story that maybe includes a lot of controversy and partisan stuff. Anything where you really do need an editor to look at your script….
It’s why now that I’ve moved to Planet Money and I’m doing global economics I’m not doing as many of these because it’s just. I literally can’t talk about this stuff off the top of my head. Ya know, “credit default swaps this” and “sovereign debt that.” I can’t do that yet. Maybe one of these days I can go to the Fed and just breeze my way through it with stand-ups but I can’t do it right now.
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM A STORY ROBERT “BREEZED THROUGH” ENTIRELY WITH STAND-UPS. IT’S A PIECE MARKING DUKE ELLINGTON’S BIRTHDAY RECORDED IN A NEW YORK SUBWAY TRAIN.
Clip from NYC Take The A Train To Honor Duke Ellington. Fade down and under.
Rob – I think personally, I’m reticent to try them because there’s no way on God’s green Earth I’d get it right…. It would be mounds of tape I would never use.
Robert – I think anyone can do this. It’s when, when you’re doing a story on some food item and they give it to you and you put it in your mouth and you say something. If that’s going to be in your story, you need to react in some way. And, that’s just a small form of stand-up, of trying something and saying something about it… This is what Robert Krulwich told me that I’ve found very useful because he does this very much in his interviews. He says you have to think that you’re on the radio at all times. Even when you’re out in the field, move the microphone toward you and imagine in some part of your brain that you are on the radio right then and there even though you’re taping it.
Bring up end of A Train story as he departs train and IDs himself.
ROBERT SMITH RECENTLY WROTE ABOUT SHORT NEWS STORIES FOR TRANSOM.ORG. IT’S CALLED “CREATIVITY IN A MINUTE.” YOU’LL FIND A LINK TO THAT AT THE BLOG, HOWSOUND.ORG.
YOU’LL ALSO FIND LINKS TO ALL OF THE STORIES WE HEARD TODAY SO YOU CAN LISTEN TO THEM IN THEIR ENTIRETY.
ONE LAST NOTE, BEFORE I DISAPPEAR, IF YOU WANT A TRANSCRIPT OF THIS HOWSOUND OR ANY FUTURE HOWSOUND, LOOK IN THE LYRICS. THIS IS HOW IT WORKS IN ITUNES. “GET INFO” ON THE FILE, CLICK THE “LYRICS” TAB AND “POOF” THERE THEY BE.
HOWSOUND IS THE BI-WEEKLY PODCAST ON THE BACKSTORY TO GREAT RADIO STORYTELLING. IT’S PRODUCED BY THE GOOD FOLKS AT PRX, THE PUBLIC RADIO EXCHANGE.
I’M ROB ROSENTHAL. THANKS FOR LISTENING.