Storytelling with WNPR

by Allison McLellan

In honor of ds106 radio and thinking ahead to our session at Northern Voice 2011, this retro mic was suggested as a prop-- it is pretty much a plastic piece of junk- it does record audio, with noise, and it wont work at all streaming with Nicecast. But it does have a light on top.
“2011/365/84 On The Air” taken by Alan Levine on March 25, 2011. (Flickr } Creative Commons)

Storytelling is the original form of entertainment used to pass on legends and histories, and to pass the time. But now we have more stimulating forms of entertainment—Xbox360, Netflix, YouTube, etc. You can’t have a conversation without maybe half of the faces being immersed in a smartphone screen at any given time. For example, my roommate and I have spent the last hour solely communicating via videos we found on Facebook. Sometimes, I try to get my friends to play a game where I throw out three random objects or characters and someone has to make a story out of it. All my friends hate me.

As a radio producer, Betsy Kaplan and her team at WNPR must come up with riveting stories daily. Through radio, they are able to combine the art of storytelling with some much-loved technology. In an interview, Betsy gave me a behind-the-scenes look at how her team comes up with new story ideas every day, putting them together in a way that makes people want to listen.

1. What do you do at the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network?

I produce for The Colin McEnroe Show [and] that involves producing a show most every day. We get ideas from everywhere—we talk about our show as the topics nobody knows they want to know yet. A lot of ideas are what you come across every day [that] you might notice but not think much about.

I’d say about 40% of this job is reading, with lots of newspapers and online magazines. It’s a matter of… finding out what the most interesting angles might be, the things people might be currently talking about, things people don’t know about. Then you have to find a guest to talk about that.

There’s usually only a couple [of guests] who can talk about a topic the way we really want to for our show—to dig down and try to find the cultural significance. When we find the guest, it’s a matter of pre-interviewing them, finding out what themes emerge, what we want to talk about, how the guests might overlap, how to shape the show, and in what order.

2. Anything particularly inspiring to you?

I love to read, so I usually come across things that way. It’s okay to do a show you’re not interested in too—I’ve developed an interest in a lot of things I didn’t think I liked. In going with the show, we’re trying to get people to open up their minds and think about new things, so we should be doing the same things as producers.

3. What’s the process for creating the best show possible?

Usually guests are instrumental. To have a good combination of guests or someone that can really think deeply about a topic, your show is going to do fine no matter what because you have the right people [discussing] it. The host will know what’s important and help you pick out the big ideas. In framing it, I base a lot on what our guests say. We look around and [say], “Is there anything in the news about this? What do people want to hear about? What’s timely about this?” There’s no one right way to frame a show.

4. What’s your favorite story you’ve worked on?

When I was early here, maybe the first year, I did a show on prison wives. These guys in maximum-security prisons, some even on death row at the time, have this whole life. There’s a subset of women who love them and stick with them. It was a really hard show to book because I had to go on all these crazy forums to find the women who love these men—I even got kicked off of a couple. But it really made me understand the thinking behind some of these women. They’re not what we might think them to be, which might be crazy, unglued, and maybe lonely, desperate. Some were really sad and had difficult problems, but others were very intelligent. It challenged people’s perceptions and gave me some empathy of what prisoners go through, and the people that love them that have to live with that.

5. Do you have any advice for people getting into public media?

When I looked at the job, I was intimidated because it was not my background. But I would say not to think that way because this job requires lots of different skills, whether you’re a math major or an English major. The more life experience and skills you have, the better. I would say not to give up and don’t be afraid to take initiative.

Allison McLellan is a senior studying English with a minor in Communication and a concentration in creative writing at the University of Connecticut. She is on the poetry panel for the Long River Review and currently works as the written communications assistant for the Materials Science and Engineering Department.

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