OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil (love his name) did a story last month for OPB about how the community of Gold Beach on Oregon’s Pacific Coast was building a hospital. That wouldn’t normally be news except that Gold Beach and practically every other community along the upper West Coast of the United States is tsunami ground zero from the next Ocean based earthquake.
The US Geological Survey says there is a 37% chance that a 9.0 magnitude level earthquake will strike the West coast within the next 50 years. His story focused on what seemed to the locals to be a reasonable balance between what was necessary for safety, what was needed for the community and what they could afford.
But Mr. Foden-Vencil’s story just, this minute, finished airing on NPR’s All Things Considered.
In journalism parlence, his story was “evergreen”, meaning, some stories hold their age well and can be told now or later because there isn’t anything that locks them to a specific date. And evergreen stories tend to end up “in the can”, another colloquialism of journalism that means a place where we keep evergreen stories to run them when we need them.
A station needs a cache of such stories. Sometimes it’s a slow news day. Or, sometimes, you’re short staffed. Or sometimes, the editorial calender keeps pushing your story out of the way for more timely stories. And I’ve talked about the necessity of a can full of such stories before. The point is, you dear listener, may hear a story that sounds hauntingly familiar.
To coin a term from the last century, you are not being gas lighted.
The nomination window for many radio journalism awards has closed for this year. But Daniel Estrin, a reporter for The World, a newsmagazine for Public Radio International, should be at the top of the list to be nominated next year.
Mr. Estrin reported on a film circulating amongst the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel that encourages men and boys to refrain from masturbating. This post isn’t so much about the film. I mean, how much conceptualizing does one need to do? It’s more about the thinking outside the box.
When was the last time you heard a story about masturbation? Terrorism, daily. Police violence, frequently. Plane crashes, ocassionally. Sex between the elderly, rarely.
The editorial staff at The World definitely get credit for this. I consider it a ballsy decision. I mean, I can imaging Mr. Estrin heard of the film and approached his news director. Or, I can imagine his news director heard of the film and approached Mr. Estrin. Either way, I’ll bet whoever got the news that a story about, um, … spilling “sacred sperm” was being considered, got a little bug eyed for a second. Finally, somebody probably said, “Oh, why not?”
Like I said, this isn’t so much about the content as about the decision to tell the story. But, I did have a few questions. Like, the story didn’t mention women at all. So I’m guessing that even a taboo subject like masturbation among men and boys has its own taboo aspects that are absolutely unthinkable among Orthodox Jews. Tackle that next, in a few years.
Still, it was a shocker. I was cheering at the radio almost the whole time. He went there. And although at that moment, I wasn’t letting the story raise the curtain on my “Theater of the Mind”, I was reassured that radio can tell any story if it is … handled properly.
Radio tells a lot of stories that many consider questionable. Unfortunately, most either reinforce our own immutable views or continue to numb us with their violent or inane ubiquity. Every now and then, one comes along that is neither too vile or too predictable but some magical combination of both that manages to give a little slap.
And to top it off, Mr. Estrin ended his story by calling the whole thing, “A touchy subject”. Wowzers!
Journalism has competing tenants. One says, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”. The point of doing that, of repeating key aspects of a story throughout the story, is to reinforce the message since a long story can give people so much information they can get lost in it.
But the other one is that a lot of journalism tends to speak to people at about a 7th grade level. There, the point is keeping things simple helps people follow the message.
Where these collide is the redundant review. I often hear an interviewer ask a guest a question, the guest gives a perfectly cogent answer, and the interviewer, for some reason, restates that answer, and maybe even puts a slightly different spin on it than the guest intends.
I wonder why this happens. Maybe the interviewer is trying to stay loyal to tenant number one. Or maybe, they’re trying to stay true to tenant number two. Sometimes, I wonder if there is a number three, namely, the interviewer is working the answer out in their own mind to make sure they understand what the guest is actually saying.
I have a third tenant that makes this tendency by some interviewers understandable. The interviewer should be a surrogate for the listener. And if there is ever any question in the interviewer’s mind that a listener might not understand what a guest is saying, the interviewer should speak up. My year of interviews with Oregon political office seekers proved this to be necessary over and over.
I’ve talked about interviewers adding spin, or restating or talking down to their audience. Each of those is definitely annoying. But not everybody who listens has the same capacity to understand and for that reason, journalism has to give those listeners the benefit of the doubt. For those with capacity plus, they should see that as a win-win for us all.
Sometimes, you hear it in the voice of the interviewer. Fake laughing, fake surprise, fake incredulity, fake interest, fake sincerity. And you know it’s fake because it sounds like stink smells and there’s never any question about stink.
You rarely hear fake in the voice of the interviewee, since it’s the interviewer’s job, in part, to keep the interviewee off balance and thus, by keeping them off balance, that helps keep them honest. Usually, when an interviewee is answering a question, they are speaking off the cuff about something they should know well and that tends to lead to honesty. That, along with the fact that a good interviewer has probably fact checked the hell out of them before they got there and will challenge them on untruths.
On the other hand, interviewers, silver tongued devils that they are, use a number of verbal gadgets and widgets to move the conversation along. I’ve talked about some of them in this blog. I’m sure a lot of people consider a forced laugh or a breathy “really!” pretty harmless if it breaks down social barriers. But when I hear that from someone who assumes they need to fake me out as a way to get me to be honest, and they assume I don’t know that’s what they’re doing, they don’t get openness or revelation.
A lot of those techniques interviewers use are legitimate and sometimes, necessary. But fake shouldn’t be one of them.
When I hear fake, I think, “How do you still have a job?”
I just heard a story on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about a group of hackers that stole almost a billion dollars from some of the world’s largest banks. The story didn’t identify the banks because, … oh who knows why. I’ll get to that in a minute. However, the reporter noted that the hackers were careful as to steal only 10 million dollars per bank before moving onto the next bank. The assumption seems to be that a bank won’t notice a theft of 10 million dollars being slowly stolen over a long period of time.
But, if you divide 10 million into 1 billion, that means hackers hacked about 100 banks this way. And if you assume that they probably focused on the top 100 banks in the world, and you know what that list is, then you can probably make an educated guess as to which banks got hacked.
Sometimes, when reporters tell a story, they can’t always just say what they want to say. Sometimes, they don’t know. Or sometimes, there are political consequences. Or sometimes, they know in their gut but can’t say something definitively and categorically. So they have to bury those fine points in a story and assume; and hope the listener is really listening and smart enough to connect the dots.
I talked about something like this in a post last year. Then as now, I’m talking about how the real story depends on a relationship between the listener and the reporter that goes beyond the actual words coming out of their mouths and into the spaces between the lines.
BTW, here’s a list of the top 100 banks in the world.
I volunteered this weekend at Oregon Public Broadcasting. I was one of the people you would talk to if you called to make a pledge for radio. I also volunteer at KBOO in Portland, a community radio station that isn’t public radio, but is listener funded like public radio.
I just learned that KBOO ended its drive but did not hit its fund drive goal of $85,000. The drive began on or about February 2 and was scheduled to go for two weeks. When I checked drive progress last night, KBOO was at about $47,000. KBOO has had problems in the past hitting its goal and it has led to ocassional speculation that the station has financial problems.
But OPB’s fund drive began on February 5. I volunteered for the current drive three separate times; on the first day, somewhere in the middle and at the scheduled end of the drive, which was supposed to be Saturday, February 14h. OPB’s goal was around $600,000 but as of 5 p.m. Saturday, it had only raised about 2/3s of that amount.
Both stations are careful however about how they express that shortfall. OPB stock phrase is “We’re not quite done yet”, while on KBOO’s site, there is a banner that reads, “We came up a bit short of our goal, so please donate online if you can”. And if you listen closely, you can hear them blaming themselves even though the fact that people didn’t give enough money isn’t their fault.
People take the programming even though they hate fund drives. And although stations emphasize all of the people that like them, love them or want more of them, these numbers say people either don’t have the money, or for some reason, don’t want to part with it. And it certainly isn’t because they don’t know the goals or the deadlines. What that tells me is that the fund drive model isn’t working and we need to be doing something different. Even if the intent is to support excellent programming, pitchers often say they don’t like holding programs hostage and listeners don’t like being extorted.
From what I understand, fund drive goals are set through a combination of what the stations need and what they were able to get at the last fund drive. Although, as I said earlier, KBOO ended its drive, OPB will grind on until it hits its goal, if it hits its goal. But neither case is cause for celebration because as pitchers often say, the money stations ask for during a particular hour pays the cost the station pays the producer of that particular program. And if they don’t come up with enough money, they can’t pay for the program next time, which often means programming changes listeners don’t like. For both outlets, KBOO and OPB to be so far off from such a carefully calculated goal speaks volumes to the alchemy of both misses.
And it affects every operation, including news which is where my interest most lies. Less money can mean less reporting, less conversations, less exposure of what needs to be seen and heard. Although a boon for the shady, it’s frustrating for staff and listeners.
It’s a lousy system all around. It’s got to go. But the problem is what to replace it with?
*UPDATE: OPB ended its drive at 6 p.m. on February 17th. It was $33,000 short. It probably could’ve hit that goal if the drive had lasted one more day since it seemed to be raising about $40K per day. But because Governor Kitzhaber resigns tomorrow, I am guessing they probably didn’t want to risk fundraising competing with such an important and historical news event.