NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

Colorado Public Radio: How to find the perfect audio moment

Cindy Carpien, a former NPR producer, is now an independent radio trainer. She works throughout the public radio system.

Radio journalists love sound to create a sense of place in a scene – squeaky doors opening and closing, cash registers, train whistles, car honking, bird chirping.

But if you really want to describe something in a compelling way, you’ll need more than the sound of a great squeaky floor. We’re looking for surprising moments that may not be entirely obvious to others, but may actually become the moment that tells the story. And if you can record that moment, well, you really have something to write home about.

Here’s one case study that captures how to find that moment.

As part of an NPR training workshop, nine Colorado Public Radio reporters gathered material for same story and shared the same interviews.

We were in a huge warehouse just outside Denver where a non-profit was loading up donated medical supplies to ship to Ebola stricken countries.

There were lots of sounds: boxes being loaded, packing tape, forklifts, volunteers describing the process. It was a radio reporter’s dream for sound to set a scene, yes? But how much description do you really need of a warehouse packing supplies? And is there something specific and more surprising to “wrap” this scene around?

Here’s how Colorado Public Radio’s Health Reporter John Daley decided to begin his story:

The comment about the need for duct tape in the Ebola crisis was a surprise to all of us during the interviews. We all knew it would be included somewhere in the story but no one, including John, imagined it would telescope the story’s beginning.

This is the way John first scoped out a script during the workshop – using sweeping, big picture descriptions of the warehouse. The duct tape idea wasn’t introduced until much later in the story:

HOST INTRODUCTION:

A Colorado non-profit is playing a key role in trying to contain the Ebola virus as it spreads out  of control in Africa.  CPR Health Reporter John Daley visited the facility in Centennial of Project C.U.R.E., which is shipping tons of critical medical supplies to west Africa.

00:13: FORKLIFT ATTEMPTS TO ENTER TRUCK

A yellow forklift backs a stack of dozens of boxes wrapped in plastic into a shipping container.

00:20.5: “You’re like six inches too high. Can you drop?”

Forklift driver: “No. We’re just gonna have to take that box off.” (FORKLIFT AMBI)

The cargo is headed for Sierra Leone, one of the countries hardest hit by Ebola.

ACTUALITY: “Here, let me grab it.”

Inside, protective medical gear:  masks, gloves, gowns.

Forklift driver: “…It’s three inches higher.” (REMOVING BOX)

The setting: a cavernous warehouse in Centennial operated by the non-profit Project C.U.R.E..  This day, 85 volunteers from Valor Christian High School are here, sorting medical supplies, like Delaney Buehler.

Delaney:  4:40 – “It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be, and a lot more packed with stuff… It’s huge (laughs). The sheer magnitude of everything that’s in here is kind of crazy.”

The sheer magnitude is impressive.  This warehouse is 80,000 square feet.  The group operates in 132 countries around the world, with 25 paid staffers and 17,000 volunteers.   Project CURE describes itself as the world’s “largest provider of donated medical supplies and equipment to developing countries.”

Like many of us, John was lured by the tendency to do the big wind up – which means taking too much time (and sound) to say what we really mean: “Hey, this story is really important and this is why.”

Sometimes we’re simply seduced by our sound and it takes us down a path we don’t always need to go. Here’s what John wrote after his story aired – reflecting back on his decision to explore other ways to frame the opening of his story.

“I have to say once I zeroed in on the duct tape, it just flowed from there. I moved some bites around, but really the structure all flowed from the duct tape idea. Best of all I think the audience could learn something from the story, and it was something that really sticks with you, pardon the pun.”