Confessions of a News Experience Virgin

Posted by Nancy Buffington, News Experience

So in late February my sister forwards me an email about Radio Boise’s News Experience. She lives in Montana now, but knows far more people in Boise than I (who spent the last couple decades wandering coast to coast) do.

“Have you ever wanted to be a reporter?” asks the email. Sure, ever since I wrote my last article for the Boise High newspaper back in 1981. “Do you have a juicy news story to pitch? An epic neighborhood struggle?“ Not exactly, but I’d love to learn about other people’s juicy stories and local scandals. I’m not ready to be a DJ, but I want to learn how to write and record for the radio. And I know Radio Boise will attract cool people I should meet (people my sister will probably already know).

So I show up at the first News Experience training in early March, at the Mennonite Fellowship in Boise’s North End. Lo and behold, the first person I see is Jack—a way-back old friend of my sister. And Diane—same story. Other folks are unfamiliar, but of course both cool and friendly in that characteristic Boise way.

First thing Nathaniel and Jeff have us do is pitch stories. We’re supposed to cover: What’s the story idea? Why would Radio Boise listeners care about it? Why should I do the story? I raise my hand and get called on first—ouch. I stand up and pitch my story about the new Idaho Women’s Business Center (WBC for short) that just opened in Boise.

Other people follow suit, and a range of stories emerges—Brian talks about a friend who just lost his job and now lives in a homeless shelter, Jeff about a woman running for political office. Diane updates us on the pending sale of the Armory, Dean about Forgiveness Studies, and Jack about a family with a gifted but chronically ill child whose house has been foreclosed on.

It’s clear that despite our interest in these and other stories, we don’t have the time or people to pursue them all—not yet at least. So after a vote (it’s democracy at work, people) we choose stories on the Women’s Business Center and the family facing foreclosure.

The group splits up to work on the two stories. My group has plenty of people, some interested in the story itself, and some Radio Boise tech experts who will help with production. Over pizza on the front steps of the building, we decide on our story angle—nothing juicy or scandalous, just an informational piece about a new resource for Idaho women. From here we figure out who to interview (the WBC Manager and a couple of their clients), generate questions to ask during interviews, and set up a tentative timeline. (Of course we didn’t know HOW tentative at the time…)

Final event of my first News Experience: my car, finally out of even gas vapors, refuses to start. Brian and I cement our new friendship when he drives me to the Stinker Station for gas, lends me his gas can, drives me back and refuses to leave until he’s sure my car starts again. Yes, Radio Boise people are indeed cool.

Sheila Spangler on a lovely spring day—NOT the day we interviewed her!

Next step: Brian and I interview the WBC’s Manager, Sheila Spangler. It’s early March, a nasty blowy day with blowing rain and snow. Not so cool for Brian, who has to park his van over a block away and truck over in his wheelchair. It’s my first-ever radio interview, and I learn that using mic and headphones is unsettling. Weird, hearing my own voice (which suddenly sounds high and nervous) through the headphones. I discover how much concentration it takes to really listen to someone’s answers, yet be ready with a reasonably articulate next question without awkward pauses to refer back to my list of questions. And you’d never think a mic would weigh much until you have to hold it a full arms-length away, directly under someone’s mouth, for forty-five minutes.

Sheila gives us a great, thorough interview with lots of information about the WBC and women’s business in Idaho. Even her voice gets hoarse by the time we ended. My feeling of minor victory—no major screw-ups! no tech difficulties!—fades as I realize how bleeping long it takes to TRANSCRIBE such a long interview. I find myself wishing yet again that I’d taken an actual typing class earlier in life.

Yvonne Anderson-Thomas at her Brown Shuga food truck

A couple days later, sans the intrepid Brian, my family and I trek out to Garden City so I can interview Yvonne Anderson-Thomas, owner of Brown Shuga Soul Food. Still new enough to be insecure with tech equipment, my 17-year-old makes sure the mic and recorder are fully operational, then leaves to finish his corned beef and collard greens while I interview Yvonne inside her trailer. We talk about the WBC and how she plans to use it; then I record “audio notes” (basically sound effects) of customers ordering, the cash register, and Yvonne wrapping up orders just before the recorder batteries die.

Last interview: Carrie Peterman of Sol Bakery on Hill Road. Brian’s back with me doing the tech so I’m feeling good about life. This time it’s Carrie who’s nervous since she’s never done anything like this—plus she’s in the middle of construction, hoping to open in a couple weeks. (Yes, she’s officially open as I write this!)

This helps ME relax—we start the interview just chatting about her kids, schools, life, until she feels better—and then I slide into the questions we’ve prepared. By this point I’ve also realized that I can make plenty of what I’d consider “mistakes” (uhs, ems, and various Terry Gross-sounding academic stutters) on my part since we can edit things out. Of course this helps me actually MAKE fewer mistakes.

We record sounds of the plumber installing pipes in Carrie’s kitchen. Somehow the audio file of the plumber disappears later, and we decide to practice ethical journalism and not create our own pseudo-plumber soundtrack later.

Carrie Peterman outside Sol Bakery

A few more hours of transcription later, Brian and I head to the Radio Boise studio for what we think is the next phase—sound editing! We spend a good three hours with Brian performing what seem like magic tricks with Adobe Audition, slowing down the audio recording to cut out ums, pauses, details we don’t need. It dawns on me that we may be wasting time here—why make it all pretty when we haven’t written a script yet and don’t actually know which sound bites we want?? One more lesson learned.

So I go home and generate a script draft over the next couple days. Though I write a lot, and have taught writing for … a long, long time … I realize I don’t have the “feel” of a radio story. How should I interweave my narration with the sound bites? Should I include big chunks from each interview, or blend them all together? How do I introduce quotes?

This is why we work in teams. I send out the draft to the group, and get lots of feedback from Nathaniel and Diane. Naturally they don’t share entirely the same opinions, so we go back and forth a few times (okay, I actually have 12 drafts on my laptop) until we’re all satisfied enough to go BACK to the studio for editing.

At this point Wendy and Daniel jump in to help (Brian’s editing a different story). In the studio we record my narration, sometimes needing 2-3 (okay, even 4) tries to get a section right. I’m used to reading out loud, but realize I need to decide how I want to sound for a radio audience. Am I going for a cool, laid-back Boise vibe? A professional NPR-clone sound? I settle for “the best I can do for now” sound—it’s enough of a challenge trying to read a script in dim light, through a large mesh “splatter guard” taped on the mic to cut down on “p” and “s” sounds.

Since our deadline is approaching (we want to air the news show during Radiothon, Daniel and I spend a couple hours going through the script and capturing sound bites from each interview. This is a little easier since I included time signatures on each transcript so we know roughly where to look in each audio file for the quotes we want. But it’s still a long, tedious process—especially since this is completely new to me and I’m really just there for moral support.

I have a feeling Daniel doesn’t sleep much this night, because he’s finished editing by the next day—and has spent at least eight hours in the process. He’s run out of time (aka energy) to add in some music we’d hoped to add at the end, but that will only matter to those of us behind the scenes.

The big day—the first news show on April 2, near the end of the fundraising week. Daniel and Brian co-host (a different Brian. Yes, there are FOUR Brians at Radio Boise. Go figure.), moving between live bits and the pre-recorded stories we’ve created. I still sound weird to myself on the radio, but I know most people feel that way, so I pretend not to cringe. The story sounds good, flows well—but it’s so long even I get bored! Funny that you get so close to each detail that you don’t hear the overall sound of the story until you’re done. Note to self for next story—get all the trees just right, but don’t forget about the forest.

So I’ve survived my first radio story tired but intact and happy, and am gearing up for the next project. Main things I’ve learned: do everything in the right order, ask for help when you need it, don’t bore your listeners (or yourself), and Radio Boise has an awesome community. Next time my sister visits I’ll have some cool new people to introduce HER to!

Listen to the entire broadcast here.

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