Reporting for the ear requires ‘a kind of fearlessness’

handing holding up microphones (Depositphotos)

By Christina MacGillivray

Share this story

People who live in disadvantaged communities are resigned to reporters dropping in to cover tragedy or systemic problems. But it’s important to cover the good times too, said Nashville Public Radio’s Meribah Knight. This makes people full characters and doesn’t reduce individuals to issues.

“Cover the times of joy and triumph,” Knight said when she joined four experienced investigative audio reporters June 16 for a session during the virtual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

The panel, “Investigative Reporting for The Ear,” was moderated by Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, a public radio veteran who has been “in public radio probably before it was a thing.” Charles Lane of Connecticut Public Radio, Oliver-Ash Kleine of Translash Media’s Co-Founder and Knight offered tips and advice.  

Knight played a section of tape from her show the Promise, an immersive series about inequality and the people trying to rise above it. In Season 2, Knight looked at public education and race through the story of one elementary school. What conference attendees heard was a young boy named BJ, who lived in a public-housing complex near the school. BJ’s school had finally become a recipient of much needed federal resources to transform it into a magnet school. The audience heard BJ at a moment of triumph when he shared his first-quarter report card with his family after years of struggling at school. His family had promised him $1 for each A earned. BJ had aced his report card. “I got one, two, three, four, five dollars. No C’s or nothing,” he said with glee.

“We spend a lot of time analyzing patterns and assigning numbers to people,” Knight said. “I wanted to show that any kid can thrive when given the resources they need.”

By the time she gathered this piece of tape with BJ, Knight had already spent years immersed in the neighborhood, including her reporting for the Promise Season One. This sustained time on the ground enabled her to capture intimate moments.

“To be able to get that moment of tape, it took a long time to get to know his family, even to get to know the layout [of the house],” she said. Before BJ ran into the house with his report card, Knight had mapped where he would enter so she could be ready to capture the moment with her mic. 

“With audio, the difference is you have to be there with the mic. You can’t have the scene if it’s not on the mic,” Knight said.

Finding moments of joy is good for the listener too, Kleine said. They created the series the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, which relied in part on  audio diaries, to examine policy issues surrounding institutionalized trans hate and the individuals impacted by it. 

Subjects were asked to record and submit their own tape. Audio diaries enable subjects to share intimate moments in their own space and on their own terms, Kleine said.

She shared a portion of the show recorded as an audio diary in which  a young transperson in Alabama was getting ready for his first prom. “Oh my god, you look so handsome!” his mom said. “Look at you!”

“We are aiming to make people full people,” Kleine said. “Not one-note trauma porn.”

Radio Requires A Kind of Fearlessness

Bringing an investigation to life in sound provides both a challenge and an opportunity.

“It is so different from print, where you can use writing and extract pull quotes and create a scene,” Diaz-Cortes said. “In radio it is quite different. There is a kind of fearlessness to it.”

The idea that good tape comes to you is a myth, Diaz-Cortes said. Those hours of time in a community — armed with equipment — are crucial. Unlike print reporting, where you can at times observe from a distance, radio requires equipment that makes you  stand-out in the community. Hundred, if not thousands, of hours of tape can be required to compose a series. Patience and stubbornness are crucial.

Diaz-Cortes suggested three elements make a good investigative audio scene:

  • Action: Gathering the foundational building blocks of a scene.
  • Emotion: Hearing someone’s voice in a way that is not replicable in reading, including pauses, breath and tenor.
  • Pay-Off and Satisfaction: Piecing together the elements that make an audience pause, reflect and continue listening.

Reporting on Your Own Reporting

In a film, the director might show the reporter pacing to demonstrate the labor of gathering information, Diaz-Cortes said. But in audio, reporters need to be creative, and one way is to report on your own reporting. This includes letting the listener hear you reporting on the difficulty of gathering public records, making endless phone calls and constantly getting rejections.

Lane played a clip from his series Everytown, which documented the lives of individuals at the BelAir Motel in Southampton, New York, in order to zoom into issues of immigration.

In the excerpt, he questions a school official about the school’s involvement in the BelAire Motel. The official stonewalls Lane. “Why is it so important to keep the school’s involvement in the BelAire secret?” Lane asks.

Next, Lane emails the school press office, but the office will not agree to an in-person interview. Nor will anyone else respond to his questions. His only recourse is to file a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to public records. Lane files not one but 50 public-records requests; the total exercise included 20,000 emails. The school is clearly irritated with him.

“I have no desire to speak to you,” the school’s assistant superintendent writes to Lane, who reads the letter aloud for listeners. “Do not contact me again.”

When reviewing public records for an audio investigation, he said to be on the lookout for telling details that make the characters in the documents recognizable as real people. These personal characteristics are what listeners will latch onto.

“Try to bring the characters out of the documents and let them have personalities,” he said. “Be on the lookout for details that pop.”

More stories from the IRE annual conference