When you’re self-employed you have to take control of your own professional development. Nobody is going to send you to a conference or offer to train you on new skills. When money is tight and you’re busy running your business it’s easy to let months, even years, go by without investing in yourself. This year I’m working on changing that. There’s so much to learn!
So on Thursday evening, I attended a workshop at the Podcast Garage in Boston. This community recording studio and education hub is run by PRX, the founders of Radiotopia , and the workshop was taught by Davia Nelson of The Kitchen Sisters. If you’ve ever listened to NPR and heard a segment called Lost & Found Sound, or Hidden Kitchens, you’ve heard Davia and her partner, Nikki Silva’s, work.
Nikki and Davia, The Kitchen Sisters.
There were 25 of us in the class and each person had a show they were currently making or wanted to make. I found it fascinating to hear what everyone was working on. Their shows were about the future, the Episcopal church, children’s libraries, teacher’s unions, bartending, caregiving, and engineering education, plus me with a sewing show.
The kind of audio that Davia produces is very different from the While She Naps podcast. It’s sound stories with layers of music and ambient sound from the environment. I have a very straightforward interview show and the majority of my episodes are recorded remotely through Skype. Still, there was so much to learn from Davia when it comes to interviewing and creating a fulfilling audio experience for listeners. I felt like I was in a graduate school seminar.
One of Davia and Nikki’s mottos is “Say everything out loud. Someone around you has what you’re looking for.” I love this idea on many levels. We’re often so guarded with our ideas, fearful that if we say them out loud someone will take them from us. And we’re also often hesitant to ask for help, as though needing help is a sign of our insufficient skills or our unworthiness for the task. “People will help you,” Davia assured us. “Enlist their help. There are usually more people who hold a story than you think.” That’s golden advice.
Davia recommended a series of interview questions that help elicit colorful, detailed stories from people. Here are a few”
- “What do you only you know about this?”
- “Paint a picture of the situation. Walk me through that. What was running through your head?”
- “What did you come home and tell your spouse/family about that day?”
- “How did you know you got it right? How did you know you blew it?”
- “What keeps you up at night?”
- “What didn’t I ask you that I should have?”
She recommended ending by asking, “Who else should I talk to for this story?”
Music is an important part of the audio stories the Kitchen Sisters tell and often Davia will ask her guests to sing. To set them at ease, she’ll start by singing a bar or two of a song she knows they know, then they’ll sing together, and then she’ll drop off and let them sing alone. Even if it’s just a verse, that bit of song makes powerful audio. Hearing this gave me encouragement to include song snippets in my podcast and you’ll hear one in the next episode! She also encouraged us to ask people if they have any recorded sound from the time in their lives you’re talking about that they could share with you.
A big part of getting a successful interview is taking charge of the situation and we discussed how to impart confidence. Arrive early and arrange the room. Never interview someone who is sitting behind a desk. If you’re outside, put your back to the wind. Hold the mic below the person’s face. Get practice approaching strangers.
Davia emphasized that listening is the hardest part. She prepares a list of questions before each interview but then keeps it in her bag until the very end. That way she can really listen and maintain eye contact, then check to see if she missed anything. It’s important to research your guests thoroughly, but also to not show off how much you know by telling their story for them. Let them tell the story. She also said that as an interviewer you need to be a joyful, compelling person to be with.
Don’t turn off the recorder until you’re out the door and down the block. Davia says people often relax and start saying the perfect thing right after the interview is over and I’ve definitely found this to be true. If you have a reluctant guest, saying “I just have one more question” will put them at ease and help them relax knowing it’s almost over.
Send the people you interview a thank you note. I’ve done this a few times and never regretted it (especially the note I sent after recording with Nancy Zieman just a few months before she died.)
Davia ended by sharing another of the Kitchen Sisters’ mottos: God loves radio – panic ye not. By this, I think she meant to have faith that you’ll get great tape. When you love what you’re making and you persist, things seem to work out.
I certainly don’t have an NPR show, and I’m not going to win national radio production awards for the While She Naps podcast, but I do love making it and want it to be as good as I can get it. This workshop was so motivating and I will carry forward what I learned into my next episodes.