Cleveland Stater, lesson learned

Here’s a full-pager from my first stint with The Cleveland Stater in summer 2013.  This one is notable for me for two reasons.  Firstly, it was the first time i ever “officially” covered an event, so it was fun to tell the people at the gate i was part of the press.  If i recall correct they said not to take photos or recordings or something like that…both of which i did 😉  After the presentation was given by the hosts of RadioLab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, they were standing around shaking hands and talking with members of the audience who’d stuck around.  Feeling emboldened, i told them i was from the university newspaper and asked if i could talk to them for a few minutes and ask some questions.  They had to check with their producer, who had to call the home office for an okay.  Once that was done they let me back into the green room with the guys and we spoke for about 30 minutes.  It was really quite exciting for me.  During the show, they had a quasi-announcement about their new live show that would start touring soon, and i was able to ask a bit about that.  Since it wasn’t officially announced yet, their producer asked that we not mention it in the story but, since the publication date came just after their planned announcement (which i explained) she said it was okay.  That made it especially exhilarating for me, because it meant i’d actually sort of gotten a scoop!

The inset box was an idea i’d come up with because another staff reporter i guess had decided to show up and cover the event as well.  If i’m honest, i felt like my article would turn out stronger and, as it turns out, on press day she’d arrived with only a piece that wasn’t even as long as the inset turned out to be.  So we fixed it up a bit and stuck it in there.  A few cuts had to be made to my piece to fit it – as you may or may not know brevity ain’t exactly my thang – but overall i like the way it turned out.  Working on this also taught me a valuable lesson in reporting: it can’t hurt to approach people and ask to speak with them, whether or not they’re “famous” or whatever.  Some of that i’d begun to learn already right here on my blog through success getting interviews with people like Jim Mahfood and Chad Zumock.  But those were arranged ahead of time via emails and whatnot.  Here, i just walked right up to them and the results were positive.

Another reason i enjoyed this particular assignment was because i got to layout the entire page as well, which included the photos i took.  The headline and deck head were ones that i came up with that remained unchanged throughout the editing process, plus i got to throw in a nice pull-out quote.  To top it all off, i got the entirety of page 2 all to myself.

i added the body of the story below this image, since it has a jump and it’s pretty difficult to read this converted PDF image online, too.

The page as it originally appeared in The Cleveland Stater, volume 14, issue 17 on 6.27.13. Click the image to check out the online version at the Stater website.

“From now on, when we think creative voices we’ll think Radiolab.”

Attendees of the 2013 Creative Voices Summit, held on June 11, were left with those words following a presentation by the hosts of the Peabody Award-winning radio program and podcast Radiolab. The show’s hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, visited Cleveland to share a behind-the-scenes look at what makes their program tick. During the hour-and-a-half presentation they gave the audience an insider’s view into the creative decisions that led up to Radiolab’s inception and how a show is put together.

The event, produced by a collaboration between the the nonprofit educational organization ideastream and Radiolab, was held at the Idea Center at Playhouse Square. Through a partnership between WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN, the Idea Center stands as an edifice to both creativity and education. The innovative and technology-based facility on Cleveland’s main cultural corridor serves both ideastream and the Playhouse Square Foundation’s art education programs.

Audience members familiar with the program’s distinctive audio production style may have been there simply as fans of the show. Some in attendance might have hoped for a glimpse into the creative decision-making process. But everyone in the Westfield Insurance Studio was treated to a meta-event when the guys from Radiolab revealed that the summit itself was part of their creative process.

The audience would become part of that process. “We’re going to actually experiment on you,” Krulwich said.

With a decades-long career as a journalist on both radio and television, Krulwich is known for his inventiveness and ability to convey complex information in a way that’s understandable. The meaning behind his cryptic announcement would become clearer throughout the presentation.

Krulwich’s co-host – radio host and producer Jad Abumrad – explained the dilemma the two faced when first developing what would become Radiolab. The two struck up a friendship through a chance meeting and began meeting regularly for breakfast. Their conversations were a free-flowing exchange, one of the signatures of their
“How do you tell a story that’s composed with a lot of science, but that moves quickly and has the architecture you want and keeps the energy that was there at the diner?” Abumrad said.

They found their answer embedded in Abumrad’s audio work. As a trained musician he approaches storytelling like a piece of music. The beat and tempo of a voice, the lifts, lulls and even silence combine to reveal the most fun parts of a story. Musical accompaniment is what defines each Radiolab program.

“At first it’s just two guys talking,” Abumrad said. “Then the music creeps in and suddenly something different happens right there. It’s two guys seducing everyone listening.”

The idea is that the spoken word is a form of music. The coughs, laughs, giggles and interruptions are the rhythms and beats of life. They contribute to explaining the complex, dense, difficult and technical science.

“The music and the sense of the argument, if they are well matched, turn the argument into steel,” Krulwich said.

To illustrate this point, the two shared a segment from the show “Musical Language.” The clip demonstrated the concept of speech-to-song illusion discovered by Diana Deutsch, a British- American perceptual and cognitive psychologist.

While preparing the commentary for her CD “Musical Illusions and Paradoxes,” Deutsch left the room while an audio loop continued to play. After a few minutes she heard singing. But it wasn’t singing at all – the spoken words had transformed into music. And once that shift occurs in the brain, it sticks. So it was with audience members who quietly hummed along to the same seductive song-words heard by Deutsch on that day:

“Sometimes behave so strangely…”

The convergence of the human voice and music was a success. What had been a routine editing session became an experiment in sound and the nature of music; what had been a presentation about creative decision making became an experiment in making creative decisions.

Abumrad informed the audience that their participation at the summit was part of their plan to develop a plan for a live Radiolab show.

“We’re going to run through a dry read of a story that we’re working on,” Abumrad said. “You guys will be the very first humans who will hear this.”

Far from dry, the story revealed new scientific information about the day of “Dinopocalypse.” Modern science suggests that the age of dinosaurs literally ended in the span of an afternoon.

Sprinkled throughout the telling were moments of participation from both the audience and Radiolab’s production team, who acted as fill-ins for a sound effects crew that will be part of the live show. Audio clips – what Abumrad described in the past as “jaggedy sounds, little plurps and things, strange staccato, percussive things” – enhanced the story. Also presented was a fully-costumed version of the “hypothetical placental mammal.” Scientists theorize that this creature began to diversify into new species of mammals following the demise of dinosaurs.

The creature’s official name is Schrëwdinger, chosen by way of a voting contest after the decision of what to call it was given to Radiolab producer and Ohio native Molly Webster.

Following the read-through, Krulwich and Abumrad collected notecards from the audience on which they provided feedback on what was essentially a rough rehearsal. They also fielded questions from the audience. The last of these, and most appropriate, was in regards to creative decisions in balancing the narrative elements and the science involved in the Radiolab show.

“What does a scientist do, really?” Krulwich said. “A scientist tells him or herself a story, and then tests it. It’s storytelling in a very specific way, but I don’t believe they are two different worlds.”

“We give a voice to things that have no voice,” Abumrad said. “They are separate endeavors, but the fun is balancing the tension between them.”

The Radiolab live show will come to Cleveland on October 4 at the State Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at the Playhouse Square box office and online.

One comment

Leave a Reply