“A good podcast must let you feel the weight of journalism behind it,” says Amanda Aronczyk, journalist at WNYC, New York’s flagship public radio station
Amanda is speaking at the upcoming India editions of the Digital Identities workshop powered by Google News Initiative. In this post, she reflects on the challenges and opportunities from the convergence of news reporting and storytelling.
Hi Amanda, tell us a bit about yourself:
I’m a Canadian, from Toronto and I love working in radio. I was drawn to it because I was a huge music fan, and my ears are probably the closest route to my heart. My first venture into radio was in high-school, working for two punk rock DJs at CIUT, the campus/community radio station. This led me to public radio and I’ve been working for WNYC, New York’s flagship public radio station, on and off since 2001. My focus is science and medicine and my stories have appeared on NPR, the BBC, CBC and other broadcasters. I also teach at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
“The exponential growth (of podcasts) brings new challenges… the pressure to keep the story compelling is much higher”
What’s it like to work in public radio?
I was lucky to start at a public radio show that was experimenting a lot with format, so it included reporting and drama and comedy, it was a real mix. Back then, aside from This American Life, this kind of narrative radio didn’t really exist elsewhere until the proliferation of podcasts. The exponential growth of this format brings new challenges. For instance, people can change what they’re listening to so easily, there are so many choices. We also have access to fairly sophisticated metrics, so it’s possible to know exactly when the listener has switched off. As a result, the pressure to keep the story compelling is much higher.
How are you responding to these pressures?
I wouldn’t call myself a digital early adopter (although I adore Twitter and new ways of engaging audiences), much of my response has been to become a better storyteller. I’m constantly looking at other media, especially television and films, to explore new narrative forms. Some of these techniques seem counter intuitive to standard news reporting. Take the case of withholding a key piece of information till the very end of a story — if you’ve withheld the main point in a radio news story, you’ve messed up. I’ve used this technique in the past, but it only works when you take the listener on an interesting journey. I also feel it’s important to be playful and to be be constantly experimenting.
“Typically, we communicate the results of scientific research. It was quite unconventional to work with researchers to explore an hypothesis in the field of biopolitics.”
What’s been your most ambitious narrative for radio so far?
Stories are always challenging in different ways. But one story stands out for the strangeness of the challenges. This time last year, we were working on a story to understand the impact of the election on our stress levels. We collaborated with a neuroscientist and political scientist to conduct an experiment with members of the public.
Typically, we communicate the results of scientific research, but this case, we were more like research partners, and that provided such an interesting behind-the-scenes take on science for us. There were moments when we had to step out of our comfort zone, like collecting saliva samples during debate watch parties, so that the scientists could measure changes in cortisol, which is an indicator of stress. But I feel this helped us tell a meaningful story as well as take our listeners on a unique journey. A video (made by my colleagues Elaine Chen and Julia Longoria) was picked up by Upworthy so it ended up doing quite well.
“Emotion is like a gas pedal in a car: it’s easy to go too fast and try to make people feel things before they’re ready.”
How important is it for listeners to make
an emotional connection with your stories?
Emotion is like a gas pedal in a car: it’s easy to go too fast and try to make people feel things before they’re ready. We want people to feel a variety of emotions, but you have to be careful because the line between feeling genuine and manipulative is really thin.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m working at Radiolab and my job is going through their archive to contextualise their stories in a new way. For instance, in August we produced an update on one of host, Jad Abumrad’s first stories, about the Voyager space probes to coincide with the total solar eclipse in the US. For that story I interviewed Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan. It was the fortieth anniversary since the launch of the two probes, and it’s really amazing: we’re still talking to them.
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“A radio news story is like a haiku, extremely short and extremely thinned. Whereas for a podcast, you don’t have any constraints, but you can’t sound like a newsperson.”
Working as a radio journalist and podcaster,
is it a case of wearing two very different hats?
Absolutely. Now that I have to keep flipping between the two roles, I’m starting to see the difference. As a radio journalist my voice and the the pace of the story is very different. A radio news story is like a haiku, extremely short and extremely thinned. Whereas for a podcast, you don’t have any constraints, but you can’t sound like a newsperson. You need to be approachable but your story still needs to have the weight of journalism behind it.
Since 2016, we’ve engaged more than a hundred journalists from eight countries through the Digital Identities workshop powered by Google News Initiative. The combined reach of the experiments conducted by participants is over a 100 million. Click here to find out more.