Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Radio 101

Yesterday, I recorded my first installment for Vermont Public Radio's Commentaries series. I have wanted to be a part of this program for a long time, particularly as I get to write about the Upper Valley, and what makes this place so special. I wanted my first piece to be a departure from the education and parenting topics I usually cover, so I went with dairy farming and underwear. I figure that's about as 180 as I can go...although dairy farming requires some serious grit. 

My education in milking at Robie Farm happened a while ago, but it provided great fodder for my first 500-word piece. The producer of the Commentaries series, Betty Smith-Mastaler, liked the essay and invited me in to the VPR studio in Norwich (under the King Arthur Bakery!) to record it as an audition piece. I've done radio before, and as I read to my students often, I figured I had the chops to lay that baby down in one take.

But that pesky producer, she had her own opinion on my chops.

Consequently, I spent about a half an hour in Radio 101, taught by Professor Smith-Mastaler. I mentioned this to some of my writer friends, and they asked me to share the wisdom of Professor Smith. So here goes. Radio 101.

First, word count. I already understood the importance of word count, but when an editor or a periodical's submission guidelines page instructs me to aim for 800 words, I can submit 793 or 810 and no one will blink an eye. So when I submitted my piece to Professor Smith-Mastaler at 517 words, I figured I was all set. Not so, she said. In radio, every word is time, and Commentaries has a hard time wall of 3:14. I can cut the piece or she will cut the piece. My choice.

I cut the piece. Killed those darlings until they numbered 497. I thought about adding an "and" or a "however," but figured I was close enough if I was under by a word or two. Or three.


I've done speeches before, and figured I'd bump up the font size a bit for easier reading. While my instinct was right, that only got me part of the way to formatting perfection, radio-wise. Professor Smith-Mastaler sent me some additional tips that would help me read more clearly and fluently.

  1. Always bring the text to the studio. This particular studio has issues with wireless internet, so don't assume you can read off of a screen or print out at the studio. 
  2. Bring two copies, one for you, one for the producer, who will need to take notes on what needs to be re-recorded and if changes are made to the text during recording, she will need to mark up the copy. 
  3. The eye's natural scan width is four inches, so drag the right-hand margin over to 4. The text will look weird, but it really is easier to scan when you are in front of a microphone and a little bit nervous. 
  4. Use 16 point type, and if possible, choose the font used by the series. Commentaries uses Times New Roman. At least I knew that one. One point for me. 
  5. Page numbers should got at the top of the page rather than the bottom. The producer will be referring to them and it's easiest to find them quickly at the top of the page, in the upper right-hand corner. 
  6. Double space after every sentence. There's a reason for this that I will go to in the next section. 
  7. Eliminate all sentence breaks at the bottom of the page. Either shift entire paragraphs down to the next page or raise them up, but make sure the page ends on a terminal punctuation mark. You will be moving the pages after a pause at the end of each page, so you want to make sure you are at a good spot for a long pause. 

Once you get to the studio, hand the producer her copy. She'll likely offer water, but just in case, bring your own. My students have given me a cold, so I had a cup of tea before I arrived.

At VPR, the text goes on a music stand at face height, one page at a time. I laid mine out two pages at a time, thinking I was helping, but I was asked to put it back the way it was, with only one page on the top. When you shift your gaze at all, it changes your distance to the microphone and changes the volume.

While the producer is setting things up, go ahead and warm up. read the first page and just get your tongue working. Before you really get rolling, make sure that you get over the idea that you will be able to nail it in the first take. Not gonna happen.

Professor Smith-Mastaler let me go through it once without stopping me, but I think that was just to allow me to warm up and build my confidence. I thought it sounded pretty good, but again, I was deluded.

She told me that everyone gets very serious when they step in front of a microphone. She mentioned how animated I had been when I arrived and asked me to return to my baseline. Find the personality and lose the dour.

She then filled me in on the reason for the double spacing and a trick I have filed away as the most important tip of the day. She read my first page to me twice while I was watching. The first time, she did not look at me through the glass (she was in the production room, I was in a recording room). The second time, she looked up at me at the end of my paragraphs. The difference was amazing. Her voice...well, it changed somehow, and I felt as if she was talking to me.

She reminded me that people listen to the radio in noisy places - the car, the office, etc. - and I have to reach out and tap them on the shoulder, let them know I am talking to them, telling them a story. Somehow, looking at the producer allows the voice to become personal. Who knows why, but it was an obvious difference.

She told me to imagine the story when I read it. Imagine what it felt and smelled like when I peeled off my poopy, smelly clothing in the mudroom, shat the scrape of the cat's tongue felt like in my palm. And again, she was right. The reading was more vivid. The images shone through much more brightly.

We went through the entire essay twice, and then looped back around to the bits that needed what she called "gloss," or a special something. What words to hit, what pacing to give the parallel construction. She gave me the freedom to re-write the text, but in the end we stuck with what I had on the page.

The entire session took about 45 minutes, but I left with what felt like a semester's worth of knowledge in my head and a list of ideas for my next commentary.

And next time I won't feel like such a rube.

Thank you, Professor Smith-Mastaler, for a great first class.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe no one commented on this yet.

    Well done! I have just the slightest and most cursory experience with recording. It is NOT as easy as it sounds. Of course, that's the idea. It should sound easy, even when it's not.

    Good on you for getting the gig. Good on you for accepting the invitation. And good on you for getting it done. I hope I get the chance to hear you.