By law, we must listen to NPR here in Oregon.
OK, I’m kidding. But we do like NPR up this way.
But it’s pretty clear that a good number of the reporters and correspondents, especially from the NPR mothership, are pretty good storytellers. From what I understood, during my time in radio, there is a great deal of coaching of this talent. It’s not just about the words being read, it’s about that unique signature that can make NPR (especially news) have a more cohesive, human feel.
Having good training helps. But there are some people who are just born with the natural gift of telling stories well. In our industry, we just love throwing around the “s” word. It’s incredibly prevalent, but rings hollow when we mistake actual storytelling for selling in another kind of wrapper. Don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty damn fine storytellers that grace the halls of our hallowed institution, but there are some who just suck you in like a magnet because they are just that good.
A little context. I’ve been doing voice work since the mid-90s. I am also an audio producer. I’ve been on both sides of the glass — a unique place to be to see, and hear, the entire spectrum of audio both intended to sell and tell a story. So I am a little more in tune with not just the basics, like the delivery, but the nuance that makes the difference between just reading something into a microphone and actually making a vocal impact.
Back to NPR. Those of a certain age, meaning my 40-something set and up, have our NPR favorites. There’s the classic, pro delivery of Carl Kasell; the breezy, accessibility of Terry Gross; the laid back prominence of Corey Flintoff and the urgent, yet human delivery from Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne. All good storytellers. Very good.
However, on the drive this morning, I caught an interview with Wade Goodwyn, an NPR National Desk Correspondent who covers Texas and the surrounding states. The conversation was about the upcoming Texas gubernatorial primary. For the most part, political stories just kind of fly over my audio radar. It’s about facts, often presented either robotically or with the venom of 1,000 poisonous snakes (one of the stations at the radio group I worked for back in the day was a conservative talk station, so I know a little bit about this).
What did Goodwyn do with something that could be dull and dry? He made it, wait for it, engaging. Not the “engaging” we all must endure on the daily in our biz.
Actually, truly engaging. He told the story well.
But what, specifically, made the delivery so good?
1. There was no rushing.
Air talent is often timed out and there is a finite amount of audio real estate to cover. It lasts in a relative blink. But Goodwyn didn’t try to jam too much in. Sure, he has been doing this for a long time and knows how to feel time out. But I have heard veteran reporters try to fit 8 pounds of sausage into a 1 pound bag. It’s hard to follow.
2. No covering up the blemishes.
His NPR bio doesn’t tip it, but I can only assume that he is from Texas. We do know that he graduated from the University of Texas. Goodwyn doesn’t try to overly suppress his accent, but he doesn’t hide from it, either. There are some wonderful Texas affectations and pronunciations that add depth and layers to being a news professional. It’s not sloppy at all — it’s pure and honest.
3. A wide range and depth of experience.
Granted, he has been reporting for NPR since I graduated from college in 1991, but I can bet that his first report sounds nothing like today’s. I can sympathize. My first time on the air, I sounded like an 8-year old hyperventilating like Niles Crane if the foie gras wasn’t room temperature. Experience in the craft takes time, but experiences can also help from the beginning of the journey. Goodwyn covers and has covered so many different things, it’s hard not to have some perspective on the world.
4. His college major choice?
I had a high school History teacher who told us, “the great thing about history is that it happened and they are all stories, not just moments in time.” Goodwyn’s degree is in, ironically enough, history. “Professional” broadcasters, who are in it purely to “broadcast,” and who are training specifically for that are taught a number of tricks to “sound like” a broadcaster. That puking sound FM DJs make sometimes? Yeah, they were taught that. In Goodwyn’s case, and this may be a stretch, but I can only imagine that his major informed his point of view early.
5. A pro’s tonality.
After all of this, it still comes down to whether or not someone has the chops on the air. There is a still a lane to travel on the audio highway that dictates we are in professional broadcasting or audio and there is still an expectation by the audience that it will “sound” a certain way. Goodwyn never leaves the lane. He might head into the shoulder from time to time, but who hasn’t done that in their lives?
So what can our humble little industry learn through this lens? Just a few things to think about when you really want to create good storytelling. There is inspiration all around and it’s always a good idea to look, listen, think — and take a few notes along the way.
This post originally appeared at theawsc.com.