Academic storytelling: how to make your experts sing

Avoid expert voices. It's something many audio doc producers are trained to do. But experts and academics can add value, context and even personality to documentaries — so long as your guests are produced with great thought and care.
Sam Fenn (left) and Gordon Katic are co-hosts of the Cited podcast, a documentary radio program about research and higher education.
Avoid expert voices. It's something many audio doc producers are trained to do. Documentaries are about people … people who are passionate, emotional and have personal stories to share. But experts and academics can add value, context and even personality to documentaries. So long as your guests are produced with great thought and care.

Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic produce Cited, it's a podcast out of the University of British Columbia about finding the human stories in academic research. Sam and Gordon brought us two documentaries over the past two weeks, both stories about sex offenders. Specifically, what it looks like to reintegrate a sex offender into society after they come out of prison. We've invited these guys here to talk about the backbone of these stories — academic research.

Listen to the podcast extra, or read through some of our favourite parts of Acey's interview with Sam and Gordon below.

ACEY ROWE: Sam, Gordon, you guys were able to turn academic research, something that is notoriously dry, into great storytelling. It's not an easy thing to do. Where I'd like to start is your collaboration. How did you guys team up?

SAM FENN: Well, I had a friend named Katie Fitzpatrick and she was a lit student and I was sending her, sort of obnoxiously bombarding her with comments about a YouTube video of Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault debating and saying, like, listen to this two hour YouTube video, half of which is in French and get back to me so we can have a conversation about it. And it's from, I think, the seventies, so it's an old video. And apparently Gordon, the same week, had done the same thing to her and she - sort of in frustration - said, well, I'm not going to watch this video but why don't the two of you meet up.


SF: But then when we met up we didn't really talk about Chomsky, we talked about WTF, like, the Marc Maron podcast. And it was right around the time when podcasting was sort of becoming this kind of, like, it wasn't what it is now. There was no Serial and my parents didn't listen to podcasts for instance but it was just becoming this medium that we thought was cool. And so that's what we spent our time talking about over beers when we did meet up.

AR: Did you decide in that first meeting to make a podcast together?

SF: I think we did actually.

The 'Exiled' series

Part 1: Exiled in the U.S.: studying sex offenders at the Boardwalk Motel 
Listen →

Part 2: Exiled in Canada: a sex offender finds refuge with Mennonites
Listen →

GORDON KATIC: I can't remember exactly when we decided that we would but it happened pretty quickly. And then I don't even think we really understood what the podcast was going to be about for, well, quite a long time. But, you know, over the course of making it for a few years, we realized that there's so many stories to tell about research, about academia itself. Stories that we weren't seeing, generally, with the kind of depth that we wanted to tell them. So we just kind of saw this opportunity. And this podcast that started off as more of a kind of discussion show about the day's events with experts became a documentary show about what it is to be an expert and what kind of research counts, what kind of research doesn't count and how that research is made.

AR: Right. So why tell stories about the academic world, what hooked to you?

GK: Well, I mean, I think there's a couple of things. One thing that appeals to us about it is that it is actually good storytelling. Sort of, you know, contrary to what you might sort of think, every academic is kind of a detective in and they are people who tend to be singularly focused on one question. They can be kind of obsessive sometimes. When they're wrong it's interesting, when they're right it's interesting. And the process of them uncovering truths about the world, we find that interesting. I mean, and then at the same time, there was a prime minister at the time who wasn't, who, you know, in public statements was pretty dismissive of social science in particular. Prime Minister Harper used to talk all the time about not wanting to do sociology was a statement he would he would make. And so we felt like doing a show about politics that was informed by academic research was kind of relevant. And it feels more relevant now that there's the United States has a president-elect that thinks global warming might be a Chinese hoax. So those were some of the major reasons, I think.

AR: Right, a lot of this research it's timely, it's relevant. But, you know, to challenge what you said a minute ago about how all you need from an expert is their passion, sometimes that's true, but a lot of the time in radio we're told to avoid experts because even if they know their stuff they can be pretty boring. And for a lot of listeners they need someone who is a real person, I guess, to connect with these larger ideas. So what is it about your approach to experts that helps make them sing?

SF: You know, I don't know that we have any secrets. I think you're right though that people in academia speak like wonks. And they have their own kind of internal lingo and an esoteric language that they want to heap upon you. And the truth is you just need a little bit of time with them, you need to kind of coach them and tell them what it is you're looking for. And it's not always the best for, you know, quick hit daily radio, but if you spend a couple of weeks on a project with someone, you do tend to start getting some stuff out of them. I think one of the lessons that we both learned when we started was that we, you know, we thought we were the brightest people in the room constantly and so we would read the research and we would read all, a bunch of supplementary reading, and we tried to get on the phone and start showing off about how smart we are too.

SF: And not only probably did we sound like idiots but also it signals to the person that OK, we want to wonk out right now and then they do follow your lead. So instead if you set a tone of this is going to be accessible, people eventually get it after you ask the same question a few times.

GK: And I think another reason why academics seem boring on TV and the radio is because of the way we use academics on TV and the radio. So normally you have your characters right? So drug users or people in prison or activists or whatever, and those are the people who are pushing the story along. And then you bring in an expert and that's a person who kind of, like, drops some wisdom in the middle of it and gives you some context. And context and wisdom can be boring. But one of the things we like to do on the show or has become kind of a staple of Cited, is to let the character, the people you would think of as characters, have wisdom that they tell us from their own experiences and then have the academics have stories. So to make them into real people, whose motivations and families and trials and tribulations are as real as what's happening with the characters. And I think that goes some way to solving the boring problem.

AR: One of my favorite parts in the first doc, Exiled in the U.S., is when Reg goes with Chris Dum who's the researcher, actually to the university. I love it because it makes it so real when that happens. I feel like it's this idea that academia is this safe bubble, looking down on the world and studying it. But when Reg actually is in that university, it totally levels the playing field. And this is something you guys do a lot. You examine the moments when the academic world rubs up against the rest of society. Why do those moments interest you so much?

GK: I think it's also like a more honest take on what it means to be an expert. Like, we don't, Cited doesn't just champion expertise and say oh these are all the smart people and if we just listen to them then, you know, the answers to all of our problems will be found there. It's about the politics of their expertise and how that rubs up against the experiences and the wisdom, like Sam was saying, of the characters they study. I love that moment too because it was Reg saying that I'm not just going to be a research subject, I'm actually like a living, breathing being and we're going to be friends and we're going to be honest to each other.

AR: Yeah, he refused to be a lab rat and he went right into Chris's world.

GK: Exactly. And Chris's study was so much better. I mean, he probably wouldn't have had one if not for Reg, to be perfectly honest. I mean, Reg led him into this world. Reg described it, Reg introduced him to all the other people he needed to meet and ultimately the wisdom that seeps through in his book and in the documentary itself, a large part of it comes from people like Reg, also Darrell, Chris too. But I think the reason why the book and the documentary were so good is because he really did let those people speak. I think we're also just kind of interested in the politics of what counts as good research or research that we ought to listen to. I think part of the reason why we even got interested in the sex offender angle was we were setting out to do some reporting about criminal justice research and we started making calls with our research partners and advisors and other people that are experts in the field and one of the questions that we kept asking was, well, where's the biggest discrepancy between academic expertise and the evidence base, versus kind of the public discourse and the dialogue. And, you know, time and time again they said sex offender policy is where, like, there's just this big huge chasm. And so that's one of the things that we like to tease out in our stories [is] You know, who are the researchers that are ignored, who are the researchers that are embraced?

AR: Right, where research doesn't end up getting reflected in policy.

SF: Yeah. And there's something about sex offenders. You know, Robin Wilson is articulate about this too, where he says there's something sort of so morally shocking about the crime, that we have a really hard time talking about it in a rational way. And that's not to, and that's totally understandable. I mean, it makes sense that we have trouble talking about it rationally and the experts in the field understand this. I don't think they look down on the public for not, you know, not having any kind of evidence based understanding of what it is to be a sex offender and how reintegration works and what risk factors are, and that sort of thing. So it's this interesting puzzle that they're working through how to communicate their controversial ideas to the public. And in order for Chris to do that, he needs Reg's help, which is which is great. And the other thing I like about that scene, and I agree with both of you that I think it's a great scene, is that just to the extent that the documentary is a buddy cop movie, you've got these two completely different types of people. The way they talk couldn't be more different. And you're starting to see the kind of germ of a friendship form and who doesn't like that?

AR: [chuckles] Something you mentioned a minute ago that I wanted to ask you about is that these two docs do something that is rare and a bit uncomfortable. And that is that they ask the listener to make space for, even empathize with sex offenders. And I'm not going to pretend that I didn't struggle with that, even myself, when listening to these docs. But how did you guys think about that going through them? Did the fact that it was, you know, just a fact based academic approach help?

SF: Yeah, for me it did. I had trouble sleeping while I was in Regina because the conversations I was having with Michael, our main character, were so intense and they were so clearly troubling him. And I was struggling with how I was going to represent him on the radio, what it was going to do to him and to the other people I was meeting and Regina. And it did help to read the papers and remind myself that the reason why I'm going through this process of empathy is because, not because it's easy, but because empathy seems to be part of the key to unlock a solution to this social problem that we're dealing with. So I don't think any one of these people would tell you that we need to hand-wave away the seriousness of the crime, that we need to like, deeply like the people who commit these crimes. But having a kind of a, but refusing to look at it and refusing to see them as human beings is making everyone less safe. Which is why I find the Mennonites at the centre of the story I told to be kind of moral heroes because they figured that out before any researcher told them it was true and they did something about it.

GK: Yeah, the only thing I would have to add to Sam's really eloquent answer to that is one of the researchers I spoke to, Lisa Sample, specializes in studying sex offenders as well. And she told me, look, if these are the people that you hate the most, that you're afraid of the most, shouldn't we know something about them? Like, that's what you have to do. And it's really really hard. It's hard for journalists and it's even harder for someone who just makes that their living and does it day to day. But it's something you have to do.

AR: Yeah, listening to those Mennonites especially, I remember thinking a number of times I could never do what they do but I am glad that they are out there doing it. To go back to dealing with academics in a narrative sense.

AR:  Two more things for you. First, what are some of your tips for producers to keep in mind when interviewing experts?

SF: Well, OK, so there are a few really good ones. The first is to not prioritize single studies over bodies of research. So what that means is that not that you need to get a Ph.D. in sociology to do journalism about sociology, but you should ask questions that get your interviewee to put their work in the kind of wider context of other people's work. That's how academics think about their papers. They think of it as a kind of one data point, kind of, you know, bobbing in a sea of other data points. And so you should do that.

AR: So what does a question like that sound like? What would you say?

SF: Well, you could ask you, could get them to describe their paper and then ask them, like, who, you know, who sees this differently? What were you reading that informed this? Those kinds of questions tend to get them talking about it in a wider context. There's some other, Gordon, what do you like to?

GK: I think don't be afraid of methodology, don't be afraid of investigating how the researcher discovered what they discovered. To go back to Sam's point, that's sort of the detective work of research and that can be interesting. If you take the audience through that, you might actually find that there's a bit of narrative there.

So what did you set out to find, how did you go about doing it? What were some of the struggles along the way? You'll often find that the methodology they describe in the end product doesn't encapsulate all of the failed earlier attempts and the different, like, zany ideas they tried in the past. So that's one way. I think another thing is to not forget that the academic is a real person and probably, you know, is devoting their lives to it for a reason that is meaningful. So ask them about why they're doing what they're doing, where they're coming from. Yeah.

SF: Don't go clip hunting. So we hear people complain about journalists, or academics complain about journalists a lot, and their complaint is always that, you know, there's a story about, let's say there's a story about there's a lot of drug overdoses happening in Vancouver right now. And so someone will go talk to a medical researcher and they will ask leading questions to get them to make some sort of usually political, but, you know, some kind of, like, good tape.

AR: Sound bite, the sound bite.

SF: And I think, like, don't sandwich the academic into 20 seconds to kind of bolster something a character says.

GK: That's probably our biggest gripe when we see academics in short news pieces. They tend to be kind of credentializing the point of the piece. And the fact is you can always find an academic to bolster whatever claim you make because--

SF: Yeah, often a really stupid claim.

GK: Yeah, exactly. So I wouldn't like to use an academic just to kind of add evidence to the thrust of the piece that I've already produced. That's kind of one deadly sin of reporting on academia. Because like Sam said, studies are diverse, researchers are diverse. There are broad bodies of knowledge that may, like, lead towards certain conclusions but you can still find a contrary opinion and if you want to you can present it.

SF: And I think the other thing is don't be afraid to ask an academic how confident they are that what they're telling you is true. Academics are--

AR: [interposing] That is really interesting, I have never heard of that before. That it's very clever. Go on. [chuckles]

SF: Because, they're, you know, they tend to be fairly, you know, fairly rigorous sorts of people who will say, you know, we haven't run. So there's a lot of research that Wilson talks about in the piece and on our podcast version we have a longer interview with Wilson that's running and he says, you know, we haven't done a randomized controlled trial, which means we can't tote, like, I wouldn't stake my life on the fact that this is true. I'm relatively sure because there have been these other studies done around the world that are pulling up kind of similar results but the sample size is not perfect. And so you get a sense of what, I think, often the role we want experts to play is to make everything into the gospel truth.

When usually they're the most aware of the murkiness and unknowability of the world.

AR: Right, so we've got to treat their research as fallible, in the same way that we have to treat them with the same kind of respect and attention that we would any other guest.

AR: I have one more question. It's age old. Where do you guys get your stories?

SF: It's too easy.

AR: They fall into your lap. [laughs]

SF: They do. We hear journalists talk about struggling to find stories all the time but this beat is enormous. You call people who are smarter than you and you say what's the story people aren't telling? That's how we got to sex offenders. You know, there's all this talk about criminal justice reform in the United States, a new kind of consensus, political consensus, saying we need to we need to roll back mass incarceration. And every time they do a study they find that a change to sex offender policy is one of the more straightforward ways of making a positive change. But nobody talks about it because it's politically toxic. And so we didn't know that, we're not just super smart people who, like, have things appear out of the ether to us, someone smarter than us who was in the field told us this is where you need to go. So just call smart people and ask them. You could spend 45 minutes and you have a, you know, a page worth of story ideas and anxiety about where to start.

AR: Gordon, Sam thank you guys so much.

GK: Thanks Acey.

SF: Thanks.


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