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Producer's notebook: how to craft your story, so you're not in it

On the phone with my mentor Alison Cook in Montreal, it's easy to picture her as something of a radio sorceress, full of the secrets to making radio magic. And one of the most important lessons she taught me was how to erase myself from the piece to create the most immersive experience we could.
Producer Karen Chen went on a ride along with parking enforcement officer, Kirsten Edgerton. (Karen Chen)
The first choice we made was to make me invisible.

On the phone with my mentor Alison Cook in Montreal, it's easy to picture her as something of a radio sorceress, full of the secrets to making radio magic. And one of the most important lessons she taught me was how to erase myself from the piece to create the most immersive experience we could.

The idea was to follow a parking enforcement officer through a regular day on her job, and see the world as she experienced it. I can't remember exactly what Alison said, but it was something like, "Wouldn't it be nice to just put a microphone on her shoulder, and just listen in to every little thing that happens through her day?" And that's the experience we decided to pursue: a window into this parking officer's life.

Just doing my job

In her documentary, Karen Chen rides along with Parking Enforcement Officer Kirsten Edgerton. Listen →

Alison also made it clear that if we were to really achieve this "fly on the wall" effect, my job would be a lot harder. Without my voice, I couldn't narrate a change of scene, describe what we were looking at, and clarify a situation or point the listener's attention to a certain detail. I also couldn't let my subject, the parking officer, get away with responding to my questions without including the question in her response.

Think out loud

So what this meant was that I had to train my subject to essentially think out loud. To constantly update the imaginary listeners on where she was ("We're at the corner of Church and Queen, walking down the sidewalk"), what she was doing ("I'm scanning the dashboard to see if he paid …") and be extremely visual in her descriptions ("I'm wearing a bright, reflective vest").

Alison sent me this video made by the ever-helpful Doc Project gang with Steve Wadhams describing how to make a scene in audio storytelling. His (albeit graphic) description of the "bodies piled up to here" was really helpful to emphasize that listeners can't see where "here" is. They need a cue like "up to the ceiling" to be able to imagine and visualize in their minds what something looks like.

The difference is that in the video, Wadhams' voice is part of the tape, and he adds the clarifying "up to the ceiling" visual cue. Because I chose not to use my voice in my doc, I just had to be completely alert and get my subject to provide those details, or repeat what she said with more clarification. Alison told me not to be shy about this, even though it feels like you're being demanding, but as the day went on, my subject learned to do it unprompted.

Could you repeat the question?

I also had to get over the weirdness of asking a question and then giving my subject the beginning of the answer to guarantee full sentences. For instance, as we drove back to the office, I asked her "What kind of a day was today?" and then said, 'Today was …' rather than risk her answering, "Oh, it was fine." and then not being able to use it because it's totally unclear what "it" refers to.

Another thing I had to work through with Alison was how to deal with a confrontation with a member of the public. Holding up a shotgun mic, it was pretty obvious I was recording, and just about every person who approached us to talk with the parking officer totally ignored it (I have to think it would have been different with a camera). Alison and I consulted the CBC journalistic practices on what to do if there was an antagonistic situation, and what we decided was, that because we wanted the day as experienced by the parking officer, I would focus my microphone on her, no matter who was talking (or as it turned out, yelling) at us.

Know what you want ... and listen close

After I got home from the parking officer's shift, I was exhausted from listening so closely the whole day. (And because being a parking officer is tough!) But I was grateful to have had so many hours to get it right. I was anxious going into the shift, knowing it was likely my one shot at getting what I needed, but Alison made sure to remind me that I had hours to get it right, and a second, sit-down interview to fill in any backstory or emotions, so on the day of, my focus was purely on the action, and getting a clear snapshot of her day.

I learned so much about crafting stories by removing myself from the piece, even though it by no means removed any of my workload. What I hope shines through is a portrait that illuminates the beauty and the mundane of a day in the life of someone we rarely empathize with. A parking officer just doing her job.

About the author

Karen Chen
Karen Chen is a curious person with a bad eavesdropping habit (a.k.a. a reporter). She was one of the founding producers of Out in the Open and has also worked for The Current and q. She came to CBC Radio from the world of newspapers. Most recently, she worked as an investigative reporter in Houston, Texas. Prior to that she did stints at The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Star in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Ottawa Citizen.

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