Jam packed segment here coming up, so and there's been a lot of new parts, so I'm very excited to reveal sort of our big surprise at the end. And what I want to do is, I wanna talk about how you, this is some of the more like high level stuff, like how you use music, how you use a script to sort of advance your story. And so this is stuff that is like, more for journalism if you're doing audio journalism, but I think it also helps anybody who's trying to tell a story in audio, where nobody can see anything, and all you have is the voice, these are all, these tricks that I'm gonna be talking about, how to script a story so that it has forward momentum. These are all important tools that you can use if you're doing anything in audio. So the first thing I want to do is talk about the script. When you're writing, this is something that I do all the time, how do I take these bits of audio that have got these great moments and then how do I string them together with a script that I narrate. ...
And so the first thing you want to do is like, the first thing that I did when I first started writing was I would these sort of like very long, florid sentences with long paragraphs, and I would have all this proper pronunciation, I mean this proper punctuation, and I had to learn to throw all that out, because a radio script is sort of unlike that, you don't really use punctuation. What you're trying to do when you're doing a script for audio is to just keep it as simple as possible, as concise as possible, you have to use real economy, you have to throw out like half your sentences, and you're trying to figure out how to say as much as possible with as little time as possible. And the other thing that you have to with an audio script is you have to sort of, what I'm always doing in my scripts is I'm indicating where we're about to go, and I'm commenting on where we've been. So I'm giving you some sort of like an idea about what just happened, and next we're gonna go onto this. And that's sort of the idea that I'm doing in the script all the time. And I'm gonna give examples of how this works. And the other thing that I'm doing is, something that Dan and you noticed that I do in sort of tape, but I'm also doing this in the script as well, is I'm simplifying and clarifying what people have said. Like a phrase I use a lot is, "in other words", like somebody will say something, and it will be very powerful, but it's not quite fully understandable, so I'll come off of that piece of tape and I'm my script I'll say, "In other words, "the jig was up," or "In other words," you know, something and I'll put a simplifying phrase on it to sort of make sure that the point has been driven home. So I'm often simplifying and clarifying in my script. And I'm always trying to give you a reason to listen. Keep on listening. Sort of in a sense, it's sort of forward promoting, you know, what's next, what's coming up. So I'm gonna give an example of sort of all those things. And so I want to play... And one of the places that does this really well is Planet Money, where I used to work, the podcast that I co-founded, and I used to work at for a long time and I've left in the very capable hands of the team there, and this is from a very recent episode of Planet Money where they... that I think just illustrates all these principles, and so I'm just gonna play it, it's like the first, I think it's the first minute and a half, where they... And our whole purpose at Planet Money was to try to give you a reason to keep listening, and to try to sort of, and to give you a sense of the journey you're going on. So here's that clip.
If you don't pay your credit card bill, the first thing you might get is an email saying, "Hey, just a reminder, you missed your payment." If you still don't pay, you'll start getting phone calls. Eventually you may get a letter. Your bank might pass your debt off to a collection agency. Some guy in a cubicle will start calling and interrupting your dinner, night after night. And then, if you still don't pay, there's one final stop for your debt. You might get a call from a guy like Jimmy, a guy who I met last week standing outside a boarded up house in Buffalo, New York.
We're in a rough part of the neighborhood, but I want you to know you're safe.
I appreciate that, I feel safe I feel like you can protect me (Jimmy laughs)
You're really safe, you are right. But this is the 'hood, man, you know what I mean? This is Buffalo.
Buffalo. Hello and welcome to Planet Money, I'm Jacob Goldstein. I'm joined today by special guest Jake Halpern, hey Jake.
Jake just wrote a book called Bad Paper, all about Jimmy and this world, and that's our show today. It's the story of this one guy who tried to make something of himself by getting into what's really an ugly business. It's also the story of this whole low-level, semi-legal debt collection economy that sprung up in Buffalo, and even in a small way, it's the story of the last 20 or so years of global finance, the time when the world went wild for debt.
All right, so that was it then. That was an abrupt ending, I'm sorry. So what I love about that is that like, if you don't necessarily care about credit card debt, then he's giving you a bunch of reasons to keep listening. Like first it was this entertaining character named Jimmy who you're probably gonna hear more from. Then there was the idea of this seedy, sort of semi-legal underworld that you're gonna learn about, and then this whole story is part of this much larger story that we have all been through, and all of that is sort of promised in the billboard, and then obviously has to be delivered on in the final piece. But that's what we sort of, you try to build the stakes, and then you... So what it does is two things. One, is it builds up the stakes for what you're about to hear. And then the other thing is that it gives you a reason to keep listening. For a long audio story, especially, it's really helpful to have like a little bit of a roadmap in the beginning, so that you know, and you're sort of doing this in your mind, as if, so you've been like, so you've been promised interactions with Jimmy, you've been promised the seedy underworld of debt collection, and you've been promised the connection to the last two decades of global finance, and so you know that going in, and now you're gonna be listening for that, and each time you hear it, when you hear it referenced in the upcoming story, it orients you, and you're just like, "Oh, okay, so here I am, "I'm this far through the story, "now I know where I am." One of the biggest problems with listening to a story in audio, a long story especially, is the feeling of being disoriented, like not knowing how long do we have to go, why am I listening to this particular part, where are we headed? You know, that's the thing. When people turn off audio, it's often because I'm like, I don't know where we're going anymore, I've lost the path here and I don't wanna keep listening. I don't have faith that we're going anywhere interesting. So if you do this in the beginning, if you sort of give people a roadmap in the beginning, that we're gonna go through this, we're gonna go through Jimmy, we're gonna go through the seedy underbelly, and we're gonna go through sort of like how it all connects to the global financial system, you know this thing in Buffalo that connects with the global financial system. We're gonna take you on this journey, you know, it gives you a reason to keep listening. And this is something that I have been dealing with with StartUp, and so I figured it would be nice to just play you like the first two minutes of a recent StartUp podcast and I'm gonna put up the script as it's playing so you can sort of listen and read the script as it's going along, and that might be helpful to sort of see what I'm doing. So with StartUp, it's essentially the same problem, but because it's a serial, you know it's sort of a continuing story, I had a problem that I hadn't really faced before, which is sort of, how do I tell, how do I catch people up, without you know sort of boring the people who've already heard what's come before. And so I'm trying to do it as quickly as possible but sort of remind people where we've been and then also sort of set us up for what's coming next. And so I've come up with a formulation that I basically sort of say at the beginning of every podcast, which sort of gives you the sense of sort of like, okay, here is what this is about, and you'll hear me reference it. You'll hear it in the beginning. So I'll just play the beginning of that, and you can see it, this is the script that I'm gonna be playing.
[Alex On Recording] I'm Alex Bloomberg and you're listening to StartUp, the podcast mini-series documenting the launching of my podcast company. Meta, I know. It's the business origin story you never actually hear, set down before the facts can fade into, this is the garage where it all started mythology, most honest and transparent account I can make about something that happens every day in this country, but we hardly ever see first-hand, starting a business. You're listening to episode four. If this is the first episode you've heard, you can go back and listen from the beginning. Just to recap, previously on StartUp, a trip to California to pitch an investor, Matt Mazzeo ended with him pitching me to expand my idea to include more technology. "Podcast listeners," he said, "should be able to do "with podcasts what they do with articles "and photographs and videos online."
I want them to be able to message back and forth. I want to be able to make new friends, create new connections. I wish I could do micro transactions. I wish I could do a crowdfunding campaign.
The idea made sense. Essentially create the Instagram of audio, but as I told my wife later, that conversation made me feel bad about myself. I'm describing something that feels like the biggest thing I've ever done, and like it seems small, to him. It was becoming increasingly clear to my wife, my friends, even my investors, I needed a business partner, which eventually I found, a guy named Matt Lieber. Finding a business partner is very similar to finding a romantic partner, right down to the proposal. If you wanted to come along on this ride, that would be great for me. Matt eventually said yes, which meant that my valueless company with no investors had just doubled in size. All right, so you can see all the things that I'm doing. So this first paragraph is just me trying to sort of create a reason to listen, which is sort of like I'm saying, like this is the story, this is a story that you hear but you usually hear it after the fact, and I'm telling it to you in real time, sort of warts and all. So hopefully that gives you some sense of sort of like why you want to hear this story. And then, all through the script, I'm trying like little things. My entire terror is that you're gonna get bored and stop listening, and so my entire sort of, the entire sort of motivation that I have is to keep you listening. So for example, right here, and I'm doing a lot of the things that it talked about earlier. I'm doing... Right here, "a trip to pitch an investor, Matt Mazzeo "ended with him pitching me." So just that line, like remember I was talking about giving you another reason to listen. That's like, oh, well, what are you talking about? Like, how does that work? It's a reset. And so that buys me another 20 or 30 seconds (laughs), you know, basically, of people's attention, 'cause they're like, oh I want to hear how did you start pitching him and he started pitching you? Now I am interested. I talk about reframing and simplifying. The idea makes sense. Essentially create the Instagram of audio, right? Again, he said this thing, I want to give you a sort of shorthand to hold onto the idea in your mind. Instagram of audio becomes that thing. And then again, "the process of finding a business partner "is very similar to finding a romantic partner." Again, new idea. Keep people listening. Something like a new, it's another reset, I get another 20 or 30 seconds. So I'm constantly trying to sort of give, and a lot of times it happens in the writing. You're giving somebody a reason to keep on listening. So anyway, that's just an example of what a script looks like. And again, here's the tape, the tape is in parentheses, I mean it's in italics, and the script is in bold. Are there any questions so far about just that process? Yeah?
Sorry, just to be clear, you didn't transcribe that, you wrote that before and then you read it?
Yeah, I go into the studio, I sit down in front of the microphone, and I have my script in front of me and I'm reading it. So I'm reading these words, that's what you're, yeah.
And how long does it take you to create that?
To write the script? (laughs) I mean... How long does it take to write a book? You know, it can take six months, it can take 10 years. Sort of the same, not that long, but like the same sort of process with scripts. They can come really super fast, sometimes they take a long time. This was the finished script. So often my process is, I will write a script, and then I'll read it through for somebody, I'll read it through for an editor, and I'll just sit and read it and then I'll play the tape from my computer, and then I will know, and then I get feedback there, and they'll edit, and they'll tell me like, this part was boring, this part you don't need, this part I was confused. Should this part go earlier, that's a good piece of tape, maybe it should go earlier. There's all those things that people have said. (woman speaks indistinctly) Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that's on, again, this is sort of for like the higher... It doesn't have to be this way, like depending on what you're doing, but like for what I'm trying to do is have a sort of a more highly produced product, that's what goes into it for sure. Yeah, Rodney.
Alex, I'm just curious. For my current podcast, I use basically a scripted audio intro-outro, the same thing every time. Now I've noticed on a lot of other podcasts that I listen to is that they are using other voices to introduce them, and I've noted that sometimes if it's a man, they'll use a woman's voice to break up the tonality or vice versa. Sometimes they'll get really silly or playful. But I notice that you cut in other voices and recordings of other things that you did so the point I'm trying to get at is, how important is that to break up the introduction and vary it from week to week as opposed to having one formulaic template that you just keep putting your podcast in the middle of every week?
I mean I think a little bit of formula is okay, but you don't want it to go for very long. Like I am essentially doing this paragraph every single time. I've been shortening it and shortening it, so it's getting shorter, but I'm essentially doing that every time and I feel like people will sit with me through 20 seconds even if they've heard that 20 seconds before. But after that, man I gotta be onto something new, and I think, 'cause otherwise you're... Yeah, I mean people have a lot of options, and like, boredom is the enemy (laughs), you know, and like you're constantly trying to keep, introduce something new, introduce a reason to keep listening. And this is true, I feel like there are a bunch of... Everybody who's super successful in audio, from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern to Ira Glass, they are all doing this. If you listen, go and listen to Howard Stern, and listen to what he does. Every 40 seconds, every minute and a half, he's got something new, he's got some new questions, he's got something that he's trying to get a surprising moment, trying to get an emotional moment, trying to get like, you know. And you know, it can be a question about anal sex, that doesn't necessarily happen on all the other ones, but it's like something that's trying to break up, you know get people, or shake people up. So everybody who is successful in this world is trying to do this constantly. They've got like, the clock is constantly ticking, and you gotta keep on sort of like bringing in a new idea every minute, every minute and a half, every two minutes.
What did you say the timeframe was for that?
Oh, you know what? It was...
What did you say the timeframe was for an intro?
This was about, like I think this was like a minute and a half, I think. Maybe it was two minutes.
And you follow that for every one, that's like your...
No, it can vary. What I pay attention to is sort of like, again, I'm sort of like, it's like a gut, like is this dragging, you know, and that's what I'm trying to... It can be, it can be... So the Planet Money billboard that I played, that was maybe like two minutes long. It can be four minutes long, it can be eight minutes long.
But then in the actual episode you say switch it every 40 seconds to a minute, or just in general, think about the pacing in general.
Something new has to happen. The music has to come in, there has to be a new voice, there has to be a new idea, there has to be a punchline. Something new should be happening every 40, 50, 60 seconds. Yeah, I'd say. Yeah, Jasmine, yeah.
When you read it sounds like it's a conversation, and when I read, it sounds like I'm reading. So do you have tips, or like for somebody just starting out, are there things that we could do kind of make it more conversational?
I do have tips, actually, it's funny, yeah. I guess it's not funny you should ask, 'cause I am the expert standing up here talking about it (audience laughs) but I hadn't planned on having tips on that, but yes, I do. Which is that... I try to say my scripts out loud as I'm writing them. So if I'm writing right now, I talk it as I'm writing it, 'cause what I often found in the beginning was that I would write something down and then I'd go to read it, and I couldn't read it, and it felt funny coming out of my mouth, and it was actually not the way I talked, it was the way I write. So I've gotten used to sort of like talking out loud as I write, and then when I go in front of the microphone, often, I'm still not a very good writer for my own voice, actually, there's other people who, like Adam Davidson, who I used to work with could just like, he just knew exactly how he sounded and he could write exactly to the way he sounded. I still am like too wordy in my scripts, and I come up to the microphone, and I'm editing like half of my script when I'm in front of the microphone, 'cause I'm like, oh I don't need that, I don't need that, I didn't need to say that, you know. You can do a lot more with your voice than you think you can. The other thing is like, sort of throw punctuation out. Like I've, you know, one of the first things when I first started working at This America Life, I would look at Ira Glass's scripts, and there was never a period. It was always like, it would just be, phrase, dot dot dot, phrase, dot dot dot, phrase, dot dot dot. All he used was the ellipsis, because that was sort of how he talked, and everything else was with his voice. Other people that I've worked with in radio, they all have their own little punctuation ticks that they write their scripts with. But they're never like actual punctuation. So throw that out. And then the final thing is when you're reading, you know, reading is very unnatural, usually you're sitting and you're sitting in a booth and you're talking to a microphone, but when you actually talk, you're actually using your hands and you're actually gesturing. And so just try to recreate that experience. When you're in front of the microphone, actually like stand, and actually use your hands. Like when I'm in a rut and I'm like reading mechanically, I'll just remember to start moving my hands when I'm talking, and I'll just like, sometimes I'll just exaggerate, you know, just like be moving my hands while I'm talking, and that reminds me what it feels like to actually talk like a human being. Yeah?
I have a few questions about your production process. Because this is long form, you're calling it a miniseries. It's more like a documentary film that you're producing over time. I'm curious to know how far in advance you're recording, and then how quickly on the heels of that do you go back and do the writing and editing, and sort of what's your back and forth there? And then, because it's verite in some ways, I mean I know it's not completely,
In most ways, yeah.
Are you doing some of the preparation work we practiced doing yesterday around themes, clarity of what you want to get out of each interaction, you know, how is this different?
Yeah, yeah, that's a good question. Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm going in with investors. It is a very different thing, because I'm actually documenting this actual process of myself actually trying to raise money. So it has this weird experience sometimes, where what happens, like I actually do want investors to give me money to start a company, you know, but I am also actually documenting that process for entertainment, and I know that it would be more entertaining if they shoot me down a little bit in the beginning, and so I don't get what I want, there's gonna be that struggle, it's gonna be sort of like, it's more entertaining to see people fail first and then succeed. And so I am quite literally torn apart. Half of me is like, that was an amazing moment when that guy shot that guy down, (audience laughs) and then I was like, that guy was me who just got shot down, (audience laughs) you know, so it's really weird. It's one of the weirdest stories I've ever done. I don't recommend it, actually. I'm very much looking forward to the part where we're no longer doing this podcast about my company. It's a very confusing situation. So it has been very different in that way. There have been some things have been the same, like there's been some times where we're just go an interview people, and we will like write out the list of questions. Like I interviewed on of our investors that was in, actually this episode, and I knew I was like, one of the questions I wanted to ask him was like, why did you invest your money in my company, what are you expecting out of that? And I had that listed out, and you know we had this whole list of questions. So in that sense, we're doing it the same way, but in other ways it's different. It's just very much more verite, yeah.
So the production process turnaround of taping, editing, taping
Oh yeah, turnaround. I mean, it's funny, we're almost in real time now in the series. Like things have happened. I mean the tape is pulled from all over, so we started gathering tape in April, was the first sort of recording that I did for this, and then we've been recording all the way up till, you know, in fits and starts, not constantly. We don't actually have that much tape, you know. But we've been recording up until yesterday or the day before or whenever it was, and in the last podcast we used tape that we gathered like a day before, you know, and we used tape that we gathered six months before. Or not six months, but four months before. Yeah, so some of it has been quite tight turnaround. Yeah?
We had a question that came in online from Stanland, and he wants to know, why do you not write the script like a movie or theater script? Why do you have to do this in this different sort of format?
Oh I don't know, you don't have to. You can write the script whatever works for you. This is just sort of how I keep it straight. I want to know what the tape is, and I want to know what... This is more like, actually I don't even write it like this, I usually indent the tape, but ever. But this was just to point out for people while they're listening to get a... But I think you can, people write scripts however they want. For me it's just a matter of sort of like reminding myself what's happening with the tape, and if there was music that comes in, I'll usually write that in as well. Yeah, Willow?
How does your wife feel about the fact that you're constantly recording your conversations with her at home?
Oh, she... I wish, I had this piece of tape that like where she talks about that. She's okay, she's okay. She's like, she's you know, she worked in radio for a long time, she's on TV right now, so she understands that this is the production process, and she understands what makes good, entertaining, you know sort of like media. But yeah, she's a little sick of it. I'm a little sick of it. I mean it's like, I will often say to her, like actually stop, and I have to go and get my kit, and come back and I'm like, say it again. (audience laughs) You know, and like yeah. So it's like you know, she's at some point there, there is tape of her being like I'm so sick of this, I can't wait till this is done. So, yeah, that's definitely happening. But I think I'm equally sick of it at this point. Like it's a pain in the ass, to constantly, every single... And because often, again running towards the mike, the moments I want to document are the ones that are like the hardest and the most tense, anxiety-ridden, and like that's the very moment where you're just like the last thing you want to do is go and get your tape recorder, and like come back and be like, okay, so what were you yelling at me about again? (audience laughs) You know, like that's yeah. So yeah, it's hard. So all right, so shall we move on? So this is, I want to play a piece of tape for you, and again this is all about, so what I'm gonna do right now is I'm gonna play you a piece of tape the way it was originally edited. It's a part of a story the way the reporter originally played it, and then the reporter and I sat down and we sort of went through an edit, and then I'm gonna play you the edited piece, and I'm gonna show you the original script, and I'm gonna show you the edited script. Okay, so you can really see what we're doing here. And like all these stories, they take some setup. So this story is about (laughs) cotton subsidies. (audience laughs) But it's about this really weird feature of American cotton subsidies, which was that the American government and the American taxpayer, many people might know that American tax money goes to various farmers to help them to support, whether or not they grow their cotton, they get these subsidies, they get lots and lots of agricultural sectors get subsidies. What few people know is that there is a big portion, like I think it's in the hundreds of millions of dollars of American taxpayer money that goes to Brazilian cotton farmers. So American taxpayers are subsidizing Brazilian cotton farmers, and we were telling the story of how that came to be on Planet Money, and it's this really crazy, fascinating story, and it involves this group of cotton farmers in Texas, and this like crazy crusading cotton farmer in Brazil, and sort of all these sort of like working these international WTO rules, and it's actually quite an amazing story, but involves cotton subsidies. And so the reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, who's like this amazing reporter, like I'm in constant awe of her. She had found the story and she'd gone out to Texas, and so there's basically, it sets up pretty well, there's these two antagonists. There's the Texas cotton farmer, this guy she met named Dahlen, and there was this Brazilian farmer, this guy name Pedro. So she has them, and they're sort of the ones that are fighting with each other, and they're a bit part of the story. So she sets up and the way she originally played the story for me, I was her editor. She played the story for me and she set it up, she said like, "I was down talking to this farmer in Texas, "and out of nowhere we're just talking about cotton "and where cotton comes from, and out of nowhere "he mentions this other country, Brazil." And then the story went from there.
Yeah, because sometimes, I mean just facts are facts, Brazil for example, the only reason I bring them up is just because they lash out at us a lot of times about how we do things and very negative about the US. They keep coming to the table, coming to the court and always griping and always bitching and complaining whenever you know, I mean we don't. You know what, we stepped up to the plate every day and played the game.
The reason Dahlen Hancock is so obsessed with Brazil, brought it up three times without being asked, there's a backstory, and the backstory begins with a guy named Pedro, a Brazilian who disputed all of Dahlen's sports analogies that the US plays the game better than Brazil, with a sports analogy of his own, although I didn't quite get it at first.
They're taking shots. They're taking shots. (Chana speaks indistinctly) No, no, they're taking shots, the shots here and how do you say it, the hormones uh, they're taking prohibited. You know, they're taking hormones. And we play fair.
What Pedro means is steroids. And it turns out how to buy cotton in the global economy, this question that we're asking, is not about comparing prices or quality, it is about this. The United States and Brazil are in the middle of an eight-year war over cotton. It's an emotional and quiet war, and where we end up buying our cotton has everything to do with this war.
Okay, so this is the script that she wrote, and everything that is in black was what she had originally and everything that is green, purple or red, is stuff that we added later, so after the edit. So her first edit, it started with that guy Dahlen, saying, you know, facts are facts, Brazil, your producer presents competitors, you step to the plate and play the game, he says that. And then she went just straight to Camargo, the Pedro guy, saying, "They're taking shots, "they're taking shots." And what she was thinking was it was like an artful way of sort of setting up this conflict between this American cotton farmer and this Brazilian cotton farmer. But when I heard it, it was just utterly confusing. I didn't know what he was talking about with the shots, I didn't understand what the thing was, she hadn't sort of set up any of this stuff, and then, she didn't have any of this stuff in there, and then she just went on to sort of a story about Pedro. And you had no idea why you were listening to any of this stuff. And so everything here we added later, and it was all to do with the stuff that we're talking about. Provide stakes, give a sense of where you're going all that sort of stuff. So, here. So he says, and when Chana and I did this together she actually color-coded sort of what each one of these pieces of script is doing, and so some script that we put in is just sort of like, "Pay attention!", like "This is a big important part, okay". And this was down here. "It turns out to determine how to buy cotton "in the global economy is not about this, "it's about this eight-year war over cotton," that the US and Brazil are in. And the minute you sort of turn it into an eight-year war over cotton, you're like, oh, okay, now I'm like, now I'm not hearing the word subsidy, I'm hearing about a war between two countries, like something is going on here, right, so it's something that I care about. The other thing that she's doing, is like with the green she's saying turn here. In other words sort of like, okay you've just heard from Dahlen and now I want to redirect your attention over here to this guy from Brazil, and I'm going to now set him up, right. And so that's what this is. "The reason Dahlen is so obsessed with Brazil, "brought it up three times without being asked..." There is a backstory. And then she sets up this idea that like, okay, now I'm gonna tell you this big story. And then there's more, which is sort of like just like we're pumping it up, this is gonna be great. Let me tell you why it's gonna be great, okay. And so she sort of like gives some color to Pedro here, she says, "A Brazilian who disputed all of Dahlen's "sports analogies with his own sports analogy", and just sort of sets up what you're about to hear in a way that makes it easier to hear. And then down here she says, "It's an emotional and quiet war, "and where we end up buying our cotton "has everything to do with this war." Which sort of like makes it feel like, okay, now I want to hear the story about cotton subsidies that maybe before, hopefully I wanna hear the story about cotton subsidies, whereas before I definitely didn't want to hear a story about cotton subsidies. So that's a lot of what you're doing with a script, is trying to, is doing those things. You're saying to people, like turn here, focus your attention over here. You're saying, pay attention to this, this is the good part, right, like the thing I'm about to tell you is the good part. Or we're about to go someplace really exciting. Are there any questions about that? Any questions about like sort of... We call it sort of like, we've come up with a term for it which is basically signposting. Like you're constantly signposting as you're making your way through a clip. So there's one other moment that Chana is really good at, so I'm gonna play you this one other piece of tape that will again, on the subject more about cotton subsidies than perhaps you thought you were gonna be getting to. But there's this one other piece of tape which I think is so great, which is sort of like, so again, Chana is really good at this, which is, so what happened was, so Pedro, so the war is about this. Like Brazil says the US farmers are getting unfair subsidies. Brazil says they don't get the subsidies. But they can't do anything because we're the US and they're Brazil, they can't. So what do they do, they go to the World Trade Organization, and they say to the World Trade Organization, these guys aren't playing fair. The World Trade Organization rules on it, they rule in Brazil's favor. US does nothing. They rule in Brazil's favor again. The US does nothing. So finally the Brazilians are like, we have to force, we don't have any way to force the US to do anything, but there is, there's like this secret little trick in the WTO rules, where Brazil can impose its own tariffs on American goods in retaliation. And so Chana, and so this guy Pedro becomes a master at retaliative tariffs (laughs), right. And so Chana in her story, she starts to call him the retaliation master. And so he picks all these US businesses that are selling a lot of stuff to Brazil, and he picks them specifically because there's lots of them, and he imposes tariffs on their goods. So like music industry, a bunch of, there's a couple of clothing manufacturers in the United States, there's a couple other things that were in there, I can't remember, software, I think was one of them. So they impose tariffs on all these other American industries, and then those American industries' lobbyists in Congress are like, "The Brazilians are taxing us! "You gotta do something about the agricultural subsidies." So it's this masterful thing of like sort of enlisting American interests to try to solve his problem about the agricultural subsidy. So it's this crazy sort of game he's playing, and he's playing it masterfully. And at one point, Chana is talking in her story to the trade representative of these American industries that are getting hit with the Brazilian tariff, okay? So they're the ones who are saying, "I don't want these Brazilians putting this tariff "on me anymore, I want you to do something about "agricultural subsidies." And he's talking like a robot. He's talking, we have that robot language talking. So you're about to hear how Chana deals with that. So he's talking and this is what he says.
[Trade Representative] Well the first instinct is to lash out, why is the Brazilian government doing this? Why are Brazilian cotton growers bringing this case forward? What do they have against us? What do they have against our products, what have we done wrong? So then the feeling if you will, after some thought and consideration shifted from the raw reaction, why is Brazil doing this, just to why do we have these policies? It was these farm programs, and I'd like to take this opportunity to laud the leadership of the Obama administration and Secretary of State Clinton, and through the additional leadership of Ambassador Ron Kirk, the US trade representative and Secretary of Agriculture at RLSAC...
Right, what are you doing right there? You're shouting out all the people who listen to you when you lobbied and sent them letters?
[Trade Representative] Um, among many others, correct. We asked all the parties, the congress administration to be creative to find a solution to avoid retaliation, because it would hurt the business community, it would hurt jobs.
But Brazil knew you were gonna do that. That's why Brazil put you on that list. Brazil targeted you guys because they knew that you would then go to all those people that you just listed and lobby them to get a change.
[Trade Representative] Exactly. And our community isn't reacting in response to what the Brazilian government wants. It's what's in our own best interest.
I want to just pause here to admire the elegance of what just happened. The elegance with which the retaliation master went about his business. He basically created a situation in which very powerful interests who normally don't give a crap about what he wants, all of a sudden are his best allies. All of a sudden, American shoe manufacturers and music executives and wheat farmers are putting pressure on the American government.
So, and this is the script here. So you can see, this was all new, this was all added later. And so first of all, she's such a badass for just sort of like calling him out in the middle of the thing, right, just sort of saying like, this is what you're doing, listen to what you're doing, right? And he never breaks his... He never breaks character, but he acknowledges it, you know. And then she has this thing where I'm just gonna sort of like comment on what just happened, because it didn't quite land, but now I'm gonna comment on what happened. This ingenious plan seems to have worked, and in fact it did work, and what ended up happening out of all of this is that the US government was like, we're not gonna get rid of subsidies, but we'll buy of the Brazilians. And we send them, I think, somewhere between 500 and 600 million dollars a year, and we still do to this day, I believe. And it's all because of this crazy machinations right now. So that was, I don't know, I mean I'm sorry it took you down that long cotton subsidy path, but I hope that it was like sort of informative in that, like a lot of times what you're gonna be doing is telling stories about things that people don't care about, much like cotton subsidies, right, but if you can find a way to make it universal or tell it as sort of like a fascinating story, you're gonna be in good shape.
Alex Blumberg is the CEO and co-founder, along with Matt Lieber, of Gimlet Media. Before Gimlet, he was a radio journalist at This American Life and the co-founder, along with Adam Davidson, of the This American Life/NPR co-production Planet Money.
The best storytelling resource I've come across bar none. I've read all the books, paid for all the online courses, listened to all the podcasts but for me none have been anywhere near as useful, engaging, moving, fun and outright inspiring as this course. If you're trying to tell stories with factual material, whatever your medium, this is as good as it gets.
Regarding those reviewers saying it was haphazard and underprepared - huh? He doesn't offer strict formulas and perfectly structured, detailed approaches, but that's because he's the real deal. Those things only exist for snake-oil-merchant online "story gurus" who charge through the nose for "the perfect strategy" (*cough* Patrick Moreau *cough*). Alex offers what he can of tricks and formulae, but where it's about experience and gut feelings, he's honest. Thank god.
This class is great on multiple levels. Are you interested in interviewing? There are great tips and techniques. Interested in Storytelling? Great insights into the basic structures and tools to test how compelling your story idea is. Interested in podcasting? Great tips and ideas here too... Alex is a seasoned pro, has an easy, approachable style and allows his class (and you) time to really consider and work through the concepts. Excellent all the way around!