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Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Lesson 21 of 21

The Finished Ann Rea Audio Story

Alex Blumberg

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Alex Blumberg

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Lesson Info

21. The Finished Ann Rea Audio Story

Lesson Info

The Finished Ann Rea Audio Story

And now for something special! (audience laughs) So we have actually, so I want to welcome somebody up on stage. Come on up. Yeah, round of applause. (audience applause) Do you want to introduce yourself? I'm Julia Dewitt, I'm a producer at Snap Judgment, it's an NPR show made in Oakland. I'm helping Alex. Also a great job with music by the way. Julia and I have been sort of working behind the scenes to concoct something special. We were, (laughs) we took the interview that we did yesterday with Ann, and we turned it into an actual audio story. And originally, the plan was that I was like, "Ah, I'll turn it into a four minute story and we'll just play it all for you today." But the interview went a different direction. (laughs) It did not really lend itself to a four minute format. So we did a longer story that we'll put up, but we're going to play a couple clips for you today. And so Julia, what did we do? Do you wanna talk us through our process here in a bit? Yeah, so this was...

, I mean this obviously was super condensed. This happened in the last 24 hours, so a lot of decisions were made really quickly. But it does roughly reflect what you might do in this situation. So we sat down and we had already been noting the moments and the scenes. And I had been writing and he had been noting in his head, what we were kind of, we already knew, essentially, what tape we were gonna pull. We cut that out, and then we figured out we have to, we figured out we were gonna start with the fish, right. But that means that we have to get through, right. That whole first half hour was all about what relationships are. You know, you have to get that into two sentences. Mm hmm. And so Alex scripted us through years of her life and the years between. Yeah, and then the other questions of how does this story begin? How do you give people a reason to listen? How do you set up the stakes? What are we talking about here? So we all tried to, and again, this is not the process that I would recommend to people because I did not have an edit. So this is something you'd go through it the second time and sort of refine and figure out what was working and what wasn't. We haven't had any mixed notes. You've been mixing furiously, so yes. Yes, the outlines can be all over the place. So be gentle, but we should play, so we're gonna play two parts of it and then the rest will be up on the CreativeLive website then you can hear the whole thing. How long is the whole thing, by the way, do you remember? About 20 minutes, so it's an hour and a half, we got it down to 20 minutes. Yeah, and you'll notice what's absent. Some of the stuff that we're talking about here is not there. Like, cut it out, couldn't get it in, couldn't figure out. We had to make choices about what parts am I gonna say, what parts is Ann gonna say, and what parts are we gonna speed through. But you'll hear a lot of the process of writing a radio script is figuring out what elements from the interview are you just gonna turn into lines in your script, and you'll hear that. You'll hear a lot of times I'm just paraphrasing things that came out directly out of the interview. So we're gonna play the first, so we'll play the open. It's about two and a half minutes, and then we'll play the end, which is about four minutes, right? Alright, I press play. Yeah, okay, here we go. If you free associate with the word "artist" it won't be long until you arrive at the word "starving." Artists, the conventional wisdom goes, are poor. Ann Ray's life story is essentially a debunking of that myth of the starving artist. For Ann, it wasn't until she left her good-salaried corporate life for a full-time job as an artist that she became truly financially comfortable. But there's another commonly held belief about art that Ann's life doesn't dispel. That art emerges from pain. And what you're about to hear is a story about art and about business. But like any story about art and business, it's also a story about other things, human things. About loss and betrayal and how that can impact our lives, turn us into who we are. It's a story that ends up right here in San Francisco, but makes stops along the way in Utah, Sacramento, and has an uncomfortably long layover in Elk Grove, a town in California that Ann says "possessed me to grove nor elk." It starts in Ohio, where Ann grew up, and then, against the wishes of her immigrant parents, went to art school in Dayton, where she met the man who would later become her husband. Getting out of my car, and he's getting out of his car, and he came and introduced himself. And I just thought, "Wow, that's my neighbor? Mm, nice." (Ann laughs) Ann says it wasn't love at first sight, exactly, more like lust. But they had things in common, came from the same kind of dysfunctional family. Before long, they were married. And after Ann finished art school, they took off across the country to San Francisco, where Ann's husband had a job waiting. Just the two of them in Ann's old Honda with all their belongings, including their pet fish. He was in the middle, between us, Mr. Fish, and we photographed him on the Great Salt Lake flat, (audience laughs) and different places along the ride across the country. So Mr. Fish followed us. Yeah, it was fun, it was really fun. Mr. Fish was probably like, on the Great Salt flats, he was like, "What am I doing here? This is not a place for a fish!" No, no, I know. (Ann laughs) And if you had to describe your state of mind at that point, like as you're driving with your fish and you're seeing all these sights, describe your feeling at that time. I was happy and I felt free and I felt all grown up, just embarking on a new life. A whole new life. So that's Part One. (Alex laughs) (audience applause) But I'll play the end. So any questions just about that segment? So this part, we've gone through the story at this point. We've heard about your altercation with your husband. We've heard about moving, we've heard about the disaster relief. We've heard about some of the stuff that happened after that. And where are we at in the story where we're gonna play it? We are at... How you dedicate your books. Oh right, okay, so you've left, you've already made the turn, you already left your cubicle job, and you're fully an artist. And this is where we're picking it back up. I want to get to exactly what you did. Why do you think you got emotional just at that moment talking about that. What was it, what was it? 'Cause life is short. Here we go again. Angela's gone. So every book I make for my patrons, they're all dedicated to Angela. All of them. They don't even know who she is. But they all say "This is for Angela." All of them, and they always will. Life's short, you don't know when your number's up. So if you really want to do something, go do it. Unless there's something really standing in your way and you can't, then that's fine. You can't beat yourself up for that. But if you want something, go get it. (acoustic guitar music) A quote that Ann loves: "Every artist is an entrepreneur, and every entrepreneur is an artist." What she realized is that the gallery system, just making your paintings, hanging it on someone's wall somewhere, that doesn't work for her. Probably lots of people like her. So to forge a new future in which she could make a living as an artist, she borrowed from the past. She has what she calls patrons, collectors of her work. She doesn't just make paintings for them. She provides a whole experience. So what I do is I create this whole experience for my collectors. They choose their favorite landscape. We actually go there together. I go back, I do a whole series of studies in oil. Then they can choose one or more that I recreate on a custom canvas, but they've been to that place with me and I give them a coffee table book that chronicles the whole experience with black and white photos. They can retrace my steps, they can be in the moment. It takes them back to a moment in time, and they associate the paintings with a memory. And how much money are you making now, compared to your previous jobs? Are you doing better, worse, about the same? Oh no, I'm making more. I made more in my first year than I ever made working for anyone else, like significantly more. And I think that my prospects, they are so much better because I was never was qualified for anything I did. (Ann laughs) And I certainly wasn't qualified for the computer company, or, I mean I wasn't. So I could only get away with it for so long, and someone was going to figure it out. I wasn't going to become Vice President anytime in any of those. When Ann was five, she drew a picture and showed it to a friend. Held it up and announced for the first time in her life, "I am an artist." Her friend said, "No, you're not," and Ann said, "Oh yes, I am." Back then, when she was five, her work was mainly mixed media: crayon and Lite-Brite. Many of us, the dreams we have when we're five, they don't normally come true. For Ann, it took a long time but hers finally did. (audience applause) It's so surreal. (Alex laughs) It's weird right? I would like to, really quickly, give Ann another round of applause. Yeah, totally. (audience applause) So the whole interview is gonna be up on the CreativeLive site, and again, we really had to run as fast as we could to get it together. But it was an interesting exercise putting it together. Do you guys have any questions about what we did, anything about what you just heard? So this whole process, this happened just overnight basically. Yeah. But I mean, how much time did you actually put into the editing here? You were, I don't know, so we -- You were up all night? So what we did is we went after the class ended yesterday, our last session, we met, we talked for about two hours, three hours? Mm hmm. Yeah, and we got immediately into the editing software and we started pulling the clips, and we started talking about what we're gonna do, what parts we're gonna say, what parts Ann's gonna say. And we sort of tried to figure out what were the parts of the story that we wanted. Basically, that's what we were trying to do. And what parts we were gonna paraphrase and how we were gonna get from moment to moment. And one of the things that you noticed, probably, is that the thing that started the interview ended the story. That happens a lot more than you'd realize. I don't know what it is about it, but that's often that the endings are the hardest part. It's really hard to write an ending. And often like a scene from something early or a scene something that came at the beginning, can sort of serve as a nice, somehow, as a nice book end without actually feeling cloying or whatever. And it would have taken significantly longer if he wasn't able to just sit down. And the mixed media line, he just came up with on the spot. He can write a script (Alex laughs) faster than anybody in the room. It is true. That is the hard part. That is a hard part and it took me... Working and planning money every day for awhile, we had to write a script and it had to be a long script, and that was just the practice. I was like, okay, we gotta...what do we do? What can we say? And it becomes this thing that you really have to drive through, so it has become a little bit, become much easier than it used to be in the beginning, yeah, for sure. We just had a question come in. We'd be curious to get Julia's take on this as well, but this viewer wants to know what would you say are the main things that turn you off when you're listening to an audio story? Any production techniques or mistakes you find it hard to look past or listen past, I guess, as the case may be. I don't notice production mistakes as much as other mistakes. Like, I don't necessarily, I feel like if it's a great story, it can be recorded on an iPhone or with a loudspeaker happening and I'll pay attention. One of the best stories we ever did with This American Life, which won a bunch of awards, was a story that was recorded over a super scrappy phone line that you could barely, you know, it was good enough to hear but it was not ideal. You know, audio conditioned. It was an amazing story. It was called the Babysitting show. So for me, I get more turned off by story mistakes. You know, honestly. I get very easily bored and I'm like, ah, there's no stakes here. I don't care. Why do you think I care about this? I think that a lot, you know. And I want to be made to care. And so that's my main pet peeve. I'll just be like, this is not working hard enough. But I'm an asshole, so, yeah. (audience laughs) (Alex laughs) I mean, I tend to agree with that, that often (mumbles) (audience laughs) (Alex laughs) What was that? I don't really know why they think that's so funny. (Mumbles) that he's an asshole. Oh, right. (audience laughs) Yeah, that's true, I confirm that statement. But also that the why, the why piece, and that sort of not being signaled somewhere, somewhere towards the top, states a variety of ways that you do do it. Or wondering, sometimes even just what is happening, like what you're listening to for just a while, can work that harder. And production can be kind of like music that you can spend more time on it hoping that that's gonna make the story and only the story makes the story. Yeah, there's a fetish, I think. I feel like there's a certain fetish sometimes of sort of amazing sound richness that I feel like... Radiolab has really gotten some ideas into people's heads. I love Radiolab. Right, I think Radiolab has done that. But I feel what makes Radiolab super listenable is they are really, really, really worried about the story. And they really worry about making people care and they really worry about setting up stakes. And if you listen to this and you sort of look at everything that I'm talking about and then you listen to Radiolab, they are doing the exact same thing. Everybody's trying to do that, yeah. Jeff and then Richard, yeah. Is there a correlation, do you think, between the length of your script and the quality of the story hat you have, or the duration of time it takes to edit something and the quality of the story? A correlation between, well there's no correlation between the length of the script. The script can be sort of as long or as short as it needs to be, yeah. I think understanding what it needs to be is the trick and that's where you make the mistake, is rushing or (mumbles) Do you agree? Yeah. Are there some good, or in other words, do you find yourself needing to write more words for a story that doesn't stand on its own? Well I think if I'm trying to write something and it's not coming very well, and the tape isn't feeling very good and I don't know exactly what I'm saying, that's usually a sign that there's not much here, so yeah. So every once in a while you find yourself sort of writing and writing and writing and you can't make it interesting. That's because you don't have anything. So that sometimes happens for sure, yeah. And a lot of times, often what I do is I'll be writing. I'll write a whole beginning, and I'll have this sense in my head and this sense in my gut that this is all gonna get killed, I know it is. But I have to do it because I feel like I think I can make it work, but I think it might get killed. And every time I think that I have that feeling, I'll play it for somebody and they'll be like, "That part's boring, you gotta kill it," and I'll be like, "Yeah, I knew that all along." And those are the ones that you worked the hardest on, 'cause they're the one that you're sort of like, "But I put so much effort into it," but you know, it's like, yeah. Initially, I would try to hang on to it, but now I'm just sort of like, no, I know it's part of the game. You work really really hard on some part that you know in your heart is not good enough, and then it gets killed. That's just the game, that's what you have to do, yeah. Richard, go ahead. Yeah, so you were saying this is kind of like the first pass. If you had the opportunity to do another pass after this, what would be that process and how will you know that, okay, this is enough? I think we would, I don't know, I have a bunch of stuff. Like I was hearing there's some editing issues, there's parts where it fades out, so there is some production issues that we want to clean up. There's parts of the tape that are still, I think, a little bit long, where you can move some stuff along faster. I don't think my read was particularly great, I don't know. And I haven't heard the whole piece, like I felt that the beginning worked okay and I thought the ending worked okay. So those parts, I don't know about the middle, you know. I don't know, what would you do? Yeah, it is mostly kind of going through for those little things. There's places where we don't necessarily need his question. You know, for example, when it's a very useful tool to have the interviewer in the story, but you typically are really pretty cognizant of when you're doing that. Yeah, the music is all very clunky, like that music, you could hear in that, just a lot of that cleanup. Yeah, so a lot of refining, fine-tuning. I'm not sure if that, I feel like that music was, I don't know. What do you think about the music? Do you think it worked or was it not working? (audience murmuring) Yeah, oh good, alright then. Yeah, Ryan, do you have -- No, that would be my question about the music, since that was kind of the last thing we talked about as kind of a learning tool. So I just wanted to bring it back around and ask about the music, but you guys beat me to it. (Alex laughs) Okay. Well I want to read one more comment that came in here. This is from Lindsay, who says it was clear yesterday that Ann's story was meaningful and had interest, but the edited version is so much more powerful. I loved the script because it didn't feel campy or sappy. It just felt completely meaningful. Oh, thank you. So you guys did a fantastic job on it, and thank you so much. Thank you so much, Julia, for being up here and being a part of this. Give a round of applause for Julia. (audience applause) Alright, Alex. Alright, man. We've come a long way. We've come a long way together, it's been a really wonderful journey with all of you. So we have a few more minutes before we wrap up. And now is the time where we'd love to hear from our instructors. Let's hear some of your final inspirational thoughts. We've spent a lot of time with you here. Oh! I know, no pressure, right? But you've had all these people watching here -- Let me see, do I have anything? I don't think I do. For these two sessions. You don't have anything prepared? No, no, just some final takeaways. We've learned so much already from you, but any final thoughts for our viewers out there? I mean, I don't know if I have anything super profound to say other than, you know, coming up on this stage is, there was a couple of these segments that we were gonna do up here where I didn't have anything. I didn't have anything really prepared. I didn't have anything to say and it was all gonna be about what happened in the class and what you guys had to say. And when we're telling the story, this is all sort of like, very improvisational. When we did the interview with Ann, I had no idea if is this gonna work, what's it gonna be like. But if it worked, it would be exciting. It was gonna be a new thing. It was like going toward something that was frightening. And so there was that, and there was also the part of sort of trusting the people around you. Like, you don't have to come up with every single idea, but if you can engage in a process with people where you're working towards something together and use their feedback and trust that when they're giving you negative feedback, it doesn't mean anything about you. It's just about the story that you're presenting and just take it in the spirit in which it's given and try to make it better. That's where true creative expression lies, is in this interplay between coming up with ideas yourself and working with others to come up with the ideas. So I don't know, to me that like this was sort of, you know, a reminder of that, that these things that I was worried about, are we gonna be able to pull them off? We pulled them off and it was all because of your involvement and your ideas and all of the things that you were bringing to it. And so it's a constant reminder to me, like just trust, trust people around you, you know. So give yourselves a hand, I guess is what I'm saying. Absolutely, absolutely. (audience applause) Alright, so that was a round of applause for you guys here, but let's keep that going for Alex Blumberg. (audience applause) How great was this? Alright, Alex, this is it. We are coming to the end here. Thank you so much, everybody out there, who've been watching us for the last few days. We had a tremendous time on this course and again, thanks to everyone here. But Alex, we actually have a special thank you, a special surprise for you, yeah, caught you off guard a little bit here. Oh, alright. But we actually have something that we want to play, so the guys in the booth are gonna roll it right now. This is course will be important because Alex has made me feel I can be an authority. I can give myself permission to do this. I don't need to wait for other people to. I can go and ask for the interviews and collect it and edit the stories, and that's really an empowering feeling to have. This course has made my dead-end job that pays me minimum wage become a wealth of inspiration that I would have ignored and probably resented otherwise, so thank you. I'm telling a story about how interesting and useful I found Alex's training. And it's interesting because nobody's impervious to the power of praise. (Alex laughs) Hi, this is Bethany from Seattle. I signed up for the class because I'm an NPR geek and 'cause a friend and I recently started a cross-continental YouTube channel where we talk design, theology and creativity. But this class has been most interesting because I'm at a career crossroads after quitting my job in August, and in the last few days, I've discovered how a simple story formula works for life, too. Alex's CreativeLive course has been really enlightening. These two days have motivated me to work on transforming the pieces I'm producing from just stories people can listen to to stories that people will feel, relate and respond to. This is Espree, and it has been an incredible gift to learn from you. Your authenticity shines through. I'm so inspired by your podcast and your story and I've learned so much from you about how to tell a story better myself. And I'm just super grateful that you spent your time with CreativeLive so that I could learn all the years of knowledge that you've acquired. Thank you so much, Alex, for this course. I was in college listening to your work at Planet Money, which helped me see through a lot of the uncertainties that were going on at the time. And this course really has given me a framework that helps me build a better future and express myself through the work I do online. I hope one day we can work together in the future. So yeah, yeah, I'm going to make an amazing triathlon podcast. But in addition to that, and perhaps more importantly, I want to take what I've learned from this workshop and use it to capture my family's stories such that when they listen to them, they are so touched and moved that they just start bawling their brains out. It's gonna be great. Hi Alex, this is Rodney Washington, and I just want to say to you that your course has meant so much more to me than anything I've experienced this year. I actually came expecting techniques and processes, and I'm leaving having experienced one of the most profound personal as well as professional breakthroughs and transformations I've had in years. Thank you for tapping into your genius and sharing it with us. I'm currently unemployed because of a health crisis, and I can't even afford a fricking book about storytelling right now, let alone a class from one of my This American Life heroes. Sweet mother of crap, the class has given me great tools and I'm thrilled to have been able to participate. And I want to thank Alex for giving me so much to think about and CreativeLive for making it available for free. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Inspiring, captivating, moving, challenging, life-changing? I think so. Thanks, Alex. Awesome. Wow. You were not expecting that one. I know. (audience applause) And I am not impervious to praise. Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much again. Our students sharing their thoughts and we appreciate that so much. So good to hear that from everyone. Thanks for doing that and thanks again to you, Alex. This has been fantastic, very powerful stuff here. And again, that was from our students here but we have people all around the world who've been tuning in, and they have a lot of praise for you as well. So I want to read some comments here. On Twitter, Shula G. says, "I normally hang out in the photo and video channel on CreativeLive, but I've spent the last two days glued to Alex Blumberg's workshop. He is great. Nehreet says, "I love Snap Judgment and Julia Dewitt rules." Eric says, "This is exactly why I listen to This American Life, Planet Money, and others. It's great storytelling." Joe Valli says that "Alex is pulling back the curtain on his work. Oh my God, this is the exact reason that I signed up for this course. This right here. Watching him go over his text and his story and the way that he delivers it." Free Range says, "It's so cool to see someone I've enjoyed listening to for such a long time and to learn about their process." And this final quote says, "I first heard about CreativeLive on Alex's startup podcast and I have to get back to the real world. I totally skipped work today. (audience laughs) (Alex laughs) But before I do, when are you bringing Alex back? This has been by far the best learning experience that I've ever had. Thank you to Alex, thank you to CreativeLive." We appreciate that, and I can speak personally here. We would love to have Alex back. I have enjoyed this course so much, would love to have him back to do another one very soon. Hope everybody out there has enjoyed it as much as we have. Thank you so much for being here. But that's all for us. This has been so fantastic to be here. Thank you for watching. This has been Power Your Podcast with Storytelling with Alex Blumberg. My name is Chris Jennings. Thank you so much for watching us. That's a wrap. Thank you. (audience applause)

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Join Alex Blumberg, award-winning reporter and producer for This American Life and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, for Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, and learn podcast tips on how to tell powerful, memorable stories through audio.

Storytelling is in our DNA – integrating its principles into a podcast not only helps you tell better stories, it allows you to authentically and emotionally connect with your audience. In this class, you will learn the unique approach to interviewing and story composition, which has made This American Life a fan favorite on public radio stations across the country. Alex will share production techniques you can use to create a multi-layered sensory experience and share tips for standing out in the ever-growing field of podcasts. You’ll learn: 

  • How to develop your narrative instincts
  • How to prepare for an interview to get the best answers
  • The elements of a good story

Alex will teach you how to create a “driveway moment” — that experience when the story is so good, it makes the audience pause what they are doing just to listen through to the end.

Whether you already produce a successful podcast, are a creative entrepreneur looking for a new marketing method, or just a public radio-loving audiophile – this class will help you tell better stories.


Matt James Smith

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. Superb.

Gregory Lawson

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!