B-Side Manifesto

What is B-Side?
Like its name implies, B-Side focuses on stories that don’t necessarily fit into the mainstream.  We don’t need a “news peg” to put a story on the air.  What we do need is a strong story line, compelling characters, refreshing writing and interesting uses of sound.

Each month B-Side examines a theme and tackles it with an approach that’s both offbeat and revealing. Every show is a half-hour experience, complete with music, which takes reporters, producers and, of course, listeners, to a place that ties into that month’s theme. This is the “glue” that links the stories together, showing the personality of the host and providing an overarching narrative and tone for the show.  Each month B-Side’s host gathers the “glue” as they go out and explore the theme.  This gives the show a “live” feel and brings listeners along for the ride.

The idea of B-Side is to have fun.  We’re not getting paid, so in a way B-Side is more a hobby than a job.  But like the most obsessive stamp collector or model car aficionado, as producers we must aim to be as great as possible.  Each story that airs on B-Side should be something we feel good about, both as individual producers and as a team.  This is our chance to make the kind of radio that we want to make, the kind of radio that we want to listen to, and the kind of radio we can’t make within the current framework of public radio programming.

What is a B-Side Story?:

We want every segment of the show to feel like someone’s telling you a story.  We want to avoid the typical AX and TRAX formula.  We don’t want our stories to sound like something you could hear in the A-block of All Things Considered.

B-Side stories do not include an expert – the voice of reason, the professor.  We want people who are experts on their own lives.  Our stories should focus on people and their lives (our own, or others).  We know people do weird things: B-Side tells our listeners why.

We want the pieces to sound script-less.  We don’t want it to sound like someone is reading their copy…and we really mean it!  How we get there doesn’t matter so much: method isn’t everything, it’s just a means to an end.

When pitching a story to B-Side, you should include the following information:

– what makes the story good for radio, in style and content

– what makes this story right for B-Side, in style, approach and subject matter

– how do you, the reporter, plan to challenge yourself and the traditional public radio conventions in the production of this piece.

All B-Side stories should include the following elements (so please let us know how you plan to incorporate them when you’re pitching):

– Innovative/high concept – the design of the story shouldn’t be your typical ax and trx, it shouldn’t sound like every other NPR story or TAL story for that matter.  Yes, our topics are “different” but our sound and approach should be too.  How are you going to produce this piece in a way that breaks the mold?

– About people – B-Side at its core is a show about people, about the human experience.  B-Side stories should be about people, rather than issues.  Who is your main character?  Who is going to drive the piece and make listeners want to keep listening?  Making the stories about people gets listeners invested.  We want these people to be interesting and compelling.  So…if you really want to do a piece about an issue, who are the people that are going to inform it? Characters come first.

– Surprise – Best to have a surprise in the first 30 seconds of the piece.  Something the listener wouldn’t expect.  We don’t want stories where you basically know the whole story at the beginning and then spend the rest of the piece hearing more about it.

– Gets at the Why – …not just the what.  What motivates our characters.  Why are they doing what they’re doing.  It’s not enough just to know that someone did something goofy, we want to get at what drove them to do it.

B-Side’s show development and editing process:
The idea behind B-Side is to make radio we’re proud of.  B-Side is a place for stories that can air nowhere else (not because they suck but…) because they are unusual, offbeat, and personal. They tell stories that aren’t news.  We demand network-quality sound and storytelling…just not network style boredom.  We want each story to be the very best that the producer/reporter can create or even better.  We want it to be their story, carrying their vision…but even the best reporters need help, someone to push them to be their best, and that’s where the editing comes in.

Executive Producer:

(currently Tamara Keith) In that role she works to market the show to public radio stations around the country and interfaces with PRX and other national distribution outlets.  She does all the big picture production stuff like schedule show air dates, keep track of themes, and send out pitch requests, with the help of the “show producers.” She also assembles the final show mix and makes sure it gets where it needs to go.

Show Producer:
The show producer takes ownership of one half-hour show, deciding on the theme and shaping it in consultation with Tamara.  The show producer solicits pitches, makes assignments, and assigns story editors to work with each contributor.  The show producer works with the story editor and the contributor to shape the story.  Then the show producer does a final edit on all the pieces once the story editor and contributor think it’s done.  The show producer also works with the host to develop “glue” and a show script.  The show producer will regularly update Tamara about the status of the show, estimated completion date, etc.

Story Editor:
The story editor will most likely come from the stable of show producers who are not working on the show in question.  Story editors could also include other seasoned members of the B-Side crew.  Tamara will rarely edit stories, because she needs to be able to make an objective judgment about the stories as they near the end of the production process.  The story editor works closely with the contributor helping them to shape their story, editing their script and listening to their tape very early on in the process.  Most of the script edits should be done listening to tape.  The story editor should listen to the contributor read their script…most of the editing should happen over the phone rather than e-mail.  If the story editor has questions, they should consult the show producer.  The story editor will also help the contributor track their story and can even help with mixing if necessary.

Mouth Editing:
Often we like to use “mouth editing” before a story is voiced. Mouth editing is a process that involves the contributor and the editor.  They go through the piece 2 sentences at a time.  The contributor reads and tries to remember 2 sentences.  Then he/she recites out loud what the sentences say.  The editor follows along with the script and takes note of words that are left out or added.  The way the contributor says those sentences is most likely the way they should be in the script.  This will make the writing more conversational.  Extraneous words will be left out, overly academic words will be simplified and sometimes more conversational little words will be thrown in.

Voicing Au Natural:

One of the ways we’d like to make B-Side stick out from the rest of public radio is by voicing our stories differently. We’re definitely not going for a newsy sound in most cases, nor do we want to sound like we’re imitating This American Life. One way we’ve found to get really natural reads is by not reading at all. Instead, the reporter narrates the piece live, like they’re telling the story between their tape. Of course we’re all told to write that way, and to voice that way, but it rarely works. Here’s one way to get better, more natural, spontaneous reads:

It’s good to write a script first and to know what you want to say — that way you’ll be sure the story flows (and so will your editor) and you’ll be getting what you need when you record your tracks. The best way to do it is to do a tape sync of yourself. In other words, record yourself as you talk on the phone. If you can get into a studio to do this, great. You’ll have the mic set up perfectly and your hand won’t get tired. Plus, it’s always nice not to worry about suffocating under a blanket while you voice. If you can’t get into a studio, a closet will do.

Make sure the editor or the show producer has a copy of the script. You should have a copy too, along with the actualities, if possible. Instead of reading your tracks, look at them then put them down. Now tell the editor what happened. Describe the scene. React to it. The editor can also act as a prompter, asking questions like, “What was it like?”, “When did he get into the button business?”, “What happened next?”, and “Why?”. If you can make it into a conversation, great.

If your answers don’t quite come out right the first, try them again. It’s always good to go back and re-record your first track no matter how you voice, so you can replace your first attempt if it sounds stiff or like you were still warming up. If as you’re talking through your piece, new ideas or questions come up, go with them. You can always cut them out when you listen back through. Also, you can play your actualities along the way to jog your memory, elicit reactions, and evoke the scene in your head. The editor will be the one keeping track of whether you’ve covered the bases and listening to whether it sounds right.

Then as the reporter you’ll trim down the spoken tracks and mix the piece as if it had been voiced the old fashioned way.  The story editor will work with you on this to make sure it sounds just right.

The Final Step:

When all the stories have satisfied the story editors and the show editor, Tamara will listen to them all and make sure they meet B-Side’s quality and content standards.  She’ll listen for technical glitches and sound quality, in addition to the quality of writing and reporting. While the contributor, editor and show producer should have covered all these things, Tamara will serve as a final, impartial ear and in most cases will not request major changes.

The following is a list of guidelines and suggestions for the production of B-Side.

Good Stuff:
Room tone: Gather one minute of quiet sound in the room where you do each interview.  This can help hide edits later and also can be used to smooth the transition between your voice and the sound bites when you’re mixing the piece.  This is vital.

B-Side aims to make better use of sound than the average public radio program.  That means you should always be on the lookout for things that make noise, and noises that can make your story more interesting.  Ambience helps create scenes and helps draw listeners in to a story.  Every piece we do should have some kind of ambient sound.  Think of it as “foreground sound” and not just background noise.  Get sound of people doing what they do (not just talking about it).  For instance record sound of walking if you’re on a walking tour or get sound of the carpenter hammering if you’re doing a story about a carpenter.

Record Your Questions:
You may not use them, but having the option is always a good thing.  Often, having your questions on tape will be helpful when you sit down to write.  Also, part of what makes B-Side unique is that we incorporate the reporters’ personalities into the show.  Using one or two of your questions in a piece can help inject a little personality.

Scenes: Paint a picture.  Put the listener in a place.  Describe the situation and use ambience to help.

Consistency: Make sure your levels are consistent throughout your piece.  This may require adjusting levels a bit once you’ve inputted them into the computer.  In the end, you don’t want anything to stand out in your piece as too hot or too quiet.

Actualities (sound bites): This tape should advance your story.  If you’re interviewing someone about crime don’t use the part of the interview where they’re listing off crime stats for the last 5 years, use the part where they talk about how they feel when they think about all the unsolved murders.  The reporter’s job is to give the information, the source’s job is to give listeners a reason to care.

Also, make sure your actualities are active.  Don’t have the scientist tell you how the machine works, ask then to show you how it works.  This helps the listener see the scene.

Bad Stuff

(as in this stuff shouldn’t find its way into a B-Side story):

Phone Tape…eeeek.  It sounds icky.  We want B-Side to sound beautiful.  There are some exceptions, but it needs to be approved in advance.

Over modulated tape…if your levels are peaking and your sound is distorted, choose a different piece of tape.

Tape that’s too quiet
…you shouldn’t have to boost your tape.  And, if you do boost it, the hiss shouldn’t be so loud that it distracts from the interview.

Incomprehensible tape…if there’s ever a question, run your tape past someone else before you write it into your story.  Often you can understand what the tape says because you’ve listened to it 10 times, but for the rest of us it’s entirely unclear what’s going on. This is really important for people with heavy accents. That said, if it’s essential to the story, we can always find ways to deal with accents – either translations, or re-stating the act in the script.

Mic handling noise, digital pops, etc…this is stating the obvious, but we simply can’t use tape that isn’t clean. Mic handling noise, cable shuffling noise, wind noise, digital pops and the like all distract from a story and can frequently make it hard to listen to. We want to make it easy for people to listen to B-Side, not painful.

Other Tips and Words of Wisdom:

Music is a good thing. We want our shows to have a lot of music in them.  But we also have to be careful.  We shouldn’t use music to try and evoke emotion in a piece. This is journalism not feature film scoring.  So…if you’re tempted to use music in the middle of a story, try ambience first.

Space. When mixing your stories, don’t put your acts and tracks so close together that the piece doesn’t have time to breathe.  Give it space, but of course, not too much space.

Tape to Tape Cuts:
This is where you go from one actuality to another without any narration in between.  This makes the story surprising and helps break up the track/act/track/act/track formula that can get pretty dull after a while.  Tape to tape cuts are a nice technique, but shouldn’t be overused.

Interaction with interview subjects: Mic yourself too! The spontaneity of real back-and-forth can add lot to the piece. We needn’t be afraid of making the reporter part of the story.

The Way Glue Works:
Each edition of B-Side consists of several produced pieces tied together with music and what we like to call “glue,” which the host will script, record and produce.  Part of the B-Side signature is that we don’t sound like we’re in the studio, so all of the story intros, credits, etc will be recorded as part of the glue, giving the show a “live” in-the-moment sound.

Since all of our host recording will be done outside and on the fly, there will have to be a lot of planning.  The host will go with the flow and won’t follow the script exactly, but it does need to be there as a guide.  So, the host will need to listen to all of the stories in the show before they go out and record the glue.  The host can either work alone or with a “glue buddy” who will be a co-host of sorts out in the field interacting on tape.

Other Disclaimers:

– Sadly, no one gets paid for doing B-Side stories…yet.

– If you haven’t done a story for B-Side before, please submit an audition disc (these days an e-mail with links is great) with a few of your best stories on it to Tamara.

– Feel free to pitch stories that you’ve done for other shows or publications, even in other mediums.  But in the end, we want it to sound like a B-Side piece and that will mean modifying what you’ve already done.

– The senior producer and show producers reserve the right to cancel a story if they feel it isn’t fit for air.

– Feel free to pitch stories that don’t fit into our current line-up of themes.  We can always create a theme around your story.

– Have fun with your stories.  After all, we’re doing this because we love radio, and we want our listener to have just as much fun listening as we have creating the show.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *