Transitioning from Interview to Narrative Nonfiction Podcasting

For the last five years, I’ve produced First Draft with Sarah Enni, a weekly creative writing podcast with a reliable format: one-on-one conversations between me and a guest. When I came up with an idea for a spin-off limited series, it required a new format: narrative nonfiction.

The resulting project, Track Changes, explains how the traditional U.S. publishing industry works by weaving together voices of many experts, guided along by narrative voice-over. It’s basically an audio documentary, which is the polar opposite of my familiar format.

Tackling Track Changes has required every skill I’ve learned throughout my time working as a journalist, a novelist, and a podcast creator and host. I’m lucky enough to have an expert producer by my side with a background in audio storytelling: Hayley Hershman, who works at American Public Media on Marketplace, as well as producing APM’s lifestyle and personal finance podcast This Is Uncomfortable.

Even with our combined experience, the project was a challenge by its very nature. We set out to uncover “everything you don’t know you don’t know” about publishing — and with every realization about what I didn’t know, the story took on a new shape.

It’s been a struggle to find the balance between letting the tape dictate the final product and staying in control of what I’m creating so I’m not wasting too much time. When I interviewed documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, she told me the worst part of her job is telling someone she’s interviewed that they won’t be using their tape.

That comment struck a chord, because my reporting instincts are to go after anyone who would talk to me, distill the information, and highlight a few key voices, as you would in a print article. But for narrative non-fiction audio, I had to be far more judicious. If I did it over again, I would start with key interviews and schedule a few preliminary interviews with potential guests, and work outward from there as the story demanded.

I had to shift all the expectations I set for guests before tape began rolling.

When I did sit down for an interview, I had to manage an entirely new strategy. Rather than make the guest comfortable enough to forget the microphone was there, I had to prod them to restate the question, ask them to rephrase, and stay far more silent than I normally would, to preserve the integrity of their tape.

I had to shift all the expectations I set for guests before tape began rolling, and I’m working on being better with updating interviewees and staying on top of follow-through to let them know when the project will air, and when it goes live.

Scoring episodes is new to me, too. It makes such an enormous difference, and I’m lucky that my producer is so skilled at finding great music and taking total initiative over the scoring process. The composer who made my music did a great job, but I would be sure to ask in the future for tracks that are as simple as possible to loop (tracks that begin and end with the same note, at the same volume, saves so much time).

My producer and I already used AirTable as the hub for our communication and file-sharing, and it has been absolutely pivotal to staying organized throughout the process. We write and edit scripts in Google Docs, but keeping my Drive folders organized is a constant struggle. For my workflow, I also need regular check-ins over the phone with Hayley to be sure that the ever-multiplying loose ends are accounted for.

Shifting formats allowed me to give my audience clear, quality information in a more organized and straight-forward way.

I’ve learned so much about the unique demands of telling non-fiction stories in this medium. Shifting formats allowed me to give my audience clear, quality information in a more organized and straight-forward way. Track Changes has been clear, propulsive, and refined in a whole new way, and listeners are responding with such enthusiasm.

I feel so empowered by going through the process — There are so many stories I’d love to tell in the audio documentary format, and I’m thrilled to know Track Changes is only the beginning.

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