Friday, June 04, 2010

10 Tips on Radio Production from NPR's Kitchen Sister Davia Nelson

"An enemy is someone whose story you don't know," said Davia Nelson, paraphrasing one of her favorite quotes. Nelson is a master of stories: as an independent radio producer, she has teamed with Nikki Silva for 25 years and together they form the Kitchen Sisters, an award-winning production team for National Public Radio (NPR)

They are the creators of more than 200 stories for public broadcast about the lives, histories, art and rituals of people who have shaped our diverse cultural heritage. They have received numerous awards including the duPont-Columbia Award, two Peabody Awards, three Audies and many others.

In my continued quest to broaden my multimedia skills as a journalist, I recently attended a three-hour workshop taught by Davia Nelson. During the class, Davia, a thoughtful and soft-spoken woman, shared valuable advice with me and a dozen classmates on storytelling, interviewing techniques and radio recording equipment. Here are my favorite tips.

Tips for Radio
1. Do not ever pause or stop the recording. You may forget to turn it back on. You can always edit later.
2. Be selective about where you conduct the interview. Top priority: a quiet spot. For example, if you are in someone's kitchen, turn off the refrigerator. (In order to remember to plug it back in, Davia leaves her car keys in the fridge).
3. Be at peace with your equipment. Create a checklist of items that you will always take with you. This includes having fresh, fully charged batteries and ample computer storage space for your recordings. Be sure to check all of the connections for each piece of equipment prior to the interview.
4. Carry a "sound bag" that contains all your equipment and fits your body. Select a bag that you can wear that distributes the weight across your body. Davia regrets not doing this sooner and her back has protested against the years she carried a heavy bag on one shoulder.
5. Cell phones can interfere with recording devices. Make sure to leave your cell phone far away from the recording equipment. 
6. Always start the recording by stating your name, program name, the date and who is being interviewed. This will help you organize and archive your material and provides an easy introduction. 
7. Travel with release forms for the subjects to sign to obtain legal rights to their material.
8. Prep ahead of time. Write your interview questions before the interview!
9. Make your first interview question an ice breaker. Davia always starts an interview with the same question: "What did you have for breakfast?" It's appropriate for her the subject of the Kitchen Sisters show, but more importantly, it's easy for the subject to answer and puts them at ease. 
10. It's all about the audio - so ask your subject to sing a favorite song or lullaby, Davia suggests.

Questions and Answers
 I asked Davia, "How do you direct an interviewee when the interview wanders off track?" Here are a few techniques she uses to subtly guide her subject.
1. Use physical body language - turn away or stop making eye contact - subtly!
2. Create a scene change: for instance, drop something, on the ground to cause minor disruption
3. Be patient!
Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva team up as The Kitchen Sisters. 
Some Surprises
1. Davia's interviews can sometimes take four hours and result in 50-page transcripts.
2. An average project goes through 80 versions to test every configuration before going on the radio.

Online Radio Resources
Transom: A Showcase and Workshop for New Public Radio
A celebration of the best feature and documentary work heard worldwide on the radio and the Internet.

With many years' experience as a print journalist and continuing my growth now as a multimedia journalist, I was curious about what compelled Davia to channel her storytelling passion into the medium of radio. I also asked Nathan Dalton, the Kitchen Sisters Productions' Project Manager, the same question. Here's what they said:


"It's the most visual form of media, you get to use your imagination to go different places.  I love the power of voice... Radio makes you listen harder."

" I was 10 or 11 years old when I fell in love with radio. I had a small transistor radio and I

loved music and listening to the rhyming hep cat DJs... It wasn't til I was in my 20's that I heard radio stories... Radio engages people. I's powerful. It pulls people in."

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