If you’ve heard our show and you want to make stories like the ones we do, there’s good news: There are lots of places where you can learn.
First and foremost, there’s a website called Transom.org where you can find essays by some of the most experienced people doing radio documentaries, including a few This American Life regulars — Nancy Updike, Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, Sean Cole, Dave Kestenbaum, John Hodgman, Sarah Vowell, Paul Tough and Scott Carrier — but also greats like Errol Morris, Studs Terkel, Robert Krulwich, Brooke Gladstone and Dave Isay.
Read Ira Glass's “Manifesto” on Transom.
DIY Radio Guides
Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
Ira writes: “Jessica Abel created the definitive how-to guide for anyone who wants to make narrative journalism – true stories with scenes and plot and characters like we do on our show. She visited Radiolab, Snap Judgment, The Moth, and others, for a comprehensive look. Some of the sections — like the long section on how to tell whether the story you’re thinking about making is worth making at all — blow my mind, they’re so well done. I’ve probably bought 150 copies for people over the years and can’t recommend it highly enough.”
How to Make Radio Comic Book
This 32-page comic book is something we put out with Jessica Abel back in the 90s. Years later she expanded on it and incorporated it into her guidebook Out on the Wire. You can also get it as a pdf.
Radio Diaries Teen Reporter Handbook
Don't be put off by the title. This handbook, which is free and online, has lots of advice that'll be useful to any beginner.
The DIY Radio Rookies Toolkit
Includes their own comic book, instructional videos, and tip sheets, all downloadable for free online.
Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound
John Biewen, editor, with Alexa Dilworth
This book, by the Center for Documentary Studies, includes essays by lots of producers, including Joe Richman, Jay Allison, the Kitchen Sisters, Stephen Smith and Ira Glass.
Ira: "These videos were shot by producers with that TV channel Current.com, which encourages amateurs everywhere to shoot and make their own stories and put them on the air. It's one of a series of videos they did with all kinds of broadcasters giving tips to beginners. On the internet, I seem to be more famous for these videos than for any of my actual work."
This American Life producer Brian Reed spoke at The Conference on "The Craft of Storytelling" about the three key elements of a good story: action, reflection, and stakes.
Transom worked with videographer Andrew Norton to create the This Is Radio series: video portraits of radio producers talking about their process.
The Gear We Use
This American Life producers record in the field on Marantz PDM 661 digital recorders, with Audio-Technica shotgun microphones (AT835b, AT8035 and AT897).
We like shotgun mics because they give you a prettier sound for interviews with less room noise, and when you need to capture the sounds of machines clicking and cows mooing and all the other ambient audio that makes up a radio documentary, you can point at what you're trying to record and isolate it from the surrounding environment a bit.
Occasionally in specialized situations, we'll also use a wireless mic, which is a great thing to have but definitely not a necessity for a beginner. Ira recalls: "I bought my first wireless when I was 33. I'd worked in radio for 14 years without one. It was, no kidding, more expensive than the car I drove at the time, a pro Lectrosonics rig that cost me $1800."
We edit and mix the radio show on Mac computers with Pro Tools, using its basic Mbox 2 setup. Our studio mixer these days is a nifty little six-fader Axia broadcast console. In the studio we have Shure KSM-32 mics, which are the great $500 knockoffs of the gorgeous $3400 Neumann U87's you hear on the big NPR news shows. Ours were actually donated to us by Mrs. Shure in the early days of our show. Shure Inc. is located in the Chicago suburbs and we suppose she must've been a fan of WBEZ.
For more details on our gear, software, and process: Ira wrote a "How I Work" article on Lifehacker. And Transom also has a tools section that has a bunch of reviews of cheap, good equipment you can use to make radio. They have guides on how to do digital editing and mixing.
Jobs and Internships
- Our fellowship
- Current.org's directory of public radio jobs and internships
- NPR's Next Generation Project
- NPR Kroc Fellowships
- NPR Jobs and Training Opportunities
- NPR Internships
- Chicago Public Radio internships
- The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies
- The Transom Story Workshops
- Columbia University Journalism Grad School
- UC Berkeley Grad School in Journalism
- The Stanford Storytelling Project
Third Coast Audio Festival
The Third Coast Festival is both an international radio competition and a convention of like-minded radio people from around the world. Here are some useful discussions from the festival.
- Our senior producer Julie Snyder on a panel about how to pitch your story to a radio show.
- Radiolab's Jad Abumrad on music in radio stories.
- Dave Kestenbaum on explaining the world in four minutes.
- Radio Diaries' Joe Richman on first-person radio stories.
- Transom's Rob Rosenthal on bringing extra batteries and other essential basics.