this american life

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Batman, Oregon, & Tamir Rice

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Batman (1/9/15, NPR’s This American Life): Whenever I listen to This American Life on NPR, I marvel at its producers’ ability to consistently find truly fascinating stories.

They then turn those stories into enthralling hour-long programs.

This month’s “Batman” episode fills the bill. I actually rolled my eyes a bit at the title and constant references to the super-hero, which seemed somewhat forced and even subjective in glamorizing the program’s main subject.

But that subject — a blind man who can ride bikes and hike, among other things — and the program’s overall examination of the capabilities of the blind make for a superb listen. Producers Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller weave their way through a story that absorbs from start to finish.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2013, audio/video edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Having done the “3 Great Stories” segment every week since starting this block in February, I now face the challenge of picking my favorites.

But I have picked them, and here they are.

I posted my three favorite written stories of the year last week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite audio/video pieces of 2013, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

#3) Cut and run (11/1/13, Radiolab): This entire segment from NPR’s Radiolab is tremendous, but I will tell you the moment when I truly appreciated the storytelling here:

I had listened to about five minutes of the story, which is essentially a lesson as to why Kenyan runners always dominate long-distance running. The show’s producers and reporters kept teasing out the answer, providing possible (and then debunked) explanations and expressing their own bewilderment, while keeping their real hypothesis in the distance. I was listening while sitting at my computer, and I realized at that moment that, if I really wanted to learn the answer, I could probably just Google it and be done.

But I didn’t want to Google it. I didn’t want to spoil the big reveal. I wanted to stay on the Radiolab ride, because the story until that point had been so interesting and well-told.

Turned out the reveal was pretty great — and also gruesome. Ladies and specifically gentlemen, please do not listen to the back half of this segment on an empty stomach.

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PODCAST EPISODE #10: Rachel Hamburg, Stanford Storytelling Project

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At the end of a lengthy and optimistic answer about how young journalists can succeed professionally, Rachel Hamburg — a 2011 Stanford graduate — took a step back.

“As a 25-year-old hoping to make a career out of this, I think it’s a little bit scary,” she said. “And it’s OK to be scared.”

Then she broke into laughter — the type that occurs when, looking at the difficult journey ahead, all you can do is laugh.

The majority of young storytellers and journalists face the challenge of channeling their enthusiasm and skills into a stable, long-lasting career. Many industries have obvious and time-honored career paths; journalism is not one of them. It is a constantly changing field where new tools and vehicles pop up almost annually.

Hamburg is off to a great start. She freelances with innovative storytelling programs like Mashcast, and she currently serves as the managing editor for the Stanford Storytelling Project, which provides storytelling training for students in any field.

She is also my guest on the tenth episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

I chose Hamburg as a guest because she represents a unique viewpoint. She produces traditional media, in a sense; the Stanford Storytelling Project team regularly delivers episodes of an hour-long, “This American Life”-style podcast called “State of the Human”. But she also has relationships with cutting-edge journalists and does not limit the power of journalism to its traditional forms. She is a new college graduate who also, through her job, advises current students.

And she does all this while trying to figure out her own future.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2013 (so far), audio/video edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I am on vacation — and out of commission — through this week, so I figured I would use these weeks to post “Best Of” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

Last week I posted my three favorite written stories of the year so far. This week, without further ado, my three favorite audio/video pieces from January through June (although, it seems, they are all audio piecces), along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

Jason Collins interview (4/30/13, The B.S. Report): Jason Collins was all over the news in late April, starting with his coming-out announcement on Sports Illustrated’s web site — a wonderfully written and powerful piece in its own right. After it, he did several interviews and was the subject of a slew of articles.

In the process, Collins became an elevated figure. Many of the pieces about him last week talked more about what he represents than who he is.

For me, one interview stood out for going in the opposite direction.

Bill Simmons is, of course, the most popular writer at ESPN and Grantland.com, but he has proven to be a deft and skilled interviewer on his B.S. Report podcast, during which he regularly gets notable subjects to reveal unique insights into themselves. Simmons did a one-hour podcast with Collins the day after his announcement, and it is a seminar on how to conduct an interview. He keeps things light in many spots, chats basketball — including Collins’ ability to bend the rules and frustrate big-name opponents in the process — and does the seemingly impossible in the process: finds out details about Collins’ experience that had not yet been revealed in the tons of articles and columns written the previous day.

A detail that stunned me? Collins got a congratulatory phone call from Tim Hardaway, the former NBA player who once famously said, “I hate gay people.”

Simmons is a polarizing figure in sports media, but he has always been a terrific storyteller. His best attribute? He knows how to connect with people, whether his massive audience or his interview subjects. Here, while everyone else treated Collins as a hero, Simmons treated him as a human … and obtained the most human coverage of Collins as a result.

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Storytelling podcasts I love … and an announcement!

Let me start with the announcement first.

Later this month I will debut the Telling the Story podcast. This will add to the content already on the Telling the Story blog, and it will allow me to discuss storytelling in a different fashion.

For each podcast, I plan to interview a respected journalist and storyteller to expound upon many of the subjects I discuss on the blog: storytelling process, the changing role of the journalist, great stories and pieces, et cetera. I have not yet decided how frequently I will record the podcasts, but I will likely determine that over the next few weeks.

As this site enters its third month, I am excited about its current growth and look forward to adding the podcast to its arsenal. I hope you all enjoy it as well.

To celebrate that announcement, I thought I would offer three recommendations for podcasts that provide great storytelling. Give these shows a whirl, and then come back here later this month.

99% Invisible

The 99% Invisible podcast bills itself as “a tiny radio show about design”, which reminds me of when Seinfeld used to call itself “a show about nothing”.

Both assertions are true in a very, very loose sense.

Yes, 99% Invisible has tiny roots — it is a PRX public radio show that has relied on Kickstarter campaigns for financing. And yes, it technically deals with design … but in fascinating ways you would never imagine.

(Oh, and just so we’re clear, the 99% reference has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.)

Take last week’s episode: “The Modern Moloch“. We all drive cars and accept them as unavoidable components of modern-day life. But have you ever thought about how they were first received in the 1920s? Have you ever thought about how cars were once derided as death traps because they killed too many pedestrians playing out in the roads? Have you ever thought about the similarities between the automakers’ response to such criticisms and the NRA’s campaign against gun control?

In short, did you ever think a story from nearly 100 years ago could be so relevant today?

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring blind dogs, disabilities, and the national pastime

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Three stories.

Three extremely different examples of storytelling.

One story takes two minutes to watch; the second, roughly ten minutes to read; the third, nearly an hour to hear.

One story is light and heartwarming; the second, informative and mind-expanding; the third, serious and soul-shaking.

One story succeeds through its sweet visuals; the second, through sheer research; the third, through a mix of thorough reporting, detailed interviewing, and personal storytelling.

Each story works, and works well. You may find yourself talking about all of them this week.

Blind Lab Has His Own Guide Dog (3/25/13, NBC’s Today Show): Here’s the thing: I actually did not like a lot of the storytelling in this piece.

Mainly, I could not stand the music, and the story did not need it.

But every time I thought about turning this story off, I was pulled back in by (A) the cuteness of the dogs, or (B) the unfolding of the story. NBC’s Annabel Roberts brings this joyful piece from Wales, U.K., and with the exception of the music, she wisely lets the dogs do the, um, talking.

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring nostalgia, water, and an all-puppy channel!

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

One of my co-workers, knowing my propensity for telling inspirational, uplifting stories, sometimes calls me “Dr. Feelgood”.

I think he would approve of the following batch of stories.

Two of these stories were published this week; the third actually first aired ten years ago but was re-aired last Friday in podcast form. They represent different forms of media — audio, photo, and the written word — but they all stir up some kind of emotion, from awe to nostalgia to the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from watching puppies. (You’ll see what I mean …)

So get in touch with your inner Dr. Feelgood, and enjoy …

World Water Day 2013 (3/18/13, boston.com/bigpicture): I have mentioned the Big Picture blog three times now in this space, and I will probably have to restrict myself eventually. But this is my favorite of the three I have mentioned: a collection of photographs relating to water. I guarantee you have never seen photos quite like the first four in this gallery.

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