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10 Years: Hey, How'd You Go Global With Public Radio, Adam Davidson?

Connecting with listeners and getting tech-savvy, keeps this radio pro prepared for anything

- October 1, 2007
To celebrate mediabistro.com's 10th anniversary, we spoke with our Golden Boa honorees about their achievements in media. Check back throughout the week for Hey How'd You Do That features showcasing these media pros.
As international business and economics correspondent for NPR, Adam Davidson's work has taken him from southeast Asia to the Middle East. Though he didn't originally intend to go into radio, he's become an NPR staple: in addition to NPR's newscasts, his stories can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Day to Day (and he's gotten to write for some magazines, too).

We got him to describe the behind-the-scenes challenges and rewards of chasing international stories for radio. Like print and television, Davidson says, "at the end of the day, a radio story is only as good as the story."


You've been an NPR correspondent since 2004 -- what got you into radio?
An accident. I was planning to write for magazines in New York. I had a couple internships lined up. I liked listening to the radio, but had no thoughts of working in radio. And then, as a senior in college I met someone who was interning at the local public radio station, WBEZ. She told me the internship was fun. I applied, got it, and was hooked right away.

In what ways do the technical aspects of your job make your work different from what print journalists do?
When I work on a print story, I'm always amazed at how little I have to carry. Just a pen and a reporters' notebook. For radio, I need a large digital recorder, a big mic, headphones, lots of extra cords and batteries. It's certainly nothing like the stuff TV guys need, but it's a lot to keep track of.

Also, I feel like you can fudge things a bit in print. I don't mean make things up. But if you're writing the story and you realize you forgot to ask some crucial question, you can call or email the person. But with radio, you pretty much have to have everything on tape that first time. Not always, but most of the time.

So, I find radio reporting requires more attention and focus than print reporting. But I find that actually writing a radio story is much easier than writing a print story. You listen to your tape, identify the cuts you might use, and then you just have to write [tracks] between the cuts. It's easy -- nowhere near as terrifying as staring at a blank screen and needing to structure a whole piece from your handwritten notes.

As international business and economics correspondent, you've reported on a wide range of international issues -- how do you make far-reaching coverage accessible to a U.S. audience?
It is really hard to make some of the stuff I cover interesting -- there are these big macroeconomic issues that can seem so opaque and abstract. Who cares about the current account deficit or the US-Yuan exchange rate? The first thing I try to do is the obvious reporter's trick: try to find some person or group of people who are actually affected by whatever it is I'm covering. This is easy when traveling to another country, because I can go into the field and find the poor villager or the ambitious entrepreneur running his new factory or whatever. I can usually find someone who is funny or poignant or in some way engaging.

It's harder when it's a fast-breaking story. I often only have time for some quick phone interviews, usually with economists or policy analysts. These "talking heads" pieces are rough. It's hard to get tape that is spontaneous and dramatic or even interesting. I try to solve this, in part, by building a list of experts who I know can be funny or interesting or, at the very least, clear. Also, lately I've been trying to do anything I can to surprise the talking head. I want to ask them something unexpected or challenge them aggressively or convince them to tell a funny story: basically to do anything so they don't sound like a canned expert reciting some long-known piece of expertise. Radio is so boring when the person talking has said what they're saying a million times before.

"It takes a particularly great print writer to convey an experience of destruction in a way that engages the reader. But the voice of a person, breaking with emotion, is so powerful... I don't think anything can beat it."

You've done a substantial amount of reporting from disaster zones, such as Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and filing from Banda Aceh while living in a concrete bunker there after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia. How do you prepare -- in both the short and long term -- to cover disasters?
It is amazing to suddenly be somewhere without any of the support systems of modern life: no electricity, no medical care, no reliable water or food, nobody who can fix your car or laptop.

I've forced myself to learn how computers work, so I can fix problems when I'm far from any computer store. You can't file without a working computer. I also have learned how to operate a lot of different types of satellite phone. I've learned how to power equipment off of car batteries -- there are a lot of places where car batteries are the main source of electricity. I've learned to understand the basics of identifying clean water and filtering bad water. I've learned what to eat and what to avoid in post-disaster, developing countries, where disease is a real issue.

I'd like to learn some basic car repair. I've had some scary moments in the field -- particularly in post-ground war Iraq -- when the car I was driving wasn't working and I was all alone in the middle of nowhere and had no idea how to fix it. I'd like to know basic first aid -- I've been with friends when they've had minor injuries or illnesses, and I wish I knew better how to handle those things when medical care is nowhere around.

One great thing about covering disasters is you develop friendships with a bunch of other reporters who are likely to be around for the next one. When you get into trouble, you can call them. Whenever I am assigned to go somewhere, I'll call my friends and see who is heading out and what they know. It's helpful to find out about the visa situation -- are they letting Americans in? Is it good or bad to say you're a journalist at the border? Which roads are safer? Where can you find a good fixer? Is it just too dangerous to go at all? I can't imagine going somewhere without that advanced knowledge.

People ask about preparing emotionally. I don't find the emotion hits when you're in the field, usually. I'm doing a job, covering a story, and I'm pretty focused. If it's a really upsetting assignment -- like the post-tsunami Banda Aceh, or Iraq -- I find the emotions hit after I leave. There's usually a week or so where I'm pretty out of it and kind of depressed. But it passes.

Since radio doesn't give its audience visual images to accompany a story, how do you convey the direness of those events through your reportage?
Oh, I think radio is the best at conveying dire events. When you see TV images of some disaster, I think, you're struck by the exotic, foreign, and remote nature of the image. It seems so far away and unlike your own experience. It's impossible to feel connected to it. It takes a particularly great print writer to convey an experience of destruction in a way that engages the reader. But the voice of a person, breaking with emotion, is so powerful. It sneaks in under your defenses. You're not distracted by what the person looks like or how other-worldly the surroundings are. You're just hearing this human being's emotions coming right at you. I don't think anything can beat it.

In addition to the reporting practices shared between radio and print or TV correspondents (gathering information, sources, quotes, etc.) what else must you think about as you pursue stories, (e.g. collecting ambient noise to weave into your coverage later, keeping an eye on sound levels while interviewing, etc.)? How do you put it together (e.g. editing/using sound in a creative way to enhance your stories, etc.)?
At the end of the day, a radio story is only as good as the story. Just like print or TV or any other narrative form, you want a compelling narrative and some decent characters. So, some of the best radio does not use the most exciting sound. It's just one voice or a few voices narrating something gripping. It can be on a lousy phone line and, if the story is good enough, it works.

But, of course, it's ideal to have good audio. Not just for professional pride. Good audio engages the listener more and can make the narrative more complete. When I record an interview for radio, I'm paying attention in a very different way from a print interview. I'm listening not only to the content, but to the way the person says what they're saying and to all the other sounds around: Is it lively tape? Do they sound like a real person or some automaton? Is there a loud bus driving by? Is there some better audio environment in which to conduct the interview? Sometimes people say really interesting things in a boring way that just won't grab a listener's attention; or they say something great, but there's a loud and distracting air conditioner right next to them. You could use the quote in print, no matter how hostile the sound environment is, but you'd probably have to reject it for radio. Watching levels is an important skill -- getting the sound not too loud or too soft. For some reason, it took me a really long time to learn how to do that well. Although with a lot of modern digital equipment you don't have to worry about it too much.

The typical radio story has what we call "acts," "trax" and an "ambi bed." That means there are actualities -- the cuts of tape of someone talking. Trax are the reporter reading the script. And an ambi bed is that natural sound stuff that most people notice on NPR stories -- the background sound of chickens squawking or someone banging a hammer. Some highly produced shows -- like This American Life or Radio Lab -- use many other elements, including musical scoring. But most NPR stories have ax/trax/ambi or just ax/trax if it's a breaking news story.

Is there anything about radio that makes it particularly well-suited to covering business/economics?
It is a real challenge covering economics on the radio. Radio is typically a lousy place to get across abstract ideas or to use a lot of numbers. It's much easier for an audience to follow economic information if they can see something like a graph or if they can go back and review the concepts they had trouble with. I don't know how many people can drive to work, pay attention to traffic, and truly grasp a radio story about how the Fed is concerned about growing inflation after they lowered the Fed Funds Rate by 50 basis points.

But it's radio's limitations that can help a reporter keep things straightforward and simple. I think radio demands directness. It's not a great medium for dense information or obscurity or digression. I try -- and don't always succeed -- to have one main point in any given story. Not two points, certainly not three. Just one main point, told as simply and clearly as possible. I try not to keep things too abstract. I try to come up with concrete examples that can give the listener something to hook on to, something to look at in their minds, to better grasp the concept. And, whenever possible, I try to tell a story, preferably a classic kind of tale of someone confronting a problem and needing a solution. So, instead of talking about the Feds Fund Rate in the abstract, I can tell the story of Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, who has a problem: He needs to calm markets by lowering rates but he's terrified that he'll just spur out-of-control inflation. Admittedly, it's not the most compelling story and won't be getting me any movie deals. But at least there's a person with motivation and stakes and all the things that make a narrative work.

You've written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, GQ, and Rolling Stone. How does the outlet where your work will appear affect how you report? Do you tend to write in a different style or emphasize different elements within your stories as a result of your radio experience?
I'd love to think that I have my own style that carries across mediums and different outlets. But, of course, a Harper's story is very different from an NPR story which is different from GQ. Harper's, generally, allows for a more writerly voice. I don't have to worry as much about grabbing and holding on to every reader with super-dynamic prose. When I've written for more popular magazines, I've been more aware of writing shorter sentences with punchier language.

I often find that print editors -- even at the more casual places -- say my writing is too conversational. With radio, you really want to keep things informal and breezy. Short, simple ideas. You don't even need full sentences. That's gotten me into trouble at some places.

If someone's interested in doing work like yours, what are the most important things for them to know/keep in mind?
Public radio is remarkably easy to enter. Just about every local public radio station has lots of openings for eager folks happy to work hard for little or no money. When I started, I spent two years working full-time before I made anything approaching a sad, little living wage. I just went more and more in debt. But it was a wonderful time, because at a young age I was able to do so much: fresh out of college and I was picking who and what would go out on the radio. It was thrilling.

So, step one is to just get in the door. It's much easier to go to a local station than to NPR directly. When you get to a station, you see that there are lots of different jobs you might not have known about. There are audio engineers, show producers, hosts, newscasters, field reporters, and then all the folks in fundraising and audience outreach. Some people just want to be on air, others like making the shows run from behind the scenes.

Step two would be developing the right skills. If you want to report, you should learn how to handle the equipment and get good levels, how to edit audio on a computer. It's a great idea to just force yourself to put together little radio stories. I recommend starting small: three-, four-minute pieces. They can be newsy or a profile of some weird person.

These days, there are so many great resources for aspiring radio people. Transom.org is great. There are a lot of resources at airmedia.org or prx.org. And, of course, mediabistro.com.


Tips on Breaking Into Radio
1) Learn the technology.
"If you want to report, you should learn how to handle the equipment and get good levels, how to edit audio on a computer. It's a great idea to just force yourself to put together little radio stories," Davidson says.
2) Keep it simple.
"It's not a great medium for dense information or obscurity or digression. I try -- and don't always succeed -- to have one main point in any given story. Not two points, certainly not three. Just one main point, told as simply and clearly as possible."
3) Get good ears.
"When I record an interview for radio, I'm paying attention in a very different way from a print interview. I'm listening not only to the content, but to the way the person says what they're saying and to all the other sounds around: Is it lively tape? Do they sound like a real person or some automaton? Is there a loud bus driving by? Is there some better audio environment in which to conduct the interview? Sometimes people say really interesting things in a boring way that just won't grab a listener's attention; or they say something great, but there's a loud and distracting air conditioner right next to them," says Davidson.
4) Get your foot in the door.
"It's much easier to go to a local station than to NPR directly. When you get to a station, you see that there are lots of different jobs you might not have known about."
Tracy Bratten is a graduate student in journalism at New York University and an intern at mediabistro.com. She has previously interned with the CBS Evening News and OK!. She lives in Manhattan and can be reached at tracy DOT bratten AT gmail.com.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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