One of the coolest – and hardest – things about making Threshold is sorting through all of the recorded interviews I’ve done. We call these recordings “the tape” in the radio biz, even though it isn’t actually tape any more, and hasn’t been for years.
I did more than 65 interviews for this first series. This translates to hundreds of hours of tape that I’m now listening to, seeking those few choice bits to put in the show. This is more tape than I’ve ever grappled with in the past, and I’m still learning how to work with it efficiently and well. It’s a tricky and fascinating process.
I could think of the tape in a variety of ways. Ingredients for making a meal, tiles to be placed in a mosaic, daubs of paint on the palette. But all of these analogies imply that the tape is there to help me tell a story of my own design. Instead, I’m coming to see my interviewees as my co-writers – they’re not just fitting into a story I’ve written, they are helping me to design what that story is.
Here’s what this means in more concrete terms. As I sort through my mountain of tape, I could say to myself, “I want this part of the show to say X. Now who did I interview who said X?” I could then go find that piece of tape and plunk it down into the narrative I’ve already created.
Instead, I’m trying to say something more like, “I’m interested in exploring X. Now who did I interview who said something related to that?” Then I go find those people, and listen to them. If I’m open to whatever they said, instead of panning for the one piece of gold I’ve decided I need to find, I’m often surprised by what I hear. I discover new things. I hear emotions, questions, opinions that I didn’t catch at the time, or that I’d forgotten about. I start to notice connections; people start talking to each other through the tape. Things start to get messy, and complicated, and difficult, and much more interesting.
That’s when I feel like I’m really on to something. That’s when I feel like I’m not the only one writing this show. Instead, a whole chorus of co-writers are singing, shouting, making emphatic points, pleading for understanding, opening up their hearts, cracking jokes. It gets really noisy sometimes! And confusing. But in the end, I think it’s going to make for a much better show than anything I could have created on my own.
It comes down to power dynamics, I think. To create the intimacy and empathy I’m going for with Threshold – to really put you, the listener, into these peoples’ lives for a few moments – I need to give the interviewees as much agency as possible. Let them lead, work with them as collaborators, not treat them as props. That’s why I’m coming to think of them as co-writers, and why I’m resisting the convention of referring to them as “subjects” or “characters” as I write this essay.
At the same time, it’s my job to find and keep hold of some sort of narrative thread. No one wants to listen to a chaotic jumble. If this chorus of co-writers isn’t massaged into a cohesive whole, you won’t be able to hear anyone properly.
I’m realizing I’ve created quite a job for myself here. Luckily, I absolutely love it.
P.S. Thanks to everyone who chimed in with thoughts from last week! Chewing away on all of that...