Robert Smith ’89 leads a group of students and alumni through the first Radio Bootcamp. Photos by Leah Nash
NPR reporter Robert Smith ’89 is sick of working with Oberlin graduates. Not that he has a problem with Oberlin—his wife attended—he really just wants to see more Reed students involved in radio journalism. For that reason, he flew to Portland to volunteer for Working Weekend ’13, during which he conducted the first Radio Bootcamp, a two-day crash course in the art of radio.
Bootcamp began Friday at 8 p.m. in the hallway on the top floor of Eliot. While waiting for community safety to unlock a classroom, Robert issued a warning to the Reedies: “We will be simulating what it is really like to make a story for NPR,” he said. “It will not be easy.” The next two hours consisted of a quick recap of radio history and logistics. The meeting disbanded late in the evening and everyone hurried home to get some sleep. Next day’s meet time: 9 a.m. sharp.
The Saturday morning session began with bagels and a question. Specifically, a question about questions: “What kind of questions yields good audio or tape?” With some coaching from Robert, questions inspired by the life of the mind were transformed for broadcast. “Would you go to work if you were sick?” became “How sick would you have to be to stay home from work?” “Have you ever had a bad Valentine’s Day?” morphed into “What is the worst Valentine’s Day you have ever had?” The more specific the question, the more colorful or interesting the response was likely to be.
Once each student had a question in mind, it was time to go out and do some interviews–get some hot tape—to turn into a one-minute piece or spot. Robert set a time limit of one hour for the interviews, and Reedies scrambled out into the Saturday afternoon sunshine. Some were armed with digital recorders and professional microphones, others with their trusty smartphone. Luckily the reporters were able to find willing interviewees, and everyone returned with good tape. In true journalistic fashion, there was only a brief break for pizza before the editing began.
Robert reminded Reedies that the most important part of editing was story structure: finding the best parts of an interview and then stringing them together in the most compelling way possible. A low male voice, for example, should be followed by a high female voice. Someone who speaks slowly should follow someone who speaks quickly. Another key part of any story is the reporter’s script, and Robert coached the students on how to write for radio. Long words and complicated grammar were out. “The best radio reporter I know,” he said, “writes his scripts at what Microsoft Word calls a third grade level.” Once everyone had his or her stories straight, it was time to record the script or voice.
One by one, reporters went to the front of the room and read their script into the microphone. While the temptation was to speak quietly—or to do an Ira Glass impression—Robert coaxed Reedies into speaking confidently and annunciating with a smile; in other words, speaking into the microphone like they were speaking to someone.
The results were simply incredible. Robert told everyone that he would run any of the tape that they had collected on NPR. The camp ended around dinnertime and the all students walked out with pride. They weren’t just Reedies, they were reporters.
We are coming for you, Oberlin!