By Laura Van Slyke
Making a name for yourself at one of the country’s top on-air storytelling shows can be almost impossible! But Davey Kim went from college DJ to Snap Judgment producer/sound designer with his tenacity, love of great tales, and ability to hunt down tense, breath-taking tales. Davey’s work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, The World, The Dinner Party Download, Weekend Edition, Re:Sound, KCRW’s Unfictional and KPCC. Atlantic named one of Davey’s stories one of the 50 best podcast episodes of 2015. Even with success, Davey still searches for honest, incredible stories. In this interview, we discussed his journey to the airwaves.
Davey will be teaching a class on Radio Storytelling (4 Wk) at Writing Pad San Francisco starting Wednesday, 11/30, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about creating great stories for radio or podcasts. Until then, let’s get a little personal with Davey.
1) Let’s start off by talking about how you got into radio. Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and how you navigated the soundwaves to get places like APM’s Marketplace, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and Snap Judgment?
My first radio gig was with UCLA Radio. I was a music DJ then and wasn’t actually interested in radio professionally. I was just a musician who simply liked the idea of sharing cool (but not so cool anymore…) music to anyone who would listen. Plus, I got to sneak in some love song messages to my then partner…
Anyhow, from there I met the business reporter for my local NPR member station (KPCC) at a bar and asked if I could volunteer at the station. During that stint I was able to work with an editor to produce my first freelance piece. I remember taking an extended bathroom break during a midterm to listen to the piece live. From there I was hooked. I got another internship with The Dinner Party Download, which happened to share the same building with Marketplace, which ended up being my third internship (I was not their first choice btw, their original pick had forgone the position and I was the quick fill-in).
When that was over, I was very lucky to land an internship with NPR’s Weekend Edition in DC. Three months in, I was hired by Snap Judgment. I honestly don’t know why I was hired by Snap. I’ve been here close to three years now and everyday I still walk into the office open-mouthed and wide-eyed because Snap Judgment was my dream job. It was actually one of the first NPR shows I ever listened to. You could say that I hustled and networked like hell along the way, but I think it ultimately comes down to preparation meets luck and opportunity. Mostly luck.
2) What are your top three favorite podcasts right now (other than Snap Judgment)?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of 2 Dope Queens, If I Were You and I Brew My Own Coffee. But I am also a big fan of Limetown, Slate’s Political Gabfest, the NPR staples and seven dozen other shows…
3) Your episode “Unforgiven” was listed on the Atlantic’s top 50 podcast episodes of the year. They said that your portrayal of an unlikely relationship between a widow and the wife of her husband’s killer “pushes [Snap Judgment] to new heights.” It’s true. It’s the sort of episode that makes you audibly gasp in public. How do you find such intense narratives, and what is the process of designing a piece which does them justice?
This story started off with a stray thought in my head…I wanted to explore what it was like like to confront, and in my story’s case, befriend, your lover’s murderer. So I spent two weeks researching every kind of story on this tragic and twisted scenario possible. I ultimately came across Kathleen Murray Moran’s story on her website. I won’t give the story away, but it is unlike any other befriend-the-enemy story you’ve ever heard. The interview was the shortest and longest three hours of my life. I spoke to her remotely while I was in my kitchen and I don’t think I flinched an inch. It took about a half hour for Kathleen to warm up to me, but once she got going, the story told itself. Required minimal editing and scoring.
4) Ok, Davey. We *have* to bring up the time that you got an entire shoulder (was it shoulder?) tattoo and then proceeded to go directly into teaching a class. It’s the stuff of Writing Pad legend. How do you manage to go from long hours in the studio, to tattoo salons, to competitive bike polo, to teaching amazing classes at Writing Pad?
It was a full half sleeve that took about 15 hours over the course of two days…I think I have a high pain tolerance? I’ll credit my many years of competitive running, unicycling and biking. Ohhh who am I kidding…that killer red bell pepper hummus kept me going strong. And I guess you can say working with a fabulous class motivated me as well.
5) We know that you’ll cover this more fully in your class, but would you let us in on one thing that Snap Judgment looks for in a story to air on the show?
Tension. If there wasn’t any palpable tension or rising stakes, why should I care about this story?
6) What advice would you give to DJs, hosts, and everyday avid podcast lovers who are hoping to break into the field of radio production?
Make sure you listen to every single podcast and radio show related to what you are interested in producing. There are so many shows out there now that your content must be one-of-a-kind in order to be heard. And make sure to always take extra batteries for your recorder!
7) What is the most memorable piece you or a member of your team as worked on?
I worked on a story called Chin-Kyll and Bo-Ok: Across the DMZ. It’s about the story of what happens when you are reunited with your North Korean sister for the first time in over five decades (via webcam). This story was personally relatable because my grandmother was separated from her brothers during the Korean War and has not heard from or seen them since. I also enjoyed this story because it’s not a typical happy reunion story that you see on TV. It has dark unexpected twists and turns that catch you off guard. I also used my parents as voice actors…which was a very novel experience because before then, I had never heard my parents speak to me in English.
8) Would you walk us through the process of a radio piece from story scouting to final touches? How many interviews do you conduct with a subject? How long is the original tape? How much time do you spend on editing/sound design?
1. Research and Pitch.
2. Interview (2-3 hours). Some stories don’t make it past this step, for various reason. Sometimes the story doesn’t turn out the way you expected or the ending is not satisfying or the the interviewee is not a good talker.
3. Produce a very rough version of the story and get edits from one colleague.
4. Incorporate Edits.
5. Play it for the group and receive more edits. I would say roughly a quarter of our stories do not make it past this round…many tears are shed.
6. Pickup Interview (2 hours)
7. Produce a more complete version of this story
8. Few more rounds of edits
9. Story gets handed off to a sound designer
10. Story gets aired! Pat yourself on the back. Repeat.
9) I know you will cover this in class, but could you give us a sneak peek into some techniques which make stories successful on air?
Radio stories must have a conversational feel! The easiest way to check for this is to read the story aloud while writing it and ask yourself, do I talk like this in real life? For example, no one uses the word iridescent in day to day speech. So please do not use it. I am tired of NPR reporters using that word…rawr.
Thank you so much, Davey! We’ve got A LOT of podcasts to listen to now! We can’t wait for your Radio Storytelling class. Sign up before it’s sold out!