TALKING THE TALK: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZA SMITH

By Laura Van Slyke

 

Ever thought, “I wanna hear myself on the radio”? Eliza Smith did and now that’s where you can find her! A producer of both non-fiction and fictional pieces for Snap Judgment, Eliza is living her radio dreams. Whether it’s writing, editing, producing, researching, or even acting in the stories, she leaves no stone unturned.

 

Eliza will be teaching a class on Radio Storytelling (4 Wk) at Writing Pad San Francisco starting Sunday, 5/21, 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 Eliza.

 

Let’s start off with a little bit about your history on the airwaves. What first attracted you to making stories for radio, how did you become a professional radio producer and how did you start working with Snap Judgment?

 

I’ve loved public radio since I was a kid. I grew up in Santa Monica, and my home station was KCRW. I remember hearing Terry Gross and Ira Glass and thinking, “I want to hear myself on the radio someday.” (I realize that that isn’t an original feeling!).

 

For a long time, I thought I’d become a fiction writer. I wrote stories from the time I learned to write, through college. But after school, I started a podcast with my friend; it featured flash fiction & small press authors. I realized that I loved editing so much more than I enjoyed writing. Where writing felt like pulling teeth, I loved finding ways for people tell their stories better.

 

I had worked in the social sector as a grant writer since I graduated school. When I met my now-husband, I told him that I wanted to be a radio producer full-time. He’s an audio engineer & a record producer full time, and helped me navigate the ins-and-outs of interning and juggling side gigs. At his urging, I quit my full-time job, and took an internship at the Kitchen Sisters. I ended up meeting Julia DeWitt, a former Snap Judgment producer, through friends. She helped me understand the radio world better, and introduced me to Mark and Glynn at Snap Judgment. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been at Snap for 3 years now, and I love every minute of my work.

 
You also write your own fiction which has been published on places like Spork, Pank, and the Litography Project. What is your favorite thing about storytelling?

I think my favorite thing about story telling is that I can become an expert on subjects I’m really interested in. Whether I’m writing fiction or producing a nonfiction segment on Snap, I need to research what I’m writing about. When I write fiction, I tend to write “fabulist” stories (I love people like Etgar Keret, Angela Carter, Alissa Nutting, Manuel Gonzales, Italo Calvino, etc.).

 

Fiction allows me to do more existential research. I can explore subjects and themes that may or may not be “real” in the traditional sense–like ghosts, inanimate objects-turned-animate, animal/people hybrids–and become a sort of “expert” in them. I’ll read folklore that features the themes I’m exploring, reference writers who’ve explored this territory before me, even read scholarship that analyzes to these themes.

 

When I make nonfiction, I do the same thing, but my research is grounded in more concrete phenomena. For example, for the past year or so, I’ve been researching what happens to homeless people when they die. I’ve been researching Hart’s Island in the Hudson River. I’ve learned a ton about schizophrenia from a story I did about Charles Monroe Kane. I’ve gotten to learn a lot about what it’s like to be a teenager right now–I’ve been following a senior at Mission High for the last 9 months. My job allows me to be a student all the time. And this is great, because I LOVE school and thought I’d miss it. Turns out, I don’t have to miss it at all!

 

What’s one thing you can do in radio that you can’t do in any other genre?

 

I think you can be intimate in radio in a way that you can’t in other genres. You’re literally in someone’s head when you’re telling a story–and this allows you to deal with concepts are really personal. I mentioned this story above–I interviewed Charles Monroe Kane from To the Best of Our Knowledge about his experiences as a child preacher who had undiagnosed schizophrenia. I felt like I could really go deep and explore mental illness with him because we are on the radio. He has roughly 16 minutes to talk about what it feels like to hear voices in his head… and I love that listeners are experiencing him as a voice in their heads. I think there is such a closeness in that act of listening that can’t be duplicated in other media. And I love creating that experience for listeners, of losing one’s self in someone else’s personal space.

 

Can you speak to being the first SJ producer to consistently bring fictional stories to the show? What do you look for in a story when you want it to go from the page to the recording booth?

For fiction, we look for pretty much the exact same thing we look for in nonfictional Snap stories: a beginning, middle, and end with a good twist, strong characters, and a little bit of je ne sais quoi-freshness. We talk about our stories a lot as “movies for your ears”, and when I’m on the hunt for fiction, I’m looking for stories that have a filmic quality. I’m looking for evocative imagery, powerful scenes, and characters with agency, who are facing/resolving conflict.

 

The really fun part of doing fiction is that I get to adapt the work of writers I admire. It’s such an honor to work with authors whose work I’ve been so excited to discover. And I get to jump into that editorial role–I have raw material to work with, and I get to retell it. We’ve only done one of my original stories, and I had written the flash fiction version of it a few years ago, so I got to be an editor/adaptor there, too.

 

It’s also really fun doing voice acting, casting, directing, and collaborating with our sound team on foley, score, and audio context. When a fiction production comes together, it feels really magical.

 

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?

I think my favorite part of our stories is that we demand the narrator/main character display a great amount of agency. They make decisions that affect the world around them–that have ripple effects. Personally, I value my own agency a great deal, and try to exercise it when I know I need to, even if it’s scary. And I love talking to people who have had to flex that muscle in difficult decisions.

 

Recently, I did a story about a woman who is was an Apartheid-government spy in South Africa. Her decision to defect and join the opposition was enormous, with great consequences, but she did it anyway because she felt she couldn’t live with herself otherwise. We did all our interviews at 3am, Pacific Time, because she lives in Italy now, and I just remember feeling so excited listening to her. I was (probably not) the only person awake in my neighborhood, listening to a woman talk about how she risked her life to help bring an end to an evil regime. *chills!*

 

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?

 

I should say that every story is different–some stories basically produce themselves, and take about a month to make (this is the standard, everything-goes-to-plan, meet-all-your-deadlines production span for us at Snap). And some, I’ve worked on for quite literally years. So, I would say that time is a major variable.

 

But story scouting, or searching for pitches, is something I do on a daily basis. I think I spend, easily, about 3-5 hours a week looking for stories. This is really hard and really fun, simultaneously. I won’t reveal my sources, because I’ve found some weird places to explore that really work for me, and I’ve spent a long time locating those places. But I usually find a thread, an idea, and tease it out through research.

 

I’ll look for concepts, then people whose stories are examples of those concepts, if that makes sense. So for example, I wanted to do a story about impossible instances of survival. So I worked with my colleague, Anna Sussman, to adapt an Esquire piece about a group of people surviving a very deadly tornado by jumping into a large cooler at the back of a gas station. What made that piece magical? SOMEONE RECORDED THE WHOLE TORNADO WITH THEIR iPHONE FROM THE INSIDE OF THE COOLER. That’s holy grail tape, right there.

Interviews are about 2 hours long. Generally, we do 2-3 interviews, so we work with 4-6 hours of tape per story. It’s a lot of work cutting it down. But often during an interview, you know what parts of the tape are going to be very useful to your story. It’s easy to locate them if you get the sound files right away–if you get it a little later, a transcript helps with that. Editing can take a while, depending, as aforementioned, on how much time the story needs to be a story.

 

We have the luxury of having a phenomenal in-house sound team. Pat Mesiti-Miller, Leon Morimoto, and Renzo Gorrio write the original score & sound design all of our stories. So our stories really get the luxury treatment from these insanely talented people.

 

Also, it’s important to mention that sometimes, you do a ton of work, and your story gets killed. Lots and lots of Snap stories never see the light of day. And I hate getting stories killed, but I’m so grateful for my colleagues for killing my stories that aren’t good enough. Failing = growth, in my opinion.

 

What are your favorite podcasts right now (other than Snap)?

 

I’m really into the entire Crooked Media universe–I love Pod Save America, Lovett or Leave it, and now, Pod Save the People. I also really appreciate the levity of all the folks who make the NPR Politics podcast.

 

I listen to a ton of audiobooks on Audible. Right now, I’m listening to It by Stephen King, and I’m loving it.

 

What separates a good story for the radio from a great story?

 

A good radio story is one that is full of darlings that should have been killed. A great radio story is one in which every single word matters.

 

You’re passionate about representation in your work, and you have tremendous power over the types of stories that people consume. Do you think the rising craze over podcasts can help us build deeper empathy through storytelling?

I do, but I think we have to reach out to people who do not already participate in what we are doing as an industry. As a white woman in podcasting–and there are a lot of white women in podcasting–my aim is to use my job to be the person who hands to mic to people who we don’t hear from. I try to ask myself as often as possible: how can I amplify voices that I know we don’t hear from enough? Who do we need to hear from? And, how can I help listeners confront and digest ideas which are uncomfortable for them?

 

As a producer, my job is basically creating a really nice package for other people’s stories. Recently, I produced a story about Genetic Sexual Attraction, a concept that a lot of people are really uncomfortable with. My aim with the story was to give this couple the mic, to talk about their experience. Which, by the way, is really tender and wonderful and genuine. I hope that came across in the story that aired.

 

I am also really proud that, in a field plagued by a lack of diversity, I get to work for a show that talks the talk and walks the walk. We have a very diverse staff, and it’s such a service to our show: we have different backgrounds, different levels of experience, different areas of interest. I learn from my co-workers all the time. I think this is also reflected in our interviewees: we make a point to talk to lots of really different people. And yes, there definitely are times when we need to course-correct and make sure we interview less men, or more people of color, or more people from outside the US, but we are able to be honest and identify these disparities in our coverage and address them pretty nimbly.

 

Could you let us in on one thing that students should expect to learn from your “Radio Storytelling” class?

 

That failure is integral to growth when it comes to writing (or anything). I hope everyone can learn to celebrate the fact that sometimes, you need to write a thousand (okay, maybe less, but you get the point) shitty stories before you write one you love. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, things don’t work.

 

And it’s better to move on and devote your creative energy to projects that have legs, as opposed to trying to beat the proverbial dead horse. Most of the time, you write things that are terrible. Sometimes, you knock it out of the park. The proportions are unfair, but hey, so is life. Plus, it feels so much better to put out one story you’re obsessed with, as opposed to 10 stories that’ll embarrass you a year later.

 

Wow! Thanks for paying it forward and sharing so much with us, Eliza. Remember to check out Eliza’s Radio Storytelling class starting Sun. 5/21 in San Francisco.