Jess Engebretson, Radio Producer

I’ve reached out to several radio producers — some of whom have worked in both radio and the visual arts — to ask about the qualities of radio and how those may best be employed in multimedia storytelling.

Jess Engebretson was introduced to radio while a student at Swarthmore College. She participated in the school’s War News Radio and PRX Radio’s Sudan Radio Project. Following that, Jess spent a year “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia, and Rwanda as a Watson Fellow; she subsequently taught radio journalism in Liberia, where she focused on human rights reporting and occasionally freelanced for PRI’s The World (Click hear to listen to two 2011 radio pieces). Jess is currently Associate Producer at BackStory, an outstanding public radio program and podcast.

Q1. What first attracted you to radio production?

Engebretson: When I was in college there was a student group that produced a radio program on the war in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in radio, but I was interested in Iraq, and the radio people were the ones who were calling up students in Basra and MPs in Baghdad. I wanted to do that, so I started turning up at the studio and getting people to show me what to do. I didn’t grow up listening to NPR, so it was new to me on every level.

Q2. I see from your background that while a student at Swarthmore you worked at Swarthmore’s War News Radio ( Can you tell me a little about that program?

Engebretson: This was a weekly-half hour program a bunch of students put together on the war in Iraq (and later, the war in Afghanistan as well, though I was pretty much exclusively on the Iraq beat). It was started in 2005, and the goal was to cover the war with depth and nuance and attention to both historical context and personal experience. It was important to us that the show be more than a roundup of bombings. We wanted to dig into Iraqi politics and make sense of why politicians and militia leaders made the choices they did, and what impact those choices had on everyday life for Iraqis. We did our best to include a broad range of voices, and give listeners a sense of the diversity of “war stories” out there. For example, there was a great piece about checkpoints that took the twin perspectives of an American soldier (who talked about the fear that any given person coming toward you might be about to blow you up) and an Iraqi civilian (whose daughter had been mistakenly shot dead by an American soldier as she tried to pass a checkpoint).

It was a massive amount of work and we were constantly understaffed and sounding like zombies because we voiced our pieces at 4 am. And we were in suburban Philadelphia, so all our interviews were over the phone or skype, which was a huge limitation. But I adored WNR and it really shaped what’s turned out to be a lasting interest in radio and conflict. The show aired on about 50 stations while I was there; the program’s changed quite a bit since then (especially given the “end” of the Iraq war), but they’re still making radio.

Q3. After Swarthmore, you spent some time “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia and Rwanda, and then training radio journalism students in Liberia. Will you tell me about those experiences?

Engebretson: If you read about the 1994 Rwandan genocide one of the things you’ll come across is the role of hate radio in fueling the violence. Basically, I was interested in the flip side of that — how people in societies that have experienced mass violence are using radio to try to bridge divides and knit society back together. So I spent a year in those three countries looking at projects that approached radio from a reconciliationist point of view. That sounds really lovely on paper, but one of the ways Rwanda, for example, promotes “reconciliation” is by essentially declaring chunks of history and politics off-limits for journalists. And a lot of Rwandan journalists I met are understandably highly sensitive to the way radio has been used there in the past, and feel very strongly that avoiding those politicized issues is the right thing to do. Of course, plenty of other Rwandans disagree — but mostly behind closed doors. Personally, I do think that the lack of space for open discussion works against genuine reconciliation. But it’s a not an easy knot to unravel. I spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose of journalism.

That was all part of a fellowship year. Afterwards, in 2010, I moved back to Liberia for most of another year to be a trainer at the radio station at the University of Liberia. Liberia has a quite a vibrant media these days, and while there are definitely still limits to press freedom, there’s a real sense that journalists can begin to hold the government accountable. That’s never been the case until recently, so it was an exciting time to be there.

Q4. What makes a great radio piece?

Engebretson: Surprise, narrative tension, emotion, presenting people as people rather than stock characters. It needs to give some broader context to whatever the central issue is. It needs to use sound creatively (ie, hearing this on the radio should give me something I can’t get just from reading a transcription). It should change the way the listener sees the world, if only slightly.

Q6. What are the strengths and limitations of radio?

Engebretson: Strengths: You can hear the emotion in an interviewee’s voice, which often communicates much more than the raw words.. Also, you can hear their silence. Long pauses, stumbling for words — in the right context, those can be much more powerful than fluid speech.

Limitations: Often, time. That’s not an inherent limitation, but if you’re making radio for broadcast on an NPR station, you often get three or four minutes to tell a complicated story. A lot gets lost.

Q6. Coming from a radio producer’s perspective, how should multimedia producers employ audio to create the strongest stories?

Engebretson: Think about what story your audio is telling, and what story your images are telling. Often, of course, they’ll be complementary. But juxtaposing audio that points in one direction with an image that points in another can also be a powerful tool. It can expose the gap between what someone says and what the visual record shows.

Q7. Where can people go to learn how to better use audio elements in multimedia productions?

Engebretson: is a great resource, as is the Association of Independents in Radio. Nieman Storyboard is not specific to audio, but is a wonderful resource for storytelling in all kinds of media.

Q8. What type of equipment did you use for producing the 2 radio pieces published on The World?

Engebretson: I used an Olympus LS-10. There aren’t any deep tech reasons for that — it was relatively cheap, highly portable, and was one of only two recorders that I’d used in the past. It didn’t actually occur to me that I might buy anything higher quality, or use an external mic. I think being in the right place at the right time trumped having top-notch equipment.

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