We’re asking some of our favorite radio producers to submit their own Audiofiles — the stories that stick in their minds and the people whose work has most inspired them.
Michael May is an independent producer and teaches radio at The Salt Institute in Portland, Maine. You know how everyone thinks they have a perfect pitch for This American Life, but it’s really pretty terrible? TAL actually cites Michael as a shining example of how to pitch to them.
- Witness to an Execution
- Act V
- Anti-American Demonstration
- Stuck and Suicidal in a Trailer Park
- Bring Your Child to Work Detail
I’m man enough to admit it. The first time I heard this piece I was driving down the
highway with tears running down my face. The piece is a behind-the-scenes look at an
execution by the men who carry them out. The piece is narrated by Warden Jim Willett,
who oversees the process. Reporter David Isay’s distinctive technique, to use his main characters as narrator, feels almost invisible, but of course it takes months to understand your subject well enough so that you can write narration together.
This is a classic for good reason. Reporter Jack Hitt spends six months inside a
maximum-security prison with a group of inmate actors grappling with the final act
of Hamlet. There’s been contemporary versions of Shakespeare before, but it’s hard to
imagine another that makes the material as relevant as this. As the actors grapple with
the murderous scenes taking place on stage, they reflect on their own violent past, and
the performance both haunts and redeems their lives. Hitt draws on a deep knowledge of Shakespeare, but his tone is always inviting. After months with the actors, Hitt visits the courthouse to learn of their crimes, a brilliant way to let us in on his own torn feelings
about the obvious affection he’d developed for his main characters.
John Burnett proves that news reporting and great storytelling are not mutually exclusive. John is a friend and mentor, and I try to emulate the attention to detail in his writing and his exuberant attitude toward his work. In this audio postcard, he shares what it’s like to be a 6’7″ tall American at a “Death to America” rally in Pakistan.
I remember when this story aired. It was a couple years after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast,
and reporters had mostly moved on. Then Alix Spiegel brings this almost apocalyptic story of a day she spent in an isolated trailer park where storm refugees were stuck and giving up hope that their lives would ever return to normalcy. I was stunned after hearing it — thank god she followed up with a “what can be done” story the next day.
Of my own stories, I’m quite fond of this one, partly because I really like the guys and am sad about what eventually happened to them. In Eastham Prison, a plantation-style unit in East Texas, Daniel Johnson, an older white man who’s been incarcerated for almost 40 years, begins to mentor a young black man named Jessie Johnson. Daniel has children from a previous marriage, but they stopped speaking to him decades ago. Jessie never knew his father. Eventually, Daniel legally adopts Jessie and they form a family behind bars. I love this story because it’s about such a simple act of resistance — these men have been denied so many trappings of humanity, but they refuse to give up family.