My Mars Curiosity story on Studio 360

My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish. 

It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.

As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California. 

The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.) 

I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.

Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)

Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right. 

This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord. 

The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal. 

Tags: work audio

Holidays with Reflect & Record

There are radio stories in the pipeline, but my work with Reflect & Record has been occupying a front space in my mind. The holidays are a great time to promise that projects will be done, and thus I have been in a mad multimedia production dash. 

I’m really excited to share those projects, but I’ve just sent them out and want to give the families a chance to spend some time with them. In the meantime, I’m totally in love with these vintage Christmas cards I received as part of a family documentary project I’m working on. Arriving at the beginning of December, they might be responsible for how much I’m anticipating Christmas this year. That, and the fact that we’re not traveling. 

I’m very excited to share my first story for a Marketplace program. I pitched this back in the summer not long after Plug & Play opened. Plug & Play combines co-working with childcare (they call it a “work-life balance”) so that parents who work freelance or part-time have a more flexible childcare option.

I learned a lot while reporting this story. 

1. Childcare is crazy expensive.

2. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that you can work from home and look after a child at the same time. 

3. This type of business should be everywhere. 

4. Mothers are willing to give up major bucks in their careers to spend more time with their kids.

My favorite part was observing Lauren Walz, the mother in the story, as she tried to work with her daughter nearby. It was a bit of a setup, but it played out as Lauren promised me it would: Nora was not happy with her mom’s attention being on the Mac. Mac needed to be stopped. Nora first tried to pull out the thumb drive. Then she put her hands on the keyboard as her mom typed. Then, she finally just tried to close the laptop. It was a pretty effective strategy, and a little scary. I’ve heard a lot of talk about women having it all, or not having it all. But I hadn’t connected it to the idea that kids are the ones that do not want moms to have it all. I thought it was like, a societal construct. But Nora really did not like to see her mom at work, and would love to end her career aspirations. I wonder, is this how it is with all toddlers? 

Many thanks to David Shaw for being a fantastic and fun editor, Ashley Milne-Tyte for sharing the secrets of how to pitch Marketplace, and Amy Braden for helping me get connected and patience while this story waited for airtime.

Tags: work audio

Why Austin doesn’t have a subway, for StateImpact Texas

The city of Austin is digging a subway-sized tunnel through downtown. The limestone foundation rock is the ideal material for tunneling, so why not a subway for Austin? 

Well, there are a lot of reasons why not. I go through them in my most recent story that aired on KUT: 

Waller Tunnel Has Some Thinking Subway

This story was produced with StateImpact Texas, a collaboration between Texas public radio stations and NPR. Essentially, that means that this story looks wider than Austin, up to Dallas, where they are decades ahead with public transportation. 

Here’s the full text writeup I did for the StateImpact site: 

Why Texas Doesn’t Have Subways

That title isn’t technically correct. Dallas has the only subway in all of the Southwest. The only reason it exists is because it would be a bigger headache, or impossible, to get right of way through the neighborhoods that a new light rail line would have gone through on a route that parallels one of the city’s biggest commuter roadways.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty much light rail or bust. And for all Austin’s talk of being the most progressive city in Texas, it’s behind the curve on public transportation. 

I love public transportation stories, so this was really interesting for me, even though I knew coming into it that cost is the biggest issue. The best part was talking to Rob Spillar, the director of the city’s Transportation department. After our interview, he spent a half hour talking about future plans and challenges for public transportation in Austin. I wish I had recorded it!

But I love interviews like that - when you realize your interview subject loves talking about what they do so much, they grab ahold of an interested listener, and you get to learn so much more than you came for. 

Tags: work audio

This reporter claims to have handed in his laptop and uses only an iPhone and iPad for reporting and editing. 

I have heard of this extreme behavior before, and I could not possibly get on board. I think it’s fine for down and dirty, super quick turnaround news reporting, but you’re inevitably sacrificing quality of sound and any suaveness of craft. 

He’s basically using the pre-installed voice memo app and SoundCloud to send in audio for the newsroom to put together his pieces.

I just don’t know why anyone would go actually want to turn their laptop in. That stuff is still useful!

Tags: audio thoughts

Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish wrote this great piece about the future of magazines. 

One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle. Part of me has come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd. They are like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is vast and steep.

It sounds harsh. But without even realizing it, I’ve come to the same view. I said I’d never give up the feeling of a book in my hand, the satisfaction of turning a page in a newspaper, admiring the layout of a magazine.

I remember where I was standing when I said this, my senior year of college: The office where we were laying out a print magazine. 

But technology has a way of reducing our ideals to nostalgia. I got a Kindle as an un-asked for gift, and now when I read a physical book, I wonder why I can’t pull up the meaning of a word on the page itself. 

In a personal last stand for physical media, I ordered a subscription to the Sunday Times, during Labor Day weekend. It hasn’t come yet. Apparently, it’s a huge hassle to get a carrier to deliver it to my house. (Andrew Sullivan mentions delivery problems too, NYT, stop whining about the death of print and get it together!) I’ve called or emailed five times now, and I want to cancel my subscription. I tried! and was defeated by print itself. 

Sullivan sees the future of magazines as existing only in extremes: High-end luxury product, or low-end grocery line tabloid. I think that’s realistic. But it assumes that everyone in the mid-range (those who would read Newsweek, for example) has access to a tablet reader. That our lives are filled with increasing amounts of physical technology. I feel like I’m already there, living in the future. 

My friend Ashley Milne-Tyte’s recent blog post has been attracting attention in public radio circles in the past week or so. It addresses, straight-on, what is almost a taboo subject: The fact that you can’t make a living as an independent producer. 

I’m secretly proud to have contributed (via Facebook chat) what has become the catchphrase of the post: It’s radio’s dirty little secret. 

The post was triggered by Ashley’s experience at the Third Coast Audio Festival, a bi-annual conference that celebrates independently produced work, and where many people from the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) meet up. 

I found it hard to sit there applauding at the idea that AIR has so many more members, when a lot of these members will be 20-somethings who will find it very hard to make anything more than $200-$700 a story, depending on the outlet and the ‘tier’ of pay the outlet decides the producer deserves.

If you do the math (and I don’t, both because I’m scared of numbers and the results of  said math), you might end up making minimum wage or less on a radio story. That’s because it’s the nature of us public radio folks to make the best work we can, regardless of pay. You can’t charge for getting an interview that wasn’t originally discussed, or invoice extra for a second edit on your story. Or you might end up making nothing, like Ashley does on her high quality podcast, The Broad Experience

I’ve been complacent about pay. For me, making radio is a luxury. I knew when I left my steady radio job that freelancing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills. I once accepted $200 for an 8 minute story just because I’d wanted to do the story for so long. There’s a priceless value for me in reporting a story and getting it on air. 

But I do wonder why we’re not more up front about the fact that it doesn’t pay very well. In a way, it’s the same ethical dilemma all across journalism: Should we tell j-school students that they probably won’t find a newspaper job? That more likely, they’ll be blogging on a crappy website for nickels? It’s not such a bright and shiny future if you aren’t willing to be creative about it. I feel lucky to have found life stories, and learned not to put all my career eggs in one shrinking basket. 

Shooting family interviews in New Orleans

Last week I flew out to New Orleans with a light HD camcorder and a 60 lb bag of lighting equipment on my shoulder. I was shooting my first family history documentary - four interviews that I’ll weave together to tell the story of a wonderful Southern family living in an idyllic Southern town.

One of my unexpected favorite parts of the interview was this reading. One of the interviewees had stumbled on a church program that focused on the importance of family stories. She thought it was akin to divine intervention.

Linda Smith Reading from Reflect & Record on Vimeo.

As you can see, the interviews can get very emotional. I’m tearing up behind the camera. Each interview is fascinating and beautiful. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect - with seriousness and intention - on the meaning of time gone by.

It’s a real privilege to be a part of moments like these, and in some ways, responsible for bringing them about.

* The above video is completely unedited. It will get nicer with editing!

**Also, re: heavy and huge lighting equipment bag: Fly Southwest! Tell them when you check in that you’re with media or a commercial filmmaking company, and you can preboard so your precious gear does not get checked.

This press release headline first caught my eye because I thought it read, “Tasered youth fare well as adults”, which implied that tasering a youth teaches them an effective and valuable lesson.

What it really means to say is that tasering a youth is not a big deal and no one should complain about being tasered (“Don’t tase me, bro!”). The study looked at 100 adolescents who had been tased - a group which turns out to be older and larger, more similar in physiology to adults than children. They found only 20 mild injuries, most of which were puncture wounds from the weapon’s probes. That sounds like it kinda hurts. But they also found that there weren’t any heart problems associated with getting tased, which was backed up by an earlier study with volunteer police officers. Who volunteered to get tased.

I don’t know. Getting tased still sounds unpleasant. Although, as the press release concludes, it’s obviously safer than getting assaulted with a baton, fists, or firearms.

It’s finally here! The human cheese is here!

For the past six months, when people ask “What are you working on?” I have to explain what “human cheese” is. Hearing the reaction to that phrase never got old.

The short version is that Christina Agapakis, a brilliant and hip biologist (and a childhood friend of my best friend), has made cheese using human bacteria. It’s a pretty simple project actually. Most cheeses start with bacteria. Christina has just replaced the pure strains with a potpourri of bacterial communities taken from the dirtiest places on the body.

I did most of the recording at South By Southwest, where I (and a few other Austin science communicators) helped Christina set up an event called South By South Swab. It was at a popular bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s. The human cheese project started as an art/science collaboration, but Christina is now interpreting it more as a science outreach project. You can see the project at

I got some awesome tape, most of which was not appropriate to put on an educational podcast (see “I’m Gonna Make Cheese Outta You”).

I also got to talk with Austin’s most famous cheesemonger, John Antonelli. The man knows a heck of a lot about cheese. If you want to know more about the science of cheese making, he recommends Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking.

This was a very fun story. Many thanks to my amazing and patient editor, Mia Lobel, as well as Christina Agapakis, John Antonelli, and Joe Hanson.

[Update: This was produced for Distillations, a podcast from the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Hear the rest of the "gross foods" episode.]

Tags: work audio