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.
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:
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:
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.
I love the public radio show Marketplace. Last week, I had two opportunities to do some behind-the-scenes work for them.
First, a trip out to Marble Falls, which is about an hour outside of Austin. I met with New York Times wealth columnist Paul Sullivan as he interviewed a Ponzi scheme victim. Carol Lovil, a very, very sweet lady, lost her life savings after investing with Allen Stanford. Stanford was just convicted of defrauding 30,000 investors, but Lovil doesn’t expect to see her money back.
In the middle of the story you’ll hear Lovil’s edited monologue, which was recorded in a restaurant in Marble Falls.
During SXSW, just as I was getting ready to attend one of the most anticipated panels on my schedule (New Careers in Journalism: Online Video Producer (aka my career)) I began receiving a barrage of texts, calls, and emails asking if I could get to an interview at Homeaway’s headquarters in an hour.
A reporter for Marketplace was doing a story about people paying off their mortgage by renting out their house. Ironically, I had pitched a very similar story to Marketplace about how Austinites cash in on SXSW, which obviously didn’t make the cut. It occurred to me that maybe that was because of this story? Anyhow, I did end up cashing in on SXSW by ditching the panel (conference audio is up now!) and heading down to Homeaway’s office at 5th and Lamar.
I’ve always wanted to visit the office, which has a large replica of Homeaway’s birdhouse logo looking out on the busy intersection. After the interview I got a private tour of all the features - snowglobes collected from around the world, game rooms, recycled wood all over, and travel-themed art created by the founder himself. It’s a pretty awesome office. And I finally learned why Homeaway maintains so many home-rental brands: They bought up competing websites but the task of migrating the information to Homeaway’s main site is too large to do all at once.
After the tour, another frantic text: Could I collect vox pops about where people are staying? That’s the term in the business for walking up to complete strangers with an out-of-context question that supplements the audio for your story. This time, I dragged along my friend Julianna who had just flown into town for the music festival. We met a girl whose parents were “helping” her pay $700 a night to stay at the W, because “all the other hotels were booked.”
Julianna and I silently gasped at each other. That audio made it into the story.