Dangerous, Necessary, And Human: Kelly McEvers On Audio Journalism Right Now
She's now the co-host of "All Things Considered," but the intrepid reporter has spent 20 years risking her life to capture important audio stories from the world's most dangerous places.By Akiva GottliebDec 15, 2016 12:30 PM
Last year, Kelly McEvers became the new co-host of NPR’s afternoon news show All Things Considered, but she is already a familiar name to listeners of public radio. Having worked for years as an audio foreign correspondent — with stints in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia — she regularly risked her life in pursuit of an important story.
In 2013, she recorded the audio documentary Diary of a Bad Year, a deeply personal piece about the emotional and physical risks of war reporting in which she tearfully read aloud to her daughter a letter meant to be opened in case of her death. Earlier this year, she appeared as a guest on the Longform podcast where she recounted her disappointment at having to leave the Middle East and “the tribe” of foreign correspondents behind. She also wrote a first-person essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, where she admitted to feeling “lost at sea” after returning to the comforts of the U.S.
At a time when NPR is trying to make inroads with younger audiences, McEvers is rethinking the role of the news anchor for the 21st century. She senses that listeners are as interested in the process of good reporting as in the story itself. They want their reporters approachable, open, and even vulnerable.
Her NPR news podcast, Embedded, which is currently preparing its second season, is McEvers’ attempt to cover domestic stories — an HIV outbreak in Indiana, a fatal police shooting on L.A.’s Skid Row — with the same immediacy, investigative depth, and transparency she brought to her work as a foreign correspondent. Crucially, it’s a podcast with the resources of a full newsroom.
[Listeners] want their reporters approachable, open, and even vulnerable.
I recently met with McEvers on a weekday morning at her NPR West office in Culver City. “An anchor is a different person now,” she told me. “Putting yourself out there can be really powerful, but you have to be super careful about when and how much you do it.”
Audible Range: You started as a print reporter at the Chicago Tribune. At what point did you make the switch to audio, and was that a big shift? Did you think you were just doing another kind of journalism?
Kelly McEvers: No, I knew it was a big shift. At the Tribune, I actually worked on internet stuff and I had done some “audio slideshows.” Remember the ’90s? The really innovative thing to do back then was these audio slideshows. We would team up with photographers. They would take the pictures, we would get sound, and then we would put them together. We were experimenting with interactive graphics, which sounds so commonplace now, but it was a huge deal at the time. I’d go out with photographers and photojournalists and we would report a story. I knew how to use a microphone and I knew how to cut tape. I knew how to cut files in a digital editor. That was it.
I quit my job at the Tribune. I go to Cambodia and I’m working at a newspaper, and halfway into the year that I was supposed to spend there, the BBC correspondent in Phnom Penh was getting contracted to go to South Korea for a few months to fill in for that correspondent who was leaving. She was like, “I need somebody to backfill for me.” We were at a New Year’s Eve party and she was like, “Does anybody here know radio?” I was like, “I sort of do.” I had never really been on the radio. She’s like, “Great, you’re hired … There’s not very much news in Cambodia. You’ll be fine. I’ll give them your phone numbers, but don’t worry about it.”
I’m not kidding: The phone starts ringing off the hook. They have 24 hours of radio to fill every single day. It’s the World Service. There would be some random story, like some change in the Buddhist code that they would want for their religious prayer show, or some protest over illegal logging they wanted for the environment show. It was very clear that I had no idea what was happening. At some point they flew me to London and gave me BBC news reporter training. They gave me a microphone that I still have; it’s my Beyerdynamic M58.
I learned the BBC way of writing a radio story, which is you pick the tape that you’re going to use first, you put it on the document, and then you write links — that is the text that links one piece of tape to another. You generally pick about four pieces of tape for four minutes. You call it in, you edit it on the phone, and you send it. It would take all night to send it over modem. I started filing stories for them when I got back to Cambodia, like a lot. Just tons and tons of stories. Slowly, I didn’t totally suck at it.
AR: So then you go to the Middle East.
KM: For a lot of years.
AR: Right, in some cases you’re in the middle of wars. Just on a technical level, what is it like recording audio in dangerous situations in dangerous places?
KM: It’s the same as any other thing. You get as close as you can. You try to have your shit as compact as you can because you’re running around and you may be wearing body armor or something. I don’t even have my kit here, but I’ve got my little Case Logic bag that I’ve had forever and it’s just tight and I can keep it nice and tight on my system. Now I use a pretty heavy recorder. I use a Sound Devices 722. It’s an 88 GB hard drive and it’s got big batteries that go with it. It’s really high quality so I’m willing to sacrifice the fact that it’s heavy and makes my back hurt. You just have to get used to running, I guess. Same principles apply: Get as close as you can, always tell people you’re recording. I’ve never been a hide-my-stuff kind of person. Ethically, people need to know who we are. There’s times when, safety-wise, you need to put it all away.
AR: Do you have a sense that a person with recording equipment is somehow less intimidating than someone with a camera?
KM: I always have, but I also use that. I’m like, “Don’t worry, no pictures.” That’s a thing I’ll say to get into somebody’s house or to talk to somebody. I think that’s actually kind of lame. I think it’s kind of a disservice to photographers and photojournalists who I love and respect. I think it’s just a different thing. I use this big fuzzy mic and I’ve got this fairly large recorder. People who don’t work in the business are always like, “Isn’t that intimidating?” It’s like, “Man, once you get past the first five seconds, it disappears.” You can look somebody in the eye. I think photographers have their own way of doing that, too. I think it’d be surprising to laypeople how quickly and easily the people we interview forget that the stuff is there.
I believe so, so strongly in the power of words and sounds that … I know how I’m going to tell the story. I know it’s going to be powerful in its own right.
AR: Was there ever a time while reporting in a war zone when you thought, “I wish I was holding a camera instead of a recorder”?
KM: No, because I just don’t think that way. I don’t report visually. I’m supposed to. I’m supposed to tweet pictures and I should have an Instagram account. I should be documenting in pictures with my iPhone the things that I’m doing, and I can’t. I believe so, so strongly in the power of words and sounds that … I know how I’m going to tell the story. I know it’s going to be powerful in its own right.
David Gilkey, who just was killed in Afghanistan and who was our photographer, working with him was to watch somebody who knows how to tell a story visually. I don’t mind working with him on the same story, because we’re going to come up with two very different things. I’m going to do 30 minutes on what it’s like to live in a field hospital in South Sudan. It’s going to have a narrative. It’s going to have an arc and it’s going to go somewhere; he’s going to do five images that you’re never going to fucking forget. Those two things are both totally powerful in their own way.
I was in Vietnam and I was like, “I’m going to take pictures this whole time, damn it.” They were totally mediocre and I went back and the tape sucked. The tape suffered. I wasn’t giving as good a tape because I had turned on that part of my brain that’s usually dormant and the other part of my brain was not high functioning.
AR: You worked in Beirut for a number of years, you worked in Cambodia, so you were on the ground developing your expertise in that specific place. People would come to you when something was happening there. On Embedded, for example, I listened to the bikers episode. What is your relationship with the reporters in El Paso for whom this is not a new or undiscovered story. Do you work with local reporters?
KM: Lots. Especially the Indiana story. I don’t know if you heard that one about the people who are addicted to Opana and at the center of this HIV outbreak. We worked really closely with local reporters. Here’s the thing about NPR: We have stationed reporters all over the country. We’re like the Associated Press in that we have this membership base of news organizations that are our partners. When we come to town, first of all as a courtesy we’re like, “Hey, we’re in your town.” We’re not just going to tromp all over a story that you’ve probably been working on for a year. We immediately get in touch with that person.
In Indiana, we worked hand in hand with a reporter named Jake Harper who works for the Indianapolis station. He’s a health reporter. He’s been covering the crap out of that story. We went out and reported together. At one point he was actually in the story, but we ended up changing it. We try, when it makes sense, to collaborate with the people on the ground.
I was based in Beirut, [so] I knew Lebanon and Syria and Iraq pretty well, but sometimes I had to report in Yemen. When I did, I’d get in touch with the [right people] … It’s just how it works.
AR: And also, part of the drama of Embedded is …
KM: Not knowing what the hell we’re doing.
AR: It must be tricky because, on the one hand, you could just call up the Indiana reporter and have him do this story in All Things Considered, but Embedded is clearly trying to invite you into a story where, at the beginning, you (the listener) and the reporter have the same level of curiosity and knowledge and work from there.
KM: Exactly. It’s about discovery. It’s like, what did you learn? The only arc in [the bikers episode] is: Are these reporters ever going to get their shit together and find out what happened? [In the El Salvador episode], the question is: What the hell is going to happen to this reporter? Is she going to get shot? Every time we sit down it’s like, what’s the question we’re trying to answer? What’s the thing that we’re going to learn, because if you’re going to ask somebody to listen to something for 30 minutes, there’s got to be some kind of process. It doesn’t always have to be “who done it?” — that’s the easiest one. Or “is or isn’t he guilty?” We had one about a guy in immigration court: Is he going to get deported or not?
Sometimes the question is: What the hell’s going to happen to these reporters? Are they going to figure it out or not? That’s cool. We didn’t used to get to do that.
I think right now, in this moment, being your authentic self is pretty important to what we do.
AR: I listened to your Longform podcast interview, so I know that you find your new setup less exciting than being in the field … certainly much less dangerous. Was the podcast always part of your agenda when you came on?
KM: It came out of nowhere. I had been a contractor for NPR, and then they asked me to go to Baghdad, and then I was on staff. After five years, almost six, I had to come home. That’s a long story in and of itself. When I came back, the question was, “what are you going to do?” I was like, “A national correspondent.” I did that for a while. It was right around that time Serial and everything else happened. I, like anybody else who works in this field was like, “I want to have a podcast.” They were like, “Listen, try some things. See what you come up with.”
We spent some months just trying out some stuff. We did the Indiana reporting, we did the Skid Row reporting, we did the El Salvador reporting. It started to seem like we might have something, and then they’re like, “Oh, by the way, do you want to do this other job?” I was like, “Sure, I’ll do both.” Which seems now like a totally insane thing to do, but I will say that the daily soup of news is exactly the kind of palette that we need to start with, because it’s only by hearing what’s swirling around, what everybody in the newsroom is talking about in that morning meeting, that we can then say, “That one. That story, that’s the one. We got to dig on that one.”
The way we choose stories, I think being in the daily news grind helps.
AR: How do you negotiate the transition between “reporter voice” and “anchor voice”?
KM: In an ideal world, it’s all the same voice. You know what I mean? I know that’s not true, but I want it to be true. I want it to be this voice that is here right now. I want it to be the person that I am, because I think that radio sounds like shit when you’re not yourself. I don’t know if that was always true, but I think right now, in this moment, being your authentic self is pretty important to what we do.
AR: Why do you say “now”?
KM: I think things were different. I think there was a time when we wanted a news anchor in the era of news anchors — capital N, capital A — on television. In particular, it was somebody who was authoritative, who was white, who was a dude, told you what to think, and did it for 30 million Americans every night. It was a collective moment in the evening where everybody had an expectation about a certain person. [Now] we don’t want the authoritative voice. We want somebody flawed, we want somebody authentic, we want somebody honest, we want somebody to be transparent.
Sarah Koenig [of Serial] just being like, “I don’t totally know the answer here. I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that, and here’s what I think, but I don’t know” — I think that’s where we’re at. Ideally, all the voices and all the different chairs are the same. It doesn’t always work that way. When you’re sitting in the chair and the music comes on and you’re about to read that 250 people died in an earthquake, you need to sound a little bit somber and respectful: I should calibrate my voice in a certain way to things that I’m saying.
[The voice] does change. My hope is that it doesn’t change too much. I’m always fighting this. This is the thing I’m fighting constantly here.