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Simplicity and personal approach help radio stories shine

Simplicity and personal approach help radio stories shine

Picture of Evan George
A dirty-needle exchange. (Photo by Evan George/KCRW)
A dirty-needle exchange. (Photo by Evan George/KCRW)

I produced two explanatory radio stories as my project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship. These stories explored two growing trends in the addiction treatment industry: More low-income Californians are accessing addiction services under public payer programs, and more private rehabs are moving toward a medical model and away from a luxury model.

In these stories, I attempted to boil down complicated health care and insurance trends for a general audience. But these were not data-driven or investigative pieces. As such, the greatest challenges were not overcoming resistant government sources or making sense of complicated data (although there were unresponsive government sources and some data sets that had to be deciphered). My biggest challenge was just finding ways to turn a series of complex issues into interesting narrative stories.

This brings me to my first suggestion for other radio reporters in a similar position: Take the experts out of the story.

When I started the project I found myself speaking with a half dozen leading nationwide experts on addiction medicine, former White House appointees, and bestselling authors. They often had interesting things to say that confirmed that the thesis of the reporting was correct, explained why it was so, and made predictions for what further shake-ups might happen in the field. If I had been doing this as a trend story for a newspaper, I probably would have included their interviews.

But they made the audio stories sound academic and bloated. I wanted it to be driven by people experiencing these changes first-hand and for their voices to be heard. So I slowly chiseled the experts out. Frankly, hearing about the change in Medi-Cal policy from a woman who’d lost everything to her heroin addiction – and who was finally stable and holding down a day job because Medi-Cal was paying for her drug treatment – spoke volumes without needing a supporting comment from a Medi-Cal official. So we took out the official’s comment.

Another tip for putting health care stories on the radio: Try to simplify and tell it how you’d tell your friends. 

That’s why I started the second story with the “Serenity Prayer” from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It made the point about how rehab used to be a purely spiritual endeavor. The same simplicity principle also meant trying to avoid the industry lingo and bureaucratic speak that is so common in health care reporting. Again, it wasn’t a data project but where were some numbers and stats that were important. Rather than spend time on them, we used them sparingly.

Another tip came in handy for the three visits to medical clinics (a luxury Malibu clinic, a methadone clinic, and a Skid Row needle exchange): Spend time observing and talking to people like people, not sources. That’s an obvious one, perhaps. But it’s a note I made to myself while listening to speakers during a California Health Journalism Fellowship tutorial, and it really helped.

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