How to save a man and survive KCRW's Radio Race

we only had 24 hours and 4 minutes

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The rules for KCRW’s annual Radio Race are simple: competitors get 24 hours to produce a nonfiction audio story based on a theme. The final piece must be 4 minutes or less. 4.01? You’re out. But that’s not the catch. The piece of this contest puzzle that terrifies and thrills even the most chill producers is that the announcement of the theme at 10:00am PST kicks off that 24-hour countdown clock. The pressure for perfectionist-plagued producers is real.

Because I’m still figuring out how all of this works, my two best friends whenever I’m working on an audio feature are time and overthinking. So when I paid my $12 to register for the Radio Race for the first time a few weeks ago, I thought to myself, we’ll see about that.

Usually, if I’m not on a deadline, I like to sit with tape for weeks. I write and rewrite and cut and paste into oblivion until I’m staring in despair at my script, wondering aloud to my laptop: Is this even a story? Does this make any sense? Does any of this matter at all??? And then at last I export the final mix and relief and satisfaction rush over me like the end of a public radio pledge drive and I am reminded why I love this work so much.

To my surprise, when I woke up on Race day last Saturday, I was psyched. It was hours before the theme would be announced, and I was buzzing. I went for a bike ride. I made pancakes. I tried to mind map out a story on a topic that still hadn’t been announced. This last effort was unhelpful.

In the end, we survived. With my wife cheering me on and providing invaluable editing support, Team ROCK PAPER RADIO submitted our final 3-minute and 58-second story just after midnight. The best part though, is that the story we landed on, The Pickup Artists, revolves around my hilarious 72-year-old mother-in-law Linda and her equally big-hearted and animated 69-year-old sister Sandi. It was a family project. The story is about their misadventures with a stranger they met on the side of the road. Linda casually mentioned what happened while we were at a park in September. I remember responding, WAIT WHAT?!? Little did I know then, my mother-in-law’s story would fuel our radio racing a few months later. The theme of this year’s contest was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

If you’re thinking about signing up next year, do it. Here are some survival tips from my 24-hours in the Race.

Think about storytellers before stories.

Before the 24-hour countdown clock began, I made a list of the interesting storytellers in my life. (I recommend thinking close to home, because that boisterous mayoral candidate or the charming server from your favorite restaurant might not be reachable on a Saturday morning.) When the theme was finally announced, I looked at my list and thought back to see if any of them had ever mentioned a story that fit. Linda quickly rose to the top of the list!

Stay home and tell one story.

Because I am incurably introverted, there is no greater nightmare for me than gathering vox. Going out into the world (especially in Seattle where people were already afraid to talk to strangers even before the pandemic) and offering up my mic with the hopes of finding a talker is a not only a time-consuming gamble, but it also leaves me drained for hours afterwards. For me, depending on my list of close-to-home storytellers and focusing on one in-depth Zoom interview and a story with a start, middle, and end was the only way I was going to get through the Race.

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Kill your darlings with abandon.

Four minutes goes by quick, especially under pressure. I know this is solid public radio advice at all times, but it was especially helpful for me to keep it in mind for the Radio Race: keep only the absolute gems and then cut, cut, cut. Yes, it broke my heart to take out the 11 seconds where Linda scolds her sister for saying “ass,” reminding Sandi that “Don said” they weren’t allowed to swear on the radio, but it had to go. I created an Editing Room Floor folder to save my favorite bits of tape that didn’t make it into the final story so I didn’t feel like those cuts were lost to the abyss forever. I later shared a few on Instagram.

Make a huge vat of mac and cheese.

The night before the contest, I made so much mac and cheese that even my hard-to-impress teenage son was like, whoa, that’s a lot of mac and cheese. I stuffed that sucker with meat and vegetables, 1950’s casserole style. This was our sustenance on Race day. Trust me. You do not want to be thinking about cooking. You will have no time to order takeout. You must be focused but fueled. Make the mac and cheese.

And that’s it. Congrats to all the 2021 Radio Racers! If I’ve recovered from last Saturday by the time the contest rolls around again next year, I’ll be looking forward to racing with all of you again. Happy radio-making in the meantime.

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You can find ROCK PAPER RADIO on Instagram and Twitter @RockPaperRadio. You can find Kristin on Instagram @leongstagram and on Twitter @kristinleong
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