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"People in therapy make awesome guests"💡
Allison Behringer takes us behind the scenes of Bodies
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Hey audio storytellers,
I think a lot about what goes into finding great characters for narrative nonfiction.
You want someone who doesn’t sound like they’ve told their story a million times, but also someone who’s processed enough so they’re not speaking from a place of active trauma. You’d like someone who has reflected on their own narrative a little, but not so much that they’ll tie it all up in a neat bow.
It’s a complicated balancing act.
So it was great to hear Allison Behringer’s approach to this. Allison is the award-winning producer and creator behind Bodies, the documentary series about medical mysteries and the systemic issues surrounding them. The third season is out now.
Allison and I chatted about what she’s listening for during pre-interviews, the narrated vs non-narrated choice, and being persistent with pitching.
Now that in you’re in season three of Bodies, how is the show different from its early days?
This season has definitely been a shift. Last season we had a lot of heavy, intense stories dealing with medical trauma, domestic violence. We wanted to bring some levity and joy into this season.
Kelly [episode one, about STIs] is an incredibly charismatic, funny, vulnerable person. So that episode helped us accomplish that goal of bringing joy; obviously it’s a really serious topic, and it’s not all rainbows for her, but that was a really great episode.
We also wanted to expand a bit. Instead of every episode being one person’s personal story, a lot of the stories this season delve into greyer, murkier areas -- for example drug use [episode two]. People have many different perspectives on that.
Even though we’re slowly departing from one person solving a mystery about their body, we’re still keeping consistent with another thing [of] Bodies which is analysing social structures and trying to understand how they impact people’s health.
There’s also been a shift towards featuring different hosts, where in previous seasons you hosted many of the eps. Talk me through that.
The awesome thing about being in our third season is that we’ve been able to expand our team and bring more people onto the show.
Episode two, Do Less Harm, was pitched by Hannah Harris Green, who’s a reporter/producer on the team. She came to us and told us about Lill’s work and since she and Lill were both vaccinated, we made the decision for her to go and do all the reporting [in person]. It felt natural that Hannah narrate the story and host that episode.
It felt like a natural progression for the show to include more people and different voices in hosting and narration.
Will any of the episodes be non-narrated?
There’s an episode we’re working on that may be non-narrated or very lightly narrated.
It’s funny because when I first came up with the idea for Bodies, my vision was that it would be all non-narrated. That I would do my first story of painful sex and then everything else would be non-narrated.
And then in the [season one] second episode, Bleeding, where KalaLea tells her story of fibroids…. we cut that episode together a million different ways and it just wasn’t working. One of the advisors on the team was like, “I think it would help if you narrate it.” I tried narrating and it was like, “oh this is the solve.”
In a lot of Bodies stories, you’re zooming out to the big picture; you’re going into the science; you’re skipping over large chunks of a person’s life to find and tell the story. So for the most part I think Bodies stories need to be narrated. But last year we did the episode with Angelina [about living with ALS] and we knew that story shouldn’t be narrated.
Often you don’t know if you need to narrate or not until you get in the tape and have made that first draft. Sometimes it’s hard to know from the outset.
What’s your process for finding characters?
It has definitely evolved over the seasons. In the first season it was talking to anyone I could who had an interesting story. In season two and three we got a lot more intentional about, what are the topics that we want to explore?
I’ll give season three, episode one as an example. We had been trying to tell a story about STIs since the first season and it just never really worked out. It’s still something that’s super stigmatised.
During a meeting [to discuss season three], one of our associate producers, Kalaisha Totty, said she was interested in the topic of STIs. I feel comfortable sharing this because she has shared it publicly on our Instagram, but Kalaisha has personal experience with herpes. She was like, “I’ll take on the reporting.” She went into some herpes Facebook groups and Reddits to check out what people were talking about.
Kalaisha then reached out to people and was able to say, “Here’s this podcast I’m working on. I have personal experience with herpes too. I understand and I’m really passionate about this — will you talk with us?”
I tasked her with finding three or four people that we pre-interviewed together to see who would be the best fit for the story we’re trying to tell. We then brought those conversations back to our big editorial meeting, saying that we thought Kelly was the strongest. Through that process we had a sketch of what Kelly’s story will look like; she was personable, funny, open.
What are you listening for during the pre-interviews?
We have an internal checklist. We’re looking for a person who has a lot of self-awareness and who can really reflect on their own experiences -- make sense of their own experiences. That’s really important. On Bodies we never want to be interpreting or making sense of another person’s experience.
Often a lot of the amazing parts of our episodes are when you hear someone making sense, making meaning of their own story. Just anecdotally, I find that people who have been through a lot of therapy, or go to therapy end up being really awesome guests, because they have thought deeply about their own experience.
[We’re also looking for] someone who can speak in story. Sometimes we’ll ask, “Can you tell us the story of the time you went to the doctor’s office and got diagnosed? Give us the details.” And we’re listening for whether they express themselves in story and anecdote.
And also whether they’re willing to be vulnerable and kind of go there, as we say. Not everyone is, and not everyone should be -- but that’s the kind of person we want to work with.
In terms of their story, we’re looking for a story that has enough twists and turns, highs and lows, but also not a story that’s too complicated. I pre-interviewed people where they have five different conditions, there are many layers of trauma in their story. And with Bodies, with a 30 minute podcast episode, we don’t feel like we can do justice to a story with that many layers of medical complexity.
The final thing we think about is: is this individual story somehow representative of the themes of the topics that we’re trying to explore? Where are the social structures; where’s the feminist angle to this story? We never want to tell a story that’s too unique and not representative of, for example, the general experience of being a middle-aged woman navigating herpes.
What have you learned about handling people’s trauma with care?
This is something we think a lot about on the team and I think we’re always trying to do better.
One really important part of our process is the consent building that happens before we even start the interview. We have a long conversation with our guests about for example whether they want to use their name or not. We explain our process: “we’re going to talk for multiple hours, we’re going to edit the story down.”
One of the things we offer to our participants in many of our stories is [to say], “If you say something during our interview that later on you [regret], you can take it back.” Which obviously we wouldn’t offer to a politician! But most of the people we work with have never worked with the media before. There was someone last season, I was the fifth person ever who they had shared their experience with. It feels like a way to give people power over shaping their own story. Obviously the reality is we’re the ones cutting their story together. But that’s something we always offer.
We also do a thorough fact-checking process, which I explain at the beginning. So they know that later I’m going to call them and go through the story. I call it fact-checking the heart of the story, like: “does this feel true to you? You said A, B and C -- this must mean you think X -- is that right?”
I think priming people for what our process is is a big part of it. Letting them know they have control over what goes out. For example there was a detail in the herpes story that Kelly said she didn’t want included a few weeks before the episode came out. I was kind of bummed to lose that detail because I thought it was really lovely, but I was like, that’s fine, no problem [and we took it out].
We also let people know ahead of time that these two or three-hours interviews can be really intense. People tell me they can feel a little bit vulnerable or raw, so it makes people feel better if they’ve taken the afternoon off or call a friend afterwards.
What’s the most challenging part of this work for you?
Hearing people’s trauma secondhand can be really intense. Obviously it’s way more intense for the person. But listening over and over again to traumatic stories, and trying to create a piece that acknowledges what the person has been through without secondhand traumatising our listeners too… that’s hard.
The other hardest part is making sure that we tell a story that feels true to the person who’s sharing their story with us, and is also true to the science or research that’s been done [on the topic]. That’s hard, because when it comes to women’s health, trans health, health for people of colour -- there’s often not enough research. It’s navigating that lack of information.
You pitched Bodies extensively before it found its home at KCRW. What advice do you have for producers in a similar situation?
First of all, keep trying! It took me almost a year to get that yes from KCRW. Just like creating a radio piece, pitching is very iterative. It’s highly unlikely that v1 of your pitch deck is going to be the final one. I always say that if KCRW had been the first place I pitched, they probably would have said no. Because at that point I hadn’t gotten enough feedback and refined the ideas. It was, like, v12 by the time KCRW saw the pitch.
I do think that one advantage I had in pitching Bodies was that I had this personal story for the first episode to go off. The pitching process is actually really similar to creating a story in that you want a narrative, you want vulnerability, you want to feel like you connect to the person. My personal story was an asset to the pitch. If you have a personal angle or a reason why you got interested in [your story], lean into that in the pitching process.
And finally: why do you love working in audio?
Audio documentary is this amazing middle ground between film and writing. You’re hearing the characters’ voices, you’re hearing the tenor of their voices. But there’s also a lot left to imagine, there’s a lot of space to make connections on your own.
What I’m listening to
🎧 The latest episode of Rumble Strip: wow… I have no words.
🎧 Really interesting exploration of chronic pain in this Australian series.
Thanks for reading folks! I’d love to know what you think — comment below.