Inside LGND: Campfire with Rachel Martin

Photo of Mike Aleo Mike Aleo · May 1, 2020

Visuals are emotional; audio is intimate: A Fireside Chat with Rachel Martin

At LGND, we pride ourselves on building products that combine the harmonious elements of sight and sound. But what happens when all you have is audio to make an impact? Rachel Martin, Host of NPR Morning Edition, visited HQ in February to share how she delivers impact with just her voice.

After starting her career at NPR affiliate station KQED in San Francisco as a producer and reporter, Martin went on to report extensively on the U.S. military, covering national security, defense, and intelligence issues for NPR.

In an era where news comes at us from every direction, it’s now more important than ever to be thoughtful and informed consumers of information. And as an agency, we have to make sure we know people’s thoughts and opinions across the country, not just in D.C.

Check out our questions below to hear Rachel’s thoughts on radio, fake news, and how to get someone to really answer your questions:


Q: What makes radio journalism different than other forms of news? 

Rachel: “There’s a lot of power in crystallizing a story, in trying to leave people with something that touches them. Doing that in 90 seconds is really hard. Images are so, so emotive. They do something totally unique. But radio is so intimate, and people feel something different about audio. The listener feels more drawn in, they have to engage their imagination. It’s not passive. Audio requires that the listener engage. It’s more of a collaboration.”


Q: What are you doing & what do you think NPR doing right now to combat fake news?

R: “The corporate-speak around it is that we combat fake news by just being us, because we’re awesome and we’re truth-tellers and we’ve always been that way, and we’re just trying to broaden our audience so that more people know about us. That’s some of it, but it’s not sufficient, because lies come fast and furious, and the obfuscation comes with equal rigor. If you’re doing a story and the gist of the story is about something you know to be false, you have to state the truth first. Then you state the lie. Then you repeat the truth. You can sometimes do that numerous times in the course of your reporting, but oftentimes it’s spread out, but you have to make sure that’s the framework about obfuscation or a lie.”


Q: What can we do to better listen to the rest of the country outside of Washington, D.C.?

R: “I don’t get on the road enough. It’s a real problem, it’s a real problem for journalists. NPR is better positioned than any other organization because it really is a network, built of local stations. For a long time, our culture had been: we’re the headquarters, we’re the smarties in dc, so we’re gonna call on you, little local stations, when we need you. That all changed, there was this big awakening to the fact that we need each other. We need you in our editorial meetings. You tell us what’s going on. The model has been shifted on its head.’


Q: You’ve said before that journalism is not a science. Can you explain what that means?

R: “When I said that journalism is an art, not a science, I’m talking about a really complicated system, and being able to understand that there’s no such thing as objectivity. There just isn’t. Pretending that there is is a problem. When I say journalism is an art, it’s a subjective art. Each person comes to the work with their own experience, view, language. As a result, things that interest me or things that I find to be important or exceptional, the thing I find exceptional is based on my own experience. There is no science to that. It’s all objective. The best we can do is create structure and accountability in our decisions by hiring a diverse staff, by having a diverse newsroom. The best you can do is try to represent the spectrum of the American population and the American experience. That’s the only way to create some kind of attempt at objectivity and to make sure everyone’s subjectivity is represented.”


Q: How can we tell if certain stories are being oversensationalized? How can we become smarter consumers of news?

R: “The onus is on the consumer. It’s such a lofty responsibility. What are tangible things you can do? Read the headlines. Do they seem hyperbolic? Are there way too many adjectives? Are there any adjectives? If tragedy is the story, I don’t need to say ‘in a tragic shooting’ — if you read that in a story, they’re emotionally manipulating you. The more stripped down the prose, the better. I do think part of the problem is the stuff that sells is the stuff that elicits an emotional reaction. For a lot of people, they feel it’s the most important because they felt the most about it. Anger does really well. All this stuff on social media. Everything is competing for your eyes and ears, and emotion is one way to suck people in, but it is manipulative.”


Q: How does NPR compete against for-profit news?

R: “The whole point is that we’re not worried about clicks, that we don’t have to tell people what they want to hear. I grew up in rural Idaho, and the people I knew who listened to NPR were farmers. That totally bucks the stereotype of NPR listenership. When the debate comes up about the 1% of our budget comes that comes from the federal government, the problem with cutting that funding is that’s the funding that protects rural stations. In those rural, Republican communities, NPR is the news that they get. Republican lawmakers never cut that funding because they know that. NPR has been focused on growing that audience for the last 10 years. It’s not just talking points. It is our mandate.”


Q: How do you make interview subjects actually answer questions?

R: “There’s an art to it. You have to let someone have their say. There’s a pacing to it. You have to give them a long question, then they start to talk, then you follow up with a shorty, then you can fire a few more bullets in a row, then you have to let them talk. In the beginning, I found this very difficult because sometimes the tangents are interesting and you want to indulge them. When I worked at Weekend Edition I had more time, so the transition to morning edition was hard. You don’t have as much time so you have to stick to the road. I’ve gotten more direct over time. You have to put your social graces on the back burner and make peace with it. I’ll say, ‘With all due respect, you’re not answering the question,’ and tell them the question again. Another phrase is, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but…’ and you keep trying to guide them back. When your time is running out, you can summarize what they’ve said, and then say, ‘To be clear, that was not an answer to my question. Rachel Martin, NPR News.’”

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