Faces Of NPR is a weekly feature that showcases the people behind NPR, from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week's post features Producer of Invisibilia, Abby Wendle.
Name: Abby Wendle
Job Title: Invisibilia, Producer
Where You're From: Youngstown, Ohio
You're a Producer for Invisibilia. What does your typical day look like?
I'm not sure we have "typical" days. Two weeks ago, I spent several hours in Studio One at NPR HQ preparing for our live event. I did everything from giving music notes to the guest violinist to debating with Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin about whether or not the words "breathe in, breathe out, breathe in" were a patronizing way to begin my "group howl."
This past week has been totally different. I'm figuring out and trying to understand the intellectual idea that will frame the narrative arc of my anchor story. So, I've been reading books and journal articles, calling writers, booking tape syncs, sketching possibilities for how the idea will weave together with the narrative, meeting with my editors, and spending a lot of time feeling lost and trying to remember that feeling lost is part of the process.
How did you get started at NPR? What advice do you have for someone who wants a job like yours?
I have a background in sound design, which I learned while producing dozens of non-narrated podcasts at This Land Press in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was hired by Invisibilia to use my sound design experience to help Hanna Rosin translate her print reporting into audio stories. I'm delighted to still be here and now have the chance to pitch and produce my own stories, in addition to producing others.
It takes a lot of doing — again and again and again — to get good at anything. So just keep at it. I was advised to go into the middle of the country and work in a smaller media market where they are hungry for people and where you can get your hands on lots of aspects of the job. I took this advice and loved working for smaller places where I could take on lots of responsibilities. Because of that, I didn't just do one thing. I got to write, report, produce, edit, take photos, lead community discussions related to my reporting, guest host. I got to be experimental and creative. Working in a smaller market gave me time to practice, fail, and learn on the job.
You recently produced a bonus episode for Invisibilia, "Who Do You Let In?" Can you tell us a little more about how this project came about?
This project was a bit atypical for Invisibilia because I didn't pitch it before starting to work on it. Once I received an email from Doc (who is interviewed in the episode), I felt compelled to respond. I know it's silly, but I can be a little superstitious and part of me was like... hm... maybe this is some kind of sign... maybe I need to jump down this rabbit hole. After a brief conversation with other Invisibilians, I decided to record the conversation — in case a story came of it, but mainly for my own sake. At the time, I had no idea if it was a "story" or what the "story" could possibly be about.
I had been thinking about #MeToo — everyone was. And I was thinking a lot about the difficult questions I ask myself in the story: "was I part of the problem? Shouldn't I act in some way?" Those questions have changed some since publishing this piece, but I continue to think and talk about other people's and my own behavior in light of #MeToo. And publishing this story has instigated new conversations with strangers, family, and friends — for which I am grateful.
What are some parts of this project that we didn't see? Any parts that got cut?
So much gets cut out. So, so, so much. One of the more hilarious parts was a quest I went on to find a letter from Doc. When I spoke with him on the phone the day I recorded, he told me he had mailed me a letter addressed to "NPR in DC," and gave me the address. When I looked it up, it appeared to be residential address. So, on the Friday after Thanksgiving last year, I drove my roommate's car to the address, saw an "I heart NPR" bumper sticker on the vehicle in the driveway, knocked on the door with tape rolling, and proceeded to introduce myself as an NPR reporter to... Tom Bowman. Somehow, when Doc had looked up NPR addresses in the DC area the Bowmans' house came up? Still haven't figured that mystery out... but I did have an interesting conversation with Tom and his wife about why I was there — and she gave me some really thoughtful advice. (Tom had, in fact, received the letter! But he'd tossed it a few days earlier.)
On a more serious note — the story ended up being about a lot more than just my interaction with Doc. But there are two moments from our conversation that stick with me and that I potentially would have preferred to keep. In the piece, I press Doc on his age. But, it wasn't really about age. In my own experience, people can connect, romantically and otherwise, regardless of age. We had a more nuanced conversation about the issue of age after I pressed Doc on this point. Additionally, Doc apologized to me. He felt bad, and thanked me for sharing my perspective.
Also, the "hellos" the piece starts with happened because John's headphone volume was too low, and he couldn't hear me. While he couldn't hear me, I told him that I was a bit nervous and that I love his music. I figured, "What the hell, he couldn't hear me anyway!" But then, I heard someone he was with come into the studio and tell him what I said. It was a pretty funny way to start things off.
Also, also — more of Ryan's falsetto.
What are some of your favorite past projects?
Renato Rosaldo's story, "High Voltage." This was a true collaborative effort. Yowei Shaw found the story. I helped write and produce it. Alix edited and tracked it. There were moments where I pushed back against Alix's suggestions. One in particular. She asked me to go to New York and record Renato howling. I resisted. I thought it would be, at the least, a little gimmicky. At the worst, an invasion of a very personal space for him. But, looking back, I think I was just scared and nervous. With Alix's encouragement, I went to New York and made the recording. It's one of my fondest reporting memories to date. I still keep in touch with Renato and I've taken some of his ideas to create an ongoing audio art project, tentatively titled ~1652Hz (the howling dome).
I loved producing non-narrated shorts at This Land — creating stories where people speak for themselves. A few select favorites: "Glass Not Glitter" and "To Be Normal." I also edited a poetry anthology while I was there called Poetry to the People, which included a complimentary podcast. Here's one of my favorites.
As a farm reporter for Harvest Public Media, I got to tell stories about things like lonely orchid cactuses, elite cattle breeding, and combine karaoke.
I can't pick one! I really enjoyed the most recent season of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History — especially the "Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis" episode. Also, this season of Serial. Home of the Brave's "The End of the World" episode, and more broadly for its commitment to experimentation. Plus, ShortCuts from BBC's Radio 4 and Falling Tree Productions and their embrace of non-narrated productions.
Favorite Tiny Desk?
John Prine. And Gaelynn Lee.
First thing you do when you get to the office?
Turn on my lava lamp. Or find something to tease Cara Tallo about. Or field excited Alix Spiegel energy (it's the best). Or get into a group conversation with Hanna Rosin, Yowei Shaw, Meghan Keane, and Liana Simonds, typically starting off with someone complimenting someone else on their rad outfit.
What are you inspired by right now?
Educated - a memoir by Tara Westover
Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott + Zack McDermott's mom
John Cage + Kafka
Pauline Oliveros — including the album, Deep Listening
The Element Choir
Sarah Koenig's writing in this season of Serial.
Jonathan Goldstein's writing on Heavyweight, especially season 2.
John Oliver's Last Week Tonight
Yowei Shaw (her story finding nose, her scoring, and her wardrobe)
Wiyaala in this BBC profile 600 Highwaymen's The Fever (I didn't see it. I am so sad! But the trailer and everything I've read about it.)
All things dakhabrakha
The conversations happening about voices/perspectives on the radio.
Vintage FORD trucks
What do you love about public radio?
Radio (public and otherwise) makes me feel less alone. I was cooking for myself on a recent Friday night, listening to Malcolm Gladwell's "Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis" episode of Revisionist History. Who would guess Freudian slips could be so emotional? Gladwell had caught a woman on tape forgetting the lyrics to her own song about how much she loves her mother. Malcolm was at first embarrassed for her and took this mistake to mean that potentially she didn't care about the song, or her mother, all that much. But then, he completely reinterpreted it, based on the ideas he'd been exploring earlier in the episode. Maybe, he mused, she wasn't forgetting because she didn't care—but because she cared so much. By the end of the episode, I found myself with a knife in one hand, a carrot in the other, crying.
I had the privilege to produce for Leila Fadel during hurricane Irma. While we were there, I had the chance to share some of our reporting on a live, local NPR-affiliate news program. We were discussing water shortages in rural communities outside Naples. I don't know who heard our discussion that day — but it reminded me of the power of the airwaves to inform and empower the audience in critical moments.