Boring Questions Make Boring Answers : The Students' Podcast If you want your podcast to be filled with amazing voices and emotional stories, you've got to nail your interviews! In this episode, the students of the CV19 Podcast explain how they leveled up to become expert interviewers.
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Boring Questions Make Boring Answers

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Boring Questions Make Boring Answers

Boring Questions Make Boring Answers

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ELLA ROSSI: Honestly, if I'm being 100% honest, the initial round of interviews did not go well. They were really bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAUREN MIGAKI, HOST:

You're listening to THE STUDENTS' PODCAST from NPR. I'm Lauren Migaki.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, HOST:

And I'm Sequoia Carrillo. Today, we're talking to a team of students who made one of our favorite podcasts last spring. It explored how the Bay Area Chinatown community was holding up during the early days of the pandemic.

MIGAKI: But as we just heard from team member Ella Rossi there at the top, the student podcasters had a rough start.

ROSSI: I mean, we didn't ask good questions. The answers we got weren't filled with emotion. They were really bad.

CARRILLO: Which is so funny because we chose them as finalists for the Student Podcast Challenge in part because of their fantastic interview skills. They found characters, and then they got them to share these beautiful details.

MIGAKI: So on today's episode, how this group of high school podcasters learned to crush its interviews and craft a stellar podcast.

CARRILLO: Their entry was called "CV19," and it was produced by students Sara Zhu, Ella Rossi, Liz Breidinger, Griffin Becker and Carlo Pryor, who all attended Alameda Community Learning Center. It's a public charter school near Oakland, Calif., and they started working on this podcast as everything started shutting down in the spring.

MIGAKI: And, Sequoia, I want to play the very beginning of their podcast because in the first 30 seconds, you're going to hear my favorite question of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

SARA ZHU: If you happened to swing by New Gold Medal Seafood Restaurant this week, you might have been confronted with the worst sound you can possibly hear in the restaurant business - silence. On a recent weeknight, not a single customer is in sight.

MEI DONG: After Chinese New Year, normally, we are very busy.

ZHU: Mei Dong (ph) is the cashier here.

DONG: Line should be at least around five tables or something like that - at least.

ZHU: But instead, Dong walks through a dining room that's empty - that is, except for a server who's sitting at a table with his head in his arms and appears to be sleeping.

Is he awake?

DONG: (Laughter, speaking non-English language).

ZHU: She says, no customers, so there's no work to do.

MIGAKI: I just love that. They asked such an obvious question - is he awake? But it's perfect because it paints a picture of the scene for me, and it's funny.

CARRILLO: Yeah. And they really made us feel like we were right there, like we were wandering around Chinatown with them as they chatted with a cashier, a security guard, the owner of a fortune cookie factory. And they really just got folks to open up about their experiences.

MIGAKI: Yeah. Here's another clip from their podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19"

ZHU: Here's Helen Ma (ph). She's lived in Berkeley for over three decades.

HELEN MA: So a couple of weeks ago, I was organizing a birthday party for a friend. And this kid said, well, you're Chinese, so you must have the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRILLO: So, Lauren, I know you caught up with two of the team members to ask them how they got better at doing interviews.

MIGAKI: I did. I caught up with Sarah Zhu and Ella Rossi.

ROSSI: My name is Ella. I'm 17 years old. I'm from Alameda, Calif.

ZHU: I am Sara. Ju (ph) is how I pronounce my last name.

MIGAKI: So Sara is the voice that you hear on the podcast. She's the narrator, and she did a bunch of the interviews. Ella did some of the interviews, too, but she also did a lot of the writing and the editing. And they told me something amazing - to think of podcasting like putting together a play. You know, you've got to figure out who your characters are, what order to tell the story in. And like any good play, you've got to rehearse. So Ella says they practiced their interviews.

ROSSI: I think it was, like, our PE teacher and then a few of our friends just who were in our class.

MIGAKI: I love this. You know, whenever a reporter is about to do a big interview at NPR, you know, they'll go over their questions with a colleague and essentially do a practice round. Personally, I like to practice my interview skills on my family, sometimes the cashier at the grocery store. Anyway, here's Sara.

ZHU: Practice interviews I highly recommend. It was fun getting to talk to our PE teacher about random stuff but definitely not stuff that we'd go into on this podcast.

MIGAKI: They said a lot of the answers that they were getting in those practice interviews - they were really vague, you know, no interesting details. And that led them to their first major lesson.

ZHU: I think being specific goes a long way. Leaving things broad will generally get you a broad answer. If you're asking someone to kind of describe what they had seen, don't start with, what did you see? You know, maybe pick, like, a specific location, like that bustling intersection that everybody's always walking through. Like, how - OK, how has this bustling intersection changed?

MIGAKI: And they said don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions.

ZHU: I think it's important, if they don't give you those details off the bat, to really follow up and make sure that you are getting that nitty-gritty. And it helps your listener, I think, also empathize with the person who's sharing.

CARRILLO: And this totally paid off for their podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

ZHU: San Francisco's Chinatown is usually bustling with activity, but these days...

KEVIN CHAN: When you walk on the street, you see less people, less tourists.

ZHU: Kevin Chan is the owner of Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It's been in his family for almost 60 years, and he says these last two months have been especially difficult.

CHAN: Everybody's just scared - scared to come to the Chinese communities.

ZHU: Chan says his business has seen 70 to 80% fewer people, especially during the recent Lunar New Year celebration.

CHAN: The virus came and hit us, you know, extra. And then the new year was terrible, the worst new year I ever had in my life. I'm 51 years old.

CARRILLO: Wow, the worst new year he's ever had in his whole life. That makes me so sad.

MIGAKI: I know. And, you know, honestly, getting people to open up like that - that takes time and patience. And it means you have to ask compelling emotional questions. You know, Ella says don't ask boring questions because boring questions mean you're going to get boring answers. And at the end of the day, we're trying to keep people listening.

ROSSI: If you make a transcript of your podcast, it should have italics. It should have onomatopoeia. It should have, you know, just all those little colorful things that make things interesting because you're trying to entertain.

MIGAKI: So here's a little taste of how that played out in their podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

MARCUS WESLEY: I remember when my mother brought me here 20 years ago. And she parked right out here on Webster Street, and she ran in here to the Sweet Booth. And she asked me, did I want a smoothie? And I told her, first of all, what is a smoothie? And why are you getting it from Chinatown? Now I find myself in here buying more smoothies than anybody that's every walked through this plaza ever before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRILLO: So we have to practice interviewing. We have to ask good, detailed questions. Did Ella and Sara have any other tips?

MIGAKI: They did. So they said, if making a podcast is like putting together a play, you also have to think about your characters.

CARRILLO: Right - or sources, as we like to call them.

MIGAKI: Yeah.

CARRILLO: It's basically just like, who you should talk to for the story.

MIGAKI: And the team knew that they needed to talk to people in Chinatown for this story, you know, not their gym teacher. So they were looking for people who owned businesses, people who worked there, you know, people who were affected by the coronavirus. So these high school students - they grabbed their microphones, and they took a walk through Oakland's deserted Chinatown. And that's where they stumbled upon their main character, Marcus Wesley (ph). He's the guy with the smoothies. He's been a security guard in Chinatown for more than 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

WESLEY: You know, people who have walked past said nasty things to me today. You know, they said things like, oh, you - brother, you better be careful around here. You know they got the coronavirus. You know, and I don't even respond to that. As a Black man working in this community, I find that unacceptable. For someone to sit here and say that all Asian people are bad, or all Asian people are this, or you're going to get a disease when you come here, that is just pure ignorance - period.

ZHU: It's clear Marcus is a big presence in town. About halfway through, some kids wander in to give him his present.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

WESLEY: How we handle things - what's up, babies? What's going on? Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Let me give you something.

ZHU: It's a drawing of a cow. Well, I mean, I think that's what it is.

CARRILLO: Oh, my gosh. I love Marcus.

MIGAKI: Isn't he great? Sara told me she talked to Marcus for an hour and that she didn't even really think of it as an interview.

ZHU: Honestly, it just felt like a conversation. I'm the type of person who likes to ask people questions a lot, so it came pretty naturally to me. I just was really interested in everything he had to say about it.

CARRILLO: Yeah. It sounds like Marcus is just a really good talker. You know those people in your life who are just always willing to talk, and when they tell you a story, it automatically has, like, perfect detail, and you're right there?

MIGAKI: Yes. He totally was a good talker. But Sara also told me that she found ways to make the conversation even more smooth.

ZHU: I think using stuff like humor and, like, acknowledging that you are really listening to what they're saying - all of these things you'd find if you were having, like, a decent conversation with another person, right?

CARRILLO: I also find that nodding and smiling and making good eye contact, even if it's over Zoom, are super helpful.

MIGAKI: Totally. And, you know, one last thing that the team told me - you've got to think about your story structure. So, you know, we started the podcast with that great scene where they walk into an empty restaurant. And as soon as the team met Marcus, they knew that he would be a good ender. Here's how that played out in the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19")

ZHU: While concerns about the virus are justified, it's worth remembering that protecting our own humanity does not need to come at the cost of others. And the end of the day, I think we could all stand to gain from thinking a little bit more like Marcus.

WESLEY: Oakland, Chinatown is very small, but Oakland, Chinatown is big. You know what I'm saying? We're bigger than the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIGAKI: Sara said it was really important to them to end the podcast on a reflective note.

ZHU: And Marcus's interview definitely felt like more of a resolution to us - I mean, not that the issue could be resolved in the course of our interview, obviously, but something to, like, maybe leave readers off with a little bit more hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRILLO: So Lauren...

MIGAKI: Yes.

CARRILLO: ...What ender are you going to leave us with today?

MIGAKI: Well, Sequoia, I have something from Sara, who has advice for anyone who's trying to make a podcast right now.

ZHU: It can be discouraging at times, but I think when you push through and create something that you can be really proud of, it is - it makes it, like, infinitely more rewarding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIGAKI: So that's our show for today.

CARRILLO: Make sure to follow us on Twitter at @npr_ed and subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on this year's Student Podcast Challenge.

MIGAKI: Our college competition opened earlier this month, and the high school and middle school competition opens on January 1.

CARRILLO: Today's episode was produced by Lauren Migaki and me, Sequoia Carrillo, and edited by Steve Drummond.

MIGAKI: Our music is by Sam D'Agostino. Special thanks to teacher Molly Fenn at Alameda Community Learning Center, who gave the podcast assignment to Sara and Ella. I'm Lauren Migaki.

CARRILLO: And I'm Sequoia Carrillo. Thanks for listening to our show, and we can't wait to listen to yours.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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