Radiolab’s Pat Walters: Listen, but follow your own curiosity

Zoe Spilker • Feb. 28, 2018

Radiolab senior editor Pat Walters was a business major-turned English student when he discovered his love for journalism.

“Growing up, I didn’t know anybody that was a journalist. I didn’t know anyone that was a writer,” Walters said. “I knew those people existed, but in the same way that I knew people were actors or musicians. It didn’t feel like a real thing until I ended up in these classes, and I fell in love with that craft.”

Pat Walters, senior editor of special projects for Radiolab, answers questions about his process of creating podcasts. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

He discovered his interest in radio while in a creative writing graduate program and has been doing radio ever since. He is currently the senior editor of special projects at the WNYC podcast Radiolab, where he is able to do deep dives into various topics. He spoke to professor of practice Tom French’s MSCH-C204: Behind the Prize class Monday about how the mechanics of podcasts can translate into various forms of storytelling.

Ever since people got the podcast app on their smartphones, podcasts have been having a renaissance moment, he said. People go to podcasts for three main reasons: to listen to good conversation, to hear compelling stories and for companionship. Audio storytelling uses the intimacy of the human voice to make listeners feel like they are closer to the stories in a way that’s exclusive to radio, he said.

Although radio has its differences from other forms of journalism, story-finding is still the same. To find stories, Walters suggested students pay attention to what their audience wants to hear, but most importantly follow their own curiosity. A good story idea can overpower a lack of any technical skill.

“I don’t care if somebody doesn’t really know how to do the audio editing or put the music in,” Walters said. “You don’t even necessarily need to know all the right interview questions, but if you have a story that feels really surprising and provocative, I’m going to work with you. It’s the best bargaining chip you could have to put your foot in the door.”

Once you have an idea that sparks your curiosity, Walters said, you can start with a question that can serve as the story’s main engine. The question will motivate the story and lead it to a distinctive angle. Next, he told students to go out into the world to report and find good characters.

Walters told students that the ability to find a good story trumps technical abilities. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

“You’re looking for people who know the stuff that you want to find out about who can also describe it to you in a way that feels really exciting, whether it’s their own life story or a science thing or a sewage treatment plant,” Walters said. Good talkers and sound will add to the life of the story and take readers there.

Walters also suggested that students remember to keep the joy in their stories. He said he likes adding in fun moments he experienced while reporting, because it’s more relatable to listeners and will make them want to keep going.

“You really want to protect those moments and find ways to sneak them into your story,” Walters said. He’ll often lead with goofy interactions, anecdotes or distinctive quotes from interesting characters.

Walters told the students that once they’re done with their story, they should question their ending. He said he always finds at least one or two more questions to ask to push his endings to a more interesting place.

Walters did not think he would become a journalist, but he worked hard and met the right people along the way to help guide his career. He said he thinks most journalists, himself included, will say they had lucky breaks to get to where they are now. Those lucky breaks are a result of hard work, putting themselves out there and creating your own opportunities, though. He suggested students attach themselves to people they believe are good at what they want to do.

“I think when you’re just getting started in the trade, for you not having a lot of skills, even if you just finished college, it’s very competitive,” Walters said. “The angle that any one of you could have is just working harder than anyone else. I think that’s where I succeeded. I’m sure I had some talent, but I just worked really hard.”