If you’ve listened to the news via public broadcasting in the last decade, chances are you’ve heard a story shaped by Madhulika Sikka. The former Executive Producer for National Public Radio’s most listened to program, Morning Edition, and later Executive Editor overseeing NPR’s entire newsroom, Sikka has helped set the tone for some of the most compelling and listened to stories on the planet.
Being a People Nerd, she says, is natural for any journalist—it “comes with the territory.” Growing up in London with the BBC opened her eyes to all kinds of different worlds, and set her on the journalism path. Her first job was working at Monitor Television, which was owned by the Christian Science Monitor and produced a daily news program for Discovery Channel. After a couple of years there, she joined ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel, where she spent the next thirteen years learning how to tell stories. In the fall of 2018 Sikka joined the Washington Post, where she’ll serve as executive producer in charge of launching The Post’s new flagship daily podcast.
dscout sat down with Sikka to talk about finding accessible entry points to a narrative, why a single piece of thoughtful feedback can be more important than a large number of voices, and the tips and tricks journalists use to craft stories that hold our attention.
dscout: So much of journalism is about finding an authentic way into a story. Being able to create that moment of connection, not only between the journalist and the story, but between the audience and the story. Empathy is really at the heart of so much of it. How do you approach a story with that in mind?
Madhulika Sikka: With any story, you have to latch onto the universal experience at the heart. So no matter where a listener is coming from the story doesn’t seem totally foreign. I think the public can relate to more than we give them credit for. The trick is to find a way to make something relatable. It’s the journalist’s job to get people to understand that commonality, that idea that “This person is actually more like me, rather than less like me.” When we hear about the struggle in communities around the country where manufacturing has collapsed, and it’s difficult to come up with the rent each month, and people are working multiple jobs to make ends meet and pay for health coverage. Well, that happens in New York, and it happens in California too. It’s upon us as journalists to demonstrate that, and not buy into the clichés that sadly are the easiest currency, and the cheapest currency for people to use.
NPR especially is beloved for its ability to capture our attention with a good story. What makes listening to an NPR story so compelling? Any tips you can share on what we should make sure to include—or exclude—when thinking about crafting our own stories?
Madhulika: I think with the medium of audio you have to hook people in with an interesting fact or piece of sound that interests their ear. Then, when you tell the story there are a couple of ways to go. If it is an incredibly compelling character sometimes they can carry a story on their own with very little narration around it. If you are telling a story about a place, bring the sounds of that place to the audience so they can get an aural assault on their senses, and hear the busy street in Delhi, or the quiet hum of the English countryside. It doesn’t need much, just a little to catch the ear. Pacing is really important. People can get very distracted, particularly with radio, because it’s a passive listening experience. The radio is on in the kitchen, you are cooking, dealing with the kids or whatever, it’s easy to zone out a monotone, consistent sound, so make it interesting to the ear.
Part of what you've done in your career is set the tone for entire newsrooms and media organizations to find and tell compelling stories. How do you go about encouraging a team to think about those issues?
I think you have to go back to the fundamentals, which is that journalists are storytellers. We need to find the big stories and the little stories to paint a picture of what’s going on. I have very eclectic tastes, and what I hoped when people listened to Morning Edition was they would feel that it satisfied both their wonk and their whimsy. I think as humans, we all need that and want that variety in our lives. When I was at Nightline, I felt that if someone learned one thing about something that they didn't know before they tuned in, then we'd done good work.
Journalists are storytellers. We need to find the big stories and the little stories to paint a picture of what’s going on.
Ultimately one of the big things we have to think about is “What are the entry points for people to come into a story and learning something?” At NPR we did a very big project called “Along the Grand Trunk Road.” It was a special series about the route that runs from what is now India through to Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was in 2010, and during a time when obviously foreign policy was very focused on that part of the world. But I didn't want it to be the case that every time we addressed that part of the world we featured an armchair analyst from Washington D.C. It’s the journalist’s role to provide doorways into a topic, and different perspectives if possible.
And so for the Grand Trunk Road series, we knew some people would come through the doorway of politics, but that there were other doorways for entry. For some people, it was going to be music. Or books. Or food, or travel. We hired a cartographer and told the history of the area. We did a number of on-air stories, but we also brought the photography team into it, and ran a blog for our reporting. We put together a reading list. And we expanded this for other trips too. We would get NPR Music involved to tell listeners about the music in the region. We got the food team to respond to queries about the food they made along the way, and what it told us about the history, and culture. We did a story on weddings.
And one on the local gym, right?
Oh yes. We literally stopped along the road at this gym (in Pakistan), which really gave us a sense of what the young people in the area were doing. In that region, something like 50% of the population is under 30. So, most of them have come of age in a post-9/11 world. In all the stories we did on that trip, we didn’t speak to any experts or government officials. It was all real people.
The series was featured on the NPR homepage for most of the trip, and it actually did very well in terms of readership. It was the kind of thing that people didn't lose interest in.
Is there an interview or a series you've done that stood out?
I mentioned this a bit with the Grand Trunk series, but one of the things we did very regularly on NPR then was talk to fiction writers to get their perspective on a larger news story. When Pakistan was in the news quite a bit ten years ago, we spoke to several writers and novelists who were writing about contemporary Pakistan, and the relationship with America. Many of them were Pakistani-Americans, many of them were Pakistani. It was just a different way to get at the story and the experience. Because sometimes a novelist can tell you a truth that a policy maker can't.
My favorite series that we did on Morning Edition was Crime in the City, which took its cue from mystery novels. We would have a reporter go out and walk around a city with an author who had set a crime novel in that city, and we sort of made the city and the novel’s main character the twin stars of the segment. We did that segment in over 60 cities, all over the world over the years. For me, the reason I wanted to do that series was because I like to read a crime novel set somewhere before I visit a place. I like to learn about a city that way. And it was a way for us to take our viewers there, really put them in scene in a place they may otherwise never get to go.
At PBS, you were a sort of conduit between viewers and the network. Did that change anything about what you thought about programming, or the news, or the content that people are consuming and how they're thinking about it?
I think the data and the information we can get from the audience is really important, and it certainly helps inform things, but I don't think it should drive what you're doing. You want to engage the audience in a way that's constructive, and not combative.
I'm certainly not going to decide whether to do a story solely because of audiences demanding something. At PBS, I didn’t use the volume of letters that I received about an issue as criteria for deciding whether to write about it or not. Sometimes you can just get one letter and it raises a really interesting issue that’s worth addressing. And on the other side, you might get a large volume of feedback on something that doesn’t merit that kind of a response, because it’s just people ranting. So, you have to be discerning.
In the 90s and early aughts it was hard to get feedback, and people had to be really motivated in order to give it. Today, the technology makes it much easier for people to essentially shoot something off at a moment’s notice. I saw that often at PBS. I would argue that, a lot of times, it's actually not very good feedback because it comes from a place of immediacy, a gut reaction without a lot of thought. Twenty years ago if you wanted to really comment on something you had to take the time to write a letter, find out where to send it, put a stamp on it. That’s a lot of steps to go through as opposed to just having your screen open while you're watching something, and live tweeting about it.
I do think that representation, and who tells a story is important. As someone who is a woman of color, and an immigrant, I’m very acutely aware of a lot of things that people say without really thinking deeper.
One of the recent pieces you wrote for PBS was inspired by the movie "Crazy Rich Asians"–and how the movie brings up some pretty critical issues about identity in America, and why representation matters. And you start the piece by bringing in some letters from PBS viewers, and each of the letters questions the focus, attention and worth of stories that feature non-white people.
I was glad to have that opportunity to talk about representation. I had kept an eye on the letters that had been trickling in over the summer that had to do with race and representation, and I was waiting for the right moment to try and pull them all together.
I do think that representation, and who tells a story is important. As someone who is a woman of color, and an immigrant, I’m very acutely aware of a lot of things that people say without really thinking deeper. So as I tried to communicate in that column, if PBS looks different than it did 20 years ago, that's a good thing. Diversity is not new in America, it’s been diverse for a while. It’s just, up until this point, been a culture that’s been run mostly by white males. That’s how the structure has been set up.
So it’s heartening to see a story like Crazy Rich Asians. It’s really a classic rom-com, the cast just all happen to be Asian. It has this added layer. And that’s what I loved about it, because lots of people can entertain and enjoy a rom-com without feeling like you have to be a billionaire that way most of the people are in this movie.
Humans are complicated—we have Venn diagrams of identities.
I know there’s a lot of criticism of the notion of identity, and I hate that the word identity has sort of gotten a bad name. I'm a journalist, so I'm in that group. I'm also a woman. I'm also a person of color. I'm also an immigrant. Those are all parts of me. We all have multiple, hyphenated identities. Humans are complicated—we have Venn diagrams of identities.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.