The Aftermath, Inc., headquarters is nestled in a strip of ordinary office buildings in the Chicago suburbs, but there’s nothing bland about the service the company provides.
Tim Reifsteck, the founder of Aftermath, Inc., makes his living cleaning up after accidents, murders, and suicides. Much more than a cleaning job, working at Aftermath, Inc., gives Tim a glimpse into the darkest corners of human life.
Laura Kwerel is the senior producer of Interfaith Voices, a public radio show about religion. She loves the possibilities that come with covering a subject so meaningful to people. She has interned at WBUR, freelanced for WBEZ, and attended radio boot camp at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Prior to radio, Kwerel studied psychology and film at the College of William and Mary. She is also the creator of the Voicemail Project, a collection of weird/funny/sentimental messages left on other people’s phones.
"Aftermath" was featured on Transom.org in October 2008. Check it out if you'd like to read more from producer Nick van der Kolk. And Laura Kwerel's original story, This Ain't No CSI, is available at Medill Reports: Chicago.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Nick van der Kolk and Laura Kwerel
How did you find out about Aftermath, Inc.? Why did you think it would make a good story?
Laura Kwerel: It’s kind of a funny story. I was a grad student at Northwestern’s journalism program, where everyone is given a beat to cover for the quarter, and I was given “legal.” That was technically supposed to mean covering the court system in Chicago -- not something I was interested in -- and I decided to interpret “legal” as broadly as possible. I had always wondered who, exactly, cleans up after crimes, so one day I googled “crime scene clean up” and “Illinois.” Turns out, Aftermath, Inc. was an hour train ride away from me, in rural Plainfield, Illinois, so I loaded up my camera and two recorders and got myself down there.
When I discovered their Web site, I knew I had struck gold. It said they do everything from “Vehicle Blood Cleanup” to “Recluse / Hoardings / Distressed Properties / Filth,” so I knew that there would be a lot of interesting stories. Really, how could I lose?
How did you two decide to work together on Aftermath?
Nick van der Kolk: I think it was at [the annual Third Coast conference] actually. Laura mentioned she had been sitting on this great tape but wasn't sure what do with it. Somehow I suckered her into giving it to me for free to play on a podcast that maybe 12 people listen to. Given the work she's done on her own time, especially the Voicemail Project, I trusted Laura's sensibilities more than anything else. When considering a story, I'm less interested in the details of a pitch than in whether the person making the pitch has a taste that I jive with. I'm the same way when friends give movie recommendations. Explaining a movie plot rarely tells you anything about whether or not it will be good. I'd rather just take the word of someone I trust.
LK: I’ve always loved Nick’s approach, it’s very playful and aware of itself as audio. It’s like what Errol Morris would sound like if he made radio. Originally I just asked Nick to score the piece, thinking I would edit it myself, but I was so busy at school, I decided to hand the whole thing over. I knew Nick would know exactly what to do with it.
What was your process for putting this piece together? Did any of the interview tape in particular inspire certain production choices?
NvdK: When I first sat down and listened to the tape, I didn't think it was going to work and almost gave up on it immediately. Tim is so impassive in telling the stories, I was afraid listeners would get bored. But then I realized that was precisely what made the interview interesting. I found the paradox of his calmness with the gut-wrenching awfulness that he's discussing to be absolutely riveting.
After spending hours and hours editing that tape, I went through a very similar desensitization Tim did. I stopped having an emotional reaction to the descriptions of blood and gore, but the people behind the stories is what still haunts me. Tim's description of hearing families grieving next door, or the image of a woman sitting in front of the TV ordering shit from QVC while her dead husband is in the back room is what got under my skin. That's why I ended the piece with the QVC soundbite; it was intended as an answer to his question, "how could it be that bad that people would go to that extreme?"
Tim's dispassionate storytelling also necessitated digging deeper to find the emotion in his speech. That primarily took the form of emphasizing the breath through repetition, dropping the ambient sound on either side of the breath, and/or cheating the volume up a bit.
Why did you decide to leave Laura’s voice in, even with all the umms and ahhs and hesitations?
NvdK: I needed a second voice to break up the monotony of a single, impassive speaker for 15+ minutes. But it wasn't enough just to have a second voice, I wanted one with a completely different cadence and rhythm to make the two completely distinct. Even when I did keep in Tim's ummms, I tried to keep them regular and syncopated, unlike Laura's, which are more uneven and staccato. Each time Laura breaks in, it wakes up the listener and gets them back into Tim's story more forcefully. When Tim speaks, everything is more or less neat and tidy, and it was important to leave a little bit of roughness in there. Otherwise the whole thing would sound to me like a smooth jazz song.
And, Laura, what did you think about the use of your voice in the piece? How do you think your voice affects the way listeners experience the piece?
LK: That’s a great question. It honestly made me cringe to hear myself sounding so . . . unprofessional. I was mortified when I realized it started with me saying “Ok, just say we’re, we’re standing in the whatever room, you know, something like that.” I never intended to have my voice included in this, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to include so many of my own embarrassing questions. But now I think my uninhibited reactions make the piece sound more honest.
This piece doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is -- a person with a microphone trying to get good tape. Nick even kept in the part where the guy is playing with a pen and I say "could you actually not hold that because I can hear it, sorry, um. . . ." So this story is as much about the process of recording an interview as anything else. As you can hear, it's not always that glamorous.
Some of the scenes are incredibly graphic and gruesome -- how did you approach these particular scenes? Did you worry about sensationalism?
NvdK: Laura's a TV-crime junkie, but I grew up on those Fox shockumentary specials in the 90s. Most formative among these was an hour-long special called -- and I'm paraphrasing the title here -- "The Craziest Shit Ever Found in Different Body Parts!!!" They broke down each segment by body part, complete with segues featuring a CGI model of a human body and whooshing sounds as the camera zoomed in on the body part featured in the upcoming story. There was a whole axe lodged inside one guy's thigh, a marlin's beak that had broken off inside one woman's fake boob, but the pièce de résistance was a guy in India who had his half-formed twin -- hair, organs, limbs and all -- removed from his torso. Yikes.
What I'm trying to say is that my tolerance for sensationalism is pretty high. And I think that's okay. The word sensationalism has a bad connotation, but its derivation, the word "sensation,"is an essential ingredient to any story. It's not enough to make people think, you have to make them feel. The question is, once the shock subsides, have you said anything that's going to stick? Have you raised interesting questions? The best pieces touch both the analytical prefrontal cortex and the reptilian limbic system in the brain -- the John Kerry and the Sarah Palin parts of the brain, as my dad likes to say.
LK: I’m a TV-crime-show junkie, and my favorite TV specials include "Archie the 84 Pound Baby," "I Am My Own Twin," and "Half Man, Half Tree." So I'm basically immune at this point. As the owner of Aftermath was talking, all I kept thinking was “this is good -- this is good -- this is good.” And his voice was so nonchalant, it made the gory descriptions strangely easy to listen to. He actually made cleaning up things like intestines and brains sound normal -- almost too normal. Which was interesting.
You don’t often hear stories this violent on the radio; it seems more like the purview of late-night TV. Why do you think that’s the case? And how have listeners responded to the piece?
NvdK: Because, consciously or unconsciously, a lot of people in public media still buy into an outmoded belief in the dualism of culture. That, in order to better ourselves, we should place pure rationality above emotion or prurient interests. The fact is that all those cognitive systems are intrinsically tied together.
People like to talk about the decline of media and how 60 Minutes was overthrown by American Idol as the top-rated show, but it's easy to forget that just a couple years before LBJ passed the Public Broadcasting Act, The Beverly Hillbillies had the highest ratings in America. Public broadcasting was created in a sea of awful, vapid shows to elevate the level of discourse, but somewhere along the way, "elevating the discourse" became synonymous with overly cerebral and boring. Obviously, there are plenty of shows that buck this trend (This American Life, Radio Lab, and On the Media come immediately to mind), but Boring is a cancerous growth in the public radio system that must be destroyed.
That said, while the response has been overwhelming positive, I've spoken to a couple hard-bitten listeners who had a very hard time listening to the piece. But I don't think they felt it was gratuitous or sacrificed accuracy for sensationalism. Mostly, they just found it depressing. Which it is.
LK: I think public radio shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the kind of “low culture” topics you see on late-night cable TV -- gore, ghosts, UF0s, strange people with bizarre stories. I personally love that stuff. I think public radio is so sophisticated and appropriate that sometimes it ends up being boring. It has just the right music, just the right tone. It can lull you into a comfy, glazed-over public radio nest. Sometimes I like to be surprised.
The ghost of Gregory Whitehead appears in this piece. What’s the connection? Why did you include that clip?
NvdK: When I'm sitting down editing a piece, I try my best to stay in a zone of free association, for good or for ill. When I began cutting up Tim's 'ums' to space out that particular section, all of a sudden the rhythm made me think of GW's "What Words Want." It's a bit like putting together a mix tape. Usually it's a slow process of trial and error, but once in a while, the end of a song comes along, and another with a similar cadence or melody just pops into your head. Putting that clip in probably didn't add anything to the story itself, but it's quick enough that it doesn't detract, and it's a nice little Easter egg for folks such as yourself.