BEHIND THE SCENES with Jody Avirgan

An interview with Jody Avirgan

TCF: So there's a whole slew of new podcasts leading up to the 2016 presidential election. What can journalists do via podcast that they can't do in print?

JA: I think one of the fundamental differences between what you can do in a podcast - especially in a data-centric podcast - is explore a lot of questions without exactly answering them. A big part of data journalism is going down a road part of the way, then realizing that the answer isn’t there or the data isn’t robust enough. You can’t really make that the heart of a written piece. But in a conversation, posing questions and having answers still be “out there” can be really compelling. It’s why I like talk podcasts - you can revel in the ambiguity. It's possible to communicate so much in tone and conversation when saying something like, “well, we’re not sure, we’ll keep digging.” Which is really liberating!

TCF: Making sound-rich documentary - like The Real Dean Scream - takes a lot more work and production than a roundtable discussion. Why include this kind of storytelling on FiveThirtyEight?

JA: The simplest answer is that we want to try it all. Different kinds of projects are satisfying in different ways. If you have the opportunity to try new things, and an audience that is willing to go there with you, there’s no reason not to go for it. So we have our weekly political roundtable, and then we have these docs, as well as an ongoing collaboration with On The Media. I’m even thinking about possible radio dramas, or soundscape stuff, or little reported pieces from the road. [Editor's note: If you've got an idea for what a FiveThirtyEight Elections radio drama would sound like, Jody Avirgan wants to hear from you! Get in touch.]

This is why we set up a very generic FiveThirtyEight Elections feed, as opposed to starting a specific show that may have locked us into a particular format. We can do all sorts of stuff - and we plan to!

TCF: To me, this piece sounds similar to ESPN (the "30 for 30" series, for example). What was it like partnering with ESPN Films to make this doc?

JA: I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hear you frame the question this way! My consistent goal from the very beginning of this project was to try and find a tone and approach that was the audio equivalent of "30 for 30." For me, the basic lesson of that series is that you should find a great story and, as much as possible, get out of the way. So: no long stretches of narration, no precious musing from the host, no needless emotional manipulation.

Long before I came to ESPN, I was a fan of the “30 for 30” sports documentary series. FiveThirtyEight is in the same little corner of the company as ESPN Films, so it’s fun to partner with them. I really like “30 For 30” because they are smart and sophisticated but also fun. Or, if not exactly fun, at least… not boring. Documentaries like "The Two Escobars" and "No Crossover" both revel in stories and characters that we all know, but then provide a deeper level of insight.

Every time we did a pass at the script, we kept asking “What can we cut? Do we really need this narration? Do we really need to ID this person for the fourth time or is the audience smart enough to just follow the story?” It was really about letting the natural rhythm of the story do the work.

I think we got, maybe, 60% of the way towards what a “30 for 30" for audio could be. But I’m excited to keep refining.

TCF: At what point in making The Real Dean Scream did you decide to re-create the sound of the scream in context?

JA: This actually started with something Dean himself hinted at in the interview he did with the filmmakers. He made a passing reference to not knowing whether the audio heard on television had been “manipulated” - and that caught our ear. We quickly googled and realized that, indeed, there was a history of chatter online about the nature of the audio that night. It became clear to me that if there was an audio element at the heart of this story, we had to make that a big part of our piece. And trying to recreate it only made sense. Structurally, I also liked the idea of a mini piece-within-the-piece reported by Galen Druke that went down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

That said, I want to be clear: While we think there’s something to be learned from understanding the audio context of how that moment presented itself on television -- that was still a super weird sound that came out of Howard Dean’s mouth.

TCF: How did Dean feel about revisiting his fateful scream and the demise of his 2004 presidential campaign?

JA: As you can hear, he’s very frank about the scream and willing to talk about it. There was no hesitation in the interview. For one, I think he’s eager to correct the record and provide context about that moment and that campaign. I also imagine he sees each time he’s asked about the scream as an opportunity to pivot and talk about his greater legacy. And, also, he strikes me as someone who just doesn’t take himself too seriously. That said, the film (which I encourage everyone to watch) ends with a great moment where the director asks him to recreate the scream for the cameras, and he refuses. So, he does draw the line somewhere.

TCF: Can you give us a sneak preview of the documentaries coming up - what other forgotten moments in politics will you be revisiting?

JA: We’re going to spread these documentaries out between now and November - including the “Dukakis and the Tank” picture from 1988, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright “scandal” from 2008, and a few others. As I mentioned, part of what I’m excited about is the chance to play and experiment. So, different stories will take on different formats, and we’ll kind of invent as we go.