Behind the Scenes with Colin McNulty

This week we're featuring Episode 4 - Wait Your Turn of the six part Making Obama series about President Barack Obama's formative years in Chicago politics.

We asked producer Colin McNulty what were the main ingredients - inspirations, challenges, gutsy moves, etc. - that shaped this podcast?

1) Surprise

Though the subject is obviously completely different, I was really inspired by the 30 for 30 documentary series O.J.: Made in America . I remember first hearing about that show and thinking, do we really need to hear anything more about O.J. Simpson? But it’s amazing. I thought about that series a lot while working on Making Obama . I loved how characters appeared early on in the series, to then show up in much bigger roles later. I loved how the archive formed a spine throughout the show. And I loved how defined each chapter was, building on top of each other to climax with the really familiar cultural moments.

For Making Obama , we were worried about how familiar the audience was with the subject. What could we really say about Barack Obama that everyone doesn’t already know? But the more we looked at the Chicago era of his story, we realized there’s plenty of things that our audience might know something about, but there’s plenty they didn’t. And we found these unsung characters who were not only excellent talkers, but they were honest and surprising. Obama’s campaign managers Carol Anne Harwell and Dan Shomon honestly talked about the challenge of wrangling a political newbie. Veteran political operative Al Kindle candidly talked about how African American politicians perceived Obama in the early days. State Senators Rickey ‘Hollywood’ Hendon and Donne E Trotter reminisced about hazing the new guy in Springfield.

Wait Your Turn is my favorite episode because it’s the low point. We know how the story ends - Obama becomes the President. But the journey was messy and surprising and this episode embodies that.

2) ABS

We were gathering great stories, but the challenge was finding a structure, a way to weave them together.

To quote my old boss Ben Calhoun, paraphrasing the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, A.B.S. - Always Be Structuring. Beyond getting through all your audio, and cutting it down to something manageable, you need a strict plan, an idea of where you are in the story, an idea of the flow between the scenes. For Wait Your Turn , we knew the focus would be the failed 2000 Congressional Race, but to get there, you needed to understand what motivated Obama to make that leap. So you start in his early experiences of the state legislature, you meet his skeptical colleagues, you understand the roadblocks that prevented him from ‘getting more stuff done,’ then you jump into the campaign with all its twists and turns.

3) Various Sizes of Post It Notes

Giant Post-It Notes with a bunch of normal sized Post-It Notes, and even smaller Post-It Notes on an arranged storyboard are incredibly useful. Our team would sit in a room for hours, building these visual representations of the structure for each episode.

When I was sifting through hours of audio, I could easily look over to these storyboards and see what was coming next in the structure. How do I get there? Am I spending too much time on this beat? You might completely throw out that structure as you go, but there’s nothing more helpful than seeing the whole thing laid out in one spot.

4) Politely Booking Without Fear

It’s really intimidating to try and book an interview with a former president. We somehow got the fourth interview with President Obama, post-presidency. We were beat by Prince Harry, David Letterman, and JFK’s grandson. But getting it took a lot of work.

We pitched Obama’s office in the very beginning of production. In my initial email I wrote: “WBEZ is uniquely positioned to tell this story, because of the role we play -- and have always played -- in covering Chicago politics and Springfield. State Senator Barack Obama was a frequent guest 20 years ago, and WBEZ would very much look forward to talking with him again.”

The answer I got was ‘for the time being, no.’ I took that to mean that the door was open, and I should keep trying. So I did. I sent many polite updates, regularly spoke with the post-presidency team over the phone, and steadily built the case for why President Obama should be involved.

We had a couple things going for us. President Obama knew WBEZ well. The interview wouldn’t touch on his presidency or President Trump. And we had interviewed a lot of people who he respected involved in the process. But it still took a lot of confident persistence. Dozens of emails, phone calls, and almost six months later I got an email asking me to give the team a call. The answer was finally yes.

It was an open question from the beginning whether or not we would secure that interview. We got the ‘yes’ super late in the process. WBEZ is a big media player, but we’re not the New York Times or CNN or David Letterman. I remember someone saying soon after the booking "we shouldn’t act like it was a big surprise, of course we got him." I’m going to try to remember that from now on. Be confident in your team’s reputation.

5) A Giant Archives Database

We were really lucky with the timing of Making Obama because WBEZ had started digitizing decades-worth of its old programs. We finally had an accessible database where we could easily search by date and find some really useful material.

I love working with archival tape and tend to spend a lot of time looking for gems. I love the texture it adds and its position somewhere between scoring and an interview. A good archive takes you back in time, reminds you of how people used to sound, how they evolved, how the media evolved. It’s one thing to record an interview with someone about their past, it’s another to actually hear them from back then.

For this project, we knew we needed a ton of Barack Obama’s voice in the past, before he had this polished presentational style. Using it allowed us to build the case of Obama as a work in progress. In Cable Access interviews and oral history projects, Obama sounds a lot less confident, more cautious. You can literally hear him feeling his way out and learning how to engage with the media.

The best piece of archival tape in Wait Your Turn were the radio ads that campaign consultant Chris Sautter was kind enough to let us use. The way they try to frame Congressional candidate Obama’s record was fascinating and such a far cry from the “Yes We Can” ads from a couple years later. Normally, archives supplements the story along the way but this was the rare case where archival tape became a beat of its own.

6) Congressman Rush’s Voice

In researching Obama’s race against Congressman Rush, I was told over and over again that Rush would be a difficult interview, and that it might not be worth recording with him. The Congressman had survived a rare form of cancer in his salivary gland and his voice became labored and difficult to understand.

But his perspective was an obviously crucial part of the story. He was the only politician that successfully beat Obama in a campaign. After a fair amount of back and forth with Rush’s office, we finally scheduled an interview. So we recorded for 45 minutes with Congressman Rush, discussing his time as a Black Panther, and the 2000 Congressional race. I thought his voice sounded comprehensible in the room, but when I got back almost everyone said that they couldn’t understand what he said.

So, we figured out how to fit him in: we would explain at the outset that Rush would be difficult to understand. We’d include a brief section of him talking so that the audience could adapt to his voice. Jenn would repeat some of his words in the script. And we made it work. Was he worried about Obama’s candidacy? No. What did he think of Obama back then? He was "this Harvard-educated lawyer, tall, handsome, light-skinned, looking good. They thought that they could take me out." It was incredibly revealing and more than worth recording.

Five years ago, I produced a BBC Radio documentary about the 1963 Great Train Robbery in Britain. One of the interviews was with train robber Ronnie Biggs, who unfortunately was completely unable to speak due to a series of strokes. But, Biggs had a laminate sheet with the alphabet on it, and the words "Yes," "No," and "Bollocks" across the top. My host and I sat with Ronnie for two hours, while my host read out letters that Biggs would point to. I had no idea if it would work in the piece, but with a lot of sensitive editing, it did. The entire piece ended with my host asking if he would commit the robbery again and Ronnie spelling "Yes. F-U-N."

I guess what I’m saying is that you should never cut someone from a radio documentary if they’re difficult to understand. If they’re important to the story, the producer’s job to figure out how to make it work.

7) Getting Past Banging Your Head On Your Keyboard

We recorded over 50 interviews. In the end I had over 80 hours of tape, not to mention the archive. There was plenty of ‘good tape,’ in there. But there was far too much of it.

For every piece that I’ve ever worked on, there’s this terrible crisis moment where you look at what you have and think "I don’t know what this thing is anymore." No matter how long or short the piece was, it has always happened. I’ve got way too much material. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never work in radio again.

It happened in the first thing I ever made, and the last thing I made. I don’t know if it gets easier, or if it just becomes more familiar. The only way I’ve ever got past these moments was to recognize them for what they are. It’s a crucial part of the process. And try to plow ahead. It’s so important to talk it out with someone - your editor, your host. My partner was always the best person to talk me down. She’d calm me down with truisms like "no one will know what you don’t include," "it’s just a radio show," "you’ve been here before." Host Jenn White, executive producer Brendan Banaszak, and editor Kevin Dawson were invaluable resources in helping me see the woods for the trees.

I also think it’s just a matter of getting on with it. Those crisis moments come when you’re abstractly thinking about how much you have to do, not actually in the act of producing.