How would Diantha Parker ’90 open a segment about her twenty years in the journalism industry? She might "walk up to a really emotional point and then take [the listener] back"—like one of the many times she was hooked by a book as a child. Or she could throw her audience into a scene in medias res, perhaps in the midst of a frenzied day in the newsroom.
As a senior story editor at Marketplace, Diantha knows the power of a lead—and in the latest iteration of Commonwealth's Merrill Series, she shed insight on how she shapes narratives from that starting point down to the end. "#Storytelling for a Modern Audience," held virtually this spring and moderated by David Kravitz ’82, introduced us to Diantha's craft as part of the series' goal to highlight the diverse experiences of Commonwealth graduates.
A Story Hour for Seven Million
Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Diantha cherished the time she spent at read-alouds with her elementary school librarian, whose tales brought "this relaxing, totally absorbed, feeling of well-being" that, in her ideal world, would be part of everyone's childhood. "Getting absorbed is a great state," Diantha says. "I think it's one of the great parts of being a person: that we can take comfort from the written word or the spoken word."
From there, it was on to "falling in love with words at Commonwealth" in advanced literature classes. Years later, Diantha still "recognizes that feeling" of being read aloud to when she's "listening to something well-produced." She's pursued that feeling in a multimedia career that's included roles in Web and audio production at The New York Times, freelance podcast consulting, teaching at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and helming well-loved NPR programs like Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
Diantha has watched—and listened—as audio-based journalism ballooned from coverage on the radio to the podcast medium, which attracts global audiences. ("You have to try not to think about how you're speaking to an audience of seven million people who turn us on at breakfast time," she comments.) Audience expectations have shifted, too. "If you're planning to have someone spend 4,000 words with you, you can take your time," Diantha says, hearkening back to the print era. In audio—a medium with no convenient page backflips to refresh one's memory—"economical" is Diantha's watchword. Aural storytelling in journalism, Diantha pointed out, has its own conventions; a formal-voiced newscaster followed by transition music, credits, and a goodbye is the expectation (often parodied) of "the public radio sound."
In many ways, though, the connection found in Diantha's elementary school library, that "traditional model" of storytelling, has endured. Regardless of the fact that an audience of millions may be listening, for the individual tuning in, "the storyteller is one person and the audience is one person"—a "very human thing." Accordingly, she directs her Columbia students to authors like Hemingway and E.B. White, training them to compose short, rhythmic sentences that resonate when spoken aloud. And the similarities between a read-aloud book and digital media guide Diantha's purpose when organizing story segments.
Who, What, Why
Putting her audience first helps Diantha connect with her seven million listeners and tailor programming accordingly. She frames it like so for other storytellers: "How would you explain something to a room full of fidgety fifth-graders?"
Diantha speaks from experience: fifth-graders are among her listeners when she works on Million Bazillion, a Marketplace podcast covering financial literacy for young audiences. Children, she's noticed, appreciate it when speakers talk to them directly through skits and humor, while adults prefer the feeling of eavesdropping on a "cool kids' table" of experts. As for the experts themselves, Diantha's process of selecting featured interviewees evokes the plotting of a novelist. She often identifies particular "characters" who can comment on a story's central themes—perhaps an economist for a complex market shift or a "person on the street" view of inflation in daily life—and writes questions to draw out their experiences.
At the same time, Diantha cautions writers and editors not to reduce three-dimensional humans to tropes and stereotypes. "We're not just telling the stories of rich people and 'those poor people,'" she says, emphasizing her aim to center people from all economic backgrounds in her role at Marketplace. One segment she still draws inspiration from was her prior reporting on a debtors' court, where she asked defendants to explain their cases in their own words. Diantha wanted to show listeners that her interviewees were not stand-ins for cautionary financial tales, but parents and neighbors caught in bad circumstances.
The future of audio journalism, Diantha predicted in our conversation, will place as much weight on who is sharing their experiences as the media through which they're told. The expanding remote capacity of newsrooms means that moving to an industry capital like New York City is no longer a requirement for telling a good story, and listeners, likewise, will tune in from all corners. Look no further than the virtual Merrill Series, which continues to draw attentive, curious Commonwealth alumni/ae to hear speakers like Diantha from across the globe.