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How To Tell A Story Brilliantly

· Time to read: ~8 min

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Matt Shaer is the host of Over My Dead Body, a true story about a murder that takes place in Tallahassee. This bizarre story, which Matt tells brilliantly, always leaves you wondering if the wife did it, and that’s because of how its told by Matt and produced by the team at Wondery.

After listening to all seven episodes of the series, we reached out to Matt for an interview. We wanted to get all the details of how he came across the story, how he researched the case, how much time it took him and the Wondery team to produce the series and edit the audio,  and, quite frankly, as much detail as possible about how big an operation something like this is.

Matt is a print reporter who transforms into an audio reporter – and he’s very good at it. He says it was not an easy transition and explains why in our interview.

Today, Monday, and Tuesday, we’re going to publish our interview with Matt in three parts. We believe there’s a lot of great learning material in this interview for podcasters at every level, and it’s worth stretching out. Also, at the end of part three of our interview, we’re going to post the audio from the interview. Editors note: Our audio interview was not produced by Wondery. Maybe some day!

Here’s part one of our interview with Matt Shaer, the host of Over My Dead Body.

PBJ: How did you come across the story of the married couple Dan and Wendy? Matt: I had written about a separate case and one of the guys who worked on that legal team ended up dead. His friends call me and said, “that guy who died was Dan and this was the last case he was working on. You wrote about it. Do you think it could be connected in some way and would you be willing to look into it?” That’s how the whole thing got started.

PBJ: When you first hear the story are you thinking this is likely just someone who died, I’m not sure there is a story here? Matt: Yes, that was the case, and at first, there was not much of a story, which is what made this so remarkable. You had a situation where Dan had been shot in his driveway and there were no suspects. It was a very strange occurrence. There was a person who pulled in behind him who he did not recognize and was shot at point blank range. There was no robbery either. The cops had no suspects at first. I felt there was no story until they caught somebody or had a suspect.

PBJ: This story happens in Tallahassee, but you don’t live there. Matt: I’m in Atlanta and my co-reporter, Eric, is in Texas, so neither of us were there. We made trips there. From a production standpoint we could make a trip and collect a lot of what we needed, and then a ton of what we needed came from audio that was provided to us by the prosecutor’s office. Dan and Wendy had gone to schools all over the country, they had friends and family all over the country, so we did travel quite a bit but not so much to Tallahassee.

PBJ: You come from the print side. How hard was it for you to become an audio storyteller? Matt: Really hard. The learning curve was steep. Number one, there’s a time thing. When you learn something you get faster as you go, usually, and I came at this from the perspective of I knew how long this would take me from a magazine standpoint, but how long from a podcasting standpoint I had no idea. On the technical side, the way you interview people is totally different. When I interview for a magazine I bring my iPhone and record on an app. It can be in a noisy bar and it doesn’t matter as long as I can get it transcribed. You can’t do that in a podcast. You need crystal clear audio, a producer, etc. I had to learn how to work with a producer in each of the locations we worked in. I had to learn to ask questions in such a way they would answer in a complete story versus snippets.

PBJ: How much time goes into editing seven 45-minute episodes? Matt: A tremendous amount. I can tell you exactly how much time I spent in the studio just doing narration. Forty-six hours. Part of that is the Wondery process. They are going for a very produced segment. They want it to sound like a movie. (CEO) Hernan Lopez wants to immerse people in these stories so you have to have it exactly right. In the beginning we went over and over the first two episodes. Those took a really long time because we were messing around with the structure. We were saying maybe this will work, maybe that structure will work, maybe it won’t. And we would go back and listen to it.

We thought we might know how we wanted it. And, of course, as you know in podcasting, that first episode may be the only one people listen to. People make snap judgements about audio as they do with any other kind of entertainment product so we really wanted to get that right. Of those 48 hours, I don’t know this for sure, but I would be willing to wager that about 20 to 25 of those hours were spent on the first two episodes.

Then the editing is an interesting process. Wondery has an in-house team. They have two producers who work on this in a very hands-on way. They are based in Los Angeles. Eric, my coworker, and I are down south for the most part. Plus we had an associate producer. We had a lot of tape. We interviewed about 20 people. We had all the prosecutors files, all the audio files. We had to keep track of all of it. We had to know where everything was. Eventually we were all working at the same time. We used Slack to do air traffic control because ¬†emails were just not cutting it. Eric and I would typically, because we had interviewed people and had a pretty good grip on how the interviews would sound, we would take a crack at a draft episode. We would write draft scripts in Google Docs, about 5,500 words for 45-minute shows. Chris Segal, the associate producer, would also be listening to the tapes and using the transcripts. He might tell us a tape was particularly compelling. We would use those to intersperse the narration with interviews. It would go to the Wondery team who would edit it and offer suggestions. It would come back to Eric and I. We would mess with it and send it back to Wondery. At some point we would have a working script we thought was reportable. I would go into the studio here in Atlanta. Everyone would be on the phone and we would do a table read. I would read through from beginning to end and Chris would play the clips interspersed with my draft narration so we could hear how it sounded. Those sessions were usually a few hours at a time because we would be workshopping it as we go. I would introduce something. I would say a bit of narration, an interviewee would come in and we might say, “No her tone is not exactly right. I wish we had a clip that said this instead of that.” We would go back to the drawing board and eventually we would have a rough assembly, which is a working version. A larger group at Wondery would listen to it and say maybe this is isn’t working. I would come back in and do pick-ups, narration that was not quite working or if the structure was not working we would completely rework that section. That’s why I was in the studio so long. I think you can hear that. Wondery’s reputation is one of being highly produced and that does not come easily. It has to been clean and suspenseful.

PBJ: When you are recording in the studio are you listening to the clips too? Matt: Yes. Almost always. On the initial table reads we always listen. It is a matter of coming off those clips and striking the right tone. As I got better I did not always need the clips. I knew the clips and the tone people were speaking in and I did not need to lean on them. You want a situation where you are not speaking in a totally different tone than that of the interviewee. It takes an immense amount of time and takes longer than the 45 minutes, that is when you have it all cut together. When you are doing a table read with the clips I would deliver my bit of narration and Chris would hit a button. It is not all meshed together.

In part three on Wednesday, we ask Matt if he thinks the wife (Wendy) killed the husband (Dan). Stay tuned.

And if you haven’t listened to the series yet – what are you thinking? Check it out HERE.

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