PrepTalks: “The Big One” Podcast Team “Storytelling to Promote Action”

[PrepTalk Theme Playing] [Arwen] Our talk today is about storytelling.
The impact of storytelling, and what you can do, and what we did. So I figured it was
only appropriate to start with a little bit of our story, about how we came to
make this podcast “The Big One: Your Survival Guide”. So we are KPCC. We’re a
news organization, we’re a media Organization that’s what we do. And in
spring of 2018 my department, I am Arwen Nicks the executive producer of podcasts
at the station, we were brand new and we needed to introduce ourselves to our
colleagues. So we did what any good co-worker would do, we ordered some pizza
and we hunkered down in a conference room and we said, “Come talk to us, tell us
about what you do, and we’ll tell you about what we do.” And we did. All day
reporters and editors were streaming in and out talking to us about their
expertise. And the very last reporter to walk in that day was this guy, Jacob
Margolis. I didn’t know he was about to change the next year of my life. He sits
down and he starts talking about space Exploration, which is on his beat, he
covers science and he starts talking about climate change, passionately
talking about climate change, and then he looks me dead in the face and says very
casually, “Well I also cover earthquakes.” And everybody in the room kind of tensed
up because that’s a scary word, Earthquakes. But he was so casual about
it and he was like, well you know a big one is coming, right? And I was like, yeah
sure I totally know a big one is coming. I get it I’ve lived in California on and
off for my entire life, but I had never been two feet away from a science
reporter who had just spoken that articulately about climate change and
science looking me in my face saying, “A big one is coming.” So we talked about
what that would mean. We were asking Jacob a ton of questions and he had so
much information, things that I had never Heard, things I didn’t know. And Jacob
leaves the room and the other producers and I keep talking about it. What if we
made a podcast that told people what’s going to happen in Los Angeles after a
major earthquake? It could sound like an action-movie.
You’ve never heard a podcast that sounds like that! It could be full of science,
how exciting we have to do this. And so then my boss comes in it’s the end of
the day and we’re like Kristen, Chief Content Officer at KPCC Kristen Muller, we
Say, “Kristen, we have to make a podcast about a major earthquake hitting Los
Angeles!” and she says, “That is a terrible Idea.” And here’s where Kristin was coming
from, she is not a grouch she’s a wonderful boss, but she knows that we
have been covering earthquakes as a station for decades, since we were a
station. We’re Southern California of course we’re covering earthquakes. She
also knows that down the road from us at the LA Times, arguably some of the
premier coverage of policy on earthquakes and disaster readiness, so
what new was there to be done? And everyone knows the big one is coming,
right? So we thought about that for a while, Kristen left she took the wind out
of our sails, and we kept talking and we realized that there were a ton of
assumptions there. We were assuming that what we had done had worked, we were
assuming that people knew a big one is Coming, and honestly we were assuming
that people cared at all about Earthquakes. That they were thinking
about it even a little, so we decided to test those assumptions and we went to a
park. Again we’re not scientists this wasn’t a very scientific survey, we just
went to a park and started asking people what they were thinking about. What are
you afraid of? What’s on your mind? What’s stressing you out? And it’s not gonna
surprise anyone in here they weren’t thinking about earthquakes. They weren’t
thinking about readiness, but when we did start talking about that, when we started
talking about this major quake hitting our city and what would happen, they all
said this, “I just don’t know where to Start.” They weren’t ready because they
didn’t know how to begin to get ready. They just needed something small they
could do. And then as we’re talking about that, as we’re talking about the things
they could do and what they wanted to know, in forty-five seconds over and over
it went from, “I just don’t know where to start” to “should I get a gun?” And I know
that’s it’s wild, right? it’s a really extreme thing should I get a gun, but
when we think about that that’s a question about fear. That
question is really, what’s gonna happen to my family? How can I keep the people I
love safe? Do I need to be worried? And we realized we had a challenge, right?
If these people thought that the earthquake happening was gonna turn Los
Angeles into some version of the LA riots meets a Mad Max movie, we needed to
communicate what a big earthquake would actually be like, how communities would
actually respond, and give people something practical they could do help
them understand where to start. So where did we start? We started with research
we’re reporters that’s what we do. So we started interviewing people; we read
thousands of pages of documents; we talked to so many scientists,
seismologists, emergency responders, and emergency managers, I wouldn’t be
surprised if I called a couple people in this room right now, and it was at that
point in the research that we came across the work of this woman Dr. Sarah
McBride. And Sarah McBride had worked with the New Zealand government for
years communicating to that region, to the people who live there that they were
at a high seismic risk, that it was very likely that a very bad earthquake was
going to happen, and it was going to be devastating. It was her job to tell
people that it was coming and help them get ready. And as you know those quakes
did hit in Christchurch and Sarah McBride found herself at command central.
And person after person walked in the room and looked her dead in the face and
said, “How come nobody told us, how come nobody told us to get ready, how come
nobody told us how bad this was going to be?” And she thought, “I did tell you!
I’ve been telling you for years!” But she didn’t just get frustrated and stop. She
realized there was a problem with how she was communicating, so she went back
to school to study the problem. And her research ended up here: You gotta tell a
story. If you are going to get people to listen to
you, you have to tell a story. You have to give people something that they can
connect to. It can’t just be fear-mongering. One of her pamphlets said,
“Prepare now or pay later.” A lot of the other literature was just full of really
long acronyms that honestly weren’t gonna stick with people. But she found that if
you can give people something they can connect to, a person they can empathize
with, that it’s much more likely that it’ll stick. That people will think about
it and that they will act, that they will do something to prepare. So that’s what
we tried to do, we tried to tell people what was going to happen, give them
practical information of what they could Do, and wrap it up in a story. And to tell
you more about how we did that I bring you the host of the podcast
Jacob Margolis. [Applause] [Jacob] So hi I’m Jacob. I’m KPCC science reporter and host of
“The Big One”. And earthquakes have been like a huge part of my life since I was,
since forever. Because when I was five in Nineteen ninety-four the Northridge earthquake hit. It’s legitimately one of my earliest memories. I still think about it and my parents
think about it as well. [Podcast Audio] “and everything changed about four o’clock in the morning. That’s my dad, Mark. Literally startled awake by a
freight train driving right through our bedroom. And we both literally jumped out
of bed it was like it was so loud, I’d never heard anything like it. And my Mom,
Melissa. The blinds that were supposed to be hanging vertical were like out
horizontal. The house lifting up like ten feet and being slammed down back onto
the ground. It was everything in your house crashing
onto the floor. The refrigerator opened up and everything fell out, so your house
smells like soy sauce, and hoisen sauce, and wine, and anything is in there. And the
first thing is to save your children and Sophie was screaming. She was screaming. [Jacob] To tell the story that we wanted to tell I had to be vulnerable.
I had to talk about my own personal experience, experience my parents, because
I couldn’t be this omnipotent narrator who was like wagging his finger and
saying like do better. People don’t connect with that. What I needed to do,
and this is the honest truth, was that like tell people that, hey even though
I’ve lived through an earthquake major earthquake, my wife’s lived through one,
we have a baby, and also we have a house in Northridge, at the beginning of this
podcast and really almost all the way through like, halfway through, we still
had no supplies for an earthquake. And the thing is that’s the case for many
Southern Californians. I would say the majority, because even though they know
big ones coming they’re not necessarily doing anything about it. And I was hoping
that by being vulnerable we could take them on a journey. We can go together and
possibly figure out some easy solutions for us to you know kind of figure out
things together. On top of that we had to also tell them exactly what is gonna
happen. We had to give him some specific scenarios. And so one of the scenarios
that we wanted to talk about was collapsed buildings. Something that
you’re probably going to come across in a big enough earthquake. And so to do
that we had our fictional narrative we had our hero encounter a collapsed
building in downtown Los Angeles. And really explain to us what it looks
like from the outside. But we backed up that narrative with something
really important, this is one of the big key takeaways from today from us, is
that we backed it up with a personal story of Anne Brauer, environmental
scientist in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was on a bus in Two thousand eleven in City Centre and the bus was parked, and the earthquake hit, and the brick building next to her
started to collapse. [Podcast Audio] So there were there was no sensory perception, except for
weight. So like I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t smell
anything. All I could do was feel the increasing
in chunks. You know brick by brick, ton by ton on my left hip. And it just kept
coming, and coming, and coming, and I remember thinking this
is not okay, this is not my life, this is not, just I’m not okay with this, I do not agree this, this is not how Anne Braur leaves this world, this is not my story, I am not okay with this. and then she passes out. [Jacob] Twelve people died
and Anne was the lucky thirteenth. But we didn’t just want to burn people out with
terrifying scenarios because a lot of times people will shut down if all you
do is give them doomsday, doomsday, death, death, and that’s really difficult.
And so we also wanted to explain to people, hey you’re gonna come across
these like small moral decisions that you’re gonna have to make that are
amplified by this event. And one of the things that we were asked a lot about
was about looting, and how looting works after a natural disaster. And so what
we did was we had our hero, who and stand in for the audience, basically let’s say
you have to walk across Los Angeles. Say there’s no public transit, say you don’t
have a car, so you need to get home. But you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, it’s hot
out, and you come across a supermarket. Supermarket doesn’t have any electricity
so credit card systems are down, and you don’t have any cash, you see no employees
anywhere, so what do you decide to do? [Podcast Audio] At the back to the store you see a cooler. There’s not much left so you go to grab the last two bottles of water. You slip
on a puddle of milk. You pick yourself up and you head to the register. Shit, do I
even have any cash? When we talk about looting we’re talking about breaking
into locations and stealing things. Now mind you were in a different world when
this earthquake hits and it’s a that type of magnitude, you have to look at
the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Philip Fontanetta, I’m a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department and
I’ve been with LAPD for a little over thirty-eight years. If you see somebody walking down
the street with a case of water, then that’s a case of water. And it’s the sustainment of life, that’s understandable. It’s ninty degrees out you
haven’t had food since eight. Are you really just gonna walk out? Yes,
yes you are. You grab a peanut butter protein bar,
stick in your pocket, and leave. [Jacob] And then there are the big moral questions, like Arwen talked about earlier, should I get a gun? So like the number of dudes I had asking me that, and it was all dudes. That like the
whole Mad Max kind of gas can gun on the back kind of thing, it was it was
astounding. And the assumption that they’re making, that we realized we
needed to address, this anxiety is that society is just gonna crumble into chaos.
And what we found and what we wanted to let them know was that, hey like turns
out the person that’s standing next to you might be more reliable than
emergency responders. Who are you know gonna be a little bit busy after that
disaster. That people inevitably, inherently they want to help each other,
especially when big stuff like a big one goes down. [Podcast Audio] You didn’t notice him before but outside the grocery store there’s a guy sitting up against the wall. He’s
holding his shoulder. “Hey are you okay?” He doesn’t answer. Crouch down and ask him
again. “You need help?” He groans. “It’s my arm,” he says. You hear a siren and look up. Fire trucks pushing through traffic. You tell him to wait you’re gonna go get
help. You run over and wave your arms and scream, “Stop!” They don’t. People need to understand that they might be in danger but
somebody down the road might be in worse danger. Captain John is with Los Angeles Fire Department. After the
earthquake he, and other firefighters, and police, and sheriff’s will all go into
what they call “earthquake mode” trying to triage the city. First, they’ll check their
own buildings and account for their own people, and then they do what’s called a
“windshield survey”. Driving through neighborhoods documenting how bad things are, so they can let headquarters know, but it probably means that you’ll see
police officers and firefighters, people who can help you, just drive by and not
stop. [Jacob] So if we could impart on all of these gas can carrying folks that want to buy guns, that maybe society won’t collapse that maybe you can
prepare maybe they’ll be more inclined to go and do so. And one of the big
takeaways from this whole podcast is that what we did was we showed, we didn’t
just tell. You know we show people what a collapsed building would be like, we
walked them through that scenario, we walked them through the supermarket, walked them
through you know the windshield surveys just kind of driving and by you while
you’re hurt. And the reason we did that and one of the biggest things that we
did focus on with this is that like I’ve been covering this for a long time, I’ve
been covering earthquakes as Arwen said, KPCC has been covering earthquakes, LA
Times does great earthquake coverage as well, but if that coverage was effective
like truly effective and resonated with people
everyone would be ready. And they’re not. And so the hope was that with these
personal stories, these narratives where we take you through everything, that then
people would you know understand. That it might have some sort of resonance with
their lives. And that’s what producer Misha Euceph is going to talk to you
about now. [Misha] So these things are really scary. Collapsed buildings.
You’re trapped far away from your family. And we found that fear is not effective
in compelling people to act. So I became the queen of the tips at the end of
every single episode. We knew we had to answer the question, the other
question that came up in the park, which was where do I get started?
So we gave our listeners practical, actionable items that they could do in
order to prepare. Things like fill up your gas tank more than half full, make
sure that you drop cover and hold on when the earthquake hits, that you have
water bottles near you at all times, so that you don’t starve or die of thirst.
Did it work? By journalistic standards and normal standards of success we got a
New Yorker review. We had our picture in the paper! And a
million people listened to the podcast. But the real impact was that people did
something. We heard from hundreds of listeners about questions that they had
about the earthquake, but even more than that we heard from those who were doing
something to prepare. People who are putting together water bottles,
replenishing their earthquake kits, and thinking about retrofitting for the
first time. People who were talking to their family members about their plan
for the earthquake and downloading the shake alert app. And now I’m a producer
on a totally different podcast but people were so impacted by “The Big One”
that we’re still hearing from listeners about what they did. And I’d be remiss
being in Hollywood if I didn’t say that even celebrities were preparing, which is
important because they have huge circles of influence. People who follow them are
more likely to prepare because they prepared. And this was all intentional
we’re public radio we wanted to compel people to act. [Arwen] So just a just a final note that I want to say. When we questioned our assumptions we had to face a very
sobering reality. That all the coverage we had done might not be working. That as
professional storytellers we might not be doing a good job telling the story in
the way that it’s going to actually resonate with people. It wasn’t until we
could face that reality and think, “Huh, maybe we’re doing it wrong,”
that we could improve on it a little bit. And I’m not gonna say that we got it
completely right, I think that there’s still room for improvement in how we
report on disasters, on telling this story. But I will say that these tweets,
these emails, these letters from around the world are still coming in. And it’s
not just people in LA getting ready for an earthquake. It’s people in tornado
regions. It’s people who are at high risk for flooding who said they listened to
this podcast and talked to their family about making a plan. They started to get
ready. Just before we came out on stage I got another email from another person.
It’s really incredible and I think that the reason it’s happening is because we
just really focused on who we were talking to. We told a story that wasn’t
for us, it was about the listener. We told the story they needed to hear with them
in mind. And I think that the work that you do is so important, and I think that
the way that you came to that work is your story, and I encourage you to
include your story of your work in how you communicate this. And I really do
believe that if you do that it can make an impact. Thank you so much. [Applause] [PrepTalk Theme Playing]

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