I’m talking to Andrea Bruce, supervising editor for NPR’s national desk about her latest series, “Starting Over,” and what stories motivate people.
She’s emphatic: treacly stories of heroism and innate, unmitigated goodness do not help. They alienate.
“Those are self-defeating stories,” she said. “They are extreme biological freaks of nature. They are total classic exceptions to the rule. And when there are stories that are inspirations about taking control of one’s life and the circumstances that we’re in, that are relevant and feel like, ‘That is a person I could know,’ it feels really great as a listener. I’m inspired. It feels doable.”
This insight ultimately led to the creation of the popular eight-part special series, which is running this month on NPR.
It features three- to five-minute stories about people, places, or even institutions that have undergone a transformation either by choice or, more interestingly in Bruce’s view, by circumstance.
Take exotic dancer Mira Johnson, who quit her jobs as exotic dancer and dominatrix in order to pursue a career in life coaching. Or Coss Marte, an ex-con drug dealer turned personal trainer.
They are stories about real people with real problems who confront them and do what we hope we’d do in that situation. No chicken soup souls in sight.
Was it a pre-requisite that the stories featured “happy endings” or people who eschewed the dark side to pursue helping professions?
No, Bruce said. It was about “finding individuals that willing to be honest. You know, the pastor who talked about the fact that, boy, he started drinking and sleeping around and he was a mess. And him saying, ‘I was so angry.’ That’s real. That’s not a sociologist talking to us about,” (dropping her voice to a whisper, projecting her air quotes over the phone line), “stress levels.”
The genesis for the series was a conversation with a couple of peers about reporting on power issues with women — something Bruce felt too often “devolves into mommy wars … and tends to be more about inciting emotion rather than being thoughtful about .”
This observation inspired Michele Kelemen, NPR’s diplomatic correspondent, to email Bruce a story about Srirupa Dasgupta, a social entrepreneur who had left a high-tech career to open a restaurant that primarily hired refugees.
“I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s a hell of a wonderful story,’” Bruce said. “That’s a series. That’s a series about how not only is she starting over but she single handedly — through the new business frame she was creating — was allowing new lives to start over. And it doesn’t feel like a Hallmark card.”
Another inspiration for Bruce was the time in which the series would run: New Years resolution season, a personal bugaboo of hers.
“I hate New Years resolutions,” she said. “I think that they’re false premises that set you up for failure. And they aren’t in any way realistic. Like, ‘I am going to lose 20 pounds starting today.’ Everyone knows you’re not going to.”
So she saw the series as a way to “tweak the nose” of the idea of the New Years resolution. To show regular people tackle what life throws at them without humblebragging listeners into questioning their own self-worth.
Bruce’s Western Bureau Chief Jason DeRose was a big supporter of the concept and when the early stats came in strong, he told her, “I think people are starved for stories like this.”
There were other hints along the way that Bruce was on to something. The reporters were connecting with the stories, which could only bode well for the final product.
She talked about Jeff Brady, who reported Dasgupta’s restaurant story: “For a news manager, it was really good to hear Jeff pick up the phone at the end of his first day reporting and say, ‘Oh my God, these women in the restaurant are amazing.’ And he said it in a way where I realized, ‘Isn’t that neat they made him feel good?’”
Clarifying that it wasn’t a case of getting emotionally involved, but rather “hearing your reporters being jazzed by their subject matter and the characters they’re profiling,” she said, “That feels good and you know you’re on to something when your reporters feel good about who they’re hanging out with. The reporters need this, too.”
Dasgupta’s story would in the end put up the best numbers of the eight that aired. Marte’s personal trainer story also garnered significant attention with more 6,000 Likes and nearly 900 shares on Facebook – significant for a short-run series.
“It’s so interesting to me what catches fire,” Bruce said, “because at the end of the first week, the executive producer of ‘All Things Considered’ came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, I wish this series could go all month.’”
After her initial four pitches, the series kind of took on a life of its own, with ideas coming in from bureau chiefs and individual stations.
“I had no idea how good the stories would be, or the tenor or the tone.”
While the series capped at eight and “four more” might have been nice, Bruce was less sanguine on the long-term appetite for this type of storytelling. Even semi-sweet chocolate, it seems, can give you a tummy ache after a while.
“Isn’t she wonderful; look how great Mother Teresa is. You should be volunteering too. Really? I am busy, man. I am worried about bills,” Bruce said, alluding to some people’s reactions when they hear stories about inspirational figures. “I think people are starved for inspiration that doesn’t feel like being lectured at — inspiration that feels real.”