How to Talk to Strangers with Aaron Henkin
A few years ago, I fell in love with podcasts. I found myself living alone unexpectedly, and I filled up the quiet space with stories I could listen to anywhere, anytime. I craved the feeling of total immersion that I only got from radio. I remembered the weathered black leather case of books on cassette tape that I listened to over and over as a child and how vividly I could see the Metropolitan Museum of Art in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I realized I was learning and remembering stories in a different way through podcasts, perhaps because I was filling in some of the pieces myself. Quickly, I began thinking as much about how the story was being told as the story itself.
I started to tell people that I wanted to get into podcasting. I bought a recorder and some headphones and started interviewing my grandmother. I told lots of people in Baltimore about my podcast ambitions, and they all suggested I talk to one person: Aaron Henkin. I didn’t know who Aaron was at the time, but I quickly started listening to Out of the Blocks, his podcast on WYPR. Still, I didn’t have the courage to reach out to him. What would I even say? I had zero technical skills or relevant experience, just a lifelong affinity for headphones.
One day, as fate would have it, I was at WYPR to do an hour-long call-in show on summer learning. I heard a disembodied voice from around the corner and immediately recognized it to be Aaron. Although I still didn’t find the courage to approach him at the radio station, I did go back to my office and send him an email. I felt like my stint on Midday provided an opening, so I asked him for advice on getting started in podcasting. He wrote back right away and offered to chat. He suggested I give myself assignments—first try to produce a 10-minute story, then 15 minutes and then 30 minutes. He recommended I delve into everything they offer at www.transom.org and start listening to How Sound, a podcast about radio storytelling. It was the kick I needed to get started. I turned an interview with my grandmother into a 30-minute story with narration. Although I’m still far from proficient in sound recording or sound editing, it showed me that my storytelling skills matter and gave me the confidence boost I needed to keep going.
Last year, I joined the Marketing and Communications committee of Wide Angle Youth Media, an amazing media education program in Baltimore, and was happy to find Aaron on the committee as well. What is so awesome about Aaron, other than his generosity with his time and talents, is that he just goes for it in his work. Like all creative geniuses, Aaron was waiting tables when he got the chance to work at WYPR. He didn’t have any formal training or credentials, but he took a leap and learned.
Out of the Blocks (for which Aaron and his co-host Wendel Patrick just won a national Edward R. Murrow Award!) was borne out of that same sense of exploration and curiosity. The show dedicates each episode to one city block in Baltimore. It’s a fascinating mix of life, love, family and business and offers constant contrasts in change and permanency, native and immigrant experiences. Aaron spent four months on a block to make the first episode as a kind of experiment. Now, he spends about six weeks per block, still a significant and meaningful commitment. Aaron describes the stories of the people on the block as tiles in a mosaic and each block as a piece of a broader tapestry of Baltimore. Out of the Blocks has no narrator and an incredible custom musical score for each episode by Wendel Patrick.
To give you a sense of what Out of the Blocks sounds like, here’s part of the description of the award-winning episode on the 2100 block of Edmondson Avenue:
“It’s a block where a Pentecostal pastor keeps her faith in the face of suffering, where a reformed drug dealer works as a kitchen appliance repairman, and where a political reporter from Kashmir has found sanctuary working behind the counter at a sandwich shop. It’s a block where a former Nigerian soccer star operates an auto repair shop. In his car lot, he lets a homeless man sleep in a van. Next door is an army veteran who issued air-strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. And across the street is a tire repairman who’s trying to beat a 30-year heroin addiction. Crystal, who works in the kitchen at Soul Source, sums it up like this: It’s not always peaches and cream, but this is a place that you know is always going to be real.”
Aaron and I talked for about an hour, and he was kind enough to record our entire conversation. You should listen to it! He’s got a real radio voice, after all.
Here are some of my biggest takeaways from our conversation:
Disclosure begets disclosure.
People really open up to Aaron on Out of the Blocks—regular people who may be talking to a stranger about their lives for the first time. People who have been marginalized by outsiders and are used to microphones and cameras zooming in to cover a crime or tragedy and then quickly disappearing. It’s remarkable, and I wanted to know how he earns their trust. Aaron told me that when he first shows up on a block, he doesn’t bring his recording gear. He said, “Before I have the right to start asking them questions about their lives, I have to give them a chance to get to know me and understand who I am, what I’m doing and why I’m there. The more I let someone get to know me, the more comfortable they’re going to be being themselves around me.” He says that after a while, they start to realize he’s sticking around but he’s not trying to “sell them encyclopedias or anything.”
Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell it.
Often as I listen to Out of the Blocks, I find myself thinking, where does he find such incredibly sage, wise and reflective storytellers? Would I find such well-crafted stories if I stopped and talked to any stranger on the street? Probably not.
He says, “I very much have the idea in mind that I’m going to interview this person until they begin telling me a story that piques my human curiosity. And once I start to hear that story, I shift gears from throwing out lots of questions to get conversations going and reel it in in such a way where I almost shift to being a story coach. I’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s a really interesting story. Let’s unpack that. Rewind to the beginning of that day. Tell me how that day began, what was normal about it, and then paint a picture of what was going through your mind at that point. What happened next? What happened next?’”
I had never thought of it this way before in documentary journalism, but Aaron acts like a director, gathering multiple “takes” of a story. It gives him options in editing, but also might advance the story in a different way or give someone the time to figure out what they are really trying to say.
Interviews can be good for the soul.
Aaron and I talked about how he’s kind of like an unlicensed therapist. He has a favorite quote that it’s the secret wish of the soul to be interviewed, and I believe it. There’s something inherently healing about talking and being listened to, just ask any talk therapist. Aaron said, “A lot of times when I’m interviewing people, they’ll start crying. I think just because, when is the last time anyone’s sort of sat and given them their undivided attention? In the same way that I coach the anecdote out of someone, I’ll do my best to coach a moment of reflection at the end from them as well. I’ll often use this question, ‘What do you think the moral of that story is?’ Which is just a super direct, easy way to get exactly what you want in that moment of reflection.”
Storytelling brings us closer together.
I asked Aaron what he thinks people gain from the experience of being part of Out of the Blocks. He said this used to be a bit of a mystery to him until he did a show on his own block. He realized he knew the people on the blocks he had covered so much better than his own neighbors. After interviewing his neighbors and his wife and kids, he says, “After it comes out, you all hear this little two or three or four minutes of each other’s humanity and you’re all there in this boat together, this audio vessel. And I wonder if there’s a different sense of community afterwards. I feel like there is on our block since that piece aired and I think on other blocks, too. I do feel like it is fundamentally validating for someone to take an interest in your life and your place, your little corner of the world just for its pure human value.”
One of my favorite anecdotes from Aaron was about a “church lady from the county” who reached out to him after listening to the show. She described her social group of “older folks” who “do these adventurous things and care about Baltimore City and progressive ideas.” She wanted Aaron’s recommendation for a place they could go to lunch to really experience the city. He recommended Northeast Market on the 2100 block of Monument Street, and they went. Given my experience working for the Mayor of Baltimore while The Wire was still in production, it makes me really happy to know that honest media about Baltimore is inviting more people into the city instead of scaring them away.
Sometimes no agenda is the best agenda.
As someone who builds case statements and support for social causes, I feel like I always have an agenda and a strong point of view. Aaron made me wonder, what am I missing because of that narrow approach? Aaron says that while he can’t help but filter what he asks and reports in some ways, he really has no agenda. “It leaves you open to let the city tell its story to you instead of trying to tell a certain story and finding the people in the city who fit that agenda.”
What’s the one story Aaron just can’t shake?
It’s in this episode (400 block of East Patapsco) of out of the Blocks. He talks about it in the 34th minute of our conversation.
Teaser: He told me, “I just couldn’t believe that world that I had wandered into and that someone had shared that story with me. I’ll never forget that one.”
Out of the Blocks is now telling stories from St. Louis and Detroit, and I’m sure that’s only the beginning.
What’s Aaron listening to?