Kathy’s segment on food airs two to five times per month. As the “resident chef,” she has an enviable job: she covers what interest her most. That might include travel pieces, cookbook reviews, and usually, lots of conversations about seasonal food and cooking.
Kathy is the author of 14 cookbooks (15 this fall) including six collaborations with Stonewall Kitchen. She freelances for Eating Well, Yankee, the Washington Post and other publications. Recently Kathy began training journalists and food professionals on doing podcasts and audio tapes.
I interviewed her about writing for radio versus writing for print:
Q. How is doing a radio show different from writing a magazine article?
A. The research element is the same: talking to as many people as possible, reading books and articles, putting a call on Facebook for research.
Here’s how it works: I pick a topic, I do research, I write up my research and then I hand write it out depending on topics that come up in the interview. I don’t use a script and I don’t read off a sheet, so by hand transcribing it, I’m planting it in my brain in a different way. Then I talk with my producer, and she asks me to write a basic outline of 5-6 questions. Then I get to the studio in Boston and put my handwritten sheets in front of me and 99 percent of the time I never look at them.
But I know that if I have to speak for 6-14 minutes I need enough info to speak for an hour, to feel safe and confident. Then we have a conversation.
That’s completely different from writing for magazines, because this is a 2-way often live conversation where one or two hosts interview me. I bring food in so they’re always tasting and eating and we’re always laughing. I try to keep it fun and my overriding goal is to have somebody driving in the car or have their radio on at home and think, I could make that, I could cook that tonight.
The piece comes at the end of a live news report, and then I come on and try to be really fun and entertaining and informative about something listeners can do something about. You can’t stop the politics or war, but you can eat a good dinner.
Q. Is there a lot of variety in the format?
A. Sometimes I do produced pieces, such as I go to Iceland and interview the head of the Stinky Food Festival. Or I might go somewhere, like smelt fishing in Maine, and gather tape. Then I come back to the studio and we talk and we layer in the tape from the field. My favorite examples:
- Here I gathered tape, talk about ramps and then play some cuts.
- I brought a guest into the studio with me to talk about the Fancy Food Show.
- Here’s a piece on lobster we did in the field, with video and tape.
- And here’s an in-studio conversation about healthy eating for the new year.
Q. Does NPR pay for travel?
A. No, it’s more like I pitch them. I say I’m going to Iceland and I want to do a piece, are you guys interested?
But those are the unusual pieces. Usually I do a piece every 10 days, about seasonal food. It’s a part-time job where I am a contractor.
Q. How important is it to have a consistent structure ?
A. Most are formatted pieces within a loose structure, but they are not scripted. Not having a script allows me to be me – conversational and not sounding like a reporter reading a script.
First the host introduces me and the subject. Often I introduce seasonal foods and the health aspects, and discuss how to find them and cook them.
Then the hosts start eating. There are no visuals, so we have to describe every experience about that plate of food. You can’t just say, Isn’t that pretty!” You have to say, “Wow look at that bed of white pureed cauliflower with the sautéed ramp on top that looks like a scallion but has a pink tinge and a fatter bulb.” You’re painting a picture with words, because people are listening and almost always doing something else. Most people are in their cars or their office.
Q. How would you describe your on-air persona and how is it different from your regular persona?
A. It’s not. I am an extrovert, very social, and I love to tell stories. It’s part of my best self.
Q. What is the most challenging part of doing a radio show?
A. Making food come alive through sound. It’s the sense that’s rarely discussed. I once interviewed Jaques Pepin and he was talking about training young chefs, and he said he could walk into the kitchen and tell if the meat was overcooked by the sound of the searing in the kitchen. That’s super interesting to me. We’re completely dependent on our eyes and our mouth usually. So I have to use sound to make all those other senses come alive for people. It’s challenging and an exciting way to look at food.
For more on sound and cooking, see this piece I wrote in Zester Daily.
Q. What did you learn about radio reporting that surprised you?
A. It’s way harder than it appears. It seems like I’m just having a conversation with people. Listeners don’t need to know that I just spent two weeks researching lobster or strawberries.
Q. Do you do your own editing?
A. For the tape editing, I work with a producer. I gather hours of tape and then edit by highlighting the pieces I want to use. But I don’t do the actual editing.
Q. What would you tell people who would like to do stories like yours on radio?
A. Go for it. There are a ton of community stations and public stations that are looking for food content. There’s huge interest and people would be surprised by what a good format it is for telling food stories.
It’s very simple to use the tape feature of your phone, so turn it on in case you end up podcasting or inserting that tape into a blog post or story, because sound can enrich a story without a lot of training and expense.