NPR's Kelly McEvers On Reporting From Dangerous Places And Her New Podcast

May 20, 2016

NPR's Kelly McEvers (Photo: Stephen Voss for NPR.)

Kelly McEvers was Middle East Correspondent for NPR for several years, reporting from war zones and covering the Arab Spring.  Now she's host of NPR's All Things Considered, and has a new podcast, called "Embedded." 

She recently spoke with WPSU's Kristine Allen.

Allen: Kelly McEvers of NPR, thanks so much for talking with us.

McEvers: Thanks for having me.

Allen: You’re a host of All Things Considered, and you’re a reporter, too, which is a very full plate already.

McEvers: (laughs)

Allen: Why did you decide to also do a podcast?

McEvers: Because, you know, I needed like a fourth job. (laughs) Because it’s an exciting space to work in right now.  It is a space that we know, over the last couple years, millions, if not tens of millions of people want to hear long-form journalism.  You know, Serial, Invisibilia, some of the other podcasts that do journalism out there are really popular. So I think anybody who’s working in audio, and who loves to tell stories like I do, basically would be kind of crazy not to want to do a podcast right now. And so really that was what brought me into the space.  I wanted to play around, try stuff learn things – you know, doing long form is a whole different beast than making a four to six minute story.  So I wanted to try new things.

Allen:  The podcast is called “Embedded.”  Why that title?

McEvers: Well, I was working in the Middle East for many years for NPR, and I think everybody knows that during the Iraq war, and also, obviously the conflict in Afghanistan, one of the only ways that reporters could do their job was to be embedded with the military.  That was a phrase.  You would attach yourself to a military unit as a way to get to parts of Iraq and Afghanistan that you couldn’t get to otherwise, on your own, because it just wasn’t safe enough. And so the idea was they would offer you protection, and access to the story.  But of course it was a fraught relationship because then you would only be telling their side of the story – that was always the conversation that went around that.

I got to Iraq in 2010, when we really didn’t need to embed anymore. I did maybe two embeds, I think, with the military. But by then, the military wasn’t the story. By then the military was pulling-back, was about to leave Iraq – the U.S. military – and the story was in Iraq, with the people. And so that’s what I spent almost all of my time doing.  For once it was safe enough for reporters to go all over the place.  And so for me, like I sort of turned the idea of being embedded on its head.  I like to be embedded with the people, for lack of a more complicated way to say that.        

And so when I got back from the Middle East, people said to me, “You know that kind of reporting you do, when you go out and you’re with people and you just stick with them and try to understand how the news is affecting them? You should keep doing that here in the U.S.”  And so I thought, “Okay. Uh, yeah. I will.  And I’ll call it ‘embedded.’ “ It’s a little bit of a play on this idea: I’m never embedded with the military.  I’m embedded with all kinds of people: embedded with the police, embedded with people who are addicted to opioids – and so yeah, I mean, that’s just like this sense of being somewhere, being on the ground, being attached to the person who’s at the center of the news.

Allen: How is doing this podcast connected to, and yet different from, the work you do on All Things Considered?

McEvers:  It’s totally connected.  You know, every day I wake up and go to a meeting with everyone at All Things Considered: in my opinion, some of the smartest people in the news business. And we talk about “What do we want to hear on the show today? What thing that is happening in the news do we want to understand – do we want to explain?

And so I’m constantly in the soup of news. I also work in a newsroom, you know.  So beyond just that meeting with everyone at All Things Considered, I’m constantly in contact with all the people in the NPR newsroom: people who are experts in voting rights, and covering political campaigns, and the environment, and space  - and, you know, people who cover all kinds of things. 

And so, for me, you know, being in the soup of news, there are always these stories that kind of stick out, where you’re like, “Huh.  I wish I knew more about that.” And then I can take something – just pluck one out, and say, “Let’s go really deep on this one. We’ve covered it well on All Things Considered.  We’ve talked to all the stakeholders, we’ve talked to the experts, we’ve talked to the officials – but there’s just something I just don’t get, quite.” Or, “There’s something I just haven’t heard yet.” Or, “There’s just a little bit more that I want to know.”  

And so that’s the kind of story we’ll take. We all know there’s an opioid crisis in the U.S., and we’re covering it constantly on NPR.  We all know there’s a conversation going on about police tactics in the United States.  And we’re covering that constantly on NPR. But it’s just like, maybe there’s just like one more thing that I kind of want to do, or want to look into.  Maybe there’s just a deeper dive I want to do on one of those stories. And so that’s how we make our decision.

Allen: So, how is the experience of hearing Embedded different? I mean, obviously there’s length.

McEvers: Sure.

Allen: There’s language, sometimes, but other ways?

McEvers: Yes, right. People say unsavory things in Embedded, and we can either bleep it, or we can do this wonderful thing where you put an explicit tag on it, and you sort of warn people at the top like, hey, things are about to – these are bikers, after all.  Language is about to get a little intense, a little salty.

Yeah.  But what’s different? You know, in some ways, nothing is different. Like our journalist standards are completely and utterly the same, if not even higher, when we do these podcasts.  In other ways, they’re very different, right? It’s a different style. It’s a different approach to storytelling. I probably say “I” more in the podcast, although I say it in All Things Considered, too.  I say it in the stories that I do as a host of All Things Considered.

We let things just kind of spool out.  You know – yeah, it’s a little bit longer. You know, you just – you let people kind of come along on the journey with you, a little bit longer than you might on All Things Considered.  All Things Considered is a two-hour show, during which we want people to get a sense of all the news – a deeper sense of all the news that is swirling around them, right?

Allen: Um-hm.

McEvers: Embedded is a 30-minute show where we’re just taking one thing, and we’re really spooling it out. So, you know, you’re going to take more time on that one thing.  And so you’re going to use some different techniques.  You know, we do things called “sign-posting” and stuff when you’re writing podcasts that you don’t necessarily have to do on a six-minute story on All Things Considered.

Allen: What’s sign-posting?

McEvers: It’s this thing you do with long-form radio.  It’s like, you can have a scene – you know, a pretty detailed scene, where’ you’re – like, we’re working on a piece right now: we were embedded with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in South Sudan.  And, you know, we all know that MSF hospitals are coming under attack.  So that’s the story in the news, right?  That’s the news story. And we’re like, wow. What is it like to be those people? That’s the question. So the sign-post, the first sign-post, is posing the question: what’s it like to be those people? And then you hit the music, right? And then all of the sudden people are with you.

“Oh, I want to know that, too.”  And we could just let the scene unspool, but instead, we’re like,  “And what we realized, right in that moment, is--”

Allen: Yeah.

McEvers: So you just tell people what they need to be thinking in that moment.  Because if you’re going to make them listen for 30 minutes, you’ve kind of got to hold their hand a little bit. So it’s called “sign-posting.”  You kind of say like, “Just hang-on a second, let’s reset.  Hold-up.  Here’s what we know so far. Here’s what we still need to find out.” It’s like a road map.  It’s kind of great.

Allen: The music in these podcasts is amazing.  Where does it come from?

McEvers: There’s a couple different places, but we have our original – our theme song – anyone who’s listened to the podcasts it’s like do-do-do-do-d (imitates theme song).

Allen: (laughs)

McEvers: You know, slightly ominous.  And there’s some great little like drums in the background.  That was written by a composer named Colin Wamsgans, who’s here in Los Angeles. And he has written a couple other pieces that we use.  And then there’s also music that’s available to us to use in podcasts at NPR.  So, we have sort of a database of music that’s available to use.

Allen: There’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you. In a radio documentary you did on the time you spend in war zones, in the Middle East –

McEvers: Yeah.

Allen: You did some soul-searching about thinking maybe you’re attracted to dangerous reporting.

McEvers: Yep.

Allen: And I’m wondering: why did you come back?  And do you miss that life?

McEvers: I miss it every day.

Allen: Really?

McEvers: Being in the Middle East was the most – the most satisfying work I’ve ever done.  It was an amazing time.  It was the Arab Spring.  It was a time when tens of millions of 20 and 30 year olds were taking to the streets and saying that they had had enough.  No one can possibly imagine a more – just incredible story to cover.  There was nothing like being at the center of that, and being the person responsible for telling the world about that.  You know? Like, just to know that I get to tell the world about this incredible thing.  It was something else. And then, the responsibility you felt to tell the world what was really happening. That felt like very important work.

So yes, coming back was the most impossible thing I could have ever done.  But I did it.  My family wanted me to do it. To some degree, I wanted to do it.  I knew that maybe my time was up and it was time to pass the baton to somebody else.

Allen: But don’t you think you’ll find stories that crucial here?

McEvers: Exactly.

Allen: Yeah.

McEvers: That’s the point.  I come back to the United states, and I’m like, whoa! Disappearing middle class.  Whoa!  Opioid crisis.  Woah! Policing – what’s going on? Like is some stuff here.  There is some stuff we need to talk about in this country, right this minute.  So I do feel like those are equally as important as the stuff I was doing there.  Uh, it just took awhile.

Allen: Kelly McEvers, thank you so much and best of luck with Embedded.

McEvers: Thank you so much for having me.