Dec 28, 2018

BONUS: Radiolab Scavenger Hunt

The question we get more than any other here at Radiolab is “Where do all those stories come from?”  Today, for the first time ever, we divulge our secret recipe for story-finding.  Veteran Radiolab story scout Latif Nasser takes our newest producer Rachael Cusick along for what he calls “the world’s biggest scavenger hunt.”  Together, they’ll make you want to bake some cookies and find some true stories.  But we can’t find, much less tell, true stories without you. Find it in yourself to donate and help us make another year of this possible. It's a choice only you can make. Radiolab.org/support

 

Here are story-finding resources mentioned in this episode:

The World's Biggest Scavenger Hunt: Latif's Transom post on story scouting

Google Alerts: Set up your own!

Wikipedia Random Article: Play wiki roulette by clicking "random article" in the far-left column

WorldCat: to find where a book exists in a library near you

ArchiveGrid: to search libraries' special collections and oral histories

Trade Publications: Search for trade magazines by industry

Cusick Cookies: Rachael's cookie recipe...you're welcome.

 

 

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Jad:

Hey, everybody. This is Jad. Radiolab. Okay. As promised in the last episode, I have a short end of the year gift for you, which, I'll be honest, is a gift I hope will motivate you to make a gift back to us. So, let us call it a plea for a gift exchange. We are, as you know, raising money to fund Radiolab through 2019 to help pay for all the stories. We have such big plans, but we need your help. If Radiolab on your device is a thing that you cherish, please consider helping us out. Go to radiolab.org, click that donate button, or radiolab.org/donate, or just text the word, Radiolab, to the number 70101. That's the word, Radiolab, to the number 70101.

 

Jad:

All right. Let me set this episode up for you. At Radiolab, part of the whole ethos here is that we've got this incredibly talented team of producers, and reporters, and researchers, and fact checkers... Everybody's got slighty different super powers. So, what we'll do on occasion is get together and share tips and tricks. Somewhere along the way, we ended up asking our reporter/producer, Latif Nasser, how do you go about finding stories? Because one of the things about Latif is he finds the weirdest, most interesting stories. Stories like the one you just heard about the praying monk bot, or the forgotten history of our southern border with Mexico, or the game theory of badminton.

 

Jad:

At pitch meetings, we're always like, "How in the hell did you find that?". So, we asked him to talk about his process and he ended up giving a talk about it to the whole staff. Then he ended up writing an article about it for transom.org. That article sort of went viral. We figured, we should just pass along some of his advice to everybody. So, one of our newer producers, Rachael Cusick, got on the phone with Latif and he went through some of his tips and tricks. I think there's stuff in here that we can all steal that'll just make 2019 more interesting and fun. Yeah. Here's a bit of that conversation. I hope as you're listening you'll be motivated to help us out for 2019, but here it is.

 

Rachael:

Latif, are you there?

 

Latif:

I am.

 

Rachael:

Awesome.

 

Latif:

Hello.

 

Rachael:

Oh, man.

 

Jad:

Again, this is an excerpt of a conversation between Rachael Cusick and Latif Nasser on story finding.

 

Latif:

If the game is you want stories that people haven't heard before, you have to look in places where people aren't looking because people... The low hanging fruit is all taken. You just assume that.

 

Jad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

It's like, "Okay. I'm going to do some bizarre aerial acrobatic move and that's going to land me on this weird, random tree branch. Then, oh. Wait a second. There's all this fruit over here that nobody's even touched", you know?

 

Jad:

Latif ended up listing for Rachael a few of his moves, a few of the things he has engineered to get him into those out of the way tree branches.

 

Latif:

These are some of my favorite, fun things to do-

 

Rachael:

Okay.

 

Latif:

... to find new stories.

 

Rachael:

Lay them on me.

 

Latif:

Okay. So, one of them is Google Alerts. You may or may not be familiar with Google Alerts because you set one for yourself because that's what most people do.

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

But the most fun way to use Google Alerts, I find, is that... So, what I do is sometimes I just come up with phrases that I think are fun or funny-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... and I just set Google Alerts on them.

 

Rachael:

What do you have?

 

Latif:

So, one of the ones that has been very interesting for me is I use the phrase, "The human equivalent of...". So, I just set a Google Alert for the phrase, "The human equivalent of..."-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... and now anytime anyone on the internet uses that phrase, "The human equivalent of...", I find out about it. Here's another one I use, "Bizarre, but brilliant".

 

Rachael:

Is that a thing people say often?

 

Latif:

No. It's not. It's not, but that's the thing. That's why the few times that it does get used you're like, "Oh. Exactly". Another one I have, "A self fulfilling prophecy". I love that phrase.

 

Rachael:

Oh, that's good.

 

Latif:

Whenever anyone on the internet is talking about self-fulfilling prophecies, I'm going to know about it. Not to say that it's important that I read any of that stuff. In fact, most of the time I just delete it. I just will glance at it and delete it. I think of them as like little scratch off tickets or something that are story lottery ticket. One day they're going to yield me something, but who knows.

 

Jad:

So, that's one: Google Alerts on weird phrases.

 

Rachael:

What else was on the list? Is there more?

 

Latif:

Let me see here. Oh. Okay. This is one I think we should just do it right now. Although, maybe, I don't know if you have to run out the door or whatever.

 

Rachael:

No, no. I'm good. What do you want to do?

 

Latif:

Okay. So, it's just Wikipedia surfing. This is my go-to way of procrastinating.

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

I just love Wikipedia and in particular, the thing I like about Wikipedia more than anything else is if you go onto the homepage... So, go onto the wikipedia.org... Do you have a computer?

 

Rachael:

Yeah. Okay, so wikipedia.org.

 

Latif:

Okay. So, you go to wikipedia.org-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... and then you go to English, although if you want to go to another language you're more than welcome to.

 

Rachael:

Okay. I'm on the English page.

 

Latif:

Okay. So, now if you look on the left-hand side, right?

 

Rachael:

Okay. The the main page contents, featured cont-

 

Latif:

Featured. So, if you go down and then it goes to random article, and this is my... I've spent so many hours with this very specific button.

 

Rachael:

I never noticed that tab before.

 

Latif:

Random article-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

Okay. Click around until you have one that's like a fairly meaty article.

 

Rachael:

Okay. Should we take turns? I do one? You do one?

 

Latif:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Do you want to go first?

 

Rachael:

Yeah.

 

Latif:

You go first.

 

Rachael:

Okay. Oh, sweet potato salad. I love sweet potatoes, but there's not much here about sweet potato salad. You go.

 

Latif:

Okay. Gisela Wyman, is a German multimedia artist who lives and works in Berlin. This one is sort of long, but-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... all the links look not that exciting. Okay. So, you go.

 

Rachael:

Okay. Random article. I can't even say this [inaudible 00:06:12] county, which is a village in the administrative district of... What is this place in northeastern Poland?

 

Latif:

Click that place in Poland.

 

Rachael:

Okay.

 

Latif:

That province.

 

Rachael:

Okay. So, this is an urban, rural gmena in which it... Well, now I'm going to click that. What is that? A gmena is the principle unit of the administrative division of Poland. All right. Okay.

 

Latif:

Okay.

 

Rachael:

Your turn.

 

Latif:

Okay. Hold on. Okay. All right. Okay. I got Aml Ameen is an actor, an English actor who is in, among other things, the Netflix show Sense8. Whoa.

 

Rachael:

What'd you find?

 

Latif:

After Hardy was put undercover and was shot, he was transferred to Operation Trident.

 

Rachael:

What's Operation Trident?

 

Latif:

What's Operation Trident?

 

Rachael:

Go. Go. Go.

 

Latif:

What is Operation Trident?

 

Rachael:

Go. Go. Go.

 

Latif:

Operation Trident or simply, Trident, is a metropolitan police service unit. So, this looks like it's a real thing.

 

Rachael:

Oh my God.

 

Latif:

Originally set up in 1998 to tackle gun crime and homicide in London's afro-Caribbean communities following a series of shootings in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Brent. Okay. So, this is-

 

Rachael:

Oh my God.

 

Latif:

... all of a sudden something I've never heard of that sounds like it has some teeth to it.

 

Rachael:

Yes.

 

Latif:

Okay.

 

Jad:

I'm just going to jump in here and move things along because the two of them ended up falling down this 20 minute rabbit hole having to do with firearms dealers and cases involving seizure of weapons.

 

Latif:

Shepherd was acquitted of all 13 firearm defenses with-

 

Rachael:

What?

 

Latif:

... which he was charged. So, why was he acquitted? There's a footnote here. So then I [crosstalk 00:07:43]

 

Jad:

Eventually, they land on a story about a firearms' dealer that does ask a question.

 

Latif:

When is a gun not a gun? Let's see. Okay. A gun dealer specializing in antique firearms has been acquitted of selling weapons, which the prosecution has claimed could've been ended up in the hands of gangsters. Okay. So, this is a story about antique firearms and maybe the line between where are antique firearms... when are they antique and not scary, and when are they not antique and scary-

 

Rachael:

Oh my God.

 

Latif:

... and legally finding the difference between those two things. So, that's kind of interesting.

 

Rachael:

That's so cool.

 

Latif:

I definitely had never heard of that before.

 

Rachael:

Yeah. How many times... Do you do this like ten a day? It's like your exercises?

 

Latif:

No. I just do this... I probably end up doing that, but it's definitely not regimented. It's just a way of getting lost. You know those old people who would go to a new city and just wander around until they got lost and then try to have to find their way home? It's like that. You're doing that, but it's like you're doing that on the internet or you're doing that in a library catalog. What's particular is you want to find stuff that nobody else is finding.

 

Jad:

Okay. So, weird Google Alerts, Wikipedia surfing. Those are Latif tips one and two.

 

Rachael:

Do we have anymore hot tips?

 

Latif:

Let me see some other fun ones. One of them that non journalists can do-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... is that I love oral histories. I love oral histories. There's this thing called the WorldCat, which is amazing, worldcat.org.

 

Rachael:

Okay. Okay.

 

Latif:

It's basically the library catalog of all library catalogs. You can search something. So, let's say you want to find just not even anything special, just a normal book.

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

What you do is you put it in there and you also put in your zip code. Then it'll be like, "Oh. Hey. There's this library two miles away from you that has a copy of that book", or, "The nearest copy of that book is in Nashville", or whatever it is.

 

Rachael:

Wow.

 

Latif:

It's pretty cool. So, that site WorldCat is great and it's super helpful if you're trying to find super obscure books-

 

Rachael:

Uh-huh (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... but also it has a kind of sister site called Archive Grid, which is kind of that thing for special collections. So, a lot of special collections and libraries have oral histories. That's kind of the stuff that I get excited about.

 

Rachael:

There's just so many, I think. To me, if I'm looking at these websites, it's just all names. How do you pick a name to even listen to?

 

Latif:

Oh. Sometimes I'll read descriptions, but sometimes it'll just be names and I'll go like, "Okay. Let's just try it", and I'll just go to the next one when I'm bored.

 

Rachael:

Uh-huh (affirmative)

 

Latif:

A kind of similar thing to that, the IRL version of that, is talk to strangers. I talk to strangers all the time. I talk to Uber drivers all the time. Earlier this year we did the border trilogy. That came from a conversation I had with a woman, a stranger on a bus. I was taking a bus from DC to New York and I sat next to a woman, very pleasant woman. Her name is Lynn. She's an anthropologist.

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

Then I asked her a question. One of the questions I asked her was, "Oh...", you know I like, "Who are the really cool, new anthropologists working in the field. Who are the hip young people?". Then she told me, "You got to read this book, The Land of Open Graves'", then I was like, "Huh. Okay", then she described it to me a little bit and I was super interested. Then I went home that night and I read the book because it was so good. It was so good. Then that started a... That was the first domino in then what ended up being not just a full year for me, but also for a whole bunch of our other reporters and producers making that into a full, not just one episode, but three episodes-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... where we... Yeah. That all started just because I sat next to a lady on a bus. Know that everybody around you has stories. They all have stories, great amazing stories that they are fully willing to tell. It's just like nobody's asked. That's the thing. The whole world is like that.

 

Jad:

Okay. Some other tricks that Latif shared... Some of these, I have to be honest, like I'm not sure anyone, but him would have the patience or emotional fortitude to do. He says he reads a bunch of really obscure trade magazines like the Roller Coaster Association of America, or the Ice Cream Manufactures of something something.

 

Latif:

... trade magazines that you will never ever care about like in a million years. If you were in solitary confinement and you had a stack of these trade magazines, you would still not read them. That kind of boring. Then to find a story in there... to find something that is not just interesting, but also is moving, and also makes you think... That's a super power. That's a super power I want. Out of all the super powers, that's the super power I want to make boring things interesting, to make people awaken to the world around them, and see that it's actually way more exciting than they give it credit for. I don't know. That's literally the reason I get up in the morning.

 

Jad:

Now, one thing that Latif stressed... I think this is really important, is that even though he is constantly finding tons of ideas, his hit rate, like the percentage of the ideas he pitches us versus the number we accept and end up going with, that number is still pretty low.

 

Latif:

Of the one, actually one fun story of a pitch, I remember one of the first stories I pitched at Radiolab-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... I was, "Look. In the world of math, there are all these people who do all this advance geometry. The way they do it is knitting. They knit all these complex shapes. They knit these absurd things. Then they learn all this math from all these weird..."-

 

Rachael:

No, they don't.

 

Latif:

"... shapes that they're knitting".

 

Rachael:

What?

 

Latif:

Yeah. So, I was like, "Oh. This would be so cool. Knitting. All these grad students knitting all the time".

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

I was just so interested in it and I remember pitching it in the room and it being the biggest dud and one of the reasons was... I think it was Jad, was like, "You realize that you can't hear knitting, right? Knitting is the worst radio story idea. It's the most boring thing you could possibly hear on the radio. That's not going to work".

 

Jad:

Latif said that, "In part, it was all that rejection", and I am sorry for that Latif. Actually, I'm not because look what it led to. All the rejection led him to develop all of these odder, and odder techniques for finding tales, which formerly he kept to himself.

 

Latif:

At first when I was doing this, I was so super secretive about it. It was all my secret sauce.

 

Rachael:

Yeah.

 

Latif:

No way. Why would I tell you this?

 

Rachael:

Of course.

 

Latif:

This is my whole livelihood.

 

Rachael:

It's like a recipe that you don't want anyone to have like the best cookie in the house. You got to keep it.

 

Latif:

Yeah, but then at some point you're like, "Yeah. The world would just be a better place if there were more cookies in it".

 

Rachael:

I agree wholeheartedly.

 

Latif:

Yeah. I know you do. Yeah.

 

Jad:

Before Radiolab, Rachael was a professional pastry chef.

 

Latif:

Here's what I tell myself. I tell myself that there are 7.5 billion people on planet earth. There's 7.5 billion out there and if you presume... Let's say, that one percent, or even .1 percent have fascinating stories happening to them, like dynamic, newsworthy, exciting, dramatic, movie worthy stories happening to them on any given day or any given week. Right?

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Latif:

If you presume the one percent of those 7.5 billion people have those stories... There is no way all those stories are getting told. There's just no way. There's just not enough journalists in the world to tell all those stories. Those are just the alive people. There are a lot of dead people who have great stories. There are a lot of animals who have great stories, and businesses, and consumer goods-

 

Rachael:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Latif:

... and planets, and inanimate objects, and microbes, and... There's actually an infinity of stories all around us more dramatic than any movie. For true story finders, the world is a scavenger hunt. I just love it. It's so much fun.

 

Rachael:

That's so amazing. I think that's an amazing spot to end and I think you should go off on your little scavenger hunt and I will let you go.

 

Latif:

Okay. Thank you. Bye, bye, bye.

 

Speaker 1:

(music)

 

Jad:

Thank you to Latif Nasser for sharing those tips. Latif has a really cool thing he's working on for 2019 that I cannot wait to bring you. Thanks also to Rachael Cusick for making that conversation happen. She and Pat Walters also have a series they're working on that is going to be amazing. All that is going to come at you over the next year. Before we close, a couple of things. Those of you who search out interesting stuff for a living or just out of habit, hit us up on Facebook and tell us your scavenger hunting tips. I'm thinking if we get a bunch, maybe we'll put together a crowdsourced list and we'll all be better for it. As we hurl towards the close of 2018, please take a moment to throw some love our way to help us fund Radiolab through 2019.

 

Jad:

The whole deal here is that we make the show available for free, but we rely on listener donations to actually pay for it. That's kind of the honor system that makes the whole thing go. So, we need to hear from you. Anyone that we do hear from by December 31st will get a beautiful set of cards that commemorate some of the series that we aired in 2018 including Latif's border trilogy. Go to radiolab.org/donate or text the word, Radiolab, to the number 70101. That's the word, Radiolab, to the number 70101. Thank you for keeping us strong in 2018. We look forward to scouring the corners of reality to bring you more stories for 2019, but we need your help to do it. Happy new year, everybody. I'm Jad Abumrad signing off.




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