Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

Located in Portland, Maine, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies offers a 15-week immersion program for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in documentary writing, photography, or radio.
This blog is an update of current Salt students insights and musings.


What I took away from meeting Jad Abumrad.

Tonight, April 29th, the Boston Museum of Science hosted a listening party of Radio Lab's production: "Space". The event took place in the planetarium. Following the event, everyone gathered in the blue wing for chocolate fountain, twittering performance art by Boston CyberArt and the chance to talk one on one with Radio Labs host and producer, Jad Abumrad.

After we (Salt Radio students) stole him away for a moment for a group picture, I got to ask him some questions...

(Gist): Since he interviews many highly technical people (ie scientists), does he have a unique way of eliciting clarity/brevity or excitement from the subject ("drinking the kool-aid" as he put it).

He confirmed that the "crackpot analogy" method is very handy but you need to be careful with it. You take a big risk of losing credibility with your subject.

Regarding the "kool-aid"...
"[paraphrased: I try not to lose the conversation... the moment we were in together. Much of what you hear on NPR is narration, narration, narration, quote, narration, and so on, ...I dont like that. After you upload the interview, you need to get out and take a walk around the block. You can get lost in the Word script and ProTools. Find the moments that excited you in the piece. Have others listen to those moments and watch their reactions. Those reactions will help you frame the conversation that you found exciting.]"

From this I took away that the excitement was not something to elicit from the interviewee but something to recover from the interviewer.

- Shane ... Radio

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P.S. >> Field notes: there was a spaceship from the last Star Wars film hanging overhead in the reception area; one of the ladies from CyberArt, dressed in a black dress and carrying a laptop like a cigarette girl of the 1930's, had a bleeding blister on her heel that looked uncomfortable; the chocolate in the fountain tasted like melted Hersheys yet there were more people around the fountain than were talking with Jad; the cash-bar was $3 for a soda, 5 for a beer, and 7 for a mix drink; chatted with a scientist (Joanna?) about science journalism, she teaches at Harvard {cellular mechanics?};...


Major Writer's Road Block Stress Disorder (MWRBSD)

Another draft of my long story is due in one hour and eight minutes (and hence, I'm blogging). As I'm trying to write the draft, I have no idea which end is up. Where do I start? What am I trying to say? How do I say it? My story is complex and hard and important. I think my subject is a totally awesome person, and I'm glad I'm writing about him. But I increasingly have the feeling that I am not good enough for the story.

Writing student


Field Work.... On Wheels

After 3 months and nearly 60 plus hours documenting roller-skating rinks, my photography collaborator, Anna, is finally convinced to give skating a whirl! It made us all very happy. She's back on her feet with a camera in her hand, but with an added perspective to her already-excellent documentary photography. Stay tuned everyone, our final show is just around the corner and there's a buzz in the air here at Salt.

Katie Fuller

Writing Student

Burnt Out

Photograph by Keith Lane


Post-Critique ...It's Destiny

So the last two days at Salt have been hectic ones. Students from all three tracks spent long, long days (and for some us even nights) trying to get our stories straight! We each had 20 minutes to face our peers and sell the little gems of stories we've been searching for all semester long. If anything, yesterday just enforced that Salt is about telling compelling, true, heartfelt stories about people from all walks of life. Enough mush. After getting that last push from our peers to see our work through til the end of this amazing process, it was time for some fun!

When we went out for post-critique festivities, it was obvious to me that Salt kids (well now, we're adults aren't we..scary!) anyhow, Salties are all in this somewhat transitional phase in our lives, but we share a common cause: to share with the world just how rich our OWN stories are..the stories of ordinary people. Our very own Amanda shared a special tale, that she met a man from India on a train headed to the airport to come here to Portland. Low and behold, this man looked Amanda right in the eyes and said with conviction "You are going from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine?" He asked. Then he said, "That is where your destiny is leading you." After yesterday, I think we all feel a bit like Amanda after this experience. Salt is about more than just our work, it's about meeting others that share a passion for people and their stories. Amanda's story is her own, but in some way it's universal to us all.

Back to work!
Writing Student.


Busy, Busy Salt Days...

It's been a very busy week at Salt. Radio and writing students have had their 1st story due and photo students are doing their 2nd major edit of their central story. We are all presenting our stories to the school Thursday and Friday. Yesterday an image and title were voted on to represent the Student Show on May 21st! We are on our way!

Check out these images of writers hard at work late into a Sunday night before their stories were due and some pics of a cupcake break during a busy Salt weekend. Enjoy!


Emphasis on "rough"

So, Katie and I emailed the rough drafts of our long stories to our classmates and Colin today at 12:20 EST. Amen, Amen! Yea, we forsook sleep and triumphed, triumphed indeed!* We were in the Salt's Red Room last night until around 2 in the morning, powering through 3,000 words that I'm pretty sure won't make it into the final version at the end of the day.

"Two writers in the Red Room, oh yeah, oh yeah," Katie said at one point.

Our friends kept coming into the Red Room, drawn by the sounds of Lady Gaga, the Righteous Brothers, M. Ward, giggling, complaining, and typing.

"What the hell is going on in here," said one of the radio students. They've been pretty cracked out lately with their story due tomorrow, but I think the sight of Katie's postcards littering both of the long tables in the Red Room were a sight. "You guys have totally lost it."

Later that night, I wondered if I should get contacts?

"You're unforgettable with those glasses," Katie said.

Katie's pretty gregarious, and she kept me laughing last night. I probably would have drowned in the misery of my knowledge that I haven't done enough interviews, access may be slipping (or not there), one of my subjects may not sign Salt's release form, and that my story ended up being much more complex than I could have guessed at the beginning of the semester. That we drew the ace and two of hearts ended up a pretty sweet deal.**

And now, onward to the next draft!

By: Amanda, writing.

*My story involves heavy doses of Catholicism.
** To determine when students would have their stories workshopped, Colin had us choose from five cards. I got the deuce.

The Blue Door

Photograph by Keith Lane


Crunch time

I am in the Red Room at Salt with a fellow writing student, Katie. The first drafts of our long story are due tomorrow, at high noon, as a desperado from the Old West might say. I'm feeling a little bit desperate right now. Do I have enough information? Enough interviews? Am I going to hit the word count, 3,000 words?

"Oh, I'm going to hit, it's just what I hit it with," Katie says. She says that our writing teacher, Colin, is going to have to take 3,500 words and deal.

Before I came to Salt, I was a freelance newspaper writer for one year. I wrote stories a lot, and it came naturally to me. The words flowed. I haven't written a story since I came here in February. Staring at the page, it's like I've forgotten. Where do I start?

By: Amanda, writing.



Photograph by Keith Lane


Interview inside a Trash Incinerator

Salt stories will take you to many places you may never expect to visit. While researching a collaborative story, Samuel Allison (Writing), Casey Atkins (Photography), and myself toured MERC (Maine Energy Recovery Company), a trash incinerator located in downtown Biddeford.

Photograph by Casey Atkins.

- Shane... Radio


Spring berry

Photograph by Keith Lane


Truth & Radio

Thought for the Day:
In regards to emphasizing the dramatic elements in a story:
There's the "truth",...
Then there's the truth that you are telling a story on the radio.

- Shane... Radio


To record or not to record?

What if you are recording an interview and your subject starts breaking down and crying? Some may say the polite and tactful act is to turn off the recorder. DON'T. What I learned this week is that you keep recording because you don't want them to feel like they did something wrong by opening up.

- Shane... Radio

Boxcar red

Photograph by Keith Lane