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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

How ‘The Daily’ Covered Afghanistan’s Fall

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In the case of “The Fall of Afghanistan,” this process started for me on Sunday morning. We had an episode on deck that was pretty far along in production that had nothing to do with Afghanistan. But as the news of the weekend unfolded, it became quite clear that we needed to pivot and make a new show for Monday.

At 9 a.m. Sunday, a team gathered to talk about what reporting we had at that moment, what kind of story the moment demanded and what we could put together on our deadline. Lynsea, who had been reaching out to sources in Afghanistan for a while, said that she had been trading voice memos with a source all weekend, as the story unfolded. After listening to the tape, we all felt like this was exactly the voice we wanted to hear Monday.

Once we knew that we had powerful tape, we wanted to preserve what was so powerful about it: that we were moving through time with the source; getting her raw emotional response to what was happening, as it was happening.

But the tape was missing some things — in particular, what specific news she was reacting to. And given that we wanted this story to unfold as a series of voice memos between Lynsea and the source, we couldn’t rely on a narrator or host. Instead, we used news coverage from the weekend between the voice memos to help move the listener through time and mark the critical inflection points that came up in the voice memos.

Beyond all of these considerations, we also strive to use the tools of our medium to help create an experience, so we pay close attention to tiny details — down to the tenths of seconds — where music helps bridge two thoughts together, where pacing can help an idea to sink in, where a breath can convey emotion. These details take time to hear and process and rework, and we have to listen to every draft in real time. And with each change, we listen to the draft — in real time — all over again.

This is not the kind of story you can pull off in a day. It took a whole team of people reaching out to sources, recording their conversations and staying on top of the news. And because of their hard work, we were able to bring to life a deeply intimate portrait of a historic moment. I finished my final listen of the episode at 3 a.m. and handed it off to our engineer to mix and prepare for publishing.

As an audio engineer, I love the craft of taking something that might be a little rough around the edges and chiseling it down into something, not necessarily smooth, but something where the finish is intentional and has its own character. In this way, sound engineering feels quite tangible, something like woodwork.

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