By Kai Williams

Collecting and coaching stories from all walks of life, from all around the world, Brad Lawrence has the difficult task of narrowing down the stories which are shared on a weekly podcast into bite-size pieces to entice social media users to tune into the show.

Lawrence is the casting director, story producer, and social media manager of “RISK!,” a live storytelling show and weekly podcast hosted by Kevin Allison. “RISK!” shares true stories people never thought they’d dare to share in public. As of 2018, on average the podcast has one million monthly episode downloads and has upwards of 14,000 likes on Facebook. “RISK!” is active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as holding group discussion forums on a private Facebook page and within its own subreddit.

Lawrence has been a part of the “RISK!” team since 2016. He’s a storyteller himself, but also a teacher, writer, and hosts his own science fiction audiobook-as-podcast, “Maxine and the Planets Unknown.”

“RISK!” prides itself on showcasing a wide array of storytellers from as many different backgrounds and experiences as possible. With that, Lawrence has the opportunity to consume all types of stories and work with the storytellers to portray those stories in a condensed and meaningful way for social media.

Lawrence answered questions from New York via Zoom with University of Montana journalism student Kai Williams. Some questions and answers have been edited and shortened for clarity.

Q: You are the casting director, story producer, and social media manager. Can you tell me what each of those things mean regarding “RISK!?”

A: The casting director side of it is reading the pitches as they come in, deciding if a story’s the right fit for “RISK!,” getting a recording and guiding people through that entire process to the point of actually being cast on the show, or not, depending how it all goes.

Then then the story producer part is when we’re actually working on a story and the coaching process falls under that heading. Corralling all the recordings; making sure who needs to hear the recordings hears them; sitting in on the casting meetings and making a case for like, “I think this story works for this reason,” or whatever reason, or, “We think this person should be moved to radio-style or receive more notes in this.” And that’s a lot of people. You end up talking to people on the tech side, the production side, and that kind of stuff, as well as Cyndi [Freeman, casting director and story producer] and Kevin [Allison, host and creator].

And then the social media side is—I am the cheapest graphic designer in the whole wide world because I’m a hobbyist graphic designer. So, a lot of the things you see on Instagram are things that I designed because I’m willing to do it, essentially. A lot of guidance from JC Cassis [producer and business manager] on that. If you look at the “RISK!” Instagram feed and the Story Studio Instagram feed, you will see lots of my graphic design with input from JC and JC oversees that I’m within certain guidelines and guardrails. I run all the social media accounts. But all the aesthetic principles and the voice of those accounts—that was decided by JC and then communicated to me and it’s my job to stay within those bounds, which I mainly do pretty well.

Q: What are those guidelines from JC?

A: With the quote cards, I’ll select quotes from the stories and make a little graphic card for those that the storyteller can use and that we use to promote whatever episode they’re on. Early on it was working out the process of like, we want to find something that’s intriguing, but not spoiler-y, you know? I think early on there was this notion of wanting it to be more inspirational and closer to whatever the point of the story was, but oftentimes, like a lot of stories, that’s hard to do with storytelling. Well, this gets into the whole philosophy of storytelling, but there’s two kinds of spaces in which storytelling gets done. That is informal, entertainment-style storytelling and then formal, point-based communications. So, on one hand you have a live show like ours, or a podcast, or casual situations like parties, gatherings, that kind of stuff. On the other side you have preaching, corporate speeches, life coaching, that kind of stuff. And one of the things that has informed how we teach or construct stories is the controlling idea. The controlling idea is, “What is the point of your story? Boiled down to one sentence, what is the takeaway you’ll go to walk away with?”

In a more formal setting, preaching, teaching, corporate environments, that kind of stuff, you say the controlling idea. Like, you say it at the end. It’s the last thing you say because people have shown up. They’ve shown up to understand the point you’re trying to make. That’s why they’re there, and so you want to give them that, give them the point you’re trying to make. On the other side, you’re dealing with an audience, and an audience comes to a cultural situation and because they think they make smart cultural choices. They think they make smart, aesthetically intelligent choices in the kind of art they consume, and they want to have their intelligence credited. And if you hammer them with the point at the end, it feels condescending and like you’re not crediting their intelligence, so you kind of want to lead them to a certain point and then let them phrase what they think the moral of your story is for themselves and trust whatever they come up with is what you’re trying to get across.

You just trust the audience. It’s a different kind of relationship. We found early on that there wasn’t as much inspirational takeaway because the inspirational takeaway was actually things that were unsaid. So, then we kind of reeled it back and then was like, what do we want here? We want intrigue. We want people to be like, “Oh, this interesting. I want to follow up on this.” And so, we started gearing the quotes more towards that.

Q: How do you choose which platforms for “RISK!” to be present on?

A: We are still very ambivalent about how to use TikTok, or even if it makes sense for us to use TikTok. Facebook is kind of all-hands-on-deck, and we have a Facebook fans discussion page and everybody on the “RISK!” team chimes in there all the time. Kevin’s very active on Twitter as an individual, but the “RISK!” stream is a separate thing altogether. I do feel like, the nature of “RISK!,” because of what we’re doing—having often-controversial stories on the podcast—people naturally want to talk about how they feel about what they’ve seen. And so, an open discussion forum like Facebook is probably a more natural point of engagement for our fans than something a bit more one-directional like Instagram or TikTok. People can comment and send you messages on Instagram or TikTok, but I find the conversations are extraordinarily secondary on those platforms, it feels like. And Facebook’s much more geared towards conversation.

Q: “RISK!” uses a mix of video, audio, text, and photo in their posts. How do you determine which stories are best in each of those models and which of those models receive the most interaction?

A: I don’t track that as much as I should, and there probably are very convenient ways to do that. But, the reels were basically that we were doing the still cards and then some consultant we were talking to was like, “You need to have more dynamic audio and moving images on your feeds,” because TikTok is calling the tune these days and everyone is dancing to it in a lot of ways. But there’s an age thing. I’m Gen X, you know? I’m in kissing distance to 50. With TikTok, there’s this sort of danger of—we know TikTok’s the biggest game in town and we know it’s a huge thing. Kevin does have some presence on TikTok. But I think in a lot of ways, it’s one of these things where it’s like using it in a way that feels clunky to its demographic is a bigger risk than not being on it at all. It’s also one of things, like, these things shift so fast. We know the things where we have an effective voice but, well, what’s the thing that’s going to replace TikTok?

Q: How much time goes into the social media aspect of your job as opposed to story production?

A: I would say, at this point, it’s probably 40% but a lot of that’s because of the graphic design aspect of it. I spend a lot of time drawing things up and finding things, like, listening to the stories to get quotes and that kind of stuff. So, the actual end product you see on a thing is a lot more time behind what ends up on social media than there is actually me being on social media.

Q: Many organizations such as BBC have guidelines for their social media usage which are based on impartiality and making sure multiple different points of view are expressed. “RISK!” takes in stories from any community, any background, all kinds of walks of life. Are there any specific guidelines that are followed in obtaining the stories in how different points of views are portrayed on the show and on social media?

A: We have certain guidelines that we’re not going to put on a racist. We’re not going to put on someone whose entire thing is like, “Here’s why I’m a misogynist!” But I think when it comes to people’s spiritual lives and the religions they embrace, you get into some sort of territory where it codes as conservative.

We hope that we give people a chance to speak to the truth of their experience as best they can and that that basic idea is reflected in everything “RISK!” puts out on social media, on the podcast, in the live shows. What guides all of it is that we’re just trying to get how they understand their own story into the world.

Q: Has there ever been a time where you’ve needed to take something down from the “RISK!” social media page? Either something that was posted incorrectly or that stirred up too much conflict?

A: I can’t remember a time that’s been the case with any of the social media stuff. I feel like that has to be wrong. There must have been and I’m just not remembering it. But the other thing—the most funny thing is, one of my other jobs—which is funny because on the content side of production, I’m the only straight white man—but one of my jobs, as the only straight white dude, because we rerun old episodes on Thursdays, at some point Kevin, listening to things he had said, was like, “Ugh, god.” There’s stuff on here that just in the space of six years has gone from entirely acceptable to politically incorrect. These things have shifted so much. So, he’s like, “I need you to listen to every episode before we post it and let me know what stupid thing I said that has to be taken out of this thing.”

So that’s one of my jobs every week: listening to people say shit and being like, no, that’s not allowed. That’s a direct response to people who were like, “What the fuck did you say 11 years ago?”

Q: A key value of journalism is seeking truth. Does “RISK!” ever confirm facts or details of a story before sharing it on the podcast or social media?

A: There’s kind of a gauntlet where, between Kevin and Cyndi and I, if one of us thinks something isn’t true, we see that very quickly. And if we’re suspect of a story, we feel like there’s a lot of weird inconsistencies or there’s an agenda that’s not being plainly presented, one of us will definitely call that into conversation. And there have been a lot of stories that have not made it onto the show and not made it onto the podcast because one of us was like, “Eh, something doesn’t feel right.” And so generally speaking, by the time it actually gets to we’ve assigned a coach to it and we’re now working on it, we feel comfortable that it’s true. We’re also very clear about the fact that we don’t do research. We don’t we don’t dig into people’s lives. They come; they present us with the story. We believe the story, it goes out, but we’re not doing journalism.

One of the things is that what we’re looking for truth and not facts. What I mean by that is that facts are an impossible thing. Unless you’ve got a camera on the situation and someone’s filming it with like high-precision audio, there’s a lot of things open to interpretation.

My sister and I talk about this all the time. We grew up in the same household but had extremely different childhoods. That’s just how it is.

So, facts are totally elusive. But there are things that you and your understanding about what’s happening at the time—that understanding has informed your choices going forward. So, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for how your honest understanding of your experiences informed what you did after that and how you lived your life from that point.

And that’s truth. That’s the truth you live with: the honest interpretation of your experiences and how it informs the choices that you make. That’s true. Facts? God knows, I guess. That’s it.

Q: Is there ever dissonance between creating a cohesive media feed and choosing to post the most interesting topics?

A: I think that our feed is pretty cohesive just because we don’t use it as creatively as we could, essentially. I think we use it within a very strict set of things that we use Instagram for which is always promotions for this story or the show or this episode. I think that in a lot of ways, our Instagram feed, considering the kind of content that’s on the show, is actually remarkably tame. It’s not extraordinarily challenging stuff. And so, I think it’s cohesive just because it’s sort of within a kind of narrow band.

Honestly, I think part of it is that I’m wearing multiple hats. JC’s wearing multiple hats. JC’s got a vision for the voice of the show, and if there was somebody that could directly apprentice just to JC to fully inhabit the voice of the show in the social media realm, if that was their only job, chances are that person would have the bandwidth to get a little more creative within those boundaries and push them in the right way, but I have a lot of other crap I have to do.

Q: When you’re creating posts, you’re really focusing on the actual story, its impact, its level of interest. Is there any level of consideration for the perception of “RISK!” that you take into account when you’re making social media posts?

A: I would say probably more with the tweets than with the Instagram posts. The Instagram posts are show announcements and, “Episode’s up!” and, “Here’s some quotes from the show!”

The quotes speak to themselves, so we don’t have to worry much about that. It’s always directing you back to either the show or the story. I write the tweets and then I schedule them through TweetDeck to drop throughout the coming week or whatever else. On some of the tweets, there’s definitely an attempt to ask questions about people’s experience and how have they responded to “RISK!” and how people they just sent stories to respond to “RISK!” and what is meaningful for them about the show and trying to get people to engage in us on that kind of thing.

The Facebook page is kind of self-guiding. A lot of times we will think very long and hard. Kevin will post a very long, thoughtful response. I’ll go on there and post a very long, thoughtful response, and then other “RISK!” team members will go on there and post in the community long and thoughtful responses. But when we’re posting those long responses, one of the thoughts that is guiding what we’re doing is, “What is your experience of the show?” Sometimes it’s explaining our intentions: “We wanted to bring you this story because…”

Cindy and Kevin and I, we’re all performers. JC was a musician. She was a performer in her life as well and I think that there is a performer ethic of, it’s all about the audience in the end of the day. You’re out there, you’re trying to give someone 45 to 50 minutes, you’re trying to give them something of value. At the very least, just divert them from what is stressing them out or is making their life hard. Broaden their perspective out of that tunnel for a while and make it better to be human for 50 minutes. There’s an audience out there and their experience is the most important thing. They’re the reason we do it.

Kai Williams (they/she) is a non-traditional journalism student at the University of Montana. Williams is a storyteller, live music lover, and outdoorsman focusing on environmental journalism. They appeared on the episode of RISK! titled “Incongruous” in 2021 with their story “Do You Get My Meaning?” Williams is a student in the UM School of Journalism’s Social Media and Engagement class, which conducted Q&As this semester as part of a research project on best practices for journalists on social media. See more of the Q&As here.

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