Behind the Podcast with Anna Doble and Chrystal Genesis of BBC’s Untold Legends: Ora
Behind the Podcast with Anna Doble and Chrystal Genesis of BBC’s Untold Legends: Ora
When you put your headphones on to listen to your favorite podcast, it might be the voices of the hosts you hear, but there’s usually a whole team of audio extraordinaires working behind the scenes to bring that show to life.
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The magical thing about podcasts is that you can hear stories that can’t be heard anywhere else, and the BBC’s new podcast series Untold Legends epitomizes that perfectly.
Untold Legends: Ora unearths the forgotten history of one of the world’s greatest sportspeople, Ora Washington. A champion of not just one but two sports, Ora was a superstar in both tennis and basketball during her prolific career in the 1920s-1940s, winning over 200 trophies. However, systemic racial segregation in both society and the sporting world in which Ora flourished prevented the African American sportswoman from achieving true greatness and today, very few people know her name.
Ora Washington. Image Credit: John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA
The series is hosted by former WNBA champion and owner of the Atlanta Dream basketball team, Renee Montgomery. Renee takes listeners on a journey piecing together the puzzle of Ora’s life: detailing her achievements, deconstructing the barriers that impacted her career both on and off the court, and drawing parallels with her own modern-day experiences as a Black woman in sport.
Working backwards to learn how Ora’s story finally came to be heard, we spoke to Anna Doble, Digital Editor at BBC World Service, who chanced upon a fragment of her history that sparked the idea for the podcast.
Anna’s career has been firmly in radio and broadcasting, having spent time at British TV network Channel 4 working in digital. “Podcasting for me is the perfect blend of the things that I have done,” she reflects. “[Podcasts] are an interesting way of storytelling; combining digital, sometimes crowdsourced aspects, but feeling like you're responding to the audience that you are trying to serve, rather than just making stuff and giving it to them complete.”
We also spoke with Chrystal Genesis, Executive Producer from Stance Studios, who, alongside her team, developed, researched and produced the podcast.
Chrystal worked at BBC radio for a number of years before starting her own podcast Stance in 2017, an independent award-winning arts and culture podcast that’s featured revered guests the likes of Questlove, John Cooper Clarke, and Yaa Gyasi. Stance Studios is the content-making arm creating a range of podcasts spanning arts, culture, politics, current affairs and long-form narrative for news organizations, charities and brands.
So, how does one go about telling an untold story?
On discovering a story
Inspiration can come from anywhere, if you’re prepared to look for it. In Anna’s case, it struck while reading an unusual sports book called Love Game by Elizabeth Wilson. It read like a hidden history of tennis, featuring stories about champions who've been forgotten by history. So when she got to a very thin section of only two or three pages on Ora Washington, she realized there’s an incredible story to be told here.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked that I'd never heard of her,” Anna recalls. “And not just that I haven't heard of her, but that everyone we spoke to—like our host Renee, and other sports stars we approached to get their take—hasn’t heard about her either.”
The scarcity of information about Ora, coupled with her astounding achievements got Anna thinking, “It really got to me that I, as somebody who's read up on sports books and follows tennis, have not heard this name. And yet, she won everything she could win. And the only reason she didn't win more was because she was literally unable to enter those competitions.”
Knowing a fascinating story was waiting to be discovered, it just needed a dedicated team to find and tell it, which is when Chrystal and Stance Studios came into frame. Stance had the idea of structure and story, who they’d try and approach, and a plan of how to create a more complete picture of Ora’s life.
“And it is one of those moments where you say the rest is history”, beams Anna.
There’s a clue in the title of Untold Legends; these stories require extraordinary fact-finding to piece together the various fragments of information about the subject. “It's not been easy as you can imagine,” Chrystal explains. “The story is over a hundred years old, so trying to find information is extremely difficult.” The lack of information was exacerbated by the inequalities at the time that are explored in the podcast.
“The team has had to do some serious digging. We've had people in the archives, and using genealogy websites, Facebook, Twitter and forums. It took about a year to find people from Ora’s family to speak to,” says Chrystal.
When faced with researching forgotten history, you can’t always turn to Google. “We as modern humans assume that most things are on the internet.” comments Anna. “But when you start to just scratch the surface of stories about people like Ora, there's so many other stories that are just not recorded.”
Without the help of the internet, you’ll need to turn to proper investigative journalism methods and discover new sources to help tell the story. “You have to go back to old school things like calling people. You need to knock on people's doors, Chrystal explains. “Talk them through [the podcast] and explain why they should be on it…you need to let them know that you are committed to telling this story.”
Interviews with sources are crucial elements in the research process, and the details that arise from these conversations can really inform how the story is told. “We had our outlines but then you have to tweak it based on the voices heard.” Chrystal goes on to explain that initial narrative structures need to be flexible, as new threads can emerge when you fill in the gaps through interviews.
One breakthrough interview came from tracking down a living relative of Ora’s, her nephew Gregory Price. It took months of searching through ancestry websites, and hitting dead-ends through messaging people with the same name. “He really told us a lot about what Ora was like as a person,” Chrystal says, which instilled a more engaging, human element to the story.
When Chrystal shared the trailer with Gregory, he was emotional that Ora’s story was finally being told.
“It's things like that that matter so much, not only to the family, but just in terms of correcting the history.”
On approaching a production format
With no recorded audio or footage of Ora, the team needed to approach production creatively, and fused extensive research with dramatic elements that re-imagines key moments in Ora’s life.
“We needed to be very sensitive to the story. And we wanted to make it feel modern, not stale.” Chrystal explains. “If we didn't have information on Ora, we'd look through different archives and have actors read out quotes from newspapers, for instance.” The podcast also features an array of different voices from people in the sports industry, academics, writers and journalists to paint a picture of her life.
The host, Renee Montogomery, also provides a fascinating thread through the podcast, as she draws comparisons between her own experiences as a Black woman in sport. Chrystal notes “There are a lot of similarities in terms of just being a woman, not necessarily a Black woman, in sport and how much access you get, money, press coverage—we still have the same problems.”
There was also an incredible level of detail considered for the sound design in the podcast. “If we have car sounds, they need to be car sounds from the 1920s.” Chrystal emphasizes. “If we hear the sounds of a tennis ball, it needs to sound like the tennis balls of the day.”
One thing they both agree on is the unique format that podcasts offer storytellers, which Anna breaks down with an analogy. “I think of Podcasts like a train with lots of carriages on them which are all connected, but they work as an entity on their own as well. And like on an old train, you can open different windows to let things in, and you can fling open a door and it's gonna take you someplace else. It's this idea that you're building this amazing story from all these different places.”
Untold Legends: Ora is a Stance Studios production for BBC World Service. It can be found wherever you get your podcasts.