There needs to be a radio and podcasting merit badge: reporters and producers earn one when they stretch above and beyond for a story. If there was one, I would present it to Lauren Chooljian of New Hampshire Public Radio for a pandemic diary she produced.
Rob's secret hope with every HowSound is that you'll hear creative storytelling and production and think "Oh wait! I wanna do that!" He has no doubt that Fiona Benson's and Mair Bosworth's sound poem about 17-year cicadas will do just that.
Emily Green says she "walked in the margins" of journalism ethics to report a story on kidnapping at the US/Mexico border for This American Life. Emily and producer Lina Misitzis join me on this episode of HowSound to parse out how they navigated the reporting and how TAL addressed it in the story. This story was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning episode -- the first for audio journalism.
This American Life's Sean Cole is the guest on this episode of HowSound. Rob dug this one out of the HowSound archive from 2010. It features a fantastic story Sean produced in '05 as well as a discussion about the value of including a reporter's question in a story.
This episode is aptly named: “A Feast For Your Ears”. Rob features a handful of ear-catching clips. From a psychedelic road trip in Australia in the 1970s to a crowd-sourced poem produced by NPR to.... well, you'll have to listen!
You may know Jay Allison for his work on the Moth Radio Hour and in his role as the founder and executive editor of Transom. But, back in the day, Jay produced a trove of strange and ear-catching pieces about dog's dreams, talking horses, and freaky neighbors. Headphones on, people.
Selly Thiam says producing an LGBTQ podcast in Kenya is incredibly challenging. There's homophobia, government censorship, and a potential audience that still doesn't quite know what a podcast is. And, yet, AfroQueer, the podcast Selly hosts and produces, is winning major awards for the reporting.
Got your ears on? You'll want them as Rob threads his way through a wide variety of clips that caught his attention over the last few months. A man injects Fentenyl into his neck... Toni Morrison speaks about beauty... Jad Abamrad waxes about the power of radio... and more.
Shereen Marisol Meraji of Code Switch told me she's sick of her voice -- the authoritative narrator. In response, Shereen recently experimented getting out of the way and letting the tape do the talking for a shocking documentary about a lynching in the 1930s. "A Strange and Bitter Crop" was her first non-narrated story in fifteen years and she can't wait to make more.
Let's face it: Use of the pronoun "I" has gotten out of hand. There's much too much navel gazing and self-indulgence in so many podcasts. And yet, sometimes using the first person as a reporter is the best approach for a story. Leila Day of The Stoop podcast relates how she and her co-host Hana Baba navigate those waters.
Who are all those people at the end of an episode of Reply All, given credit for putting it together? One of them is Jessica Yung. She's an Associate Producer. On this episode of HowSound we shine a light on Jessica's hidden work as an AP.
When you have guests as famous and interesting at Tan France, Ramy Youseff, Wazina Zondon, Ryan Harris, and Alia Shawkat, why does the host of Tell Them I Am start each episode talking about herself? Misha Euceph has the answer.
Sewage pipes, a radio crime, and sound designing inner thoughts.... Must be another episode of Rob's fav sounds but this time with a twist -- a sound that annoyed Rob to no end. Clips from BBC 3 and Nathanial Mann, Bodies by KCRW, and No Feeling Is Final from ABC Radio.
Every once in a while, I think HowSound should focus solely on interviewing. To heck with sound design, writing, ethics, tracking, and the like. Just focus on “the backstory to great radio interviewing.”
Why? Because interviewing is how radio producers mine. It’s how we collect the raw material for our work. The better the interviewing, the better the tape. The better the tape, the better the story.
I mean, sure sloppy writing can kill stellar interview tape.
Same with bad production. Conversely a
bad interview can be saved by rock solid writing. But really, if you nail your
interview, the rest will come easy. Okay. Not easy, but easier. And the story
the tape is based on will likely be more satisfying.
Put another way, interviewing is the keystone of audio
That’s why it’s important to examine the work of the best practitioners and Cathy FitzGerald is just that — one of the best. She possesses an uncanny ability to capture “humans being” in her interviews. And she approaches it in unusual ways with her penchant for recording interviews in scene; her use of participant observation, which is a fancy way of saying she doesn’t just ask questions, she gets involved; and her use of props to prompt conversation. On this episode of HowSound, Cathy chats about those approaches and we hear extended examples of her work.
As a bonus, during our chat, Cathy turned the tables and
asked me questions about
interviewing. And that led us to talk about our weaknesses and what we both
would like to improve and to this positively lovely analogy for interviewing —
weeping with one eye.
Sometimes, there's just too much good work to feature on HowSound. To solve the problem, from time to time I feature a slew of ear-catching clips on one episode. On this episode, work from Believed, 99% Invisible, This American Life, and Threshold.
At a school where I taught radio, in the mic booth, there was a photo of Studs Terkel hanging on the wall. Under it, someone wrote “Talk to Studs.”
The picture was there to help with tracking. Narration will
sound more conversational if you pretend you’re talking to Studs, the thinking
went. After all, that’s the goal, right? To track like you’re just talking to
Hanging up a picture and talking to it may be a good (and slightly weird) first step toward tracking naturally, Sruthi Pinnemaneniof Reply Alltakes things a whole lot further because she’s driven to avoid sounding like she’s reading something written. She very much wants listeners to fall into a story because her voice sounds unaffected and genuine.
“(At Reply All) we try to track in a way that is closer to ‘I’m telling a story to somebody,'” she says. “When we’re tracking, we almost always have a producer or someone in the room where we’re trying to recreate that feeling of ‘I’m here and I’m feeling the excitement and joy that I know exists in this story.'”
She says it’s not just a matter of talking to that person in
the room. They help, too. They offer feedback, of course. But, they also play
tape. Sruthi listens to a quote in her story then, right as it finishes, she
“The tape always carries a certain kind of emotion,” she explained to me. “Either you’re surprised by what the person is saying or what the person is saying makes you laugh. And so you want the tracking, the line that you’re saying out of it, to carry that emotion.”
What else does she do? Sruthi lays it out in this episode of
Jeff Emtmen pulled an audio sleight of hand in an episode of Hear Be Monsters about Mexican free-tail bats. It's a delight to listen to. To understand Jeff's trick, Rob offers a primer on sound and hearing.
Why do students at Transom's Traveling Workshops produce such solid work on very little sleep? Because they're driven to learn? Yup. Because they want to leave the workshop with something they're proud of? Absolutely. But, it may also be because they want to do justice to the people they profile in their stories -- to get it right. You can definitely hear that effort on this HowSound.
On this episode, a fascinating minute of audio - the sound of war and peace reconstructed from the exact end of World War I. Even more fascinating, the producers - Will Worsley and Sam Britton - conjured the sound using audio shadows captured on film.
Back in September, Barrie Hardymon and Dana Cronin produced a short, sharp, shock of a story. One that featured tweets recorded by listeners including a tweet that had to be approved by NPR legal before broadcast. And they did it all in about eighteen hours.
Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda compose music for stories at Reveal. HowSound's Rob Rosenthal talks with them about the way they think about music and scoring. We think you’ll find it instructive, even if your music comes from a library.
A pile of tape just might be a treasure trove of radio gold. But how do you go manage it? Bianca Giaever has answers and a touching documentary called “Two Years with Franz” produced with Jay Allison here at Transom.
That feeling you have at the end of a serialized podcast where all you want to do is press play again -- what causes that? Rob talks to Leah Sottlile and Ryan Haas from Bundyville about episode endings that entice listeners to press play again.
A student once asked me “How do you find the stories you feature on HowSound?” I’m asked that a lot, actually. And, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any secrets to reveal. I probably find stories and podcasts the same way everyone else does. Here’s my very quick and cursory list.
* I listen to the radio. A lot.
* I ask people “What are you listening to that was really interesting? Or that pissed you off?”
* I pick the brains of my students. They often get out their phones and rifle through what they subscribe to.
* I’m always scouring newsletters and emails on radio listserves I belong to:
a. The list for the Association of Independents in Radio
b. The Transom Story Workshop Alumni listserve
c. The list for the Sonic Soiree, a local listening group in Boston (I bet there’s a group near you).
d. The newsletter from the Bello Collective
e. The newsletter from Hot Pod
f. Sam Greenspan’s occasional newsletter YSLTF: You Should Listen to Fridays.
* I’m a member of a couple of Facebook groups:
a. The Podcasters Support Group
b. The BEA Teaching Audio Production Group
* I subscribe to podcasts that feature work from a lot of different producers:
a. Short Cuts from the BBC
b. Unfictional from KCRW
c. The BBC’s Between the Ears podcast
* I search for subject matter I’m personally interested in. For instance, I might search for “Arctic” and “podcasts.” Or, “podcasts on the environment.”
I’m sure I’ve left something out. (What would you add?) Perhaps the short answer is: my ear radar is always on; I’m constantly on the hunt.
I should mention, too, that as I’m listening, I look for a way into the story for a HowSound episode. Is there a “teachable moment” in the piece? Did the producer do something unusual and notable? Do I find myself wondering “How the heck did they do that?!” Sometimes it’s just a matter of being satisfied by the story or a production technique.
That’s what this episode of HowSound is about. On a recent road trip, I listened to several hours of stories and made a mental list of segments from those stories that caught attention, that I found satisfying. This is a different way of producing HowSound. Typically, I find one story and interview the producer. But, today, I feature a slew of clips that caught my ear and I offer some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t. Stories from Earshot, The City, and Sound Africa.
If you get a chance, let me know if this episode worked for you. And, tell me what I should be listening to next.
Jennifer Kingsley was so nervous when she started "Humans of the Arctic" she didn't eat for a week. But, she stepped off the boat in Svalbard with her mic and recording gear and learned a valuable lesson - you just won't know if you don't ask.
It's a hackneyed idea, but it bears repeating: you can have all the right gear and marketing and everything else to make your podcast successful, but the most important asset is you. On this second episode of two, Vanessa Lowe of Nocturne lays out her podcast mindset.
Recording equipment? Check. Marketing plan? Check. Theme music? Check. Mindset?..... You can have all the technical and logistical aspects of podcasting in place but if you don't have the right outlook, your effort may fall short. What is that mindset? On this first of two episodes, Phoebe Judge of Criminal answers that question.
The narrative arc in recent story about the drug epidemic by NPR's Rachel Martin was like being taken down into a basement and having the light turned off. The piece was bleak and the ending was, perhaps, the darkest point in the story. Rachel talks about that choice and offers other thoughts about story endings on this episode of HowSound.
Radio producers talk about the scenes in their stories all the time. "What are the scenes in your story?" "Oh, I got some great scene tape today." But what is a scene? On this episode, Rob dissects one of the best scenes he's heard in a while.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the best -- if not the best -- radio documentary: Ghetto Life 101. Producer David Isay and editor Gary Covino recall their landmark work on this episode of HowSound.
A few years ago, Chenjerai Kumanyika went to record his narration for his first-ever radio story. And he discovered a problem: "What should I sound like?" Several years later, Chenjerai found his voice on the Peabody Award-winning podcast "Uncivil."
How can you be fair during an interview with a suspect when a police officer is standing right there? Over the years as a law enforcement reporter for NPR, Martin Kaste has developed an approach to navigate this and several other challenges.
What do you do when the main character in a story is strange, bizarre, and weird? So crazy listeners might tune out? One answer is to find a sympathetic character, someone the audience can relate to. Producer Ann Heppermann explains how Glynn Washington was the perfect sympathetic character as the narrator of the "Heaven's Gate" podcast, the series about the cult that committed the largest mass suicide in the United States.
Bradley Campbell couldn't believe it when I told him I'd like to interview him about sports stories. He knows how much I hate them. But, a sports story he produced and other episodes of Gamebreaker are well worth the listen. Bradley explains why.
One way to start a story is with a question -- one that focuses and animates the piece. Annie Minoff and Elah Feder of the "Undiscovered" podcast use focus questions as story starters to great effect. But, I had some questions about their questions.
"The Promise," a podcast from WPLN in Nashville, is an inspiring example of the journalism of empathy. And, it's easily some of the best local reporting I've heard in a long time. Meribah Knight explores this approach to reporting on this HowSound.
A shooter guns down twenty-six people in a church. Soon after, Debbie Elliott from NPR shows up, a stranger with a microphone. She says it's hard not to feel like a pariah when reporting in traumatic situations. So, how do you avoid that?
A recent story on NPR about the Confederate flag got Rob wondering about the practice of correcting interviewees in narration. Producer Zach Hirsch produced the story and he explains why he felt challenging the interviewee's viewpoints was necessary.
Greg Warner is one of Rob Rosenthal's favorite radio writers. He deftly put the "broken narrative" to good use in an episode of his NPR podcast "Rough Translation." In fact he's so good at it, you'd have no idea he was using it. What is the broken narrative? You'll have to listen.
After teaching documentary storytelling for seventeen years, I feel confident in the advice I give students, most of the time. But, as soon as someone brings up sound design, I’m flummoxed. I feel like my advice is next to useless.
Typically, what happens is this: a student feels like their story is boring so they want to throw some sound in — something from a sound effects library. They think it will make the story more dynamic.
And, typically, I respond by saying, “If your story is boring, write better. Or, play around with the structure. Or, find better quotes. Don’t expect to solve a problem by tossing in some sound. It will end up sounding cheesy.”
I do think that’s solid advice. But, in reality, there are times when a bit of sound design might actually help a story. Not to make it less boring, but to drive home a point or help the story be more visual.
That’s when I return to my problem as an instructor: I don’t know how to help.
But here’s the good news. I produce a podcast about audio storytelling and I can actually ask people for advice! And so, I did.
My first stop was Matthew Boll. Matt works at Gimlet as a lead producer and music composer. Of particular interest to me was his work on Crimetown, a podcast on crime and politics in Providence, Rhode Island, that uses a lot of sound design.
Matt and I covered quite a bit of ground but I feel like I’ve only started to understand how sound design works. So, consider this the first in an ongoing, from time-to-time, set of episodes on sound design that will appear over the next few months.
If you have one day to produce a story for KCRW's 24-Hour Radio Race, reach for low hanging fruit, right? Not if your Esther Honig. On this episode, Esther recounts how she and her team produced an emotionally difficult story for the race in 2015 -- and won! An inspiration to sign up for this year's race.
Filmmaker Tally Abecassis learned a lot about audio storytelling when she jumped in the deep end & started producing "First Day Back." The lessons she learned are useful for filmmakers thinking of producing audio stories -- & radio producers, too.
Never say to yourself: "I'll fix it in the mix." Fixing recording mistakes in the studio can lead to more problems. Instead, prevent issues before they happen. Rob Byers, from NPR's Training Team has tips for avoiding basic, pesky recording problems.
Rachel Matlow had a head slappingly simple idea: make a conversation out of the interviews she recorded with her mom after her mom died. But, simple it was not. Rachel explains the backstory on her Third Coast award-winning doc.
After 5 years producing a successful podcast, Aaron Hendkin & Wendel Jenkins of WYPR's "Out of the Blocks" have decided to remake the show. On this first of 2 episodes, they introduce us to the podcast and the process they're using to make change.
A lot of the music This American Life uses to score stories is composed for the program. Producer Jonathan Menjivar and musician Matthias Bossi of Stellwagen Symphonette talk about the music that works and doesn't work for the show.
There are no rules about starting a story but, there are some common approaches. Jessica Terrell dissects several story-starting tricks she used in the first episode of Offshore, the podcast about the off-beat side of Hawaii.
Outside/In host Sam Evans Brown narrated the first few minutes of an episode of the podcast just fine -- really well, in fact. Then he switched gears and brought two colleagues into the studio to tell them a portion of the story. Why?