CULTURE | Radio Renaissance
AN EXPLORATION ON THE RETURN OF TALK RADIO
In the digital milieu, terrestrial radio, broadcasting, and podcasting have been redefined if not revolutionized. How programs are artfully produced, distributed and how the medium is pushing ahead in new and exhilarating ways is at once simple and complicated.
A sonic story is an incubator of ideas through sound. Whatever story I am working on, experimentation with expression is essential as are the dramatic layers of the aural landscape. But a question I am often asked is, “what do we sonic reporters and producers do anyway?”
Simply, I design with dialogue and listen for my profession; listening and talking is my art, my passion and journalism is my discipline—I’ve made it my career and my business. I chart out the sonic route with deliberate and apparent coordinates to follow the story and often consider it an atlas for the journey to a destination whereby the audience and I must be engaged if not, surprised. It’s perhaps that moment of surprise, when the unique elements creatively materialize, that holds the most reward for me. I design the story and engage key subjects in conversation so their story is revealed through their ideas, actions, and more—how the audience experiences the conversation and environment sonically. As producers and reporters, my work in sound is to resourcefully design an experience, which allows the audience to be on scene with us.
As aural producers, we pay attention to how people are talking, what emotions are revealed and expressed throughout the interview, and action. The informative content is the foundation, but it is how the story evolves with what is sonically available that can change a dull expectation into a significant, personal encounter.
I asked a few friends and colleagues how they would define what a producer does and how the medium is pushing ahead in new and exhilarating ways.
Sean Cole, producer, This American Life, Radiolab, a contributor to Marketplace and Studio 360, 99% Invisible, says that a producer does everything from reporting, field producing, editing to directing. Every story begins with recorded audio and then begins the writing, the pitching, the editing, and the honing. It’s a molten-like process that can take many hours, days, weeks for one minute of the story. There are so many more new shows available each and every day and it’s surprising there are that many stories to tell. “The programs,” Cole acknowledges, “are all good narratives and produced well. All are really great and pushing the boundaries of how we tell stories and every program has its own special lens through which it looks at the world.” Alex Blumberg, an award-winning radio journalist, executive producer and host of StartUP, producer for This American Life, and the co-founder of Planet Money, breaks down the producer’s role to its basics: “Take an idea and make it into a story -- who to talk to, how to put it all together, and work —much like a director of a film.” Nikki Silva, co-creator of the Kitchen Sisters, agrees “With each and every production we use the microphone much like a camera as if we were creating a film in sound.” She delights in being a producer because a producer “does everything!” From the creation of the idea, doing the research, the recording, the editing, the funding, securing the distribution through a variety of sources be it radio networks, digital satellite, the internet, broadcasting, and podcasting. Glynn Washington, host and creator of Snap Judgment, a public radio show, promises to strap audiences into an audio rollercoaster. Washington brings an unadulterated joy and genius to storytelling and his storytelling often comes from a deep and personal place. Narrative may be the best tool for resolving the unresolved tensions and question marks in his background, he says. The unresolved places in his background are often clarified through the framework of a story. He feels that the emotional resonance of a Snap Judgment story happens when his listeners become personally engaged and step into the story. When a story transports his listeners and the story lands in an unexpected place, Washington is thrilled. Sonic narratives are the best tools for recognizing and writing oneself into the ‘role of the star in the story’.
The artistry of a story must land near to where the producer intends, but the story must also be allowed to take surprising turns and the unpredictable arcs of the story must be allowed to materialize.
Washington says that the show is a highly collaborative production. Diversity is essential and comes from building a team and hiring amazing producers with different points of views and perspectives. Washington asserts that it’s necessary to stay focused and deliberate in what you want the audience to look like and, if there is genius in his production, it comes from hiring producers who are able to cross cultures and who are interested in living and investing in unfamiliar lives and stories. Nikki Silva works collaboratively as a producer and asserts that it makes for a better product in the end. The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, have always used one another as a ‘sounding board’ and she says, “if we convince the other that the story is worth doing, it generally is.” Trey Kay, an Alfred I. duPont–Award winning independent audio journalist, says that we might just be “experiencing cultural renaissance with regard to sound through radio podcast and, he thinks, “that the exploration available through the medium will transform public radio content. I think that it is going to help the makers of content claim more control and confidence in their storytelling vision.” Kay is excited by podcasting, “This is thrilling for me.”
Podcasting has brought in a cultural renaissance and revolution in sound and Julia Barton, Producer, correspondent and managing editor of the podcast network Radiotopia (radiotopia.fm), finds that listeners around the globe are responding and participating in the revolution. The model of distribution is evolving rapidly, it’s a different world of only a few years ago and, “it’s a different social contract between producers and listeners. Podcasting is dramatically changing a lot of the equation and changing the power dynamics in public media for the better as many talented producers are flocking to and choosing podcasting over broadcasting.”
Podcasting and digital permanence brings both promise and perils. Barton, who also produces StartUP, is a correspondent for PRI’s The World and Studio 360, among other programs and a regular contributor to Nieman Storyboard, believes producers never get “so good that you don’t need an editor” and, she loves working with other producers in the role of the editor. Editors make stories better, Barton says, “You can’t hear your own work because the first draft may not make sense, and it’s just not finished until you’ve had an edit. It’s a role I really enjoy and wish more producers and more podcasters understood the importance of and the need for a good editor. ‘DYI’ does not mean do it badly. The more editorial feedback that a producer receives, the better the story.” Trey Kay says that, while he has been inspired by public radio programming, he also feels that its format, “the clock, schedule, as well as content, can be a restriction for new innovations in conveying information via audio.” Alternatively, Kay asserts, “Podcasting allows great producers to go ‘off the grid’ and explore innovative ways of presenting the news or telling fascinating fiction or documentary stories. It provides a more satisfying way to connect workshop experimentation with an audience who can help this new work grow. And this new work may transform and improve what is heard on public radio, but also the medium of podcasting might grow and expand on its own in ways that have not yet been conceived.” Paul Riismandel, co-founder and operations director of Radio Survivor and podcasting evangelist for Midroll Media, acknowledges that podcasts are produced and have much more freedom and the nature of listening may be distinct and different. Riismandel says that Earwolf and Radiotopia are excellent examples of success as they focus only on creativity and represent impressive models that bring in a real spark to podcasting. Podcasting is an “on-demand” and a generally actively engaged user curated experience. While podcasting is often denoted as a “lean-in” experience, terrestrial radio listening is akin to a more passive “lean-back” experience.
While a large portion of the most creative production talent is flocking to and choosing podcasting over broadcasting, underwriters and funders too, are clamoring to support and fund great content. Alex Blumberg says that when funding a production, he is convinced that bootstrapping is the way to go initially and says later, if necessary, “borrow from friends and family, [secure a] loan from the bank, dip into savings.” He insists that producers must get together a “prototype and don’t worry about how to scale it at first, just get something done.” While Blumberg has been able to raise a lot of money, he reminded me that still, “You don’t need a million. You need 10 or 20 grand to buy you a couple months of putting something together. Part of the good thing about podcasting, there is revenue available through ads. It may not be enough to live on but it will be something until you get to a meaningful-sized audience.” His audience is growing exponentially and his fund-raising options are growing too. Blumberg has allowed his audience in on the transparency of funding and has recently chosen to create an utterly authentic and transparent moment incorporating a funder into his story. In StartUP episode #5, ‘How to Name Your Company’, he brought his funder directly into the story and asked the CEO how he came up with the name for his company, thereby creating a story within a story.
The sonic revolution has been largely assisted by the new distribution channels and more creative funding channels, which has dramatically democratized the dissemination, and funding of content. Kurt Andersen, writer, host and co-creator of Studio 360 and of the new, occasional radio variety show Kings County, says that much of the new sonic work offers such a variety and “so many flavors of greatness now and stories told in ways that did not happen before. The effect of digital distribution and podcasting does not “increase the amount of talent in the world. But if only a small fraction of what’s being produced is good, that’s a lot of wonderful material —a large enough pool to have a real impact.” Trey Kay cautions the celebratory upside with a possible downside to podcasting, “ ’Driveway moments’ might diminish because one can hit ‘pause’ and listen when they have more time.” Kay wonders if “podcasting might do much to reinforce a culture with an echo chamber mentality. Before podcasting,” he says, “a society that partakes in certain mainstream media sources eschews (and in some cases demonizes) other sources. Podcasting will provide the opportunity for content to be more specialized and people will isolate on their interests and probably not be exposed to content that is more random. Podcasting may diminish the collective experience of getting content from a similar source.”
Whatever the distribution model, the sonic medium is an intimate medium and audiences can and do get very attached to a certain program aesthetic and the audience’s healthy appetite for the familiar sound makes it difficult for producers to stray from the usual format. Nikki Silva appreciates the immediacy and audience engagement and remembers when “crowdsourcing” in radio simply was opening up the telephone lines and getting a response from the audience through telephone call-ins. Now, there are limitless ways in which a producer may solicit contributions from the listening audience. Podcasting, she says, has been enormously liberating and likens it to the good old days of early NPR when she had a free range of time and format.
Sound producers and reporters are always assessing how our story-design may inform the ways in which the world changes our story. Our work, on the best day, stimulates our audience to create pictures in their mind and contribute to building a social network, increasing knowledge that offers images and scenes in a theatre of the mind. With our microphones, we create a collaboration, revealing experience and promoting a responsive participation. Collaborating with the person we interview, rather than directing them is done to achieve our goal that the narrative will invite a listening experience that conveys “the who, what, where, how, and when” information to the audience as directly as possible—enabling the intimacy of the sonic medium.
When the audience is captivated through vivid witness, an intimate experience of responsive development begins another phase of transformation. As the listeners are able to responsively participate, they become storytellers themselves —creating new action. As a producer, I observe and enable an evolution of information and I present it to an audience so that their experience is an active participation —as if brainstorming to generate new ideas.
Listening is collaboration, an action and art we may want to practice more each and every day.