Let me set one thing straight: I don’t believe that audio is necessarily the best way to tell a story. But I’ve spent more than a decade in this beast called radio, or “the theatre of the mind,” as it was described to me when I started, and I still harbor warm and fuzzy feelings for it.
Truth be told, based on most of what I hear these days, I have to call BS on that “theatre of the mind” thing. I find very little theatrical about twenty-second clips of experts (sorry, “pundits”) interspersed with 40 second bursts of some whiny reporter (sorry, “personality”) reading his or her all-too-precious copy. Repeat that formula in four minute intervals for an hour or two, add a “host” with a “younger voice,” and you’ve got yourself a whole public radio show!
Or, better and cheaper: just turn on a microphone on, “open the lines,” and let idiots spout invective and childish name calling for hours on end. That’s called commercial radio.
Despite my cynicism, I do think that audio narrative is better (or at least more fun) for some stories. Here’s a list of reasons, in no particular order, you should consider adding audio to a narrative news project. Bear in mind I see the following through my own public radio prism:
Anthony Cordesman. If you’re going to fill a radio piece with pundits, you might as well get somebody who “gives good tape.” Cordesman, an expert on military affairs, does that, and more. It’s not just the gravitas and cadence of his sound bite, it’s also the hint of disdain for the stupid question he’s just been asked. Delicious. You can see him quoted in the NYT a million times, but until you hear him, you don’t truly understand.
Animals. Sure, television can give you cuddly videos of pregnant pandas, and the Internet is awash with LOLcats using bad grammar. But only with sound can you sit in traffic in the depths of summer, your hybrid’s air conditioning broken, and let your mind wander to the great frozen north via the snuffle and shuffle of, say, cute little harp seals across the Canadian ice. Thanks, radio! [Downside: in the theatre of the mind, it’s often hard to tell whether those animals are procreating or fighting. But then again, that’s why the whiny reporter is there.]
The audio “stand up.” This has pretty much been outlawed in American public radio, but it’s alive and well elsewhere, particularly in the BBC. It would make for a great drinking game: every time you hear an audio piece begin with unidentifiable sound, then the phrase, “I’m standing here,” you drink. My favorite of all time was a variant which featured the muffled rumblings of someone walking and huffing and puffing, followed by “I’m climbing a giant mountain of Romanian trash just outside Satu Mare.” Indeed. Drink.
Going live. There is nothing that can beat the electricity of going live, although in public radio we often try to avoid it. What if we stumble? What if we hit the wrong tape? What if, horrors, we sound human? Instead, we spend hours crafting scripts that feign the sound of spontaneity (down to writing “uhm” in the script!), and even more hours pre-recording interviews and then cutting them to make them sound “as live” as possible. But when you hear 3 ½ minutes of an anchor and a guest going live on a breaking news story, the urgency of that conversation makes you sit up and listen. And actually care. More, please.
Uighurs. Sure, it is fun to spell it for print, but trust me, it is even more fun to say. Try it yourself: <WEE-gurz>. This is also true of the Hmong <MUNG>, the Chechens <CHEH-chuns>, and a few other beleaguered world minorities that take up an inordinate amount of airtime on public radio. I don’t mean to make light of their particular plights. Giving far-flung people a voice, literally, is one of the most amazing things that radio can do. When you actually hear someone tell his or her story, in his or her own voice, you can hear when that voice breaks with fear. You can hear the four pack-a-day habit. It’s hard to get that kind of immediacy on the printed page.
Music. A tune can sell a story like almost nothing else. It’s a joy to get use it on an almost daily basis. Of course, it can backfire. From an actual email sent to The World: “You play loud, obnoxious, repetitive percussive music for stupid people, and I invariably turn the radio off and miss the program.” Oh, Margot LePine, you make me want to listen to Hüsker Dü with the volume set at 11.
Geeks and gear can take you there. Audiophiles love their stuff; we cherish both our mics and our methods. I once saw a sound engineer cover a $1,500 microphone in a thin piece of plastic, seal it with rubber bands, and then submerge it in a tub of water, all in a bid to capture the sound of loud music being piped through that water. Why? We wanted to illustrate how fish “hear.” It took five hours to get it right. At least, we hope we got it right. We’re not fish, after all.
You can release your inner Hemingway. I suppose this last entry is more of a “how-to” tip—my nod to the craft of writing for radio, the current “rules” of which are both blessings and curses. The latest from the primer: Never start a piece with sound (hackneyed). Use one thought per sentence. Include active verbs whenever possible, and try to keep it subject, verb, object. For those of you used to having free reign with dependent clauses, this should be fun. I suggest re-reading Hemingway, or going into video production instead.
Much of this list is tongue-in-cheek. But each item has an element of truth. At its best, audio narrative doesn’t just immerse you in a place and time, but does so using the voices that best know and understand that place and time. There’s a saying in my business (slightly outdated now in the digital world): “let the tape tell the story.” If you judiciously apply some of the ideas above, you’ll find that the mediating effect of the whiny “personality” can be minimized, and you can allow the listener to get that much closer to the story. My advice to all young radio reporters: stay the hell out of the way as much as possible.
I would be interested to hear about efforts by non-radio folks to incorporate the spirit of audio narrative into their work.
Clark Boyd covers technology stories for Public Radio International’s The World and was a 2006-07 Knight Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.