[The fourth installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]
Great audio, as I’ve previously written, transports us to an imaginative place somewhere between the story’s world and our own. If you’re driving down the road in Florida but hearing a story about Siberia, it feels as though you’re floating above place and time. But beneath that floaty feeling stands a whole system that’s actually obsessed with time, down to the millisecond, it seems.
Just take a look at these program clocks from National Public Radio. They dictate exactly when everything you hear, every day, must start and stop. So, for instance, the NPR newscaster has to “cut away” after 2 minutes and 58 seconds – not 57 seconds and not 59 – so that local stations, often using an automated system, can step into the flow and do their own newscasts. Every program, even freer-form ones like “This American Life,” has a clock. You could call any broadcast network one Big Clock.
This affects content in both good and bad ways. I can complain like any other reporter about having lopped the limbs off a nice story to fit it in a 2-minute, 20-second “hole.” But like any other frame, the Big Clock imposes healthy discipline and rhythm.
The problem with frames is that they can end up swallowing the organizations that build them. That’s one way of looking at what happened to public radio in the 1990s, when many eclectic or music-heavy public radio stations switched to an all-talk/news format. You can blame Congress, ratings researchers or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but format-standardization was also the inevitable process of Big Clock grinding down all the weird, rough edges that interfered with its smooth machinery.
Anyone who wants to understand the full possibility of audio storytelling needs to step away from Big Clock now and then. Because audio truly wants to be weird. It’s in the DNA: In audio stories, we get our information from only sound and voices, with no visual cues to help us judge and categorize the speakers. And although good producers will help set the stage, we still have to fill in most of the details with our minds. We’re in the dark, weaving the story with the teller, and that requires a lot of trust.
People on the radio have been playing games with our imaginations, and trust, for a very long time (see Welles, Orson). It’s impossible to tally all the mind-bending audio that issued from college stations and the then-FM frontier starting in the 1950s, but many people re-remembered it when Peter Bergman, a founder of the ear-tripping “Radio Free Oz” and Firesign Theatre, recently passed away. Perhaps it’s this dark, freaky side of audio that pushes outfits like NPR and the BBC extra hard to sound respectable (only to have the freaks mock them on “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”).
Still, public radio used to allow a lot more overlap: remember Ian Shoales? I do. In fact, his oddball commentaries – abruptly ending with “I gotta go” – are some of the only things I remember from hearing NPR as a teenager. Shoales (a persona of San Francisco writer Merle Kessler) and his compatriot Dr. Science (Dan Coffey) made no sense to me. Were they real? They seemed to imply they were not, yet their voices were right there alongside Nina Totenberg’s, demanding that I take them seriously. Some adolescent piece of my brain is still trying to figure it out.
By the early 2000s, this kind of performative strangeness had all but died on public radio, except for lonely islands like Santa Monica’s KCRW, home to the dark-humor-wizard Joe Frank and acerbic satirist Harry Shearer.
My favorite refugee from this era is Benjamen Walker, who started out more than 10 years ago as a producer at WBUR in Boston. After finishing his day job there, he would use their computers to smuggle out intellectually weird radio. Walker’s latest program, “Too Much Information,” now airs weekly on the volunteer-run WFMU in Jersey City, but most people find it on iTunes. Walker can produce explanatory audio like the best of them – he tackles complicated philosophical concepts for The Guardian. But on “TMI,” he does as he pleases. Sometimes he adds fake embellishments to otherwise true stories (check out this one from Siberia, if you’re driving down a road in Florida); sometimes he stages whole interviews. The pleasure for listeners is figuring out his game. Or being suckered.
“In America it’s like, if you hear it on the radio, it must be true,” Walker shrugs when asked about the whole truthiness thing. “That’s not my fault.”
Meanwhile a whole other genre of transgressive audio has re-emerged from the world of comedy. Why should serious journalists pay close attention to comedy podcasts? First of all, they’re hella funny, and we need a laugh. But comedians also have the storytelling and verbal skills to chop us to bits. They are brilliant at deconstructing the bones of what we do – and sometimes what we do lazily.
It’s also worth paying attention because you could define a surprising amount of what happens on these podcasts as journalism. Listen to episode 190 of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, and you’ll hear an incredibly powerful story of depression and recovery from “The Onion” founder Todd Hanson. When actor Gary Anthony Williams talks about his rural childhood with comedian Aisha Tyler, you can’t get the images (slaughtered pigs, cow mucous) out of your mind. These stories emerge in a natural, digressive way, without the presentational pressure of the Big Clock.
I have little patience for self-indulgent rambling and do end up editing many podcasts with the “unsubscribe” button. But in the good ones, I find a verve, honesty, and above all, sense of surprise that’s lacking on much of terrestrial radio. I wouldn’t be shocked if one day, after the bad boys and girls of podcasting are through interviewing each other, someone hits on a formula to get them out of their garages and into the wider world of stories. When that happens, I hope Big Clock is ready for them. Or it may be in big trouble.
Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads the “Audio danger” series on Storyboard. She also has an occasional, recreational podcast that she knows deserves far more attention from her than she gives it.