Back in the distant 1990s, This American Life host Ira Glass described a recurring dream of NPR’s Scott Simon: Simon would shoot a basketball over and over, but then it would disappear. The ball never landed. That, Glass said, was a perfect metaphor for broadcast: We tossed words and stories into the ether, but we never knew how or even whether they were received. The disconnect, while frustrating, made broadcast an incredibly forgiving medium. Everything we did, whether triumph or disastrous mistake, was basically forgotten, and we started every day with almost a clean slate.
Until about 10 years ago. That’s when bandwidth reached the point where national programs and larger stations started to archive most of our work, even live broadcasts. Meanwhile, smartphones allowed podcasting to come into its own. We now expect audio stories to be permanent, but we haven’t given a lot of thought to how that affects our work as audio storytellers.
Here’s my take as someone who works with many feature reporters as an editor: The specter of digital permanence is making too many of us uptight. Audio stories depend on the logical flow of information, of course, but the best of them also harness rhythm, sonic juxtapositions, spontaneous reactions, and the full range of the human voice.
Take, for example, the work of NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling: He does complex reporting, but it stays with us because his stories work on a musical as well as intellectual level, each level reinforcing the other. The skills to pull that off well are experiential. As with other performative arts — theater, music — real mastery comes through practice and bodily intuitions that work faster than the conscious mind. Until recently, broadcast was our perpetual rehearsal stage, a place to try something new, fail, get up and try again, safe in the knowledge that everything was low stakes.
But now digital permanence has turned broadcasting into publishing. And that’s a hugely different system, mentally speaking. Publishing emphasizes the creation of work that lasts — the eternal and perfect. Yet the demands of broadcast (or even the broadcast-like schedule of regular podcasting) still require us to steadily churn out work. I’ve seen these contradictory pressures drive people crazy.
Here’s how perfectionism short-circuits the storytelling process: While wrestling with our raw material, we cannot avoid a huge gap between what we think the story should be and what story actually makes sense to listeners encountering all our material for the first time. To locate, measure and close that gap we need to collaborate with someone else who’s fresh to the story. And we need to be willing to let go, quickly, of multiple story versions. This is also true of print, of course, but even with quick-turnaround audio, there’s no way of faking your way around this process, especially for a beginner. As an editor now in a digital world, however, I find more and more reporters unable to think of their early drafts as provisional. They want and expect perfection, and who can blame them? The world now has access to their perpetual Internet audition tape (not that the world really cares, but that’s a different matter).
Of course, we’re not getting the ephemeral days of broadcast back — and of course, that has the enormous side benefit of allowing the world to finally hear our audio stories more than once. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge the lost benefits of ephemerality and try to work some of it back into our process.
Here are some ways of doing that:
Ditch the script
I recently did a piece called “Neither Confirm nor Deny” for WNYC’s Radiolab. The “I” part is a convenient lie, because in truth, Radiolab stories accrete in layers, with different producers coming in and out of the storytelling process with no document to guide them. After a storyboarding meeting, the story is divided into chapters and producers all take a crack at recording a rough spoken version of the story with music and interview tape.
This is not how things typically go in radio production. Usually, after reporting and doing interviews, I transcribe all my tape, pull out the best bits, and write a narrative around them (with stage direction for the use of sound elements). This is called the script. I’ll read the script aloud to an editor, playing the soundbites at the appropriate moments. The editor will give me notes, usually substantial, for a first rewrite; we then go back and forth on several more versions. Once I get my final version refined and approved, I’ll go in front of a microphone to read the script, all the while trying to pretend I’m not reading from a script.
If it sounds awkward and painful, that’s because it is. Radiolab addresses the problem by doing away with scripts, and their painful illusion of finality, altogether.
“I suspect some folks would rather sit in a room and be allowed to toil alone until they get it just right and only then present it to the editor. I respect that,” host Jad Abumrad says of the process he and his team have developed. “But then you invite in a far worse situation, in my opinion: That’s when a producer has worked really hard to make something they love, but in the process has driven the piece in a different direction than the editor wanted. Then what happens? The editor says, ‘Start over.’”
Instead, Abumrad likens the Radiolab process more to that of making a movie, which requires much more teamwork than a traditional author-editor publishing model. The resulting stories, as Alexis Madrigal has pointed out, sound “webby” — porous and multi-vocal, with tangents curlicuing away, and odd, spontaneous moments popping up here and there. This is a multimedia aesthetic, and you can’t fake that or voice-act your way into it — you have to strike at the heart of the audio storytelling process to make it happen, and for Radiolab that means shifting from multiple written drafts to multiple rehearsals, with no one taking themselves too seriously along the way.
Set real deadlines
Multiple iterations take time, of course, and preferably money to pay people doing them. For the smaller teams typical of podcasting or public radio, Radiolab’s approach can have a dangerous side: getting stuck in a digital netherworld of constant tweaking and never-being-done. And that’s where I think deadlines are never going to be optional for audio producers. They help us power through doubts and inhibitions and connect with our material in the spontaneous way that it requires, at some point, to sound right. “When I’m on a deadline I will go farther than if I had all the time in the world,” says Kaitlin Prest, who produces “The Life of the Law,” a podcast I edit. “I get into this zone of, ‘Anything is possible, no time to think, just do it.’”
Invite the audience in
“I suppose it would have been nice to not feel the pressure of digital permanence,” one young Brooklyn producer, Nadia Wilson, told me. “But when I went into radio, that was assumed.” As a SoundCloud Fellow, Wilson produced the series “Hear to There,” stories from the New York subway system. The series gained 20,000 followers pretty quickly. Her project is open to anyone who wants to upload a piece, and in that way everyone can be invested and experimenting. It’s a community effort, and it’s fun. Why would Wilson trade that for an ephemeral, if more forgiving, broadcast-only life? “I don’t think I’d have it any other way,” she says.
And honestly, our listeners are much more tolerant of failure than we think. Digital natives seem to understand that — and certainly the huge popularity of low-production-value podcasts proves it. The ones who tend to equate permanence with perfection are those of us trained in broadcast. It’s as though, now that we can shoot the ball and watch how it lands, we expect to score every time. Broadcast never worked that way, and neither does the permanent world in which we live now.
Julia Barton edits the podcast The Life of the Law and is managing editor of the Radiotopia podcast network from PRX. This and future Audio Danger columns are produced in conjunction with Transom.org, a site for audio producers. For an extended version of this piece, featuring sound clips from different iterations of the Radiolab process, go here.