good tape in audio narratives

Last year, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s interview with This American Life producer Alex Blumberg in a discussion he called How to Create a Blockbuster Podcast. The part I loved most was a recording of a master class Alex facilitated in which he shares raw tape from an interview with Mr. Rogers.

It really revealed a side of him that’s not obvious from his show, and this side was revealed through good questioning on Alex’s part. I thought it was so touching that I transcribed the brief exchange below:

ALEX BLUMBERG: …so Mister Rogers is a wonderful, lovely man. Meeting him was like a thrill. He’s got this strange sort of power when you meet him. It was crazy, uh, he would like, he, when we went to meet him, uh, his assistant said, uh–we were trying to set up the interview–and his assistant was like, well, Fred likes to be nearby a piano. So we had to meet him in his studio so he could play the piano every once in a while. He literally, he had the bag of puppets and he would bring them out sometimes to make a point and start talking in the puppet voices while we were talking to him.

And he had, somehow, it was like moving and real, I don’t know, he was an amazing person–amazing. Uh, but he was getting, he was giving us some, little bit of  canned answers. Like when we were answering ‘so what should this neighbor do?’ His answer was always sort of, sort of the same. Like, you know, ‘well, I hope I would be brave enough to go and talk to them.’

MISTER ROGERS (RECORDING): I hope I would be brave enough to visit. It’s so easy to condemn when we don’t know. And if I would visit you and found out that you are a reasonable person, I could tell you about my sensitivities and see if it would make any difference to you.

ALEX BLUMBERG (RECORDING): It’s funny, a lot of the things, like, you said if you were in Davy’s [sp] neighbor’s situation, um, you said that you hoped you would have enough courage to go down and visit. And a lot of what you were finding when you were talking to people had to do with that same sort of notion. And I’m wondering like well, what is it that we’re afraid of, do you think?

MISTER ROGERS (RECORDING): Perhaps we think that we won’t find another human being inside that person. Perhaps we think that oh there, there may be are people in this world who I can’t ever communicate with. And so I’ll just give up before I try. And how sad it is to think that we would give up on any other creature who’s just like us.

I recommend listening to that segment of Part 2 of the interview. To hear Mister Rogers struggle a bit through that response as he was thinking about what potentially might even scare him was powerful since he’s someone who seems larger than life.

Unfortunately, the interview as a whole just didn’t go very well. Tim asked great questions and tried to drill down, but Alex didn’t really provide enough solid takeaways given the length of this episodes. His thoughts on story were too abstract. When Tim asks him ‘what makes good tape’, essentially, he talks about how he–without expounding–looks for specific moments where there’s something unexpected, authentic emotion, or a good anecdote. This might make sense to some, but it might also be the equivalent of saying “I know it when I hear it” to others, which might not be very helpful to a budding podcast producer. There’s no doubt in my mind that Alex Blumberg has a lot of great knowledge about producing that we could all learn from, but it wasn’t communicated well.

And when asked what makes him better than other producers or editors, he doesn’t talk about anything that he uniquely brings to it and only gives credit to being an environment where he can be himself (although I think the tendency is to play the well-intentioned, reactionary everyman).  You don’t get the sense of what his unique offering is as a producer.

It’s no surprise that some commentators were not only critical of the interviewee, but skeptical of podcast production in general as the “illusion of communication by editing to the 9th degree.” I’ve read similar complaints about Radiolab and Serial, and how editing can obscure the full story and push a personal or emotional agenda onto its unwitting audience that might be at the expense of the truth or participants in the story.

Now the issue of integrity in storytelling is difficult and not one I will tackle here because there are many links in the chain that affect that (i.e. quality/access of sources, transparency of producer, audience trust, etc). I also won’t presume I know better than Alex either because I’ve only been doing this for a couple years, but I want to try to articulate what my answer would be because it may be very well one that I get at some point. It’d be nice to elicit a more positive response.

What I think makes good tape

When I talk about telling stories in workshops, I talk about the common elements that I think many stories share. To that extent, I’ll draw examples from commercials, movies, and fables. But it’s hard because there’s no single set of heuristics or factors that serve as universal storytelling principles. If you do a search, you can find lists that promote anywhere from 3-22 rules of storytelling. And then, of course, a big part of telling other people’s stories are the questions you ask and how you ask them to elicit a response.

But the question of good tape is actually much more specific: What will I keep or discard? The most recent example I have is an audio tour I produced last month using a lengthy three-hour interview from December. I actually have a lot of thoughts on how that production process could have been improved, but I’m not unhappy with the final product either so it’ll do for an example.

Some of the production is certainly editing magic, but none of my editing changes the substance of what people are saying as much as it is about removing pauses and ums from a track (or adding space in some cases). If I do replace a word or phrase, it’s usually because of a correction or because it’s unclear what a pronoun is referring too. But I rarely have to do that. What I really think I’m listening for is:

  • Accessibility – Are things being explained in terms that make it comprehensible and relatable to the audience? For instance, one of the curators kept talking about the Pope of Fools and its role in Carnival. What made it real is how she used The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example. Sometimes without context or the actual experience of Carnival or Mardi Gras, it helps to have additional cues. This, in turn, helps me come up with ways of enhancing narration with music or sound effects.
  • Intonation – Maybe this gets at Alex’s search for “authentic emotion,” but really, I’m looking for tape that doesn’t sound like someone is just reading off of a page or performing a memorized script. Are they engaged in what they are talking about? Are there highs and lows to their voice? Can you hear the enthusiasm or the struggle of trying to think of the right term (in which case I might leave the ums in)? One test of this might be whether or not you can use a colorful adjective to describe a statement was made.
  • Purpose – This applies to the larger composition as well, but I want what’s heard to answer a compelling question that the audience might have, and I want the audience to be able to play Jeopardy! and articulate that question if need be, like what was the role and deeper implications of Calypso music in Carnival? This helps get at why the audience would listen in the first place. Alex talked about something unexpected or an anecdote, but if you did the interview or have transcripts, the content is already there. However, what gets kept depends on its role in telling the larger story, whether to inform, amuse, or inspire.
  • Economy – While I can have an impact on this to some extent in an interview or while editing, I am also looking for succinct statements that gets at the heart of a topic without too many digressions or interruptions. I think closely related to this is the “you know it when you hear it” quality that I alluded to earlier. It’s not just a succinct statement, but one that seems insightful or touches on a universal truth.

These are at least some of things I’m listening for. It just occurred to me actually that these aren’t too different than what I listen for when I’m giving feedback in my storytelling workshops. And on that note, I think getting feedback is really important too. I may have composed an audio track in a certain way because of the effect it has on me, but it’s not just me listening.

When I have time, I will have others listen to tracks I’ve created and see if they hear the same things I did. This happens during the production process too. In the recording studio, I like to have someone with me who can help me ask questions or catch things I might have missed. Or I’ll ask interviewees to re-frame something they just said to give us additional options. Revision occurs at all parts of the process, and hopefully, we can deliver something complete and genuine by the end.