When The Story Is Only Sound

Before this week, I had never listened to a single podcast in my life. I knew it was something that was becoming trendier- something my peers would listen to on runs or long car rides. But I had never felt inspired to listen to them myself. In order to get a better grasp of what they are and the wide range they can encompass, I listened to the following three:

  1. In Dog We Trust from This American Life
  2. The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes from Invisibilia
  3. The Trust Engineers from RadioLab

After class discussion and readings, I learned that some of the characteristics of inquiry-driven podcasts are stories that ask big questions, engaging characters, authentic voices, robust narrative structure, intricate uses of sound as part of storytelling, and intense collaboration. Therefore, I was interested to see if I could find these things within the three podcasts I had chosen at random.

The first, In Dog We Trust, was unique as two of the three “acts” were narrative stories. Instead of interview style, two authors read aloud their memories of having pets that blurred the lines of human emotion and family structure. Because of this, the podcast really utilized sound effects and music to play with the listeners emotions and keep them engaged. When discussing the story of the Macaw bird, we were actually able to listen to the soundtrack of its screech to fully understand how loud it was rather than imagine it. Also, because of the narrative structure, it was written in a very engaging way. While it might have lacked some of the authenticity we talked about that comes from human interaction, it did a successful job of piecing three unrelated individuals together with a common thread.

Second came The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes, a podcast that followed the characteristics of inquiry-driven podcasts to a tee. Using interviews with multiple different characters, it really utilized editing to make a strong statement. Sound effects and dramatic pauses were used as well as character development that made me, as a listener, root for the people they were introducing. These stories were the deepest out of them all, so it was important that listeners could understand where the characters were coming from and get into their mindset in order to sympathize with them. While I am not transgender, a mother of an African American young man, or a Jewish tailor who lived through Auschwitz, the podcast did a great job of giving me the bits of their lives I needed to understand the theme running between them.

Lastly, The Trust Engineers, was a more scientific, technological type podcast. As listeners, we needed to be taught before we could really understand the point they were trying to make since it involved high-level thinking, but the hosts did this in an engaging way. This podcast was really able to use cool sound effects (like computer, sci-fi-esque sounds) and play on what everyone can understand, social media. Instead of just trusting that Facebook works because it does, this podcast was able to create a character to the engineer behind the screen, giving them a voice and emotions.

Something that I learned through these podcasts that we had not discussed in class is the use of the journalist as a character. It was a part of their role in these broadcasts to confess their emotions during the process and reach out to new and exciting leads. In the Invisibilia podcast, we were allowed inside the reporter’s head as they agreed/disagreed with things their interviewees were saying. In the RadioLab podcast, we were brought along the journey as the two hosts visited the Facebook headquarters to learn more about their research. This would be a cool idea when trying to create my own podcast that I hope I have the opportunity to play with.