When it comes to podcasts, listeners are forced to rely on one of their senses to fill in all of the rest. Typically, we do this with sight. We see something, we take it all in, and we fill in the rest of our sensations based on what we know. But with podcasts, we must use our ears to do these things.
Since this can be a weird and unknown sensation to most, producers of podcasts try their best to facilitate this through sound effects and music, creating a more full picture.
Take the Invisibilia podcast “True You” for example, a story of how individuals can experience alter egos of sorts. Sound is an important component of this as voice is suddenly unreliable- one voice is suddenly representative of two different characters.
Instead, music and sound effects denote when the podcast shifts to talking about which part of the character. One character has an alter ego in their dreams, so the podcast sets up the shift from night to day through sound effects. We are listening to the character snoring and brushing her teeth before bed so that we know whatever we hear next, is going to come from the dream ego. Small sound bytes like the introduction music from X-Files also display transitions from when the podcast will be talking about their real experiences or their “X” experiences.
In the next story of a white bread professor who lives an alternate life as a raunchy cartoonist, we see something similar. One of the most interesting sound clips is when he is brainstorming an idea for a cartoon and messing with the wording. In this scenario, we are able to tell which sentences come out of his mouth are from which parts of him through voice/inflection/sound effects/etc. even though it is the same voice throughout.
Sound and music can set up a scene and a character in a podcast. It can tell the listener what someone is wearing, what their body language might be, what emotions they are emoting through their facial movements/words. It fills in all of the gaps that comes when an interview is taken to sound bytes only. It enhances the plot and the listener interaction without taking away from the story. In Jessica Abel’s book, Out on the Wire, it is put best that podcast stories are music plus sound effects plus plot because without it, they could lose our attention.
I am currently being faced with a predicament- brainstorming topics to create a podcast of my own that will force me to listen to my own voice on recording. Everyone’s worst nightmare.
All jokes aside, coming up with a podcast topic is more intense than coming up with a book report subject. It has to be something that inspires you enough to wake up your journalistic side while also being interesting enough to engage a listener without any visuals. With these things in mind and some of the research I have completed on what makes a good podcast, I came up with three potential episodes. Stayed tuned to see which one wins!
- Influenced by one of the podcasts I listened to last week about the emotion behind clothing, I was wondering about how that could be applied to my life. Instantly, I thought about how UVM is a university full of stereotypes, including ones based around clothing. L.L. Bean boots, flannel shirts, Patagonia jackets, and items of the like can be seen during every move I make on campus. Is there a way I can interview these stereotypical UVM students that should be front and center on our Admissions brochure? Can I link their feelings of acceptance, inclusion, and happiness with this school to the attire that they wear? Is it similar to the concept of large Southern school females wearing dresses to football games?
- The second idea came about when listening to a fellow classmate discuss the idea of a podcast about cult members. Ha ha I chuckled to myself as I remembered once being a part of a very cult-like organization, sorority life, and being thrown out against my will. Wait a minute. That would be a cool, funny plot twist/act within the episode my classmate had proposed! Perhaps collaboration is in order.
- And lastly, after a discussion about embarrassing moments with some friends, I was instantly reminded of a trip to the hospital I needed to make in fifth grade which has now, well, influenced my sex life. This had me thinking- what is more entertaining and raw and relatable than embarrassing sex stories? And better yet, what do we wish we would have been warned about in seventh grade sex education that we now know because of those stories? While I am more than happy to personally share the story about my medical condition that I never knew existed that was sparked by a traumatizing game of billiards, I bet others have similar experiences as well to build upon this idea.
“It’ll Make Sense to You When You’re Older” is a podcast from This American Life that was a little difficult for me to listen to. The main idea is a focus around how individuals gain and interpret knowledge dependent on which stage of life they fall into (adolescence, young adult, middle age, old age). Split into four acts, each one tackles one of the four stages and tells a story about some aspect of knowledge and understanding.
In the book we are reading alongside the podcasts, Abel states the focus sentence should be a variation of “Somebody does something because blank but blank.” It could be said that the overarching focus sentence of this podcast could be something along the lines of “Someone learns (or does not learn) something because it happens to them but their age inhibits their ability to fully understand/react to it in the moment.” Yet each act tackles a different sub-focus such as parents trying to hide certain mature topics from their children, the transition from an innocent child to a reckless teenager, the experience of racism over generations, and the onset of dementia. One of these sub-focus sentences could be “Children seek to learn something because they are curious but their parents try to sensor this information from them due to the belief they are not ready.”
However, unlike some of the other podcasts we have listened to, I do not believe this follows Abel’s descriptions of strong story ideas/development. The first act, to me, seemed a bit under-developed and was not able to fully convince me of an idea within the 4 minutes it occurs. Then the next three seemed like three unrelated stories, all very interesting and worth telling, but none of them shocking or evidently tied together.
I felt that the first podcast we listened to as a class, about when helping can become hurting, followed Abel’s ideas much more successfully and also kept me more engaged as a listener. The focus sentence of that podcast was very clear “Someone tries to help someone else because that is part of our human nature but what if that very act of helping is doing more hurt than good.”
In terms of the idea-formulating process, I can see where the producer was coming from with this podcast. As one gets older, it is easy to reflect on how their knowledge and experiences have grown and adapted to their age. This seems like a very compelling and relatable topic. However, I think this would have been more powerful in a four part series where each show was dedicated to each stage of life. In my opinion, having one example of each stage of life was less powerful and fell along Abel’s warning of just being a simple topic rather than an engaging sequence of events.
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:
- In Dog We Trust from This American Life
- The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes from Invisibilia
- 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.
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After doing some research on political remix videos, I began feeling defeated. How could I create something so cool and meaningful? What inspired me enough to piece together an entire statement video? I have never really been one to air my provocative opinions, so I stopped forcing myself to overthink and decided the perfect idea would fall into my lap- and it did.
I was walking to class listening to my favorite cheeky, British female singer when her song “Hard Out Here” made its way onto shuffle. Labeled as the song that uses the word “bitch” more times than any other, it is a catchy tune about the over-sexualization of women and society’s tendency to base the success of women off their looks. With lyrics like:
“If I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talkin’ about their bitches, no one’s makin’ a fuss”
“You’re not a size six, and you’re not good lookin’
Well, you better be rich, or be real good at cookin'”
“Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not goin’ away”
Suddenly, I felt inspired. With a current president who has said his fair share of degrading comments towards women and entire rallies dedicated to the feminist movement, this seemed like a topic with a lot of material.
I began imagining an audience of, well, me. Young, empowered women who label themselves as feminists and want to be successful in life based on more than their physical appearance. An audience that feels it is disgusting when male rappers use naked women in their music videos as trophies and have stickers on their water bottles that say “This pussy grabs back.”
Since the beginning two verses of the song are sarcastic remarks about women as objects, I am envisioning the beginning of my video to have material from said music videos/commercials/advertisements where women are only honored for their bodies. Then as the song moves into talking about inequality and injustice, I would like to find clips of women holding posters at political rallies and standing up for themselves. Ideally, the remix video would move to transition the idea of women from objects to powerful human beings.
While I might be limited by my skills in actually piecing this video together, I think (sadly) I will be able to find enough source material to fill up the entirety of the song and leave a sort of witty statement via Lily Allen’s lyrics.
Let’s talk about one of the most important yet unappreciated tools in our life- the ability to Google search anything we want at any time we want. If we hear a song we like but do not know the name of, we can search the lyrics. If we are having a weird skin reaction to a type of product, we can search the diagnosis. If we want to find a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of our house that serves that street corn we love, we can type in just that. It is instant gratification and we often do not stop to realize what life would be like without it.
We also do not realize the gravity and weight these Google searches can hold in characterizing our society. Each year, Google puts together a political remix video of sorts to describe the year in review via search terms. It begs to answer the question- what did we search this year more than ever and why?
This year’s video, Year in Search 2017, took on a large feat. How do you characterize a year that had such high highs and low lows? The argument of the video begins with tragedy, highlighting searches that revolved around saving the places we love and the people who live there (ignited by news of flood, wildfires, missile threats, etc.). It documented the innate curiosity of human beings- why are these things happening? But it also documented the compassion we can share- now that these things have occurred, what can I do to help?
It then moves forward to mention the power we all want to have in these situations. Can we keep these tragedies from starting? Can our voices be heard by the big people in charge? Can we become the big people in charge? Ultimately uplifting, the video changes in motion from when we felt sorry for ourselves to when we decided to take matters into our own hands.
The strategies this video used to really grasp viewers (and gain over 18,000,000 views) were to incorporate something as simple as a Google search and combine it with current events and pop culture. It played on our pack mentality that Hey, I searched that too, I felt those feelings too. And whether or not we faced those hardships head on, we all heard about them in one form or another throughout 2017. From the social media #MeToo phenomenon to the release of the Superwoman movie, there is something in this video that everyone can relate to.
The result? An extremely effective video on how we can use the simple tools in our life for good and how we can move forward from a year that seemed it would never end. It leaves the viewer feeling hopeful and empowered.
What will we search this year?
Oftentimes, trying to communicate scientific facts and statistics can leave a reader bored and uninterested. However, the goal of a great feature writer is to get readers of all kinds interested in their material. In order to keep users from clicking “close” on your article, you need to engage them with the material in a unique way.
One example of this can be seen in Douglas Emlin’s article, “The Astonishing Weaponry of the Dung Beetle.” To further his comparison and story, he needed to describe in depth different species of beetles, something that could leave most readers going “ew.” Instead, he turns the types of beetles into their own types of characters, personifying them in unique terms. Then, overall, he makes the comparison that species of beetle are competing in the same types of arms race that humans are. By doing this, readers can relate to, well… dung beetles. This results in a really effective article, loaded with facts, that reads smoothly and interestingly for readers of all kinds.
Another example of trying to spoon feed readers the facts is Robert Kunzig’s article, “The Carnivore’s Dilemma.” In this article, Kunzig is trying to present an argument that every meat-eater must be aware of, whether or not eating meat is ethically correct. To do this effectively, numbers and research much be conveyed since this is a very data driven topic. Kunzig uses one of two approaches to do this. The first is shock factor, readers are more willing to read numbers and statistics when they are alarming or surprising. This is really effective as you are being presented arguments in millions of cows or billions of pounds. It forces the audience to take a step back and really envision what he is saying- and how gross it might be. The second way Kunzig displays data is through graphics, typically displayed on the side of the article itself. While the data portrayed in these bar graphs or charts is interesting and worthwhile, it is easily missed. As a reader myself, I tend to skip over the explanations given under small graphics and instead briefly glance at it before continuing to scroll down. Perhaps placing them in a more prominent position (as he does with some of his compelling photographs) would have been a better choice.
Online audiences have shorter attention spans than most readers since their choice for clicking might be less deliberate. Therefore, when trying to convey lots of numerical or scientific information, it is best to be mindful of telling the story in a way that keeps readers scrolling.
In Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s magazine feature from National Geographic, “The Science Behind Psychopaths and Extreme Altruists,” the reader is introduced to an interesting paradox. Science has begun to explain commonalities between the brains of psychopaths and mass murderers, but can it also work to explain the similarities between those who act with extreme compassion? It suggests that with a mixture of nature/nurture, perhaps MRIs and reactions to certain stimuli can predict behavioral traits that could lead to creating extreme altruists or cold-blooded killers.
Immediately, the reader is introduced with photographs of recent, terrible scenes and snippets of information about them. This included photos from the most recent Las Vegas music festival massacre, Sandy Hook elementary school, and the PULSE nightclub attack. Playing on emotions, readers can immediately place themselves into these scenarios as realities that have happened within their lifetime (and how they felt when they found out something so horrible had actually occurred). It also paints the picture of the perfect psychopaths, readers understand what type of person the author is trying to characterize simply by reminding them of the people behind these events.
However, the real introduction of the feature is the story of an altruist who risked her life to save an old man whose wheelchair was lodged into train tracks as an oncoming train barrelled towards him. With this extreme contrast, the writer successfully sets up their questions and why the magazine feature is being written in the first place. It introduces two opposites and sets out to explain why they belong in the same article.
From that point on, the article is like a quilt, piecing together bits of information to make one larger argument and story. By doing this, it keeps the reader engaged and interested as they are not quite sure how it will all be resolved (and it stays unpredictable!). The writer incorporates studies done on both ends of the spectrum (psychopaths and altruists) such as inmates and organ donors. It places graphics of brain scans and explains how each type of person shows similarities and differences. The article also continues to add in real life examples of these people so readers are able to see these points in action. Mentioning societal figures such as Dylan Klebold and his mother, readers are constantly able to engage with their knowledge and infer the points the writer is trying to make. By keeping the readers involved and interested, the writer is really able to play with emotions to investigate a question.