The Art of the Podcast: A Radiolab Review

How do you paint a picture with just words? How does one become engaged with a topic without any prior context? Why should I care about someone’s podcasts? These were questions that I thought to myself before embarking on the task of making my own podcast. I have, in the past, listened to really great podcasts, such as Total Biscuit’s video game based Co-Optional Podcast or the No Dumb Questions podcast by YouTubers Destin Sandlin and Matt Whittman. However, these podcasts were by creators whose content I already enjoyed outside of the podcasts. I was bound to like them regardless of their content because I liked the people who made them. This got me thinking about what makes a really good podcast and what this can tell me about making my own. On my search, I found a wonderful story called A Clockwork Miracle by Radiolab that functions as a great example of both a great podcast and a great reference point for my own podcast endeavors.

My first goal was try to find a story whose summary had absolutely no interest to me, as it would have to captivate me in an effective way that I thought would be essential to podcast creation. A brief overview of the story – so as to not spoil the resolution – is that back in the mid-1500s King Phillip’s son is injured falling down the stairs, so in an attempt to bring his son back, the king begs for God’s help and in return the king promises that he will repay God. So he builds a robot. This sounds like a boring story, at least for myself who has little investment in history, religion or ancient robots of the 1500s, but this podcast ended up hooking me in a quite unexpected way, by making me care about this King. (SPOILER ALERT: from here on I will assume you have listened to the podcast in full, link above)

The story is set with the focus on King Phillip and his struggle with trying to save his injured son by any means. The pain and agony that is described is captivating and the personal take on the story, focusing on real family struggle rather than boring historical bird’s eye views is what brought me in. But what kept me listening? It was first this larger than life promise by the king to God that if God provides him with this miracle then the king will give God a miracle too. This is a bold claim and despite having no interest before listening, now I want to see this through until the end because miracles by God are questionable at best and what could the king possibly offer in return. But the podcast doesn’t just beg the question, answer it and then the podcast is done. Instead, it surprises us. The son miraculously gets better; but its because they put a dead monks body in the bed with him. Well how will the king repay God? By building God a prayer robot in resemblance of the monk! Its an absurd story, yet its twists and turns are intriguing, its explanations are unexpected and you want to keep listening. All the listener wants to know is “and then what?” and that is what makes this a good podcast story.

Its not just a good story either, it is a well made podcast. The audio recording is smooth, the voices sound clear. I never had to struggle to understand what they were saying due to mumbling or static, I could just listen. This helps keep the listener engaged, as they can spend less time struggling to understand the speaker and more time just listening and enjoying. The embellishments are also well used. Most of the time the background is silent, but when important events occur, such as when describing the attempts to repair the son after his injury, music kicks in. It adds flare and emotion, it builds tension to set the scene and it throws in some variety. Similarly, sparse but effective sound effects are used to visualize scenes, even though we are only hearing them. I can still picture the little robot walking around a table, gears turning and clicking, yet all I have to reference this robot (besides its face in the thumbnail) is the descriptions from the podcast. It is setting the scene, painting a picture and telling a story using only sound and sound effects. It’s incredible.

Radiolab is a huge podcast company, with several producers, editors and researchers that are constantly provided stories through listeners. Yet they demonstrate several techniques that can be used to enhance any podcast. Using interesting, character-centered stories, such as the king dealing with his dying son, listeners can become personally invested into stories. With proper audio recording techniques and editing, listeners can enjoy the program without being distracted. There are likely additional subtle or unidentified techniques that are used before the podcast ever gets recorded that may not be accessible to the new podcast maker that certainly enhance the work, such as interview techniques or resources to go to investigate stories. However, in my quest to make my own podcast, there are resources and techniques that Radiolab utilizes that I can reference from their podcast that should be incorporated in my own. This show is not only a great podcast, but it is a great teaching tool for learning the art of the podcast.

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thank you friend

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