Podcasts: The Merger of Sound and Writing

Podcasts are a limited medium. You have to tell stories, portray images and infuse life into a scene that is quite literally made of only vibrations through the air. Its like a painter trying to make a sound using just a splash of color; it seems impossible right? Wrong. The art of the podcast is to paint a picture with sound, to allow the listener to envision the story you are telling and to set up a listening experience that promotes the easy transition between listening and seeing. But how? The simple answer is sound and writing. These two elements can turn a boring news broadcast into a cinematic experience, figuratively seen through the ears as pictures are formed through sound itself. A great example of this, and the basis for our analysis, is the podcast Invisibilia and their episode True You. (I suggest you listen to it before reading as I will assume from here on that you have listened to the podcast so SPOILER ALERT)

In this episode, the hosts talk about the alternate versions of ourselves, the ones that go against our personal identifications and how we end up handling this conundrum. Yet more interesting than the story is how it is told. First, and most important is it feels like these stories are being told directly to us as listeners and the podcast is written to help facilitate this. Obviously, the first thing we will note is that the interviews were not written, they were recorded in person by real people. However, it is pretty obvious that the interviewees were prompted in some ways to help flesh out the images of this story. If someone is initially asked to tell a story, they likely don’t focus on setting and visual details, just the events. But if the interviewer ask “what did you see?” or “what did the house look like?” all of which foster a richer description and easier visualization of the story. We can hone in on this in Tanya’s description of her dream, in which she describes sights of mountains and sounds of giggling, each occupying its own short sentences so as to be easily digestible. As we listen, its almost set up so we don’t have to think about it, the images are so simple, yet so well described that we can’t help but to picture it in our heads.

This is all constructed through masterful interviewing and creativity on the part of the interviewee as well as a good editing style. And when the producer Abby Wendel comes in to talk, her written parts mirror this form: short, easy to digest sentences, this time focused on directing the story but doing so with straightforward, powerful language. Combined, this makes it so that even if it is just these two talking, their words paint picture worth remembering and one that does not take much thought to picture. But the full picture may not be seen were it not also for the expert use of sound to enhance what is being said.

The use of sound on Invisibilia is perhaps it’s greatest strength. There are very few scenes in which there are no sound effects of music being played and it really fills out each story. The dream section is again a great example of the use of sound to enhance the scene. As Tanya starts to describe this dream, ambient music plays in the background and dream like plucks are heard as she describes the scene. She says she hears the girl and immediately we hear giggling edited into the mix. She enters a forest and again the music changes and a voice swells from the background as she hears them talking from inside the well. This description would be nonsensical without the brilliant use of sound to augment these scenes. We can see the forest, we can picture the girl. It’s all there and it is all due to the sounds we hear.

In Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire it is eloquently put as “what does the music know that I don’t know?” Often there is a deeper feeling, or a deeper point to a story, but it is hidden from our view. That is until the music is added. Invisiblia does this so well, as they take a boring scene of a woman wandering through a dream and make it have a sense of wonder and discovery, like we are actually dreaming ourselves, simply by adding music and sound effects to help audiences picture what is going on.

Music is essential to the podcast medium and it goes hand in hand with the writing process. We write stories to provide the framework to a picture, something that is easy to see and understand, but this can only go so far. But, once you include simple musical embellishments, however subtle, suddenly those empty lines are painted in with color and the full picture is realized. Straying away from our artistic comparisons, being able to write in a way that listeners can easily understand then being able to, underneath of that, provide the backbone of music to keep the scene engaging can turn a mediocre story into a truly powerful podcast.

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