Seeing Sound: IDA and Wondery's Podcast Day
By Suz Curtis
The podcast space, even with hundreds of thousands of titles proliferating the market, is still emerging and evolving. Like documentary filmmaking, the podcast promises compelling stories and examines important issues. The overlap is organic. But the two also underlap, if you will, as podcasting’s audio-only limitations invite inventive, cinematic use of sound, engulfing the ear to incite the imagination. Ultimately, the audience is coaxed into seeing sound.
The event opened with a live podcast performance by KCRW Host and Producer David Weinberg from his podcast Welcome to LA. Weinberg used an iPad to run his own sound as he narrated.
Storytelling with Sound
George Lavender, Vice President of Content at Wondery
Fernando Arruda, Reveal
David Weinberg, Host and Producer at KCRW
After each panelist shared their background, the conversation turned to contextualization, preparation and process when audio is everything.
"If you could make a story without any words, try to do a lot of those,” Euceph advised. “Make stories with ambient sound and sounds from free libraries and sounds from your house. Take risks and imitate the people who are taking risks until you can take bigger ones yourself."
To prepare for interviews, Euceph makes "a list of dream tape." She also preps an ideal sound list, but remains flexible. "That really does help, but you have to be open to what you encounter in the moment," she said.
Arruda urged podcasters to capture room tone, which is essential in the editing process. "For the ones that sit at the editing station," he said, "the silence of nothing, it’s not silence like this. Stop, start a new file, number that file, stay there for a minute. That tape will allow your editor or sound designer to be in the scene." Room tone can also serve "in-between locations, intercutting," so that "the listener can stay there."
Lavender shared that, at Wondery, the process involves "collecting stories and doing sound after the fact, with recreations and reenactments." Sharing a clip from the podcast The Shrink Next Door, Lavender noted that their process, like film, uses storyboards, scene design and music.
Encouraging podcasters to be bold when using sound, Arruda observed, "Often, nonfiction people tend to be afraid to use these elements, which are very established in fiction, because they don’t want to make the story seem manipulative or heavy-handed...It’s refreshing to see nonfiction as engaging and entertaining as a Hollywood movie."
Arruda explained how, for the podcast Take No Prisoners, the story spans two eras of time: World War II and present day. To achieve this, he used two music themes— contemporary and orchestral. "We used orchestra to be the story from the war, the war veteran’s. These elements are contrasting, and at the end, they merge together. At the end, the reporter concludes and the sound reminds you of war radio style, plus [the reporter's contemporary] theme, interweaving the orchestral theme to merge the two POVs."
Revealing another audio magic trick, Arruda explained "sonification"—making music from data to convey information through sound. Listing off numbers can put listeners to sleep. Sonification wakes people up. For example, when Arruda was faced with delivering statistics about diversity in Silicon Valley hiring practices, he recorded a "choir" singing in ratios equivalent to the actual data. "In this company, the ratio of male execs to Asian execs was 70 to 30," Arruda recalled. "So we put 70 voices here and 30 voices there. The number of people singing represents the proportion to get a true sense of the density."
Willa Seidenberg, Professor of Professional Practice, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Misha Euceph, Tell Them, I Am; The Big One: Your Survival Guide
Paola Mardo, Long Distance
So you have a podcast—what now? How does a podcaster best approach production companies and podcast networks? The short answer: With sound.
"Having an audio component is crucial,” Asante maintained. “I can only garner so much from a pitch deck, synopsis, outline, cast, and whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. When it comes to the final product, how does is sound?"
Asante explained that it helps to hear the music, shape and construction of the story, and how it's narrated. But the podcaster needn't be intimidated, as five minutes of audio is sufficient to give the pitch its feel. Especially as podcasts serve as IP launch pads toward other media—these days a podcast might become a TV show or film—a sample of the produced piece helps producers and production companies envision the lifespan of your show in all its possible incarnations.
The panelists shared useful resources for new podcasters, including online communities that share resources (Facebook pages like Listen Up Los Angeles, finding area listservs, and databases like POC in Audio, a directory of people of color who work in audio), as well as licensed music sources like Blue Dot Sessions, Epidemic Sound and Musicbed.
The panelists encouraged podcasters to explore the musical landscape by reaching out to musicians on platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud to inquire about music usage. And, at no charge, there's always creating your own sound library, recording and storing captured audio from everyday life.
Kristen Lepore, Managing Producer at KCRW's Independent Producer Project
Marshall Lewy, Chief Content Officer at Wondery
Mukta Mohan, Development Producer at Crooked Media
Abbie Fentress Swanson, Executive Producer for Podcasts & Audio, Los Angeles Times
Industry approaches vary slightly from brand to brand. Panelists shared their industry perspectives, both specific to a company and wider trends.
At Wondery, Lewy said, "We do use sound design and emotionally immersive storytelling. This is essentially our version of reenactments. Wondery has become well known as a company that does this, creating a scene out of sound design to put you in the shoes" of the main character's experience.
Lepore noted a tendency that favors documentary filmmakers: "Podcasting just went mainstream and podcasting is looking to filmmakers to borrow ideas and structures."
Mohan identified two key elements in a successful pitch: matching the podcaster with the company—is your work right for the company’s mission and brand?—and aligning the story with the podcasting form. "Networks all have a feel to them,” she noted. “At Crooked Media, we get pitches from a wide range of audio people. Are they invested in telling a story from an audio-first perspective? You don’t have the visuals to rely on, only using sound, archival recordings, scripting, and tape." She stressed that the podcast shouldn't leave the audience wishing they could be watching the story instead of listening to it.
A practical consideration, Lewy offered, is to limit the number of characters in your story. Large casts can be hard to follow without accompanying visual cues. He also stressed, "My biggest thing is if someone doesn’t listen to podcasts. That’s a deal-breaker. Or if they say, ‘My agent told me I need a podcast.’ It’s harder than it looks and takes a lot of time."
Women and Podcasters of Color
Paola Mardo, Long Distance
John Asante, Neon Hum Media, Play It Back
James Kim, Development Producer at Gimlet
Mukta Mohan, Development Producer at Crooked Media
A robust discussion on the practical realities of inclusion, representation and making change, panelists unpacked what progress looks like and ways for it to occur.
"A lot of the gatekeepers are still that same voice and same look: white men,” James Kim observed. “It’s tough when you have an idea that’s mainly about a person of color's story and it’s interesting to me because I see the nuances of this story, and the person you’re pitching to doesn’t understand." But knowing this, Kim said, means he moves forward. "I can tell these kinds of stories and don’t need a big budget for it. Don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. Just go and do it, and see what happens."
Having allies, a pipeline and a "proof of concept" are important strategies, Mohan stressed. "Make your show as proof of concept. Even if it's a small sample, lead with a story that's emotionally compelling. That will make your pitch stronger. There won't always be a person of color in the room. Find your allies. Work with people who want to tell the kinds of stories you want to tell and who come with a similar set of values and approach to storytelling."
But evolution extends beyond aesthetic.
"There needs to be more execs in the room deciding what to finance and green light and what your marketing budget goes into,” Mohan asserted. “For that to happen, I firmly believe in the importance of creating a pipeline and having someone to believe in the next round of creators." This can mean offering transportation solutions and personalized support to those being mentored.
Kim amplified this point, incidentally summarizing the day: "Don’t wait for anyone to tell you what’s up. Reach out to people with like-minded sensibilities as you. Not everyone can afford to market a podcast. A lot of it is still word-of-mouth. Reach out. Tweet people. Swap ads. Swap promos. Mention each other’s podcasts. Shoot your shot. The more you do it, in the end, there’s going to be someone to listen to you."
Suz Curtis is a Los Angeles-based writer, working in documentary and narrative story spaces. She recently served as associate producer on the documentary We Are the Radical Monarchs. @allthingssuz