So, You Want to Get into Podcasting? A Few Aesthetic Dos and Don'ts
On a crisp Saturday morning last winter, IDA held a Master Class with George Lavender, vice president of content at Wondery, the podcast company based in West Hollywood. “How are you going to tell this story?” Lavender asked a roomful of docmakers. “Are there spaces you can create in audio that are impossible to create in other mediums?”
It is a good question and one that is worthy of attention, as podcasts and audio storytelling have taken the mainstream by storm—so much so that in 2018 IDA introduced the award for best audio documentary in recognition of the “continued expansion” of the nonfiction form and “dynamic developments in podcasting and radio.”
Lavender suggested there is a lot of room for exchange across mediums as “devices, techniques and approaches can crossover…and audio has the power to transport people through sound.” Think of podcasts as another platform to tell stories and an interesting alternative for the doc filmmaker. “Podcasts can take people places where cameras cannot [go],” Lavender explained, “and go to emotional states that you cannot reach with a camera.”
A Brief History of Podcasts
Podcasts came on the scene as an extension of radio. In 2006 This American Life made waves when it began offering a podcast version of its show. Other radio programs followed suit with on-demand listening. And then came Serial, the spinoff of This American Life that rocked the podcast world and essentially started the first podcast boom back in 2015.
Serial’s impact was huge: It was the first non-broadcast podcast to get over a million downloads; it resurrected the “serialized” radio show for the podcast generation—and it paved the way for an explosion of the true crime genre.
We are now in the midst of the second podcast boom. According to Edison Research, the institute that puts out an annual report on podcast listening habits, there are now an estimated 800,000 podcasts available on Apple Podcasts and 18.5 million individual episodes; 49 percent of the population has listened to a podcast; 20 percent listen in cars. The average podcast is 18-22 minutes (corresponding with the average commute time), and most people multitask while listening to podcasts.
If the first podcast boom began with Serial, this second boom sees podcasting becoming a big business. Major companies such as I Heart Radio, Spotify and Apple are now creating podcasts, and Spotify recently acquired Gimlet Media. “There’s lots of money moving around and the number of people listening going up each year,” says N’jeri Eaton, deputy director of programming at NPR. “And that means there needs to be more and more content,”
These days, podcasts come in every stripe—narrative nonfiction, investigative, interview/panel discussion, fiction, hybrid and advice—and while This American Life, which was created by Ira Glass and debuted in 1995, set the standard here in the United States with its narrative-driven, deeply reported, quirky/conversational style, there is a robust tradition of long-form radio and feature audio-making in Europe, Australia and Canada that is finding its way into podcasts.
“Each country has its own style,” says Julie Shapiro, executive producer at Radiotopia, the podcast network run by the Public Radio Exchange. Their podcasts include 99% Invisible, Ear Hustle, Criminal, Radio Diaries and Song Exploder, among others. Shapiro is also the co-founder of the Third Coast Audio Festival and worked at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before joining Radiotopia in 2015. She contrasts the American style of straightforward narrative storytelling, often with a relatable host, with the northern European sensibility that has a bit more experimentation and more focus on sound design. “Stories tend to unfold more slowly than a lot of American narratives that hop right to it,” says Shapiro.
The northern European style embraces sound-rich, immersive audio stories that harken back to such works as the watershed Bells in Europe, made in 1973 by German writer and audio producer Peter Leonard Braun.
Other influential works include Danish-American Steven Schwartz’s The Night Watchman (1971). Schwartz created the “Moment Method,” an alternate interview technique that encourages the interviewee to “talk in pictures” and recount rich vivid details, which is one of the secret to good audio.
“Germany, Denmark and Sweden all have very sound-rich traditions that emanate from the 1960s and ’70s,” says Steven Rajam, an English audio-maker who resides in Wales. There is also an abundance of European audio documentary that is made in languages other than English. “Radio Atlas, run by Eleanor McDowall, is an absolute treasure trove of European documentary,” says Rajam. “You could call it subtitled, but it’s so much more than that.” Radio Atlas’ logline is “An English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world.” Often referred to as “audio cinema,” this is audio storytelling and podcasts in other languages that are “films” in so much as there are subtitles up on a screen. This is a way to get access to international stories that are different from what an English-speaking audience would get access to. Plus, audio is not dubbed, so the audience hears the original voices and sound design without the “distraction” of a voice dubbed in English over the original.
As for Britain and the BBC, Rajam notes that given the BBC’s history as a news organization, reportage and journalism come first. “That means sometimes in Britain, we haven’t paid as much attention to sound as other countries where there’s more of a tradition of aesthetics, rather than narrative or journalistic content.
“There’s an increasing generation of young producers that have grown up on [shows] like 99% Invisible [created by Roman Mars] or other really great podcasts in America,” Rajam continues. “And they are bringing those kinds of storytelling techniques into the BBC. At one end of the spectrum is Britain and the BBC, which is ‘formal, top down,’ and at the other end is the American informal, narrative-driven, much more relaxed style—and they are coming together a bit.”
So it is no coincidence that in the “Land Down Under,” audio storytelling is a bit of a mix, as the Australians have a very rich history of experimental radio and pushing boundaries, along with masterful sound design and engineering. “I feel it’s sort of a hybrid with some European and some deeply Australian attributes and a lot of American straightforward storytelling,” observes Shapiro.
“For years, people had been making their work sound ‘distinctly Australian’ and ‘distinctly sound-rich,’ Shapiro continues. “So they took the best of the European custom of radio production and made it into the quicker narrative of the American style.” Meanwhile, Canada exudes more of the North American sensibilities and styles, as it is story-driven. With a faithfulness to sound informed by roots in traditional broadcasting, it is “informational, sort of lyrical and warm.”
In today’s podcast landscape, what matters most is that the style and approach best fits the podcast, according to N’Jeri Eaton. If it’s true crime, for example, it’s important that the reporter has the ability to investigate the story and they’re not just “shooting the shit.”
So Then, What Makes a Good Podcast?
“It depends,” says John Biewen, a veteran public radio journalist and audio program director/instructor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Biewen is also the creator and host of the Center’s audio documentary podcast, Scene on Radio. “I think podcasts that tend to have the largest audiences have at least one of these things: They tell people things they didn’t know; they take people somewhere they haven’t been; and they look at things in a way people haven’t thought of.”
Of course, good vs. commercially successful podcasts are not always the same, but, like doc film, a good podcast starts with a kernel of an idea, an original story or a compelling angle and a relatable host, says Shapiro. “I think there’s a loyalty to [Radiotopia] shows because people feel a strong connection and care about the host.”
A good podcast also includes “nimbleness, texture and balance,” says Shapiro. By this she means using the tools of the trade such as interviews, scenes and music to paint a multidimensional story. “Whether in film or podcasting, [for me] there’s a sense of internal balance that has to be struck to bring a listener along multiple episodes and keep them interested.” This “internal balance” includes elements of surprise and emotional range. “Go beyond one hit of emotion,” stresses Shapiro, and tell a complex story.
What to Avoid
On the flip side, Shapiro advises to stay away from cliché stories and genres that are overrun with the same topics. “Avoid going to the same kinds of people to tell stories; push to have better representation of subjects. I think it behooves every maker and producer to think about how to tell stories in a surprising way.”
Understanding the scale of a story is key says Shapiro. “Try to avoid stretching a story beyond what it merits in terms of episodes, and avoid overproduction in general; avoid ‘overpacking’ the production and not giving your audience enough space for thinking and digesting information. Give your audience an opportunity to feel their own response. And finally, avoid taking the ‘relatable host’ too far and making things ‘too podcasty.’”
Naturally, there are many similarities and transferable skills between audio storytelling and documentary filmmaking. The list includes researching story and character, storytelling and interviewing skills, thinking in scenes, editing and production know-how. Similarities also include interactivity with the audience, building a fan base, promotion of finished work and sustainability.
“You can create intimacy much faster,” says Montreal-based doc filmmaker Tally Abecassis, whose documentary credits include Unlikely Treasures (2010) and Small Wonders (2009). Abecassis began the podcast First Day Back after a very extended maternity leave. She was inspired by Startup, the podcast by Alex Blumberg, former This American Life producer and co-founder of Gimlet Media, about starting new businesses.
“All of a sudden it felt like my skills were transferable into podcasting and it felt so much more manageable because I didn’t need a camera person, and all these other things you need in film,” Abecassis explains. “I could just do it myself.” Her podcast was picked up by Stitcher, and season three dropped last January. This was, of course, during the first podcast boom. Abecassis acknowledges that her story is a bit of a “fairy tale” as the podcast landscape is much different now than it was back in 2014-15.
Indeed, there are some notable differences and not-so transferable skills between working in film and audio. The obvious difference: film is a visual medium. With film you can convey a lot with images. With audio, you need to generate pictures in the mind’s eye of the audience, so understanding how sound and voice will inform the story is essential.
“Audio is more in the realm of the imagination,” says Biewen. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it visual. A good question to ask yourself is, How am I making this visually strong?” Biewen says you need to get people to tell vivid, visually evocative stories and paint pictures with sound rather than images.
Capturing emotion is trickier as audio doesn’t have visual cues the way film does. “Sometimes a little catch in somebody’s voice and a pause isn’t really enough in audio,” says Abecassis. “You need them to say, ‘I am really having a hard time here,’ or ‘This brings up a lot of emotion for me.’ You need them to describe everything. In film you can just have a moment of somebody walking or looking meaningfully in the distance; that’s not available in audio.”
Making a Foray into Podcasting
So… if you are thinking about venturing into the podcast space—either starting your own podcast or working on someone else’s—now is an exciting time to do so. Not only are people are starting podcasts right and left, but podcast companies are hiring like crazy.
The nice thing is, you can use the skills you have cultivated in doc film world. And there are some advantages: It is cheaper to make a podcast than a film, you can likely finish in a shorter time frame, and sustainability is less of an issue.
As for diversity in podcasting, according to Edison Research, the podcast audience looks nearly identical to the population in general. In fact, over the last ten years, “Podcasters themselves have become more diverse, and with that so has the universe of available content.”
In many cases you will need to have worked on long-form audio, but sometimes not. “Even if you don’t have audio skills, you may have special subject matter,” says N’Jeri Eaton. She advises to “think strategically”—use your contacts and transferable skills when making the transition.
If you are starting your own podcast, Biewen recommends, “Take your time; make a few pilots. It takes longer than you might think. And think like an audio producer. Make sure to get the sounds you need while you’re out in the field! When it comes time to pitch an idea, make sure it is feasible and not too expensive, and that you’ve got the access. Be sure you can explain how you are going to tell the story through sound.”
For more info on podcasting and audio storytelling, Transom.org is a terrific resource for all things audio storytelling. That site will keep you informed about podcast conferences, classes and workshops such as IDA’s recent Podcast Day. Other resources include Werk It, Podcast Movement, Third Coast Audio Festival, Podcast Garage and Google Podcast Accelerator.
Laura Almo oversees the Film Department at El Camino College, where she teaches Audio Production and is piloting the podcast Dispatches from El Camino. She is a contributing editor at Documentary.