I am a big fan of National Public Radio and their programming involving storytelling such as Ira Glass’ “This American Life” and Dick Gordan’s “The Story.” Because NPR broadcasts its programming via the radio, it’s limited to engaging listeners with only recorded sound, something NPR does masterfully.
I was inspired to take the Poynter News University course “Telling Stories with Sound” to discover how NPR uses recordings to draw listeners in, so that I might produce my own gripping sound-only news story.
The Poynter course break sound into four categories:
- Interviews can be conversations between a reporter and a character in the story or the characters spoken voice.
- Ambient noise, like the roar of a crowd or birds chirping in the background, which can set the mood while also giving listeners a sense of location.
- Natural sound marks action. An example would be the crunching of leaves under someone’s feet as they walk through the forest.
- Voice overs can fill any gaps left by interviews and also help to tell the story by weaving elements together.
A great sound story will have a mix of different sound categories represented, some may even overlap. But like any news story, reporters should first research their subject. When sound is involved it’s important to know when and where the the best audio can be captured. When reporting on a coffee shop it would be better to capture sounds from the busy morning rush rather than record the atmosphere in the afternoon when it’s nearly empty. It’s also important to choose an appropriate location for each interview. Recording an interview with a dog groomer while they are working on a pooch would sound differently than if the groomer were sitting in a park or an office. The recording of the groomer while working may pick up important ambient noise like the buzz of a razor or splash of water which could aid the story.
If the location is one that a reporter not very familiar with, it’s important to interview someone who knows the area well. Not only could that person tip a reporter off on when to be at the location but they may also offer suggestions for other interviews. The interviewees should be instructed to speak descriptively and a reporter should be armed with good open-ended questions to keep their subjects talking.
When it comes to recording a subject Poynter stresses the need to select the best microphone. Two of the most basic and popular mics are the cardioid – designed to pick up sound from one source or direction, and the omnidirectional – a mic that pics up sound from any direction.
The Poynter course gave really great tips about being prepared for audio reporting. Reporters need to know their location well, what equipment is necessary and take care to record more than they think they’ll need. It was eye opening to discover how much planning reporters need to take when creating a sound story. Background noise that we don’t usually notice can ruin a great interview if reporters aren’t careful to take note of something like an air conditioning unit starting and stopping. Using the wrong type of microphone can also ruin a great recording. When something doesn’t turn out and audio isn’t usable, reporters have no other option than to tweak their story or re-record it.
A successful audio story will use all types of sound to enhance their story. In this fascinating story “Ice and Polar Bears,” David Gordon uses voice overs to expand on the story while interviewing John Turk about his adventure kayaking in the Arctic. It’s nice to be able to hear the subjects voice is gruff and passionate . It gives insight into the mans personality that the written word and quotes wouldn’t be able to capture.
Similarly, “Play the Part”, an episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life,” is an example of voice overs and interviews being mashed-up with natural and ambient sound during a story about a President Obama look-a-like.
Both of these examples may be a little longer than ideal for something that would accompany a written story, but they’re both well executed.