If you’re ready to move your journalism from the page to the podcast, getting started can seem both exciting and intimidating. What’s the deal with all that equipment? Don’t microphones cost a million dollars? Well, yeah — some of them do! But everybody and their mom didn’t get on iTunes because there’s a secret cabal of angel funders raining high-tech mixers down from the heavens. Telling audio stories doesn’t have to break the bank, and with some thoughtful planning and a few lo-fi tech tips, you can produce pro-quality work on a shoestring.
That starts by crafting a great story, which can cover a multitude of technological issues. Mind you, I’m not recommending that you produce low-quality audio for the hell of it, or ignore basic best practices when it comes to sound production, but a compelling narrative will carry your listeners smoothly through the minor turbulence of an under-mixed audio scene, inconsistent room tone or a less-than-ideal Skype connection.
Nothing will hook in your listeners like the element of suspense and surprise; even in the shortest audio pieces, dropping hints and previews about what’s to come creates narrative tension that will keep listeners plugged in. Parceling out information in this way also enables your audience to build the story in their own minds, piece-by-piece. Aural learning is hard for many people, and listeners can’t always easily go back and re-read or re-process a paragraph of audio work they way they might in a magazine, so build slowly. Take a story like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Pretty straightforward, right? But you can amp up the tension: This is a story of a little girl who got in way over her head. You’ll meet her soon, but first — let’s go out to the woods and meet the unlikely family who had their lives turned upside down last June when they came home to find their front door swinging open ….
Good audio stories begin with a lot of preparation — way more preparation than your average news article, because your reporting will actually become the story that makes it to your listeners. You’d almost never show your readers a copy of the scribbles in your reporter’s notebook, right? But with sound stories, you and your listeners are working with the same material. Of course, you’ll be translating, editing and mixing that material so that it makes sense to your audience, but when your sources are talking to you, they’re also talking to your listeners down the line.
Begin any audio project with a detailed outline — not just figuring out who’ll be talking, and about what and when, but identifying the other sounds you’ll need to make your story sing. Don’t be afraid to pre-write; the story may change as you report it, but go into the process with a plan. Anticipate what you think your sources will tell you, and which sources you think ought to impart key pieces of information. Map out those voices across your story, and think about what should fill the silence between those voices.
Audio stories that are merely people talking don’t have to be boring, but by filling your work with the kind of aural texture that you can get with just a little forethought, you’ll be able to do more than simply tell your listeners about a person or a place. You’ll put them right in the middle of the action. Identify the scenes and sources you may only get one crack at, and make the most of them when they’re available. Maybe you’ll only have one chance to get a particular source on tape, or just a single opportunity to record a musical performance, a political speech or Christmas dinner service in a four-star kitchen. Know ahead of time that you need the sound of the violinist opening her grandmother’s hand-me-down case, the nervous, first-time candidate tapping the microphone or the sound of Wagyu beef sizzling on the grill.
Record long takes — longer than you think you’ll need, especially when you’re getting room tone to lay down in the background for a consistent soundscape. Standing around with a microphone for 10 seconds seems like an eternity, but when you get into the editing process, there’ll be no help when you realize you really needed 15 or 20 seconds of that dice game to back up an interview. And move around the space when you’re getting those long takes — take your listeners on a walk down the church aisle so they can hear how the crowd moves and changes during a hymn. Stand still and record from four or five different spots in an arena or market.
When you’re interviewing your sources in the field — which means you might be using just one microphone to record two or more people on one track — strive not to talk over them unless you’re going for a deliberately conversational style. That might mean your direct interaction sounds or feels a little strange, but you can always warn folks that you’re going to pause for a beat before responding or reacting to a question or statement. This will save you a load of heartache later on when you realize that that great quote got clipped at the end by an enthusiastic “Yeah!” or “Mmmhmmm!” instead of ending cleanly in your source’s voice.
Don’t be afraid to ask your sources to repeat themselves and rephrase their statements. Most people don’t say exactly what they mean the first time around; inviting them to self-reflect and expand on their ideas gives you much more to work with later on. You can also get your sources to do some of the lifting when it comes to setting the scene. Ask them to describe where they are or what’s happening around them can not only save you narration time later, but they might pull out details that escape your own eye.
But you’ll also run into details that intrude upon the ear. Acknowledging weird sounds, background noise or other awkwardness is absolutely key for those of us who venture outside the recording booth. Construction, airplanes, trains and street noise don’t have to be barriers to good storytelling if you simply acknowledge they exist. Most listeners will assume that everything they hear in your story has been placed there intentionally; letting them know that the beeping in the background is an errant forklift will help them imagine where you’re reporting from and let them know that the extraneous noise is just that.
So! You’ve got your reporting plan; making sure that the audio lives up to the story is a separate challenge. Let’s talk about some lo-fi tech solutions that can produce high-quality audio without busting your budget (if you’re lucky enough to have a budget).
Microphones: A decent USB mic is an investment that will absolutely pay off. I recommend Blue brand — this is the mic I use 99 percent of the time, and it’s got an easy knob that allows me to record narration straight-on into the mic by myself, an omnidirectional setting for group interviews or scene-setting and a two-way feature perfect for two-person interviews across a table. If you’re recording outdoors, be mindful of wind interference. Surround your mic with a plastic cup to reduce audio drag, or tote along a plastic serving platter or even a baking sheet to set up behind your microphone.
When it comes to recording narration and one-on-one interviews, a small, quiet room and your smartphone can produce solid results. And I do mean a small room — a closet can make a fantastic recording studio, especially if it’s stuffed with clothes or blankets. You want to orient yourself so that you’re surrounded as much as possible by soft surfaces, so go on ahead and fold yourself into the coats and jackets. If you can’t cram into a closet, sitting on a bed with a blanket draped over your head is a good secondary solution, or even under a draped table on a thick carpet or rug.
Of course, you can’t drag everyone in your story under a table or into the closet, so when it comes to working on the road, you may as well literally work on the road — from your car. Roll up the windows and park as far as you can from traffic, and you’ve basically secured yourself a mobile studio that can comfortably seat multiple people. (For a great example of this, check out season two of Someone Knows Something, the Canadian public radio podcast that uses car interviews to fabulous effect.)
I also keep a pop-up studio in my trunk — and by pop-up studio, I mean a laundry basket and a few throw pillows and a blanket. You can prop the basket on its side, line it with pillows and stick your microphone inside to reduce echoes, especially if you need to record a source reciting something like a poem, song or monologue but can’t get them into a car or closet.
If you’re editing your own work, there’s a world of fancy-schmancy software out there -- the cool stuff like ProTools and Adobe Audition will set your wallet back some, but Audacity is a great free option, and GarageBand, which comes with every Mac, is also a fine solution. Some software is even built specifically for journalists. It may take you years to find the one you like best — it took me a decade to land on Hindenburg. Because I like to keep my computer lite, I carry all my audio on an external harddrive or flash drive and work directly from those when I’m editing; asking your computer to do too much heavy lifting on its own will slow down your process and make you dread getting into the nitty-gritty after returning from the field.
There’s no substitute for experience, so play around with your equipment, your software and your space whenever you can. More than a pricey microphone or a tricked-out studio, good old trial and error will build your confidence and competence, allowing you to take your listeners on a sensory journey that will stick with them long after you’ve signed off.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Elvis Ripley.