AWP2018: Narrative Audio and Podcasting: Crafting Stories for the Ear

Panel Participants: Erin Anderson, Maya Goldberg-Safir, Terence Mickey

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMAs a writer of both stories and songs who has survived the Los Angeles I-405 traffic perhaps only because of This American Life and Radiolab, I should have considered audio storytelling ages ago. Yet, dabbling in narrative audio only occurred to me recently. This panel pulled back the curtains on the genre, revealing craft considerations, gear suggestions, the panelists’ own projects, and work that inspires them. The presentations by three podcast veterans — Maya Goldberg-Safir, self-titled Podcast Therapist and Artistic Director of Third Coast International Audio Festival; Terence Mickey, creator and host of the podcast Memory Motel; and Erin Anderson, multimedia storyteller, audio producer, and Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh – delved into the nature of storytelling as an oral tradition, the bridge between writer and audience, the relationship between writing and audio, and the ways that the podcast platform can be used as a creative tool. One major takeaway from this AWP event is best summarized by panelist Terence Mickey’s comment, “Writing is the unfair advantage of audio producing.”

In other words: Writers, this is all about storytelling. If you’re into it, you can do it. The rest is details.

That said, it did help to learn what some of those details are. In her opening presentation, Goldberg-Safir covered the branded roots of podcasting, named as such by Apple in the early iPod days. Writing for audio stories, she noted, is unbound by genre. As examples, she offered a rich list of some of her own favorite narrative audio programs, including The Organist, Paris Review podcast, and Heavyweight, and specific episodes that she recommends, including Chapters I-VII from Brian Reed and Julie Snyder’s serialized novel S-Town, fact-fiction blur “Dead Mom Talking” by Rachel Matlow from, and “The Drywall” a memoiristic piece by Scott Carrier from The Organist.

In explanation of the subtractive editing process, which relates conceptually to writing approaches like erasure poetry, the audience listened to a clip from Goldberg-Safir’s ten-minute story, “The Sitter Dispatch,” which she crafted and carved from audio that she recorded on her phone while working as a nanny. To illustrate different techniques used in podcasting, Goldberg-Safir parsed out general “ingredients” of a podcast creation:

  • Interview tape
  • Voice-over narration
  • Action tape
  • Archival found sounds
  • Composed music
  • Sound design (i.e. drones, percussive hits, etc.)

Terrence Mickey’s story “Message in a Bottle,” from his Memory Motel podcast, cuts between the voice of his lively interview subject and Mickey’s own deadpan narration. As we listened to a clip, Mickey highlighted his voice-over narration against the interview tape, describing the interviewer’s role in boosting an interview subject’s storytelling skill. Draw out details, he suggested, by modeling good storytelling; put them at ease with small talk. The juxtaposition of the two voices served several functions: to keep the listening audience interested (much as a composer might choose a new instrument sound), to quicken the story pacing with summary, to highlight a subject’s lively personality against the narrator’s more measured contour, and to carve a bigger story out of the subject’s anecdotes. This reminded me of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, where the podcast producer’s job is to carve out a story from a subject’s situation.

In Anderson’s case, she played clips of her own work that recontextualizes audio recordings, much like found poetry. Her experimental approach to audio storytelling frequently utilizes multiple narrators that create a collage-like audio experience. Her crafting of audio can be compared to the work of a contemporary classical music composer, and, in fact, she played a clip of Glenn Gould’s idiosyncratic “The Idea of North” from The Solitude Trilogy as a basis for inspiration. Much like Gould’s piece, Anderson’s story “Being Siri” drops listeners into an experience without any information for what they’re hearing. The bewildering opening of the piece, which is seemingly unrelated layerings of words, illustrated her strategy for giving the listener something to do, or for inviting the listener to figure something out. The story arose from her experience as “a voice transplant” for someone who couldn’t speak, and explores questions of identity and language.

Some pragmatic take-aways from the panel include further resources:; “How to Make Your Listener Levitate & Other Magic Tricks” by Cathy Fitzgerald for the Third Coast Pocket Conference podcast; and “Sound Design with The Truth’s Jonathan Mitchell and Meet the Composer’s Alex Overington.”

Arielle Silver earned her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles, where served as editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket and now teaches in the MFA, BA, and Inspiration2publication programs. Her songs have been licensed internationally for film and television, and her essays have appeared in Brevity, Gulf Stream, Moment, Lilith, Under The Gum Tree, Jet Fuel Review, and others. @relsilver

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

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