There were signs when I was 8 years old. In fact, somewhere in the depths of my father’s house, there are cassette tapes of evidence: I knew what I wanted to be when I was in elementary school.
After school, I would come home and record radio shows into my cheap RadioShack handheld tape recorder, elaborate productions in which I was both host and guests — and the guests were all insipid bimbos, based on girls I disliked at school. I hope these tapes remain well buried in an old closet.
So, whether I had full consciousness of it or not, I knew I wanted to make radio even when I was small. I got my first paying job at a radio station at age 15, and have pretty much been in the business since then. I worked my way up from late-night hosting at a classical music station, to daily news reporting for a NPR affiliate, to my current gig: roving around the US for NPR’s State of the Re:Union, making documentaries about place and community.
But, say the dream came later to you: traveling around, talking to people, and weaving their voices into stories that are heard on public radio. Say you only stumbled into that after hearing Ira Glass on This American Life or Jad Abumrad on Radiolab. You didn’t get a running start for this work, launching from the bedroom voice work you were playing around with at age 8. What do you do now?
I think you can do plenty. We’re living, as Ira Glass himself said in a speech at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, in a golden age for audio producers. For years, those of us who wanted to make stories with sound struggled with few outlets for our pieces, few ways to get them to others’ ears. You were stuck running the gauntlet of regional NPR bureau chiefs, who, lovely as they are, only have so much airtime for stories.
The internet has changed all of that. Now, not only are podcasts delivering those stories directly to listeners, but there are platforms for anyone — anyone — who has a story to tell, and tells it well, to be heard. You don’t have to wait for an internship with NPR or for your piece to be picked up by Marketplace. You can start making things right away. Sites like Cowbird and SoundCloud give you somewhere to house these pieces, if not ways of making money from them (that’s a battle still being fought, even for those of us well-established in this industry. But there are even pricks of sunshine in that cloud; see what Roman Mars was capable of through the Kickstarter campaign for his design podcast, 99% Invisible.) These sites let you stretch those audio storytelling muscles, and receive feedback — and cheerleading! — from perfect strangers. They can be a starting point to making this work, your work.
But how do you start making stories with sound to begin with? There is, of course, a whole number of routes, some of them more expensive than others. If you have the money and time to spend, there are audio storytelling courses like the Transom Story Workshop or the radio program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies (which I attended), or shorter courses from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. These programs will take you from 0 to 60 in a matter of weeks, training you to use recording gear, interview people, structure a story, and edit it beautifully.
But if you don’t have a few thousand dollars and a few months of your life to spare, there are other ways to get going as a radio producer. At this point, the basic equipment required — a good flash recorder, a mic, headphones, cables, and sound-editing software for your computer — can be had very affordably. For a couple hundred bucks, you’re ready to roll. If that sounds like too much, you can even start playing around with just your smartphone. I can’t tell you how many little gems of recordings I’ve made spontaneously with my iPhone. There are recording apps galore to try out, many of them for under five bucks.
Here’s the bottom line: Start playing with sound. Think of a story you’d like to tell, about your friends, your neighborhood, even just yourself, and try to imagine how you could make it come alive in sound. What would surprise the world about these people and places that are so familiar to you? Go around your neighborhood with your recorder and mic and just listen to what’s around you. Try to think of what the sonic imprint of the place you live is — what sounds are unique to it? What sounds say “home” to you? Get in the habit of thinking sonically. Once you start doing it, it’ll be hard to stop. It’s as if you discover a whole parallel world that you’d only been half noticing before.
Start editing the sounds you record — even if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can find some helpful technical guides on Transom, workshops to listen to from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, and storytelling guides from Ira and Duke’s John Biewen. Put a story with some of those sounds up on Cowbird. Send it to me: I’ll listen. So will others.
And, speaking of listening, do a lot of it. The best way to learn how to construct a story is to pay attention to how the pros do it. Next time you hear a story on This American Life that you adore, listen to how they decided to build the narrative. What questions did Ira ask? What was funny or interesting about it? What details did they include that made the story come to life, which painted a vivid image of the characters or the scene in your mind?
Next time you go to a new place, bring your recorder with you. Use it as a tool for discovery, an excuse to talk to strangers, a way into this new, unfamiliar place. You’ll be an audio storyteller in no time.