Listen Up!

July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments


RadioI started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.

As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.

If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:

Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.

Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)

If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:

Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.

Start with: The California Confederacy, Like a Virgin, and Seeking Asian Female

If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:

Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.

Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference

If you’re approaching a difficult topic:

Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.

One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)

Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!

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§ 6 Responses to Listen Up!

  • Jennifer Lunden says:

    Radiolab has managed to pull past This American Life as my favorite podcast. And that’s saying something. I love your observation that it is the radio version of braided essays, my favorite kind. Snap Judgement is another of my favorites. The one you missed is Strangers, with Lea Thau. It’s similar to Snap Judgement in that regular people tell their stories. Thau worked for The Moth for years. A podcast of storytellers sharing their personal stories, The Moth is another not to be missed.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the new ones – I’ll listen for sure, and I love The Moth! I’ve been a StorySLAM winner and can’t wait to do it again🙂

  • lhertzel says:

    Best podcasts: “The Curious Ear,” “Documentary On One,” and “Flux” on RTE (irish radio). available as free podcast downloads from iTunes or the RTE website. Best storytelling ever. They use real time and ambient sound so skillfully (especially some of the old documentaries) that you feel like you’re there. Highly, Highly, Highly recommended.

  • stuntmom says:

    Also “99% Invisible” for finding stories where you’d think none exist; “The Story Collider” to hear stories about science told not very well by scientists (good for rewriting in your own head); “The World in Words” to hear about language in all its magnificence; “Longform” for interviews and analysis of longform journalism pieces. Thanks for posting this. I feel strongly that writers should listen to as many kinds of stories as they can.

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