Transcript Sean Cole on the transportative power of audio

Welcome to the Podcastfestival 2021 podcast. This fourth festival edition took place from september 23 through 26 across four cities in the Netherlands. 

In this episode you will hear a talk presented by Sean Cole, producer at This American Life, in which he investigates the transportative power of audio. Please note: this transcript was transcribed live during the talk, so contains mistakes. If you see one, please let us know so we can edit them.

Amanda: Welcome back everyone. I hope you were able to get a drink. We are halfway the evening. Things are going so fast. For our next guest I will switch to English so he can follow us as well. I would say that he needs no introduction, because the people, the places it worked out and the people who work with, I think a lot of people in this room know. We introduced him as the producer of the mother of all podcasts This American Life. He also worked for 99 percent invisible. Those are THE podcasts that we have as gateway podcasts. And I just heard you were also a poet. So what are you going to do for us today? SEAN: maybe I will switch it up.
Amanda: All the way from the USA here to tell us about the transportative power of audio, I give you: Sean Cole. Take it away.
SEAN: Thanks for coming. And thanks to the festival for inviting me. Just as a caveat, sleep has been a bit of premium the last couple of days. So you’re experiencing a man who stands at the crux of exhaustion and nervousness. I don’t get out a lot any more. Which is true, of course, for a lot of people in the pandemic. But also just in terms of my job. I was realising, so many of those stories that I do at This American Life these days involve either remote interviews, or in person but in the studio. As opposed to going out into the field, as we say. Getting scene tape. I was a little worried when you asked me to talk about the transportative power about sound. But I realised there are more ways than we think of to transport listeners to a place via audio. Not just scene tape. Though that is the key way. But also other ways that I think, when you think of them in aggregate, they are sort of a picture of all the different ways, or many of the different ways that shows operate and that practitioners are making stories. And so, I wanted to play different kinds of examples of transporting, transportative audio. Because I think they point to the different things you can do with the medium. Wonderful think of the medium of audio is how elastic it is. Malleable. As opposed to TV or film. You have pictures. But it’s a really live and nimble medium. Which is really why I love doing it. And my colleagues at the show. Anyway, I wanted to start with a piece of field sound. Some seem tape from a story I did back in 2017. With somebody from Hawaii. She had always been curious about the least inhabited island of the Islands.
Is a privately owned island, owned by a white family that what it from a king, back in the 1860s. And during the negotiations the king said, thanks might not always be so great for Hawaiians, native Hawaiians. Could you please just take careof the people on this island. the family interpreted that to mean: Preserve the traditional Hawaiian way of life there. So there is no running water on the island. No stores. No money, it is place that is frozen in time. but also strict rules. No drinking, no smoking drugs or guns on the island. And then seemingly odd rules, men have to keep their hair short. No tattoos or piercings allowed. And it’s said that you have to go to church on Sunday mandatorily. And what happened, one of the Robinson men married Hawaiian woman. and she became the matriarch of the island.making all of the decisions. Including deciding who can come and go. Which of the native islanders. So she was not only enforcing the rules, but you have to stay in her good graces. If you want to live there. Or go back and forth. It becomes a story about a family feud. Rather than just history. And as an outsider, you can’t go there really. Journalists have tried to sneak onto the was a frustrating reporting experience for them. But there was one loophole. I will play you part of the story. This is about midway through the piece. It comes after one of the music posts that we used to separate scenes.
[MUSIC] [PHONE]: this is Ira Glass, American life. You message.
-Hi Ira, there is service on the island. I am there right now.
This is the wildest beach I have ever been to. I mean wilderness. There is this like weird untamed beach with these lava outcroppings in it. And water is this unreal multicoloured organism. It is just fantastic there. So I thought I should call you from the island. I will see you soon.

Animal poop, just like everywhere.
Islanders bought a helicopter. And they started offering tourist trips the island. Not to the village. But anyone with 440 dollarscan take the half way tour in the helicopter and land for a few hours on the northernmost beach.
SEAN: There were no people on that beach. Only one pavilion. Miles of empty beach. And behind us this baking landscape that is not beach but red dirt. Also vast. Dotted with dry grasses. As if a piece of planet had fallen into the Pacific. As if we had discovered an island.
-the helicopter pilot was the tour guide. he talked about the island as if it was the quietest place on the earth.
MAN: It is not quiet, it’s very loud here.
SEAN: So the beginning of this, it was not planned. We were walking around on the beach. Talking to ourselves. And I was like, oh, you have bars. But there is no self-service here. I wanted to call to see how much money it was costing for and when I called to New York. This message that you left, did you want this for the story? Because I kept it. Playing around with the call. And I was recording myself at the time. I was like, oh, we can correct that little bit of misinformation that there is no self-service the island in the call. And also, you can hear in my voice how otherworldly it is there. And I wanted to document that in real life. There is describing something and there is how you describe it. I did a story for Radiolab about Typhoid Mary and how she was quarantinedon an island off of New York. And I was standing where her cabin was. And I said: that is so close to the road. And yet she could not go there. She must have been so lonely. And in podcasting, transporting your listeners, you have to describe a lot. Either in writing or in tape. And when I was her news reporter we would call that a stand-up. “I am outside the municipal building.” and if you listen to NPR, I you still see that happening. And another thing that you do in a situation like that that is important, is that you just keep rolling. You record the entire time. Don’t worry about how much tape you are gathering later. My old mentor and dear friend Jay Alison, back when we were still using tape, they said: just use the tape. It is cheap. And the animal poop thing was spontaneous. And some things in the universe are just ubiquitous, like poop. And luckily also in this case, there is two of us. So we could talk to each other. And I love that little exchange between us. And the other thing that we talk about doing, when you are documenting a place that is virtually static beach, that is not really changing much. We call that making tape. Just observing. Reflecting. Talking to yourself. And we did not have a lot of real-world experience that point. And my colleague, her observations were really keen. But we cut all that. Because Ira pointed out that on the island of Niihau. We didn’t really learn that much there. And if you call this a forbidden islandif you can go there, you go you try to describe the sound of the place. The sound of a person or the people in the place. Descriptive writing. Which is the most planned and then the impromptu, which is the least planned. And then just stick to writing. This next example is one of the best pieces of descriptive writing of place that I have never heard of. This is from Nancy Updike. One of the producers of the show. Possibly the greater writer in all of audio storytelling. Nancy did a story from long ago, 2004. In that first year of the US war in Iraq. It was about a story about private contractors working in Iraq. Private citizens doing military type work for private companies. A lot of them. And she asked herself: what compels someone, who isn’t in the Service, and why would you move to a war zone? This is an hour-long. you should listen to it. It is one of the best thing. I will play a minute and 1/2 or so. This is where she is describing the Green Zone. Which is the fortified area, where the military encampment are. The regime leaders grew up.
NANCY: there’s a disco on Saturday nights there. Karaoke on Friday. Tae kwon do, an Internet cafe. And a flea market with Iraqi kids selling CDs and DVDs with porn. it seems that the final stage of a brutal dictatorship is kitsch. There is restaurant in the green zone. And there is Chinese restaurant. You have to go with somebody who already knows where it is. it is somewhere next to the hospital, down an alley. And then you have to take a left, through boxes with tissue in there. and there is also a helipad next to the restaurant. but this place is thriving. It is all because of word-of-mouth. At the cafeteria, food is prepared for thousands of people at a time. A Chinese restaurant, compound chicken will always find a way to exist.
-Can I have compound chicken number eight?
SEAN: So this is 90 seconds of writing, it is hard to summarise.
And this is so cinematic.I said this to Nancy. How cinematic the structure of the scene is. From a literal wide shot with all of the stores and street hawkers and nightclubs and restaurants. And then the medium shot of just this one Chinese restaurant that she focuses on. And then a tracking shot of the trip there, and then she narrows in even further to a courtyard and then finally a close-up of a table with box of tissues on it. I think, she said that was not intentional necessarily. But it was exactly how movies are structured often. Also a word about the delicacy and inventiveness of the descriptions. She could have said: We walked through chipped opening down a narrow pathway. But no, she compared it to the gay bars in the 50s in its obscurity. And then, instead of just explaining the trip, she says: Why WOULD you walk through a chipped opening in a stone wall. And even if you did, how would you then know where to take a left? It is completely nailing the out of the way-ness of it. Rather than fact by fact. Which is also not the most interesting thing to say. Like, how you got somewhere. But she makes it interesting. Plus, the share innovation of the phrase: testament to the axiom, which I am coining here. Like: that is just pure balls. Who says that something is an axiom, and that they are making it up right in the moment? So she is like, this is a law of the universe. An axiomatic truth. You don’t need evidence no, I am just telling you that it is and on top of that you have the ambient tape running under everything and the helicopter. So you have plastic chairs and tables with boxes of tissue on them. Helicopters overhead. And an American southern dude. Sitting there eating chicken. I am there, you know. I have been transported there.
She’s not just describing what she is seeing. She is imbuing it.
So, we talk in our show about the two building blocks of the show, anecdotes/story and reflection. And she is baking the reflection into the description. Which is mindbending and hard. She is really something. To go further with this, both examplesfrom Niihau and from Green Zone, the reporter is learning about the place right in front of you. Travelling there so they can bring it to you. This next example is more personal. Also from This American Life. It is from a story that I produced with a reporter, BA Parker. She was I think the production fellow at the time that she made this, we called them interns but now we call them fellows. and she went onto work at Invisibilia. And now, what Parker pitched to us was this place that she said: All black children in Baltimore, where she grew up, would have to visit at some point. They would have to end up visiting at some point. It is called the national great Blacks in wax Museum. So rendered in wax, in a lobby. There is Hannibal, the great military general riding on the back of an elephant. Bessie Coleman, the aviatrix. And then you walk into the museum proper, and naturally, a lot of the exhibits are very violent. Because the history of the black people in America was very violent. So you should know that this next piece of audio talks about that. Parker was scared to death of this place when she was a kid. She ended up going twice when she was young. And that is what she remembered, being terrified. She wanted to go back and see what it was like now as an adult. Looking at the exhibits. And I was the producer there. So we were together walking around the museum. I am recording everything. She is essentially this meta tour guide
-you want to go into the slave ship? They built a facsimile of the slave ship into the museum. About the size of a large trailer. When I was eight, it seemed enormous. Back then, walking there was like the opposite of fun. At the entrance, there are two white slave merchants. Impeccably dressed. And a recording would play. ‘ New load of slaves coming aboard now.’ I understood that, they meant me. I was one of the slaves. first I refused but the other kids when they’re so I followed. And what i saw than is what i see now: another vicious -looking white man. and one man has chain around his neck. And this woman is fully nude. covered in blood. Pure agony on her face. And he is just ready to torture someone. None of this has changed.
MAN: collections on shelves of just parts of bodies.
PARKER: and there is this… Rats are eating. This is over-the-top. Probably because the wax figures were all built in the 1970s. But the scenes are always based on documented atrocities. And at a certain point in the slave ship I turn around and I see… It comes home to me: these people are my ancestors. Without the torture, without the sorrow or the misery, there would be no me.
– So what do you remember as a kid, seeing this?
PARKER: being confused, being scared. You don’t have the language for it, but it is like a pause and reflect. Your eyes grow wide. If you begin to understand what it means. This is a fake oven.
And the is this story where an escaped slave is chased.
SEAN: and then she goes on to talk about what life was like as a black kid. So this was Parker’s memory of the museum from when she was little. And that is woven into the transportative quality of the tape. none of this has changed. And also the recognition, both back then and now, how the museum worked. Connecting with people who worked in prisons, brought over on the ships. And now, the adults seeing the exhibit. There is a beautiful aspect to the story. Which is, she said, you don’t have the language for it. But she has the language for it now. So she is experiencing something that she had experienced as a kid and did not know how to articulate these feelings. And now she is a woman and can. But she has the same feelings. So in a way, through Parker’s reflection she is bringing us to places, to 2 places: the museum of the present and the museum that she was so scared ofin the past. And her feelings come across so strongly. And I was standing there thinking, what a great job she was doing. Making the story in real time. And again, she hadn’t really done that much at that point. She was a film teacher at that point. And our writer. But she had not made a lot of audio stories. And there was something so natural about it. Speaking of history, so there is a conundrum that you run into. I can see you, but I will pretend. How many people make radio stories here? Okay. Okay. So maybe you have encountered this. How many people regularly make radio stories about history? Historical pieces? Okay, great. It is hard. It is like, you know, how you get listeners to feel like they are close to the places and the people that the story is about, that is a real challenge. Usually, excuse me. I hit that microphone in my face. Usually with stories with places, long time ago. you can interview historians or people’s relatives. But you cannot interview the people it happened to in history. So it’s hard to access the story emotionally. It’s a little dusty, that’s what people say. But back when I was at Radiolab, I worked there for a year and 1/2. And we did a story, a historical story. And you can find solutions to problems like that if you think about it hard enough and use your imagination. So the story was basically about genetics and about this study that was done in Sweden by a geneticist and you will hear his voice and also that one of a science writer. And our co-host at Radiolab at the time. And according to the research of the geneticist… He figured out that if you are a boy between the ages of nine and 12 and you are starving, basically. You don’t have enough to eat,for some reason, your kids, when you have them later, and even your grandkids, are healthier than when they would be if you had a lot to eat between the ages of nine and 12. And why, that is the finding. And the way they figured this out is that Ule was from a town in northern Sweden. And the thing about this town, they kept meticulous demographic records. so they knew what years were plentiful and which years were not. And the records were the basis of this study. And my friend Pyke is this great radio producer. And he was living in New York at the time. But he was at home in Denmark back then. And if we figured out where the records were, we could do more. So he went to stockholm. This is the scene.
So you will hear Ule and other people.

MAN: okay, I am here. The kingdom archive.
-There is more information here, going farther back into the past than almost anywhere on earth.
-Yes, we are very data rich..
So the church in this Swedish town kept incredible records.
We went to Stockholm to find them. And here you can read everything about the citizens of the town going back hundreds of years.
This is somebody was born in 1814.
MAN: everything happening in the family…
-It is in this books?
-he was an idiot!
-what does that mean, he was an idiot?
WOMAN: Well you know, he was a retarded. It says: he was miserable to look at.
-That is not very politically correct.
So when each of these folks died, it also says how they died.
WOMAN: from disease, from pneumonia. Heart disease, brain disease.
-And also the records of the farmers crops..
-How much they were growing each year.
The people here were farming.
-Trying to eke a living out of the soil.
-They would experience wild changes from the harvest. One year the potatoes would do great, but a few years later, it would be a harsh winter. And the crops failed.
-And when the crops failed?
-They basically starve.
-You don’t see huge spikes in mortality.
They suddenly had to get by on tiny fraction of the food. And so they just had to hold on for the entire winter. But we have a lot more grain here.
-Suddenly plenty of food.
-Three times as much.
But then: famine again.
And that, back-and-forth
Famine, feast again…
-So what was lucky for the researchers, in term of the wealth of the demographic records, it was also lucky for us as radio producers. We could go to the records. And through the records of the people in the 19th-century, this town from the 19th-century came to life. And you learned about everything that happened there. And this little Swedish town emerges in the ledgers. Plus, there is a feeling of discovery on the part of Pike. You can hear it in his voice once again. There was also in his voice that hush, which is really evocative of the place. It is in a library basically. But even more than that, the real vehicle of transport in that excerpt is Chad’s production. The success of resurrecting this long dead community was fully contingent on the composing he is doing. With flipping the pages back-and-forth. The leitmotif for the famine, for the bumper crop years. And it’s incredibly efficient. Like so much of what Radiolab makes. That entire section, which I find very evocative, is only three minutes long and then it is over. Pike does not come back. Karine does not come back. They get back in time and space and they get back to the next part of the story. We at our show, we pay a lot of attention to pacing. Make sure that nothing lags that none of the beats of the stories linger too long. We do the best we can. It is not always as efficient as may be it can be. But this was a very intricately built scene. Without cutting any muscle, you know. It is like… Once upon a time I really wanted to learn how Chad did what he did. But I am such a technical dummy. And the things that I did pick up, I have since forgotten and I did not stick around long enough to figure it out, and that is my loss. But it is okay because I love my job. So we can move on.
And then, I think, what time is it? I might have two more things.
I don’t think I have to say too much about this last excerpt. It is the very beginning of the story. This is where you come in. No introduction, there is no hosts. How many of you are Loving Radio fans? Do you know the story of J Thunderbolt? it is really one of… It is one of my favourite stories of all time. I will play this. It may be slightly longer. About four minutes. About the wisdom of J Thunderbolt. do any to say anything else? I will talk about it afterwards.
[drop] [SNIFFING[
Excuse me. Dead silence.
-Do I mind if I ask you about that? What happened?
MAN: I am 11 years old. Wrong time, wrong voice
-did you get shot in the face?
-smashed my teeth, hit the jawbone. Tapped an artery. I spent 33 days in the fucking ICU. And they smuggled him…
The doctor try to fix it. We had martial law back then, it was a police state. at the turn of the clock you had to be off the streets.I was allowed 10:30. I stick out a little bit: Hey! Hurry the fuck up and go home! ‘Yes, officer.”
I lay in the alley for an hour.
-can you describe what Thunderbolts house look like after you arrived?
-it is like this 70s furniture, well worn. The carpet is matted down. And six legged table or something. He has got a computer to the right of one couch. With a slideshow of girls doing shows. And a coffee table in front of it and ashtrays and maybe a coffee cup that has not been washed yet. Dimly lit. I think he had the curtains closed on all the windows. Dim and dusty. It did not smell like there were stains on the floor, but it smelled like it had been moved in. Like air had not been in there for a long time. claustrophobic.
-Just, who is he, what does he do?
-he runs a strip club from his house
”thunderbolt entertainment.'”
-It is a fake strip club. And he is the bouncer, he is the DJ, accountant. Basically he is the party planner.
“You guys want any dancers? Cocksuckers. Give me a call in two hours, dude. The fire is almost gone now. Bye. ”
SEAN: So that’s the opening. The story is about J thunderbolt who runs a strip club out of his house, and it is basically about the philosophy of Thunderbolt. this is a story that I carry around with me all the time. I bring it out now and then, all the time… That is a contradiction. I bring it out now and then when I want to be inspired. Their decisions… Not only would I never think to make like… There are these little moves of production that are so inventive. If you know the show at all, back when the story was made, the story was comprised basically of Nick who was in the tape. Sort of the impresario of the show. He had been making radio for more than 20 years, but at that time, there was also Brendan Baker. He was this wunderkind. He was a phenom of a producer and a composer. I talking toBrendan one day. And his main lookout was sound design. he said to me that the phone call between Nick and Noah, when Noah describes the house/strip club… And they play a draft of the story for friends and he was like: tell me what you think the club looks like. And everyone got it wrong. This was an early draft of the story. People thought: maybe there is a pole, it’s a strip club. And Brendan is like: No, this is in his living room! And the thing with Loving Radio is, it is not narrated, traditional radio show. There is no writing with the tape. And this was a rare case where throughout the story and a few points you hear Nick speaking, not just in interview. But speaking to the audience. And the way they solved the problem was just this distinctive inventive thing is to bring people to the place..I have never heard anyone do that, where there was a phone call. And Nick’s friend Noah, who is a nurse, he lays it out. I thought that was really special. Speaking of phone calls, this is probably the last thing I will play. This is a couple of minutes later in the story, I have to play this part, is so genius. I want to steal this from Nick someday.
This trick he did. talking about disseminating information and setting up who somebody is.
-This is my memory of the first conversation I had with J Thunderbolt.
PHONE: hi, my name is Nick, I am calling from a public radio show in Chicago. I read an article with you in the newspaper and I am in Detroit. I want to do an interview with you
-How much can you pay me?
-we cannot pay you.
-come on man, can’t J Thunderbolt get a little tote bag money?
-I can work around your schedule.
-Give me a call when you are in town , we will see if I am in the mood. But if you don’t give me any money I will definitely not be in the mood.
-Let me give you my number.
-No,you are not trying to date me.
-I will call you on Saturday.
SEAN:what the fuck. I have never heard anything like this. Obviously, this is the same person doing both voices. And they try it in a couple of different ways, like act a little bit. No: way better if you just do it completely flat. Just make the delineation between who is who with the quality of the audio. And again, you know, it did not recall that phone call. It is memory of the first phone call, which he could have just said in a script I guess. It is so evocative to me, so transportative. And I did not even know… This place, where it was.
I could kvell for hours about that. It sounds like a Dutch word but it is Yiddish. I think we are ready for questions. Two short questions we have time for. Sorry, I went on too long. Does anybody have a question? Oh, there are lights.
-I am not sure if that is a short question, but we talked before. I asked what your top would be about. You said, it was about transportative power. And I’ve misunderstood you and I said, transformative power? And I would not ask you about this. But during your talk I was realising, especially in the last moment where you said: It really got me into this, it was a transportative power and then I thought: but do you think sound is also a transformative power? To me it could be both. But you used a different word than I would use. I was thinking, could you elaborate on it?
SEAN: Sure, I work in audio so I would like to think it has a transformative power as well as a transportative power.transporting is in a way more quotidian than transforming. Getting from one place to another. But yeah, I’ve definitely felt… I think I felt almost fully or fully transformed by certain stories that I’ve heard. But the thing that I look to stories for, and I think why people make them, and people at the show make them, is because… I want an articulation of my own experience a lot of the time. I also want to get into other peoples experiences that I had no idea about. For example, I had several losses in my life earlier this year. Lots of grief attached to those. and instead of trying to dodge those feelings… My mom died six years ago. And I wanted to seek out material that was about grief. And it is also about what the best writers do. There is a book. And I read that book and I thought: Oh, this is what I feel. It’s felt really good when I’ve made something that people will write to me and say, thank you. That really, there is something I connect with. Which I think is, you know… If the only way out of those situations is true, there is a kind of transforming there. From a caterpillar to butterfly. Terrible cliche. Or maybe a Chrysalis. Is that at all sensicle? You’re welcome.
-I have a more recommendation for you as a maker to other makers. When you compare American podcasts to Dutch podcasts, in my opinion American podcasts are much better at voice-overs and describing. I think Dutch podcasts are way more interviewing. And sometimes when you listen to a podcast, you think: Now you are describing because they have to describe something. Because you have to do that in a podcast, I am talking to a nice looking lady with brown hair and glasses. But as the listener, you don’t care. But if you are a maker, is it relevant to the listener when you describe things? Or do you sometimes describe things just because it is a podcast.
SEAN: Sometimes, if you just do things and you describe things because you are on the radio and people cannot see it, that is when you don’t really care. Then it is just because. Not because you are really trying to add something to bring you to a place. The reason why you describe things is to bring people to a place. And when you do it well, everybody loves it. Everybody that I have talked to. And again, probably the best person at it for my money is Nancy. In that same hour, she would just do these little… When she was talking to people she would do these little sketches. And it was just like, these quick sections where, with a character, and she would sketch, this isn’t exact, but something like a guy from Oklahoma does not use enough sunblock. She is not saying why, he is red in the face or, he is a sunburn. It is thought that she had when she was talking to him. And it is evocative. And it is also conversational. The main dude in that story, he describes like he wants to hire tough, hard-bellied, rough guys or whatever. And she says to him: I think you got that description by looking in the mirror. It is artful. It’s not that we should not do it. It is that we must do it better, hahaha! I think.
-Sean, we can ask you a thousand more questions…
SEAN: Thank you!
Thank you so much. My radio teachers says: every time somebody says: I am standing here in the municipality… You had to buy candy.

Sean: hahaha

This talk was part of the Podcastfestival 2021 and was held at Forum in Groningen on September 23, 2021. If you’ve found this valuable, please consider donating to the Podcastnetwerk:

The Podcastfestival 2021 is an initiative of the Podcastnetwerk and was made possible by the Creative Industries Fund NL, Fonds 21, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, The European Cultural Foundation, the Dutch Literary Fund, the municipalities of Nijmegen, Utrecht and Groningen and the international visitors programme of the New Institute. The programme was presented in collaboration with Podgrond and Forum in Groningen, Tolhuistuin and Are We Europe in Amsterda, De Nieuwe Oost|Wintertuin in Nijmegen and the International Literature Festival in Utrecht.