Transcript keynote Stephanie Foo

In this episode you will hear the festival’s keynote by Stephanie Foo. The transcript was transcribed live, so may contain errors.

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

In this episode you will the keynote on the transportative power of audio by producer Stephanie Foo. A transcript and the slideshows are available on our website and through the shownotes.

Hello everyone, welcome to this keynote by Stephanie Foo. We’re very honored to have you here Stephanie, and we wil soon be listening to you talk about how you use audio to take people to other places and situations. And for the people who are here you probably know who Stephanie Foo is but I’ll give a short introduction. Stephanie is a podcast producer. She has worked at Snap Judgement and at This American Life and recently she has finished her debut novel? I forgot the title, I’m sorry.
What My Bones Know
-It will be published in February.
– Yes it’s a memoir about healing from complex PTSD.
– Great! Allright I’ll give the floor to you.
-Thank you so much to the podcast festival team. I would have loved to be here with you today. I am really glad to be here via New York. Let me share my screen.

So eleven years ago, back in 2010… This American Life was actually the first podcast I ever heard. My friend told me she wanted to listen to it during a long drive after college… and I told her not to put it on. I don’t like news radio, I said, I was thinking of the local traffic and weather reports I heard as a kid. I said, it’s too boring. But she said, trust me, and she was right. That first episode took me behind the walls of Guantanamo Bay prison… seeing an environment and hearing from people I’d never imagined before. Even though I’d loved long form print and documentary journalism for a long time.. I never knew that you could tell those kinds of incredible stories… with audio. I started listening to more episodes and I was shocked by how often I found myself crying or laughing while listening to this content… as opposed to when I’d read or watch something. Sure… I’d read a sad article, and I might be moved for a moment, but then I’d go back to my every day life. But I remember listening to this one episode of Radiolab about Lucy, a chimpanzee… and I remember where I was… I was cleaning my room, hanging clothes up in my closet, but at the end of the story, I literally collapsed to the floor, my mouth hanging open from shock and sadness. I kept having this experience over and over… where I’d find myself bawling listening to the audio… or laughing hysterically. As if I’d just made new friends, as if I was in deserts and jungles with them, and they were whispering their secrets in my ear.

Soon, I was listening to This American life it for hours every single day at my graphic design job… and they thismade immersive audio seem easy. I decided I’d try my hand at it…so I made my own podcast, called Get Me On This American Life. I thought I’d go out into the world and collect sounds, follow interesting people, and ask them to tell me about their lives, and it would all fall into place. But when it came time for me to cut my tape together… my stories often fell flat. Because it turns out making immersive audio is hard work.

For example, here’s a and they made immersive audio seem easy. I decided I’d try my hand at it…so I made my own podcast, called Get Me On This American Life. I thought I’d go out into the world and collect sounds, follow interesting people, and ask them to tell me about their lives, and it would all fall into place. But when it came time for me to cut my tape together… my stories often fell flat. Because it turns out making immersive audio is hard work.

For example, here’s a short clip. And as you listen, I’d like to think about how it makes you feel and where it takes you.

Did you feel like you were captivated by that audio? Do you feel like you were you transported by that audio? [A TRUCK DROVE BY]
To me –no! Not really, right? But that sound didn’t really immerse you right.. Because it was missing context. It was missing story.. I didn’t know where it was, what I was seeing out the window as I’m hearing that sound. [IT WAS NOT A TRUCK] ow, that that was actually audio of the wind of Hurricane Sandy hitting Connecticut… the hurricane that devastated New York in 2012 and caused 60 billion dollars worth of damage.

Okay, now we have context, we have a little bit of story. the newscaster is describing invisibles of what he is seeing.How do you feel listening to that? Did you feel captivated and immersed? it’s still not exactly transportive, right?

Okay, last try. This is a part of a short piece that my colleague Marianne McCune did a couple days after Sandy hit.

Margaret lives on the eighth floor. A family.
The neighbourhood has no power. In the 16 floor building, that means no water either. [Knocks on door] Margaret?
I explained that a friend of a friend of her nephew in their West Indies had sent an email, saying that they could not reach her and they wanted to check if they were okay. ‘Do you want to call your relatives on my phone? ‘ wearing slippers, she says she is fine'” LADY: I’m 87 years old.
‘”She wonders what is happened to the ham in her fridge.” “do you want me to look in the fridge for the ham? the call to her sister in Brooklyn does not go through. but we reach a relative in Harlem.
LADY: I have no phone, no nothing.
LADY: I don’t want to build a shelter .

REPORTER: she says she is fine and surely worries about how to flush the toilet.
LADY: somebody as will be worse off than I.
REPORTER: the stairway going down is black. You see nothing if you don’t have a light. And the people ahead of me don’t.
‘Are you okay? Do you want to use my phone as a flashlight ?”
Oh dear, my phone just died.
And then another light appears below us.
Somebody is lighting up the stairs for us.
How are you guys doing?
Man: bad, everybody is doing bad.
REPORTER: Candy tells me that they just moved here from our homeless shelter in the Bronx.
SHE CRIES: it’s so bad, and we just moved here week ago..

And how do you feel now? That was transportive, right? There wasn’t sound of hurricane winds or anything, but we had something more valuable — high quality storytelling, stakes, and human emotion.

One of superpowers of audio is that it hides people’s faces from you… keeps you from judging them by what they look like…and instead just gives you raw, unfiltered, feelings in sound from. Without video…undistilled by images or by fancy writing… feeling… Desperation or fear or joy…is just pure! In this form, it’s so identifiable, it’s so empathizable, it is what catches you by the throat and really pulls you into what you’re listening to.

There’s a lot of audio that doesn’t quite do this. There are plenty of podcasts today about your favorite football team, or about your favorite TV show, podcasts giving funny advice about sex, or two celebrities chatting together. You’re not really transported when you’re listening to someone talk about the difference between stocks and bonds. That’s not to say these podcasts aren’t great — they can be entertaining, informative. But today I’m going to focus on teaching you how to make truly immersive audio.

And that process of making t… of making sure each story contains sounds, storytelling and feeling… that can be pretty tricky. It can be a lot of work. And the process begins long before you take out your microphone and leave your house. It starts at the very beginning, when you’re just envisioning your story in the first place.

So first, I want to talk about a few key ingredients that this audio truly had going for it that you absolutely need for a transportive story.Conflict, Characters, Consequences, and Action.

So, I want to talk a little about these, and first of, let’s start with Conflict.

I like to see all of my stories as little movies. Even though film is very visual… and radio theoretically is not.. I actually don’t think the two mediums are that different, and I’ll make a few comparisons between the two as we go on today. First and foremost, All the best movies are made out of good conflicts. So why should we expect less of radio stories? I often think before I begin pursuing an idea: would this make a good movie?

So, one time at a conference, I had someone raise their hand and say, I write about restaurants. How can I introduce conflict into my stories? And I said, that’s easy. There’s conflict in every room, population, family, as long as you dig deep enough. For example, when I went to college in Santa Cruz, California — it was a really white town. And an indonesian restaurant opened up one day, and I was so excited because I’m Malaysian.. at first they had all the things I loved — nasi goreng, kangkung belacan… and then I went back two months later, and everything was gone. All they had was chicken curry and fried rice. I said, what happened? And they said, none of the white people ordered anything else, so we had to change our menu. So, this brings up all kinds of questions about authenticity, whether truly authentic food could survive in America, whose fault that was–the restaurant or the consumer? Everything has conflict, and you have to go find that nugget of it.

So let’s go back to Marianne’s story. Obviously, after Hurricane Sandy happened, New York was in chaos. Many people had died. Many homes were destroyed, the subway wasn’t working.. So as a reporter… where could Marianne begin with all of this? She could just walk out with her microphone into the middle of everything and try and get some audio, and maybe she could capture moments of chaos. But, because she’s a really great reporter, she knew it would be richer and more immersive if she could find a very specific conflict and go more deeply into it. So she did her research and tried to find a conflict that was most relevant and interesting to New Yorkers –which was that lots of people without power and water. She also got lucky.. WNYC, the local radio station, got a call from someone saying that they didn’t know what had happened to their elderly grandmother… they couldn’t get a hold of her and didn’t know what to do. So, Marianne immediately thought… That’s a built in conflict. Nobody knew if this woman was okay. They were scared. So Marianne could check on her and see. And see what was happening in the whole building, too.

Which brings us to our next point — Characters.

Marianne met Margaret Maynard. And we’re lucky that she is actually a great character. She’s 87, trying to stay optimistic even though she doesn’t have food or water. One of the best things about that piece was.. She’s got a wonderfully human conversation between Margaret and her best friend..and Marianne recorded that conversation on speakerphone, introducing another character and a relationship, allowing personalities to shine through.

Marianne didn’t really know whether Margaret would be a good character ahead of time, though. And I’d say that almost all of the time, before my interviews, I always want to make try and make sure that I’m finding the best character possible.

So, I want to show you a story idea…

raise your
Now read Slide 11

as you can see, concepts are nowhere near as interesting as PEOPLE and FEELING. Right–this is what you’re supposed to be basing all of your story intuition on.
Ashley Enzo 34, from Ventura California, whose sister Maria died suddenly from a massive stroke at the age of 36 for top Ashley learned about the method from a family friend and was intrigued at first. She became terrified when she learned that his sister had been an organ donor and she’d have to deal with the fact that her sister was missing large chunks of the body that had been taken for donation. At last minute however, she decided to do it with four other sisters, and despite the horror of seeing parts of the assisted missing, they still found the experience incredibly cathartic and meaningful.Right–this is what you’re supposed to be basing all of your story intuition on.

I often get pitches from people saying, oh this is going to be a great story about systemic racism or this is a great story about failures in our medical industry and a lot of the time i’m like, okay that’s great, but who are these people? What are the critical moments of drama that are going to make them seem like real humans? Human feeling is the true ingredient that makes audio transportive and emotive. That takes something from just sound… to something that really grips our attention… that leads our hearts into it, that makes us laugh and cry. You can have the best recording equipment and all the Pro Tools plugins and the best composer and none of that will matter if you don’t have feeling.

Of course to get this level of detail–which–notice–also has conflict and stakes, I’d have to do legwork. Right? I have to go online and see what’s been said about this topic so I can make sure I’m actually saying something new. I’m going to be reaching out to a lot people who were planning on cleaning their loved one’s body, or had done it in the past. And I’d be talking to all of these people because I’d be searching for the best talker.

What is a good talker?
That takes something from just sound… to something that really grips our attention… that leads our hearts into it, that makes us laugh and cry. You can have the best recording equipment and all the Pro Tools plugins and the best composer and none of that will matter if you don’t have feeling.

Of course to get this level of detail–which–notice–also has conflict and stakes, I’d have to do legwork. Right? I have to go online and see what’s been said about this topic so I can make sure I’m actually saying something new. I’m going to be reaching out to a lot people who were planning on cleaning their loved one’s body, or had done it in the past. And I’d be talking to all of these people because I’d be searching for the best talker.

What is a good talker?
Now, I don’t know if you guys know who these guys are… this is Gilbert Godfriend and James Earl Jones AKA the annoying voice of Iago the parrot in Aladdin.. And the voice of Darth Vader. But the timbre of voice… that’s not what I mean by a good talker.

, in order to understand a good talker, first I’ll play you a bad talker. Here’s a not-great talker talking to a reporter named John Nielsen, about avian flu in zoos.
I don’t know about you, but that was only about 15 seconds long but I got bored about 3 seconds in. I’m not being drawn into the story at all, right? So eventually John neilsen tries to push his subject to be better
-I am at the end of the bar, I am really drunk. I want you to make this point and I want you to hold my interest. But I am going to collapse if you don’t give that, and it worked, the interviewee was slightly better the next time. But what I’d do is I’d probably try to get this person on the phone before I went to the zoo, and figure out, okay, this guy is not a great talker, can I talk to someone else on your staff?

One time, when I was calling around doing pre-interviews and trying to find a good talker, I got this guy on the phone, Russel Stookey.

Slide hi, are you Stephanie? You are the first china lady I ever met.He’s… a little too candid to say the least.. But here’s a little more of him.
– they have no character, so they have no guts. And then they lack courage. No balls at all. Anyway. I am old school. If I have something to say, I will say it to your dam faced. That is just the way it is. Do you see the scars on my face? A lot of time people don’t like it and they will punch you. But that is the way you do business in this life: You say it to their face.-
You can tell in 20 seconds that this guy is gonna be a way better interview than the other guy. And why?

Someone who is naturally funny, friendly, has an interesting voice, isn’t afraid of the microphone, who is talkative and unafraid to show off their personality. That all makes up a good talker. Now next, I’m going to play you a GREAET talker. This is Michael Pitre. He was a soldier in Iraq, but when he came back he really didn’t talk much about his time there because civilians never understood. So this is him talking abt the first time he was actually honest with one of his friends about what he saw at war.

-there was an article about the recovery of bodies on the battlefield. So I told them what the procedures were for removing them. The details of those types of procedures are horrible. The things that you have to do sometimes is to should dogs who are coming to carry away pieces of your dead friends. Shoot dogs. I told them that. And it was fine. I realised I could talk to them.
-What was fine?
-What Brock did was so good. Hedid not say anything but he just looked me in the eye until I was done. If you see a monster, you look away. But he just kept looking at me in the eye.
So that music there, a few general notes at the end. I will come back to that later.What’s great about Mike obviously is his vulnerability. His emotion. I saw all of this on the phone w him beforehand. he isn’t whiny, he is self-aware. A great talker is willing to go along with you if you push them to philosophize more on their experience.

I just So when you call a character up ahead of time for a pre-interview If they seem cagey and not self-aware on the phone call, they likely will be cagey and superficial in the interview. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to know someone is the right talker — I knew that Russel and Mike were amazing almost immediately, and had to tell them to shut up so I can interview them in person. Sometimes I’ll have them on the phone for an hour before I figure it out.

So… again.. All of this we’re talking about is happening before we’ve even taken our microphones out.

But this is my last step before heading out into the field. We have to plan for our action.

We have to first make sure that we have real plot points… a beginning, middle end, events, one happening after anothe. Any stories that are more like, “one thing happened and I have a lot of reflections on it” is not a story. This is not to say that reflection isn’t important, but the structure should be event, reflection, event, reflection. The events as WELL as the reflections should be surprising.

Second, we should really make sure that we can make our scenes as alive as possible

After Trump got elected, at TAL we were very curious as to what soldiers thought about their new commander in chief. So obviously I could have just gone to a military base, and stopped random soldiers and asked them, so.. Who did you vote for? What do you think of Trump? But instead, we chose to bring in two soldiers who were best friends, who served in the same unit.. But one of them voted for trump and the other voted for clinton. I took them to a diner, bought them pancakes and whiskey, and had them hash out what they thought would happen next. This is a small excerpt.

the morning after the election,Chad text the time.
-You didn’t have an aneurysm did you?
I am preparing for the end.
-And then I responded, ha ha, I saw this coming.
–I said, so did I. It does not mean that it will be fine.-They both think that under a Republican more money will come into the army. But in 2008, 60,000 members of the Armed Forces were immigrants. Tom is afraid….
-So many soldiers still weren’t American citizens was to
-your fear is that…
If they are immigrants, they will not keep on fighting because they don’t think it is worth it.
As opposed to people born in the United States.
This was better than me just collecting random vox, because, it made it more immersive. And why–because of human feeling. I brought the listener into a relationship… and tension and conflict in that relationship. An argument between friends made this seem much more alive, real and it gave the story stakes. And it became about something bigger than Trump and the military. It became universally understandable, because we all know what it’s like to disagree politically with someone we love. It was also really reassuring because in America there’s this belief that republicans and democrats cannot be friends. That they follow the party line on everything. And both men here made concessions for the other, they both talked things out really calmly and prioritized their relationship first. They set an example. So I’m always thinking, before I go out into the field… what is the live tape I can record? How can I attend a real event, a conflict? If there’s a politician door knocking, I want to follow her door to door. If a son is worried about coming out as trans to his father, I want to be there as he does it for the first time. I want that live human reaction.

And now.. At last, I want to talk about what happens when you’re finally out in the field recording.

So, once we are out there.. We’re getting lots of good sound, right? We’re recording our listener talking. We’re recording their environment. And the whole time, i’m thinking about building visual scenes. Which seems counter-intuitive if we’re thinking about audio. But then again, let’s think back to that first story we heard of hurricane Sandy. Marianne was really careful to put lots of images there..and she wasn’t being strictly professional, sitting down for a proper interview. She was engaging in her subject’s life. She was rustling around in the fridge, digging for her ham.
— That isn’t integral to the story, right? But it was there to build a scene. There were other scenes… The dark stairwell. The toilet she couldn’t flush. We want to build out scenes as much as we can. So If the interviewee is telling me something that happened to them, I’m asking, what did you see? Smell? Hear? Put me in the story. And I ask them questions that will lead me down the story scene by scene, and slow them down constnatly. Wait wait… pause here and tell me how you felt. Okay, And then what happened next? How did you feel? What happened next? If I’m following them around, if they’re a chef, I’m collecting sound of their bacon grease, I’m making jokes with them, if I notice something interesting, I speak it into my microphone for later… I’m seeing a bright pink couch, oh wow, this smells like vanilla. Here’s an example of a story where I write about poor living conditions on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and I’m really trying to fill it out with lush detail… in my recording, but also in my writing, afterward.

My interpreter and I knockon the door. And that smell is foul. Black mould in the cabinets. Clutter everywhere. Roaches, cans of beans. It is 7 PM and we are there during the shift change. All Mexicans, all undocumented. Jose is just waking up for work. He is shy. But he shows Antonio and me where he sleeps. ” There is a bed in the bathroom. ‘ Jose knocks over a jar of change. Are you in the bathtub??? Si. He joked that if you wanted to take a bath, he would just go to his bed.
Here, at any given moment somebody might sing at the top of their lungs. This guy is called Antonio. And he knows the days of the week in English. Well, most of the day. [He sings along to the Black eyed peas.[

Walking in… then the bed on the bathtub… then the karaoke.. It’s like being in a Film. The camera changes scenes. What do we see?
So in this next piece, Sean Cole had to report on something so, so boring for Marketplace — a U.S. show about money. And he was writing about how… since the price of food was going up… companies were saving money by changing the packaging. Like the little dimple in the bottom of a jar of peanut butter? They’d make it deeper to provide less product but keep the same price. And so Sean talked to a pricing consultant about it…

Yes, it is deceptive. I think it would even be more deceptive if you did not have the level playing field.
This is the supermarket down the road of his office. Total cereal, that is his brand. This box is really thin. But the face of the box looks as wide as always. The smaller ones are now cheaper, they say. And they call this old news. And the famous dent in the Skippy jar. We got picked out of the store.
Do you mind if Ibuy these?
So I went to the checkout counter with two boxes and a jar of Skippy. It cost me way more than I thought. All the money in my wallet. Ruby says this proves the point.
-You will remember that this cost you more than you expected.But the package sizes, that will continue to fade.
-I am not so sure.I talk to the people in the parking lot. They were furious.
You know about this?
Of course we do!
It isdeceptive! They don’t tell you that they will charge you more for the same or even less! They make you find out for yourself. And it is even harder to scrape out of the bottom with the indented thing! First he brought the pricing consultant… but didn’t just interview him in the office… he dragged him out into the world. And then he actually bought some of these products and hosted a show and tell out in the parking lot, drawing customers to come over and talk to him!

So one thing I really want you to notice, too, about all of these things I’ve played so far–the narrator has no fear of being a part of the story. They’re recording their interactions with the people they’re talking to. Because they’re also being human. They’re joking, they’re laughing, they’re expressing concern, they’re recording all of that, and they’re putting it on display. Because when you are making a story drawing people into human connections.. YOU are inherently part of that human connection, too. We’re seeing this through your lens, so you can’t pretend you’re not there. You should be acting the role of everyman and teasing out humanity from your real conversations.

So, finally, now we can get to some of the things we can do in post-production to make our story immersive.

First, let’s talk about writing.

There are as many ways of being an audio writer as there are of being a writer. Because every radio story begins as a script, of course.
When I first came into audio, I was afraid of writing too much. I wanted to let my subjects speak for themselves. But I quickly learned that artful writing can punch up a story, and make it shine. As we heard in previous examples, it can help you set up scenes. Can help you be descriptive in showcasing what a person looks like, what their space is like.

Here is one example of a great writer, nancy Updike, using writing to set up the stakes at the very beginning of her story.
This story is like one of those Russian dolls were there is always a smaller one inside. The smallest doll, the core of the drama, is fact that chartered city grew up another sissy than his father. He was gay. Everything around bigger and bigger. At the beginning of this story, his parents are married and a love. Both prepared to live wherever just to be together. At the end of the story they still may be in love but they are divorced and an ocean apart and speaking. The son is caring for his mother the way a mother might. he helps her take a shower. So she might not fall. She is about five foot tall, naked, fragile -looking and very pale. He stressed in jeans and he knows they will be very wet.
‘Let me wash under it.”
-Wasn’t it hard the first time he gave you a shower?
MOTHER: I was embarrassed at first.
He gets the washcloth in under her breasts. it is so intimate, it is hard to watch. As he gets her out of the shower and dries her off, there is another moment that is even more stirring. He wipes her butt for her with a baby wipe.

Again, so visual, with the Russian Dolls. It allows us to start the story in the middle instead of the very beginning, and immediately be invested in what the story is going to be about.

I once produced a story about people with HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. People with HSAM have incredible memories–they can remember specific details about every single day of their lives. Here’s me interviewing one guy with HSAM.
When weather Oscars in 1999?
-Sunday. Whoopi Goldberg hosted them..
— Which episode is the of where Rachel quit?
– I like the first few seasons more than others. So I think it was season three of Friends. December 12 96?
-oh my god yes!
I thought this was a great story, but nobody liked my drafts. They thought that they showed a fun party trick, but not much more than that. Still, I kept pitching the story over and over and finally an editor asked me–why? Why did I want to do this boring story so badly? And I said, well, because I used to be obsessive about trying to preserve my own memories, and have a better memory. And doing this story.. Helped me understand the benefits of forgetting. Because people with HSAM suffer from the burden of their memories.
WOMAN: It did not paralyse me until my husband died. His death has really paralysed me.
-How was it paralysing?
WOMAN: because I will never ever ever forget that.
-Of course, no one forgets their spouse dying, but for Jill it’s different.

And my editor immediately said, yes, yes–okay. This is how you have to start the story. I pushed against it at first, I don’t want to write about myself in these people’s stories. But he said, no — You have to help us understand why this is so interesting to you, by explaining your own experience. I had to explain why this story made ME feel something significant. So I began my piece like this.

I had several largeunwieldy boxes in my apartment but I never open them. Notebooks, hard drives, photo drives, tapes. Full of all my memories. Journals that I wrote when I was five years old. There are months of my life where I just disappeared into an abyss of forgetfulness, that is horrifying to me.

To hold onto the past, a couple of times a month I will sit at my kitchen table and I will start recording these long soliloquies about whatever. Here is one actual recording from 2014, 11 PM.
-A sixpack of corona, 11 dollars. And a four pack of cans of corona cans, nine dollars. I might as well by the sixpack.
-That is going to be helpful…! My obsession with my ever fleeting memory…. I was excited when I heard about this condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.
And my editor was right. The story was way better that way. I don’t think it’s always appropriate… or even appropriate most of the time to insert yourself in this way. Definitely not if you’re a white reporter covering black lives matter.. Or a man covering abortion… but sometimes if you want to universalize a story.. Make it a little more relatable… a little creative editorializing can help.

So… once you have your piece all written.. Laid out. Your final step is to add music and scoring.

I once had a boss that would tell these crazy, outlandish stories, so I added crazy, outlandish sound effects and music to them.. Sound effects that could take a wild tall tale… and make it somehow feel more real. This is a little clip from one of the pieces I soundscaped most heavily.

Okay, as a kid, my church said that Jesus was going to get here and the true believers will rise up, meet him in the sky and we would have a thousand years or so where we were just chill and everyone else would get up to speed. And during these thousand years, you could do anything and build anything you wanted. So when I got to church summer camp, the first assignment was to design a house of this wonderful world of tomorrow. And price would be no object. So first the name. I called my place the Crystal Tower. Cut from giant crystals like a diamond. And I cut it on the side of a cliff and it sought after cloud level. It soared up to the cloud level. And you could take an elevator all the way down to the beach. And if you did not want to play in the sand that they… Several thousand feet, to the floor of the ocean and you could [OCEAN SOUNDS] luxury on each and every turn , even Jesus himself would show up some time to enjoy the facilities. I was putting the finishing touches on my design. And my buddy said I was done.
Here’s another piece of amazing immersive fiction, called Audio Smut by Kaitlin Prest. I love how it incorporates real world sound effects.. Like her being in a subway station… but also incorporating music that really swells depending on how her subject is feeling. It’s like magical realism.
-Saturday. It is late. I have two songs on my phone and I am listening to them over and over again. The straps of my summer dress are slipping from my shoulders. I am playing my favourite subway waiting game. My eyes follow each person waiting here. Scanning to see if my heart jumps. To see if there is someone who will meet my gaze. Somebody I would contemplate talking to. There is a girl with amber hair and a pink lacy dress. She is waiting, does not look up.
Clean cut drunk guy. [TAPPING] is he okay? I look up.
A girl with ripped T-shirt. [HEARTBEAT]
A man with a scrappy T-shirt, he looks.He looks over. [SHE SIGHS] no prospects.
And.. compare the scoring on these… to the scoring when Michael Pitre was talking about having to shoot dogs… my main tip for any piece of audio is that generally, the sillier it is, the more you can do with it, the more emotional it is, the more you have to dial it back.… When you have someone confessing something so intimate, you really want it to feel bare. Like you’re just quietly sitting with them, holding your hand. When you go really heavy on the sappy stuff, the sound effects, it actually takes you out of the story instead of pulling you in. It makes you feel like it’s produced and cheesy, like a reality TV show, instead of something real. So if I do score sad things at all, I’ll try to do something very bare and atmospheric, something you would barely even notice.

One tip that I have for scoring is that I’ll often just spend a couple of hours listening to the music I have available and categorizing it… I’ll say it’s driving, or happy, or sad, and I’ll just put it all on a giant google doc. Then, when I’m actually looking for music I can type in key words like bare, or sad, and it’ll automatically pull up songs for me, which makes the scoring process so much faster.

So that’s pretty much all the tips I’ve got, condensed in a little hour. I will finish up today by saying that making transportive audio… is, essentially, harnessing the power of empathy.

I will say that often when I read facts and figures about the plight of immigrants.. Or intersex people… or people with cancer… it’s horrific, but it’s cold. I might sign a petition if you hound me about it. But in order to affect change.. Affect policy… in order to really get people off their comfortable butts and go out in the street, to protest, to fight, to be rageful and loving, to care for others… you have to get your audience to truly put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

If you can truly draw your audience into somebody else’s world for an hour… if you can make them feel for them, you can make them fight for them. So follow the feeling, and your stories can change the world.

Thank you so much for listening today, and good luck with the stories you tell! I can’t wait ot hear them.
I think we have a couple of minutes for questions?
-We have all the time. We have all the time in the world.
-It’s really hard to hear you.
-I am sorry.
is it better now though?
-yes, I can make out what you are saying.
-We have all the time in the world. So maybe somebody has a question already? Over here?
Hello, what is your name?
-my name is Julie. HI. There was a great talk. Thank you very much. I heard one of the stories, I think this is kind of like evidence of how well this works. I immediately remembered when you started talking about the migrant workers and the guy in the bathtub. That was a detail that really worked well and it stuck with me. And I was wondering, practically. I am listening back to it. So many super small details. The Corona beers on the floor. When you are there… I am assuming that you are not saying this to everyone who is around you. But do you think, this is something I will use for narration?
–I will only do that if it is appropriate to mumble something: I smell gassy smell in the air. And I also take pictures so I can remember to describe it afterwards. Just on my phone. And also, a lot of times, right after I am done reporting and I am back in my hotel room or whatever, I will make some quick notes on my computer, how it felt like or looked like.

was I that thorough.
-Hi. I was wondering if there were things that you learned in This American Life.. The most amazing show ever. But also very structured. Certain tricks to the way that you tell stories. Are there things that you learned at This American Life that you would like to unlearn, to do your own thing?
-I think that I was really lucky that I did not… That I had another job before This American Life. Because I did work at Snap Judgement for four years before that. I had pretty much unlimited creative freedom there. Because we were all learning together. My boss and everything. It was all their first podcast as well. so I think there were a lot of things there that I was carrying two This American Life and maybe fighting for. and sometimes maybe I tried to preserve my own work there.

My biggest complaint maybe is thatThis American Life once all of the readers, when you are reading the narration, to have a very controlled and monotone voice when you are reading. I don’t believe in that. They always needed to calm me down. My voice would go up and down. But they said, you have to kill it. Read it like a monotone voice. That is something… I don’t know if I had to unlearn it because I hated it in the first place. But I think, sometimes… What constitutes a story in This American Life sometimes can be very rigid. We would all pitch stories, every two weeks. We would each pitch 2 stories. So we would have maybe 30 or 40 stories. and maybe five would make it onto our list of stories. And maybe two of them would make it on-air. Which, I do enjoy post- This American Life, to pursue more lower stakes stories that are fun. I know that they have the highest, most rigourous framework in the industry. And sometimes you just want to play around a little bit.
-Thanks so much.
-Thanks for your good question.
Hi, Stephanie. This is John.
-Can you go really close up to the microphone?
-Do you hear me? Yes. I would like to elaborate a little bit more about scripting question that was just asked. I am not quite sure where it was, but a few months ago I read an article about some kind of trend. I don’t know if it was also the case with This American Life, it could be. And it consisted of somewhat of a trend that while scripting, the producer or the narrator, so to speak, was trying to get free from the paper and they would even be more talkative to the producer in front of them…, In regards as opposed to making it sound like you are reading a script and more going for talkative kind of way. For instance, that it would be more, it would sound like you were really talking to the listener instead of somebody listening to somebody reading a script. Can you identify with this kind of listening to the listener? Or do you stick to the script?
-I think This American Life does not do this but Radiolab does.

In terms of setting up the stakes of the story, I think that the two elements that I played you, they would do that, in talking to each other or to the hosts. So what happens is, they will bring me as a reporter into the room with the two hosts. And they will say, even if the hosts already know what the story is going to be: Re-pitch this to their host and say what you like about the story and what is important and what you feel about it. So I will do that for a little while. That is really controlled as well. The hosts are often like: Okay, you did not say that right, go back. And that can be an hour and then we cut it down to 5 minutes. And a lot of actual… It winds up being a kind of combination between scripting and operating off-the-cuff. There will be a specific outline of all the things that we will need to cover. And then we will riff off of it casually for a while. I think that can be a great way of doing things. I do think that if you are doing a pretty complex piece, that needs to be reported, you do need to script it out. And so even those shows have accommodation where they do have parts of it that are completely scripted out, but the reporter will just read. I would have to see it happen in a way that is completely just conversational. I am not sure.
-That is the word I was looking for.Conversational. The host approach. I think, as soon as I started listening to podcasts, I made the distinction: He is reading the script. As opposed to summary talking to me about the story and not reading the script per se. I felt immediately more compelled to listen in. Because somebody was talking to me.
-I think that there are people who are very good at reading too, and they can make it seem more conversational like it is off-the-cuff..
it is important to be ableto write conversationally. I tried to make my text sound natural and normal. I don’t know if you guys have the transcript up. Did you have the transcript up for my talk? So obviously, I wrote that all. I tried to make it as conversational as possible.
-Okay. Thanks for
Your knowledge.-Sure.

-my name is Tracey stop I am working on a new podcast. I am interesting in the scripting process. I understand there are two schools in this. One school says that you should write an entire script beforehand, and then fill it in as you go. But my experience is, when I have gone out into the field, I have an idea what I am looking for, but then everything is always different than I thought it would be. So what is the point of making a script beforehand, can I just not concentrate on having a good idea of what I am looking for and what kind of speakers and narrative, and then write the script want I have got it all?
-I’m not aware of the school of writing an entire script before you go. Is that an outline?
-Yes, a plan.
-A strict plan? okay.Not so much scripting then but just planning out the story. I try to plan out as much as you can before you go to the story. Of course there will be surprises. People are surprising. I will throw you off course and there will be delightful little twists and turns. But I try even to bake that into the plan. When I am on the phone before I interview summary, I will have them told me the whole plot of the story. So I know exactly what the plot points are. And then I know: I have to get all of these plot points when I am telling the story. And if I am not on the phone with them, I don’t necessarily know what their feelings are about those things. So I will investigate that in the interview. What their feelings are. Those feelings can sometimes be surprising. They might take the story in another direction but I should know at the very beginning generally what the end is going to be. That being said… There is baked in space for things to change. Even during the actual script writing process. The drafts change considerably from a first draft to 1/5 draft, depending on what thinking actually think is interesting for maybe it does not become a story about this relationship but it becomes story about another relationship. For example the two soldiers. I knew that they were close. And I knew that they could have a political discussion that was tactful.So they wound up talking about immigration. They talked about money and who would be most likely to send them to war.but I know the framework of their relationship would keep things steady. So I wrote a structure what I could plan for and then I would let myself be surprised in the meantime.
-Thank you.

Hi. You said before that you have a meeting with a pitch of 40 stories. Of This American Life. and only five make it through.what makes This American Life story a good story?
– good question. Basically everything I went through in the talk . One of the talkers…
A picture talk could be 150pages. Trying to give a personality to the characters. so do you have a good conflict, do you have good characters? Is this something you have heard a lot about before? We try to stay away of the stories. There are a lot of stories, let’s say immigration for example. So many stories about immigrants crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. And coyotes and how hard the journey is. And so, for that story to make it on This American Life, it would need to be really surprising and different. And it is really hard to find stories that are surprising and different. And I think a lot of it, a lot of the pitch process was looking at stories and thinking, this is interesting, but what is the slight angle or sides of the we can get into? Something that is new and that people will actually learn something from, rather than just taking old stories that people have heard a million times before and rehashing them.
-So the research is pretty big before the pitch even?
-Yes, it will take months sometimes.
-Hi, I have a question. You talked about the monotone voice over in This American Life. I have a question about that. When I listen to This American Life, it does sound immersive and conversational, but now that you said that I was thinking: Yes, it is kind of monotone.
-They all sound like Ira. That is because he is directing people to sound like him . He is conversational but it is a very narrow form of conversational
-how can you use your tone of voice?
– it takes a lot of practice and it takes a lot of direction. The best thing to do is to have somebody in the room tracking you. Rather than just doing it by yourself. I have been able to do some of that to this degree because I have been doing it for so many years. The trick is to sound conversational, but also not sound theatrical. So you want to sound as much as like you were talking this dory to a friend as much as possible. This is what we do in the scripting process actually. Before you start writing your piece. You can tell your friend or your editor what your story is and they might record you. And you might take, not the actual recording, but take the words that you are using and use those words to write in more simple terms. Sometimes your brain can think in complex I think it really does become acting in a performance, but it is learning to be very subtle, friendly actor. And that takes a lot of time.
-Thank you.
there was something that you said in an earlier answer that raises another question. Because you said, I found it surprising that you knew beforehand, talking on the phone, all the plot points. How then, can you make a story where you are in it yourself, and be surprised by what you hear? To have an authentic response to what you hear in the story, if it is not really new to you. Is that subtle acting ?
-I go much more in depth in my interviews than I do in my pre-interviews. And if you have a great story, you can talk about it for hours. I think I am not often surprised by the basic plot points, but I pretend that I am. That is just part of it. They will say, and then I died. And I came back to life. And I will say: Oh my God, what was that like? Even though we already talked about this and we all know what the deal is. I think it really is that level of me… Before I am on the phone I will ask what happened, what happened, what happened. And when I am in the studio with them and I ask them: What happened, what did you feel at that exact moment? And that part of, how did you feel, that is where the connection and intimacy and vulnerability comes out most of the time.
-I trynot to do three interviews. Or I stop if I don’t think people are good. In order not to have to repeat something, because in my experience, if I go all the way in the preinterview, the preinterview will be so much better than the second take, so to speak.
-That happens at times but generally it has not been my experience. If you’re on the phone with somebody, versus when you are really speaking to somebody face-to-face, and then questioning them again, I think people are very happy to talk to you when you seem genuinely invested. Sometimes, when people start to get emotional on the phone with me, I might hold off. I think with Michael Pitri specifically, he had already written about his experience a little bit. And I maybe talk to him on the phone for 10 minutes. And I knew he was so emotional and great that I cut him off. But I would say, more often than not, I do not do that. Because again, I don’t know how to do a pitch if I don’t know the plot points.
-Hi.. my name is Marieke.
– Hi, I can really hear you.
-That”s better.
-I was wondering, does telling non-great talkers, that they cannot be on an episode, does that play a role in your experience, in your work?
-You mentioned that you talk to a lot of people and…
-Not great talkers? Ah. And your question is?
If it affects how it experiences your job.
You know, I had an experiencerecently producing something. Where I showed up and I really made a mistake. I thought that a person was a much better talker beforehand than she was in person. And when I… Or maybe she was just looser on the phone. And maybe she was a bit terrified in cagey in person. I had to take her almost entirely out of the story. I only gave her one or two clips. I almost feel worse when I say yes to somebody was not a good talker and I cannot portray them well. Or if I have to take them out of the story because they are not sounding vulnerable with me. I don’t know I feel necessarily guilty about it when I am in the pre-interview process. It just won’t work. And sometimes, I also think that I am quite immune to it. Because I have done thousands of preinterview at this point. That have not worked. So, no, I think it is okay, haha.
-Then, the thousand and thousands of preinterviews that don’t work for you, how does that feel for you?
– it’s part of the work. It has been part of the job from inception. I learned very quickly that rejection was part of this. And that rejection could not necessarily be taken personally. Sometimes it is personal. Sometimes you work at a place and you think: hm, everybody who is judging my pictures here is white. They keep not taking any of my pitches about Asian people. But a lot of times, when they give me a legitimate and good answer why something is not going to work, I am like: That seems totally fair. And I think, in this job, you have disappointment and rejection almost every day. So it becomes a science almost. And I have learned, especially with pitches, when I get no, just: Okay, that’s right. And you can also get rejection from a pitch from something that might not have anything to do with you, it might not have anything to do with the story. They may already have an immigration story that week. So they cannot use yours. So they already said yes to this other person and they have been working with them for three weeks. You can never tell what is on somebody’s mind. As somebody who is also been on the other side, I have said no to lots of pitches myself. It is not easy, it is not personal.

-So I encourage you guys if you are pitching to people, don’t let the no’s get you down. And if five people say no, make a new thing. It is okay.

and if you ever pitch something to This American Life and it gets rejected, it’s nothing special…
-I think this is the last chance for questions.
I think people are tired. It is 1030 almost.
-It is late for you guys.
–Thank you so much for your great talk. Stephanie Foo, people!
-Thank you so much for having me.
-Any news on a passport yet? it can take up to half a year?
We will try to get you here next year.
-We really want to have you now.
We really want to hug you now!
-That would be really great! I wish I could do that too.
Usually I would stick around and touch everybody afterwards.
-Sean is going to a music festival tomorrow with somebody he met here today!
-That is a very Sean thing to do!
-And you also make the festival come full-circle. Even though we still have two days to go. I think we will close off the Amsterdam event.
-Have a wonderful rest of the festival. And I hope you get to listen to so much inspiring stuff. Bye!!

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.
Thank you for listening to this episode, and thanks to the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder for composing this year’s festival tune. Please consider donating to the Podcastnetwerk, you con find out how through the shownotes.