Let’s start with something that’s tremendously obvious. One thing you can do in audio that you can’t do in print is use recorded sound. But producers don’t record sounds for stories just because they can - they do it because a good set of field recordings can turn a regular story into a veritable adventure. My friend Brett Ascarelli, reporter for Radio Sweden, is great at using field recordings to transport her listeners to new places.
In Sweden they get a lot of snow. One of the biggest concerns in cities like Stockholm is that icicles and chunks of ice could fall off rooftops and land on people's heads - accidents that can prove fatal. During a heavy winter, building owners call in special teams that clear ice and snow from the rooftops.
Have you ever been on the slanted, slippery roof of a four-storey building to scrape ice and shovel snow? No? Give Ascarelli five and a half minutes of your time; she’ll take you there. The in-scene sound in this piece is so crisp that you might be able to hear how cold it is up there. When I listened to Ascarelli’s nervous voice, I got that fluttery feeling of looking down from such a height.
Notice the excellent quality of these recordings. Ascarelli’s on-location voice is crystal clear. The voices of the men she interviews have depth and texture. You can clearly pick out a telephone ringing in somebody’s pocket. This is at least in part due to the quality microphone that Radio Sweden likely has on hand, but it’s also due to Ascarelli’s skill in handling her equipment.
Beginning radio producers tend to be shy with their microphones, holding them somewhere unobtrusive, attempting to be discreet. But for the best quality tape, you must shed such microphone phobia and get nice and cozy with the source of your sound. When I listen to this piece, I can see Ascarelli’s microphone quickly jutting back and forth between the space directly in front of her interviewee’s mouth and her own.
While you’re listening, try to imagine this story without the field recordings. If Ascarellis rooftop adventure were solely recalled in the studio, this story just wouldn’t have the same effect. You wouldn’t be able to hear the empty sky above your head, or feel how far you are above the ground.
This story will make you want to go on an adventure. When you do, take your microphone with you, and hold it close.
Brett Ascarelli, 'We Don’t Answer on the Roof'
Produced in March 2011 for Sveriges Radio International, Stockholm, Sweden
5 min 33 sec
Also check out her story about checking gravestones and this one from the Venice Biennale.