Writing for radio is much like writing for the stage. The decisions you have to make are very similar. You have to set a scene, develop characters, and create a strong narrative arc. The format is also quite similar. You need to indicate ‘entrances’ and ‘exits,’ music breaks, and the like.
As a playwright, you would have a variety of visual tools to add weight to the events on stage, like costumes, a set, and blocking. The spotlight, for example, is a great way to amplify the important elements of a scene. But in radio, all of your dramatic queues must exist in the realm of sound. What is the audio equivalent to a bright beam of light, focused on the speaker centerstage?
Let’s call it the sonic spotlight.
The producers of This American Life have mastered the spotlight effect. Ira Glass has written about it in TAL’s comic book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide. Listening to their shows, I have probably heard it at least twenty times. But it’s become such a popular audio maneuver, that these days you hear it on other shows too. Recently I found it on a Radiolab’s 23 Weeks 6 Days. Before we get to the spotlight, though, let me give you a brief synopsis of this super, super story.
This is a first for Radiolab, where we spend the entire hour on a single story. Our two main characters, Kelley and Tom, have a daughter who was born at 23 weeks and 6 days, just on the edge of being ‘viable,’ or capable of living outside the womb. When their daughter, Juniper, is first born, Kelley and Tom are not sure whether she will make it, or whether it is ethical for them to take ‘extraordinary measures’ to save her life. In this hour, we are walked through the ups and downs involved in (... spoiler alert) keeping Juniper alive.
Here’s how the sonic spotlight works. Our example starts at 6:38. Kelley has gone into premature labor. Atonal, tension-building sound drifts underneath Kelley and Tom’s voices while they recount her cramping, bleeding, and journey to the hospital. As listeners, we grow accustomed to the ambient sound, to the point where we kind of expect it. But suddenly, the sound drops (7:11).
The ambient sound (or music, in most cases) dropping is equivalent to the lights on stage dimming down. This is our cue to listen in, that an important moment is pending, a spotlight on the speakers. Because the sound is gone, Kelley and Tom’s voices sound very close and immediate. The spotlight is on them, and they use it to say something really important.
The doctors aren’t able to stop Kelley’s bleeding, and her life is in jeopardy. Kelley grabs Tom’s arm, and says ‘Don’t let me die.’ We can hear in Tom’s voice that he is scared, and Kelley is sure that their baby is dead. Then all of a sudden... the baby’s heartbeat appears in our headphones, accompanied by another layer of slowly rising ambient sound. This feels like the lights coming back up on stage. We relax, because the audio insinuates that the baby is still alive, and Kelley is going to be okay.
Easy, potent. Take away the extra sounds (or music) when your speaker says something important. Then when your weighty moment has passed, bring it back up. We will listen closely in the interim.
23 Weeks 6 Days
Produced by Radiolab in April 2013
Also, thanks to Jonah Willihnganz for the stage metaphor, which is pulled from his "Your American Life" course syllabus, taught at Stanford last year. This syllabus is a treasure, and has provided the inspiration for several of my blogposts. If you are a Stanford student, I highly recommend you scour explore-courses for Jonah's classes.