I was originally drawn to creating radio because of my inherent trust in voices. Sound is an incredibly intimate medium, and that intimacy sometimes allows me to entertain the illusion that radio stories are happening in real time. The storytelling becomes a conversation. I too wanted to make something that sounded trustworthy and intimate. But above all, it had to sound “natural.”
It appeared simple enough, but proved much more difficult than I expected. I rewrote my first real piece over a dozen times. In each draft, I delicately tweaked my narration to make it sound more like that idyllic and ever-elusive “conversation.” And yet, even after I felt I had perfected every word, when I went in to record, the best takes were the ones when I didn’t look at the page and ad-libbed slightly.
I knew that I was trying to cultivate a conversational tone in my piece. What I didn’t understand was that there is an “art” to sounding natural on the radio, which involves a mix of preparation, spontaneity, and revision. No podcast that I know of has mastered this art so completely as The Truth. The Truth podcast episodes are, as the bumper will tell you, “movies for your ears.” Each one tells a fictional story. There’s no narrator, little to no host introduction. Just voices, music, and sound-effects, interacting in movie-esque scenes. Most of their stories have a writer, but are developed collaboratively. The dialogue, instead of being fully scripted, is improvised by the actors. Finally, through an extensive labor of love, the hours of improvised tape are distilled into a genuine-sounding and succinct story, usually between seven and twenty minutes long.
The first 90 seconds of one of my favorite stories by The Truth, "Biological Clock", takes place in a waiting room. It begins with a rather banal conversation between a husband and wife who are hoping to conceive. The wife comments on the lateness of the doctor; the husband makes a few jokes and she laughs good-naturedly. And yet, even though it’s arguably the least exciting part of the story, this first minute of dialogue is my favorite part of the piece. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes it so compelling: the jokes are just odd enough, the laughter overlaps just so, the interjections come after just the right amount of pause. Whatever the combination, it creates that feeling of intimacy. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a real-time conversation.
I was curious to understand what The Truth’s creative process really looked like. Did they improvise a scene three times before it sounded natural? Thirty three times? What was the scripted/improvised ratio, really? Was that conversational timing created in the improvisation or fabricated in the editing process?
Thankfully, two of the producers, Ed Herbstman and Jonathan Mitchell, gave me some insight in an episode called "Domestic Violins". The piece documents an argumentative couple trying to host violin auditions for an orchestra, and it isn’t my favorite. However, the second half of the episode (starting at 8:01) provides some valuable details about how the story in the first half was created. Here’s a summary of their process:
1. Brainstorming: This was a long and troublesome process. They sat with about 20 people of varying levels of experience (normally, it’s only four people who know each other very well) to discuss possible plot lines. Normally a writer brings in an idea, but here they had a lot of people with conflicting concepts, so ultimately this step became about how to link the best ideas together.
2. Improvisation: This was the biggest “chunk.” They spent two of the four days of the conference making the actors improvise the same scenes over and over again. The length didn’t surprise me, but the diligence did.
3. Editing: This is where the magic happens. From five minutes of tape, they claimed, they might only get four or five good words or phrases. That’s right: words and phrases. I had been picturing that you might take 20 or 30 seconds from each take. All of those overlapping laughs and awkward jokes that I had so loved in "Biological Clock" were, in reality, the result of dozens of different takes strung together into coherent sentences!
In the end, the process sounded much like the non-fiction I normally work on - except instead of sifting through of hours of improvisation, I normally sift through hours of interviews. By some ironic rule of radio, the most carefully manipulated conversations often sound the most natural.
So next time you’re crafting a piece, fictional or otherwise, I have three main suggestions. First, try not to get frustrated if you have to record your narration/dialogue 33 times. If it still doesn’t feel right, record a 34th time! You never know which take will have that perfect “nugget” of sound. Second, record everything. Everything! It’s much harder to recreate a moment of insight you didn’t record than to delete an awkward-sounding comment you did. And finally, when you do edit, don’t be afraid to mix and match across takes. As long as the sound quality is consistent, your patchwork narration should sound flawless if sewn together properly.
Once all is said and done, sit back and listen to the final product. Does it mimic a real conversation? And, perhaps more importantly, is it a conversation you’d like to eavesdrop?
"Biological Clock" (15:32) Written by Ira Gamerman. Produced and directed by Jonathan Mitchell.
"Domestic Violins" (15:30) was created at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio Beyond Radio conference in Sydney, Australia. Produced by Ed Herbstman and Jonathan Mitchell.