“Radio Rocks—the Rest of the Story”
By Tom Wilmer
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Caveat: the following is a compilation of my personal, subjective experiences–and philosophy of radio production. I am sure there are other producers who might take issue with certain comments or perspectives… so remember that this merely one person’s personal journey.
For example, I prefer to say at the beginning of a show…”please join us as we explore….” My thought is that is a most inviting form of welcome—I think it makes the listener feel welcomed in to the circle of casual conversation. Whereas my supervisor at KCBX prefers that I say, “Please join me as I…” And KRML in Carmel asked that I script a stock intro that includes my name and that I say “I” as an integral part of the travel show Brand. Their intent is to create a show that will eventually be syndicated and thus a Personality Brand is an integral aspect of their model.
The following are my class presentation notes for use in Ginny Prior’s St. Mary’s College class on audio-travel scripting, field production, style, and repurposing for YouTube audio-visual segments:
My philosophy of audio recording/production is predicated maximizing the auditory experience. The only thing you have going for you with radio is “sound”. Keep your ears fine-tuned and your eyes closed.
Why shut out the sounds of the world when talking about the world?
I have never done a phone interview, and in 23 years I have only done a handful of interviews recorded in the studio. If a travel expert is coming through the area and I have the opportunity to interview them about Helsinki, Paris, Cuba, or wherever, I will take them downtown, or by the seashore, and we’ll tape the interview with ambient atmosphere, rather than booking a studio and cutting out the sounds of the world.
Marshall McCluhan coined the term: Hot Medium vs. Cool Medium
Hot Media is media that is ready-made– it requires very little participation from the media consumer. Action movies are hot media, as little is left to the imagination—with a beginning, middle, and end.
By contrast, Cold Media requires a certain level of participation by the listener.
a. You cannot “see” with radio. But if you maximize the auditory experience, the shared sounds will stimulate a brilliant range of visual images in the mind of the listener.
b. Television is a lazy medium. It sees for you and provides the visual experience. Therefore your mind does not have to engage and go to work crafting an imagined scene or faces.
c. Radio requires active mental participation. The listener’s mind is busy painting pictures and gathering relative images from your own past experiences.
As a radio “Host” unless the theme is “personality” driven, it’s Not About You!
You are the facilitator, the cat herder
Listeners tune in to learn from your guest. They are not really that interested in your own expertise on a particular subject. I try not to do too much advance research about my guest or area of expertise. I believe that by coming in to the conversation as someone who knows a little about the subject, and yet with a great curiosity creates camaraderie with the audience—we are learning and discovering together.
Be inquisitive–rather than a sparring partner
I will ask questions similar to what the audience is curious to learn, as I know little more, or less, about the subject than they do. I find myself being off-put by a host who rattles on about their own insights about the guest’s area of expertise. More than once I have found myself yelling at the radio…”Shut up and let your guest speak—it’s not about you.” Do not get me wrong, you must do your homework ahead of time, but there definitely is a downside to knowing too much.
It is your job to keep the flow going–to add an auditory counterbalance: It is often tough to listen to one voice non-stop for fifteen minutes, or more, no matter how engaging, without a periodic auditory break. One option–if your subject motored on too long– is to break the interview at logical transition points. Pot up some actuality under-bed and script a voice-over lead in/entrée to the upcoming sub-theme of the interview. I sometimes merely do a short music intrerlude.
Do not state in a bridge/segue what your guest is going to subsequently talk about in a manner that merely pre-states exactly what they are going to say…add an additional dimension, or added fact (some cool stat they might have forgotten to mention in the interview, for example) that will serve to add a new dimension and enhance the subject’s upcoming commentary.
Capturing Actuality/Ambient Bed:
Basic Rule: Always try and capture more actuality/ambient bed sounds than you think you might need. Also known as “Sound Bed, Natural Sound (Natsot), Sound Bite, Sound-on-tape (SOT), etc. I try to catch a few minutes of environmental background sound…the sounds of the cranes on a dock, sidewalk sounds, lobby sounds, cable cars with traffic…all depending.
Who knows, you might wish to use the ambient bed throughout the entire segment. This is invaluable when conditions require you to record your interview in a hard-surface sterile environment. Capturing ample actuality (sounds of the sidewalk for example) provides you with more to select from—street sounds, a fire truck or motorcycle roaring by might provide the ideal sound bite. You can never capture too much actuality…also if you turn off your recorder too soon, you’ll likely miss an OMG audio-moment.
a. Keep your ears peeled for specific sounds that might serve as an auditory metaphor for your story line. Sounds can be used as a punchy/attention grabbing entrée: e.g. Church bells chiming, ferry boat horn-blast, airplane fly-by, monkey chatter, etc.
b. You can use the audio sound bite as the first sound you here in your show. Pot down the sound and then bring in your scripted introduction as the entrée fades away or continues to play softly underneath. This is the textbook entrée to a typical feature on All Things Considered.
c. Actuality tracks allow you to capture the “sense of being on location” with the benefit of subsequently scripting your voice-over track and laying it down after returning to the studio (or home) and fine-tuning and researching your final script.
Backing in to your subject: Can’t find, or don’t have that pithy “NPR Moment” sound bite?
d. Exactly like crafting a printed piece—if all else fails, search for the most attention grabbing statement made by your subject. Cut and paste the statement/comment and position it as the very first thing the listener hears—maybe combined with the actuality location-sound. This will, ideally, pique listeners’ attention, and stimulates curiosity to stay tuned to find out more. Then transition with a music lead-in, or immediately introduce your guest and subject via a scripted voice-over. Then segue back into the taped interview (I often use music as a second bridge between the scripted voice-over and the main body of content.
e. Alternately, if the stars are aligned at time of the field recording, the process is simplified and you will be able to use your field-recorded intro and just run with it. Sometimes, you will be in the midst of an environment that provides a ready made ambient bed…For example, I was recording a Texas, Blue Bell Ice Cream factory interview on location with machinery whirring… It started with the machinery whirring in the background as I introduced the plant manager and rolled right on with the interview.
f. Ideally, I prefer the luxury of crafting a scripted voice-over subsequent to the field interview. But, I always try to do my best to capture the intro on the fly in the field…that way you’re covered, especially if time constraints do not allow the luxury of crafting a subsequent scripted voice-over.
Music can serve as an ideal vehicle to set the tone and tenor of your show, especially if there is a specific genre or musical selection that symbolizes the subject.
a. For example, when I produce shows that focus on WWII veterans, a Glen Miller tune will deftly set the stage. Reggae or salsa for Caribbean and Central American subjects, Mexican/Latin American cuts for a Salinas field worker show, etc. For a recent SpacePort America show, I used…ta da… Theme from 2001 Space Odyssey, of course.
b. Use music surgically—do not allow the music to dominate. You might start with a punch, but do not run the music as an under bed with a volume setting that might distract from the voice—especially if there is singing in the music mix. I often let the music run for a minute or so and then fade slowly to zero. Although sometimes it works to let t run through the interview. Doing this can also be beneficial if you need to mask the tinny hard-edge ambiance from an interview recorded in an office, etc.
c. Once in the editing studio, while in the midst of the interview, I might find a break point and pot the music under-bed up to full volume to create a musical segue/bridge/transition, or break during the interview.
d. Musical interludes also serve as a mental cleanser… it gives the listener a momentary break from the potential monotony of conversation. Music can add a vital and very pertinent dimension. For example, this afternoon we were doing production work on tonight’s NPR Pod upload. The show is about Kansas City MO. We are on a tour of the American Jazz Museum and my guest is talking about the KC Blues Style, and references Count Basie and Charlie Parker…a no brainer moment to use their cuts as musical bridges…I did not even have to say a word.
I should also note that my personal style more often than not differs greatly from the classic NPR “Story Telling” style. Typically, a NPR feature will be more about the presenter’s personal point of view, perceptions, feelings, reactions, etc. They tell their story and sometimes use the subject for sound-bite breaks in the host’s story (Listen closely to All Things Considered with a critical ear—much like you do when reading a print piece to learn how an author crafted their story). I suppose it is partly because I have been blessed with passionately knowledgeable subjects who also happen to most often be fascinating and captivating in their oral delivery. Recent examples would include Rosanne Cash, and producer/actor John Waters…I mean, come on…just let em rock-and-roll! I most often can let my subjects run on way past the typical 1.5 or 2.O minutes without weaving out to the presenters commentary and set-up for the guest’s next sound-bite.
If you have a concise sound moment or comment from your subject that recapitulates or encapsulates the gist of the story…this is often a great way to end the segment. For example, after interviewing Jake Copass, a working cowboy and character actor in Hollywood Westerns, I ended the segment with Jake walking away mumbling to himself while I followed closely on his heels with the mike held close to his clinking and chiming spurs.
Over modulation vs. under modulation
Better to under modulate than over. You can always pot up the sound in the studio to increase DBs. If you over modulate sound you will wind up with distortion that is nearly impossible to mitigate or eliminate. Even if you decrease DBs in production, the distortion will remain.
Different field recorders often have distinctive characteristics and sensitivity levels: Gathering a balanced recording level is predicated on:
Monitor with headphones
a. Experimentation–gain familiarity with your recorder and mike.
b. Before beginning your interview, it is very important to have your subject do a “TEST—-ONE—TWO—THREE” while checking the VU meter or LED lights on your field recorder. Most recorders have a max volume indicator… always try to stay below the red line.
Finding the optimum distance from subject requires practice.
a. Shot Gun Mike, Studio Mike, full radius mikes. Select a mike that’s suited for your field conditions.
b. For example, if you want to minimize surrounding environmental sounds than you would want to use a shot gun mike, whereas is you also want to capture the sense of the surroundings, such as capturing musicians, street sounds, etc., then you will want to find a mike with a wide radius.
c. Sony Mike I sometimes use has a switch–one position for shotgun and another for 180-degree radius stereo sound capture ($69 to $79).
d. Some recorders have a 20DB switch—this function is great when recording loud machinery, motors, aircraft taking off and landing, large crowds, massive audience clapping and live musical venue recording.
Plosives & Sibilance
Plosives: Popping “P” sounds: to mitigate, keep mike to side of mouth rather than directly in front of mouth.
Sibilance: “S” sounds: generally requires voice training to mitigate. In case of people with gap between front teeth, it is sometimes nearly impossible to eliminate.
How to upload sound and edit
Tips for writing in and out of sound bites and editing raw sound into their pieces
Talk don’t Read
NEVER “read” the script — Imagine that you are talking with a friend as you recite the script. ALSO, whenever possible, do three to six, or more, practice runs before final cut.
This is fascinating, and true—Force a smile as you read your script. This is a tried and true technique that somehow helps you sound more natural with a friendlier voice.
Cut out the SING-SONG
Many people speak naturally with a singsong voice. It works much better in life than it does on the radio. Unless you are already a flegmo, try to intentionally speak in a monotone as you read your script. For most people, this technique will serve to cut out the super high and low swings. The end result will create a voice that still has life to it, but comes across as refined and moderated.
SEARCH FOR IDEAL GUEST who is familiar with subject, and an acceptable delivery voice. When possible, be prepared with aback-up second choice for the interview…just in case.
Repurposing audio for additional revenue and spin-off print assignments:
Example: I was recently on a press trip with the managing editor of Westways. I told her about a cool podcast I did for Sunset Mag/Savor the Central Coast—an interview with a woman who makes sheep’s milk Ice Cream. She was fascinated. I sent her the Podcast link and received an invitation to write a piece for Westways. I thought the billiance of the process was that I did not have to craft a pithy query….I merely sent the interview and done deal.
Repackaging and reselling the same content:
I did a 20 minute radio feature about Cannery Row. The Cannery Row Company subsequently contacted me and paid me to re-do the show by breaking it in to four short 5 minute segments…so they could put each segment on their website, keyed to the particular theme e.g. food, wine, accommodations.
I did a one-hour NPR Pod special on Roanoke Valley Virginia. One of the interview subjects, Black Dog Salvage (featured on DIY TV Network) subsequently contacted me and asked if I would reproduce their show as a stand-alone for use on their website: http://kcbx.org/mp3archive/audlog_BlackDog.mp3. Join correspondent Tom Wilmer in Roanoke VA where he interviews Robert Culp, the owner of Black Dog Salvage where you’ll find incredible architectural items salvaged from estates and commercial buildings. Black Dog Salvage is one of America’s premiere firms of its kind in America… Look for Black Dog Salvage on episodes of DIY Network’s “Salvage Dawgs.” www.blackdogsalvage.com
Following are some links to My NPR.ORG Audiolog podcast site, the KCBX Audiolog Podcast site, & repurposed audio shows used in Podcasts, and YouTubes utilizing audio files from radio shows.
Northern Ireland/Belfast’s Official The-Titanic website has featured my podcast series since May 2011: This is the series that won 1st Place Best Radio Series from Outdoor Writers Association of California 2012: A quick listen and you will hear why the series was a winner…and it had very little to do with me…it was recorded on location at the shipyards with passionate RMS Titanic experts who knew their stuff blindfolded. http://www.the-titanic.com/Gallery/Photography/Titanic-Northern-Ireland-with-Tom-Wilmer.aspx
They also asked me to be in a video about the Titanic Interpretive Center whilst it was under construction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I75Q-O44cCQ&NR=1
I have pages of repurposed Audio & audio/visual stuff that are featured around the world…Not going to bore you, but in case you are interested, here are a couple examples:
Below is the link to the Irish Hiking company YouTube I mentioned at the BATW EL Rancho meeting—it has been featured by the company for about four years now.
A Podcast series produced for the Sunset Magazine/San Luis Obispo Visitors Bureau Savor the Central Coast event (2013 will be my third year doing the web podcast series)
Hawaii–Audio show and repurposed Hawaii YouTube that I mentioned in my BATW presentation:
Waimea Plantation Cottages Audio: http://kcbx.org/mp3archive/audlog_waimeaNPR.mp3
Waimea Plantation YouTube–repurposed audio with images from Library of Congress and my own images:
Eastern Cape South Africa audio—repurposed with images– it has been showcased on SouthAfrica.com website for past couple years:
LINK to my weekly NPR.ORG Podcast feature: Audiolog travel show: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_detail.php?siteId=5593978
You may download the show to your iTunes, and you may subcribe to the weekly podcasts via iTunes
Link to my NPR affiliate KCBX Audiolog Archive site with URLS to shows produced over past year or so:
Direct ink to iTunes –it is a direct link from the NPR Audiolog Podcast site but shows features going back two or three months (I had nothing to do with this creation—it is somehow an automatic linkage from shows on the NPR.ORG Podcast site, as far as I know): http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/kcbx-fm-audio-log-podcast/id174891800
Valuable Resources for learning the art & craft:
The Association of Independents in Radio (AIR)
–U.C. Berkeley Knight Digital Media Center maintains an open access tutorial for Pro Tools audio editing software. This is the program we use at NPR affiliate KCBX (I have the identical software on my computer in my home studio).
You do not need Pro Tools or other complex programs to do your audio editing. For example, Ginny Prior at St. Mary’s College uses Garage Band for class audio assignments. But there are obvious advantages to using a professional software program.
This is a great place to start if you are ready to produce your own podcasts/radio shows. They have archives from something called Radio College, which was maintained from 1999-2003 by one of radio’s most creative documentarians. There are wonderful articles on how to make good radio stories — from the technical aspects to the art of the story. http://www.airmedia.org/PageInfo.php?PageID=3&LayOut=1
A very cool website—It’s full of great tips about tools and technique, and you can even submit stuff for their website. Here’s the link: http://transom.org/
Be sure to check out this site. It is primarily for NPR affiliate producers who want to upload their shows for pick up by any and all NPR affiliate stations nationwide, as well as non NPR stations. YOU DO NOT have to be on staff at an NPR affiliate station to become a member and upload your independently produced shows for consideration. Although you will have to pay a fee…not sure how much. For example, Molly Blaisdell is a member of PRX.ORG. http://www.prx.org[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]