Invisible subjects, exceptional sound

A podcast is like an old radio show for a new generation. It’s audio of a narrative or story one might see in his or her daily life. But since the visual aspect is removed, podcasts have to be striking in their audio quality and storytelling. One podcast that produces great quality is NPR’s Invisibilia. This podcast covers various experiences involving psychology and brain science by presenting real-life encounters and stories involving unique situations.

Take “The Secret History of Thoughts,” their look at the random thoughts that pop into people’s heads and how they affect a person. Hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel have an entertaining chemistry, playing off each other as they talk about their subject. Spiegel and Miller are comfortable behind the microphone and their dialogue sounds natural, not scripted. It’s as if they are sitting next to you at a coffee shop talking about this over breakfast. The podcast itself also sounds very clean. The audio is crisp and clear to understand, both with their audio as a duo and their interview clips. The show uses audio clips from a segment with Dr. Miranda K. Morris, a therapist that specializes in third-wave therapy. As the hosts talk about third-wave therapy and how Dr. Morris believed that, “thoughts have no meaning at all.” As the hosts explain each part of Dr. Morris’ methods, they integrate a soundbite of Dr. Morris talking patients through a session, almost acting as a perfectly timed break between explanation to give audio representation. The more the listener hears the hosts talking, the more clear the visual in the listener’s head is. It’s a very proper way to create a podcast, in where you blend natural conversation with natural sound to create an authentic listening experience.

Another example of Invisibilia’s expert craftsmanship can be heard on “Fear,” their episode that tries to find ways to live without fear. Since the subject of this podcast is the presence of fear, the podcast has a different atmosphere. The podcast episodes use instrumental music to segue between narratives of the show. In “Fear,” the music used is creepy and more haunting to emphasize how serious the subject matter of the episode is. Miller and Spiegel also sound more serious and somber discussing the subject matter. Adding that to the same clean and understandable audio, both from the hosts and the natural sound. Even when the show mixes sounds, it sounds like a perfect combination. There is a segment of the podcast where an interview with Greg Downey, an Associate Professor at Macquarie University, comes onto the show. Here, the show mixes Downey’s interview clips, a background musical score of light string instruments and the hosts breaking up each of Downey’s talking points. The audio is never poorly mixed, the hosts interject at just the right point and the music is subtle enough to not distract the listener from Downey. This is an example of a podcast juggling three different kinds of audio delivery into one seamless flow of information, making for an engrossing look at the things that scare us around the world.

Serial and Start-Up: two great podcasts

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Serial is a podcast series that tells one long story over the series of an entire season
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StartUp is a series described as “what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one.”

I personally do not listen to many podcasts, so when I sit down to listen to podcasts for this assignment I did not know what to expect. I remember a little bit of what Serial was like from the small piece of it we listened to in class. I remember being pulled in by how much the piece sounded like a story you could listen to off audible. Naturally then when I was suppose to be listening to the podcast for nat sounds and podcast techniques, I found myself submerged in the story, to distracted by my fascination of what was going on to pay attention to anything else.

I would call that a tall-tale sign that the podcast is pretty freaking good.

The Serial Podcast is hosted by Sarah Koenig. The premise of the podcast is that it isn’t a new random story every week, but one story per season. The Serial team follows a plot and characters wherever the story leads them, and the audience learns the new information as the story unfolds.

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Serial host, Sarah Koenig, helps tells long, investigative stories. PC: YouTube

StartUp podcast is organized much differently. StartUp is a mini-series of podcasts about how to run a start up business and tips and tricks about running and business successfully.

The series is hosted by Alex Blumberg, the CEO of Gimlet Media and award-winning radio journalist. He was a producer for This American Life and the co-founder of Planet Money.

Serial’s podcasts are long and are focused around investigative journalism and in depth reporting, while StartUp is a podcast series are shorter, 20- 30 minute pieces focused on business advice and strategies.

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StartUp host, Alex Blumberg, hosts a podcast series about the ins and outs of running a new business. PC: StartUp Website

Even with these differences, listeners can see the similar techniques used by both companies to have successful podcasts.

Both Serial and StartUp have succinct intro music that people can associate with the podcast. There is also good use of music to transition between different topics and interviews.

There is also good variation of music, darker tones when the topics got darker, lighter music when the topics were more easy going. There is also good use of nat, background noise. Simple things like the ringing of a door opening, laughter of a group of students, or opening and closing of drawers in an office.

Above all, both podcasts are informative but in a way that is entertaining and intriguing. The voices of the hosts keep you awake and attentive, both in the tone of their voices but also how they are able to pick topics that will keep an audience entertained. Or can present a podcast in a story format that keeps listeners coming back for more.

Not New York City: New Tech City

Let’s take a trip shall we? Into a world where technology changes our lives day in and day out and is a critical part of how we live. Well, that day could be today, it could be tomorrow, or it could be five years from now. Depending on the way you look at it, technology is changing the way that people access information and connect with one another every day whether we see it or not.

The podcast with Mamoush Zomorodi claims to have "No jargon—just compelling stories about how technology is changing our lives for better and for worse"
The podcast with Mamoush Zomorodi claims to have “No jargon—just compelling stories about how technology is changing our lives for better and for worse”

One podcast that does a great job of telling us about this is the WNYC production New Tech City with Manoush Zomorodi. They tackle the topics that we, as everyday consumers of technology, don’t normally think about when it comes to always-changing world consisting of smartphones and tablets.

As far as technical terms, I think this podcast does a great job of encompassing different background noises that keep one engaged and keeps the brain involved. Just hearing somebody ramble for 20 minutes on a podcast does not keep someone interested and likely will tune them out.

The unique transition sound effects that create a swoosh keep the brain occupied, and along with the subtle high-pitched background music and unique sound effects to accompany what the subject is talking about.

In the first episode I reviewed, “Is Braille Obsolete” they talk about how blind people are using Kindles and iPads to read books. Also being put to use at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired are things like talking typewriters, singing calculators and even video games that you can navigate by only using sound.

While these are cool gadgets in their own respect, the way that Ryan Kailath brings it to life with various sound effects keeps the listener both intrigued and helpful as a instructor helps a 14-year old student by the name of Demetria Ober read books.

The worldwide bestseller was turned into a trio of movies, the first of which premiered last year. Starring Shailene Woodley.
The worldwide bestseller was turned into a trio of movies, the first of which premiered last year. Starring Shailene Woodley.

When the instructor says that the hit “Divergent” is one of the books that she bought, Ober’s face lights up. No, you couldn’t see it. But the way it was captured, you could feel it.

In the “Tweens and Tech Guide: Getting them to open up,” episode, they talk to a middle-school teacher Dierdre Shetler, and how she uses technology in her school. The one thing I like about this is that NTC incorporated their listeners into the podcast, which is what drives them on a weekly basis.

One thing that I think is important is the fact that when podcasts/blogs/etc. get giant, they forget about the little guys. The guys that helped them get there and the listeners that were there from day one. These people are the reason that they are famous on the big stage today, so I think it’s always incredible that the podcast can give back and give her a spot on the show.

A variety of news and subjects on WNYC

I am familiar with WNYC on television since the television signal makes it out here. Ironically, I live on Long Island.

I never ventured to see what else WNYC had other than television and, yes I know, radio, which I knew of as well. Rarely have I gone onto the outlet’s website. I managed to find podcasts for different shows. Some podcasts were news and others were beats.

New Tech City

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This is one of those podcasts that were beats I mentioned. The show is hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, who has a history of reporting news related to technology, and is centric toward the subject of technology. I only listened to one podcast that was about young kids using technology.

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It was a sensitive topic, but I believe she pulled it off. I like how the story flowed and the focus was around a teacher who taught technology. Kids are hard to interview as they may give one word answers or aren’t concise, but Zomorodi managed to make these kids open up. What did surprise me was how the show operated like a real radio station show. Around the nine to 10 minute mark, there was an advertisement. I thought that since this was a recorded show for playback, there would be none of that. I’m guessing this is done because WNYC receives financial contributions from advertisers to sustain itself. Overall, the piece was a great one, informative, it held my attention because of how the story transitioned and I would listen to this show more often.

The Brian Lehrer Show

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I’m familiar with Brian Lehrer, but have not listened to much of his work. At first I thought he was related to Jim Lehrer because of the last name. I don’t think they are. This podcast was a news show. The episode I listened to was called “Realpolitik in the Middle East.”

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It operated like an actual radio news show. it contained audio clips of people related to the stories he covered and had invited guests speak. The invited speaker spoke for a few minutes on different occasions. It would have been better, I think, if Lehrer broke into certain points to ask follow-up questions. The tone of Lehrer sounded opinionated at times. There were other speakers invited to speak and a debate went going. Aside from it being a news show, it was more of a discussion show. All sides made their point in a coherent manner.

The Dystopian Town of Night Vale

“Welcome to Night Vale” – Podcast Pilot Episode

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a radio show-style podcast of a fictional dystopian society known as Night Vale, with a twist of dark humor. The series parodies a typical radio show of an average, mundane town.

It was created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and was published by Commonplace Books. The music sets an eerie ambiance, created by musician and composer Disparition.

The first episode features parody news stories, such as a new dog park being built where neither dogs or people are allowed. There’s also a new person in the neighborhood: Carlos, who is a self-proclaimed scientist with nice hair. Unmarked helicopters sometimes circle Night Vale from above, and parents are instructed to keep their children away from them. A new waterfront recreation area is being opened, in hopes to create a “bustling marketplace,” despite there being no body of water in sight. This is seen as a mere “drawback” to the situation, as Night Vale is a fictional town located somewhere in the Southern United States.

Joseph Fink explained in an interview with NPR that he came up with the idea to create a podcast about a fictional town located in the desert where all conspiracy theories were real.

“Glow Cloud” – Episode 2

This week, a mysterious glowing cloud has caused a death in the town of Night Vale, but no action will be taken. The post office, which has been sealed due to screams coming from within, was ransacked, with the smell of burning flesh in the air and words written in blood on the walls.

A floating cat was spotted in the radio station’s bathroom, as well. “It’s nice to have a station pet,” says the narrator, Cecil Gershwin Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin.

This podcast series  is successful in its attempt to parody a regular news station’s daily newscast.

Why I like the Serial podcast

When the serial podcast came out in 2014 I heard a lot of buzz about it. I never actually took the time to listen to it, however after listening to the first episode in class I could see how people would be hooked on it.

So naturally for this assignment I chose to listen to serial. What I like about it is that it has many aspects that keep the listeners attention. The first thing I notices that I really liked about this podcast is the theme song. Every great T.V. show or radio show needs a catchy theme song. This one is great because it is simple, yet eerie.

The second thing that I noticed that I like about this podcast is the sound of Sarah Koenig’s voice. She has a perfect voice for radio, it is very clear and crisp.

I like the way that the script is kind of casual, it’s almost like your friend is talking to you and telling you the story. However, it is not too casual to the point where it is not informative.

I like use of sound and sound bites in the podcast. The episodes have clips from interviews with the victims friends. In the second episode she is reading from Hae Min Lee, the victim’s, diary. While she is reading this there is nice background music playing. In the diary entry she is talking about the prom and the music coincides with that.

As a whole this podcast captures my attention with its suspenseful story and good use of music as well as Koenigs transparency. She does not read her script like she is trying to peg the murder on somebody. She allows the facts to speak.

Invisibilia: A Fearless Podcast

Close your eyes. Sit back. Enter a voice that weaves together a story smooth as silk. Now picture something terrifying and imagine if you could “disappear fear” and all the consequences that come with it.

Invisibilia hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. Photo courtesy of John W. Poole/NPR.
Invisibilia hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. Photo courtesy of John W. Poole/NPR.

Invisibilia hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, not so ironically, approach this without fear in Fearless, a two-part feature exploring the origins of fear and what happens without it.

“World with No Fear,” the first half, masterfully incorporates natural sounds like fart noises (children who don’t yet know fear), dramatic piano, gunshots and news headlines to make a point. It immerses within us (even bombards) the idea we almost can’t escape fear. We are exposed to an unusual amount of it that makes no logical sense. Add in the occasional chilling music and you certainly feel a little uneasy.

Appropriate for an episode on fear, isn’t it?

The art for Invisibilia's episode Fearless. Image by Daniel Horowitz/NPR.
The art for Fearless, one of Invisibilia’s earlier shows. Image by Daniel Horowitz/NPR.

As with any good story, both in print or in broadcast, the soundbites are kept short and sweet. Sometimes it’s simple as “No, not really” when asked if someone felt fear. Other times, it was an explanation from a neuroscientist simplified. A lot could be read simply from how something was read, too. It was approachable for someone who has taken almost no science courses in their college life.

The podcast certainly has a novelty factor. Only 400 people in the entire world are completely incapable of feeling fear, due to the calcification in an almond sized part of the brain. Their heart doesn’t race. The adrenaline doesn’t go. But traumatic events aren’t traumatic either, because intense fear isn’t assigned to the memory, meaning said person could find themselves in more danger than most. The fact they could speak with someone with this condition speaks to the credibility of Invisibilia as a whole.

While the sound and interviews help tell stories, so does the verbal imagery. There were “puffs of smoke” from gunshots and “people falling and not getting up” on the day of America’s first mass shooting. It was certainly powerful enough to understand the tragedy. Meanwhile, metaphors and similes like “in a sea of emotions” and “fear is as basic as blood” make the script all the more rich.

But the hosts are also conversational, adding to the ease factor. After being bombarded by dark news headlines, they say “[fear is] not exactly novel,” for example. And at the end of the first podcast when previewing part two, they joke that the founders of NPR would be screaming about what they plan to do next.

It was “Disappearing Fear,” part two, that shined in the casual aspect. Fear becomes an even more approachable topic. At one point, Russian music plays in the background when a Russian grandmother using rejection therapy is mentioned. At another, when one is asked if their fear of snakes is cured (after a long explanation on why we fear them), the reply is completely bleeped out.

While at one point the hosts joke they are straying from professional journalism into the realm of “wild fact-based speculation” as a joke and laugh a bit on air, the topic as a whole is so very human. Fearless- both “Disappearing Fear” and “World with No Fear”- have encouraged me to listen to Invisibilia more. It’s still journalistic, telling a story and informing the masses.