You know the feeling. That wondrous, liberating feeling that washes over you the moment you pop on your headphones in a crowded train and everything but the sound in your ears fades into the background.
You may take this little pocket of free space opening up around you for granted, but the concept of personal audio was truly groundbreaking when it first emerged. Remember, the Sony Walkman was first introduced by its creator as, "so similar to the spirit of zen. You create your own private world, whatever the circumstances."
We've come a long way since then and the recent wave of podcasting has only expanded that private world in our ears, where each and every topic imaginable is covered. Subject aside, it's the way creators choose to craft their stories that makes a good show a completely addictive one.
Drama on the Radio
Historically, compelling audio content has had one legendary example that serves as a milestone not only for radio, but for innovative storytelling in general.
Orson Welles' adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" is famous for causing a never before experienced mass agitation for many of its listeners, who assumed the attack from Mars was fact, not fiction. When production on the project began, however, the story was less than epic. In fact, the producer first assigned to work on the show was convinced that the story was unfit for a radio drama, describing it as "barely interesting, let alone credible". But it was the interplay of two things that worked miraculously out of the block: a deadline and a pivot.
The production team only had 7 days until broadcast to set up the adaptation. What’s more, Orson Welles, a young actor and filmmaker at that time, urged the team to break up the original story with staged news flashes and eye witness testimonies, adding a much-needed sense of urgency and excitement. After the play was reworked from the ground up, it was rehearsed with the sound effects team and an orchestra. Noise for the crowd scenes, echos of cannon fire, boat horns and a particularly harrowing piano piece that stretched and intensified itself throughout the length of the story, all worked to enhance the story with a realistic soundtrack. The result: At 8 p.m. on Sunday, 30.October 1938, one week after production began, "The War of the Worlds" was performed and broadcast live.
"Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes," wrote John Houseman, one of the producers.
"During that time, men travelled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it—emotionally if not logically."
Magic behind the (sound) curtain
How did this radio show leave such a profound impression over its audience? What made "The War of the Worlds" so compelling when it aired is exactly what makes podcasts addictive today. An unexpected structure combined with shifts of perspective, audio effects and a compelling soundtrack is the key to some of the most successful podcast formats.
1. Breaking down story structure
There are a few different kinds of podcast story formats that we're used to. Claimed "most popular podcast of all time," Serial follows one personal story over the course of multiple, consecutive episodes, slowly building the suspense arc. What engaged listeners throughout the whole first season, into the second wasn't just the gripping investigation, but also the thrill of how they told the story. The hints, cliffhangers, and multiple story threads combined with the authentic field recordings, all made the story that much more exciting to follow.
According to research, stories with tension that increases gradually will always be more appealing - a protagonist facing a challenge that has to deal with obstacles on the way is the universal “binge-listen” story format. Emotion creates engagement, which creates meaning, and having a relatable, universal message is at the core of all the stories we can't forget or stop listening to.
2. Switching narrative perspectives
As anyone who's spent hours on end with a podcast will tell you, it takes more than a good story to stick to a programme. Very often it's the voice of the narrator that draws us in, creating a relatable starting viewpoint. The all-seeing narrator who keeps the strings together is a classic setup for many of our favourite podcasts. Take This American Life's host, Ira Glass, who opens and closes every storyline. Ira’s unique timbre and cadence have become an unmistakable part of the brand.
While a single magnetic speaker can make a podcast recognisable, it's when we hear a multitude of different voices that we start piecing different perspectives together and can’t help but imagine each face and their distinctive character. There is something about hearing a story told from multiple viewpoints that ignites mental images in our head unlike any other form of storytelling. Coming back to This American Life, this is a differentiating factor of the show - every time a snippet of the story is introduced, a new voice belongs to.
3. Creating volume through sound texture
Whether or not a podcast is of the storytelling kind or more of a conversational, explainer type, adding texture with sound effects creates an ambience that feeds your ears. A prime example of this is Radiolab. A podcast classic, Radiolab episodes are so ornately weft with sounds that even the most niche and dense science journalism feels compelling. Orchestration, choirs, ambient audio - you name it, they've tried it all. Using a variety of sound shots to represent an object, a subject, or a space is a no fail way to get the kopfkino going. Analysis of audio drama shows that listeners report paying more attention and having a broader run of the imagination when a radio piece is supported with sound effects.
Distinctive sounds might not only help carry a story further, sometimes they are the story itself. Some podcasts turn to audio as their main topic, from tackling curious micro snippets like The World According to Sound, to in-depth research of widely recognisable and known sounds like Twenty Thousand Hertz.
On crafting stories through sound
A soundscape is often more evocative than a visual one. Focusing on audio as a tool, design resource and subject matter reveals all the intricate ways we react to sound, rationally and emotionally. Examining the ways we have been using and continue to use sound to provoke interest tells us more about human nature and the importance of stories than the traditional content format success formulas.
You can find all the podcasts mentioned below, complete with a recommended episode to start with. They are available on all podcast platforms:
🔍 Serial: https://serialpodcast.org/season-one
→ Try starting with: Season 1, Episode 1. No other place to get into the story than the very beginning.
🇺🇸 This American Life: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/
→ Try starting with: #585 - In Defense of Ignorance. A re-run of an episode from 2016 on different aspects of ignorance that keep us and the ones around us sane and safe.
📻 The World According to Sound: http://www.theworldaccordingtosound.org/episodes/
→ Try starting with: #87 - Sound Audio - Joe Frank. A snippet of the voice of one of America’s most iconic radio hosts.
🎛 20 Thousand Hertz: https://www.20k.org/
→ Try starting with: #65 - Voyager Golden Record. The story of the grand experiment to summarize the whole of human experience in sounds.
→ Try starting with: Bit Flip. A fascinating account of the ways in which cosmic forces can influence how decisions get made, quite literally.