Superheroes on the Radio

In many ways, these audio documentaries reminded me of video documentaries I’ve seen, with the obvious major difference being that instead of being aural and visual they are just aural. The creators don’t let this lessen the richness of the stories they tell, but instead use it to their advantage. They play on the ingrained story-telling cues we have all learned and overlay and mix many different audio clips to tell one compelling and cohesive story. Many video documentaries begin with a quote. Similarly, Superheroes begins with one. I pictured a simple black screen with white text when the line “When we were weak we told ourselves that we were strong…” was being spoken, and then in came the music like the opening credits of a film. This was a good technique to whet our appetites to the topic and create intrigue. Also using music (notably music without words to avoid confusion) plays a big role in setting the tone for these audio documentaries.

The documentary began with an anecdote about an unathletic kid who dreamed of being a superhero, which really drew me in as a listener. However, when Chris was discussing how he thought he had developed the ability to withstand extreme heat, I was also thinking, “how is this going to go on for an hour?” and “how are they going to sustain my interest with this topic?”. I thought these things mostly because this is something I’m especially worried about with my own audio documentary. I have been spending time brainstorming what kind of story I can tell that will be unique and of broad interest to a listening audience. The audio documentaries we’ve listened to seem especially cognizant of audience and how to make their pieces interesting with just sound. The anecdote is accompanied by traditional “superhero music” and interweaved with a narrator summarizing information presumably learned during the interview with Chris. The music helps set the tone for how Chris feels about superheroes and felt about superpowers while growing up. The narrator helps condense his words—reserving poignant and interesting quotes for Chris’ voice while summarizing the less important background info. It’s also interesting to note that the background music doesn’t need to play consistently. It’s actually more interesting to hear it fade in and out throughout the piece.

After the anecdote completed, the piece altered its perspective. It recaptured my interest when it turned to real “people on the street” discussing which superpower they would want and how they would use it. Here, the piece became about more than one grade school outcast’s daydreams. It took on more of a philosophical tone and brought up some very deep human questions about selflessness. To create the “person on the street vibe” the documentary added rustling chairs, traffic, background chatter, and footsteps to their responses.

Music played such a key role in transitioning between the stories and sections of the piece. It served as a sort of page break that told us we were moving forward in time or changing perspectives. I also noticed these audio documentaries aren’t afraid of silence. A few seconds of silence is sort of like strategic white space on a web page, it creates an aural break and helps keep the soundtrack from sounding too rushed or overwhelming. Silence leaves us entirely to ourselves and our own reflections with nothing to look at—a unique affordance of audio that doesn’t really exist in other mediums. It is very conducive to promoting introspective thought in listeners. Another nice thing about radio is there is so many possibilities for remixing the raw recording without it being too jarring. You can mix audio taken from two completely different times and places seamlessly. Finally, the documentary really plays around with the fact that radio is primely a musical medium. We associate it with listening to music, at points it seems to linger on music for no other reason than to allow us as listeners to enjoy it.

As far as the role of the narrator I don’t think I ever consciously realized how rehearsed and scripted radio is before listing to these audio documentaries. It always seemed like a much more candid medium to me. However, the narrator’s words are very carefully chosen and narrators can take on any number of tones—across the stories the narrators were poetic speakers, humorous speakers, or somber and insightful. In Superheroes, the narrator was mostly conversational and slightly philosophical. It’s also very rare that the narrator is heard asking questions. We instead can glean what the questions he posed were from the answers and responses we hear. As a general rule, only information that adds to the interest level of the piece should be included in the final audio cut—i.e. only when the narrator’s question is an interesting audio clip should it be included.

I took note that the narrator also serves as our guide through the audio documentary, and quite explicitly informs us about the content of each section. For example, the Five Stages of Choosing Your Superhero is introduced as just that. I think in this medium being explicit is necessary in keeping listeners from getting lost. Radio is probably the easiest medium to get lost in since you cannot go back to remind yourself of what has already transpired (as in static mediums like writing or photography) nor do you have visual clues to keep you on track.

Another interesting allowance of audio is that it can get away with doing things that when translated to another medium might be cheesy or silly. For example, when an interview subject in Superheroes is describing himself as an invisible man sneaking around a house we hear music that sounds like “footsteps” and a creaking door mixed in. This helps create a visual in our head of this imagined situation.

The most interesting thing I gleaned from this analysis exercise was the interesting contradiction of radio. We’re directly being spoken to, and yet there is some wall of disconnect there—we feel that the speakers aren’t aware that we are listening until this disconnect is bridged. At points the documentary addresses us directly, such as asking us to think about what we would choose: the power of flight or invisibility. The narrator poses “don’t rush into it, think it over, which would you choose.” This is definitely something I want to play around with in my audio documentary. Along with this I realized how many layers of audio can be layered without creating confusion. In the Zora section, “Zora” talking is actually used as background noise playing softly in the background while Ira Glass gives us background on her story. When mixed properly, almost a limitless number of sounds can be layered seamlessly.



One thought on “Superheroes on the Radio

  1. I agree with your statement about the disconnect we experience when listening to these pieces. Because we have no visual to help us stay connected and more fully experience what we are listening to, layering sounds that help build an image in our kids as we are listening is crucial.

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