Listen Up

As tempted as I was to listen to an episode of RadioLab for this blog assignment, I opted for “I Was Just Trying to Help,” an episode of  This American Life. Although I’m very familiar with Ira Glass’s voice, I’ve never quite felt the intrigue to listen to his work. I was always frustrated by talk radio as a kid, because the topics went over my head and there wasn’t enough stimulation to dazzle me. The journalistic integrity and organic nature of these types of shows were lost on me, and in a way they still are. Unlike RadioLab, stories from This American Life are told much more like a news story is. There are no characters or scenes, they are purely factual and to-the-point.
RadioLab is, for the record, nonfiction but it is so well developed and crafted that it plays like a fictional story. The producers use strategic editing to create the images they want you to see and the emotions they want you to feel but they do so without ever straying from the reality of the anecdote. It’s almost as if they create a fictitious world of wondrous sounds in which they can set the stage for the truth and reality. Moon Graffiti, a completely fictional story, could have passed for an episode of RadioLab. Every emotion could be felt with the added sounds alone, no dialogue required. You can sense the imperative air of desperation to do something followed by the solemn realization that nothing could be done at all, implied by the music and sound effects.
I think this is why I love RadioLab so much, they take extremely important stories, especially scientific ones, that might not be getting the attention they deserve and present them in a context that demands your attention. These stories grip you, within minutes of listening you will find yourself transported to an entirely new world, one that you have created in your own mind. As Jad Abumrad has said, these mental images are a means of forming a connection between creator and consumer. But more importantly, it gives power to the story itself. Each and every person that experiences this story will hear the same dialogue and edits but will also see something completely unique. The story takes on a unique meaning for each listener, there is far more left to interpretation in audio stories than there is in visual stories.
This American Life is compelling too, but in a call-to-action kind of manner. When I listen to This American Life, I’m not usually drawn in as rapidly as I am with RadioLab. The style of storytelling is much more formal and has fewer frills. This does not make the stories themselves any less interesting, there is simply a sense of journalistic seriousness with this show. Every episode is produced with the purpose of bringing a major issue to the attention of the listener with objectivity. There are fewer opinions given and thus less need to “set the scene.” The producers of this show aren’t trying to throw you into the world of this story, that would almost be an interruption. The stories are not told through broken narratives as described by Rob Rosenthal and while they are edited with music, all background noise is authentic from the setting of the story.
Neither means of storytelling is superior to the other, I just happen to be particularly fond of the RadioLab methods, and I plan to make my audio stories reflect my preference. Even if I want to approach something more like a news story, I will probably do it through the broken narrative, including as much scene-setting sound as possible. Despite my usual lack of interest in This American Life, I did find myself getting hooked to the story somewhere towards the middle. I think that regardless of the method, audio storytelling is just so dear to me. It is the ultimate form of storytelling which brings to life what text alone cannot, and forces mental acuity and ingenuity. I can see a whole new world, just by listening a little closer.

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