Features & Columns

PICTURE THIS: Christy Hartman (above), a senior producer with the Stanford Storytelling Project listens as she works a mixing board at the KZSU studios on the Stanford campus. A well-done narrative podcast can be ‘like a movie for your ears,’ says Rosie La Puma (not pictured), a Storytelling Project producer. Photograph by Yuto Watanabe

Antique Technology

In conversation, Williams sometimes uses the words "radio" and "podcast" interchangeably. That's understandable, according to Jonah Willihnganz, director of the Stanford Storytelling Project.

"Podcasting is replacing print because people can have that kind of simultaneous experience," Willihnganz says, underscoring Williams' point. But there's more to it than that, he says. The recent rise of audio-only broadcast storytelling is in many ways a return to a classic form of entertainment.

Today, many of the most popular podcasts are quite similar to the types of programs listeners were tuning into during the 1930s and '40s—when radio was an essential part of American life.

The "Golden Age" of radio brought with it countless hours of programming, including dramas replete with narration, multiple voice actors and elaborate sound effects. Such programming seemed old-fashioned by the late 1950s as televisions took over in American homes. The radio drama was effectively dead.

As radio stations ditched their dramatic and comedic programing, some of the most successful shows made the transition to TV-land—including Amos 'n' Andy and Dragnet. In the interim decades, music came to dominate radio, while the majority of talk-only programs on the dial have been call-in shows covering news or sports.

Sound effects and music added to a radio broadcast—especially a news broadcast—were viewed back in the day as a violation of journalistic ethics, tantamount to doctoring a photograph.

But with the rise of podcasts, such as Snap Judgment, The Truth, The Moth and especially Radiolab, the texture and aural language of radio dramas are making a comeback.

"Radiolab was the first to really bring that back," Willihnganz says. The program took cues from NPR's This American Life, he notes, but Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad, took things a step further, using innovative approaches to narrative, sound effects and music to help him tell nonfiction stories.

It took shows like Radiolab and later Serial to remind listeners "how cinematic listening to a podcast (or the radio) could be," Willihnganz says. "It could be like listening to a movie in a way that This American Life never aspired to be. I think all of that turned a lot of people on to podcasting in a way they hadn't been before."

La Puma echoes the observations of Willihnganz when discussing one of her favorite podcasts—The Truth, "which, logically is all fiction," she says with a chuckle. "It's actors and sound effects," she says. "They call it a movie for your ears. You do end up picturing it immediately and understanding what space you're in, just by the sound."

The immersive experience podcasts provide is definitely one reason for their rise in popularity, La Puma says. However, she continues, there is another major factor fueling the burgeoning growth of the format.

"Audio is such an easily accessible medium," she says, referring to the portability and affordability of audio production tools. "It doesn't cost that much to get a microphone that works fairly well and some audio-editing software. There have been dozens—if not hundreds—of different podcasts that amateur radio makers have created. And they've built, from the ground up, a fanbase that they eventually get onto the radio (or a successful podcast). Because of that, they've been able to find unique, individualized niches."

Indeed, there are plenty of podcasting success stories. Jay Tomlinson, for example, the creator of The Best of the Left podcast, turned his passion for politics into an award-winning podcast—with little more than some basic recording tools and an Internet connection.

Comedian Marc Maron has a similar story. In his mid-40s, struggling to pay bills and watching his peers achieve major success in comedy, he started talking into a microphone—ranting to no one in particular and interviewing his friends in the standup world. The podcast blew up. His show now ranks as one of the most popular on podcasting services, including Stitcher and iTunes.

Maron recently interviewed President Barack Obama. He talked with the leader of the free world in the garage of his Los Angeles-area home.

FIELD RECORDINGS: Rachel Hamburg, former managing editor of the Stanford Storytelling Project conducts an interview in Stanford's Tresidder Union gym.

Power of the 'Cast

Of course, just because it's easy to put together a podcast, doesn't mean it's easy to attract listeners. And Willihnganz certainly wants those who participate in the Stanford Storytelling Project to have their work heard and to be compelling.

That's why Willihnganz founded the Storytelling Project. It's also why he started the Braden Storytelling Grant, which is awarded each spring to applicants who submit compelling pitches. Recipients are given up to $3,000 and the summer months to produce an audio story which is then broadcast on the Storytelling Project's KZSU radio show, The Human Experience, and published as a podcast.

Those awarded the grant are required to enroll in a complementary course in radio storytelling to help them learn script writing, editing, scoring and mixing audio.

Many of the students who come into the Storytelling Project—either as staff or recipients of the Braden grant, are used to researching and writing for readers, as opposed to listeners. Most students have spent their entire life writing analytic papers," he says. Willihnganz and the other advisors at the Storytelling Project help the students learn how to write and produce in a way that optimizes the medium.

"Radio has everything that print has going for it and everything that music has going for it," he says.

That's why Willihnganz encourages his students to explore all the possibilities audio storytelling has to offer. "Sound can be a very good tool," he says. Far from viewing music and sound effects only as a means of emotionally swaying the listener, he believes that they can be used in a way that contributes to a better understanding of a topic.

Case in point: the frequently heralded Radiolab, which he notes often uses sound and music to create aural infographics. Like the time Radiolab creator Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich deployed a choir to help demonstrate how different animals perceive color by singing more or less complex harmonies and linking the sounds to those animals which saw more or fewer colors.

"That's why a lot of my friends would rather listen to Radiolab than read Scientific American," Willihnganz says—"because they literally have a better way of turning a concept into an experience than even a visual infographic does."

Our Future

Both La Puma and Williams agree that podcasts are growing in popularity among their age group.

Williams says that when she tells someone about the Stanford Storytelling Project for the first time, she often compares what she is doing to This American Life. "And probably 60 or 70 percent of the time, the person will say, 'I love This American Life! That's great. I was just listening too…' blah, blah, blah."

Given the low production costs associated with creating a podcast and the number of popular and interesting topics yet to be covered in depth, it's hard to envision an end to the growth of the podcasting space—at least not anytime soon. "Anybody with a laptop and a web account, pretty much, can create a podcast," Willihnganz says. "The constraints that faced earlier media are not present."

Consider this: One popular podcast—99 Percent Invisible—is all about architecture, while another, the StartUp Podcast, follows Alex Blumberg, former This American Life contributor and co-founder of Planet Money, as he documents his quest to start his own podcasting network.

Willihnganz also sees a strong future for podcasting for many reasons—including his firm belief that, unlike reading, there is a propensity for and attraction to oral storytelling hard-wired into every human being.

"Reading is really a cognitive process," Willihnganz explains, noting that for the bulk of human history, stories have been conveyed orally—and more often than not with musical accompaniment. "Your brain infers and then creates all of the senses out of the words. Whereas film and radio and other media are really working on your senses."

Willihnganz says podcasts also have the potential to work upon multiple senses. "The irony of it is that it doesn't tend to be communal," raising a caveat and questioning whether the podcast will ultimately work to drive people further into personalized, digital bubbles. "Everybody is walking around with earbuds or listening in their car. It has that new distanciated experience, which is the mark of modern culture."

La Puma and Williams both acknowledge how isolating their handsets can be—and admit that podcasts play a role in sealing them off from the outside world. However, both say that a good podcast or radio program can ultimately connect them to the wider world in a deeper way.

"I think it's comparable to the experience after you finish a really good book," La Puma says. "And you close it and you walk around and you're sort of in disbelief that no one else has been impacted by what just happened—by the story you just read. The same thing happens in audio. If you're listening, or you take a break and you need to talk to somebody, and you forget that they're not coming from whatever emotional place you've just been vicariously experiencing through the podcast."

However, La Puma continues, even if that feeling of disbelief or disconnection lasts for a time, it has the potential to become a conversation starter.

"I can't count how many times I've started a sentence with, 'Oh, well I heard on this podcast about this X, Y or Z,'" she says. "And so, I've thought about this dichotomy before, actually—the fact that (podcasts are) another excuse not to talk to people."

But, La Puma adds, she normally listens through headphones only in situations where she would otherwise be keeping to herself anyway—in the car, on a run, or on a bus. And once she is done, after she has taken the voyage inward, La Puma says she is often eager to talk about what she's learned.

"I do bring it back to other people," she says, "and I do want to share those stories, once I have them."

Williams agrees. "It's a really good way to come together and connect with people," she says, "when you can share these stories."

Stories, Willihnganz says, are the ultimate point of the project—and not just for their cultural or entertainment value. The Storytelling Project, he says, is about enabling the next generation to leave their mark.

"I think, generally, that the person who has the best story tends to win the argument," Willihnganz says. "My hope is that by giving tools to students who are genuinely interested in making the world a better place—giving them the tools to tell great stories is basically giving them ammunition to create positive change, whether that's political, environmental, economic or whatever it happens to be.

"In a world where discursive power is now a substantial form of power, which wasn't true for most of human history, having narrative skills is essential to creating change."