institute for documentary studies

{Week 12: Radio}

Week 12: Radio

Megan, Peter, and Samara, dynamite radio students all, went to the Megapolis Audio Festival this past weekend. They brought back the goods: the names of up and coming producers, excerpted lectures, revolutionary pieces, and a glimpse into the experimental horizon. NPR has a sound, but it’s not the only sound. And as sound designers and audio engineers thrive in the radio world (just look at the success of Jad Abumrad and Radiolab), there is a loosening of conventions about what radio should sound like. The pieces are losing the pristine quality of the sound booth and are taking on a grittier, more organic backdrop. With any luck, the radio of the future will be full of surprise.
Take for example “audio soundscapes,” which motivated the folks at Megapolis to lead an outdoor sound safari (Peter dropped sand on a probe microphone and could hear every last granule fall). We talk about a lot about scene setting in radio class and how a sound rich piece is full of ambient texture that takes the listener there. The result is a little more real that what you would normally hear, as if you had extendable ears that could pick up on the audible minutia of your environment. At Megapolis, they used the example of a farm at night. A “soundscape” will synthesize a cow pick lowing, the crickets chirping, and the peculiar drip of water from a leaky faucet, all at proportional volume levels, but all louder than you could naturally hear. These are sounds you couldn’t distinguish unless you listened very carefully. And that’s what radio does—it takes you to places you’ve never been before and helps you listen very carefully.
Soundscapes are a simple idea, but difficult to execute. It requires getting your microphone dirty. So far, mine has been spackled with ice, fish blood, dirt, dog spit, and bread batter, but there are more questionable substances to be heard.