Add Interest, Not Noise
Hi friends,

A while back, I caused a tiny amount of internet drama by publishing a list of annoying audio cliches.

Okay, really, it wasn't THAT much drama. It was just one person who complained on Twitter that some of these cliches were "classic" and useful in unfolding a story. At least…I think that's what they were saying? The tweet was in French. I don't speak French, and internet translations are terrible.
Yeah, the translation is a bit unclear, but that grimace face emoji really says it all.

If I'm being honest, it wasn't just one person complaining in a language I don't speak. A lot of people reached out, saying something along the lines of, "I agree. But what else am I supposed to do?!?"

Well, I've been noodling on that. And I have THOUGHTS.

First, a recap. Here's the list of audio cliches I think we should all avoid in our stories.
  • All ringtones -- unless they tell you something important about someone's character.

  • Answering a phone/video call.

  • Ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door.

  • Opening a door.

  • Greeting someone on the other side of the door.

  • Closing a door. (Especially a car door.)

  • A car engine turning on.

  • A car engine turning off.

  • A GPS giving directions.

  • Really, any sounds from the inside of a car as it goes from place A to place B.

  • The sound of a person settling into a recording studio.

  • The sound of a person settling down onto a couch or chair.

  • A person saying their own name and/or job description.

  • A person spelling their own name.

  • Two people chatting over the sound of walking across leaves.

  • A host interjecting to ask their co-host a question, when they obviously already know the answer.

  • A host faking surprise at something that clearly should not surprise them.
Yeah, I know. I'm taking away all your fun.

As audio creators, we're told that we need to use lots of great sound in our stories.

Gotta get "scene tape." Without "scene tape" – we're told – our stories will be boring.

But as narrative storytellers, our stories are almost always set in the past. Quite often, there's nothing left to record.

As a result, we tend to record anything that makes any random noise.

That's my problem with most of the sounds on this list. It's not that they're terrible sounds, necessarily. It's that they're random. They don't tell you anything about the story you're trying to tell...or the people in that story.

Here's a good example. Back in 2019, I was working with a reporter on a story about a hockey coach who had survived the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas.

The reporter had a choice. She could interview the coach at the side of the rink, with all sorts of fun hockey sounds in the background. Or she could interview him in a quiet place, with no real opportunity for sound gathering.

If this wasn't a narrative story, the choice would be easy. Interview at the side of the rink! Embrace all those awesome rink sounds.

But in this case, the bulk of the story was taking place at a music festival. Or in the streets surrounding the music festival. Or in the hospital. Imagine how distracting hockey sounds would be!

In fact, while hockey was important to the story, not a single scene took place in a hockey rink.

Hockey sounds weren't going to make the cut.

And this is where a bunch of reporters go wrong. They're putting their stories together and they realize that they can't use the sounds that they would normally use -- like hockey sounds for the hockey coach. So then they try to cram in other things.

Boring things.

This is how we end up with the sounds of 1000 car doors being slammed. And 10,000 doorbells ringing. We use those sounds because they're the only sounds we've got.

What do I think we should do instead?

Funny you should ask!
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Lean on Archive Sound

In the example I mentioned above, law enforcement officials had released a bunch of 911 calls and videos taken during the shooting and its aftermath.

We lined these elements up with the action in the story, being extremely careful not to be gratuitous or exploitative in the audio we used.

And it made a heck of a lot more sense than random hockey sound.
There's a lot of debate about "fair use" in podcasting. I am not a lawyer. But in my understanding, using the audio described above would be considered extremely "low risk."

The audio had already been released by law enforcement. It's highly unlikely that using it would infringe on anyone's copyright.

There are other factors that help determine risk, like the length of the clip and the context it's used in.

For a long time, working in radio, we were told that anything under :15 seconds was fine. But that's simply not true!

And "fair use" is a U.S. thing. But podcasts are international. Nobody's really quite sure whether "fair use" applies.

Ripping audio from the internet is almost never zero risk. But it is possible to use audio in ways that are unlikely to get you sued. Follow that link above for some factors you might want to consider.

And when in doubt, find the person who owns the audio, and ask for permission to use it.
The best source for archive sound isn't the internet.

It's the person you're interviewing.

If someone mentions that the call went to voicemail, I'll ask if they kept the message.

If someone mentions old family videos, I'll ask if they would share them.

If someone says they recorded something with their cell phone, I'll ask if I can use it.

And beyond that, I'll ask outright…do you have any voicemail messages? Old family videos? Recordings on your cell phone?

And this is the important part...

Sharing audio isn't enough. During the interview, you'll want to ask questions about the recordings. Get your guest to describe what was happening. How and why it was being recorded.

Those descriptions will really be helpful when trying to integrate this kind of audio into your story.
Revisit the Scene

Okay, so narrative stories are usually set in the past. But that doesn't mean you can't go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and imagine what the moment in the story would have looked and sounded like.

The BBC's Tunnel 29 did this really well. The story is set in the 1960s, and most of the events in the podcast were never recorded.

But this podcast manages to use a ton of audio.

Most of the audio is from sound effects. (We'll get to those in a bit!) But every once in a while, the host takes us to the location where the action took place.

So... one of the characters is arrested. The next thing you hear is the sound of a clanging prison door and the host's voice echoing inside the prison. She describes the space, staying in the perspective of the man who was arrested.

He would have been taken for processing in this room first. Then moved down this hallway. And then finally taken to this place, where this would have happened.

It's highly effective, mainly because the host is careful to keep us in the story.

She doesn't pop us out to play audio of greeting the prison's PR rep at the front door. Or explaining to the security guard why she has a microphone.

She doesn't layer in the modern day tourists who are visiting the place today.

She keeps us in the 1960s, and describes the prison as the person in her story would have experienced it.
Use Sound Effects…Carefully

Okay, I know what you're going to say. Sound effects sound cheesy. And really, often they do.

I just praised Tunnel 29 for recording inside that prison, but there were also moments during that podcast where the sound effects were totally over the top.

In my opinion. Because all of this is really about taste. And there's no "rule" that says my taste is any better or worse than anyone else's taste.

But I do love using some very carefully curated sound effects. And I find that they sound so much better when used in layers.

So…if someone's telling the story of an epic round of golf they once played, don't just use the sound of a golf swing every time they mention swinging the club.

Use the ambient sound of a golf course layered with the sound of a close-miked golf swing…probably layered with some appropriate music.

Because sound effects often sound less cheesy when layered with music.

And don't get too literal about things! Don't feel like you need to use a sound effect every time something happens in the story that could have potentially made noise.

Pick your moments. And use sound effects to draw the listener's attention to the most important details.
Connect Sound to Story

I love this example so much, I use it in many of my workshops.

No Compromise is a podcast about an extreme group of gun rights activists. You'd expect a whole lot of sounds of guns being cocked and fired.

But one of my favorite moments is when a character is introduced with the sound of birds.

I didn't put random bird sounds on my list of cliches. But let's face it, they're cliche-adjacent. They're almost as overused the sound of two people chatting while walking across leaves!

But look at how No Compromise flipped the script on birds, by connecting that sound to a character in an unexpected way.
Episode 3: Does No-Compromising Really Work?


HAGEN: Alan Powell used to have real ferns on his porch.

ALAN POWELL: And I realized that they were a pain in the ass.

HAGEN: (Laughter).

He lives up by Lake Hartwell in northeast Georgia, so you've got to pull those ferns inside when the temperature drops. Anyway, he has fake ones now.

POWELL: Well, they work pretty good because they're year-round.

HAGEN: Sure.

POWELL: Only problem is I have inherited - every goddamn bird in the world nests in the damn thing.

HAGEN: Do you dislike having bird's nests in them?

POWELL: I dislike the birds shitting on my porch, is what I dislike.
Love it. So good.

I'd like to say that this scene is why they won a Pulitzer. But it probably has to do with the actual journalism…or something.
Ask for a Reenactment

Way back – in another lifetime – I was the technical director for Car Talk.

For those who might have been living under a rock -- or in a country that is not the U.S. -- Car Talk was an extremely popular NPR call-in program where two Boston-based brothers gave advice on car repair.

If a caller mentioned that their car was making a strange noise, Tom and Ray would always, always, always ask them to recreate it. And many of them would play along.

It was audio gold.

So, if someone tells you that they heard an animal in the distance, ask them to recreate the sound that animal made.

If someone mentions starting up their classic car for the first time, ask them to walk out to the garage and start it again.

And if they mention the song that was playing on the radio, 100% ask them to sing the song for you.

My friend and former colleague Erika Lantz used this technique beautifully in The Turning: The Sisters Who Left.

In the first episode, a woman describes joining Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. And whenever she mentions a hymn that was sung at a certain ceremony, we hear her singing a few bars of that hymn.

And then, in a moment of reflection, we hear an echo of that recording being played again, as the woman describes how the words of that hymn had affected her. It's beautiful and haunting.

That podcast was sound-rich and immersive, even though, near as I could tell, Erika was never (or almost never?) actually on scene.

Erika found other ways to draw us into the world of her story. And I didn't once worry about a lack of "scene tape."
And for Goodness Sake...Stop Pretending

This one goes out specifically to my French speaking friend - slash - Twitter enemy.

If I understand the poorly translated Tweet correctly, this person was saying that these last two audio cliches are useful. They can help when unfolding a story.
  • A host interjecting to ask their co-host a question when they obviously already know the answer.
  • A host faking surprise at something that clearly should not surprise them.
Okay, I understand the usefulness of these techniques.

Sometimes, we need to take a beat. Slow down. Give the listener time to catch up. Repeat some information. Explain further. Make sure everyone understands.

Or maybe we just need to create a reason for the co-host to exist? It sounds snarky, but I get it. You've got two voices. They each need to have a role.

Here's my issue…

Why the F are we pretending? Isn't there a more honest way of going about it?

Do we really have to pretend that the host is super-smart and the co-host knows nothing? Can't the co-host interject with more info, rather than an inane question?

Or maybe they can interject with a statement, and then the host can expand on it?

And do they really have to pretend to be surprised?

Or can they just be honest and say something like, "Yeah, the first time I heard that, I thought it was bananas!" Or…"I remember the first time you told me that, and I was, like, WTF?"

Or…get this…you can actually not tell the co-host the story before the recording session, and they can be ACTUALLY surprised.

I have no problem with legitimate surprise. It's fake surprise that annoys me.

And believe me, your audience knows when you're being fake.

I mean, look. This entire newsletter comes down to one, simple idea. Stop being lazy. You want things that make sound? You want a lively conversation?

Great. Those are really worthwhile goals.

But you should be trying to accomplish these things in a way that centers your story. That adds to the conversation. That's not just adding sound for the sake of adding sound. (Or adding an interjection as a way to justify having more than one host!)

Otherwise, you're not adding interest. You're just adding noise.
As always, please share this newsletter with anyone you think might be interested. And, if you're interested in supporting the writing of this newsletter, consider joining the Narrative Beat community. We're small, but we're growing every day.

And one more thing before I let you go!

Some of you might know that this newsletter was born out of CUNY's Journalism Creators Program?

Short version: I was going to start a podcast. But I also needed to make a living. Doing both seemed like too much work for my burnt-out journalism soul. So I started this newsletter instead!

If you have a journalism venture in mind, and you're wondering how you can actually make money doing it, I highly recommend this program. It's a 100-day online-only course, where you would join other inspiring creators from all over the world.

Applications are open now for the fall cohort.

Sept 6:

Happy creating!