Today’s guest is Bryan Orr from Podcast Movement: Sessions.
Bryan's podcasting story:
Bryan got into podcasting doing a typical interview show around small business. He found he was getting bored listening to his own content. Some guests were great and the application was strong but it wasn’t grabbing attention the way shows like 99% Invisible and This American Life had done. He had a real discontent with what he was producing, so he began Mantastic Voyage with his brother. Now he does more of a narrative style with Podcast Movement: Sessions. It’s not quite storytelling, but synthesis: synthesising information into a story.
A narrative is anecdotes, so descriptions of things that happened, plus emotions or moments of reflection. If you take something that is an occurrence and add in elements of reflections or emotion into it, that can become a narrative. Another way to describe a narrative is to raise questions but be much more slow to answer them using occurrences or a sequence of events. In a question based podcast the host would ask a question and the guest would answer it. But in a narrative based podcast you explore the answer, and you find it by weaving through a set of occurrences.
The pros and cons:
- A good reason to have a narrative of any kind is if you are wanting to make an emotional connection. If you have no interest in emotion whatsoever, making an emotional connection or getting people’s emotions to rise and fall, then don’t do a narrative. If all you’re wanting to do is simply express information and have information absorbed, then narrative doesn’t make sense.
- But Bryan challenges anyone who says that all they’re doing is relaying information because information is absorbed when it’s attached to emotion. If we have no relationship to information given to us then you’ll have a tough time remembering it. But if you can attach information to an emotion, then you’ll remember it. Humans are hard-wired for story. As soon as you hear a story, you’ll listen to it.
- The only reason to decide not to do it is if you don’t have the time, the discipline or a subject matter that has any emotion whatsoever. If you don’t have any time, if what you’re wanting to do is simply create a content machine and not actually go through and edit and write, then don’t do narrative. Narrative requires a great amount of effort on the front, middle and back end in order to pull it off. It requires a time investment a lot of people don’t have, and for certain niches, it may not be worth it.
The steps required:
- The steps required depends on the type of narrative podcast you’re doing. Some are content-centric. For example, Podcast Movement: Sessions is content centric. Take the content that you already know you want to talk about and find the best story you can from within that. It’s easier than starting from scratch. Fiction podcasts start from scratch and are much more difficult because they centre around really good writing.
- First, distill one idea, even if it’s a content-centric podcast. Figure out what the one idea is that everything you’re doing is surrounded around. Think about how you want the podcast to sound: intense, mysterious, funny. How do you want it to sound generally speaking?
- Then start to lay it out on a timeline. What are some pieces you can fit in, and then see the gaps that need effective narration or sound clips to augment it.
- Bryan's editing process has evolved over time as he has used different programs and learned to be a better podcaster over time. His process is to record the audio and load it into Reaper, which is non-destructive software so you can make changes and go back later not having lost the original take. He will then go through and log the tape using markers, making notes at significant points. Brian uses brown, green or red markers: red says ‘no way to use it’, green says ‘definitely going to use it’ and brown says ‘maybe’. Then, aggressively hack it because it’s non-destructive so he can get it all back later if he wants. He will then assemble the piece with all the narration and extras, then do a final edit where he makes it even tighter, and then he does the scoring which is adding the music.
- The timeline also helps in the editing. Loosely, you will know generally the points you want to hit, maybe 6 points. As you log the tape you find the specific things that you want so you fill in the timeline with the specifics, adding more detail until get to a really tight story.
- Bryan says you can still create a good podcast even if you don’t know where you’re going, but it will take more time. It’s better if you have the general outline of where you want to end up and how you want it to sound before you start.
- In Podcast Movement: Sessions the main topic for each episode is the main speaker. Then Bryan weaves in interviews and discussions with other people as well as his own narrative comments. He works ‘in the tape’ a lot. That means he goes through the tape a lot to find some areas that are really strong, and some areas that are weak. It’s nice to have balance from other voices when you have areas that aren’t so strong, that don’t stand on their own that well.
- Bryan turns on a recorder when anyone is willing to talk to him. He has a mobile set-up and does a cell phone interview for the secondary voices. The point of these sections is to create some balance so the audio quality can be less than that of the main interview. He emphasizes the need to get a lot of tape. You never know what you’re going to get, sometimes you’ll get great stuff from unexpected places.
- The ethos of a one-take interview show doesn’t translate into narrative because the whole interview won’t necessarily be strong.
The cutting room floor:
- Bryan uses a list of questions to ask himself to make sure he’s not missing anything in the editing process. Is there an idea of place? Is there emotional balance? Are there ups and downs? In the timeline you can mark this with up arrows and down arrows. Is the story bouncing or falling flat? What are the stakes? What is at stake in the story if the subject if the narrative doesn’t go the way that you hope it goes? Establish that early on.
- Look at your story and if it happens just like someone expects it to happen then it’s not a good story. It has to have some element of the unexpected to it. Rob Rosenthal of the House Down Podcast says use your best tape first, and Bryan follows this advice. Figure out a way to take some of your most engaging audio and use it early on. It creates draw into the story and interest in the story. It establishes the ‘why you should care’ factor.
- Be conscious that whatever you end the story on is what you’re leaving people with. It’s ok to leave it unclosed. Good modern storytelling very rarely has grand summation, however it does have something that you want to leave the audience with and they’re very intentional about that. Whatever it is that you’re doing with your narrative, you want to make sure you’re conscious of that.
- As for out-takes, if it’s good, clip it so you can have it later. If it’s topical and interesting, save it as a clip and maybe you’ll use it later.
- Bryan advises you think of the mood and emotion, make sure the timing is appropriate, give people enough time to digest what just happened and then transition them emotionally into what’s about to happen next. Music is a huge part of that.
- Ira Glass says This American Life uses ‘plinky’ music. The biggest mistake people make getting into narrative is they just use the wrong music. Music for sound and transitions is not the same kind of music that works if you’re doing an interview podcaster type of intro. Pick music that is very understated and simple and mood appropriate to what’s going on. Usually it’s fairly neutral, even for sad scenes.
- Tracking is the name for the cutting of those little narrations in between pieces. What works nice is to not only introduce the next thought, but do some of their talking for them so that the narrations aren’t literally just introducing the next idea.
- Listen to really great narrative podcasts. The RadioTopia podcasts are great examples of narrative podcasts: 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, The Illusionists, Kitchen Sisters, Lost and Found Sounds. That will give you a feel for what is good, it helps you obtain good taste. You have to actually enjoy it yourself. If you’re not passionate about stories at all, it won’t work.
- Listen to podcasts that specifically talk about how to do narrative. How Sound by Rob Rosenthal is the best one around, or Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel. Also look into Alex Bloomberg’s storytelling workshop on Creative Live.
- Go to the Third Coast Festival in Chicago, where the world’s best audio storytellers go to meet and learn to each other.
- Transom.org and Airmedia.org are good places to go.
- Look into Smart Sound, which you can use to create your own music tracks and make them exactly what you want them to be. It’s not cheap but it’s a good resource.
- Just do it. Do it even if you’re never planning on publishing it. Start with your family, start with the stories you can tell about yourself, and sit in front of the microphone and work on editing it. You can’t read your way into becoming a good storyteller or a good editor. Just get started and you’ll find once you put in some hours you’ll be good.
- If you’re going to do narrative, you can’t outsource it. You are going to have to learn how to do it all. Bryan strongly suggests getting in and learning every step of how to do it. Cutting your own tape, doing your own logging, learning how to write your narrations, learning how to write your own music.
If you want more from Bryan you can find him at PodcastMovement.com