I’ve just listened to the hotly anticipated first episode of NPR’s new podcast ‘Embedded.’

It was a story of an HIV epidemic linked to the abuse of prescription pain pills, and the main reportage was centered around a house occupied by a rolling roster of local drug users. You should go listen to it now, as it’s a fine example of solid storytelling, in that the story is compelling and you care what happens next because of the people in it, not just for the resolution of a puzzle. *

What did strike me quickly though was the awkward sound recording of the episode. So much is obscured by people being off mic, or in several cases, it sounds like the mic was still in the bag, that many of the ‘critical quotes’ are actually quotes read by the reporter.

So much is obscured by people being off mic, or in several cases, it sounds like the mic was still in the bag, that many of the ‘critical quotes’ are actually quotes read by the reporter.

While that’s all you can do as a print journalist, the power of radio/podcasting is that we can hear stories in people’s own words. Or at least we expect that. With all their clever editing and sound design, shows like ‘Radiolab’ and some of the newer shows with a budget simply narrate the good bits.

Sure, they cut to the chase, and it makes for a tidy soundbite ** or two, but that’s most people’s criticism of television news. So why does it seem it’s trending on radio?

Podcasting is the great hope, the standard bearer if you will, for long form audio. Do we really need to keep shortening sentences, plucking out the pithy sound bites, tailoring beautiful edits to heighten the audio experience? Are we polishing too hard and sacrificing the guts for the luster?

In the case of Embedded, the show seemed more hampered by inconsistent audio than anything else, and I am guessing that it’s the reason for so much narration in a show that I thought was a documentary.

The net effect of so much narration is that the story becomes about the reporter’s experiences and not about the people interviewed. That’s a style choice you will have to listen for and make your own decisions about – but again, the lack of good field audio seemed to leave it up to the reporter to ‘report’ rather than document.

I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, but can imagine how hard it is to record good audio in a room full of people ashamed of their own illegal behavior. I’m certain that had a huge impact on how things were recorded. Having done documentary work around the drug scene, I realize discretion is more than just the better part of valor – it can literally save your life. That and a good ‘local fixer’ to go before you and break the ice.

The challenge is to create a documentary or to ‘tell a story.’ Neither one is more valid than the other. This American Life is the perfect example of storytelling. Some stories are pure narration, some have a little music or sound design, some feature field recordings of actual participants.

Some shows, such as Radiolab, throw every trick in the book into a story, though again I notice how often the interviewee’s voice fades out and the very polished words of the narrators tidy it all into something more…’polished’ to end the idea.

As is de rigueur on Gearslutz.com – Your Mileage May Vary.

But if (and I’m not impugning Embedded) bad audio forces you into narration, that’s a tricky place to be. I believe narration shifts the focus on who’s telling the story, and we start listening to the crafted words of a professional story teller rather than examining the first-hand account and drawing our own conclusions.

This matters because it blurs the lines between journalism and opinion. Pure journalism is documentary in nature. To editorialize or ‘interpret’ is not the role of the journalist. All stories should be aware of ‘telling a story’ or ‘making a story’ out of the parts of people’s words and deeds. Much of what we see purporting to be ‘news’ or ‘current affairs’ is manufactured to propel a previously held opinion by the ‘reporter’ (in this case a misuse of the word) or an editorial director.

Good sound on location means people can tell their own stories. This often takes longer to organize and accomplish than ‘news’ permits. We understand that. But when a show calls itself ‘Embedded’ I draw the natural conclusion that they (the reporter) are sticking it out long enough to get the whole story. This means building the trust of your subjects and learning the intricacies of your environment sufficient to organize a decently recorded interview.

Good field craft with your audio gear makes this easier. Being creative and flexible with that gear is essential. Knowing when it’s just not a good idea to record is a survival skill. Knowing how to work around the audio holes in your story is a long journey filled with technical, artistic and ethical questions.

In the Embedded story, producer Kelly McEvers has to ask hard questions of people desperately trying to avoid personal and legal exposure. I’m not sure staying month after month would have yielded anything more than what she got. It’s scary, and it’s risky, and waving a mic around attracts the wrong kind of attention in many circumstances.

She told a great story – but how much of that storytelling was shaped by not having great sound? I don’t know, and I’m asking these questions to stimulate thinking about sound recording techniques – certainly not to criticise. Again, I wasn’t there and I don’t know. But I am aware of how the use of narration can colour and even redirect a story. In this case, I felt the story became about Kelly McEvers’ experiences as well as the people who she set out to interview. Simply because the reporter told the story, rather than the people who the story was about. I don’t see anything wrong with that if you’ve set out to tell a good story – but I do see the possibility that documentary storytelling is getting a bit lost in all the production.

Rabbit Trails:

* I find the victim in most TV murder shows is merely a part of the puzzle. We very rarely get to emote for the corpse, just goggle at it like drivers passing a car crash. We are made to feel bad for the investigator who struggles to solve the puzzle, and hatred for the guilty party so we can get our daily dose of vengeance to make ourselves feel more puritanical and have the emotional release we crave. It’s of some concern to me that TV would use rape and murder to entertain us, and give us the empty emotional experience of railing at the protagonists. Also, we love to solve puzzles, but surely ‘who done it’ is the lowest form of creativity when it comes to puzzle making in this day and age. Could we not find something interesting in real life rather than inventing the ‘death de jour’ for another autopsy show? Death is not for entertainment, and don’t think rape will ever be treated seriously while it’s trivialised as television drama.

** sound bite

Noun: a short extract from a recorded interview or speech, chosen for its succinctness or concision.

The chief complaint is that soundbites lack or are often times modified by the wrong context. Very few ideas can be truly explored in a sound bite. And finally, those who speak in sound bites often turn out to be that shallow. That goes for those who speak them, and those lazy enough to report by them.