The Story from Hear: Podcasting as Storytelling

Radio producer and UBC creative writing professor Jennifer Moss will be teaching a Hollyhock course on podcasting alongside acoustic ethnographer Jenni Schine this August. In advance of the course, Jennifer spoke with the Vancouver Writers Fest about her own experience with podcasts and what attracts her to the form.

What made you fall in love with podcasting yourself?

The bus. I fell in love with the way a story, played on demand, could transform my commute to and from UBC, where I work. The journey went from an aggravating exercise in shallow breathing and feigned patience with other people’s overheard conversations about sports, to a special, focused time where I got to learn something. A time that, thanks to podcasts like This American Life, Radiolab, or Theory of Everything, no longer felt like a waste of time in an overcrowded metal lockbox – but a cocooned time with a capable podcast host like Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, or Benjamen Walker guiding my thoughts while the bus gently brought me where I needed to go. I’d arrive at my destination, enriched and inspired… it was totally transformational!

There’s a steep, ongoing rise in the number of podcasts, not to mention audiobooks and author aural storytelling forms. Why do you think there’s an increased interest in this media form?

I think there are several reasons for this. One is the intimacy of audio. When you listen to a podcast, someone – and often a very specific someone – is literally whispering in your ear. It doesn’t get closer than that. So, podcasts need to feel real, authentic, and naturally-paced. Even in fiction-based podcasts, this banner of “authenticity” is taken seriously in terms of the voice. Take the brilliant Welcome to Nightvale, a podcast structured like an actual community radio show. Through the show, which includes realistic elements like news, messages from sponsors, and a community calendar, listeners get acquainted with this fictional town beset by strange haunting events.

Second, much has been made of the sense of co-authorship that listeners feel when they hear an audio story. Because their brains are not being spoon-fed the visuals, they are engaging their imagination more. A podcast is a two-way street between listener and storyteller. A podcast audience is therefore a loyal, attentive, involved audience.

Third, and this is a big one, podcasts are downloadable and portable. Every smartphone comes with a podcast player. So, you can listen to a story while commuting, while vacuuming, while at the gym – as an alternative to the Christian rock station or whatever else is being shoved at you. For many people, tired of the way private radio stations dumb down their content and aim it right for the middle of the mainstream, this chance to intelligently curate the soundtrack of their own life is a welcome change.

Fourth, I think the business models for podcasts are really getting worked out now. In my capacity as Creative Director at JAR Audio, I’ve seen firsthand how brands are learning that sponsoring a really cool, smart podcast can build loyalty, albeit indirectly. And advertisers have realized that whispering in people’s ears amounts to unprecedented access to an educated, erudite audience. So far, ads in the podcasting space are being handled fairly deftly, in a way that attempts to preserve the authenticity of voice so critical to the medium. And finally, people just love to be told stories. Reading a story on the page is one thing, but there’s something about a podcast that can give you this secure feeling – like when you sat on your mother’s lap and listened to a story read aloud, just for you. It’s very powerful.

Listening to podcasts is one thing, but being able to create them oneself is something else altogether. Is it as daunting as people think? What are the biggest misconceptions about creating your own podcast?

The biggest misconception is probably that it takes a lot of technical wizardry to make a podcast. This is simply not true. Megan Tan, the creator of the successful Millennial podcast, told me she recorded most of her first season on her smartphone. If you listen to it, you can hear her figuring out how to edit as she goes along. But it works because of the content. Her podcast documents her post-university “what do I do now?” stage of life in an evolving and authentic way. Of course, as with anything, there are worlds within worlds and it is possible to create an incredibly well-produced podcast that leans into the technology more heavily. Just listen to the extensive list of audio credits on a show like Blackout (starring Rami Malek and sponsored by SONOS), and you’ll hear what I mean. Another worry people have is cost. But there is free, or relatively cheap audio editing software out there that is easy to learn and that does the job perfectly well.

And I guess another big thing people worry about is the time commitment. There’s this idea that once you start, you’ll be married to your podcast come hell or high water. This is only partly true. While consistency is important in order to build listenership, you and you alone are in charge of how often you release an episode. And there are tricks. You can bank episodes to give yourself a little bit of a cushion, for example. Or you can co-host with a friend, and take turns. Finally, you can commit to one “season” and see what happens.

Your workshop, The Story from Hear, introduces people to the power of soundscapes, and beginning to use tools to create one’s own podcast. What’s the first step in this process?

I’m super excited about this workshop because it brings together such an eclectic and interesting group of creators. We have local Indigenous media makers, sound artists, acoustic ethnographers, radio journalists, writers, and podcasters of varying levels of experience coming together.

So, the first thing we do is figure out who is in the group and what their strengths are. For instance, you might not be familiar with audio editing, but you’re a writer who knows pacing, story beats, and character development. Or you might be an audio editor who would like to learn more about how to establish a sense of setting, or place, in your story. Perhaps you are already familiar with audio editing and brought your own Zoom recorder, or maybe you barely know how to use voice memo on your smartphone, but you’re keen to learn. By figuring out who is in the circle and what skills they bring, we are able to create a supportive and organic learning environment where everyone is an expert at something, and everyone, including me, has something to learn. So, we do a lot of small group work, skills trading, and talking at first.

The next thing we do is really focus on listening, to each other, and to the natural and built environment at Hollyhock. No matter where you are on your audio journey, there is always room to deepen your connection with sound, and to learn more about how to write for the ear, not the page. We take long, listening “soundwalks” in the forest, which are incredibly powerful in terms of connecting you to the art and soul of audio storytelling.

Next, we create opportunities for participants to record and edit, and actually begin to manifest their ideas, with lots of support. Last year we had a scientist in the group who wanted to learn podcasting in order to talk about her scientific findings to a broader audience. She had literally never used a recording device before – and she managed to create a short piece during the workshop that was later broadcast on Cortes Radio.

And finally, we do these really fun and cozy, screen-free “listening parties.” It’s basically a darkened room where we all get comfortable, and people share audio work – their own or the work of others – with the group. We talk about what we hear, what works, what inspires.  This is a great place to lay out an idea for a podcast and get feedback on it.

Tell us more about place-based podcasts, and the power they can hold. And—What are some examples of compelling, place-based podcasts you would recommend?

Well, there are actually two interpretations of this question. There’s this trend of “place-based audio stories” that are either timed experiences designed to be listened to in a particular place, or that are connected to augmented reality apps and can unlock different parts of the story responsively as the listener moves from spot to spot. This technique can be a powerful storytelling tool, as you can reference the actual setting the listener is standing in – driving home the story with more force. A good example of this type of thing might be Relics, a specially-commissioned episode of Nate de Mateo’s The Memory Palace that invites guests of the Freepoint Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., to cross the street and wander around an adjacent garden while he tells a story.

But the other interpretation of the question is really more about how audio storytellers can create a sense of place within their story, regardless of where the listener is located while listening. A piece like the Learning to Listen to London episode of Bang and Olufsen’s Sound Matters with Tim Hinman really explores this potential. The incredible body of work by Hildegard Westerkamp pushes even further into this sonically-led exploration of place. Sound and place are interconnected at a very deep level. We use sound to determine place when we cannot see. In the dark, it’s the quality of the sounds around us, how clear, how flat, how echo-y, that give our brain information about the space we’re in and allow us to find our way.

As part of The Story from Hear workshop, we dive into the incredibly rich and beautiful soundscape of Cortes Island, the place where we’re all “living” at least temporarily, and where some of the participants live year-round, and where some have ancestry dating back thousands of years. We look at how to bring the sounds of this particular place forward in the audio work we’re creating. This exploration includes the sounds of the environment – and also the voices of the people of the island.

As you know, at the Vancouver Writers Fest we love our books! Are there any good podcasts on literature you would recommend?

Bien sur! Being a creative writing instructor at UBC, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Vancouver’s own awesome literary feminist podcast, Fainting Couch Feminists. Brought to you by Room magazine, a recent episode featured my colleague and friend Sarah Graefe in a conversation about Swelling With Pride, her anthology celebrating the conception and adoption stories of LGBTQ2 families.

I also quite like the chatty and casual Book Fight: Tough Love for Literature – which is basically just a couple of authors fighting about books they love.

The Penguin Podcast is great for getting “under the hood” and looking at the creative processes of various Penguin Books authors. The podcast gets authors to bring in actual objects that inspired them while writing, and talk about them in relation to their work. Fascinating.

And finally, I love the simple treatment in The Writer’s Voice by The New Yorker, featuring writers reading their short stories out loud.

For bibliophiles, what do you think they see in the form of podcasting? How do both mediums enable imagination?

Well, it’s got to do with that co-authorship quality again. In general, in podcasting, as with books, you imagine the story as it’s told to you. So, listening to a podcast, like reading, is an active mental process that leaves room for your own creativity. And regardless of your chosen story platform, be it page, screen, or soundwave, setting is and always has been important to storytelling.

Place-based podcasts really embrace the fact that where a story happens deeply affects our understanding of events. So just as there are some novelists who lean more into descriptive writing about place, there are audio pieces that emphasize place more profoundly, and really transport you so you feel like you’re there. The old writing adage “write what you know” applies to podcasting as well, and one thing that everybody knows is the sound of the place where they live. Every place has a soundscape, and soundscapes are as important and as varied as landscapes. I find podcasting to be a natural extension of writing, and of reading.

Bottom line: people love hearing stories. In my mind, the only thing I’ve ever found that’s as nice as curling up to read a good book, is having one read aloud to me. I think this is what’s behind the success of podcasts and audiobooks. It’s not about laziness or the death of text. It’s about warmth, intimacy, and portability. A good podcast is basically like a good book, with the power to evoke place, that you can read on the bus without getting carsick.

Tell us what you’re most looking forward to about your upcoming workshop.

One of the main goals is to help participants learn how to notice and record the particular sounds of a particular place that will make their story feel unique. I also want audio storytellers to consider their own relationship to the places and people they are recording.  To this end, I am really looking forward to collaborating with co-facilitators Jacqueline Mathieu, a talented audio storyteller from the local Klahoose first nation who was part of the Deep Roots initiative on Cortes Island Radio, and Jenni Schine, a community-engaged researcher, sound artist, and broadcaster based on Vancouver Island. Both these women bring an incredible depth and breadth to the exploration of place and sound. And of course, as always with Hollyhock workshops, I’m looking forward to the fabulous food, and the hot-tub under the stars!

Learn more about Jennifers’s workshop and explore other course offerings at Hollyhock.


Lauren Dembicky