A Lesson in Audio Storytelling from Poynter’s News University

Sound is a vital part of today’s journalism. To gain a better understanding of audio storytelling I took the online course Telling Stories with Sound through Poynter’s News University.

Multimedia editor of the New York Times Andrew DeVigal and visiting professor at the University of South Florida Casey Frechette were the course instructors for this lesson.

In order to understand the process start to finish, the course is divided into 4 sections.

  • Overview: discusses why sound matters
  • Planning: discusses how to choose stories well-suited for sound
  • In the Field: covers everything you need to gather audio on location
  • In the Studio: discusses how to bring everything together

As a beginner, I found everything discussed tremendously valuable. The most valuable part, however, was learning the key steps involved in producing an audio story.

The first step is planning. There are 3 steps in the planning process.

  • Choosing the right story: identifying stories with audio potential
  • Researching and prepping: scouting locations and conducting pre-interviews
  • Packing your gear: gathering basic kit items

Next, the journalist heads into the field. Here, the journalist must be able to elicit complete and descriptive answers from the subject.

In the field, the journalist must also collect various sounds. There are 4 types of sound that are effective in telling a story.

  • Interviews
  • Ambient sound (or atmospheric)
  • Natural sound (or sound effects)
  • Voiceovers

The last step in the process is editing the audio clips into a story. Poynter provides a sound mixer activity for the user to practice this final and critical step.

Prior to this course, I never understand the intense amount of preparation and technical expertise involved in audio storytelling. Audio storytellers must worry about a lot more than the average journalist.

When telling a story with sound, a journalist cannot just go out and record anything. The journalist must understand the sound environment and the gear they will use. And they must understand what sounds they need to tell the story.

A good audio piece does not simply contain an interview with a singluar person. Audio pieces should contain ambient sounds to help the listener understand the feel, or mood, of the place. Additionally, natural sounds should be included to mark an action or transition.

Supplemental and instrumental music can also be effective when carefully and fairly used. Supplemental music can bridge sections of a story, convey a particular mood or change the tone of a piece. Instrumental music can signify a recurrent theme.

Unfortunately, because of the popularity of video today audio storytelling is less prevalent. Podcasts are still relatively popular, but for the most part journalistic pieces containing only audio are not that prevalent. The two audio pieces I did find both utilized another multimedia component.

The first audio piece is from the Washington Post website. The science of cherry blossoms utilizes interview clips from Chief Horticulturist Rob DeFeo, natural sound clips of chalk scraping against a board and voiceover narration to successfully illustrate this story. Without the drawing time-lapse animation, however, the piece would be less successful.

I reterived the second audio piece  from the New York Times website. Whit Stillman’s Family Album uses interview clips with  filmmaker Whit Stillman to explain different photographs from his youth. These audio clips excellently complement the photographs by providing additional insight into his childhood.

Both of these clips exemplify why sound matters. Because without sound there would not be a story.

I urge any journalist interested in audio or video to take this free course. The course offers so many great tips regarding interviewing, recording and choosing gear.