Miniature Interviews with Three Audio Storytellers
Below, you will find thoughts on audio storytelling and the world of radio from three individuals working within that world in different ways: Cecil Baldwin, star of the cult-favorite fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale, Audrey Quinn, a multimedia journalist and editor who teaches documentary radio at the NYU School of Journalism, and Jon Earle, multimedia journalist. The interviews were conducted separately and edited together to highlight themes: the intersection of creativity and technology, the difference between audio and other storytelling mediums, and how to approach bringing fiction and non-fiction to audiences’ ears.
In radio you take away all the visual cues. You take away the secondary communication system. You have to create a performance based solely on your voice, and the language that you have.—Cecil Baldwin
Emma Wiseman: Everyone coming to New York to pursue the arts has a twisting and turning origin story. I’m curious what drew you in.
Cecil Baldwin: I had written a play about how I moved to New York and was a struggling actor. I’ve always had this very deep voice, ever since I was a little kid. But I had never had any luck in getting cast in voiceover work. So I figured if I can’t sell it, then I might as well give it away for free. So, during our [New York Neo-Futurists] show I offered to record an audience member’s outgoing voicemail message for them, a la Carl Castle on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and we did it for four or five weeks and it was great. Joseph [Fink, co-creator of Welcome to Nightvale] said, "Hey, I have this idea that’s like a radio announcer, NPR, Prairie Home Companion idea except it’s set in a place that’s much more David Lynch, a little more Stephen King," which is totally my wheelhouse—I love weird spooky shit. And it just took off from there.
Audrey Quinn: In my early days of doing radio, I was working at a community radio station in the basement of this house. I found the process of editing and cutting audio, the little details of the fade ins and outs and crossfades, so enjoyable I’d forget to eat lunch. And I never skip meals. Something about manipulating audio I really, really enjoy.
Jon Earle: I spent three years working for this newspaper. I remember one story in particular, about this Russian hockey team called Lokomotiv; the entire team was killed in a plane crash. I spoke with widows, parents, girlfriends, fans, and team administrators and it was a very raw, moving experience. And then I took a train back to Moscow and had to sit down at my desk and look at a blank screen and write this story. Part of me felt that I was doing a disservice to the tones and the tastes and the special texture of the voices...I felt like I was flattening them in a really cruel and needless way. I felt that the voices had to be part of the story for someone to understand the story.
Emma: I’ve always been wary of radio because it seems to require a level of technical prowess that’s beyond me. Was there a lot for you to figure out when you started?Cecil: We made Welcome to Night Vale for a year and a half, literally out of my apartment in West Harlem. Joseph [Fink, co-creator, along with Jeffery Cranor, of Welcome to Night Vale] leant me a fifty-dollar snowball mic to do it and I used free software and he used free software to stitch it all up; it was born in our collective basements, essentially.
Jon: I don’t think [radio is] a tech-heavy thing. There are people on the tech side of it, people who are more technical, and people who can barely find the record button.
Audrey: I’m a technophobe and I never learned how to use audio control boxes with all the levers and stuff.
Jon: The barrier to entry is so low for radio; you can do it with a few hundred bucks; you compare that to film or theatre, you can do it by yourself. You can just go around with your microphone and make something, you can upload it to iTunes, and kind of be a one-man show.
Cecil: With a podcast, you don’t have to produce X amount of books in hardback form, or first write something, and send it to a publisher who decides if you’re good enough; if they deem you worthy then they might pass you on to the next gatekeeper. Doing a podcast is a way to bypass the traditional process.
Emma: The idea of working in a medium that deals with a single sense—hearing—is fascinating. In live theatre, there are so many elements to play with beyond the purely auditory: lights, actors, costumes, puppets, sets. How can an audio storyteller find a variety of artistic tools to use? What about that single-sense nature of radio is unique and exciting to you?
Audrey: Something I’ve been thinking about recently is that you really lead with the tape and try only to tell the story that you have tape for. You might go into a story with a particular idea, but if you don’t have the tape to back that up it’s not going to feel right. You don’t have to always do the work to tell every step of the way, you have to find the best way to present the best tape.
Jon: I was attracted to non-narrated work, getting out of the way, letting people tell their story, and helping them to do it in a powerful, clear way.
Cecil: There’s a lot of playing with character development…Chekov on paper sounds very dry but once you hear someone perform it, it takes on life. And I think it took us a little while to get that under our belts. It’s between the words and it’s in the subtext. It’s not why you say “I love you” but how you say “I love you.”
Jon: I felt that I could connect with people over radio, and not judge them, and get to know them in a way I couldn’t in any other medium. And also the radio ethos was different; it was about ordinary people and time, longer form, taking the journalist out as much as possible—obviously these are generalizations but it’s what appealed to me at the time.
Cecil I always joke that Cecil Palmer (Baldwin’s character on Welcome to Nightvale) is the world’s worst radio host because he has no problems telling you exactly what he thinks on certain subjects.
Emma: I’m curious how your early experiences working in other fields inform your current work and thoughts on radio in general.
Jon: [On TV] you end up excluding people who are less media savvy, less well educated, exactly the people we should not be excluding, because TV has that prejudice towards people who are better looking, etc.
Cecil: The three or four years that I did in classical theatre were indispensable to acting on Night Vale. Because when you’re tackling a piece of Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Moliere, you’re pretty much using the language. The language is the most important thing.
Jon: I felt that radio was a perfect middle ground between what I experienced in print and what I experienced in TV, with huge sums of money, the crew, the prima donnas, the problem of people struggling to come across as natural, discussions of whether someone’s good or not good on TV. There are the conversations in radio if someone’s a good talker or not, but people are usually comfortable in front of a microphone; it takes them a few minutes to adjust and then they’re OK.
Emma: What are some different ways in which language takes on increased importance in this field?
Audrey:It’s about fun little puzzles. I figured out my own system: if you make the cut after the breath, right before the next word, and you put them together, you can make things sound totally natural. If you cut on an “s” sound, those are easier to put together. You figure out little shortcuts. If someone stops in the middle of a sentence and starts again, you don’t start that new sentence again because they’re going to come in really loud; you find the middle of that sentence and the middle of the sentence they stopped and put them together.
Jon: Typically, radio people hate being interviewed. Well, journalists in general. I think they like being on your end. They’re more comfortable asking questions than answering them. You feel the pressure that you hope your interviewee doesn’t feel.
Audrey: I think about a variety of voices. I think I’m less musically inclined when it comes to voices than other producers I know are. I also do more technical stories so I have to be attentive to making sure that when I’m using someone else’s voice to explain makes sense.
Cecil: They used to say that the Elizabethans didn’t go to watch a play, they went to listen. That the audiences’ ears were tuned to pick up those nuances that are inherent in the poetry. [In radio] you take away all the visual cues. You take away the secondary communication system. You have to create a performance based solely on your voice, and the language that you have. You can’t say something very dramatically and then wink afterwards. There’s no wink.