‘The Pub’ #33: Ann Heppermann on the rebirth of audio fiction

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Heppermann (Photo: Sabine Rogers)

Heppermann (Photo: Sabine Rogers)

Scoring, sound effects, scene, narrative — they’re the hottest tools in the hands of today’s most innovative audio journalists, and yet they come from the very non-journalistic world of fiction.

“We have the popularity of narrative nonfiction. Well, that’s just us as journalists pulling concepts from fiction and putting it into nonfiction,” veteran independent producer and audio fiction evangelist Ann Heppermann told me on The Pub. “So, in a way, it’s like fiction is going to take it back, you know?”

Indeed, some of the most-downloaded sound-rich narrative podcasts out there aren’t journalistic at all. They’re fictional shows, like Welcome to Night Vale and Radiotopia’s The Truth. Not since the 1930s heyday of radio drama has it been such an exciting time to do make-believe for the ear.

On this week’s episode, Heppermann plays us some of the exciting, genre-bending fictional work she commissioned for the website of The Sarah Awards, a new international competition she has co-founded with the support of Sarah Lawrence College to spur a new generation of audio-fiction creators.

Also on the show:

  • I and Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton discuss the ways in which public media’s internal values might not jive with those of the audience.
  • A conversation with Dave Dickey, the recently retired head of Illinois Public Media’s agricultural service, about public media’s ongoing role serving rural communities.

Also: We’re doing a live show in Los Angeles Sept. 25! Seats are very limited, so go here to register for your free tickets.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at adam@current.org or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to adam@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

  • Mark Pugner

    My biggest pet peeve with audio fiction is too many sound effects, so I didn’t really enjoy the examples mentioned. My favorite audio fiction is a BBC production of The Lord of The Rings, a cast of characters, and a good script made it a great listen. Writer’s are needed to write for audio. The script is more important than the sound effects. The point about chewing into a mic sort of supports this. You don’t need to eat into a mic to review food.

    I also don’t mind a podcast not having perfect audio quality. A sick person’s voice or a bit of background noise or distortion are easily filtered out by the human brain. Radio professionals need to realize that the public aren’t really audiophiles and don’t really notice the imperfections that professionals do.

    • fuzzy

      Some people’s brains just work differently, I think. You may not like sound effects, but others find a depth of meaning in them that goes far beyond words, and gives the story a unique immediacy that is more akin to music. But if you prefer just focusing on words, or the way you take in information is not acclimated to that way of listening, it may be too much information for you to take in at once. It’s really an individual thing that is a combination of experience and brain chemistry — like musical taste. Some people get it, some people don’t. But just because it’s not for you doesn’t make something bad.

      Also, to say that audio professionals should not worry about audio quality is like telling a chef that presentation is meaningless. Or like saying “a table only needs to stand up and be sturdy to do its job — it doesn’t matter how smoothly it’s carved or if the paint job is sloppy or how its placement affects the rest of the room…” It’s also like telling a musician that technical proficiency is a waste of time. A bad recording is the same thing as a bad performance. People who take pride in their work consider the whole presentation, and take great care to make it right. It is never a bad thing to take pride in one’s work.

      • Adam Ragusea

        I never said audio professionals should not worry about audio quality. I said they should readjust their priorities. Proper mixing and mastering is many orders of magnitude more important than the difference between a $100 mic and a $1000 mic.

        • fuzzy

          That was actually in response to Mark, sorry for the confusion.

      • Mark Pugner

        I like your analogy to the cooking world! It reminds me of great artwork. Audio professionals should think of themselves as artists. But audio engineers need to think about what the art is. Is it the perfectly engineered sound file, or is the story the piece of art? It can be that both are great art. An amateur recording of a beloved, deceased relative would be very valuable to the family, even though it was not expertly edited.

        • fuzzy

          The “art” is the experience the producer is creating for the listener. The way something is engineered, when done artfully, can affect a listener’s perception of the meaning of the story. The low fidelity of archival tape has an undeniable charm, as does an interview a guy recorded on his iPhone. Using these elements is a choice (conscious or not). The story is being told *through* the medium.

  • PleasureTown Oklahoma

    I’m a big fan of PleasureTown, but I’m biased.

  • MarkJeffries

    And as to why audio fiction had died out until lately, we have to remember the famous quote of George Bailey (although a lot of people thought that it was David Giovannoni) in which to the question “Where is the place for radio drama on public radio?” he responded “1938.” (The date is changed depending on where you’ve heard this.) The thing is that Ira Glass had to bring it through the back door and call it storytelling for people to notice it.