Enough with the mic pics: They’re missing the point

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Will Fisher/Wikimedia Commons

Here's a mic photo Current has used before. (Photo: Will Fisher via Wikimedia Commons)

Will Fisher / Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a mic photo Current has used before. (Photo: Will Fisher via Wikimedia Commons)

Тhey poke into my social media feed, glistening against blurry backdrops. Sometimes they’re heaped atop one another, or nestled between inputs on a mixing board. Other times, clad in retro chrome, they gleam in the smoky darkness. They’re stock photos of microphones doing nothing, used to illustrate think pieces on podcasting and radio.

When I say “doing nothing,” I mean these are microphones into which no one is speaking. It’s just a microphone, hanging out in a studio by itself, with no actual people in sight. Isn’t it odd that we’ve chosen to represent a spoken-word medium, a really human medium, in the most sterile, reductive and mechanical way possible?

micsA few months ago, I started cataloging some of these lonely mics on a Tumblr blog, Stock Photos of Microphones Doing Nothing. The mics are not hard to find; in fact, they’re ubiquitous. Take Nieman Lab’s recent five-part series on podcasting, a well-written and -reported series by Ken Doctor — also illustrated five-for-five with stock photos of microphones doing nothing. But it’s not just Nieman Lab — everyone reaches for the mics, even Current.

I’m here to say: Enough with the microphones. They are wrong. They are bad. And not just because they’re bad visuals. Stock mics actually perpetuate damaging misconceptions about audio programming, and they devalue the work of people like me — work that’s integral to the story-based podcasts which have been so successful, the kind of success many of these think pieces are trumpeting.

Before I get to why, I should note that like most people involved in audio production, I adore microphones. I care about proper mic-ing techniques, etc. Like a lot of audio producers, I’ve spent whole paychecks on mics. And I’ll forgive a good mic’s weakness for handling noises, cellphone signals and the slightest puff of air.

But much as we audio producers love microphones, these hovering mics do not represent what we do or who we are. Audio producers know the difference between what a microphone is — a tool — and the central work of our profession, which is listening.

Now the stock microphone is a visual allusion to live radio, a grand tradition of extemporaneous-sounding oration that extends from Orson Welles to, yes, Rush Limbaugh. Dude meets a perfectly-angled microphone, talks and voila — it’s radio!

By JacoTen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24338929

We’ve used this one too (Photo: JacoTen, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s true that many podcasts have also adopted this kind of extemporaneous, unedited style.

But the story-based podcasts, the ones usually atop the iTunes charts? Radiolab, This American Life, Planet Money — nobody on those shows is just gabbing off the cuff into a microphone.

There are tons of other examples: 99% Invisible or Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History (which I edit) — all these shows get their immersive power from the huge number of professional ear-hours they require. Literally, they involve people sitting, hour after hour, just listening. To interview tape, to rough scripts, to mixes, to the scoring: all of it with their full attention.

Even produced interview shows like Fresh Air, Another Round or Death, Sex & Money have much more in common with studio albums than with live radio — and imagine if bands produced studio albums weekly or even daily. Part of the reason everybody sounds so smart on Fresh Air is that a producer usually spends hours on each interview making hundreds of invisible edits to keep everything tight and on point. That’s the professional norm.


This stock photo of a listener is from a lightbox Shutterstock created in response to Julia’s Tumblr. The collection of photos aims to provide better choices for illustrating articles about podcasting. (Photo: Syda Productions)

Not that you would know any of this from book editor James Atlas, who last year wrote in the New York Times Sunday Review: “The simplicity of audio is turning out to be a big advantage for those who love telling stories. To produce a show — or a non-text-based book — is relatively cheap. All you need is a writer, a studio with tech support, a few characters and, before you know it, you have ‘Serial.’”

Atlas then went on to dismiss the “let’s just talk into the microphone” style of Serial — one of the most expensive — not to mention highly reported, fact-checked, edited and sound-designed — examples of the medium.

Cheap. Before you know it. Let’s just talk. These phrases represent more than ignorance: They’re erasure. I’ve worked in audio production for 20 years, and unfortunately, there’s nothing new to that erasure either. Sadly, I think we producers, with our Canadian-grade levels of modesty, bear a portion of the blame. Our job is after all to disappear, along with evidence of the hours we’ve spent conducting interviews, transcribing tape, assembling scripts, tearing them apart, reassembling, voicing narration, mixing and remixing again.

And of course, only a few of those steps involve a microphone.

A producer’s work is best when it’s invisible, so maybe I can understand why the only image people can conjure to represent that work is … a stock microphone doing nothing. But there’s another problem with those stock mics. They usually sit alone in a studio: they’re microphones for talking at people, not listening to people.

Americans in particular live in a culture that equates talking with power and listening with submission. I think that’s another reason why we producers can’t seem to explain the value of the work we do, or even the fact that attentive, arduous listening is work.

And there’s no good way around that work, because without it, audiences will have a harder time listening when it’s finally their turn. Unlike those who write for the eye, audio producers know we almost certainly have just one chance to reach the listener; that they can’t skim or re-read the boring or confusing parts of a story that might survive a shoddy editorial process. Nor do audiences appreciate the jarring errors that can creep into a mix and get uploaded when we decide to skip that last listen for quality control.

Most importantly, we know that listeners are usually distracted: driving in traffic or walking the dog, checking Twitter or washing the dishes. We still want our work to cut through all that, for the story and human voices to hold people in a trance and not let go. Listening over and over —in groups, with an editor, with an engineer — is the only way to cut a navigable path through the tall grass of the world around our stories.

So that’s why I and other producers are annoyed by this parade of stock microphone illustrations. They tell the wrong story about our stories — that they are conjured up with magic and blab, not extensive, and expensive, work. I fully realize that illustrating the true nature of that work is a challenge — but if anyone has a better idea than the lazy mic, I’m all ears.

Julia Barton is editor of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History and Slate’s Placemakers podcasts, and has produced stories for programs including Radiolab, 99% Invisible, PRI’s Studio 360 and The World. She also runs the immature Tumblr blog Stock Photos of Microphones Doing Nothing.

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