Telling Stories with Sound

October 3rd, 2019 By Marisa Jackels

A black and white close-up shot of several sliders on a large audio mixing board in a recording studio.

The first thing you hear is a distant explosion. Then, a high-pitched ringing, electricity buzzing, and suddenly you’re in some sort of jet. Air traffic control comes in over the radio.

“Inspector 12, you’re about four minutes from the border.”

“Copy that,” it’s the pilot. He’s in the cockpit with you. At least, that’s how it feels.

Another whirring noise kicks in, just as our pilot is saying, “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary.”

There’s a pause. The whirring continues.

“Now, wait a second. I’m gonna have to circle back.” An alarm goes off. More gadgets click and whirs surround you as the pilot begins to panic.

“The panel is down… Something’s very wrong here,” he says.

The whirring grows louder and more intense as the pilot yells, “Mayday, mayday, I’m going down!” Suddenly, the air is filled with sound. Then, it is quiet.

This is the beginning of Blackout, a fiction podcast that was released earlier this year. As soon as I heard that introduction, I was hooked. This was my first experience with the medium known as “audio dramas” — fiction podcasts that are created in a style that can be described as an audio TV show.

While they may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering podcasts, which often follow the non-fiction This American Life format, audio dramas are becoming more prevalent in the podcasting world. The style was perhaps made most famous by Welcome to Night Vale, a bizarre and fascinating audio drama released in 2012. Since then other names have risen in popularity including Limetown, The Bright Sessions and The Black Tapes, for example. Others, like Wolf 359, take on a style that hearkens back to the Golden Age of radio shows of the 30s and 40s, a time before TVs when “audio dramas” were the primary source of entertainment. The release of Blackout this year further signifies that this medium of storytelling is making a comeback, and (thankfully) isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The experience of an audio drama is unique in that it is specifically designed to build the story entirely through the sound.

Produced by and starring Academy Award winner Rami Malek of Mr. Robot and Bohemian Rhapsody, Blackout follows radio DJ Simon Itani as he fights to protect his family after the power grid goes down nationwide. In their small town of Berlin, New Hampshire, we are carried through the story by DJ Itani’s interjectory radio updates, dialogue between characters, town hall meetings, music, and Itani’s recordings from the future.

The experience of an audio drama is unique in that it is specifically designed to build the story entirely through the sound. With Blackout, listeners are given certain clues through the dialogue, learning whom to trust and whom to suspect. Listening to it for a second time, I was amazed at the small details I had missed the first time around that now made sense. Throughout the story, our perspective as the listener varies; sometimes it’s as though we are right there immersed in the action, as with the introduction in the jet cockpit. Other times it is as though we are hiding and observing the interactions from afar.

In fact, this is exactly what the director and former political reporter Scott Conroy had in mind. When recording the podcast, which is sponsored by Sonos and made by Endeavor Audio, the actors actually acted out the scenes as though the listeners could see them in order to create the most realistic sound.

“It wasn’t like the actors were sitting around the table reading their scripts — we tried to position them in a way that was organic and they were participating in scenes in the podcast,” Conroy said in an article in the Verge. “That was really helpful, allowed them to be more physical in their acting, and hopefully was sort of more realistic than reading their lines.”

As a first-time audio drama listener, I can attest that the listening experience was unlike any I have ever experienced. The sound design is incredible, offering a totally immersive experience in the story. Without the distraction of visuals, your imagination is allowed to soar, creating the colors and characters in your mind and bringing them to life. Much like getting lost in a novel, an audio drama allows you to feel intimately connected with the story in a way that feels more personal than a TV show or a movie.

When it comes to audio storytelling, Blackout was a great introduction for me into the world of audio dramas. It is the first I’ve listened to, but it certainly won’t be the last.

Blackout recently wrapped up its first season, and you can listen to the entire show on Apple Podcasts, Endeavor Audio, and Player.FM. You can also give it a try by listening to the trailer, here.

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