Alexander Danner Turns Love of Podcasting into a Class
Faculty member Alexander Danner teaches a course in Podcasting in Emerson’s Professional Studies department. To learn more or to sign up for the three-session podcasting workshop in September, visit Professional Studies.
by Alexander Danner
I was slow in coming to audio. The first, and for many years, last audio book I listened to was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, as read by the author; it was an awful experience, but it was a good fifteen years before I understood that the problem was with the reader, not the act of reading. Like many writers, King is not the best reader of his own work. Still, that bias against audio books lingered, and infected my attitude toward audio narrative in general, from classic NPR to modern podcasting.
But when I finally fell for podcasts, I fell hard. The credit for challenging my bias goes to my wife, who insisted that I give a chance to Welcome to Night Vale, an odd indie fiction podcast, starting with “The Sandstorm,” a two-parter about the mirrored realities of a pair of creepy little desert towns. Next came Jonathan Mitchell’s anthology, The Truth. The first episode, “Moon Graffiti,” is a chilling alternate history reenactment of the moon landing, that held me mesmerized as I lay listening to it, my headphones on in bed, in the dark. That was it for me. I was in love.
Of course, the most well-known podcasts are in very different molds, the vast majority of them non-fiction. Once I’d crossed the audio threshold, I devoured these too, from polished true crime investigations (Criminal), to smartly funny explorations of folklore and mythology (Spirits Podcast), to accessible and engaging introductions to art history (The Lonely Palette). Some are simple, with a voice or two, usually edited for time and flow, but otherwise unadorned; others blend sound and music into the stories they report, as both illustration and atmosphere, highlighting the power of sound itself to create immersion in a narrative, or to clarify an idea.
After Night Vale and The Truth, it would be some time before I discovered more audio dramas—scripted stories with roots in the tradition of old time radio plays, but with contemporary aesthetics and storytelling. First I found audio magazines for short stories, like Podcastle or Lightspeed, which scratched my itch for good audio fiction, but didn’t quite draw me deep into their worlds the same way those first few full-production audio dramas did. But that world was already blossoming. Indie audio dramas like The Bright Sessions, Uncanny County, The Infinite Now, and Our Fair City were already underway, and the ranks of these smart, innovative takes on storytelling are booming. We’re even beginning to see serialized podcast musicals; I guarantee, the wonderfully bizarre The Fall of the House of Sunshine is like no other media you’ve ever experienced.
Several excellent shows have come out of Emerson itself: the time travel historical drama arsParadoxica, created by alums Mischa Stanton and Daniel Manning; the magic realist journey The Far Meridian, by alum Eli Barraza, with production by Stanton; and the Thrilling Adventure Hour, by Ben Acker and alum Ben Blacker.
The more I listened, the more I wanted to be a part of this inspiring new medium.
In my creative life, I have always been a dabbler. Both in terms of dipping into arts outside my own main focus—a drawing class here, a bookbinding class there, an acting class, a cooking class—and even within my own constant avocation as a writer. Fiction, poetry, plays, comics, you name it, I’ve probably tried my hand at it. Very few creative pursuits have ever felt outside my capacity to at least attempt. With one exception: sound.
As a grad student at Emerson, I often walked past the recording and broadcast facilities, so captivatingly visible through the ground-floor windows of the Ansin building, and once or twice found myself inside that space. I’ve rarely felt so overwhelmed by equipment beyond my ken: enormous mixing boards, amps, polygonal acoustic foam, all the many kinds of microphones with their varied and discrete purposes. Not to mention the glimpses of the software used to manage all those sounds, with their alien waveforms and impenetrable jargon. I couldn’t fathom any of it, and I swore that the creative enterprise I would never fool myself into thinking I could undertake was sound.
Ten years later, spurred by my fascination with the phenomenon of podcasting, I broke that vow. I have spent the vast majority of my time working in sound ever since.
So how did that happen? To start with, it turned out that most of the equipment in those broadcasting studios isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks. Better yet, most of it is completely unnecessary to a beginning producer—most particularly, those hulking sound boards that dominate such spaces. And advancements in technology have helped to simplify much of the process of recording and sound production to make even more of that equipment optional.
For a simple chat show, all you need are four things: a computer, a basic microphone, a digital audio workstation (DAW—this is the software for editing audio), and a quiet place to record. If you own a Mac, then you’ve already got the DAW as well (Garageband), but there are free programs available for any platform. Additional equipment and tools can help add polish to your show—but in podcasting, it’s normal to start basic, and only add new components as you gain the confidence to do so. Allowing time for development and business planning is always a good idea, but on a purely technical level, even a complete audio novice can launch this type of podcast in a matter of weeks.
For an audio drama, you need a bit more time and equipment, but not by much. My old Emerson classmate Jeff Van Dreason and I began writing our audio drama Greater Boston—a slightly magical exploration of Boston’s culture and history, through the eyes of a varied ensemble of Bostonians—in 2014. We took our time with pre-production, not launching until March of 2016. Since we were writing a fully-scripted 12-episode season, we wanted to be sure we’d be able to stay on our broadcast schedule and produce a cohesive story, so we wrote the entire season before we broadcast the first episode. Not all podcasts work this way, but this process worked very well for us—especially as the time between beginning to write and beginning to broadcast allowed us ample opportunity to learn the processes of recording and production (with help from a musician friend, Marck Harmon).
We began our audio editing education with Garageband, as it was free and already on our computers. As DAWs go, it’s limited, very stripped down in tools and features. Which was perfect for us! As complete novices, having all the extraneous functions out of the way made it much easier to learn the basics. We kept our first few episodes focused on monologues, so that the sound design could focus more on mood and atmosphere than on physical action. Later episodes were more dialogue driven and allowed the characters to be more physically active—this allowed us to ease into the process of production; we increased the complexity of our design in pace with the increasing complexity of the script, learning each new technique as we needed it.
I’ve since started work on a second show, What’s the Frequency? by James Oliva, which I’m designing. It has a far more cinematic style, with much greater focus on character movement through space, physical action, and experimental embellishments.
Only three years into my career in sound, and I’m already employing aural techniques that only six months ago I would have thought beyond my abilities. The speed with which modern technology has turned audio broadcasting from an intimidating, seemingly impenetrable science to an accessible medium open to anyone committed to just doing it is astonishing and wonderful. With the tremendous popularity of non-fiction podcasts, and the rapid growth in popularity of fiction and drama podcasts, the future of this medium is bright, and wide open to the vision and voices of emerging journalists, storytellers, critics, and teachers of all stripes. And it’s all easier than you think. ♦