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A beginner’s guide to audio storytelling: what you need to know

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Anna Lieberman is a recent graduate from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, studying under the tutelage of Professor Damian Radcliffe, one of WNIP’s foremost commentators. In this article, Lieberman gives an overview of what she learned about audio storytelling during her time at Oregon. 

Everything is a story or everything has a story

The cashier behind the counter at the store. The brick building you sit in class in every day. The events you hear about happening around you. With all of those stories comes audio: a voice, footsteps of passersby, far away conversations between groups of people. Always be listening for your next story with a sense of genuine curiosity, because you could find it anywhere.

How to get clean audio

When recording audio, listen to the recording through headphones and make sure all the sounds are even, whether that’s talk between people or the sound of footsteps near the recorder. Although sound quality can be edited to some extent, it’s ultimately best to record clean, crisp, understandable audio that listeners can swallow and you can edit.

Good recording levels are between -6 and -12. Also keep the space around the microphone away from anything that will scratch or rub against it and disrupt the audio content.

Do your research

If you pitch an idea for an audio story, make sure you research the tangibility of the idea at least a little and make sure you have a decent grasp of the subject and story. It helps to have that in the back of your mind while collecting audio clips and helps with the natural flow of things when you’re in the field reporting.

Marcus Larson/News-Register

Get plenty of natural sound

It’s frustrating when you’re listening to a recording and everything sounds natural and good, then two seconds in you start talking and disrupting the natural sound. Get at a least a full minute of natural sound (or even more) so you can avoid this issue and having to loop the same three seconds over and over again. Also hold the recorder close to the noise of different sounds that might add to your story’s scene.

Deal with the recorder before you get to where you’re going

Make sure the recorder works, has battery, has a memory card in it, and is working with adequate levels so you don’t have to deal with it when you meet your sources.

Outline your stories

Develop a general mood, outline or story flow for an audio piece, but still be open-minded. Remember to go in to an audio story with a general idea of how the end piece will sound, but don’t attach yourself to the idea since something better might naturally come up. It’s good to have that initial guidance, though.

Listen to podcasts

The more advanced novels I read in high school, the more intelligent and articulate my writing became. The same works with an audio story. You can hear for certain styles and make them your own by listening to all kinds of different podcasts. Get a feel for the pacing and techniques of plenty of audio stories and let them inspire you.

Produce for yourself

I love creating audio stories because it’s just plain fun. I enjoy how the way in which I craft a piece conveys a sense of space and emotion to an audience, and the process of creating that story is like a puzzle I keep working on until all the pieces fit. Try to embrace whatever you enjoy about audio storytelling – the editing, the pitching, the interviews with sources,etc. That’s the easiest way to be successful: to make it not feel like work.

Produce for others and know your audience

Although you should utilize the freedom in this class to be creative and explore your audio and storytelling talents, keep in mind your audience. Who will listen to this piece? Is it interesting? Is it understandable? Is it valuable?

Get comfortable using good editing software

My go-to software is Adobe Premiere but Adobe Audition is also good.

Learn the basics of editing, primarily:

  1. how to use crossfades (Effects>audio>crossfades>either constant gain (fade in), constant fade (fade out), or constant power (blend end of one clip with beginning of another)
  2. how to overlay clips (place one clip in one audio timeline and the other in another)
  3. how to adjust volume (right click a clip>audio gain>type in 1, 2, etc. depending on how much louder you want a clip or use negative numbers to make it softer). I’ve used numbers anywhere from -25 to 25, but that’s in extreme situations. Often audio gains between -5 and -5 are helpful enough. You also don’t want to hear static in the background.

Work on your voice

Practice recording yourself talking about different things – scripted and unscripted. Record yourself and play it back. Just keep doing this and getting comfortable speaking into a recorder and recognizing what sounds natural.

Use scripts

Aside from a chumcast (which even then should have an outline),develop scripts for your podcasts after you’ve retrieved all your audio andcreated an official outline. This will promote confidence in your voice andallow you to say what you need to say with good pacing and efficiency.

Two final tips

  1. Always keep headphones, a memory card and extra batteries to hand (don’t forget to check what kind the recorder takes)
  2. Use websites like Epidemic Sound to get royalty free, quality music