When ABC, BBC, CBC and NPR Come to town.

What to do when a behemoth enters your niche?

What to do… Hmmm….

Learn from them!

These people have been making documentaries for decades. They have the process down pat. They can also be sanctimonious know it alls. One particular show out of New York springs to mind but no names, no pack drill.

What can we learn?

Storytelling is the most obvious skill. A documentary, which can go in directions the producer never considered, tells a story. Now we can also learn what not to do from the same process.

S-town springs to mind on this topic. Sold as the new “Serial” it wandered all over the shop, hinting at plot lines, changing them and ultimately leaving me, at any rate, with a story I did not feel invested in, about a character who was unlikeable and told in such a self indulgent manner that I was left angry at the waste of five hours of my life – twice. Yes I listened all the way through a second time in case I’d missed the point of the whole series. I hadn’t. A gay man who had trouble coming out of the closet in rural southern America acquired brain damage by disregarding guidelines for handling mercury and who eventually committed suicide. What was promised in the first episode was a police corruption story. What was delivered was a self inflicted tragedy and a narrator who was out of their depth trying to string together a story that could have been told in 25 minutes. But he’d spent some years on the program and so as much content as possible had to milked out of it.

On the other hand we can learn, even from S-town, how to use soundscaping to enhance our shows, if that’s appropriate. It is worth considering that these corporations work on different incentives from commercial radio and indie podcasters. That being so, we can still draw upon the skills and techniques they have developed over my years.

So the huge sound effects archive at the BBC is not likely to built up by an indie podcaster over many lifetimes. Yet we can access a huge series of sound effects libraries across the web. YouTube provides a fee free to use one here and there are many creative commons and pay per use libraries across the web.

The bigger question is why would you use a sound effect? Does it improve the show? Is it just showing off? Is there anything wrong with showing off?

I have some difficulty getting the amount of soundscaping right or just right at any rate. Here are two short examples I have created and might be helpful. Focus on the background sounds rather than the voice. This will show the added parts. You can decide if they are useful to the story.

Another thing we can learn from these corporations is to take time. Some of the best documentaries I’ve heard from these producers took a long time. Years are not uncommon.

Putting small amounts of audio together for a larger project over time is not unreasonable. This is in fact how great audio stories can be built. I’m sure there’s people out there doing this on the quiet. Slowly creating a powerful opus major from a dedicated approach to a story that just screams out to be told.

Don’t panic if you find one of these giant corporations in your niche. They can’t use or reproduce your voice. Your listeners are generally loyal. Let a thousand flowers bloom and the world will be a more fragrant, beautiful place.

Takeaway

 

  • Soundscaping is a skill.
  • Don’t waste people’s audio time.
  • Sound effects are fun and useful to experiment with.
  • Let a thousand flowers bloom.

 

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