NPR launched a new show, Invisibilia, which they say “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” I listened to the first episode and liked it quite a bit.
The AV Club’s Podmass had this to say about the show:
Invisibilia emulates NPR favorites This American Life and Radiolab, but an overproduced style and overdramatic tone make this debut episode feel a bit manipulative.
To say the show has an overproduced style when in comparison to Radiolab? That’s saying something, even though I don’t necessarily agree. I understand what they are getting at, although I don’t agree with they conclusion they draw. I think it’s simply a matter of practice. I feel like their conversations sound a little stilted, but as they make more shows, it will flow better. As they make more shows, they will get used to it. Radiolab, TAL, and any number of shows didn’t nail it in their first episode.
I have very high confidence they will get better at it for one main reason. They thought very hard about what they are making and they style they are creating for the show.
At the Third Coast conference, co-host Alix Spiegel gave a talk on three styles for three different shows, and how the choices these shows made affected the sounds of their shows. Those three shows were the NPR news magazine (Morning Edition or All Things Considered), This American Life, and Radiolab.
From reading her piece, you will see the path Invisibilia goes down. The conversational style (and digressions) of Radiolab are there, as well as the more intimate position of the reporter / host of This American Life. It sounds like NPR’s answer to both shows, but not quite either. They have a plan for the sound of the show. They gave it a lot of thought.
Which is what I’m here to advocate. Really thinking about what you are making. Making real design choices when it comes to your show.
I like to tell people who ask what their show should sound like (quality, technique, length, etc) that they should make the show they hear in their head. If that’s simply a few people bantering around a few mics, great. If that means going out “into the field” and getting tape, do it. If you want to add sound design elements and lots of production, more power to you.
Make thoughtful choices about what you create. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Don’t just go with the flow and see what happens. There are plenty of shows like that out there. Talk it over with your co-hosts. Sit down with a piece of paper and write it out.
- Decide what your show is, and what it isn’t.
- Decide what your show sounds like.
- Create standards that uphold those decisions.
- If you make something that varies from those decisions, have a good reason to do it. Break your rules for a reason.
Simply putting the thought into what you are doing and why you are doing it, making decisions of what to create, can make your podcast sound so much better. It can provide guiding principles, ideas on what to make, or simply the answer to questions that can crop up later in production.
I won’t say you have to spend as much time as Alix Spiegel or Lulu Miller spent on how Invisibilia should sound, but their work led directly to the sound of their show. You can be certain that Serial went though the same process. If Alix Spiegel’s manifesto is any indication, so did This American Life and Radiolab.
Sounds and qualities can evolve from a show, but not without having somewhere to evolve from. That place comes from thinking about what you want to make in the first place.