Introduction to Audio Storytelling

This chapter includes information about:

  • Edward R. Murrow’s role in radio news
  • The storytelling techniques used in public radio shows
  • Examples of excellent audio storytelling
  • Additional resources about how professionals tell audio stories

Journalist Edward R. Murrow — the namesake of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication — is known for his work in broadcast television news. But it was his earlier work in radio that made his voice known to the nation. During World War II, his radio dispatches from rooftops and air-raid shelters in London brought the sounds of war into American living rooms.

Listen to this example from a year before the U.S. entered the war: Sept. 22, 1940

Edward R. Murrow in London in 1940. Photo from WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections via Washington State Magazine
Edward R. Murrow in London in 1940. Photo from WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections via Washington State Magazine

“I am standing on a rooftop looking out over London. At the moment, everything is quiet. For reasons of national as well as personal security, I am unable to tell you the exact location from which I am speaking. Off to my left, far away in the distance, I see just that thin, red, angry snap of antiaircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky, but the guns are so far away that it’s impossible to hear them from this location. About five minutes ago, the guns in the immediate vicinity were working. I was up here earlier this afternoon, and looking out over these housetops, looking out all the way to the dome of St. Paul’s. I saw many flags flying from staffs. No one ordered these people to put out the flags. They simply feel like flying a Union Jack above their roofs. No one told them to do it. And no flag up there was white. I can see one or two of them stirring just very faintly in the breeze now…”

Throughout the war, Murrow used vivid details and anecdotes to describe life in London. Murrow’s first experience in radio broadcast was during his time as a student at Washington State College. At the time there was no communication program in place, and he majored in speech. His speech professor, Ida Lou Anderson, remained a mentor and sent him notes about his radio presence until her death on Sept. 16, 1941.

Components of Audio Storytelling

The tradition of audio storytelling continues today with the popularity of podcasts and public radio programs.

Audio storytelling is fairly easy to do, but very hard to do well. Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, is an innovator in audio storytelling. Each week, his radio show tells stories related to a theme. In the following video interview, Glass explains how he sees two basic “building blocks” in audio storytelling: anecdotes and a moment of reflection. He also talks about the need to raise questions and then answer them along the way to keep listeners interested.

Glass expands on these ideas an explains what doesn’t make a good story in this “manifesto” published on Transom.org:

[Senior Producer Julie Snyder] told me that one common problem in the pitches we get is that often, people don’t understand that in a narrative story, something has to be at stake. They’ll say, “I’m going to be driving across the country and I’ve bought this tape recorder and I was thinking I’d record the people I meet along the way.” That kind of idea would be hard to turn into a narrative story because there’s nothing at stake. There’s no question driving it forward, nothing compelling that the characters are trying to figure out in these scenes.

Many popular audio shows use anecdotes, stakes and moments of reflection to hold listeners’ attention. Listen to at least one episode or segment from the following list of recommended shows:

This American Life

Affectionately known as TAL, This American Life tells an eclectic range of stories each week on a vast range of human interest topics.
• Listen to “Country Mouse, City Mouse,” by Sarah Vowell from the episode “Small Towns” for an excellent example of telling a personal personal story using scripted narration and interviews.
• The episode “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” provides a variety of approaches to telling audio stories in a short period of time.
• Occasionally the entire show is devoted to a single story, as in “Switched at Birth,” an episode about two babies who were accidentally switched at the hospital and grew up in nearby towns. (You can also listen to other exemplary audio stories at the TAL “Staff Favorites.”)

RadioLab

This show takes on topics at the intersection of science and philosophy, with multilayered sound effects.
• “Finding Emilie,” from the “Lost and Found” episode, tells a personal story about a young woman who loses the ability to communicate after a bike crash — and her breakthrough.
• “Sometimes Behaves So Strangely,” from the “Musical Language” episode, demonstrates and then explains a bizarre auditory phenomenon of repeated speech.

Serial

As the name suggests, Serial tells one long story over the course of a season.
• The first episode, “The Alibi,” sets up the first questions about the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high schooler and the shaky prosecution of her convicted classmate.

Mystery Show

Each episode of this podcast focuses on a “mystery” that cannot be solved with the Internet alone, and host Starlee Kine takes viewers along toward the moment of discovery.
• In “Belt Buckle,” Kine attempts to reunite a unique, long-lost belt buckle with its true owner.
• In “Britney,” she attempts to find out how Britney Spears came to be photographed with a particular novel that sold almost no copies.

Modern Love: The Podcast

This podcast about personal stories of love and loss developed from the popular reader-submitted essays published in The New York Times. Each episode includes a celebrity reading of the essay, plus updates and behind-the-scenes facts.
• The debut episode, “Missed Connection,” tells a story about finding a relationship via Craigslist that ends up being too good to be true.
• In “An Interlude of Clarity,” Judd Apatow narrates a story about a date that includes a trip to the emergency room.

The Power of the Interview

In 2003, David Isay opened the first StoryCorps booth inside Grand Central Terminal in New York. Since then, more than 100,000 Americans have participated by sharing stories and interviewing loved ones. In this TED Talk, Isay explains personal experiences that drew him to audio storytelling and why it’s rewarding to hear people’s stories.

“…Recording these interviews, I saw how the microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talk to people I might not otherwise ever have spoken to. I had the privilege of getting to know some of the most amazing, fierce and courageous human beings I had ever met. … Over the next 15 years, I made many more radio documentaries, working to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Over and over again, I’d see how this simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people, particularly those who had been told that their stories didn’t matter. I could literally see people’s back straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.”

StoryCorps suggests great interview questions for different settings, including these questions for any person in your life:

  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?

Listen to examples of completed stories here: StoryCorps Featured Stories

Additional Reading and Resources

Transom.org: Explore this site for audio recording, storytelling, and editing tips

This Is Radio: A collection of profiles and stories about people who work in public radio

Radio Diaries Teen Reporter Handbook: Helpful guide designed for teens, but useful for anyone

Interviewers on Interviewing: A collection of tips gathered from a variety of professionals