Mark Riechers and Anne Strainchamps – Producers, Interviewers

 

Laura Perry:

Welcome to the spring 2021 Podcasting with Purpose series, which is hosted by the Humanities for the Public Good at University of Iowa, and supported by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and the Mellon Foundation. And as part of our goal to prepare graduate students for a wide range of careers serving the public good, Humanities for the Public Good is exploring new and innovative modes of interpretation, and storytelling, and meaning-making, which are methods that people joining us are just fantastic at. This spring 2021 Podcasting with Purpose series brings together experienced podcasters and audio makers to discuss their craft and how academics can connect their research, teaching and advocacy with the wide world of podcasting.

I’m Laura Perry, I’m a postdoctoral fellow on the Humanities for Public Good grant, and I’m formerly a managing editor at Edge Effects magazine and a radio host at a WSUM 91.7 FM, both based out of University of Wisconsin, which is where I first met these two lovely people.

I’m very excited to be speaking today with Mark Riechers and Anne Strainchamps who help create and produce To The Best Of Our Knowledge, a nationally syndicated Peabody award winning radio show. Anne is the host of To The Best Of Our Knowledge, and she co-founded the show along with Steve Paulson and Jim Fleming, and has been a featured interviewer on the program for more than a decade. And Mark is a digital producer for To The Best Of Our Knowledge, and also formerly worked as a science communicator for UW–Madison and U Chicago.

I’ll ask a few questions to get us started, and then we’ll throw it open to the audience who’s joining us for some questions. Anne and Mark, thanks so much for joining us today. Tell us about your show. What was the brainstorming thought process like as you were founding it many years ago, as you’re conceiving up new episodes now, and who was the intended, imagined audience and who’s the actual audience who’s listening?

Anne Strainchamps:

Well, okay. I’m just thinking this is slightly embarrassing to admit or maybe it’s a good thing to admit, but the show is 30 years old. So it’s just a little bit younger than Mark is.

Mark Riechers:

I wasn’t going to say it.

Anne Strainchamps:

Steve and I were 10 when we began it. We were both at Wisconsin Public Radio and I had worked at NPR before then, and Steve had been working in radio for a while, had his journalism degree from here. He was at that time running the talk show department at WPR. WPR is one of those old, land grant based public radios, networks now, licensed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has a big wide range of live daily calling it does.

Steve was managing those. I was the news director at the time. We were both sick of what we were doing mostly because… Well, we both wanted something that went deeper. I felt like what I was producing on the news was never more than six minutes long, and was mostly about public policy. And Steve felt like what he was producing was calling shows that were also mostly about public policy, but that also had none of the artistry that radio can have when you have the time to edit and do other things. We’re both the kind of people who sort of thought maybe we’d be professors and then wound up in adjunct humanities-ish sort of careers, which is what public radio is.

We just wanted to do something that spot lit what we thought was so wonderful about academia, and what at that point we really missed from our college educations. The whole world of ideas and deeper inquiry. And so To The Best Of Our Knowledge really began as this… Well, our boss at the time called it academic journalism. The idea was to marry the exploration of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge that comes out of academia with the journalistic narratives, the narrative drive and the attention to holding an audience.

That was the initial idea, and I’d say that that’s still pretty core to the show, although how the show sounds has changed dramatically over the years.

Mark Riechers:

I was very late to the party, but just a little bit of my background, I worked in academia just working with professors and academics on how to translate their research to share it with the public. I started at UW in engineering covering material science and things like that. I did give myself a crash course in biomedical technology. I remember asking a biomedical professor how she felt about her discovery, and she said “that is a ridiculous question. I felt that my research got funded.” But I did feel there was merit to behind the story, and so I always found a home for that stuff first at the University and then at U Chicago. And then when I came back home, I was fortunate enough to be taken in by these lovely people who let me do it.

Anne Strainchamps:

We were very lucky to get Mark. And Mark represents the third stage of To The Best Of Our Knowledge. The first stage was a three day a week, hour long show, just straight interview, nothing more. Second stage, we switched distributors, we became more of a national show, we cut it down to two hours and then one hour a week, increased all the sound production. And the third stage, which is where Mark joined us, was going digital. Taking podcasting seriously, and developing the whole third rail of everything digital that Mark does. Mark created a website, Mark created a social media whole side of what we do. He writes, produces, acquires articles for the website, produces short little tiny films, he pushed us into doing events, he’s really moved us into more of a multimedia platform than we ever would have done without him.

Mark Riechers:

And the thing I would say though is that every group of people who has worked on this show has been thoroughly represented in every episode we produce. The interests, the passions, everyone has creative input. Maybe even possibly during a job interview, you guys brought me into a pitch meeting and they were just like, “What great ideas do you have?” You’re just such a warm, wonderful, creative group of people. And the show still really very much represents the people who are working on it now and I think that’s great.

Anne Strainchamps:

The other thing I wanted to say that I’m guessing might resonate for folks in Iowa, Wisconsin Public Radio began as an educational radio network. It was part of the University of Wisconsin and there’s this famous phrase, the Wisconsin idea from early progressives at the UW. But it’s the idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. So that still really infuses what we do, this idea that we are part of making a bridge between what happens in academia and the wider more general public. So that’s still really important to us.

Laura Perry:

So you have spoken a bit about this, but I’m curious how, with the arrival of Mark and all of the digital accompaniment and, as you said, Anne, taking podcasting seriously, did that shift what the show was about? In the most basic sense, did you find yourself driven by SEO and hoping that you would go viral and thinking about that as a new element of the show, or did it mean that you found new audiences because there were people who didn’t have a long daily commute who were now finding the show and could listen to it over dishes and things like that?

Anne Strainchamps:

Yeah. I think that, for sure, it immediately, just as cable did for television, increased our reach. There’s still something of a tension. We are both a radio show and a podcast, so we’re both broadcast and podcast. Really, if you think about broadcast, the idea is always to make things extremely accessible, even though the public radio audience, the NPR core audience is an audience of lifelong learners, people who are intensely curious, independent thinkers. Nevertheless, there’s this idea in radio that you need to make things as accessible as possible.

Podcasting is what, 15 years old? But as it’s developed, it’s turned out that podcasting lets you do much more niche kind of stuff. There are what, 10 podcasts out there on linguistics? You can go very, very deeply into a very narrow area and have a huge audience. So in some ways that’s great for us because we always wanted to go deeper. We were always going deeper and doing stuff that seemed more academic than the public radio program directors wanted us to be doing. So in that sense, it’s been really great. But I’d say there is still a bit of that tension… How deep or how niche can we get without turning people off?

Mark Riechers:

Especially with a lot of the digital stuff we’ve been able to do, it allows us, well one, we have people who’ve been listening to the show for a long time, and it allows them to evangelize us a lot more effectively. They can share older episodes or newer things that they’re really blown away by. It allows us to reach audiences who maybe wouldn’t stick around for a full hour, so we’re thinking about, “Well, how can we shrink down a piece of TTBOOK that works in two minutes or in five minutes?” Just a single story that maybe would show up on a platform, which is nice.

Anne Strainchamps:

We should maybe talk a bit about the actual content, what we do week to week as a staff. An hour of To The Best Of Our Knowledge, usually there’s either a large question that animates it or a particular subject. And then the goal is to assemble usually four or five interviews, sometimes it’s as few as two, interviews that come at the subject from different vantage points and the idea is very deliberately not to do a point counter point but to combine different ways of knowing different disciplines, different ways of knowing different styles of thinking.

There’s never a linear narrative, but when you’re producing it and you spend a lot of time working with the tape editing and re-editing and stuff, it almost winds up feeling like a poem, in the sense that there will be almost symbols or images that connect throughout the hour. I never know if listeners hear that stuff or not, but we do and it’s part of what makes it fun. I’d say there are, in some ways, hidden levels of narrative to what we do in the sense that there are these echoes. But other than that, what’s an example? What’s the last show we did? I forget them as soon as they’re wrapped.

Laura Perry:

It was a Valentine’s Day one. There was also one on vaccine trackers, which I thought was really interesting.

Anne Strainchamps:

Those are good examples. So the vaccine trackers one happened of course because of news and where we are, very much driven by current events, but wanting to probe a little deeper.There was an awful lot of the mainstream media coverage was about what is the vaccine, and how to, and the distribution stuff. We wanted to think in a more cultural way about vaccines. Why do people have objections to vaccines? Where does that come from? Underlying attitudes towards science and towards our bodies.

The Valentine’s Day show came to us from one of our newest, youngest producer who’s in his early 20s and wanted to do a show thinking about the ways in which the old romantic scripts, the old dramatic tropes, are being rewritten today. So he did an interview with a lesbian feminist scholar who was talking about… What is her new book? The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. So she was riffing on that internet meme “are the straights ok.” So that was a critique of heterosexuality with two gay people talking together, Angela and this professor.

There was a Czech filmmaker who wanted to do a film about adultery and wound up having different thoughts about love along the way and what the basis of marriage really is or should be. I had a conversation with a young journalist who’s just written a book on asexuality as a sexual identity.

Laura Perry:

It began with Angela talking about suddenly living with his partner. That he and his partner had been long distance and now they can’t get away from each other. And it was playing little audio clips which I thought were so wonderful. Like, “Are you done working yet?” Which is a conversation that’s familiar, trust me. I really appreciated that opening in particular.

Anne Strainchamps:

We can play some tape actually. It’s what we like doing most. We used to just do a straight interview. The host would do a quick setup and then you’re into the interview and that’s it. As podcasting came along and really upped everybody’s game in terms of working with sound and different audio storytelling tools, we began playing around with ways to get into an hour, ways to introduce a subject.

There’s just so much competition for everybody’s ears these days. There’s this feeling of you really have to get your audience’s attention right away. I think of our beginnings as now… Maybe it’s like academic Netflix. That classic Netflix drama always begins with some setup scene that just pulls you straight in, so I think we’re trying to do that, except with ideas. Mark, you pulled some audio together. What do you think we should play?

Mark Riechers:

Did you have one in mind when you were queuing that up?

Anne Strainchamps:

Yeah. How about crochet universe?

Mark Riechers:

I can do that.

[Find this episode of TTBOOK here]

Mark Riechers:

At the very end right before the interview starts you can hear her crocheting needle click, and that’s just one of those little things that our sound designer does. It’s just something really simple. It was probably your crochet needle, right?

Anne Strainchamps:

It was. Yeah.

Mark Riechers:

She’s great.

Anne Strainchamps:

Margaret Wertheim is amazing. She’s a physicist and if you’re not familiar with the Crochet Coral Reef Project, just Google it. It’s amazing. So the challenge in that, we knew we were going to be talking a lot about physics and also about math. And so how do you begin to make that compelling? Luckily, Margaret does it herself with the Crochet Coral Reef kind of project. She’s done a million interviews, and we didn’t want to do the just like, “So, tell us about the Crochet Coral Reef.” And also, rule number one in radio interviewing for years has been if you can get your guests to do something or do something with you, it’s better.

If you’re interviewing an opera singer, have them sing. So I knit and I can crochet a little bit, and so I told Margaret to bring her stuff in too. She wasn’t actually in the studio with me unfortunately, but we were far away from each other in different studios crocheting. I didn’t know if this would work. In fact, I don’t think we used that much of us crocheting together, right Mark?

Mark Riechers:

You hear them because we had all the sound captured. It didn’t work necessarily as recorded, but we just repurposed it as part of the sound design.

Anne Strainchamps:

Yeah. There’s a little bit of me saying, “Oh, what did you bring in?” And then I said, “I’ve got this really nice sky blue that I’m working with.” So it’s just a little bit of that, but it just helps the listener feel like they’re really right there. The reason I love audio so much more than any other medium really, except for writing, is because the pictures are all in your head. It means you get such a richer experience than you do if you’re, say, just watching something on TV where the images have already been created for you.

It’s really an act of co-creation in the sense that while you’re listening to somebody, you’re actively imagining this world in your head. And so if you can have a guest co-create something with you, it really works. The other thing that I liked about what we did with the sound design, the music was just fun. So that kind of sets a tone. You can use music to just set any kind of tone or mood that you want, and we wanted this to feel playful right away.

The other thing is that comparison of going from something very small like crochet, to something as large as the structure of the universe. That just sets up this really lovely contrast right away that I think just pulls you in and tells you you’re going from something tiny to something huge. So you’re making the stakes clear right away. What we’re trying to accomplish in the first minute of the show almost always is to give you a reason to care.

Laura Perry:

I loved hearing that piece of audio, so if you have more that you wanted to play and talk through, all of the moving pieces behind what went into them, hearing about your choices and sound design and also the technical choices, the intellectual and creative choices, jump in.

Mark Riechers:

We have a live exercise here. We have that unedited tape. Should I play that?

Anne Strainchamps:

Oh yeah, sure.

Mark Riechers:

Okay. So this is an interview I recorded earlier this week with Steve and a neurologist.

Anne Strainchamps:

He’s a neuroscientist and a psychoanalyst, marrying psychoanalysis and neuroscience for the first time.

Mark Riechers:

Just as context for the clip, Steve had just asked him about an accident that happened early in his life where his brother had a very serious brain trauma. So this is a story he shared after that.

Anne Strainchamps:

And this is raw and unedited.

Mark Riechers:

Yep. Just clipped. I could prove it, but I won’t share my screen.

Interviewee Audio:

One of the other important dimensions of it for me was the question of mortality. If you are just a part of your body, then when your body dies where do you go to? That also disturbed me very much, and I think at an earlier age than it would most people. It spiraled me into what can only be described as a depression. Apart from being depressed about the loss of my brother and the loss of normal family life and so on, I was also depressed by the premature realization that I, if my body dies, I’m going to disappear. That was just terrifying. And the thoughts were, “Well, what’s the point of doing anything then if everything that you do disappears as far as you’re concerned, and then you’re gone forever? Then why do anything?” I remember as a clear illustration that I must have been depressed. I remember feeling in the morning, “What’s the point of going to school?” And not being able to summon the energy to tie my shoe laces and make the effort.

Interviewer Audio:

It sounds like you had what was essentially an existential crisis at a very early age.

Interviewee Audio:

It really was. I don’t believe obviously that there and then, age four or five, I decided I’m going to be a neuroscientist. But in retrospect, it’s clear the two things must be connected. The solution to that despair that I described was somewhere in my teens. I remember thinking clearly the only thing really worth doing, if all you have is these few years of biological existence, then the only thing that makes sense is to try and understand what existence is in the sense of sentient being. What actually is sentience? So I did think that somewhere in my adolescence. But again it wasn’t, “Okay, then I’ll study neuroscience.” The causes of why we do what we do are always complicated.

Anne Strainchamps:

We’ll just walk through this a little bit the way we would normally do it. This is the conversation we would have, I think.

Mark Riechers:

Well, we can start with something we were talking about because Anne hadn’t even heard this tape until maybe two hours ago. And the first thing is that… It’s a great story. It feels kind of long. It feels like there’s maybe details that we need to set up or we need to establish the emotional stakes. Who is his brother? We didn’t hear the full story. That might be an argument for leaving it in the interview so we can hear that whole story played out. But at the same time, this is an amazing story about the why behind somebody… A certain field became their complete passion and their driving force in their life.

It’s really profound. I think that’s just a really profound thing. I started picturing him on the playground and just the playground ball freezing in mid-air and him just thinking, “This is it. I’m having my existential crisis right here on the monkey bars.” So you can go multiple different ways with any story like that, and it’s about what best serves the idea you’re trying to convey? What best serves the person that you’re trying to learn more about? And what best serves the audience? What are you learning from this?

Anne Strainchamps:

Another thing is that we like to try to treat our guests as characters in a drama. You need to know it’s not about the idea. I sometimes scribble on my pad before I do an interview, “Remember to interview the person, not the idea” because it’s really easy to get very caught up with the idea. The idea is the people that we talked to, that’s what they do. That’s why we’re talking to them. We’re always trying to find out why. So in this case, there’s this dramatic story of his brother. My first question to Mark after he played me this little excerpt was I felt like we’re hearing what he’s thinking about something that happened, but we didn’t hear the thing that happened. Did he describe the accident, and shouldn’t we tell that story instead?

And Mark said, “Yeah, but first it takes him a really long time. We could cut it down, but still then what you’re getting is the story of this dramatic accident, not the story of the insight and the light bulb moment. You can’t have both in any detail,” and I think he’s right. So then our next challenge would be to figure out… One way we might structure this would be at the very top maybe I’d introduce the thing, saying something other about sometimes an accident can really change your life. We play a shortened version of what we just heard. When we come back, maybe we hear Steve say, “So what was this accident? This sounds terrible.”

Then you get the story of the accident, and then you move on to, “So this really jump started you thinking about the nature of consciousness itself” and you have a novel theory. I don’t know what else to say about that except then there’d be a whole conversation with Joe Hartke, our sound designer and engineer, about what kind of music to use.

You don’t want anything too somber under that, but obviously you have to have something… I guess I think there’s so much emotion in that you don’t want to overwhelm it. If somebody is telling you something with a fair amount of drama but they’re being flat about it, you can use the music to kind of amplify the emotion so that we can actually hear what’s there. And other times what’s being said is so emotional that you want something very minimalist in terms of music, and that’s probably what we’d do with this.

Mark Riechers:

One reason I played the unedited version is because it’s almost a confidence booster for any podcasters in the room, because anyone who’s recorded is going to have a lot of ums and vocal ticks, and now there’s a lot of Zoom artifacting and maybe you talk over each other. The lesson is if you take that extra special ear, you can shape the trueness of what that person is saying. So in this case, he’s a brilliant person. Anything distracted from that, I’m probably going to edit out. But there are some vocal ticks… He stammers a few times in that story because it’s really emotional, and that should stay in. That’s honest. It would sound wrong if we clean that up.

If you clean someone up too aggressively, it sounds machine, that sounds rehearsed and that’s no good. It’s always about striking that balance. I always think this is interesting. We’ve had teenagers on the show who are some of the most brilliant young people I think I’ve ever heard, they still speak like teenagers. So the editing conversation is, do we leave that all in or do we clean it all up? Because if we’re leaving it in, we’re stereotyping how we think a teenager should sound. But if you clean them up the right way, they might sound just as smart as a Nobel prize winner. These are choices that are editorial and important, they’re worth taking the extra time.

Anne Strainchamps:

And artistic too. Because in the case of the teenagers, we did leave a certain percentage of “likes” and “you knows.” But one thing we did is we cleaned the first 30 seconds to a minute. That was cleaner than the rest of it. So if you’re doing something like that, you can just gradually get people used to the ums or the particular style of somebody’s talking, and then after a while you just don’t even hear them.

Laura Perry:

Thank you for the generosity of letting us sit in on an editing meeting. I feel I’m just like Mark when you took him into the pitch meeting as a job interviewer. You just took us in to your office. That’s so generous and transparent and candid. That was fantastic to hear the thought process that might go into what to do with this clearly meaningful and worthwhile piece of audio that just has a couple of things that you might tweak to it, that is such a good listen. But then the question becomes how to make it an even better listen or the most effective listen.

Anne Strainchamps:

This is just Mark and me chatting about it, but Steve did the interview. Steve will have very strong opinions himself. So Steve might for instance say, “I don’t want to begin that way. I know it’s dramatic, but I think we should really build up to it. And also I think we need to explain why this is such a big deal. He is major. He created an entirely new field combining essentially the old insights of psychoanalysis with contemporary neuroscience.” And then we’d have an argument and say, “Steve, nobody cares about that until they meet this guy as a person, so we want to do it.” Those are things we argue about.

Laura Perry:

Well, it sounds like a fun team to be a part of. I have a question for you, one that has bedeviled me since I first started producing podcasts that academics appeared on which is: what could academics do to help you find the stories in their research? If an academic wants to be on a podcast or wants to pitch you with a reason why their research is worth being featured on a podcast, how can academics help you see that and help you notice the stories that are in the research? And how can academics be better interviewees?

Mark Riechers:

Well, I won’t name names, but I will say that I think the Wisconsin idea as we described it, that’s a really amazing ethos to carry into your academic work. The answer I would give is think about how your work would impact your audience. There needs to be that connection, and you have to meet them where they are. And that can mean different things. I had an engineer who would continually pitch his new innovations in material science as… Well this will bring better smartphones for people. I’m glad you’re excited about it, but….

Let’s go into what you’ll be able to do with this new, flexible laser that you can put on a circuit board now. You might have to talk to them for a while and it might be a little bit jumbled. That’s the beauty of editing. Let’s talk through what you’re doing and how it might impact people, and then help me understand it. I’ve always valued having people who are not in that field to bounce the questions, or the audio, or the writing off of just to get that sense of does this make sense to somebody else who’s outside of this? So having that safe space of people who are fellow academics, maybe not in the same field that you can kind of share notes and think about how you describe your work.

Anne Strainchamps:

A couple of things. Because I’m the interviewer, I’m the person who is trying to figure out how to find the story in the academic’s work. I had my own ways of doing that. I’m not the academic thinking, “How can I get on a podcast?” Let me tell you about the research I do or how I get ready to do an interview. This is assuming that we’ve already decided that this person’s research or this person is worth covering. I do a ton of research. You can never do too much research.

I want a sense of who this person is, their style of talking just at a gut intuitive level. It’s like tuning instruments or something. So I look for videos, interviews… Thank God for YouTube, almost any academic has a video of them giving a presentation or something up there. Sometimes it’s a professional talk, and so then it’s not pitched to a general audience, but I can still tell does he or she have a sense of humor? I kind of mine those looking for little tiny details, personal stories. I of course do a general look for what’s in print to see if they’ve been profiled or anything, and then are there any little details, tiny stories that I wish I knew more about? I definitely need to know something about the overall field and what is fresh or exciting about their interview, and I always, always am thinking about why should the listener care?

I will ask all those questions in a pre-interview. So if we’re interviewing somebody who there’s not a lot of background material, maybe it’s a young academic just coming up, in the pre-interview we will say things like, “Tell me what examples you’ll be able to give.” We’ll remind them we got them on our side. We ask them to help produce in a way by saying “really good concrete examples are what make radio come alive, any little stories.” We always ask is there a backstory? Is there a reason you’re interested in this?

So we look for that stuff in a pre interview if we feel like we need one. And then in terms of what somebody can do who wants to be in a podcast, look for a peg. Is there a peg for your research? If we’re having the worst winter ever and you are a polar researcher or whatever, then obviously you can go there. But it’s a little harder in the humanities. That’s mostly who we interview.

Have a sense of humor, be relaxed and avoid jargon of course. And here’s the other thing, always ask who the audience is going to be. For all of us, podcasters, interviewers and interviewees and academics, first question should always be who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach? And know as much about them as you can and then try to think about them. Also, try to talk to one person. That’s true for podcasting and talking on the radio also. People listen to you one at a time. Zoom is weird because I’m addressing all of you, but if I’m hosting on the radio, I’m trying very hard to think of just one person.

And often I might think about a friend who I don’t see all that often. Friends we’ve had for a long time. They used to come to dinner or we’d go to their house for dinner four times a year or something, and the conversations were always really good. They’re in a different field, but they’re really smart and curious. And so I just try to think about, “Well, how would I explain this to Kevin? Would he even be interested in this?” And I will rewrite introductions. I’ll write an introduction then I’ll think, “I would never say it that way to Kevin.” If Kevin was coming to dinner and Steve wanted to say, “Oh my God, I talked to this amazing guy this week.” Where would he begin?

Laura Perry:

We have many great questions in the chat.  And as per usual, with an academic audience, they’re all paragraphs. One asked about sound design and music, the nuts and bolts of that creative process and how many people you have working on sound design, and maybe some cautionary tales on the facet of this work. This might also be a good moment to share that resource guide that you put together which has some links about sound design on it.

Anne Strainchamps:

This is a resource guide we’ve put together, a bunch of links and places you can go for extra information. In my lifetime, it’s amazing to me that there is now a profession that is sound designer. Used to be just audio engineer. So our technical director is our sound designer, and he’s amazing. But all the producers have strong feelings about sound design, music. Some people are very proactive and know exactly the kind of music that they want and they have strong opinions.

Some people pull the music ahead of time and do a very rough mix and then go in with the engineer. Sometimes other people just hand a bunch of audio to the engineer and say, “I don’t know what to do with this. This is the story, but I don’t really know how the music should come in and out, or even what kind of music.” Sometimes the engineer or sound designer will pick out some music and say, “Do you like this or this, or give us a few options,” and then the producer will say, “Not this. This one’s way too bouncy” or whatever.

There’s a lot of levels I always feel like are trickier to get right in sound design than you would think. It’s just so easy to have your music or whatever audio you’re using overtake the actual content. And the problem is that the more you listen, the less you can hear that. So as we get further along in the sound design process, we usually start asking more and more people on the staff. I might be working on something with Joe and we’ve got the rough sound design done, and then we’ll pull Mark or Charles in and say, “What do you think?” And they might say, “Yeah, it’s good, but I totally lost the content because I was just listening to the music” or they might say, “Is there I music? I can’t…” So there’s a lot of sharing ears. Then there’s a whole other part about where do you actually find music and what’s legal to use. Mark, you know more about that than I do.

Mark Riechers:

It’s complicated. I would say as far as selecting sounds, it’s always best if it can come from whatever you’re talking about, so your unique superpower if you are in academia is theoretically if you are talking through an action or something that you’re doing, you have access to the things that make those sounds, go around and record things. I will record isolated sounds for Joe in the field if I’m working on a field piece. We did a thing on a boat and… we recorded all these different isolated sounds of the boats, and then the producer who did the recording will get it all itemized and organized, and then give those as the Lego’s off to Joe who can start assembling them and then we are tag teaming on it.

Anne Strainchamps:

If you want to do a full sound production, something that’s really rich, then you can think of it in terms of three layers of sound. I don’t know how people know audio editing, but if you’re going to go down this rabbit hole, you’ll be working with some kind of editing software in which you have different tracks that you can lay your audio out on. So you might have the interview, or you had spoken stuff on tracks one and two. Then let’s say you want some environmental sound.

Let’s say you’re doing a nature piece and you want some just background sound of… Let’s say we’re doing a piece about insects. You want some background, just droney, insect stuff, not too much. You just want to be in a place. So you might go looking on Freesound, one of the sites we’ll show you. Freesound is amateur and professional sound recorders from all over the world record stuff they think is cool and put it up. You can search for almost anything. So I would search meadow summer and sure enough, there would probably be a thousand recordings of summer meadows. And then I can get even closer because listeners will notice. If you’re saying this is a meadow in the Northeast and it’s from California, some listener will say that’s not a Northeastern meadow. So you strive for some accuracy.

So that’s your background sound, and then you also want some foreground sounds because you will want the opportunity for your sound to jump forward so that people are listening the way we do in real life. A sound will suddenly intrude. So your foreground sounds, that’s the closeup on the buzzing bee or the closeup on the car door slamming as you arrive at the meadow. Stuff like that. You can think of it as you’re using your ears almost as a camera.

I think there’s a bit of this in one of our more recent episodes about vaccines. But if you are looking to use archive sound or old time newsreels, old advertisements, factory films, stuff like that, there’s so many of those on archive.org, and almost all of them are free to use. So that’s an amazing resource. A lot of the public library systems have started archiving video and audio. Usually they have a usage rights section that you can figure out what you’re allowed to use.

Anne Strainchamps:

The amazing thing for people at universities is, without doubt, your university librarians would be amazing resources. For instance, we’re doing a piece on Africa and decolonization coming up in the next few weeks. I did an interview with a political scientist Adom Getachew, she’s at the University of Chicago. And we’re talking about a moment in 1960 when Kwame Nkrumah, who was then the president of Ghana, addressed the UN general assembly. There’s audio. So why not? Of course we want to hear Kwame Nkrumah. The UN has an extensive audio and video archive, so I can go poke around in there and find what I want. That’s the kind of thing a university librarian would do for you too.

Laura Perry:

We are coming up on the end of our hour. What’s next for the show, and what’s next for you both? What’s coming up?

Anne Strainchamps:

We started, a couple of years ago, experimenting with very short form micro podcasts, and it’s been a lot of fun and is something I’d recommend to anybody who wants to dip their toe into audio stuff, because there is some research suggesting that there is actually an audience for shorter things. Not everything has to be half an hour or 45 minutes long.

Mark Riechers:

The series that we have is called Bookmarks, and it’s authors speaking about a book that they found particularly formative at some point in their life. And we have a new season coming up. The theme is reading while young, and so they’re particularly children’s books that authors found formative in some way. So that will be probably sometime this spring. The actual episodes are done, but we’re working on the timing.

Anne Strainchamps:

If you Google or look on our website, you’ll find Bookmarks there and you can take a listen to some of those. I’ve always really enjoyed producing very short pieces of audio. They’re like little chocolates.

Laura Perry:

Well, that sounds wonderful, and I’m excited for that. Thank you all for coming.

Anne Strainchamps:

Well, I’m excited to hear whatever you all make. There should be more audio makers in the world. It’s a wonderful medium. We didn’t talk about this, but in the resource sheet, there are a bunch of articles and things I’ve found about educational podcasting. Educational podcasting is outstripping, in listenership, sports, tech… People are increasingly looking for educational podcasts, so it’s a great time.

Laura Perry:

Excellent. What an encouraging go forth….!

Anne Strainchamps:

Go forth and teach.

Laura Perry:

We will. I have yet to figure out how to conclude a Zoom without just unceremoniously kicking everyone out into a waiting room, so one technique that Teresa Mangum taught me is having everyone who wants to unmute and applaud to say thank you for this. So those of you who would like to do that, please go ahead and do that. Thanks to all of you.

Mark Riechers:

Thank you. Thanks for listening.

Anne Strainchamps:

Thank you so much.