A Collaborative Podcast Project

Written in the first person view of Gordon:

At the start of 2016, Bri brought up the idea of doing a interview podcast where she would interview me, and vice-versa. This was our first collaborative audio project, and would be our final local project with both of us based out of New York.

This is the half where I interviewed Bri.

I will admit that my interest in this project was not originally rooted in a love for podcasts as a format explicitly, but more of an interest in exploring ways to express myself through other forms of communication (the voice) and aspects of the recording medium (sound design, vocal techniques). It’s funny that while sound design was my entry point, I was actually rediscovering something I apparently used to love as a child, which was to record radio shows and narrations on tape recorders with my sister and my friend Brianna. (Bri actually dug up one of the lost tapes from this era and gifted it to me as a birthday present.)

Bri and I have been working on projects alongside each other and collaboratively pretty much as far back as I can remember, but after the childhood years of tape recording experiments, we hadn’t done anything like that since. The closest we had gotten was when we were talking about doing interviews with friends, but that was several years back, and hadn’t moved past a brainstorm. I was immediately up for giving this project a shot.

The Pre-Interview

I hadn’t been listening to many podcasts at this point, but I had listened to a lot of Radiolab, This American Life, and WNYC several years earlier. I had listened to a good chunk of more recent podcasts like Serial and StartUp, as well as a scatter of one-offs from design podcasts.

Those were my reference points for what storytelling formats I could use. For this interview, I simply wanted to do a profile of the journey so far in Bri’s life, and I knew I liked the banter I heard in straight interviews like Design Details, but I also wanted an excuse to play with sound editing, music, voiceovers. I kept the latter part light, and front-loaded my pre-interview with a couple partial scripts to find the banter-style I wanted, and topic outlines with prompts I could use to guide Bri back towards topics I wanted her to dive into. Essentially, I was trying to strike a balance between having major points and a sequence I wanted to hit, but still allowing it to feel unscripted and natural.

Thematically, I knew I wanted to talk about how she discovered writing and creative projects through the years, and not necessarily assert that it led her to journalism, but try to learn during the interview how she eventually came upon it, and beyond (hint, I didn’t know this at the time, but onto public radio).

The Interview

We each chose the tools we wanted to learn for the project. Audacity seemed like an easy first thought, especially since it was the most advanced audio tool I had used beyond QuickTime, but I also didn’t have fond memories of the interface. I figured it was time to invest learning in software I expected to use in the longer run. Most tools seemed geared towards music at a glance, but GarageBand, Logic Pro, and Adobe Audition stood out the most from the pack. I ended up choosing Logic Pro, which is effectively a better version of GarageBand, because it supported voice recordings, and could be the tool I’d want to use if I ever got around to learning the guitar Bri had given me.

We used Bri’s apartment as the recording location. It turned out that there was construction the afternoon we intended to record. Bri said it sounded like Kaiju from Pacific Rim. But we found a long enough stretch of silence where we could start the interview. Bri had a pretty fancy microphone and mixer, but we ran into technical difficulties getting it to work. So we improvised and used QuickTime to record the audio on my Macbook, and backup recordings in parallel on our iPhones. Even in the smaller bedroom, we were hearing echoes. We tried holding pillows to muffle that a bit, but ultimately we just dealt with it and recorded as is.

Recording took about an hour on each end. (I thought I’d go for about 15 minutes, and ended up eating into Brianna’s allotted time to interview me back.) By the time I was playing the interviewee, I had been talking for about an hour straight, and my voice was getting coarse. Doing it back to back saved us time, but if we had more time, I’d space the interviews out.

Editing and Production

Since the interviews were much longer than I’d anticipated, I ran into some trouble with my straight-interview format. Since I was relying more on keeping the banter between myself and Bri, I couldn’t cut nearly as much of the material out. And I had a second interview I had conducted in my own apartment in Long Island City, which had a large echo-y living room with my roommate and her husband making noise in the distance. It was going to be trickier making the whole piece feel like a unified podcast.

But I was able to cut out pauses and replace drawn out responses with my own summarized narration to lead into the more interesting, tighter parts of the responses. And Logic Pro made it fairly easy to cut the full audio track into topical regions, so that I could mix and match and place my own narrations in between. Transitions were also easy to do, so I could fade Bri’s voice out while I came in and out to do quick voiceovers or quips.

I actually found it surprisingly difficult to wing it on narrations on a first try. I either had to re-record myself several times to get a recording where I didn’t stumble, or write a script that I could read (which is also dangerous because it very obviously sounds like something is being read).

I’m also not very thrilled about my radio voice. I haven’t told anyone this, but I tested the waters with a singing lesson late last year in the hopes that I could coach my voice for oratory purposes. (The teacher was an opera singer working in Manhattan, but I ended up holding off for budget reasons since I had just recently quit my job to join the freelance world.) But I’m hoping with practice, I can refine it as I go. In fact, it was one of the other reasons why I was interested in this project.

Final Product

I liked my podcast results overall. Since I was looking for a straight interview, it was close to what I intended, though with more time, I would have wanted more narration and sound effects like news audio clips relevant to the reporting trips Bri had done. My biggest concern throughout the process was length – I intended to create a 15 minute podcast, which turned into a 30 minute podcast, which turned into a 45 minute podcast. I was concerned about attention span, and used TV and podcast lengths as a guide. It ended up being 1 hour and change.

Next up

Having now done both a profile and a straight interview, I’d like to explore techniques that allow for different kinds of storytelling (again: narration, sound effects, and aggressive cuts). And moving beyond a profile to something topical could help me focus on a clear theme, something that was quite a bit harder as I tried to connect a lot of dots from disparate parts of her life story. And honestly, I know Bri will keep talking about that fake NPR voice (or as I told her, channeling her Sarah Koenig, which only reminds me of Cecily Strong’s parody). But that combined with her editing inspired me to try something in that direction, and I’m pretty excited to give that a go. Sign me up!