Jacques Cousteau called it the “silent world.” Let’s just say he got that one wrong.
Something unusual happens 700 fathoms under the sea. Ocean physics create a special zone where sound travels for hundreds, even thousands of miles.
David Schulman gives us a preview of the ocean’s Deep Sound Channel in his PRXSTEM story:
You can think of the Deep Sound Channel this way: sound gets bent (refracted) by layers of pressure and depth in ocean water just as light gets refracted in a prism. Scientists discovered this “sound channel” in 1944. Whales use it to communicate across oceans — and during the Cold War the Navy secretly used it to track nuclear subs. This 1948 graphic shows sound traveling on an axis 700 fathoms down in the Atlantic.
When asked about how he got the idea for this piece, Schulman says, “I got talking with Bill McQuay (audio person for Cornell Ornithology Lab, sound designer, and former team member on NPR’s “Sound Expeditions”), a brilliant and imaginative sonic polyglot…[He] mentioned that the general field of anthropogenic noise — human-made sound — and its effect on other species and habitats, is an area where research is accelerating rapidly.” This eventually led to Schulman connecting with Chris Clark, whom you hear in the piece.
(above) Morris Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel discovered the deep sound channel in 1944, and published their results in 1948 in a paper titled “Long-Range Sound transmission.” In this image from their report, it’s possible to see the reading recorded on paper by one of their hydrophones just after an explosion set off 800 miles away in the sound channel. Photo credit: Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel
In every radio story, there’s at least one things that doesn’t make the final cut. Schulman points out one outtake he wishes he could have included:
“In early April 1944, a destroyer called the Buckley (also knows as DE-51) assisted in the experiments that, for the first time, proved the existence of the deep sound channel — and set the course for Naval intelligence for three decades of the Cold War. The crew of the Buckley set off charges that traveled through the sound channel, and were recorded more than 800 miles away by Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel aboard the USS Saluda. These tests were by far the longest transmission of human sounds recorded to that date.” (You can read more about that history here.)
Bioacoustic researcher Chris Clark by the San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Michael Johnson
We asked Schulman what he hopes listeners get from this piece: “A sense of the power and extraordinary reach of the sound channel operates. And a dawning sense of how human activity may be changing the fundamentals of undersea life, through the noises we are making.”
Spoken like a true science storyteller, he adds, “This is as good as going to Mars.”
There is a rainbow of noise out there. We just don’t usually see it.
Most people know white noise as the static on old analog TVs, but there’s pink noise, and blue noise and black noise; enough to recreate a scientifically accurate audio rainbow. Marnie Chesterton tells some of the stories of the different kinds of noise.
In her PRXSTEM 2.0 piece, we meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head (tinnitus); Professor Trevor Cox at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way; and Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work.
Chesterson came across this story idea after having heard about pink noise. She began an investigation sparked by her own curiosity about the spectrum of sound: “I started unpicking the stories of different colours of sound, mainly by talking about this topic to everyone I could think of,” she recounts. “After a few chats with various academics, I came to Professor Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at Salford University, who is obsessed with qualities of sound – reverb, echo. “
Through Trevor Cox, Chesterson got a first-hand look at an anechoic chamber, a whole room constructed to deaden any type of sound whatsoever. She describes the room as the most bizarre one she’s been in for a while: “The walls and ceiling are covered with these meter-long, dark grey foam spikes, and the floor, if you can call it that, is a mesh a bit like that of a trampoline. Through the holes in the floor, I could see down into darkness, maybe more foam spikes.”
Imagine a room that is so silent that the sounds seem to come from your own head. Chesterson explains, “The brain’s response to that kind of silence is to fill it with something, anything. And that’s what tinnitus is.”
If you’re interested in exploring the different bands of sound described in Chesterson’s piece, you can play with the piece’s companion interactive rainbow of noise. Listen to which bands are used to treat tinnitus, to describe regime shifts in climate, to help sirens cut through background noise, and more. Click the image or here to interact with the rainbow.
There has been a lot of talk about podcasting lately in the news. We’re not surprised, we’ve got a podcast network of our own! But, it’s good to see podcasting get some love and make its mark in mainstream media.
Because we know how many of our producers are also podcasters (or budding podcasters) PRX is giving away a ticket to a week-long podcasting workshop. Take your podcast from zero to HERO in five days at UnionDocs in New York City.
“It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river.
It’s been years since I’ve gone fishing. But hear a line plop in water, the rapid click of a reel, and I feel like I’m there. That’s what sound does.
Yes, other things—the smell of the river, the view of dark trees lining open sky—make fishing tranquil. But to me, it’s the sound—what you hear while you silently wait for a bite—that centers and calms.
Jessica Murri sent us this story about military vets, and in our Second Ear edit session, we tried to make that sound sing. We trimmed narration and music, re-structured to clarify the narrative, added ambient sound and slimmed the character list down from four to three.
I have a bit of a love affair with radio going. Even though my day job is staff writer at the Boise Weekly (in little known about but really amazing Boise, Idaho), I still miss radio.
It’s my favorite medium for telling stories because it’s one of the truest ways to put a person in a place. For this story about a few military vets going fly fishing, I couldn’t resist bringing along my recorder.
I wrote this story for print as well, but I couldn’t make the reader really hear how George Nickel told me about being in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department. I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.
In print, I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.
Turning on my recorder for four hours really takes the listener to the Boise River, I hope. You can say “the birds chirping” all you want, but sometimes it’s just better to be there.
I don’t get to do much radio working in print, so I end up doing these little side projects for myself, just for fun, and then they sit on my desktop and no one ever hears them. Well, Erika and Genevieve wanted to! And after, like, 50,000 emails back and forth, they made my little radio project something more than a, well, little radio project.
I’m really glad I got such professional help on this story. I hope it makes it to a wider audience so I can share a piece of Idaho life.
Explore Jessica Murri’s other work here. You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.
When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, decades later, science is reconsidering.
In our very first STEM Story Project 2.0 piece this year, producers Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver chronicle Rhoades’ controversial work and its legacy:
“Our fascination with this story has a lot to do with language and its difficulty in bridging the gap between what plants actually do and what our psyches impose on them,” says Carver. The producers set out to investigate what it means to say that plants decide, hear, or talk. “We’d love our listeners to wrestle with what it means that plants have a form of communication all their own.”
David Rhoades’ discovery about plant communication came on the heels of the release of a book called The Secret Life of Plants (1973) by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins. The book claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. Unfortunately, although the book was a huge bestseller, Rhoades’ academic work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.
Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but can also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.
For example, researchers at Ben-Gurion University found that pea plants exposed to drought emitted chemicals from their roots that caused nearby, non-exposed plants to defend themselves against the same conditions. In another fascinating experiment, Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne set out to prove that electrical signals also come into play when it comes to plant communication. His research team place microelectrodes on plant leaves of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant and allowed Egyptian cotton leafworms to chow down on them. They noticed that voltage changes in the tissue occurred within seconds, radiating from the damaged sites outward.
Carver notes, “We had no idea, when starting this story, that plants could do some of the things they do, and it completely changed the way we look at this part of the ecological world.”
Open your ears and your mind to a radio story about the “father of the field” of plant communications.
We love The Moth and we know you do too, seeing as all of the StorySLAMS here in Boston have been sold out since they started up two years ago.
As a media sponsor of the StorySLAMs, PRX is excited to giveaway a pair of tickets to the 9/16/14 slam at Oberon in Harvard Square. The theme for the night is DO-OVER.
Enter the giveaway to win a pair of premium tickets to the StorySLAM. You can earn extra chances to win by sharing your special link, sharing on Facebook, etc., so make sure to pass along to your friends once you signup.
Hi everyone, I’m Eve, the new software engineer at PRX. I started learning to program about a year ago after finishing up my English degree at Kenyon College. I was obsessed with public radio, and I thought to myself, “Maybe if I learn to program, I can work somewhere cool, like PRX.” So, I decided to go to Launch Academy here in Boston, and now, here I am. I’m excited to learn from the awesome tech team here at PRX!
Now’s the part where I list my radio nerd credentials. As a child I looked forward to Car Talk and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! all week. In junior high I streamed BBC Radio 4 while writing HTML for my various websites. (I was very popular.) Then I discovered podcasts, and loaded up my iPod with The Sound of Young America and This American Life to make it through gym class. When I got to Kenyon, I tried to replicate shows like You Look Nice Today and Jordan, Jesse GO! with my own silly show on WKCO. I was lucky enough to intern at Studio 360 after my junior year. For my final project at Launch Academy, I made a social network for podcast listeners called Pod People. (Good name, right?)
But there’s more to my life than just listening to podcasts. I also make podcasts! I have a show about Disney Channel Original Movies where my friend and I use our liberal arts degrees to overanalyze them. It’s called The DCOM Podcast. (Good name, right?) The next episode will be about Johnny Tsunami. Check us out on iTunes.
PRX is looking for a creative and effective fundraiser to research and cultivate new philanthropic sources, steward existing relationships, manage fundraising data, documents, and calendar, and help build PRX’s donation program.
They call this the golden age of audio. How did it happen? What’s in store for podcasts—and how can producers and public radio stations be part of the movement? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn, Midroll Media‘s VP of Business Development, sit down on the PRX couch and talk radio (listen right here or read the transcript below).
Jake Shapiro: Hi. It’s Jake here at PRX, and we’re very excited to have a guest in our offices, Erik Diehn, who most recently was at WNYC and, as of I think three or so weeks ago, has taken the plunge to join Midroll. So we’re gonna riff for a couple minutes on podcasting.
Erik Diehn: Sounds Good. Yes, it’s Midroll Media technically speaking, which is the parent company of the Midroll business which is the ad sales business, and Earwolf, which is the consumer-facing comedy podcast network and brand. We brought you shows like Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made, Who Charted?, Analyze Phish, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, and we have probably another dozen, half-dozen shows in the pipeline.
JS: Earwolf has a couple dozen shows, and then Midroll represents something like over a hundred different podcasts?
ED: Yeah, I think the total number of podcasts at this point is probably 120, 130.
JS: Part of what I wanted to just have a quick conversation about is podcasting itself, because we’re in this ripe moment.
So it seems like this convergent moment, a revival, in a way, because podcasting kind of leapt out of the blogging world right around the time PRX was getting started, but it feels like there was this arc where podcasting emerged, there was all this hype and hope, and then it kind of stalled out for a long time.
ED: It was always about to blow up. Next year, it was gonna be big, for a long time.
JS: I feel like you would probably agree with me, but I’d like to hear what you think about it. What do you think of podcasting, and why are we in this moment?
ED: Yeah, I think the reason it didn’t ever get larger than it was back then is for a couple reasons. First is on the commercial side, when Apple just decided podcasting was going to be free. That doomed it, in a way, to being an advertiser-driven business, at least in the initial run. Doom is probably the wrong word, because I think there’s been a lot of good to come out of that decision. It’s become something people can find now much more easily than things that are tucked away behind some monolithic paywall.
But the other reason for its late-blooming success was, I think, just the technology. As everyone knows it’s much easier on a smartphone to get to a podcast. The interface has shifted form this complicated one, where you have to download onto your iTunes and then sync it up. Well, you’ve already lost 97% of the American consumer when you have to do those steps.
Friction is the enemy of all products these days, and I think podcasts had a lot of friction for a long time. The plus side of that is the people who did come to it were really devoted fans. The intimacy of the medium, the fact that it was a really opt-in experience—versus the lean-back radio it’s just on in the car means the people who listen to podcast—those are your biggest fans.
And that’s part of what’s made Earwolf successful. A comedian can find a fan base there. They can engage them in a way they’re not necessarily gonna engage them on a Comedy Central stand-up special, and that drives all the other parts of their business. And obviously for public radio, it’s been a natural transition, because the audience is already so engaged. So I think that’s a reason public radio was early to the game and continues to be such a huge part of it.
JS: So what would be your advice for producers who are now feeling like, “Well, maybe this actually is a viable path for me, no longer waiting to get on public radio.” What’s your advice for them?
ED: That’s a good question. Scarcity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having scarce air time means it’s really hard to get through the gatekeepers. It’s hard to get on air. Same thing with television. When there’s scarce number of channels, it’s hard to get in there—but once you do, the money starts to come in. Podcasting absolutely gets rid of all that. The barrier to entry is super, super low. You have to know how to record audio. So there’s this huge long tail of 99,000, 100,000 podcasts.
So if you’re a producer, one of the things you have to do is make something that’s good. That doesn’t guarantee it will find an audience. So actually what you really have to do is make something that 50,000-100,000 people find good.
If you put out a piece of audio content and within two to three weeks, 50,000 people download and/or stream that content, you have found an audience that can lead to some level of sustainability. That does not mean that you’re going to be a millionaire, and if you have a ten person staff, you’re not going to break even with 50,000 people listening.
But given where podcasting is today, and the growth that I personally expect over the next five years, today’s 50,000 threshold may be 250,000 a few years from now. A small show may be two to three times larger. And suddenly I think the cutoff between sustainable and not sustainable will go a little bit farther down the distribution curve.
So, you have to make something good. It helps if it’s not your only thing. If you’re a comedian and you’ve got a stand-up business and a movie business and all these other things going on, then podcasting is another angle. If you’re an audio producer, thinking about live events, thinking about ways to engage the audience in digital fora, or through other revenue streams, is super important from day one.
When I was at WNYC, what we were looking for as we looked to bring in producers for new shows—shows we sort of quasi-acquired—was real entrepreneurial, self-starter people who were just gonna do everything they could to make a show grow. And people who were also writing books on the side, and having video projects on the side. And people who have multiple streams for both their audience to consume and also to generate revenue are going to be healthier than people relying on just trying to get something on terrestrial radio.
So, first rule of podcasting, make sure it’s not your only job until probably a few years from now, when it can be. But the good news is today, it’s not a zero-dollar medium either. I don’t want to call it real money but there’s dollars coming in. Advertisers are interested, and the audience continues to show willingness to pay in some form or fashion.
JS: Anything else about frequency and length of podcasts, or other insights to gain from seeing this whole network you’re helping manage?
ED: Be consistent, and try and be regular, so the audience knows when to listen. If you put something out, and six months later, you put something else out, it’s going to be hard to build an audience. But if you do something every other week, that’s OK, as long as you do it every other week.
And then consistency in format. If the audience expects a ten-minute show, don’t suddenly go to two hours. But beyond that, I think there’s huge flexibility.
I was talking to somebody a couple weeks ago who had heard about this podcast called the 12 Hour Podcast, that is two guys who just mic themselves up and record their day, for twelve hours. And you would think, well, no one would possibly listen to that. But they know somebody’s listening because in hour nine of one of the episodes, the guys is transacting with a store clerk—because by hour two they actually forget that they’re recording—and he gives the store clerk his phone number. And he starts getting text messages, because people are listening in hour nine of this thing.
So there’s a whole lot of freedom. You’re not fitting into a broadcast clock, but you’ve gotta figure out what the audience wants, and then keep it consistent.
Now, given all that, you have to think about when people are listening. Commutes are 30-40 minutes. If you’re gonna do a produced, packaged show that people are engaging in, maybe keep it that length. On the other hand, there are people who like to have talk on at work for two hours in the background. Even some of our comedy shows can do quite well even though they’re multiple hours.
JS: Given your vantage point on the whole ecosystem that seems to be growing around podcasting, what are things that you’re excited about that you see on the horizon, and what are some things that you think remain a big challenges?
ED: I’m super excited about cars, in general. That has been such a huge place of listening for so long. I think Volvo’s releasing its first model with Carplay, which is the Apple iPod integration, where you’ve got the indash experience. Podcasts is among the seven apps you see there. And all of the sudden it becomes easier for people to listen. That’s gonna take several years to really take hold. I think the move away from cached downloaded listening to just it’s something to just I’m gonna hit play and listen—that helps all of us because it helps with content availability. It’s going to take a while for broadband to be widely penetrated for us for that to be universally true, but I think over time more and more listening will be that way.
I think general consumer awareness continues to increase. I’m excited because I keep talking to people who I wouldn’t expect to be listening to podcasts, and they say, “Oh, no, I listen to this and this and this and this.”
I really wish we had a better name. Unfortunately, we can’t just say audio, like people who make web video can. You know Netflix is, yeah, it’s movies and TV shows. “Podcast” still has that connotation. I guess we just have to embrace it, and eventually it kind of takes on a new meaning.
JS: Having now crossed the bridge from public radio out into the wide world of podcasting what’s your sense of what public radio’s opportunity or advantage or challenge is?
ED: Public radio has one of the most engaged audiences. That audience is increasingly going to shift from lean-back, linear, terrestrial streaming to on demand and digital streaming. And I think public radio needs to keep moving with the audience. The membership model’s gonna be a challenge, no question. The economics of the system are built for that terrestrial world. It’s gonna be really hard to navigate, and that’s part of what I enjoyed doing while I was there.
But I think creating that bridge between producer and audience is the critical task of public radio. And remembering that you can be a local station that produces great content for not necessarily a national audience. You can still be a producer without being a distributor. The more that stations understand their role in that ecosystem and understand that they need to start investing in content, that they need to start filling in gaps that newspapers, for example, are now creating in their disappearance—the more that happens, the healthier the system will be in the long run.
It’s not about the transmitter. It’s about the good content, the audience, and having funding models that do not depend upon content that is purely commercially viable.
JS: Thanks so much, Erik. You are our debut guest on the couch in Jake’s office. And it was awesome.
ED: Thanks for having me. I love you guys, too. And I listen.
If I met Don Schonenbeck on the street, I’d probably step right past him. I’d walk by never understanding why he’s chosen to wander west coast highways — how a series of painful deaths thrust him toward alcohol and into depression. That’s why I appreciate stories like the one producer Clay Scott made about Don. (You should take five minutes right now and listen to it.)
When we workshopped it in our Second Ear program, I pushed Clay to go back to Don and dig up some tape we could use to restructure the piece. What Clay found when he went looking for Don wasn’t what we’d hoped, but it completely changed the nature of the story. It’s a lesson in how powerful revisiting a story can be. If you follow a person or a topic over time, the story will be richer — and truer.
Clay will explain in a moment. But first, a taste of what we talked about.
Narrative structure. Hooking the listener, clarifying chronology, and pacing emotional peaks.
Asking why, and then asking it again. People respond to death differently. That’s what makes death so interesting. Get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
Leading with sound. Start with the ambi, and don’t identify it right away.
Give emotion to the acts, use narration for the facts. Hey, it rhymes. But what I mean is that you can summarize a sequence of events, but only your subject’s voice can lend real emotion. So don’t overextend acts to explain boring info. Just keep the gems.
Recognizing the weird. When Don said he wanted to put himself in situations he could neither predict nor control, he was subverting a lot of human instinct. That’s something I want to hear more about in a raw, honest way.
Your turn. Take a listen to the “Before” and “After.” What differences do you hear?
I’m used to working alone, so it was an incredible treat to have Erika Lantz and Genevieve Sponsler lend their astute ears to “I Ain’t Leavin My Road Dog,” a profile of Don, a homeless Montana man.
I thought the original story (which aired back in January in my series “Mountain West Voices”) was pretty good. Listeners found it powerful and moving. People told me they appreciated hearing the type of voice they don’t often get a chance to hear.
In particular, my audience seemed to like the symmetry of the story: A man endures unimaginable tragedy, falls into a depression, and wanders the back roads of America for 20 years before deciding to settle down. When we leave him, he is working on a grant to help him open a small business. It’s almost a Hollywood ending, and it was very satisfying. In fact, the other two profiles I’ve done of homeless people in recent months had similar happy endings.
But when Erika and Genevieve asked me to follow up with Don to add more depth to the story, I found that he had fallen off the wagon, and that he’d been kicked out of the shelter where he was staying. So much for the happy ending! I spent a few days looking for him, before learning that he had been seen walking out of town along the highway.
After consulting with the Second Ear team, we decided that I still had a story, and agreed that I should add a sort of post script or epilogue to the original piece.
In the end, I think the re-worked piece turned out to be much more powerful than the original. Instead of the happy ending (appealing though it was) we have a story that is much more reflective of the reality of homelessness: a story about how easy it is to lose your moorings, and, having lost them, how incredibly hard it can be to find your way again.
A few additional notes: I didn’t mean to imply that we left the original story intact, and simply tacked on a postscript. Like the top notch radio brains they are, Erika and Genevieve were able improve the flow and pacing of the story significantly with a few deft and subtle changes: switching these two acts, bringing up the ambi a couple beats earlier here, tightening this track, lengthening this fade, etc. All in all, a wonderful experience to work with the Second Ear team.
[You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.]