This month for Inside the Podcast Studio, we go behind the scenes of The Truth podcast with host Jonathan Mitchell to celebrate the show’s new season launch. Read about how Jonathan and his team captures authentic sound, his celebrity encounters, and learn more about the audio fiction landscape.
On the Podcast
Tell us about how The Truth came to be
I started The Truth in 2009, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I studied music composition at the University of Illinois. I took an experimental electronic music class and loved everything about it, especially editing tape and manipulating real-world sounds. Around the same time, I remember seeing “Sex Lies and Videotape” and being blown away—it made artful, thoughtful filmmaking seem so accessible and possible. Not long after that, I saw a book by the director Steven Soderbergh, a journal he kept while filming. I read it cover to cover twice. I loved it so much. It made me deeply want to make a film, but I didn’t have access to film equipment. But because of my music classes, I did have access to a recording studio, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film without pictures. I went to graduate school at Mills College, and my thesis was essentially a radio drama.
After graduating I worked in public radio for many years, and I always held onto the dream of making a radio show that would allow me to explore my interest in dramatic storytelling. Around 2009, I had an opportunity to pitch this idea to American Public Media, who gave me a little bit of money to make a pilot (which became our story Moon Graffiti). While spending a couple years trying to make that happen, I pitched a fiction story to This American Life, they said yes, so I started a podcast so that they would have a place to send listeners. After that piece aired, we had an audience big enough to justify continuing to produce the show, and about a year-and-a-half later, we joined the Radiotopia podcast network.
Tell us about your show and what makes it unique? Why are you so passionate about your subject matter?
I think fictional storytelling in audio is an under-developed field, there are just so many things that can be done with it. And it feels like we are only taking advantage of a very small part of an area that has boundless potential. I want to see what The Truth can do in this space, and hopefully inspire others to do the same. My lifelong goal is to help create a world where making audio drama is something normal and valued in mainstream culture. I would like to see people abandon the notion that audio drama is inherently old-fashioned or from bygone era of broadcasting. I would like people to see it for the relevant, contemporary, and highly versatile medium that it is.
Where do you find story ideas for the show?
We have a weekly writers meeting, where we pitch ideas and read each other’s scripts and offer feedback for episodes of The Truth. We can find story ideas anywhere. We tend to look for speculative fiction ideas, where there is one element that couldn’t happen in the real world.
Tell us more about what we can expect from your new season.
Expect the unexpected! The Truth is like a Christmas stocking: you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always entertaining and fun. This fall we are planning to post a new story twice a month.
How do you find actors? Any stories about famous people you’ve had on the show?
A lot of stories for The Truth are made with performers from Magnet Theater, an improv theatre and school in New York. Beyond that, we just think about who we know and who might be best based on the character.
For example, Rachel Dratch was in “Santa for President”. She had worked previously with the writer of that story, Mario Correa, on a play he wrote, so that’s why we thought of her. We ultimately base who we cast on the needs of the story. When we were recording with Rachel, she was playing a political consultant, and in the very next studio just 10 feet away on the other side of the glass was Karl Rove, recording an interview for another show. That was pretty surreal.
Your Songonauts series is so unique. Can you give us the backstory?
I got an email from co-creator Jonathan Mann saying he had an idea for a series, asking if I’d be willing to talk with him about it and give him feedback. Jonathan Mann has been writing a song a day for the past 7 years (you can hear them all on his website) and he’s a brilliant songwriter. He’s full of enthusiasm, and has a knack for writing a very catchy melody with a fun, positive vibe. So we met for lunch, he told me the idea and I thought it sounded really creative and unusual. It was very different from what we usually do, but it sounded like a fun challenge. I thought it would allow me to use more of my music background on The Truth.
On the Space
Where do you literally record or do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
It depends on the story. Sometimes we’ll record in my apartment, or outside, or if the story takes place in a car… then we’ll record in a car. Sometimes we’ll record in a studio if it makes more sense for the story, like the Songonauts series. I edit each story at home. I have a little editing studio in my apartment and I use Pro Tools to edit the audio. I have lots of cool plug-ins, my favorites are Omnisphere and Altiverb. I’m hoping the companies that make those plugins will read this and ask me for an endorsement or something, because I could go on and on about how much I love them.
Do you have a thinking or reflection space– somewhere you go outside the studio to gather creative inspiration?
I work best at my desk, where I put together the show.
What type of equipment do you use for recording your show?
I usually use a Shure VP88 stereo mic, which records in MS format. I often supplement that with AKG 414s. I just bought a Roland 4-channel recorder that I record to.
What soundproofing techniques do you use for narration?
I just record in my office. It’s pretty quiet in here, but then I put it through a denoiser made by Izotope. (Another plug for a plug-in maker! They rock!)
What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot?
Podcasting has made it possible for anyone to distribute their work all over the world at a very low cost. That’s revolutionary. Podcasting is a very accessible way to get our work out to a large audience. And in podcasting, fictional audio storytelling and other lesser-known or niche formats have the opportunity to build an audience because they’re available to the entire planet at once. What podcasts offer us is the opportunity to prove that there’s an audience for what we do.
What do you think makes a great podcast host? Tell us more about what makes you unique.
I’m the guy who makes the thing you like, but I’m not the thing itself. Like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock or Colonel Sanders. Each episode is me sharing this new thing we made, and hopefully you will like it. Sometimes you won’t, and that’s ok, because next time! We’re really good at this!
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Hopefully it will stay accessible to anyone and not devolve into a typical media landscape with three big companies who rule us all. I would like it to be completely normal and common for there to be audio drama, and I hope all of it will be amazing.