This month on Inside the Podcast Studio, we go behind the scenes of the Outside Podcast from Outside magazine. Learn more about how the show came to be, and about it’s funny, charismatic hosts Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver (with cameos from Mike Roberts, Outside magazine’s executive editor).
On the Podcast
PRX: Tell us about how the podcast came to be
Pete: Basically we got super lucky. Robbie and I had been doing a very infrequent, outdoors-focused podcast, 30 Minutes West, for a couple of years. PRX approached me to do science work with funds provided by the Sloan Foundation. Right around that time I started doing print work for Outside and really liked working with those folks. I had coffee with our editor, Michael Roberts, and pitched him the idea of Outside launching a podcast. He said that they already had some podcast stuff in the works, but the ideas he outlined didn’t draw on Outside’s reputation for longform storytelling. I played him a couple of episodes from 30 Minutes West to show what I had in mind, and I think that worked. Meanwhile, we’d kept in touch with PRX and knew that they had funding for science stories, so it made sense to pitch both entities on one project.
PRX: Tell us about the team behind the show
Pete is a freelance writer who went to SALT a couple of years ago, just trying to add more tools to his storytelling toolbox. Robbie went to grad school for nonfiction writing and we met at a John Jeremiah Sullivan reading. It’s nice to share many of same favorite authors, it gives us a common vocabulary for talking about things we’re trying to do on the podcast.
PRX: Where do you find story ideas for the show?
Robbie: The first two episodes of the Science of Survival series came from stories in Outside’s archives. We really wanted to begin with a close connection to the magazine. So we sat down with a bunch of back issues, and just started reading. Mike sent us stories as well, and a few pieces seemed like they would benefit from an audio treatment, so we jumped on those. We worked with the original authors, but also tried to make it our own.
Pete: The rest of our stories just sort of fall from the sky. We don’t go looking for them, we just recognize stuff that’s surprising and interesting and seems like it might have a built-in narrative arc. Sometimes it’s an article I’m reading, sometimes it’s a matter of realizing that a subject is way more interesting than I thought, or sometimes I hear a story at a party and laugh along with everyone, then later corral the storyteller for more details. Makes you really popular.
PRX: We love the theme music on the show, how was that created?
We’d seen a short outdoors video that was focused purely on the sounds of outdoor adventure, and really liked it. That served as the general inspiration, and from there we began sketching out a small scene that would capture both the feeling of outdoors and survival. We set up a tent in Robbie’s basement to get a good zipper sound, and then started pulling it together with music Robbie created. The most entertaining conversation centered around how much of this one wolf sound to put in. It went like this:
Robbie: We need more wolf.
Pete: I don’t know, it seems like there’s too much wolf.
Robbie: I added an extra wolf, what do you think?
Pete: I took out the first wolf but you can keep the second wolf.
Robbie: Fine, but we’re keeping the drums.
Pete: Deal. By the way I made the wolf quieter.
PRX: How do you think the podcast can complement your magazine articles?
Mike: First off, let me be clear: we developed this podcast to be a standalone storytelling platform. If and when it can complement a piece in the print magazine or on outsideonline.com, great. But that’s not the goal. That said, there are opportunities to use the podcast to mine elements of stories that work better in audio format. A great example is the second episode in the Science of Survival series, which told the remarkable tale of Phil Broscovak, a man who seemed to be chased by lightening wherever he went. Broscovak was a central character in a 2014 Outside print feature about lightning strikes, and we included a short video interview with him in the online version of the story. But when Peter and Robbie reached out to him, they uncovered a remarkably powerful emotional element that was best conveyed through Broscovak’s voice, the voices of his family members, and the terrifying sound of approaching storms.
PRX: What makes your show ideal for the podcast format?
Pete: For starters, a lot of our pieces run 30-45 minutes and it’s hard to get those on traditional radio. But more than that, Robbie and I are both hardcore literature nerds, and we approach the different elements of sound as tools for storytelling. If you’ve ever taken a literature criticism class you’ve probably heard a lot of conversation about high-minded rhetorical devices like allusions, metaphors, tropes, and the like. Audio has all those things, plus music and sound effects and thousands of little microemotions communicated through the voice. So we do our best to harness all those things and get them working together. Some days we’re better at it than others.
PRX: Your show is so sound rich. Can you describe the most interesting scenario you’ve yourselves in to get authentic sound?
Pete: The craziest scenario was definitely the time we drove to Mount Hood, skied into the woods, stripped Robbie down to just rain pants and buried him in snow. Since our piece was on hypothermia, we wanted truly authentic freezing sounds, and we got them. (Listen to the episode here)
Robbie: I got my revenge a few months later when we did something similar to Pete, sitting him in a 67 degree hot tub, with a wetsuit on, for two hours to see how quickly his core temperature dropped. His mom got so nervous she intervened. (Listen to the episode here)
On the Space
PRX: Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
Pete: I rent the top floor of a big house in Portland, and there’s an extra bedroom up there that I turned into an office. I migrate between a sitting desk, a standing desk, and a hammock that I bolted into the wall. Sometimes in the summer I take the hammock to the park and work there.
Robbie: I used to have an office but now I have a kid, so I’ve staked out a corner of the basement and filled it with audio gear and “music composition for dummies” manuals. Keyboards and guitars sit on top of a futon that Pete let me borrow but now won’t take back. Since the basement is underground, the acoustics are fantastic, so I’ll probably stay there.
PRX: Do you have a thinking or reflection space– somewhere you go to gather creative inspiration?
Pete: I go on runs, and will sometimes just sort of pace around the house muttering things, but I travel so much that I’ve really tried to untether myself from feeling like I need to work or think in a specific physical location. Otherwise I’d always have that excuse and wouldn’t get anything done.
Robbie: I go on long bike rides. That’s definitely where I do my best thinking.
PRX: How do you record your show? What type of equipment does your team use for at home recording vs. in the field?
Pete: Pretty much everything goes into a Marantz PMD 661. I like it because it’s really easy to use in the field and there’s only a few buttons to press. I can hand it to someone and teach them how to record in just a few minutes. In the field we use a Audio Technica 897 shotgun microphone for almost everything. At home I narrate into a Audio Technica 4040 mic. We edit most of our stories in Hindenburg, but for really complicated sound design we’ll use Reaper since the sound effects are a lot more nimble and precise. Robbie makes music in Logic and uses an electric guitar—our secret weapon—to get sounds that he couldn’t get out of a keyboard.
My desk is a mix of ponderosa pine and some sort of ceramic composite. My chair is also pine.
PRX: What soundproofing techniques do you use for narration?
Pete: I would have answered this question very differently a few months ago. I used to duck into closets and throw blankets over everything trying to get better sound. But over the last few months of recording narration I’ve found that as long as it’s quiet and the mic is very, very close to my mouth, people can’t really hear the difference between being at my desk and being in a room with foam on the walls. That’s one advantage of intense clutter. It deadens the sound. Seriously.
PRX: What do you think makes a great podcast host? Tell us more about Pete and what makes him unique?
Mike: All the best hosts share one ability: they hold your attention and artfully guide you through a listening experience. Peter does this with an incredible combination of talents. He’s a dyed in the wool investigative journalist. He knows how to structure a story. He’s damn good audio engineer. He has a fantastic voice for audio. And—this is key—he clearly has fun doing the work. That comes through in every episode. Oh, and he lets his mom call the shots when it comes to safety.
PRX: How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Mike: I think we’re just about at the peak of the podcasting bubble right now. There are so many projects and experiments coming together at the moment that I think we’re going to have a couple of years of a really crowded audio space, and then some of them are going to start dying off and going away. The trick will be to figure out a way to stand out among an increasingly large crowd of talented audio producers.
Check out the Outside podcast in iTunes.