A history of audio storytelling: 10 seminal moments and timeless formats

The short history of audio formats. Image: The Short History of Stuff

Today in my audio class at the University of Oregon, we walked through some key moments in the history of audio storytelling. Here’s what we listened to:

1. Orson Welles — War Of The Worlds (1938)

Orson Welles — War Of The Worlds — Radio Broadcast 1938 — Complete Broadcast

As David Webb, who uploaded this to YouTube notes:

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated “news bulletins”, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a ‘sustaining show’ (it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the program’s quality of realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated. In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage. The program’s news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode secured Orson Welles’ fame.

2. The London Blitz described by Edward R. Murrow

The London Blitz described by Edward R. Murrow

Murrow described the story of life in London during World War 2. It includes some incredibly poetic language:

One of the strangest sounds one can hear in London these days — or rather these dark nights — just the sound of footsteps walking along the streets, like ghosts shod with steel shoes.

This semi-improvised piece using great language and natural sound to give us an insight into everyday life. Read the transcript here.

3. Breaking News: President Kennedy assassination

We tend to think of the Walter Cronkite TV news report when considering this story.

But, for many people, radio would have been where they turned to hear about the latest developments as this story broke (clip one) and where they could continue to listen as the story unfolded (clip two).

4. Radio dramatization/Radio drama

Fictional podcasts have started to emerge as a popular format in the US recently, a genre which harkens back to the golden age of radio (see Welles’ War of the Worlds).

BBC Radio has long dramatized books and showcased new works written especially for the radio. You can catch examples here — which are available for audiences inside, as well as outside, of the UK (unlike BBC TV content, for example, which is geographically restricted).

Here’s one example that I really like, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland. And another that’s on my list, an adaption of the James Bond story, Diamond’s are Forever, with Toby Stephens as Bond. If it’s based on the book, it will be quite different from the movie…

BBC4 Radio Play: “Diamonds are Forever”

5. “TiVo for radio” - Apple brings podcasts to iTunes

Apple WWDC 2005 Steve Jobs Keynote

Low barriers to entry meant some people call the medium, the “Wayne’s World for Radio,” but Jobs calls podcasting “the hottest thing going in radio,” noting the ability to subscribe to shows and that there are over 8,000 (!) podcasts available.

6. Ricky Gervais podcast

Later turned into an HBO animated series, but initially a podcast sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Gervais was one of the first people to show that comedy could be a popular genre for podcasting. A regular feature on the series was “Monkey News.” This example gives you a flavor of the show; supported by some fan-produced animation.

HBO in 2011, when announcing a third series of their animated show, noted:

On March 19, the podcast on which THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW is based reportedly passed the 300 million download mark. The podcast held the record for most downloaded podcast in the 2005 edition of the “Guinness Book Of Records,” when the total per episode was in the hundreds of thousands, and holds the record for most-downloaded podcast or audiobook today.

7. NYT wins an Emmy for “new approaches to documentary” with an audio slideshow series

The New York Times’ series “One in 8 Million” (from 2010) used audio slideshows to tell the stories of New Yorkers.

We listened to the experience of Joshua Febres:

Photo by Todd Heisler
Joshua Febres, 17, a senior at the Bronx Lab School, missed most of his sophomore year after pleading guilty to robbery and assault charges. He said he had been selling drugs since age 13 and had joined the Crips, whose members were working nearby corners…”

There’s also a rather nice trailer for the series, which gives a flavor of the different voices, and beautiful photographs, which adorn this series.

8. Marc Maron WTF President Obama Interview

A big moment for the podcast genre, when the most powerful man in the world agreed to chat to Marc Maron in the comedian’s garage. The interview is intimate, funny and revealing, in equal measure. Catch the full podcast, from June 2015, here.

9. Hidden stories which build relationship and communities: StoryCorps

StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 60,000 interviews from more than 100,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on StoryCorps’ Listen Page.

We listened to the experience of Tracy Johnson and Sandra Johnson.

As their website notes:

North Carolina National Guardsman Tracy Johnson (left) is an Iraq war veteran and an Army widow. She is also believed to be the first gay spouse to lose her partner at war since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

10. The radio call-in show

Conflict, as well as intimacy and emotion, makes for good radio and good talk radio. This mainstay of radio broadcasting has been around for some time, and still has plenty of life in it. We listened to a short exchange from the BBC’s Jeremy Vine show.

Two callers to Jeremy Vine — one Leaver and one Remainer — square up on air the day after the Brexit referendum result.

Bonus. Serial, Season One.

And, we ran out of time to talk about Serial, the podcast which captured the imagination of listener’s around the world, and introduced many people to the power of audio storytelling. Arguably the first podcast that people would “binge-listen.”

It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent — though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.

Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, where once a year he gets to geek out and teach audio.