The audio digital darkroom

Today's 9-minute podcast is both a meditation on audio editing and an experiment with it. Here's the transcript:

The other day at the library, I picked up a copy of Listening to America, which is a history of the first 25 years of National Public Radio. I was fifteen when NPR started back in 1971, and I don't remember much about its early days, but this book brought back a lot of memories. Edited by Linda Wertheimer, it's a selection of episodes that represent each of the years from 1971 to 1995, transcribed from NPR's audio archives.

Here in 2005 a decade later, as the Internet self-publishing revolution that began with text blogging begins to embrace audio and video formats as well, I've been thinking a lot about NPR: what it has meant to me over the years, how NPR does what it does, what the rest of us can do with the tools that NPR uses, and how NPR and podcasters will influence one another in the years to come.

Careful writing and editing has always been a hallmark of NPR. In his foreword to the book, Bill Buzenberg describes the process:

"A strong narrative line carries a good story," Buzenberg writes, "and makes for compelling listening. News reports and features on NPR newsmagazines are written and edited, and often rewritten and reedited, giving the programs a lucid, literate sound."

While I've always known that it takes a lot of work to achieve that lucid and literate sound, what I hadn't thought much about, until recently, is that the effect isn't limited to the scripted parts of the show. The unscripted remarks of people who are interviewed for the shows sound incredibly good too. When I started using audio editing tools to produce my own interviews, I saw how easily it can be done. It's a snap to shrink a 45-minute interview down to 20 minutes of the most interesting stuff -- and to leave no trace of the edits. It's harder, but still doable, to clean up the "ums" and "you knows" and false starts that characterize real speech -- a process known as "internal editing."

In December, NPR's On the Media swept back the curtain to reveal the details of this process. Reporter John Solomon recalls his first encounter with the audio digital darkroom:

I sat at the digital editing console with a producer, listening to an interview with a source I had recorded earlier. With just strokes of the keyboard, he cleaned up and tightened the sound bites I was going to use, taking out sentences, words and even some of the pauses, making what are called "internal edits." Then the various thoughts were woven together technically in a way that would be totally hidden to the listener. In fact, the public is far less aware of editing on radio than on television or in print. For example, to eliminate words, a TV producer has to use more visible means, such as a cutaway shot or jump cut. Newspaper reporters by form must put a break between non-consecutive quotations, among other constraints.

Later in the piece, Solomon asks a great question about how and why we trust various media:

Ironically, television is usually seen as the news medium with artifice, while radio is viewed as more authentic. NPR's Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin believes trust in television news has declined in part because viewers see it as over-produced entertainment. Is it possible that the fact listeners are unaware of how much production is involved has helped retain their trust in NPR News?

The same question was raised by Doug Rushkoff, an author and media theorist, in his October 2004 talk at PopTech, which you can hear at In this clip Rushkoff uses a scene from Return of the Jedi to make a point about the medium and the message. Star Wars fans will cringe to hear him say "Hans Solo" instead of "Han Solo," but don't let that distract you:

Hans and Luke are tied up, and do you remember how they get out of captivity? C3PO and R2D2 tell the Ewoks a story. C3P0 speaks perfect Ewok, and he's all gold, and they think he's a god, he starts telling the great story of the wonderful rebels, Luke and Hans, and how they're fighting the imperial starship. And R2D2 starts projecting holographic images of these battles. And you see the little Ewok eyes going back and forth, going "Oh, my god!" They've never seen holographic technology. They've never heard a story told this well.

And the story so wins them over that these Ewoks not only release Hans and Luke, but they fight a war on their behalf. They fight a war against those big robot things in which Ewoks die. And what I thought at this moment, as an emerging little media theorist, was -- what would have happened if Darth Vader had gotten down to that moon first and told his story? With his special effects? They would have fought for him, I promise you they would have fought for him.

So there's two elements here, two elements of storytelling and two elements of mythology that we have to be able to parse. The first is the story, is the content of the story, and the second is the medium or the technology through which the story is told. The more magical the medium, the more compelling the message. The less we understand about how this message is getting to us, the more compelled we are to believe it.

Is there anything wrong with NPR's digital darkroom magic? Not necessarily, Rushkoff suggests, so long as we understand how and why it's done. To that end, NPR's self-analysis is a welcome and timely exercise in transparency.

Of course, interview subjects almost always appreciate being made to sound as articulate as they imagine themselves to be.

Neither Kern, the former executive producer of All Things Considered, nor the producers here at OTM remember getting even one complaint from a source about how an interview was cut, which is remarkable, considering how much editing is done.
It's the same in print. I'm an audio newbie, but for years I've edited interview transcripts for print magazines. Nobody has ever complained, and in fact people often thank me for making them sound more articulate than they really are.

How does this relate to podcasting? It's still early days for the medium, so it may not be fair to characterize it, but most podcasts so far receive little, if any, editing. Their rawness is arguably part of their appeal -- a refreshing change from NPR's carefully constructed hyperreality, just as weblogs are a refreshing change from conventional print media.

Weblog visionary Dave Winer once said that a weblog is, most essentially, the unedited voice of a person. Of course Dave edits his own writing carefully, and so do I. But Dave makes a further distinction. Blogs are edited, he admits, but not in ways that interfere with the essential voice of the writer.

I think podcasters and NPR can learn useful things from one another. From NPR, podcasters can learn that the right kind of editing need not damage the authenticity of the voices you hear. From podcasters, NPR can learn a couple of things too. First, that fast-moving conversations sometimes cannot and should not be heavily post-processed. Second, that transparency means more than just acknowledging the existence of the digital darkroom. Increasingly primary sources can and will be made available on the Internet.

Back in October, on my weblog, I referred to the September 28 edition of Adam Curry's Daily Source Code. In response to Dave Winer's disappointment with his portrayal in an interview, Adam Curry pointed out that interviewees, as well as interviewers, can make and publish recordings of interviews.

And they can't really object, because nine times out of ten the interviewer will be recording the conversation, even when they do a phone interview they'll record the conversation. So if they have the right to do that, so should you. And you know what, they're so bowled over by the question that they're like, "Well, yeah, OK."

I want to have the right to put that source code [i.e., the audio data] on the Internet. No-one has rejected me so far, and I also have never put the source code of the interview on the Internet, because there was no need to. But boy, do they really drill down on their facts and do their checking.

There's no question that our media landscape is growing more complex. Sometimes the filter of post-production will be available to us, and sometimes it won't. When the filter is available we'll usually prefer it for the sake of narrative flow. But we'll always know how the magic is done, and we'll always be able to peek behind the curtain.

So how much digital darkroom magic did I use here? Less than a typical NPR show, more than a typical podcast. I'm still thinking about how to strike the right balance.

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