Third Coast and the future of audio storytelling

Ira Glass delivering his keynote at this year's Third Coast. Photo by Bill Healy.

Everyone’s eyes, and ears, were fixed on Ira Glass. The public radio legend positioned himself behind the lectern on stage where he mused on the Wild West that is podcasting. “In this room, we have an opportunity. We’re one part of news media actually growing,” he explained, in the same pleasant nasal tone he’s become known for as host of This American Life.

It was the closing day of Chicago’s Third Coast International Audio Festival and the roughly 800 attendees—some veteran public radio producers, others newbie podcasters—had packed into the Hyatt ballroom a few blocks from Lake Michigan. If the workshops and panels of the preceding two days didn’t already do it, Glass’s keynote seemed to energize conference goers in a way that left them ready to record the next Great American Podcast. “If there’s a group of people I’d want to invent something with, it’s you guys,” he said.

Podcasting is in a nascent stage, Glass reminded his audience. If you uttered the word “podcast” just a few years ago, most people would have responded with a blank stare. That’s not the case today. The question now is not what’s a podcast? but what’s your podcast about? Unlike other mediums, the rules are still being written, many of them by those in that hotel ballroom. Third Coast has become the place to reflect on the past year in audio storytelling, while also drafting a playbook for the year to come.

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Third Coast started in 2001 when Executive Director Johanna Zorn, then a producer at Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ, thought there should be a time and place to celebrate audio documentary storytelling. Her vision? A Sundance Film Festival, but for radio. At the time, first-person audio documentaries were beginning to find their way onto the airwaves, from the acclaimed Ghetto Life 101 of WBEZ’s “Chicago Matters” series to the early days of then-radio program This American Life. People like Glass and other audio pioneers like Jay Allison, Joe Richman, David Isay, and the Kitchen Sisters were placing microphones in the hands of everyday people to document their own lives. It blew Zorn away. “We were getting to experience life through other people’s voices, to feel the power of radio that way,” she explains. So, together with Julie Shapiro, now the executive producer of podcast network Radiotopia, Zorn planned the first Third Coast, which took place three weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Around 200 people gathered for the first event. The idea resonated with audio practitioners; the conference has sold out every year since.

This year’s conference spotlighted three days of networking, workshopping, and a little bit of barhopping. “Everything is planned like a radio program,” Zorn says. “It’s produced just like that, always thinking of the audience.” At the breakfast table and in panels, newbie producers sat alongside the likes of their radio crushes and heroes like The Daily’s Michael Barbaro, In the Dark’s Madeleine Baran, or S-Town’s Brian Reed, as they learned about experimenting with sound design, or working with complicated characters. The emphasis was on the art and craft of audio storytelling. Here are some of the key takeaways from the weekend:

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People love narrative news

This year’s breakout hit was, unequivocally, The Daily. With its sharp news sense and narrative swagger, the podcast captured the hearts (and ears) of millions of subscribers when it debuted almost a year ago. Since then, news organizations like NPR, The Outline, and Vox have either launched, or are in the stages of launching, their own version of a daily news podcast. So, why did The Daily attract so many listeners? Lisa Tobin, the Times’s executive producer of audio, tackled this question at one of the weekend’s packed panels, alongside host Barbaro.

Tobin’s team has applied the principles of narrative form to the news or ideas of the day. The Daily sounds like a happy marriage between NPR’s Morning Edition and This American Life, but produced, mixed, and released usually within 24 hours (some episodes take a few days to complete). To accomplish such a quick turnaround, the audio team plans a lot of the narrative ahead of time, which generally means figuring out what they need from a conversation before it even happens. They think about what else they can say, beyond just the details of a story or situation, and then structure their stories to incorporate classic narrative elements like pacing, surprise, suspense, and character.

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History matters

Context is king. The surprising election of Donald Trump left many wondering: How did we get here? Increasingly, journalists are finding their answers in the history books. It’s no different in audio. For years, podcasts like 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, and BackStory have tackled history from different angles. Other podcasts like Uncivil and Seeing White have emerged in response to the times. History, often thought of as boring or dry, is brought to life through podcasts with engaging characters, smart sound design, and clever structure.

According to Delaney Hall, a producer at 99% Invisible, historical podcasts work best when you look for a small story to tell a larger one. For example, Hall rooted contemporary issues of police-community relations in the tale of one city’s push for new police uniforms in the late 1960s. Structure, archival tape, and good talkers are also key ingredients. It’s about humanizing history for listeners, while also looking for connections between past and present.

 

Time to investigate

Deep-dive, exhaustive reporting has a long tradition in print, but the form only recently made its way back into audio. The early days of NPR were full of longform documentary work, and investigations have once again become a staple of the podcast world. Their goal? To reveal truths. Shows like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, Frontline Dispatch, and American Public Media’s In the Dark are full of twists and turns, and they entertain as much as inform. Investigative podcasting can take months, even years, but can start with a single, simple question. Sometimes, that’s the best way to start, according to Baran, host of In the Dark.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.