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The Unofficial Gimlet Reading List: Books about ‘Audio Storytelling’ i.e. Making Good Podcasts

26Apr17

As an intern at Gimlet Media’s Science Vs, I’ve learned a lot about making podcasts. The process of making a podcast can seem mysterious, if not impossible. And when it comes to tasks like finding the overall structuring of a story or selecting the very best audio from three-hour-long interviews, if you’re like me, you may be unsure where to even begin.

I have good news, it’s not magic, there is a method. Radio producers have been been making shows under the constraint of the hardest of deadlines (dead air, gasp!), so skilled producers have systematized the process of creating audio and written how-to guides, one even in comic book form! (And while learning that some of my co-workers had been immortalized in a graphic novel was probably not the best for my already shy interactions with them, I learned a ton from that book!)

Anyways, here’s my unofficial Gimlet reading lists: one of books the Gimlet office keeps on hand for newbies like me and then a second of books on nonfiction writing and journalism that Gimlet colleagues recommended to me. 

Books about audio storytelling / Books about making podcasts and radio stories:

  1. Out one the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel (with a foreword by Ira Glass)
    out on the wire cover
    Comic-book writer and illustrator Jessica Abel extends and updates her classic, Radio an Illustrated Guide, interviewing the hosts and staff that create the hits This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, Planet Money, Snap Judgement, Serial, Invisibilia, and other narrative radio shows. This book starts from the very beginning, and teaches you every step of the process of creating a story from start to finish, what sorts of big picture questions and details producers think about, and all of the weird jargon like ‘bounces,’ ‘logging,’ and ‘selects.’ And abel shows as well as telling–using the same techniques that are described in this book to make it feel more like a narrative than a dry how-to guide. Plus, it’s funny, cheap, and you’ll learn a bit about the idiosyncratic personalities who create the shows you love.
  2. Sound Reporting: the NPR guide to audio Journalism and Production – by Jonathon Kern
    sound reporting
    What Out on the Wire does for Gimlet-style narrative stories, Sound Reporting does for more tradional NPR journalism. (Though, unfortunately, more traditional also means no pictures.) However, Sound Reporting is an audio journalism textbook written in clear conversational language by the Executive Producer for Training at NPR, and as such explains every step of making an audio news story. Not only reporting, producing, and editing, but also the ethical considerations of journalism–including examples of journalism gone terribly wrong! (For example, did you know some journalists erred and published in the 1980s that 2 million children were abducted each year, probably contributing to the long-lasting ‘stranger danger’ that still worries people today?) Sound Reporting is full of interesting, concrete examples like this, that illustrate Kern’s points and make it easy to read and understand.
  3. Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound – Edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth
    reality radio
    Reality Radio is a collection of 24 essays. The second edition is hot of the press (Feb., 2017) and includes up to date information about the rapidly changing world of radio: the ascendance of the podcast; greater cultural, racial, and topical variety; and the changing economics of radio itself.

    Contributors include many of the familiar faces from Out on the Wire, and a wider group including radio-makers from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The contributers are: Jad Abumrad, Daniel Alarcon, Jay Allison, damali ayo, John Biewen, Emily Botein, Chris Brookes, Scott Carrier, Katie Davis, Sherre DeLys, Ira Glass, Alan Hall, Dave Isay, Natalie Kestecher, Starlee Kine, The Kitchen Sisters, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, Maria Martin, Karen Michel, Joe Richman, Dmae Roberts, Stephen Smith, Alix Spiegel, Sandy Tolan, and Glynn Washington.

Books about nonfiction writing and journalism more broadly:

  1. Follow the story : How to Write Successful Nonfiction – by James B Stewart
    follow the story
    I took the fact that Follow the Story’s Amazon page recommends it alongside my favorite style guide Zinsser’s On Writing Well as a very good omen. Stewart is a former editor of the Wall Street Journal’s front page, and draws heavily on examples from his own writing. This may irk some, but hey, write what you know, right? As much as this is a step-by-step guide for researching and writing a story, it is a philosophy about how to following your curiosity, and then leading the reader/listener down that same journey.
    I’m looking over the amazon reviews for this book and I don’t get them:
    Read this book if you want to be a journalist,” says Jen. Four Stars. I would have sworn a 5-star rating was coming after that unequivocal endorsement.
  2. Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent Anne Garrels
    naked in baghdad
    A lot of times in radio and journalism there is no script–no one can tell you what you should be doing and that can be terrifying, and that’s without putting your life in danger. Naked in Baghdad is an example, of a journalist rising above the call of duty, who “as one of only sixteen non-embedded journalists who stayed in the now legendary Palestine Hotel throughout the American invasion she managed to deliver the most immediate, insightful and independent reports with unparalleled vividness and immediacy,” and the madness of Iraq are juxtaposed against  e-mails from her husband.
    Naked in Baghdad is an inspiring piece of work that illustrates the types of dramatic and impactful work you can do if you learn the skills of creating radio. As Ron Franscell points out in an Amazon Review, audio journalists can get access where others can’t: “She had no cameras… no bulky notebooks to mark her as a reporter in a crowd. Only a tape recorder the size of a cigarette pack … and the sounds of war. She traveled lightly and discreetly, just under the radar of the gatekeepers.”

So there’s the start of a reading list for the aspiring radio journalist, podcaster, or audio storyteller. What books have helped or inspired you that I’m missing from the list? Leave them in a comment below or tweet me @neuroamer. And let me know if you have other questions about making podcasts or working at Gimlet.

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