Ode to Sound

No. 41


My name is Emily Liu, a Singaporean living in New York. I’m a podcast producer at CNN.

For me, there is a before and an after to podcasts. The story that marked this transition was “The Living Room” from a show called “Love + Radio.” This particular episode is about a woman who becomes obsessed with watching the lives of her neighbors play out across the street through their living room window. It’s a story that starts out cute and funny but ends with me sobbing.

As someone who grew up in the anonymous world of the internet, I instantly connect with, and am overwhelmed by the intimacy of someone whispering into my ears about their deepest, darkest secrets and the jarring letdown of returning to reality after the story ends. Somehow, audio has that kind of power over me.

My relationship with podcasts began as a listener until I’ve had enough of my job in finance and figured I would give journalism a shot. It’s been such a privilege to be paid to make podcasts. I’ve had the chance to be a part of teams that make things I’d only ever imagined being a listener of. I didn’t know there are places that allow journalists to spend years reporting on a story, and then have months to storyboard, script and score music. Of course, I’ve also had to earn my heed in the grind, making a daily news podcast for a year. 

I always thought of podcasts as an English-language-based medium. I grew up listening to the BBC in Singapore, and then fell in love with American podcasts. It’s really exciting to see the medium’s growing popularity in the Chinese languages. For example, StoryFM (故事FM) is a show that comes really close to the podcasting ideal of having people tell their own stories in their own voices. I’d also like to shout out Loud Murmurs (小声喧哗), which has helped me tide over many lonely days when I could not stand being inside my head any longer. 

For this newsletter, I want to open the floor to all of you: What’s your relationship to audio and how to best tell stories in audio?



The Whisperers 耳語者

Anita Xu, Shanghai-based host and producer of the podcasts “井号键” (Grave Talk), “语境” (In Context), and “西瓜波普聊影视.”

My first storytelling podcast “语境” was inspired by a simple question: why are so many people in my generation making constant career moves, not just changing companies but professions? My goal was to discover the fundamental drive behind people’s career decisions. This year, I launched my second show “井号键” to discuss issues around aging, illness and death.

A great audio story always starts with a strong ending. Where do you want to lead your audience when the episode is over? Is the goal to inform, educate, provoke, inspire, or to sympathize? What are the takeaways you want your listeners to leave with? Genuine facts, honest perspectives and some artistic craft in sound design are the essential components of a good audio show.

My advice for honing audio storytelling skills is to listen, listen, and listen. To make great audio stories (or any type of stories, really), you need to learn from the best, not just by listening, but also by studying the story structure, the writing and the rhythm of the narration, like where the music fades in and out, where guests’s voices begin and how fast to talk. If you are a newbie, Alex Blumberg’s course on CreativeLive.com is a good start.

Huo Jingnan, assistant producer at NPR based in Washington DC.

As a producer, I deliver data analysis for audio stories. The job comes with its unique challenges: numbers aren’t easy to grasp through listening, and we can’t use graphics to visualize findings. To navigate these challenges, my coworkers and I present numbers sparingly, and usually only include the most compelling one or two findings on air and put more details in the web text. We also round up numbers: instead of “35.4 percent,” we say “over a third.” Often the one line of data you hear on air is backed up by days or even weeks of analysis and multiple rounds of editing.

I have always enjoyed audio stories because they give me food for thought and take my mind to new places as I go about my everyday life. Before getting to NPR, I didn’t know much about American-style audio storytelling, but I quickly fell in love with its emphasis on characters, scenes, and narratives. Although I work with numbers most of the time, my ears always perk up when I hear stories of quirks, emotions and memories behind the numbers. The numbers and human stories combined allow me to see the world in a way I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Bessie Du, journalist and host of the podcast “异乡人” (ImMigrant) based in Europe. 

During the pandemic, I discovered the NPR podcast “Storycorps” and was touched and inspired by those human stories. I often find myself sharing an intimate space with the storytellers and feeling a sense of belonging while listening to podcasts. So I started a podcast called “异乡人” about two months ago. Having moved around the world so often and for so long, the question of ‘where is home’ can be a real burden, especially when we are cut off from one another during the lockdown. Making this podcast has lifted me out of the isolation that has driven me to near despair. I've tremendously enjoyed chatting with inspiring people from different parts of the world. 

I worked as a TV producer for nearly twenty years. The interview skills I developed over the years for TV production are transferable to podcasts. I keep our interviews conversational and create a relaxed atmosphere that allows the characters to tell their own stories openly. I decided to make the podcast in Mandarin Chinese, the language the storytellers are most comfortable with, so that the conversations are genuine, natural, and focused. For those who also want to start their own podcasts, my advice is to put your heart to it and be honest with yourself when it comes to why you want to do a podcast. 

Caiwei Chen, Beijing-based freelance journalist and host of the podcast “定向跳转” (Redirect). 

Audio cultivates a sense of trust and intimacy like no other media. I started listening to podcasts in 2018. Chinese podcasts are full of intimate and joyful conversations, and listening to my favorite podcasts feels like having extra friends that I’ve never met. “Loud Murmurs(小声喧哗) was one of the first podcasts that got me into this world and later became a necessity in my life.

At a time when visual media continue to dominate, audio is deemed secondary and supplementary. However, I choose a career in audio storytelling, because I love the medium and believe that the deepest trust and understanding are usually formed verbally. After leaving my previous producer job at Tech Buzz China, I started my own podcast “定向跳转” (Redirect), and I’m helping grow Marcast, a podcast studio founded by my dear friend Marc Lee. 

In China’s highly regulated media space, audio harbors marginalized voices you would not hear elsewhere: the avant-garde takes, the deep dives, the satiric banters. Telling audio stories gave me a voice. It was a luxury I thought I didn't deserve, until I learned to be proud of being an independent journalist and having different opinions.

Cindy Gao, co-host of the “NüVoices” podcast based in New York. 

The “NüVoices” podcast features badass women and non-binary creatives whose work and lives are connected to China. The show highlights their diverse professional contributions as well as their rich inner lives related to identity and (mis/under) representation. Our job as hosts is to give structure to the conversation by setting the stage for the audience to get to know our guests and their passions. Our preparations vary; my personal process is to have an informal chat with the interviewee and then read, listen and watch as much of their work as I can. This helps me understand what previously unasked questions would solicit the most insightful and nuanced responses.

The mechanics of starting our podcast wasn’t hard: we had the equipment, experienced journalists and writers as hosts and an endless list of interesting guests. What was hard was the time commitment required to produce an episode, build an audience and do it consistently, week in and week out. There is no secret to podcasting but to do it again and again and again, build confidence through fluency and work with a really good editor. The storytelling process in audio, as in other formats, is about how you can best facilitate the connection between the story, your subjects and the audience; the rest is confetti.

Holly He, multimedia producer based in Atlanta and former host of MarcoPolo’s podcast “Heartland Mainland”. 

I stumbled into audio storytelling as a freshman at J-School. Our professor played the Harper High School series of “This American Life” in class. I remember listening to the episodes viscerally: teens cheering in the hall, a parent sighing, a student quietly sobbing… It was a revelation of how audio breathes life into a story. The nuances and emotions in people’s voices conjure up all sorts of imagery that’s not limited by cameras, and the ambient sound transports me to another time and place. 

In 2019, I started making a “This American Life” style podcast about U.S.-China relations. In the foreign policy field, so many podcasts involve experts checking off a list of abstract bullet points. My co-host and I wanted to give those who bore the brunt of trade wars and visa restrictions a space to speak. We drove out to Iowa, where Chinese students, farmers, politicians all had a story to tell: we recorded the sound of footsteps on fresh grass as we hung out with local farmers; A 80-year old caucus goer came up and talked to us about her visit to China in the 50s; I described to my listeners what it was like to roam in a Des Moines Walmart for an hour and not find a single “Made In America” toy. This is the U.S.-China relations told by people who experienced it. 

My biggest takeaway from producing this series is just to let the tape roll. Record not just the interviews, but also the organic interactions and small talks (with permission, of course.) Sometimes these less guarded moments make the most memorable tape.

Writers: Emily Liu, Anita Xu, Huo Jingnan, Bessie Du, Cindy Gao, Caiwei Chen, Holly He ; Editor: Xinyan Yu; Copy Editor: Isabelle Niu

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.