Elsie started a yoga podcast on her own, which had nothing to do with narrative. She was in Los Angeles and the LA podcasters were all storytelling podcasters at that time. All were creating what we would consider to be more of a storytelling type of a podcast, minus all the hyper-produced musical interludes and overtone of the narrative between the conversations. They were done in a way that struck me as a human being telling stories.
Tim Coin had a podcast called The Hollywood Podcast. Dan Class had The Bitterest Pill. Lance Anderson had Verge of the Fringe. Kush had Things I Say. All four of these guys were producing a podcast telling stories, and all did it completely different from each other.
For Elsie this was an incredible learning to understand how powerful a narrative could be in that it doesn’t have to be a specific type of way.
She also worked as an actor for 10 years, did theatre and movies and TV, and worked in Hollywood for a while. In hindsight, she says she didn’t have confidence in who she was as an artist, she didn’t trust herself, and that was one of the reasons she quit. She didn’t have the creative life she wishes she could have had. Elsie says podcasting gives that to her, the creative control and expression she was searching for.
A listener perspective on narrative podcasts:
- When working behind the microphone with all the editing and producing, we can forget what it’s like to be on the other end of the microphone. Even when we listen to podcasts we forget what that listener experience is like. Working in theatre is similar. Doing musicals, Elsie always got notes from directors that would say ‘you have to earn the right to start singing the song’. There are times in some narrative podcasts where she felt that they had not earned the right to insert that piece of music there, or to narrate this portion, because it’s more contrived. It needs to be furthering the throughline of the storytelling process.
- Although like anything else in podcasting there are very specific ‘rules and regulations’ around what constitutes a strong listening audio piece, there is also the ability to mess with them to the point where you don’t have to follow any rules. Creative juices sometimes get stuck in the technical world. Elsie explains the technical stuff comes from one side of brain and creative comes from the other. If you’re thinking about the technical that’s the editing and producing etc. The narrative and storytelling and strategy and heart of the piece is the creative. It’s either too ‘out there’ with no form, or it’s too form-ish with no impact that you’re looking for. A balance between both is what makes the most incredible narrative podcast.
- You’re into it, you create the thing, maybe you have a team. But then find someone not a part of the “in crowd”, maybe they’re the audience, maybe there’s a person who would benefit to listen or someone you want to reach. You have them listen to see if it works, like a mini focus group.
Tips for planning and crafting the narrative:
- Make sure before you start that you/the team have the key points you want to drive home or the overarching theme and WHY of this podcast. What’s the bottom line of this podcast? How is it that in the process of capturing the audio, how can we get the bits and pieces that really serve to drive the larger dialogue and larger point?
- As producers, keep the throughline front of mind, that primary dialogue with the audience. Make sure you mark things as you go. You will think ‘I’m never going to forget that’ but you will. Be meticulous about that. Be clear that you know how to get back to this information.
- Schedule a buffer time to capture some of that thought process straight after the interview, to write down the key insights from your guest but also from you. Write it down, you won’t have the throughline in your head as clearly as when you first finish that interview.
Advice on crafting the beginning, the ending and the climaxes:
- The key thing in theatre, dance, almost every art form is pacing. It’s the same thing with storytelling and music. You set up a certain amount of some sort of consistency, perhaps in the rhythm or your voice, and then you add elements that break that pattern. Sometimes it’s more melodic, more pleasing, but sometimes it’s very dissonant and it shocks you. It can be change of speed/tempo (faster or slower), volume (louder or softer) or sharpness.
- What’s lovely with a narrative podcast is you don’t have to do it just with your voice, you can use sound design or music. Be very deliberate as to why you are putting that where you’re putting it. Pacing also needs to be steady. It doesn’t need to be any one specific rhythm, but the drive does need to continue the story, it needs to consistently move forward.
- You need to make choices based on the kind of transition that it is. Is it a very poignant transition? Or is it something where you’re talking about x and then that topic is put to rest so now we’re going to start talking about y. That merits a strong transition, an audio period. This is the end of the sentence. End scene. There are times that may not be so poignant and more integrated from one to the next. Think about what kind of transition you need.
- Really truly study the narrative podcast genre. Listen not for content but for transitions, what worked the most and what worked about it? Reverse engineer the impact something made on you or why it didn’t work or why it was too jarring or why you wish that it was some other way. Follow your instincts with this, develop your own opinions, find what you like and see what resonates with you. That only comes from studying.
- Think about how you can use every part of who you are to make those transitions. There are different ways to use the body and to tell stories minus audio, minus music, minus words, just with gesture. Doing that kind of work opens up so much. It opens up the possibilities when you can so you don’t fall on the same old patterns of ‘I’ll just use music here’. What if instead of music you used silence? Perhaps there are optimal ways to do things, but sometimes doing the different thing will get you the results you’re looking for.
- It’s necessary to look outside the industry to see what other people are doing and to see what we might be able to pull in and use that. Break the mould!
Bonus notes: The LA Podcasters:
- Dan Class primarily told stories about his life when he was an out of work actor in LA. He was a stay at home dad, taking care of his babies. He cultivated these incredible, super funny stories of his life. Like a diary but better produced. Each episode focused on maybe 3 stories tops. For the most part it seemed as if he was off book but very clearly he worked on them. He could do it at a stand up show or encapsulate different genres, could shoot it as a pilot episode. It was also highly audio produced.
- Kush did Things I Say also about living in hollywood around that time. His storytelling wasn’t necessarily as funny as Dan Class’s but was very poignant and cut through a lot of layers of living life in Hollywood. He would tell a story but also give a lot of deep thoughts. You didn’t know if he was serious or making fun of the audience.
- Lance Anderson’s take was not scripting anything. It was raw storytelling, a kind of “me and my mic, no music, awkward pauses accepted”. He would riff on something that was striking him in some way. It wasn’t just your regular Jo Schmo behind the mic, he really took the craft of getting behind the mic and doing a monologue as something to be cultivated. At the beginning of podcasting it was more common that it was sort of like an open Mic spoken word stories like that, where you would craft the story before, see where the story was going, and then you hit the microphone and you do it, and see if it lands or doesn’t. Sometimes his flopped and sometimes it soared, but it was beautifully done.
- The Hollywood Podcast with Tim Coin was a very unique take on narrative. He was an actor trying to make it in Hollywood and he told the stories of auditions, brought in all the emotions, covered his relationship with his girlfriend and Dad and brother, all the psychological stuff going on. It was a very well-produced one hour drama comedy. It had scene changes and some musical interludes. Elsie recalls she laughed out loud AND cried publically out on the street because each one of his podcasts was like riding a rollercoaster.
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