The power of sonic storytelling

Podcasters need to look beyond words to find new ways of delivering compelling experiences

It’s strange how a simple sound can do so much to evoke a specific situation. An otherwise unremarkable audio cue in the right place can do more to create an atmosphere than paragraph upon paragraph of speech.

This week, I’ve been listening to Arctic Monkeys: Believe The Hype - a fantastic new podcast produced by Cup & Nuzzle for BBC Sounds. It’s narrated by the ever-fabulous Kate Nash, and aside from being a genuinely fascinating look at the history of one of the most seminal debut albums in British music, it’s also a masterclass in the power of audio storytelling.

The podcast covers the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, with explorations of the band’s history and influences, the cultural context that shaped it, and the seismic impact that it had upon release. It certainly had a profound impact on me, and I remember loading up a battered iPod Nano with tunes like When The Sun Goes Down and Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured and listening to them on repeat.

As you’d expect from a music podcast, it’s liberally interspersed with clips of the band’s records and live performances, but what really stands out are the quotes from key figures in the Arctic Monkeys’ story - including Reverend and the Makers frontman and friend of the band Jon McClure, punk poet John Cooper Clarke, and some of the music journalists and DJs who were there for the birth of their success. 

These quotes are short and snappy, with a distinct lack of extraneous waffling, and they don’t actually contain all that much concrete information. What they do fantastically well, however, is evoking a sense of time and place. For those who were plugged into the indie scene in the early 2000s, hearing McClure’s gruff northern voice talking about the band’s early days in Sheffield instantly conjures memories of youthful rebellion and sweaty gigs with sticky floors. 

This is further enhanced by the show’s excellent use of foley effects and sound design. One memorable moment, in which Sheffield music mainstay Richard Hawley describes hearing the band recording for the first time from the toilets next to their studio, recreates the acoustic conditions in such an evocative way that it’s hard not to match Hawley’s enthusiasm.

The producers even manage to transform the quirks of audio recording into a narrative tool. Cooper Clarke's notorious disdain for digital technology, for example, means that his contributions are delivered via a traditional landline phone call, the quality of which sticks out in comparison to the higher-fidelity digital recordings of other interviewees. However, by delicately lampshading this fact, the show uses it to highlight his counterculture credentials and solidify his artistic authority.

Another show that uses sound design superbly is Decode, produced by Reduced Listening for Spotify. Another music podcast, sound designer Axel Kacoutié explained to PodPod host Rhianna Dhillon how he used key clips from various tracks, along with field recordings of bus announcements, street noise and other environmental cues, to paint a rich sonic tapestry of the urban life and culture that its subjects deal with. 

The way the human brain processes audio means that it only takes the merest hint of a familiar noise in the background to transport a listener to a specific location or mood, and it’s a trick that’s often overlooked by podcasters. Narrative podcasts can particularly benefit by using foley effects to conjure the atmosphere of everyday locations like a coffee shop or office, but inserting key clips can also work wonders for interview or discussion shows, bringing a topic to life and giving listeners quick reminders of relevant moments. 

Speech is a fantastic tool, but it’s only one small part of the audio medium - music and ambient noise can be just as powerful for delivering a message, and podcasters that recognise this can leverage them to create audio experiences that are immersive, impressive and compelling, levelling up their productions and creating truly timeless content.