Speaking Memories

Someone once introduced me and another friend to a song, explaining how she had first heard it. It was the last night of a festival, and as the sun began to rise on the beach this song came on. Years later I heard that other friend introducing the song with the same story as if she had been there herself. We called her out on it, and she freely acknowledged that the anecdote was not her own, but that it didn’t really matter. She was not trying to claim the story for herself but using the narrative to lend the song the same emotional weight it had formed in her own mind. A song fused to a memory that wasn’t even her own.

Situations like this aren’t rare. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories and related to them as though they were our own experiences. Recent work by neuroscientist Uri Hasson might shed some light on why this happens. Hasson scanned the brains of several people with an fMRI scanner while they told or listened to stories, and found that the brains of different people quickly synchronised as the narratives where told. Not only this, but that similar activity occurred in the brain of the listener and the speaker. He hypothesised that the process of reconstructing the story in our own minds creates a similar effect to having experienced the events ourselves. 

There are many other studies on the effects of narrative on the mind, but what interests me is the specific effect of hearing a story, rather than watching or reading. Emma Rodero’s work centres largely on the effects of radio drama on the mind. Rodero’s findings show that dramatised audio dialogue stimulates increased imagination and visualisation in listeners, and that this is heightened with the addition of sound effects. 

That might seem fairly obvious, but points towards one of the great advantages of spoken or aural stories. They give us the when, the how, the why and all the emotions in between, but never create the block of visual reality. It’s a soft medium in that way.

Photo by J M Giordano for the Guardian

Photo by J M Giordano for the Guardian

A great example of this is found in the first season of Serial. For lots of people, Serial painted an instantly recognisable landscape. So many of the personalities and dynamics at Woodlawn High School connect with our own teenage years. I feel like I have walked the halls of that Baltimore high school, but in my memories it resembles the halls of my own secondary school in the UK. Worlds apart I’m sure, but in the artificial memory being formed by Sarah Koenig’s storytelling there is room left for images, which I am then able to fill with iconography from my life. It allows me to personalise the narrative to relate better, without affecting the details or structure of this entirely foreign story. 

Going back a little, I’d like to reiterate the power of sound effects. Darryl W. Miller and Lawrence J. Marks did some research for radio commercials in 1997 which found that images generated by sound effects were stronger than those created by voice alone. Emma Rodero claims that sounds give listeners a sense of space, which allows for further immersion. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a well described scene might be more evocative than a single sound, but it seems a sound can paint a thousand words. Julian Treasure goes further, exploring how sounds can have a physiological and emotional effect on us. His work shows how we are hardwired to react to different sounds, citing the reassuring effect of birdsong, or the increase in heart rate created by a loud alarm.

Sarah and Dana recording in the studio. Photo by Elise Bergerson for Vogue

Sarah and Dana recording in the studio. Photo by Elise Bergerson for Vogue

When we look at something like Serial S1, what we see is a large amount of content being formed by location recordings - phone calls, car rides, doorsteps, etc - rather than simple studio narration. Koenig doesn’t just tell us about the car ride, she gets you in the car. This brings with it a cacophony of additional sounds. The vocal acoustics, the breeze through windows and the  twist of tires on tarmac. It’s an approach to audio which made This American Life so popular, and one which we can hear across an increasing number of platforms. It may also go a little way to explaining some of the criticism levelled at Serial S2, which inevitably had less access to the sounds of its Afghanistan set narrative, and portrays less relatable scenarios. 

So what can we learn from all this? It’s clear that the relationship between humans and narrative is a strong one, working on a deeply neurological level. It’s also clear that sound plays a great role in how we interpret those narratives, and the level of interaction we have with them. For me what’s most interesting is the ability to enhance comprehension and empathy through the right type of aural stimulus. Finding the right tools not just to tell stories, but to create whole new memories.






Box of Tapes

When I was a child there was a box of story book cassettes. It would come out for long car journeys, or whenever either my sister or I were ill and off school.

It is now sat on the desk beside me, along with a high stack of the StoryTeller magazines which I picked up at a car boot sale last week.

My sister had collected the magazines along with the tapes. I think hers are in an attic somewhere now. They existed in the house before me, and were a permanent feature of the world I was born into. They were also strangely inaccessible to my illiterate self. The images have etched themselves into my mind, but I don’t think I ever read a word until now. The tapes, on the other hand, talked to me. They conducted my brain like an orchestra, creating images of places, people and creatures from beyond the world I knew. 

The Storyteller tapes were a brilliant mix of well read stories combined with a small amount of under-layed effects and music. It didn’t take much to bring a world to life; a simple wind track and a chime on the bells would perch you beside Gobbolino the cat as she watched the stars fly by from a witches broom.

There were of course other audio tapes too. Fantastic Mr Fox was a favourite. I can still see the hill with a tree on top, and its view of the farms, as if I had once been there - to this place that does not exist.

Later there was the BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, from 1981. A co-worker of my mother had the entire series recorded from the original radio broadcast, and I spent days transferring the entire series over my parents’ hifi to create my own cassette versions, hand made covers and all. A couple of years later my friend bought the entire series on tape for himself. Too easy. 

I think that production was my first real experience of radio drama. Scenes were not described to me, but played out by a host of actors surrounded by a world rich with sounds. I had already watched The Lord of the Rings long before Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out because I had listened to those tapes. I had seen the beating wings of flying beasts, seen Gandalf fall, seen the towers of Mordor.

Bill Nighy, Ian Holme and Peter Woodthorp recording at the BBC in 1981. From  Brian Sibley's Blog

Bill Nighy, Ian Holme and Peter Woodthorp recording at the BBC in 1981. From Brian Sibley's Blog

I couldn’t count how many times we listened to those tapes. How many nights we fell asleep listening to them, or days we spent drawing and animating in silence. Even now, when a deadline gets a bit heavy on the horizon those same episodes are carted out to ward off the worry.

After discovering this holy grail of the audio tape world, I set about searching for more. There were several other dramas produced by BBC Radio 4 which ignited the imagination, but nothing ever came close to the immersion that The Lord of the Rings had offered.

Radio Times cover for the first series of Journey into Space.

Radio Times cover for the first series of Journey into Space.

I discovered classic radio series like Journey into Space, and like many before me found a nostalgic joy in the densely exaggerated acting and creaky sound effects. 

We spent a lot of time attempting to recreate that old school radio drama sound with Windows Sound Recorder and a cheap microphone from Argos. It was fun, but not enduring. 

Today I find myself in the position I can only imagine many others find themselves. I think I’m in love audio drama, but I cannot find the dramas to prove it.

There is great work out there, yes. But there is terrible work too. The studio approach to recording audio drama has progressed a little, but not much, and is far from a guaranteed method of producing quality content. So why stick to it? Why don’t we treat audio drama like any other storytelling medium, and play with our techniques?

Auricle doesn’t have to be THE new way of doing things, it could just be A new way of doing things.