by Josh Mattison, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Curiosity & Deceleration
There’s a new podcast I just started listening to called Field Recordings. They describe their show as, “A podcast where audio-makers stand silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields).” And whatever you’re thinking that sounds like is probably close to correct. There’s no host, no editing; just the sound of a field, or a park, or ocean waves. The pieces range from one to fifteen minutes in length. Outside of the sounds of random people passing by, there’s no talking, so there’s no story, no emotional arc, no payoff at the end. Just the sound of tall grass in the breeze or ice skates on a pond or row boats passing under a bridge. They began releasing episodes right before the Covid-19 lockdowns started. And for me, during this time we’re living in, it’s a salve for my ears and thoughts. This kind of audio is not made for impatient listening. It’s not “content.” It falls into a category of what’s now called “slow radio.” And I’m all in.
This new show seems to go against what the heavy hitters in the podcasting world advise. I once read an interview with Ira Glass where he said that something interesting needs to happen in This American Life stories every ninety seconds. Ninety seconds! That is 40 actions per hour, so those waves in Field Recordings better be crashing or causing peril quite often. On the show 99% Invisible, Roman Mars breaks in with his beautiful, mellifluous, voice every couple of minutes to tell you what the story is about, where it’s been and where it’s going. Both of these examples are an expansion on the way NPR radio makers and related documentarians have been making stories for a long time. This format itself was designed for station identification and sponsor breaks. It does move along the story, but I’ve found this kind of storytelling doesn’t reward patience. It doesn’t reward close listening. I don’t mean to sound like I’m denigrating these shows. In fact, both of those creators have been my unspoken mentors through the years. Also, I’ve employed this very method in my own work. And these shows are clearly making vital, entertaining, and important work. What I am saying though is that they define the industry. If they created and followed these rules (they do), then so does everyone else. And that means that a larger variety of stories and a diversity of voices is not being heard.
Let’s return to the idea of slow radio. It’s a new term for an old practice. Essentially it means letting people tell a story and really listening. Across the pond in England, the BBC has been making these kinds of stories since… forever. It’s a little more rare here, as it’s not a commercially viable model. This kind of storytelling can be fun, interesting, informative, and sometimes even boring! For instance, I once heard a story of a tugboat captain out on his rounds. It was lovingly produced, sound rich and, on the surface, dry as dust. The radio producer spent the whole day, if not a couple of days, with the tugboat captain. Then they cut the tape together into a full half hour piece. The piece itself spends time with the sounds of the tugboat’s little engine as it drifts through the water or bumps up against a dock or another boat. You hear the cries of seagulls on the shore and the sound of ropes being thrown. You listen to a man with a strong Welsh accent telling you what it’s like to go about his day in a tugboat. There is no story arc, no emotional payoff, just an old man in a boat, towing other boats around, talking about his life and work. The beauty of it isn’t transcendent or heartbreaking. You have to slow yourself down to hear it. You have to adjust your expectations, quiet your mind and really listen. There’s another kind of listening at play here too. A kind of listening that invites one to go deeper into someone else’s lived experience. To find empathy for people you will never know. You do have to work for it a little bit though. You have to be curious and patient.
Like listening, curiosity takes time and is iterative. And, with both, you need patience. In my own work I try to focus on the intersection among these three concepts, deliberately removing myself from the narrative so people listening can absorb the content and meaning of the subject and narrative from their own viewpoint. I try to embrace the pauses between sentences, allowing someone to speak and think and speak some more without interruption. During interviews, I allow space between when people speak and when I ask follow up questions so I can easily remove my questions and let them delve into their own story.
Obviously many of you (well, most of you) are not as immersed in audio storytelling as I am, but, hopefully after this read, you will go check out some slow radio programs. I’ll throw some links in at the end of this. I believe there are ideas we can all take in around listening, like curiosity and patience in what we care about and create.
I was excited to be part of the latest Tilt West roundtable on Curiosity & Deceleration, and part of a discussion that speaks to my practice so well. Here are some things I’ve been ruminating on since:
Listen: I’ve heard others in my field saying they have to stop themselves from “editing” while others are talking. This is something I’ve struggled with a little myself. But I think that slowing down and really listening to others’ experiences and thoughts is a skill that has to be developed. The lockdowns have introduced this idea to me in a way, and I hope to keep working on this.
Be curious: Ask why. And don’t stop with the first why. Continuing to explore something through that simple question- or even reflection- allows an excavation of sorts that really gets to the heart of a problem. This also gets to the heart of a story. Your story and the story of someone who thinks differently than you.
Be patient: Let pauses happen. I know I have a tendency to want to fill empty spaces with noise but it’s not always necessary. Allow spaces to occur within your thoughts. I’m going to try to accept the idea of idleness, to allow for time and space to find inspiration.
Tilt West’s roundtable conversation centered on deceleration and explored the value of slowing down — something quarantines and closures have also fostered for many of us. Perhaps this cultural shift in perspective (even the experience of boredom) will foster a new appreciation for slow looking, slow listening, and slow radio.
Josh Mattison is an award winning podcast producer, engineer, host, writer and sound designer. He created, produced and edited the pop culture show The Revisitors and was a host on the comedy podcast Bad Or Not Bad. Josh also served as an associate producer of “A Daughter’s Voice” podcast for the Clyfford Still Art Museum.
Last fall he released a podcast called The Order of Death, a limited podcast series exploring the murder of Denver talk radio host Alan Berg and the people and ideology responsible for his death. Denver Westword named it the best crime podcast in Denver in 2019.
Currently he is the creator, editor, producer and host of Low Orbit, an audio magazine featuring voices, stories and sounds from the creative community.