Do you listen to Radiolab? Or, How to get out of a rut.


The Voice Over industry involves virtually every aspect of modern society, from poetic expression to scientific analysis, from sheer commercialism, to pure education. So it’s no wonder that the voice over community abounds with curious people who like to explore – explore themselves, or the world around them, or both. (Did we hear someone mutter “actors”?)

If that’s you, you may already be a regular follower of Radiolab, the Peabody Award-winning program on NPR. It can expand your awareness, and thus your genre capabilities, in a variety of ways.

Hosted by its creators, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab describes itself thusly:
“Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

Each week for an hour, there’s a different theme, with various segments exploring that theme from sometimes very different (even seemingly unrelated angles). For example, here’s their synopsis of just one episode. (Some episodes have fewer, longer segments.) The theme is ”Translation”.

  • 100 Flowers: Years ago, Douglas Hofstadter read a poem. Just a few short lines, nothing special. But he's been translating it ever since.
  • Serious: How a brave Ethiopian reporter put himself at risk to ask a very serious question that was seriously misunderstood.
  • Words Will Never Hurt Me: Euphemisms may water down language but do they hurt us? George Carlin thought so. Adam Gopnik isn't so sure.
  • Seeing In Tongues: Though Emilie Gossiaux was permanently blinded in a terrible accident, she has recently been able to see again — in a very different way.
  • Eagle Eyes: Neuroscientist David Eagleman is building a vest to help deaf people hear, and it may be a whole new way of experiencing our world.
  • Interpreting The Front Lines: Nataly Kelly worked for a translation company that dropped her right in the middle of the most dramatic moment of a total stranger’s life.
  • Deaf Comedy Jam: Working as a sign language interpreter at a huge comedy festival, Kymme Van Cleef found herself with all eyes on her and a choice to make.
  • Creation Translation: We all know DNA is the Book of Life, the recipe to make you you. But what if the story of us is really DNA's sidekick?

It’s just plain fun, and you’ll probably find at least most of each week’s segments, maybe even directly relevant to you or your work. You can listen on the radio, online at radiolab.org, or as a podcast.

There’s another reason that it’s fun to listen to, one that’s possibly related to your work in the voicing industry:

It’s marvelously produced.

If you produce audio as well as record it, or if you write for it, note their production techniques. Radiolab isn’t like your ordinary news program. It makes great use of audio montage. Words, sound bites, stock sound effects, music, sonic effects, and other content are put together in a way that sometimes makes if feel more like you’re listening to your subconscious than a science magazine. Even the credits are unusual, being recorded by ordinary-people callers (although there are some other shows that do that now). Each production is interesting and artful in itself, which is not surprising, considering that co-host Jad Abumrad has a background in music.

Here it’s discussed by another public radio host you might be familiar with, This American Life’s Ira Glass: http://transom.org/2011/ira-glass-radiolab-appreciation/

Glass’s article includes a link to a Radiolab segment that demonstrates their production techniques better than we could describe it here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91686-a-very-lucky-wind/

In addition to (dare we say it again?) expanding your production imagination, there’s another benefit to having “montage” in your production toolbox – it can pack more information into a fixed amount of time (e.g., a commercial). It’s like overlapping dialog in a movie. Done well, overlapping audio elements can gain you a few precious seconds, and it creates a special aura, to boot. Done badly, it can make the words unintelligible and the effects intrusive. Radiolab does it well.

Something else worth mentioning, even if not immediately useful:

Something else worth mentioning, even if not immediately useful:

In a recently rebroadcast story about memory loss, we noted something similar to a common voice over situation. Any VO director can tell you how common it is, and any VO talent should be aware of it. It’s this ...

People tend to say things the same way each time, even when repeated over and over.

But we’re getting ahead of things. First, about the Radiolab segment . You can listen to here:

Entire hour (all segments) -- http://www.radiolab.org/story/161744-loops/ This particular segments starts at 7 minutes in (although you’ll enjoy what precedes it) ...

The theme for the hour was “Loops,” and this segment dealt with a rare, sudden-onset condition called “Transient Global Amnesia.” People experiencing this temporary condition (which is not a stroke) cannot form new memories, but will (without realizing it) express exactly the same thoughts over and over, for hours on end. The loop might be just 30 seconds long, or it might be a couple of minutes. (It gradually expands until eventually memory capability returns.)

One of the interesting things about this behavior is that the person will not only use the exact same words each time, they will say those words in exactly the same way.

See where we’re going? How many times have you seen novice VO talent get stuck in a rut, thinking they’re varying their delivery, but it keeps coming out the same way? Sometimes it takes the considerable skill of an experienced coach to get them into new lines of expression. And even if you’ve never had difficulty thinking up novel yet valid ways to voice a particular script, could this phenomenon have something to do with why so many people don’t? Why most people will read a certain script pretty much the same way as everyone else?

It’s probably because we’ve all been subjected to the same voicing and production conventions over the years. But could it also be that something in us is hard-wired? If you could reliably predict the stereotypical read (without the benefit of training and experience), you’d be an automatic wizard at winning auditions!

An investigation into that possibility, we’ll leave for another time.

Or maybe for Radiolab.

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If the phenomenon of Transient Global Amnesia itself intrigues you, raw footage of the woman experiencing TGA is here:
http://www.radiolab.org/story/did-i-miss-my-birthday-darn/

Some of the user comments are also touching.

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