Control the Reader

As a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a bi-monthly fictional radio show that focuses on the town of Night Vale through the eyes (and voice) of Cecil Palmer, I’m hardly new to listening to podcasts. There’s something about the way podcasts are made that demand your attention. Unlike a book, you can’t set a podcast down and think, you have to absorb everything the minute it’s said. Sometimes this is fantastic, because the action in the podcast is intense. If this same intensity were a book, you’d read too quickly and skip entire sentences. But in a podcast, everything is already paced for you. There’s no way for a reader to interject their own cadence. Most of the time I find no problem with this aspect of podcasts, and I didn’t have any trouble while listening with Serial. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t.

I really enjoyed listening to the podcast. It was gripping, and I didn’t have to worry about my attention waning on it, like it sometimes would on a book. Part of why podcasts are so easy to listen to, is due to the fact that they require basically no effort on the part of the listener. The listener isn’t challenged to pause and think during a podcast as they are while reading a book, and the music in the podcast dictates how the listener should feel about certain things. And therein lines my one big misgiving about podcasts.

An author, I think, has the ability to come off with less bias than a radio show host. An author has less of an ability to manipulate the readers into what to think. Certain lines can only be give emphasis by placing them at the end of a paragraph, separating them from a paragraph, or visually changing them (font size, italics, bold, font change, etc.), but that’s it. A radio host had music to play around with and Koenig definitely used music to aid in her story telling. The music held the suspense, when, in a written piece, only words could do that. If I had read “Serial” instead of listening to it, the experience probably would have been more boring. I’d need to supplement the excitement that comes naturally from the changing tones of Koenig’s voice and the background music, by getting excited by her voice on the page. It probably would have taken me longer to get through all of the episodes. I got sucked in with the podcast and listened to the full thing in a forty-eight hour span of time. I’m not sure if that would have happened with a written piece.

I would argue that authors have more control over a reader than a radio host does. When someone is reading something all of their attention is focused on it, while a radio show is easy to play in the background while you’re folding laundry or making your bed. In terms of character development, I think that an author can separate themselves from the characters at least a miniscule amount that makes it more possible to see all sides of the character while writing and to show the reader all sides during their experience with a piece. The radio host doesn’t quite have that distance. When I was listening to “Serial” I often felt like Koenig was in my dorm room telling me this story, which was probably part of why I got sucked into it. At the same time, though, I wonder if Koenig might have gotten caught up in that same mode of storytelling. When I write, I am careful to insert my voice while still directing the reader to the center of my piece. If I’m telling a story out loud, I tend to be more dramatic and hold suspense longer than necessary. I tend to focus more on “what will keep the listener listening?” instead of “what will make my piece stronger?” I wonder if the intimacy of the audience that Koenig had, especially after the podcast started to get incredibly popular, influenced her reporting more than it would have otherwise.

I have high hopes for the Creative Nonfiction genre. It’s interesting, and people, in general, are starting to realize this. Podcasts like “Serial” have every ability to further the genre and let the public get at it more easily. But my fear is that if Creative Nonfiction starts to grow in the podcast and radio world that it might lose some of its art. There are certain formats that I absolutely love, like the braided and hermit crab formats, that can’t be transferred accurately over to a radio show. They require the reader to skip back and forth between paragraphs and figure out how they are connected. A radio show pushes a story forward without giving the listener pause. Sometimes there are part of Creative Nonfiction that need to be visible as well. My favorite essay, “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss, has images in it. At one point she shows the reader a pain scale where the numbers correspond to different faces. This couldn’t be done over the radio, and if it was, each face would have to be described, which, I think, would take away from the narrative of the piece. The other aspect of Creative Nonfiction that might be constrained if the genre were to grow extensively in the audio/podcast area are the authors.

If we could look at YouTube for a second, I might be able to explain this a little better. One style of YouTubing is called vlogging, which basically consists of the vlogger, the person you see on the screen, telling the audience a story from their life or offering their opinion on a certain subject. In a way, this is all Creative Nonfiction done in a video format. Of course, vloggers might not realize that. What’s interesting about vloggers is that, over time, they’ve gained massive amounts of popularity. They still tell stories, but the audience is less interested in how they tell the story and more interested in just them as a person. My worry is that this might happen with an audio/podcast version of Creative Nonfiction as well, especially if the pieces are more personal than what we heard on “Serial.” Listeners might forget about the barrier between the author and writer, and they might assume they know the author. Or they might become more interested in the author as a person, then they are by the work the author produces. At the same time, though, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Or maybe audio/podcast writers can handle that type of relationship. Regardless, I do think that podcasts, like “Serial,” can grow the audience for Creative Nonfiction and knock down the stereotypes of the genre, exposing more people to it, which is definitely a positive thing.

One thought on “Control the Reader

  1. William Antonelli

    While I can understand your point about “Welcome to Night Vale,” I’m not entirely sure that it is an apt comparision; Night Vale is a fictional work deliberately meant to be as strange as possible to capture as many listeners as possible, especially among disenchanted millennials. On the other hand, Serial is a non-fiction work, meaning that it has much less material to work with when trying to capture listeners (I’m also not sure that Serial has a target demographic).

    In addition, you state that podcasts give you no way to “set [one] down and think,” because you “have to absorb everything the minute it’s said.” Can’t you just pause it?

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