The Fallacy of Sound

Last weekend, I decided to wander around BlueBack Square and West Hartford Center with my recording field kit.  This was a followup on my thoughts from my last blog post, and an earlier post on the art of being a flaneur.  I wandered around, looking for interesting sounds to record.

The hunt wasn't fruitful.  BlueBack Square, being essentially an outdoor shopping mall, pipes in (errr... pipes out??) pop music from little speakers in the street.  Outside BlueBack, the soundscape is dominated by traffic -- which is to say it's dominated by the sound of rubber tires rolling across asphalt.  And even if I did find something interesting, my shotgun mic would not be up to the task of isolating it from the background.

But all was not lost.  I ran into J Holt while walking back to my car in defeat.  J produces the occasional radio piece for WNPR, and I invariably turn all of our conversations to either storytelling or radio (honestly, how can this guy stand me sometimes, am I right?).  We got to talking about recording sound on the street and that turned to the ethics surrounding background sound.  J related to me this story from Transom's Rob Rosenthal, via the SALT Institute...

A producer recorded an interview on a street corner one summer day.  That winter, he realized he forgot to record background audio from that corner.  So he went back and recorded his background audio on a winter day.  Same street corner, same equipment, same time of day.  No problem, right?  Well an astute listener heard it on the radio and cried foul.  He recognized a winter bird chirping in the background of an interview taking place in the summer.  Talk about "fake news," am I right?

So here's a story touching on the ethics of producing radio stories.  Don't go grab canned sounds from some website to sweeten your story.  Don't use sounds from one recording session with an interview with another recording session.  Don't create a fake soundscape.  Don't lie to your audience.  Simple enough, right?

But is it really that simple?  I mean, do radio producers really follow the equivalent of Dogme 95 with their stories?  The answer is of course not.  Producers routinely take a recorded interview, edit their questions out of the conversation, and then record narration at a later time to edit into it.  Back-and-forth interviews are routinely held over the phone, but you'll never know it because a second producer is recording the conversation at the interviewee's end.  Room tone is used all the time to link narration and source tape.  These are all lying to the listener, in their own ways.  Heck, pre-recorded music is used all over the place to sweeten source tape for emotional effect.

On the more extreme end, did you know that most, if not all, of the sounds of big sporting events like the Olympic Games are mixed together from actual sounds from the event and pre-recorded sounds?  You can listen all about it at the BBC, rebroadcast on 99 Percent Invisible here.  (As stated previously, this particular documentary is one of the audio pieces that truly moves me whenever I hear it.)

So the listener is being lied to all the fricken time in this golden age of radio.  Not to deceive, mind you, but rather to enhance the experience.  One of the goals of a radio producer is to produce a piece that's magic to listen to.  To transport the listener to the world of the story.  An interesting soundscape can do just that.   Done correctly, and the listener doesn't notice what is being used to transport him or her.  Done incorrectly, and you get a nasty call from an irate ornithologist.  

So where are the ethical lines, actually, when producing soundscapes?  Let's say there's a story on the U.S. president.  If canned audio is used int he piece, but it doesn't affect the story's conclusion such that the listener is not changing his or her mind about the president as a result of the inclusion of the canned audio, is that OK?  If you're watching a gymnastics competition on TV, and the audio producer mixes in sound from contact mics on the balance beam, sounds that are really there but you normally wouldn't hear, is that OK? (That last example actually happens, by the way).  

These are questions I'm now considering as I'm producing Random Waves episodes.  I think this might push me to make more artistic pieces in the end, rather than straight-up reporting.