Voicing the Story: The Art and Craft of Podcast Narration

When The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
published its narrative series, “Through
Hell and High Water: Two Hospitals, One Hurricane and an Epic Struggle to Rescue the Abandoned
,” the Katrina drama called on the usual
complement of skilled journalists: a reporter, Jane O. Hansen; an editor, Jan Winburn; a photojournalist, Mikki K. Harris;
along with copy and photo editors, delivery drivers, ad sellers and the many
other unsung heroes who make news delivery a daily and, increasingly, a 24/7
miracle.

And then there was Tom Opdyke.

You may have never seen Opdyke, but there’s a chance you’ve heard his
deep
voice, extolling the virtues of Ford trucks and Snapper lawn mowers,
preaching the
lessons of training films or keeping drivers company in theirs cars as
DJ, talk-radio host and radio network news anchor on the airwaves of
Atlanta,
Philadelphia, Austin and Wichita Falls, Texas.

For more than three decades, Opdyke has juggled two careers: performing as a radio and voiceover talent and journalism.

At the AJC this summer, he managed to combine those two
fields when
editors decided to offer an audio version of “Through Hell and High
Water” available as free iTunes podcasts, and, more recently, offered  for sale as a four-hour CD by the newspaper. Opdyke, the paper’s
morning metro editor, took on double duties as the narrator of the
series.

For news consumers who like nothing better than a good listen, and for newspapers
who desperately want to hold onto their business, podcasts offer a note of
hope. Combining the power of audio with the freedom to choose when to
tune in, podcasting — think of it as TiVo for the ears — they offer an
alternative way for consumers to get their news and information on a schedule, through a
medium of their choice.

In print newsrooms, where audio is limited to the quiet mumbles of reporters
reading their stories, a new skill set is becoming increasingly necessary: The
ability to voice a story with the same competence of a skilled broadcast
journalist.

Voicing a story is a challenge
for the uninitiated. I found that out last year when I recorded an NPR
commentary
and read 22 chapters of “The Holly Wreath Man,” a serial narrative
co-written with my wife, Katharine Fair, into a microphone.

To help journalists learn more about the skills — and the
nuts and bolts — required of narration, Tom Opdyke agreed to take part in an e-mail
interview. Our exchange appears below:


CHIP SCANLAN: How long have you been narrating AJC stories?

TOM OPDYKE: I do a good bit of outside work, but this is the first time we have done
any narrating at the paper.

How do you prepare to narrate?


That’s like asking how one prepares to write. I’ll set aside my
peculiarities and talk generally about needs. I pre-read the script, mark it
for pacing, scene and inflection, and check pronunciations — in this case, we
had a few odd ones because of the French influence in New Orleans. I pre-read for an understanding
of scene — is it dark and scary because the hospitals are without power, is it
a scene in the ICU where it is quiet and requires a softer voice, is it
turbulence on the roof with people screaming over the noise of helicopter
rotors — and I make a lot of margin notes. I also do some facial and tongue
exercises up to about five minutes before opening the mike.

I like to read standing up, so my breathing is full
and strong, with the script spread on a wide music stand so there is no
paper-shifting noise. In this case, I had none of that. The paper does not at
this point have a sound booth or studio of any sort, so I sat at a table in the
executive library because that was the quietest recording location we could
come up with.

How do you handle different voices in the narrative?

While I enjoy doing character voices, we made an editorial decision not to do
dialect for fear of sounding condescending or being distracting. Still, there
is a need when narrating to somehow distinguish among the characters for the
sake of the listener. To do that, I lighten my voice for females, and give each
a slightly different shading. Males get my full range, from baritone to bass:
the colonel commanding the helicopters has to sound more authoritative than the
hospital resident.

How does your background in radio and theater contribute to your narration
skills?

Narration is voice acting. I couldn’t do it without theater experience. My
radio background, as a disc jockey, talk host and network news anchor, gives me
the presence and the confidence, but my stage work is the bedrock. Narration
requires character insights and emotional nuances to carry off voices and paint
scenes. When I prepare to read a narrative, I make the same kind of
scene-blocking notes I would use if it were reading a script for a stage play.
To carry off a scene with credibility, I need to know where the characters are
on this imagined set at all times: Am I a character yelling across a parking
lot to another character or am I the narrator standing to the side, describing
a mother at the bedside of her critically ill son?

What are the keys to quality narration?

An interesting script always is a benefit, and Jan
Winburn and Jane Hansen have done wonderful work here. The
benefits of having a helpful editor/producer can not be understated; they’re
your first second opinion and they can provide direction. But nobody can help
you if you have not prepared. I’ve had a distinct advantage with Jan and Jane
because I can walk across the newsroom and ask questions. In other cases, the
script’s writer isn’t in the same city, let alone the [same] room. Accepting that you
are the performer here — not the writer, editor or producer — is significant
and liberating. When I work as voice talent, I am no longer an editor. I make
no editing changes to a script, which presumably has been cleared by many
levels of influential and interested people who are paying for my performance.
While that editorial aloofness may seem troubling from an editor’s point of
view, it is ideal for an actor. My task is to hear the cadence of a sentence
and deliver the words in an engaging manner that conveys the scene and fits the
characters. If I try to be a good actor and a good editor simultaneously, I am
neither and the narration suffers.

Who produces the series’ podcasts?

Our team at CoxNet, led by Chris Pellani, is producing this series. CoxNet
supports the Web sites for all Cox newspapers and collects and distributes
stories, photos and graphics from Cox papers and the Cox Washington Bureau.

 
What equipment and software is used to produce the series’ podcasts?


The hardware is an M-Audio Firewire 410 interface box and an AKG P12-48 [microphone].
Both perform well. We use a freeware, Audacity, for the recording and edits,
and Sorenson Squeeze to compress the files from .wav format to the smaller mp3,
which is the podcast format. The equipment, which needs to include a
high-quality sound card, can be assembled for under $1,000.

When I recorded an NPR commentary, the producer kept complaining about
“mouth noise.” What is it? How do you avoid it?

Mouth noise is typically lip smacking or tongue clicking. A good editor can fix
things, but everyone would prefer that the sounds not occur. In my experience,
most noise problems are caused either by mouth dryness  or facial muscles
that aren’t limber. Caffeine dehydrates, so I drink more water and less coffee
on a day when I am voicing something or auditioning. I keep a bottle of
room-temperature water with me in the studio. Some actors add lemon to their
water, while others recommend eating a green apple before performing or keeping
slices handy. They believe the lemon or apple or both help keep you mouth
moist. I prepare for studio work by doing exercises that flex the tongue and
facial muscles — that’s me in the car next to you at the stop light, the guy
who looks as if he is having an animated argument with someone on his cell
phone.

What surprised you about your narration of “Through Hell and High
Water?”

The depth of my emotional involvement. I would say it was because I had
backstory here that few actors get. Like so many of us, I lived Katrina –
through our coverage, the news magazines and television — and I knew where the
hospitals were in New Orleans.
Many of those Katrina images flashed through my mind as I read the script. I might
not have known the people in the hospitals, but many of their emotions were
remarkably similar to [those of] Katrina victims I did know.


What lessons did you learn from narrating the series?

The challenge was to come to the series new each time, as the reader does
with each chapter. Although I pre-read each script for the daily installment of
the podcast, I don’t read beyond that day’s chapter before recording it. I want
to come to the plot twist or chapter climax the same way a listener would. I
want my voice to have the same excitement, bewilderment, despair or relief –
whatever the emotion — that a reader would have. When I record for outside
clients, I’m usually selling or explaining. Narration, especially episodic
work, requires a casual pacing that draws on a conversational style.

What do you need to learn next?

I need to improve that conversational style. In conversation, we pause now and
then to think of what to say next; we repeat phrases occasionally, for stress
or to give us time to think. It is the antithesis of what I do for advertising
clients, but it is that very humanness that makes narrative effective for
voice. I have to be your friend — or at least, be an interesting cocktail
party guest — telling you a story in an arm-on-the-bar, casual way. I also
want to work on the hints a good narrator provides. In this era of portability,
we do a lot of listening in cars or while exercising. There are distractions.
To me, that means a narrator has to provide vocal hints about when it is
important to absorb the precise language or scene, and when it is OK for your
mind to move elsewhere for a brief time, say to determine whether that driver
up there is preparing to make a right.

When did you join the “Through Hell and High Water” team?

I came to the team about two weeks before the series launched.

How much time did the narration consume?

The series is 22 episodes, each running eight to 20 minutes, and an epilogue. It took 30 hours to record and edit.


How did you divide up the narration?

I took the chapters as they were delivered, in sequence. Depending on the
availability of the producer and the recording room, we did one or two most
days.


Have you done any other narration for the paper?

This is our first venture into narration, but the feedback on the early
chapters has been positive.


Are there any narration tasks in your future?

I work outside the paper, but the 22-episode project is the longest I have done
for any client.


What are the benefits of newspaper podcasts?

Convenience is the chief one. But there are others that fit with the more
modern viewpoint of what newspapers can be as multi-platformed news sources.
I’ve gotten feedback from readers about how they feel more engaged by having
something read to them because they can use their imagination more. Some
newspapers do morning news reports on their Web sites, and I like that idea. It
seems possible that a kind of branding might evolve, one in which the Web-based
newspaper voice becomes as familiar as the anchor of your local evening news.

What advice would you give to someone interested in doing narration and/or
podcasts?

Credibility and storytelling voice are the keys to narration, for me. A theater
background makes it easier, but I don’t think it is a prerequisite. I am
enthusiastic about the idea of podcasts, although this is my first experience
with them. My initial response is to put up anything you think is interesting,
produce it in the most attractive and friendly way you can and learn from each
venture. A word of caution: doing audio or video to complement a print project
will cost more, but the key word is complement. If you think you can get by
with the reporter voicing the project in a room with hard surfaces and cheap
equipment, don’t do it.

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