Holy heck, I’m hearing triple!

by Bonnie Swift


I love it when Radiolab tells a story from the outside and the inside, in both past tense and in present tense, using different people’s voices, and different recordings of the same person’s voice, to create a single narrative arc that is easy to follow and dreamily immersive.

In my last post, I wrote about Brett Ascarelli’s skilled employment of on-location sound. Today I’ll take that discussion one step further and explore what happens when multiple tracks of the same person’s voice are used to construct a single narrative. Such a tangle could quickly become disorienting, but with Radiolab, it’s easy listening.

Placebo is one of my all-time favorite Radiolab episodes -- an hour of rapid-fire ideas and ruminations on the unknown. A great story-within-a-story, The White Coat, starts at 32:20 and finishes at 39:05, in which Abumrad follows his father, a doctor, through a typical day at the hospital.

It takes a while to pick out the three versions of Abumrad’s voice. First, there is what I will call his on-location voice, testing the microphone with his father. Then his in-studio voice, orienting you in the scene. Then, at 37:05, a voice that is distinct from both, in-interview with his father. Because each was recorded differently, presumably in a different space, or with different equipment, each has a slightly different timbre.

The differences between them are subtle, but listen carefully and you can pick them out. Then notice how each one makes its own contribution to the story.

In film these types of voices or sounds are referred to as ‘diegetic’ and ‘nondiegetic.’ Diegetic sound is sound that people inside the story can hear -- in the case of radio, this is normally the on-location sound, the person on-location. Nondiegetic sound is said to be sound that’s just for the viewer or listener -- in this case, Abumrad as the in-studio narrator, and the interview clips.

In this story, as in most radio, the diegetic and nondiegetic voices fill different narrative functions. The diegetic (on-location) voice gives you a feeling of where your protagonist is and what it’s like to be there. The nondiegetic (in-studio) voice provides structure, context, and background information that characters inside the story don’t necessarily have.

This story stays close to convention. Abumrad’s in-studio voice speaks directly into your ear, giving you the inside scoop. Then Abumrad’s on-location voice gives you a sense of the hospital environment as he follows his father through the bustling corridors. The interview clips play a third function, giving us a window into Abumrad’s relationship with his father.

This story is brilliant because it hides its artifice well. You probably won’t notice that there are three versions of Abumrad’s voice, because they parallel one another closely, following the timeline of Abumrad’s day in the hospital with his father. Even though each voice was recorded in its own moment, the chronological structure of this story creates a smooth, consistently supported, and satisfying story arc that feels like a single unfolding of time.

Any one voice alone couldn’t tell this story as well as the three combined. Without the in-studio voice, the story would lack in background and context. Without the on-location voice, there wouldn’t be the same sense immediacy. And without the in-interview exchanges, we would miss the father-son intimacy that these clips bring to bear.

Building on a chronological structure, these three voices flow naturally together. Hearing triple has never been so easy.

Produced in 2007 by Radiolab
1 hr Excerpt from ‘The White Coat’ lasts from 32:20 to 39:05


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