The Story of Stories: Sound can’t override imagination

In the spring of my sophomore year, I went alone to Symphony Hall, not to listen to the dulcet tones of Tchaikovsky or another dead composer, but to the high-pitched, nasally, yet charming voice of public radio legend Ira Glass, host of the audio documentary series “This American Life.” This man had been my idol for years, and I was absolutely over the moon about seeing him in the flesh. But when the stage went completely dark, and we heard his footsteps carry him into the hall, he began his lecture in total blackness. Diva.

Last week I discussed the limits that visual storytelling has on delivering the emotional punch of stories. Ira Glass’ entrance (which thankfully only lasted about ten minutes), as gimmicky as it was, had a point. He wanted the audience to experience the audio clip he was playing us (of a woman being interviewed after a tornado hit her town) without being distracted by what she looked like, where she was or even what the damage looked like. While this is all important information, as I explained last week, sometimes this can lead the audience to make assumptions or simply not try to look past the picture presented in front of them. In the dark, we must make an effort to construct our own meaning out of the story. This, in part, is why I believe radio and audio storytelling have been able to survive the novelty of images.

Radiolab, created by WNYC’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, is an experimental investigative radio documentary series that is probably the current radio darling, not just because of its fascinating content and journalism (Krulwich’s background), but also because of its excellent sound design and artistry (Abumrad’s background).

I want to discuss one recent episode in particular, one which, through the omission of visuals, created a space for interpretation. In “Rhino Hunter,” Radiolab followed Corey Knowlton, a Texas hunter who paid $350,000 to hunt an endangered Rhino in Namibia. While the majority of the media slammed him as a neo-colonialist pig (which I won’t deny there is precedent for), Knowlton claimed that he was doing the Namibian ecosystem a service by killing an animal which had been terrorizing and killing other rhinos, an animal which the Namibian government had marked for death. This might sound like a long-shot excuse on paper, but when you listen to Knowlton talk, you can hear his conviction. You hear his voice crack when his emotions start to surge, thinking of how much he loves wildlife, and how much he wants to protect it. The experience is intimate, and ultimately, convincing, much to my surprise.  

When you’re finally on the hunt with Knowlton, you hear the rustle of the grass and the whispers of his guide. You hear his distress when he realizes he’s caused the rhino unintentional pain with a bad shot. With no picture, in your mind you must imagine the landscape before you and the massive size of the rhino. There isn’t anything in particular that the image forces you to dwell on, or anything left out. You must, effectively, go on Knowlton’s journey with him, as he saw and felt it.