Slate invests in sound..and felt

On this week’s episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest there was a fun exchange off the top of the show in which the hosts discussed the ongoing evolution of their studio from something small and ad hoc to their new and fancy digs.

This exchange is fun for the long time listener like me because it parallels my own experience with the program. 

Earlier shows often featured less than stellar sound.  To be fair, it was never terrible; many organizations are currently putting out podcasts that sound much worse.  And Slate’s programs have always benefited from strong program structure: for example, clearly demarcated chapters and consistent movement within chapters from context to conflict to conclusion.  No doubt a result of their public radio connection.

But the sound was not always great.  This was often most obvious with the super smart and relentlessly sensible Emily Bazelon. Emily often records from a remote location instead of the studio with John and David. In the past, when she would get animated her sound would distort and would lose all its depth.  I often wondered if she was yelling into camera mic or an iPhone. 

John Dickerson’s voice often suffered from similar poor use of the mic or poor mic choice. His voice could sound thin and sharp and simply not natural.

That was the problem.  If this is a “Gabfest,” it should sound natural. It should sound like a dinner conversation or, as they call one of their regular segments, “cocktail chatter.”  But instead, from time to time, it sounded like cocktail chatter that would be fascinating if only that one person would stop speaking into a megaphone. It’s hard to lean in and listen when your reflex is to recoil and wince.

But this week’s show was a clear demonstration of Slate’s continuing commitment to high-quality professional programming.  As you could hear in the clip the mics captured clean natural sound. The individual character of their voices enhanced the role each plays on the panel.  Good sound invites you to lean in and place yourself in the middle of this wonderful trio.  This is an intimate space that no other medium can create as effectively so it is shame when it is missing and a tremendous pleasure when it is present.

It’s not necessary to build a fancy studio with felt panels to achieve this sort of result and you don’t need to spend a fortune on microphones.  What you need is to understand the role sound plays in audio programming.  How it enhances or detracts from a program’s goals.  You need to take this seriously and you need to know how to achieve it.

Slate has long been a leader in the field of podcasting and they continue to lead the way towards a new era for the medium, when audiences will expect podcasts to be professional productions the same way they currently expect magazines or websites to meet minimum standards for design.