Inspired by eavesdropping, View-Master and other childhood memories, an audio montage answers the question of the day.
by Rebekah Smith
The Question of the Day Podcast is an audio montage of on-the-spot answers to life’s big questions. The idea for this format — asking one good question and letting the conversation unravel — came long before podcasts. It came before digital recorders, as the 350-dollar receipt for my Marantz cassette tape recorder will attest.
When I was a kid spending the night at my grandmother’s house in Harrisville, Michigan, I’d stay up past my bedtime and lay on the bedroom floor with an ear pressed against the heat grate, straining to hear the conversations of the adults in the parlor below. I was seeking out good company and soaking up their stories. Then I got old enough to watch late night television.
Eventually I realized that I knew people who were just as funny, smart and interesting as anyone who had ever appeared on the Tonight Show or David Letterman. While these shows served my celebrity obsessions just fine, they didn’t merit drowning out the stories of the people in the room. Where was their stage? The Jerry Springer Show? You’re either famous or you’re taking a paternity test on national television? Public embarrassment is the cost of our poor choices or the unfortunate relapse? To trust television that treats real people as if they were cartoons is to accept that we’d rather judge than relate to someone who has made mistakes or who is going through a tough time; I do not.
I wondered about a talk show where my brother-in-law could tell that story where he got stranded on a hunting trip. Nobody would watch it, people said. I wasn’t convinced. So I routinely plunked down the tape recorder in the middle of the dinner table. This did not win me friends. Then my roommate told me about This American Life. Wow! It wasn’t exactly what I had pictured, which was basically a standard talk show set with a host in a suit behind a desk with maybe a sidekick; it was a lot better and I became an instant fan.
Once I stumbled onto a format, starting with one good question and letting the conversation go wherever it goes, I called it “Question of the Day.” The “audio montage” came later. That was mainly influenced by a slideshow I saw at a sailing regatta on Angostura Lake in South Dakota. At that time, PowerPoint didn’t exist. Instead there were three carousel slide projectors and screens on the beach. The show zipped through hundreds of slides, with each screen relating to the others, sometimes creating the effect of motion. For example, you might have a windsurfer tipping over into the water. One. Two. Three. Splash! Pacing was managed with varying slide transition times and dividing the show into parts. For example, there was a section on sunsets, one on the sailboats –their colorful sails and their captains– and one on men peeing in the wilderness. This last one got a lot of laughs. Of course music helped tell the story too.
I’ve since made slideshows like this, most notably one for my parent’s fiftieth anniversary. It wasn’t exactly View-Master, but slideshows such as this one and the one I made to illustrate a story written by my English as a Second Language (ESL) students came close to capturing the magic I have forever associated with it.
I also applied the style to audio works. For example, “Bush Addresses the Nation”, a one-off show I produced for a spot on KFAI Radio in Minneapolis, could have been called an “audio montage”. Instead I called it Dissection because I took one of George W. Bush’s speeches in its entirety and “dissected” it inserting clips from on-the-street interviews I had done, news clips and a ton of other found audio.
Thirteen years later, after having been absorbed in politics, teaching, community organizing and the serendipitous multimedia project, not to mention my obsession with my house and my yard, I’ve come full circle. Except this time I’m better equipped to do something with the interviews I gather, for there is the podcast.