This is the first in our series about new and ear-worthy podcasts. We're leading off with Nocturne, a well-crafted production that's the brainchild of a San Francisco producer and a veteran composer/sound designer.
Vanessa Lowe cut her teeth in radio while segeuing out of a career in clinical psychology. Thanks to mentors like Claire Schoen and Rob Rosenthal, she found non-fiction audio storytelling an ideal fit for her background and sensibilities. This feature on the passion of Polaroid photography, co-produced with Megan Jones, helped her earn public radio cred when it aired multiple times last year on WNYC.
Anybody who works in sound-rich radio would love to collaborate with a guy like Kent Sparling. Vanessa calls him Nocturne's resident composer. Sparling brings an impressive resume as a film composer, sound designer and re-recording mixer. You've probably already heard his work on recent flicks like "Her," "Love Is Strange" and "Night Moves."
Judging by Nocturne's early episodes, there's a lot to like. First, it has a well-defined, even unique, niche — a fundamental ingredient for success according to podcast pros. Natural sounds weave a cool aural tapestry with Sparling's music. There's a meditative quality that echoes the quiet, alternate world when the stars come out.
Is it an acquired taste? Does it work if you're a morning person? Are there enough nighttime themes to enable a long-running series? We checked in with Vanessa to find out.
Why a podcast about night?
Vanessa Lowe: I wanted to do a podcast on a topic that would focus my line of inquiry without being too limiting. Put another way, I’m easily overwhelmed – so I needed a solid theme that would guide me, and help me hone in on ideas. But I don’t want to run out of places to go either. The night fits the bill – I immediately filled pages and pages of my notebook with stories I’d like to do. The funny thing is that so far the stories that have shown up are totally different than the ones I imagined – so I can envision Nocturne going on for a long time.
What was your inspiration for "Nocturne?"
V.L: The other major reason I chose to do a podcast about the night – I guess what you’d call the inspiration — is that it’s kind of a foreign place to me, and a not altogether comfortable one. I’m not naturally a night person, but I’m very interested in the things that take place there, and the way people relate differently to the night. It’s so amazing how different one half of a 24-hour period can feel from the other – and how we so rarely hear about the details. The night can feel dangerous, exciting, scary, freeing, spiritual… Some people find an incredible creative wellspring and others are paralyzed by fear and discomfort. When I started researching the night I found that there are strong cultural biases against the night, as well as many spiritual and religious rituals in reverence of it. And also, that we are rapidly losing a lot of our connection to the night as our view of the stars fades away with the steady advance of light pollution. What happens to our feelings of connection to the universe as we lose our ability to visually connect with the vast and unknown?
A radio mentor once told me that if you are going to embark upon a long-form radio doc, it should be about something that really compels you – because you’ll be working on it for a long time, and you want it to hold your interest. I think this is even more true with a podcast. I could be working on this for years! So, it’s kind of like I’m setting off to explore and learn about a strange new planet.
You call Nocturne "essay radio," a hybrid form of audio storytelling that blends elements of documentary, fiction and sound-art. Were you out to create a new genre?
V.L.: I attended the Third Coast Audio Festival this year, and one of the panel discussions was about the tension between journalism and storytelling. There was a heated debate about whether it is okay to “embellish” a radio story with sounds that did not actually occur when the story took place. Some producers felt that everything should be absolutely factual, although most agreed that editing interviewee’s words for clarity was fine. Others came out on the side of “do whatever is most interesting”. I thought a lot about these questions after the conference.
Shortly afterward, I was talking with a documentary filmmaker for whom my husband is doing the post-production sound. She and her producer mentioned the genre of “essay film” — which is a mixture of documentary and narrative film. I don’t think it’s a very well known concept. But think Michael Moore, whose films have been criticized for being not purely documentary, and where events were heavily influenced by his own actions. His work is incredibly compelling and informative, and I don’t feel that the end product is diminished by his methods. It’s different than when you’re reporting “the news” — in that case I think it’s absolutely essential to respect and adhere to strict journalistic practices.
But I really liked this idea of “essay film” and it makes a lot of sense in the context of thinking about radio storytelling as a blend of documentary and art. The term “essay radio” originated from a conversation about all this that I had with my collaborator, Kent Sparling. I like it because, again, it’s a good focusing tool. It’s a reminder of how I want to tell stories in Nocturne
How does, or will, fiction play a part in the show?
V.L.: I’ll take sound from anywhere to serve the feeling of a story. And I’ll mess with it gleefully. The goal with Nocturne is not to report news, but to tell a true account of something in a way that makes people connect emotionally, and maybe be surprised or illuminated. I would never change or embellish the meaning of what someone says in an interview — and that’s really important. Would I add sound from a totally different context — music, or weird sound effects, or who knows? Hell yes! That’s what I’m really interested in and what makes it so fun. Also, I foresee that occasional episodes of Nocturne will be more “sound-art” than interview-based, and will veer off into a made-up nighttime world to tell a story.
Is Nocturne a series with a limited run or have you thought through enough episodes to carry it indefinitely?
V.L.: I’ve given myself an arbitrary goal of three years. It’s exciting and scary at the same time.
Do you miss working with an editor as you would on a public radio piece, or does having your own show give you a new sense of freedom?
V.L.: I definitely like the freedom of doing whatever the hell I want. But I would never put something out without passing it by a trusted “editor”. I often run scripts and rough cuts by many trusted people. With Nocturne my collaborator, Kent, gives me lots of feedback — everything from cutting out excess, structuring, to “I think you need to re-do all the narration”.
How do you and your co-creator Kent collaborate on the episodes, and how do you divide the work?
V.L.: Kent and I came up with idea for Nocturne together. He is well acquainted with my conflicted relationship to the night, and thought that this would be a compelling and infinitely explorable topic for me. Kent composed the theme music and is the “resident composer” for the podcast. I use music from other artists, but Kent’s music is really the bedrock. I can tell him what I feel I’m looking for, and he’ll compose something specifically for what I need.
Kent and I also brainstorm about ideas — we go out to coffee a lot. And as I said, he reads and listens to everything. I produce the episodes — come up with the specific ideas, do the interviews, write and revise scripts, edit and mix in Protools, and record my narration, interviews and other sounds. Kent does sound design and mixing for film, so he has a great sound library. I’m incredibly fortunate to have access to much of his sound library for extra effects. I’m also really grateful for his technical chops — he does a final mix pass on each episode for EQ, compression, and stuff like that.
What's been the most rewarding part of the show so far?
V.L.: The most rewarding thing so far has been the surprise of people’s stories! The people I have interviewed have been really generous in sharing stories that I would never have thought of, many of them quite personal. And also, I am learning more about this other land called “night”, and I feel like my comfort level with the nighttime is increasing as my curiosity takes hold.
Do you plan to invite outside producers to contribute?
V.L.: That could be really fun at some point. Right now I am feeling like I want to establish the identity of the podcast. But later on I could see collaborating with other producers for Nocturne.
What sort of feedback are you getting from listeners?
V.L.: It’s been awesome! I’m getting emails and hearing from people sharing their experience of the night, and letting me know their reactions to episodes they’ve heard. It’s fun to find out how many people are interested in the night, whether it’s because they’re night owls, or because they’re a newbie like me.
How did you make the transition from psychology to radio, and what about radio made it your go-to medium for creative expression?
V.L.: I was practicing Clinical Psychology until I got pregnant with my son, and stopped at that point for a variety of reasons. I’ve also always been a performing musician — I’m a singer/songwriter/guitarist. When my son, Finn, was about two and a half I met a radio producer who was making documentaries about birth. I was thinking a lot about the societal tensions surrounding breastfeeding in our culture, and decided to do an hour-long radio doc about breastfeeding. I had been a radio DJ, but had no experience making radio pieces. But I had lots of experience interviewing people and listening closely as a psychologist. So, I interviewed a whole bunch of people — mothers and “experts” — learned Protools, and made the doc. It was tremendously challenging, and I had a ton of fun doing it. The process was like a mix of psychology and songwriting — it felt like the logical combination of the two major things I had been doing.
How did you develop your chops in audio storytelling?
V.L.: I realized that I wanted to do more radio, but I needed to learn how to do it “right”, or at least not have every aspect of it be trial and error. I joined AIR shortly after producing that first doc, and saw a notice for Claire Schoen’s “Soup to Nuts” radio workshop. Within 15 minutes of the start of the workshop I thought, “I want to work with this woman”. At the end of the weekend Claire announced that she was looking for an intern for the radio/media project she was producing on sea level rise. I became her intern and then later, an associate producer on the project. That was an amazing experience. Claire is a fantastic mentor. She gave me tons of responsibility and incredible guidance about every step of the process. I worked with her for two years.
I also did the Transom traveling workshop on Catalina Island with Rob Rosenthal and David Weinberg in June 2014. That was incredible and I learned a lot about finding the story in a radio piece. One of the most important things I learned was how little sleep I needed.
That came in handy soon after when I entered the KCRW Independent Producer Project’s 24-Hour Radio Race, with my collaborator, Kent Sparling. We had a blast and made it to the top ten finalists.
I feel like I’m still getting my start in radio. Everything I’ve done has been independent. I’m learning all the time.
Who do you owe the most to as a mentor, and as an inspiration for Nocturne as well as the kind of audio you want to produce?
V.L.: Claire Schoen and Rob Rosenthal are definitely top on my list as mentors. They are both incredibly talented producers and hugely generous teachers. I’ve found the whole radio community to be pretty open and supportive — I’ve called and emailed people to ask questions, and usually everyone is happy to help. The Association for Independents in Radio has been a great resource. They gave me a podcast mentorship with Julie Sabatier (Destination DIY), and she was tremendously helpful in thinking about laying the foundation for Nocturne. She encouraged me to create a mission statement, and then gave really useful feedback throughout that process.
In terms of inspiration for Nocturne and the kind of audio I want to produce — I get my inspiration from everywhere, including music, film, other podcasts and radio. I really like the way Snap Judgment uses music, and I admire the sound design in the The Truth and Audio Smut. I listen to a lot of podcasts on a semi-regular basis and everything filters through.
Finally, are you making progress in becoming a night owl?
V.L.: Nope. Sometimes I go to sleep at 8:30pm and sometimes I’m up as late as 1am. If it’s later than that I’m not up on purpose, and I’m probably fretting about how and when I’ll get back to sleep. But I anticipate testing some late night waters pretty soon, and I’ll let you know what happens.