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Radiolab Tells the Truth with Sound Design

Since 2002, Radiolab has provided listeners with deep-dive journalism, requiring exciting—but truthful—sound design. ‘Sound is an editorial statement,’ says producer Dylan Keefe.

Dylan Keefe, head of sound design at Radiolab
Dylan Keefe, head of sound design at Radiolab. When not building podcasts, Keefe is also the longtime bassist of Nineties alt-rock act Marcy Playground (“Sex and Candy”). Radiolab

New York, NY (October 22, 2020)—Sound design choices in podcast production often follow the theme of the work. But when a podcast carries the weight of journalistic credibility, as Radiolab producer Dylan Keefe notes, there is a big difference between using sound in service of telling a story and using sound to help tell a true story.

“You have to have a journalistic mind or understanding in order to do something like Radiolab, because sound is an editorial statement,” says Keefe. “You can easily mislead people with sound. It’s like being a photographer: Where you point the lens or where you put it in a story are all editorial choices. If you’re not aware of that stuff, [and] you’re just trying to make cool sounds or make things dramatic, you’re not going to be trusted, and that’s a big deal.”

Radiolab host Jad Abumrad
Radiolab host Jad Abumrad Radiolab

The two-time Peabody award-winning radio program produced by WNYC was already tailor made for podcast audiences when it hit airwaves in 2002, remaking long-form journalism with an ear toward sound design. To this day, the show takes listeners on a deep dive into a new topic every week. Creator and host Jad Abumrad established its light-touch audio style from the beginning, a tradition Keefe carries forward today.

“I put a priority on trying to [achieve] Jad’s vision,” he says. “I wasn’t really chomping at the bit to put my own stamp on it. My real love is for narrative non-fiction, and being able to exist in a musical and sound environment within narrative non-fiction is the coolest ever.”

To maintain the show’s sonic stamp while recording remotely, Abumrad is using an AKG C414 large-diaphragm condenser mic into a Universal Audio interface. The show’s production team and reporters at home are using a variety of other mics, including direct USB podcasting mics. The ongoing situation has also forced the producers to abandon their “no phoners” stance, at least as a last resort. That can make for some nightmare mixing scenarios, Keefe says, which can mean more time spent in post production.

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“Our hosts, reporters and producers record directly into Pro Tools and we sync them in post,” he says. “Obviously, right now, everything is remote, so we use a combination of tape syncs and interviews over ipDTL, Zoom, phone, ISDN—anything we can do.”

Radiolab logoThe variables change with each week, as well. The recent episode “Dispatches from 1918” contains five stories within a single podcast episode, with separate sound motifs for each segment. Another, “Baby Blue Blood Drive,” mixes field recordings of horseshoe crabs with studio-recorded narration. An episode on the bizarre behaviors a female Octopus displays while watching over her eggs, including self-starvation and eventually death, took a different creative turn.

“In the ‘Octomom’ piece,” he says, “we even went as far as determining that there was going to be a symphony-type sound that was going to be describing a particular way in which the brain of the octopus shuts down over time. The scientists we were talking to described it as like a symphony that was slowly shutting down, like voice by voice.”

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In order to keep up with Radiolab’s busy schedule, producing a new episode every week, Keefe gets involved early in the editorial process. “Each story is very different, although it’s all told through the Radiolab voice,” he says. “I’m at all the pitch meetings where we’re deciding what stories get green-lighted and [I] have a voice, so I can see it from beginning to end. Because in Radiolab, the sonic identity of it is…I wouldn’t say just as important, but it’s up there as important as just the straight-up journalism behind it.”