We’ve all heard about record producers who realized a song could be a hit, but had to take the track apart to rebuild it into a pop smash. It turns out the same thing can happen when record producers create a podcast about pop smashes, too.
In the case of the Speed of Sound podcast, the iHeartRadio podcast that explores what makes a song a hit, it took some on-the-job trial and error by the production team to get their episodes just right. “What we found early on is we’d write the script, and then say, ‘Oh, let’s interview this person we talk about a lot,’” explains host Steve Greenberg. “Then we’d interview them [and] that would cause a whole rewriting of the script.”
While interviewing subjects for the recent episode “Rapper’s Delight: Inside the Song That Ignited Hip Hop,” for example, Greenberg had prepared a script based on commonly held beliefs about how the seminal rap group Sugarhill Gang came together. Instead of label founder Sylvia Robinson’s son discovering Big Bank Hank rapping in a pizza parlor, though, Greenberg discovered that Hank auditioned for Robinson in the back of a car while on break from his job making pizzas, still wearing an apron stained with sauce. It made for a better story, but it meant a script rewrite.
Debunking myths and telling the stranger-than-fiction stories behind how some of pop’s biggest songs, bands and musical genres soared to the top of the charts are why Speed of Sound is one of the most buzzed-about podcasts of 2020. Greenberg’s experiences as a record executive and producer who helped discover the Jonas Brothers, Joss Stone and Hanson thicken the plots as he puts the hits in historical context, both musically and culturally.
During one memorable moment from the four-episode series on disco, Greenberg explains why four KC and the Sunshine Band songs are essentially the same while the podcast’s audio engineer Taylor Chicoine matches the beats and puts them together. In another episode, Chicoine lines up “The Monster Mash,” “The Mashed Potato” and “Please Mr. Postman” to illustrate their similarities.
“We really hoped to be able to integrate music in a significant way in the podcast,” says Greenberg. “Even though podcasts can’t play complete songs, we wanted to give people enough of a taste of a song that they understood what it is we were talking about.”
After Greenberg finishes the script, he and executive producer Lauren Bright Pacheco handle the pre-production, record the voiceover through a Shure SM7B into a Zoom H5 recorder, and talk through how they want to lay out each episode. Greenberg’s deep pop-culture knowledge comes in handy, as he often adds direction for Chicoine while recording.
“I can hear Steve talking about what clips he might want and where, or ideas he has for sounds,” says Chicoine. “Then, Lauren will translate that into some sort of transcript-paper cut for me to be able to read through, and make sure we have all the links and all the clips in order.”
Post-production work with audio sources runs the gamut in the COVID-19 era, but Chicoine takes a Zen-like approach when he has to use audio that doesn’t quite measure up. He treats the audio just enough to bring up annunciations and reduce phone noise when people record on smartphones, but he also plays into that weakness.
“If it’s phone audio, just own it,” Chicoine says. “Don’t try and make it sound not like phone audio, because then it’s just going to sound weird and no one’s going to know why. It’s a balance of making it understandable and clear, while also playing into the style of it and making that intentional, so that it feels right to the listener. It should flow, even if it is a difference in quality.”