NPR’s hit podcast Invisibilia about the “invisible forces that control human nature” has just completed its third season. The self-professed “concept album” of seven episodes released over four weeks dealt a lot with constructivist ideas. Do emotions, does reality just happen to us or do we make them first? While not as good as season 2, which seemed more politically relevant to me, season 3 again delivered some aha moments that got me thinking. It also repeated something it has been doing since the beginning, which I find both terribly annoying and journalistically questionable.
Invisibilia belongs to the school of storytelling podcasts made popular by This American Life. It strings together interviews and sound documents with explanatory narration to inform you about a topic and tell a compelling story a the same time. Different shows have different sonic profiles to support the storytelling, especially in their use of music and sound design. Radiolab, for example, often “visualises” (for lack of a better word) microscopic processes with synthesized sounds, making it easier to follow the explanation. Invisibilia‘s signature technique is to represent thoughts and feelings through single sentences from interviews and weave them into the narration whenever they become relevant again, like flashback images in a movie.
The sonic flashback
For example, the first episode of season three, Emotions, Part One, tells the story of a man, Tommy, traumatised by an accident he was involved in. The man recounts how he got out of his truck and approached the car he collided with. The driver is unconscious, the passenger, Miss Jones, is dazed. Tommy says: “Miss Jones says something about ‘the other child’ and I say ‘what other child’? That’s when I see Michaela’s arm, hanging there.” This is the original recording, but the phrase uttered by Tommy that describes the trauma is repeated throughout the episode as a shorthand for the whole image. For example:
Alix Spiegel: The day after the accident, after a tortured night in a motel room, Tommy’s trucking company put him on a plane to go home. He got in his seat, fastened his seatbelt. Would you like something to drink, sir?
Tommy: Her little arm, hanging out of the car.
I personally don’t like this “sonic flashback” technique. I find it clumsy and I just don’t like listening to it, but there is nothing badly wrong with it. It does, however, speak to the liberty Invisibilia takes with their recorded interviews, using phrases like these to illustrate thoughts and placing them in contexts where they were not originally uttered.
The show does the same with other, shorter phrases, and there, I find, it crosses a line of good journalism. It is customary in the storytelling format to summarise longer interview bits that contain explanations a bit too long for the format. You will normally hear the first few sentences of the explanation, and then the narrator will take over and summarise the rest. Radiolab or This American Life often even fade down the original tape and lets it play in the background, while the narration talks over it, saying something like: “John explains, that …”.
But Invisibilia goes one step further. It will summarise a bit of tape and then it will insert a sound bite that confirms the summary, something I want to call “unwarranted confirmation”. Take this example from the final episode, “True You”:
Mindy: And so in life he became polite and reserved and embarrassed, …
Lulu Miller: This is his wife, Mindy, …
Mindy: … I mean that in a good way.
Lulu Miller: … who says that wile Chad is six foot five, he will always try to appear smaller.
Mindy: Whenever we’re in a crowd, like, when we’re at a concert, he’s trying to get out of the way.
Lulu Miller: And then one day, in his mid-thirties, a very different side of him appeared.
Both the “Yeah” and the “Yes” are spliced into the narration from contexts we as listeners don’t know about. Chad was probably not interviewed at the same time as Mindy, but the producers see it necessary to insert his confirmation of Mindy’s statement about concerts by splicing in a “Yeah”. Well, maybe they asked him afterwards if the story was true and he actually did say “Yeah” and corroborated it.
Intransparent and condescending
The second example is worse. “One day, a very different side of him appeared” is not a statement that needs affirmation or denial. It is simply a justified assertion, an observation made by the storyteller. Why does Chad need to say “Yes” afterwards? It sounds like the producers are getting his blessing for what they just said, even though 1) what they said does not need a blessing and 2) we don’t know what context the blessing comes from. It could be any “Yes” from hours of tape. We have no idea what it originally pertained to.
Invisibila will do this all the time. They insert “Yes”, “Yeah”, “No”, “That’s right”, “Uh-huh” and other short phrases into their narration to confirm their own statements in a way that’s both non-transparent and often unnecessary. It’s like a sonic tic the show has been cultivating since its very first episode. And while it seems to be something Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin and their producers employ to shape the show’s profile, it’s also journalistically questionable and condescending in exactly the way NPR is often accused of being, degrading interview subjects to deliver sound bites for the self-aggrandisement of a manipulative storyteller.
Do you agree?