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January 08, 2005

The Dark Room Magic of NPR

Have you wondered how everyone on National Public Radio (NPR) sounds so smooth, so perfect … and so amazingly articulate?

I have.

And thanks to John Solomon of NPR’s On the Media, we now know the dark room magic tricks NPR uses to make everyone sound so smooth, so perfect, and so articulate. [You can stream the audio (real media file) or read the transcript.]

In Solomon’s story, we learn NPR makes media sausage by cleaning up and tightening sound-bites through editing out all the ‘uh’s’ and ‘um’s’ from correspondents and interviewees. (Be sure to listen to the audio stream and hear exactly how the raw sound-bite sounds compared to the polished sound-bite. The difference is striking.)

Since radio is ‘theater of the mind,’ it’s easier to slice/dice sound-bites without the listener knowing. Whereas in television, the viewer immediately knows when edits have been made because they can see the cutaway and the jump cut.

We also learn the Car Talk guys sometimes pipe in their own recorded laughter to goose their seemingly off-the-cuff humor.

Solomon also demystifies how NPR gathers and uses ambient sounds to pepper stories filed by correspondents in the field.

And, Solomon explores the issue of how NPR implies interviews are live by saying ‘so and so joins us to talk about whatever.’ When in reality, the interview may have been taped earlier in the day.

Since podcasts are all the rage now with amateur anchors producing their own audio programs, these dark room magic tricks from NPR could help improve the listening quality of most podcasts I’ve heard.

Then again, those who know me know I am the last person who can point the finger at others (podcasters) for not speaking fluently.


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I want to be this slick.

That's completely normal operating procedure for radio and has been going on for decades. Long before digital editing, sound engineers had to learn how to splice & tape analog audio reels to take out the pauses, coughs, verbal stammers etc. Why? One, it sounds better, two, time is money and airtime is much more money. How do I know this? couple of decades working in the industry. I learned to edit before digital editing even existed. Our medium was reel 2 reel & scotch tape, plus a razor blade. Everything is edited.

This is just the way it is. Sometimes it works to truth's advantage, sometimes not. Lesson: Don't believe anything you hear via media. Use critical thinking.

Very true Chy. As a radio/tv/film major I fondly recall splicing together my on-air sound checks using the cranky reel-to-reel machine.

I do think, as listeners, we tend to forget that nearly everything the mass media broadcasts has been edited for our viewing/listening pleasure. Editing is one area that I hope podcasters find time to do just like they edit their writing before posting blogs.

The "On The Media" story was interesting ... especially the bit about NPR being plausibly live at times.

Um...I'm not sure this really counts as a significant development. I work at a major British broadcasting corporation (name of which you can guess) as a producer and these 'principles of sound recording' have been sustaining since the inception of wire recording in the 1950s. A fellow I work with as a producer was the host of one of India's first commercial children's programmes on radio in 1959 and can remember having to select the kids who came on the show by how well they could speak without being prompted. Even children know bad radio, he pointed out. If you were to listen to 'ums' and aahs' on NPR, you would go listen to something else.

I am the local host for "All Things Considered", "Night Music", and "Saturday Weekend Edition" at my town's NPR affiliate station and you should know that about half of what you hear in our news stories is pre-recorded and edited on CoolEdit or ProTools to give both announcer and guest a more erudite and smooth sound. (The guests' mmmm's and uhhhhh's get taken out too, to be fair.)

To think that we are all live standing by in the studio along with guests from all over and reporters on their satellite phones is kind of naïve, don't you think? Like when you were a kid and believed that when you heard a song on the radio, then the band must be there performing live.

However, the other half of the time (hourly and half hourly newscasts during the news magazines like "All Thins Considered" and so forth), we are completely live. Having the "NPR Voice" is a skill. If you like, you can hear me today and every weekday during "All Things Considered" at, although I should warn you that Firefox won't work. I'll be doing announcements live and unedited several times an hour between 5 and 7 est, and you can judge for yourself.

The secret is to use a subtle cushion of air in your voice. It is like the way Roberta Flack and Sade sing. There is a whisper in every note, even when you are speaking at a normal volume. And now you know all my secrets.

Hope you'll join us!

Some defensive comments, but I don't see the blogger saying this is dishonest or bad. It is interesting to see the inside of these production values, especially for those of us who, hardly naive, have just never thought much about it before.

Agreed. This is the nature of editing, in all forms of media, from radio to television to newspaper. Radio does it all the time, but reality shows have perfected it-- if you listen, you can often hear jumps in audio during b-roll in both reality shows and television news segments. Unless you've seen uncut video, you can be sure that something, important or un, has been left out.

Plus, I was also making mention of how podcasters could take note of 'editing' as it relates to their podcasts.

I would listen to more podcats if folks edited out all the 'uhms,' 'ya knows,' and other filler words from their shows.

Surely this is common sense? I think leaving in ahhs and umms is not artisitc integrity, but ignorance of audio tools.

I just recently began volunteering at a community radio station and learning the basics of audio editing. While it's always been obvious that radio segments are produced, it's fascinating to learn the actual techniques that make it sound good.

And in fact, once you've listened to a few minutes of unedited tape with long, awkward pauses, chuffing and wheezing, coughing, and stuttering, you thank God you're able to streamline it. It's no different than what print journalists do -- they don't publish their struck-through attempts at descriptive phrases, dead-end sentences and typos when they can avoid it...they EDIT it. All good content is edited according to the principles that have proven to enhance understanding and informational power.

I wouldn't confuse this with bad content (yes, I'm talking about you, Fox TV), which is edited primarily for sensationalism, a mesmerizing visual overload, and a rapid pace.

I'd say this is also par for the course for some types of television, where interviews might have the uh's and um's spliced out, but then the video would be covered over with B-reel.

Where the background processes of journalism are concerned, transparency is virtue. John Solomon's OTM piece is yet another example of how public radio journalism upholds that value.

For decades print journalists have clarified published quotes by eliminating common verbal stumbles such as "uh" and "er." Public radio producers and reporters simply replicate that practice.

However, this discussion gets really interesting when sound editing -- a process that's principally driven by aural aesthetics and the time constraints of format and presentation -- unwittingly alters perceptions. The routine process of "clean-up" editing, for example, can serve to make an inarticulate, incurious, and venal public official sound as if he is engaged, well-spoken and possessed of great conviction. There are no easy answers on this one.

Duncan Lively

Welcome back Duncan ... thanks for adding your well-informed perspective to this discussion.

People may want podcasters to edit their shows. But I run mine raw that is the beauty of it. We are human and for to many years we have had programming, programmed. I like podcast unedited then you really get the whole picture.

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