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Revisions on the “Ideal” Listening Environment

When you think of the last podcast episode you listened to, do you remember where you were? Doing laundry? Taking a walk around the block? Perhaps you would’ve had a different answer a little over a year ago, before the pandemic vastly limited the amount of places you could freely be.

As the anniversary of the first U.S. lockdowns rolled around, I began to wonder how audio creators — in particular the ones who hope their work will be consumed intentionally and with few distractions — felt about how commutes, long said to be a primary context of podcast consumption, had been scaled way back. Did this radical shift end up resulting in more of what these folks might consider “intentional” listening? So I started asking around, and what I ended up finding was some reinforcement of a whole other idea: that ideal, “intentional” listening environments don’t actually exist.

Let’s start here: Listening on the subway isn’t how Brendan Stermer, host of Interesting People Reading Poetry, would prefer his show be heard. Instead, this is what he recommends: “Good headphones, quiet space, normal speed, and minimal distractions.”

Interesting People Reading Poetry features well-known figures reciting poems (two times through, as a professor might advise) and revealing a bit about what the writing means to them. For it to mean something to listeners, Stermer says, they need to put in a little work — which, he acknowledges, is a lot to ask.

“I think appreciating poetry requires really careful attention to detail,” he says. And if you’re cringing at the prospect of undistracted listening, he has a qualifier: “We don’t put out very many episodes at all,” he says, only publishing installments that he and brother Andy, who also composes original music for the show, think are the best of the best.

With so much going on behind the scenes, audio creators expect — or at least hope — that their work will shine through when someone listens. Take, for example, the podcast Radio Drama Revival. Similar in structure to Interesting People Reading Poetry, it’s an anthology of pre-written works, and the creators of those works get to say a bit about their process. Host Elena Fernández Collins hopes that listeners will both respect the discussions and feel immersed in the audio drama — and, to that end, she does a lot to set the scene.

“It’s like being taken to a movie theater,” says Fernández Collins, who assumes the responsibility of transitioning the listener from the real world to the show’s “mysterious, noir-ish” space. “When I record, I record fairly close-mic’d,” she says, in addition to lowering the pitch of her voice, which is then backdropped by jazz music. “The vibe that I imagine in my brain is Alan Cumming when he’s hosting MASTERPIECE Mystery!”

To achieve the optimal effect, Fernández Collins says, listeners would ideally consume Radio Drama Revival like a glass of wine: “at night, doing something calm.” That’s at least what she hopes. She, for one, listens to podcasts “on one-time speed without silences trimmed,” but even she can’t guarantee that she’ll always be able to listen in an ideal setting, let alone the serene circumstances she imagines for her audience.

Neither, it turns out, can Stermer.

When I asked him about his listening habits, he paused, then replied — “That’s really embarrassing.” He listens to primarily interview-based podcasts, he says, and the way he listens is in stark opposition to what he’d suggested: “The way that I listen to most shows, aside from my own, is through my internal iPhone speaker, while I’m doing dishes or something.”

Jennifer Mills, a producer for Everything is Alive and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, described a similar contradiction. As a creator, she says, “I love to take in the final product on a walk,” which is also what she found herself doing as a listener. She made a habit of listening to a daily news podcast during a morning stroll, but sometimes, she says, it just didn’t work.

“I find that, once in a while, the weather or the vibe of the walk is [in] too great of contrast with what the episode is about, that I actually have to turn it off,” she says.

On the website for Everything is Alive, the first thing that appears is a message: “If you’ve just found us, we recommend starting at the beginning,” after which a caveat — “But it’s up to you” — appears. “Personally, I don’t think there’s an ideal way to listen to it,” Mills notes; but, she says, wading through the personalities and narratives that the show builds out for its subjects “is like having a relationship with different people,” in that the order that they enter your life matters. But that’s not all.

“When I listen to the show, I think about a void, and I think about the conversation existing in an imaginary space,” Mills says, then laughs. “So maybe if everyone can get into a sensory deprivation chamber… ”

Being a listener herself has illuminated how hard it can be to live up to these kinds of expectations, particularly those that creators have for their audience, and even those less extreme than the (facetious) suggestion to enter an expensive, high-tech vessel.

“I think about my own listening habits and how experimental and erratic they are right now, and when I do sit down with podcasts, I feel like that’s the only way that it could possibly be,” Mills says. “However people are listening to podcasts right now is exactly how they should be listening to them.”

For some audio creators, acknowledging the limitations of their surroundings goes further than causing them to loosen their expectations for how their product will be consumed; it helps them create a better product in the first place.

Andrés López Azpiri, a composer and sound designer for NPR’s Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante, recalls a message that CEO Carolina Guerrero forwarded to him from a natively English-speaking listener, opining that the background music was too loud. This had the effect of obscuring the dialogue, which the listener had to consciously listen for and digest. Notably, non-native Spanish speakers make up 20 to 25% of Radio Ambulante’s U.S.-based audience. But even if that weren’t true, a lack of clarity could become a challenge for any type of listener.

López Azpiri got to work tweaking the sound quality of the show, experimenting with software plugins and how much time he spent on certain parts of each episode. Then, listening in his downtime gave him added insight for how to improve.

When he consumes podcasts for leisure, he says, he chooses shows that aren’t in his native Spanish, but rather in English or German. And when doing so, he says, “I find that if I leave my cell phone a couple feet away from me, and the interview itself has a lot of dynamic” — meaning change in volume — “I cannot understand.” He might not have been able to fix this in the shows he listened to, but he could prevent what appeared to be similar obstacles within the show he helped produce.

Through “compression,” a common treatment that engineers give to audio after it’s recorded but before it’s published, he drags the loudest and quietest sounds closer to a happy medium (since, if the loud moments are painfully loud, you might turn down the volume and find yourself unable to hear the quiet ones). “If you compress into oblivion, it sounds artificial,” he admits, but if you opt out entirely and leave a huge contrast between loud and quiet, the latter gets lost.

These practices have gone a long way, both in the three years that López Azpiri was working at Radio Ambulante before COVID-19 took hold, when people spent hours of each day in moving vehicles, and now, when people don’t — yet still get distracted.

“I haven’t been the host in a not-pandemic time,” says Radio Drama Revival’s Fernández Collins, yet the calm, focused listening environment that she dreams of for her listeners still doesn’t appear to be embraced. In fact, she says, if people mention their listening environments at all, they often say something like, “I was listening to this episode while I was chopping vegetables.”

As López Azpiri also points out, listeners who are parents “can’t just throw in their earphones and ignore the kids.” He imagines that shows are probably played aloud, perhaps from a phone balanced near the kitchen sink. “Pandemic or not,” he says, “they’re listening in non-ideal environments.”

In his four years with Radio Ambulante, López Azpiri has fine-tuned his curation of the show’s sound. Part of it ensures the content is clear. The other part, building on many years as a musician, ensures the content is compelling. He and another composer now create original music for the show’s episodes, which he is as careful to preserve as he is the speech. In fact, addressing the original listener’s concern about volume didn’t mean just turning down the music; it meant, over time, creating better-fitting, more complementary scores.

“I want to make sure that that seriousness is there,” he says, since that mood tends to be elicited by low bass tones, like in an action movie. And once you’ve added an element like low tones, he advises fellow engineers, make sure your technical choices, like compression, don’t compromise it. “Listen to the content really, really quietly,” he says. “If it doesn’t engage with you, and you don’t find it emotional and exciting, there’s a problem.”

Radio Ambulante has to be comprehensible, but that isn’t the only reason it exists. While López Azpiri’s role is to crisp up the audio itself — in his words, “to make it as dry as possible and as clear as possible” — it’s also, he says, to make the show “as compelling as possible — and as beautiful as possible.”

Listening while making dinner, it turns out, can be just as incompatible with this effect as listening on the train. But many audio creators moonlight as listeners; they may have anticipated, realistically, how their work would ultimately reach you, and they may have planned accordingly.

López Azpiri says that messages from Radio Ambulante listeners still come in, but they sound different now. “If they don’t say anything about the audio, I take it that they’re understanding everything perfectly,” he says. “As long as people write to say they were engaged or they cried or they learned something new,” he says, he’s done his job.