Last Sunday, as a blanket of wet soggy clouds made it a miserable night to be outdoors, we were entertaining an audience of radio lovers indoors as Sounds Alive took over the Odessa Club for the first time. We were here for a night of audio, storytelling and insight from the producer of one of my favorite podcast series, Jonathan Mitchell from The Truth, a series which has helped to reinvent radio drama much in the same way as HBO has helped re-invent TV drama. In fact to even label The Truth as radio drama simply doesn’t do it justice. Its crafted, colorful & diverse stories don’t just compel the audience to listen but to experience these stories as if you’re right there with the characters, hearing the story unfold before your very eyes & ears.
Jonathan Mitchell has been creating radio since 1996 but it’s only in the last three years that he began writing, directing and recording stories for The Truth along with a group of amazingly talented improv actors who have helped workshop the scripts and stories from the start. As well as an incredibly evocative sound design, it’s this improv aspect of The Truth that gives the stories a much more authentic feel where the characters and voices sound real, no matter what the set up. The latest episode sees aliens discovering the Voyager Golden Record after it crash lands on their farm but still manages to sound convincing and completely natural thanks in part to a unscripted and improvised performance from it’s two lead characters. The result is something that’s infinitely more honest and human as the characters speak from the heart and not from the page.
Voyager is just the latest of three seasons of The Truth and when I spoke to Jonathan beforehand, I was amazed to learn that despite creating amazingly evocative radio drama, he’s only gotten into it relatively recently. In fact apart from a childhood fascination with an audio version of Star Wars and later a sound collage from Frank Zappa’s 1967, Lumpy Gravy, he’s never been that captivated by audio drama. Studying music & composition at University, one of his first jobs in Sound was actually creating music interludes and transitions for corporate audio tapes. It was these initial explorations in crafting spoken word however that eventually led to Mitchell recording and producing stories for independent radio documentaries. One of his earliest and most prolific works was his work on Shades of Grey which he co produced with Ahri Birbaum-Golden back in 2002. Jonathan describes this more as a sound mosaic about Abortion, where clips from 50 separate men and women talking about their own personal experience of the subject, is beautifully & delicately woven around an original score. he had composed in University. It’s an incredibly honest, graphic, intimate, disturbing, painful but utterly compelling listen that manages to cover all sides of the issue without ever casting judgement one way or the other.
After the huge impact Shades of Grey had, Jonathan went on to freelance for everyone from Radiolab to Studio 360 before eventually creating one of the first pieces for American Public Media and my own introduction to The Truth. Eat Cake is an incredibly sweet tale of romance, cold calling & coconut cake, which really helped introduce audiences to the natural, compelling and evocative sounds & stories that The Truth is so renowned for today. While the award winning”Moon Graffiti” was the first proper episode of The Truth, the breakthrough really came with the brilliant, Tape Delay which was broadcast on This American Life. We learned a little bit more of the magic that happens behind the curtain and what became apparent was the amazing amount of work that goes into creating each of these short episodes, sometimes recording up to 20 individual takes for each scene of each story. As we brought the evening to a close, Jonathan also introduced us to Radiotopia, which is a new collective of independent podcasts and radio programmes, which was founded by the powerhouse of independent radio in America, Roman Mars(99% Invisible). Radiotopia member Nick Van Der Kolk from Love + Radio recently compared it to a indie record label which is celebrating this brilliant period of crafted audio stories not just on the wireless but on the web. I’ll be doing a separate blog on this soon but in the meantime check out some of the other great series on this amazing new initiative.
A huge thanks to Jonathan for coming along on the night and sharing with us some of his favorite clips and also to AIRPI who brought over Jonathan for a day long workshop in radio production which was also fascinating – visit radioproducers.ie for more info on their next training event. In the meantime we’ll be busy planning the next Sounds Alive gig which will be taking place sometime in July again in the wonderful surroundings of Odessa and where we’ll also be unveiling the line up for our very first Sounds Alive audio festival in September in Dublin. Save the date, 5-7th September and follow @julesoutloud for more updates.