Narration and Navigation in ‘This American Life’

This American Life doesn’t just tell the listener a story, it tells the listener that it is going to tell a story and then guides them through the story. The narrator-host’s direction and the broadcast or podcast audio medium contribute to the stories’ guided effect.

As host, Glass’s scope extends outside the show’s stories. He talks about the show as a show. He can say what is going to happen on the show and refer to people who have already been interviewed. He knows information about the show’s content and can control how the listener receives that information. The revelation of show information functions differently than a table of contents in that while the information prepares the listener for what they will hear, it does not provide them a way to access that content directly.

The narrator focuses the listener on the story so they can understand it better as it is spoken. For example, the narrator of the House on Loon Lake story would state who would be speaking any time another voice would enter the story. The point for the listener wasn’t to remember all the voices, or work out a mystery of what the story is. The story-teller helped the listener to take in the information and understand what was happening in the story. Between stories, Glass would provide introduction, giving stories titles and describing what the story would be about. Between breaks in the show, he would recap what the show was about for listeners who were just then returning or starting to listen. With this technique, the returning listener does not lose their place in the story and the new listener does not feel excluded.

In a radio broadcast, the direction of the host fills some of the role of a rewind capability. The listener cannot turn back to hear the words already spoken. The host can fill in information that the listener might have missed, they can give just enough background for the story to continue for different listeners.

With recorded audio, the listener has more control over how they hear the show. Audio players commonly have as their most prominent controls a play button, a stop button, and a selection bar that controls the time to play from in the audio file. When the listener pauses and returns later, they might forget what they had heard most recently, but they could move the selection bar back a small amount to refresh their memory. Most audio files are not annotated with segment information, making long-distance seeking within the file impractical. Relative times such as “ten minutes later” or “halfway through the file” are possible navigation targets, but they are broad targets when searching for content. The user does not know what will be at that point until they play the file at that point. The audio format encourages the listener to listen in order. When they press play, the file will move forward without any further intervention. It is possible for the user to ignore their navigation options and just listen.

-Kevin O’Leary


~ by k2theiso on January 31, 2011.

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