The effects of external factors and form on the stories of This American Life – Diana Huang

This week, I made it a priority to listen to the podcasts early so I would have time to think about them before posting. Unfortunately, as a busy college student, this meant that I ended up listening to “House on Loon Lake” on my iPod after I’d crawled into bed Wednesday night. The combination of spooky music, mysterious storyline, and my silent, pitch black bedroom put me in a frightened mood. I ended up exhaling loudly when a noisy snore from my roommate reminded me that everything was alright! I fell asleep about 40 minutes in and finished the rest of the story walking in between classes on Thursday. While the story also wasn’t scary in those last 20 minutes, I can’t help but think that I would have found the story much less frightening overall if I had been experiencing it in a brightly lit room. In a way, I think I unintentionally ended up with the near-perfect experience of “House on Loon Lake” – I was kept in fear and suspense through all of the stories of the family member’s experiences with the house, but I had a change of scene to a safer environment when answers started coming out at the end.

This got me thinking about the effect of external factors on the listening experience. As a radio show episode, “House on Loon Lake” was most likely intended for being listened to in a car or while relaxing at home. Listened to while driving, I doubt the listener would have much of a reaction since his or her mind is more focused on the road than the story. However, listeners in the backseat of the car or at home might be suitably spooked, especially if it was near Halloween (the show originally aired on November 16, 2001) with the lights dimmed as the host suggested.

I’m not sure of the history of radio shows, but I would imagine that podcasts are a fairly recent development. Now we can listen to these radio shows nearly anywhere with our computers and mp3 players. Unlike the original experience, where there is no way to rewind for a missed detail, podcasts allow much more control. On a computer, I could even have changed the speed of playback to slow it down or speed it up to my liking! While podcast format still does not allow as much control as a book does, it clearly gives the listener much more regulation over his or her experience. This strikes me as similar to what TiVo has done for television.

I listened to “20 Acts in 60 minutes” while doing the dishes, which gave an atmosphere of white noise what I think was suitable for the content. While there wasn’t really an overall theme to the show, there was a clear effort made to tie everything together through the order of the stories. “Don’t I Know You” was followed with “No of course I know you” and “To tell the truth” followed with “More Lies” (this is clearest if you look at the list of acts here). The Neo-Futurists clip seemed to be stuck in the middle as an intermission of sorts, and also to bridge the gap between two acts that had nothing to do with another. The whole show was kind of like two games of Chain Reaction where the links were not just words but ideas. Some of the acts clicked with me while some didn’t, but what really made it work for me as a whole was that there was a thread of connectivity throughout the hour. That this connectivity was completely unplanned by the act submitters was very cool to me, and made me think of how one basic idea or character can lead to so many different implementations (this is also shown in fanfiction). The titles fit together so perfectly though that I suspect the producers of the show chose titles after they had received all of the submissions.

Overall, the two pieces both worked for me in different ways. I think I favored “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” just because I find shorter pieces easier to focus on. I noticed my attention drifting a couple times during “House on Loon Lake” and had to make use of my rewind button, while this never occurred during “20 Acts in 60 Minutes”. While the experience of stories through sound was interesting, I still didn’t feel as comfortable with it as I do reading a book. Since audio literature seems to have the same potential as books (where background music is analogous to illustrations), I think this discomfort is most likely another symptom of being “trained” to experience stories with my eyes and not my ears.

– Diana Huang


~ by Diana Huang on January 31, 2011.

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