It was looking like everything in the world of podcasting had been done -- anybody want a new interview podcast? -- and then The World According to Sound (WATS) came along to redefine what a podcast could be. If you’re not familiar with it, each 90-second episode of WATS takes enough time to play a unique sound and present its story, and that’s it. While the result may not serve people in need of background noise while they exercise or do their chores, what they’ve created certainly provides escape, if only for a minute.
Its producers, Sam Harnett (a KQED reporter) and Chris Hoff (a KALW engineer), wanted to create a show that didn’t tell audiences what to think. They want listeners of each tiny episode to come away with their own experiences, and the subjects they cover provide plenty to think about: recordings of ants walking, a song CNN has queued up in case the world ends, or vintage audio of Nazi fighter planes on the attack.
The Earful spoke with Harnett and Hoff last week about the show’s concept and how they’ve made it work. We also learned what they have in store for their live performances on Aug. 26 and 27 at The Lab in San Francisco.
Interview is edited for length and clarity.
How did you two come up with the show?
Chris Hoff: It came to us during a hike that Sam and I took about a year ago. We were talking shop about radio and we found we both wanted to do something new in the medium. We almost said it at the same time: “I’m sick of narrative and I want to try something else.” So we decided to do something with sound and that was basically it.
Sam Harnett: Yeah, once we recognized we were allies, that Chris wasn’t the biggest fan of classic public radio storytelling, we were like, “How can we create something that doesn’t have a narrative arc?” And we realized that if we made something really short, we’re not going to have to suck people in and keep their attention for four minutes.
Our initial idea was 60 seconds, which we decided was too short. So we tried 90 seconds and it started to work.
On your website, you write that you didn’t want to tell people what to think. Do you find that’s an issue in traditional radio storytelling?
Harnett: I’m also a reporter and I do a lot of traditional storytelling, which is great: it can be super powerful, it’s a great way to convey information and get someone caring about something in the story. But if you start thinking about the narrative format, you have to lead somebody on a journey and to do that, the listener has to trust and follow you. You become the person dispensing information, choosing what they learn and don’t learn. I feel like a lot of great radio -- I hate to use the word manipulative, but you’re not telling them a lot. And if you’re not providing narrative tension, then people tune out.
I feel like that a lot of great shows, even when they provide great information and have a moving story, the structure is such that the listener is being led somewhere. So we wanted to make a space where we actually don’t say that much and create enough sound so that the listener’s mind wanders and they begin to think of stuff that we’re not directing them to think of.
How do you find the sounds that you feature on the podcast?
Hoff: We've gotten some from friends and fans, but a lot of them have come from just talking to people. Somehow, if I'm thinking with my "sound hat" on, ideas come out through normal conversation. I have to have my "sound hat" on to do this, and I'm not always doing that...
Harnett: Dude, where is your sound hat? Are you hiding it?
Hoff: It's at home. But yeah, people don't give me ideas; they just come out through conversation.
Harnett: I just Google random sh*t, like "what's the biggest instrument in the world?" That was a good one -- that led me to the cave, which we featured in the episode "Sonic Stalactites."
But I've also Googled "smallest instrument in the world" and that turned out not to be that great of a story idea.
I do spend a lot of time on random thought experiments -- "I wonder what that's like?" But Chris is right: once you get in that mindset, you start thinking "what does X sound like? Can you record it?"
Have there been sounds you wish you could present but found they didn't work with the show?
Hoff: I don't think we've ever run into that. If the sound is good, it's really all about that. If we deem a sound to be cool, we're going to do it.
Harnett: I think there are times where you can't just play the sound because it's either not long enough or in order to do the story, you'd have to have a different format where you talked all the time so you could explain the sound and give it context. We don't do those.
It is a thing for us to throw out sounds, even though they'd be cool to talk about. But that's because they don't fit the bill, which is to be a sound that by listening, you understand things without being told about it. But I can't think of a concrete example, can you Chris?
Hoff: Well, we tried gunshots. That was a really interesting idea and story but the sound was completely uninteresting. We had the idea of trying to understand the Michael Brown shooting through the type of gun that was used and the sound that it made.
Harnett: And the idea was to recreate the event sonically, and have people hear it and think about it through how it sounded. And it didn't work. It was an interesting theoretical concept but we just played some gunshots and were like, "that's terrible."
Hoff: Yeah, it was sonically uninteresting.
How are you going to take your show live? And is it going to work?
Harnett: Those are some big questions! But we think it's going to work better today than we did a week ago.
Hoff: I think it's going to be really good.
Harnett: Are you being positive, Hoff? Who are you?
Hoff: I was really scared and fretting five days ago, but I think the really big thing we're doing with this show is the way that we're configuring the sound system itself -- we have eight discreet channels of audio, all playing their own thing. And the way we're going to be playing with the sound is going to be really, really unique; stuff that no one has ever heard before. That alone, along with the sounds we already have, is going to be a really worthwhile, new experience.
Harnett: When we started doing, the nervousness came from the fact that no one does this. Artists have done similar things but they were making art -- sound art. Our sounds all have conceptual components, like mud pots -- the conceptual component is that when you hear these mud pots, they sound personified. It's like they're talking, and that's cool. And now we have eight speakers, so we can have eight mud pots going at once and really blow up the concept. That's great, but it also means we have to mix eight discreet channels.
Hoff: It's technically really difficult but so far the results have been really positive. Even if we just went there and played this awesome mix we made, that in itself would be a cool experience.