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This American Life- I Was Just Trying to Help!

Hey everybody! HEART ICON

One of this week’s assignment was to listen to a full Podcast and try to really catch the radio techniques that were being used. The official assignment was this: Overall, how effective do you think audio was for telling the story(ies)? What types of audio techniques did the producers use — sound effects, layering of sounds, music, etc. — to convey their story? While we are interested in reading what you thought of the story being told — but we’re just as interested in your reflection about HOW the story was told. Try and step back from the story itself, and reflect upon the technique that the storytelling/producers used. What choices did they make that impacted your understanding of and feelings about the story? What are the techniques from the references above that you may not have noticed before? I chose to listen to an episode of This American Life: I Was Just Trying to Help. You can find it HERE.

The Background

This episode is broken down into a short story as a beginning and then two “acts”. Act One is an episode of Planet Money (an amazing podcast from NPR) which details the story of a charity (GiveDirectly) that just gives money to poor people with no strings attached and allows them to use that money whichever way they please. Personally, I think that’s a great way to do it. There will always be people who use handouts poorly, but that is on them. Planet Money discussed an example of an African village in which some of the families woke up to find an extra 1,000.00 U.S. dollars in their bank accounts. That is about how much they spend in a YEAR. Many families bought metal roofs and cows and other great things that increased their wealth and helped them for years to come. I believe that these families know exactly what they need and that receiving the cash helped them with that. The examples of people who just drank their money away, well, if you bought them a cow, they would probably sell it to buy alcohol. Act Two was about a sheriff in California who wanted to make the process of finding illegal marijuana growers easier by registering the legal farmers. Things did not go too well when the federal government showed up and people began turning against him and claiming that he liked marijuana and was “for it”. I think that the sheriff was right to make the process easier. Growing licensed marijuana in California is legal, so why wouldn’t you build a system in which you don’t have to waste your time checking if a farm is legal or not?

The Techniques

I made notes while I listened and I really tried to separate myself from the story and instead focus on all the subtle and not so subtle sounds and pauses and background noises that were going on. I made a list of radio terminology that applied to this podcast: Bumpers, bumper music, soundbites, stingers, stagers, purposeful silences, foley sounds, and sound overlays. One of the first things I paid attention to is when they played background music and when there was no background music at all. I didn’t exactly find a “set in stone pattern” but it seemed that serious discussions, important or emotional points, and introductions were always without background music. Just the voices of the people speaking. I believe this is done to let the listener know that they must pay attention and make them feel as though they are in a quiet room having a serious discussion. The stager music came in when the radio hosts and interviews were telling a story, or a series of events. I believe in this case, the music helped with the story aspect. The stager music was usually the same and reused at different portions of the podcast. In Act One, when Planet Money discusses the charity and particularly when they are telling the story of traveling to Africa (around 13:14 and 16:15) there were many foley sounds and sound overlays. I am not 100% sure the sounds were foley sounds but I heard motorcycles starting, cars starting, birds, people on the street and so on and so forth. These all really helped create the atmosphere in the listeners imagination and helped the listener imagine the villages that Planet Money visited. As they were telling the story, I imagined the people they were talking to and I imagined the cows and the birds flying around. The sounds of their voices and intonation also made me think about how grateful the villagers must have been to receive the cash. The sound overlays occurred when the translators were translating native speech: The native speech was in the background and the translated speech would play over it. The point of this is to allow the listener to understand that the language is foreign, but at the same time allowed the listener to listen to what they actually understood in english. This technique saves time and gets the point across. At the end of this act, Planet Money had their bumper and bumper music. Act Two also had stagers, bumpers, silences, and music. One thing I heard in this Act is a soundbite (around 46:47). The soundbite is a news story clip of when Mr. Allman (the sheriff) busted a huge illegal marijuana operation and I can honestly say that the soundbite made my heart race for a few seconds. It was a fantastic tool used in order to make the story of the bust much more dramatic and realistic. Overall, I know I probably missed many subtle elements of good radio but I feel that I have learned a few techniques and am now able to point them out.

Maryna Matorina

Published inReflections


  1. Tori Lear Tori Lear

    Your analysis of the techniques used in this podcast is wonderful, and it’s really awesome that you use the official terms for certain things like “bumper music” and “soundbites”. I hadn’t even realized there must be terms for the techniques the podcast was using, but it opens my eyes even more to how deliberate and precise everything is. It’s really helpful to know what exactly the broadcasters are doing, so you can replicate and learn them for yourself. I learned a lot just from your explanation of the techniques! #talkingpolack106

    • admin admin

      Hey Tori!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog! I tried to write down as many official terms as I could while listening to my podcast. I felt like a professional. I did not know any of those terms until I looked at the radio dictionary that Mrs. Polack had linked and then I was overwhelmed with just how much there was. I’m glad you learned a lot and hope that we can all continue learning from each other. #talkingpolack106


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