Be Quiet: In Praise of the Pause
Given that sound is our medium, it’s not surprising that when we talk about the craft of radio, we talk about, well, sound: how to structure it and layer it, when and how to use different types of the stuff. We rarely talk about one of our most potent options as audio producers: the withholding of sound. Silence. Or, if not total silence, a noticeable pause in speech and other sound “events,” leaving just the already-established ambience of the scene for a few seconds or more.
A lot of us avoid quiet in our day-to-day lives. No one to talk to at the moment? Time to click on the radio or whip out those earbuds! And we may bring that fear of silence (as though of the grave) to our radio making. I’m guilty, too. When listening back to my own work, what makes me wince as often as anything is the lack of space.
So, note to self as well as to the rest of you: Go quiet more often. The inclusion of the occasional pause—just a couple of seconds here and there—can make a big difference in the power and the emotional oomph of our work.
It seems to me that the various uses of silence (and near silence) in radio storytelling fall into two main categories: the dramatic pause, and the transition.
The Pause that Expresses
A student in one of my classes at Duke was making a piece about a city guy who got a bunch of chickens and let them roam free, thereby breaking the law and irritating some of his neighbors. It turned out that the chicken man, Weston Monroe, was a slow talker. A very … um … slow talker. So the producer, Joseph Decosimo, did lots of trimming to keep Weston moving along. Here’s what Weston looks like in Joseph’s Pro Tools session—notice there’s an edit every couple of seconds on average:
Joseph does preserve the laconic, sometimes halting feel of Weston’s speech. He lets him breathe. He just shortens Weston’s longer pauses, and cuts out some false starts and repetitions, to maintain momentum and save the listener from getting antsy. It’s standard radio editing, all to the good.
Then, at a key moment, Joseph does a very smart thing: nothing. He allows Weston a pause, an “um,” and a longer pause. Notice the 3:36 – 3:40 section here:
Why did Joseph suddenly choose to keep his paws off Weston’s pause? He’s coming up on a turning point in his story. Up to now, Weston and others have been setting the scene, laying out the chicken-related facts. Now we’re getting to the conflict. The pause signals that the plot is about to thicken. At the same time, Weston’s hesitation adds a nice little comic touch. Here’s what it sounds like, including the transition that follows:
Great instincts by Mr. Decosimo. The moment would have been far more boring, and less attention-grabbing, had Joseph edited out the um and shortened the pause, as I’ve done here:
The Veritè Pause
Sometimes it’s good to leave a pause within an actuality not to highlight a turning point in the story or anything as narratively weighty as that, but just because it’s there—because the pause is real and therefore sounds real. This next example is from a documentary about child poverty I produced for American RadioWorks in 1999. In this scene, Janet Wallen, the mother of a poor family in eastern Kentucky, lectures her 12-year-old son, Jim. Jim has just made the mistake of mentioning that he expects to be married by the time he’s 18, or 21 at the oldest. (Janet herself, as she’s mentioned earlier in the piece, married at 13. Yes, 13. Seems she wants Jim to make a different choice.)
Janet’s 4-second pause before “and you know it” does not really create the drama. Her words and her impassioned delivery are plenty vivid before that and the cut would be almost as strong if it ended with, “then you ain’t gonna have nothin’.” To me, the pause and the last phrase are a bonus. I can’t imagine scripting such a pause. For that very reason, it amplifies the sense of listening in on real life.
Pause as Emphasis
Another pause I like to employ is more subtle, and it comes not inside an actuality, as in the above examples, but between one cut and another, or between a cut and a narration track.
Of course, it’s customary in public broadcasting, as distinct from the bang-bang pace of most commercial radio and TV, to leave a short beat between an actuality and whatever comes next. Here’s a conventional transition, from a piece I produced with Tennessee Watson a few years ago—the narrated version of “Nuevo South” (which we also produced as an un-narrated half-hour doc). The piece tells the story of a small North Carolina town, Siler City, and its response to a dramatic wave of Latino immigration. A couple of minutes in, a man makes a general statement in a tease cut, and I then introduce him. The pacing of the transition from the speaker to me is pretty typical for a public radio news feature.
From the end of Cuadros’s last word to the beginning of my first, there’s about .4 seconds of silence.
Just a minute later, though, another character is introduced. Eddie Ambrose Greene, a former truck driver and lifetime resident of the town, is sitting in a car outside a chicken processing plant, watching Latino workers go in and out through the gates. He makes a hair-raising analogy.
The gap between Eddie and the narrator: 1.5 seconds. One measly extra second, but that’s almost quadruple the standard tape-to-narrator transition, above. It’s a one-second pause that allows the listener to digest what’s just been said, but I also think of this kind of pause as a sort of silent raised eyebrow, a glance in the direction of the listener that says, “You got that, right?” Some producers draw attention to quirky or inflammatory comments by fading in a few seconds of music just afterwards—an approach perfected and popularized, of course, by This American Life. A couple of extra beats of silence can serve as a more subtle strategy, one you can use even in a news-ish piece where music wouldn’t be appropriate.
Fade to Black
Silence—genuine silence in the form of a fade-to-black as opposed to a pause within a quote—can fill another role often played by music: the transition from one scene to another, from one chapter of your story to the next. This technique seems to show up most often, and most effectively, in pieces with no conventional narrator, though there’s no reason it couldn’t be used just as well in a narrated piece.
In My So-Called Lungs, one of Joe Richman’s legendary Radio Diaries pieces, Laura Rothenberg is sitting on her hospital bed describing her life with cystic fibrosis. This excerpt has nice internal pauses and silences, including a lovely moment when Laura points out the quiet for the listener. But what I’m highlighting here is the end of the scene, marked by the click of her recorder being turned off, followed by the transition to the next scene.
Elegant, yes? It may seem odd to say it (see: “sound is our medium,” above), but these moments of no-sound, when a piece “touches black,” are among my favorite radio passages these days. People often talk about the intimacy of great radio like this, an intimacy that stops you in your tracks and causes you to lean in, literally or figuratively, to catch each word, each breath, each sound. That intimacy is heightened tremendously by silences, whether or not our minds make conscious note of them.
My last example combines a couple of the strategies I’ve outlined here: a) the pause that highlights what’s just been said and b) the transition from one scene to another. It’s also without doubt the longest mid-piece fade-to-black that I, at least, have ever employed.
This needs a bit of setup. The excerpt is from the fifth hour of the five-hour series, Five Farms, which I produced with executive producer Wesley Horner and a team of field producers. The theme of the fifth hour was Succession, the future prospects for each of the family farms we followed in the series. This section is on Eddie Wise, a 60-something hog producer in North Carolina and one of the nation’s few remaining African American farmers.
During the series we’ve heard how Eddie, the son of sharecroppers, struggled for years against a bigoted loan officer just to buy his farm. We’ve listened as he fed his hogs, bred them (“It’s showtime!”), and hauled them to slaughter. We’ve heard him banter with his wife Dorothy as the two talked about their marriage and their love of farm life. Now, as part of the last episode on the Wises, we’ve followed Eddie and Dorothy to a black farmers’ “land loss” conference in Raleigh.
The last piece of tape in the conference scene is of Carl Bond, a government loan officer, talking about the steep challenge of inspiring young African Americans to take on the rigors and uncertainties of running a farm. Bond’s last words, at this late point in the multi-hour series, seemed momentous to me. What you’ll hear is Bond’s quote followed by a transition back to the Wise farm and Eddie Wise’s last scene in the series. (I’ve included the last brief scene here, including a host back-announce, in case you’d like to hear how it ends.)
The transition from Carl Bond’s last word, “gone,” to the first stroke of Eddie Wise’s rake takes a full seven seconds. (It’s 11 seconds until Eddie’s first word.) Only about one second of that stretch is actual silence, but this is an unusually roomy transition in which no real sonic event takes place—just the fading of a steady, droning, ambient sound into silence. A more typical, news-featurish fadeout of the conference hubbub would take a couple of seconds or less. By drawing it out I hoped to highlight the magnitude of Bond’s words and, perhaps, to spark a visual image for the listener: America’s black farmers, fading away, soon to be gone.
Last thoughts before shutting up
I’m no minimalist. That much-used public radio adjective, “sound rich,” applies to many of my pieces and those that I love. I’m all for scenes layered with action and voices, music (sometimes), and energetic pacing.
Nor am I arguing for a hands-off approach to audio production. Any crafted radio piece is, after all, a highly edited representation of a small slice of reality. At minimum, the producer decides where to point the microphone and which bits to keep and leave aside. As you probably noticed, some of the pauses and silences I’ve highlighted here are manufactured; they don’t all come from leaving things alone. To paraphrase the British feature-maker Alan Hall: No sound—or silence—is innocent.
I’m merely pointing out that while our medium is sound, it is also time. The question we face as producers is not only what comes next, but also when?
The world is sometimes quiet. In real life, people pause. Those things should happen from time to time on the radio, too.
- Joseph Decosimo’s piece may be heard in its entirety near the end of this one-hour show:
- http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/14_million/index.html ↑
- http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95619192 ↑
- http://cds.aas.duke.edu/audio/index.html#nuevo ↑
- http://www.radiodiaries.org/laura.html ↑
- http://cds.aas.duke.edu/fivefarms/ ↑
About John Biewen
John Biewen, audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has been making radio since 1983. He reported for Minnesota Public Radio, did a stint covering the Rocky Mountain West for NPR, and produced many long-form documentaries for American RadioWorks. He still produces for national and international audiences in addition to teaching radio-making at CDS. With co-editor Alexa Dilworth, he edited the book of essays, Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, published in 2010.