Mine The Gap: A Practical Manual for Sonic IDs and Interstitial Broadcast Time

Intro from Jay Allison: Our friends at Cowbird asked if we’d like to do a collaborative story-telling project using the “Sonic IDs” as a frame. Yes. It has started now and you can visit Cowbird to find out the details:


If you’re unfamiliar with Sonics, they’re brief interstitial vignettes that began appearing on our radio station (WCAI, for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, & Nantucket) the day we signed on. Since then, we’ve made over a thousand, and they air unexpectedly during every broadcast day. It's a way to have a local signature amid all the national fare. Over at Cowbird, we’re going to use the audio and short time frame as the construct; you simply match the sonic vignettes with photos, or vice versa. Easy. We have yet more tips here on Transom for making these. If you’ve already done some short form audio stuff like this, drop over and post it at Cowbird. It’s fun. We'll likely end up featuring some of them here.

Interstitial Time

At our radio stations (WCAI/WNAN/WZAI for the Cape and Islands in Massachusetts), we have been experimenting with interstitial time since the day we signed on. By interstitial time, I mean the cutaways, the hourly breaks, all the little moments between programming blocks — the cracks in the sidewalk.

We use that time to create our station signature, to declare our sensibility and appreciate our neighbors in 30, 60 and 90 second bursts. I’ll list some production tips for making these below, but first, this is what they are.

Sonic IDs

Our first experiment is something we dubbed, “Sonic IDs,” an odd name that stuck. These are little community vignettes — portraits, anecdotes, oral histories, overheard conversation, short poems, jokes, slices of life — that end with our call letters. They are sudden narratives or images — like photographs for radio. Some are pure sound preceded by our favorite word: “Listen.” Others are simply the unheralded voices of our neighbors telling something about life. Our test of these surprising, non-standard moments, the way we know they work, is if the listener turns and looks at the radio when they come on.

Listen to “Retired Dairy Farmer”
Listen to “Couldn’t Buy Hard Tack”

The Listener Story Line

Gathering tape in the field can be time-consuming and expensive, even when we loan tape recorders to listeners as we do, so we have also instituted a kind of “Story Line” with voice mail. This idea grew from the national projects we’ve worked on (Lost & Found Sound, Sonic Memorial, Hidden Kitchens, This I Believe). We issue invitations to listeners to tell us a story about, well… anything: like, storms or fathers or fish. People leave us messages and we edit and air their stories. Other people hear them and send in stories of their own. The wall between listener and station becomes more porous, the relationship collaborative.

Our notion, even before it was fashionable: Listeners are content.

Listen to “Listener Line Call – Store of Three Wonders”

Short Lists

One of our favorite variations on listener participation is called “Short Lists.” We ask people to call with a list and then tell us what it was. It’s a story with the title at the end. These are endlessly interesting. We have a feature of this on Transom.org, so you can check there to listen, or submit your own!

Listen to “Sarah Peter’s Shortlist”
Listen to “Melissa Harold’s Shortlist”

Tips for Making Interstitial Pieces

Eric Jones interviews the bridge tender in Woods Hole, MA.
Eric Jones interviews the bridge tender in Woods Hole, MA.

Resist Titling: There is a titling instinct in broadcasting, a need to order and frame, to tell the listener what to expect. Don’t do it. Let these voices appear without some catchy header like “Voices of Iowa.” Since you work in public broadcasting, you probably even want to include a colon and a sub-title. Resist! Just let it play.

Keep Copy to a Minimum: For our IDs, we say the speaker’s name and where the person is from (we like to know they’re neighbors). That’s it. If we absolutely have to, we’ll add a phrase about the work or some other context that’s key to understanding the story or the ambience. But be stingy with explanations! It challenges the listener a little more, but challenge is good. And, feeling lost for a moment can focus the attention.

Placement of Copy: It’s nice when the piece can open with the voice of the principal speaker rather than that of your announcer. It’s more arresting. See if there’s a good spot to insert the name/place of the speaker after they start. Some pieces work best not having the speaker identified until the very end. Embrace mystery, drama, and surprise.

Fit Your Voice to the Spot: Don’t be generic. Get the right tone. Read copy for each piece as if you’re listening to it along with the listener. Be real, be honest. Don’t do a fake smile or comment with your voice or try to “sell” the spot. Just be in it. Connect.

Listen to “Fitting your voice to the spot”

Your Calls Are Your Signature: We like to end our pieces simply with our station call letters. It’s the signature on the signature. It gives you a rhythmic way to end.

Listen to “Station call letters read to fit to various spots”

Find a Good Ending: A good ending forgives a soft middle and even a slow beginning. When auditioning your raw tape, listen for endings first.

Listen to “A Sonic ID with a strong ending”

Consider a P.S.: Sometimes a last little comment after the ID can be the perfect touch, a post-script, a second punch line.

Listen to “A Sonic ID with a P.S.”

Who Are You: This project will challenge you to declare your identity as a radio station. What defines you? What connects you to your listeners? Is it place? Is it sensibility? Our Sonic IDs trade on the former. In the world of terrestrial radio, that’s what we have in common — our place.

Listen to “A Sonic ID with a solid sense of place”

Postcard Reality vs. Real Reality: When you start a project that’s grounded in localness, you may find that you go to the postcard version of your place first. That’s okay. Go to Fenway Park or Niagara Falls or Schwab’s Drugstore first and get it out of your system. Actually, your listeners may find the postcard comforting, but they’ll tire of it quickly. Soon, move your pieces to less conventional subjects, or add some surprise to the conventional images. Go to the crannies, the underbelly, the soul of your place.

Listen to “Postcard Sonic ID”
Listen to “Reality Sonic ID”

Be Creative in Your Invitation: Sometimes the party is only as good as the invitation. When you ask for stories or contributions, produce the request with the same care you will produce the result. It lets people know you really care and that you are approaching the project with creative energy. They will respond in kind. Prepare your bait with the same care you will prepare your fish.

Listen to “Listener Line Invitation – Flags (post 9/11)”

Trust Your Listeners: Trust them to understand what they’re hearing without your having to spell it out. The more you challenge them, the more they’ll enjoy the challenge. Trust them to have interesting stories. Many of them do. Trust them enough to loan them tape recorders.

*A version of this article first appeared on HearingVoices.

Related Links

Atlantic Public Media: The Sonic IDs

The Sonic ID podcast

Sonic IDs in Current

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