A school bell. A siren. Traffic. An airplane. Crickets. An opening door . . . These sounds are known as “signature sounds.” You know what they are as soon as you hear them.
To be honest, I don’t know what the opposite of a “signature sound” is except that it’s a sound that doesn’t stand on its own; it requires some explanation. A lobster trap hauler. Wind in the sails of a sail boat. A splashing dolphin. A wheat thresher. Assembling a toddler’s playpen.
Signature sounds and, I guess, non-signature sounds are included in a radio story to put a listener on location sonically and foster a visual in a listener’s mind. As NPR reporter John Burnett says, sounds are “what you do to bring radio alive.”
But then there are images radio producers can’t produce with sound. The look on a face. Clothing. A landscape. Architecture. A painting . . . Those images require narration to be visual, what some producers call “color notes.” And, since a radio producer can’t capture how these things look with a microphone, they typically require a reporter take notes on paper or into a recorder.
John has reported for NPR since the 1980s. His beat is the southwest and immigration. He’s known as a reporter who likes to include color notes in his writing. In fact, it’s part of what makes his stories stand out from others on the network.
Recently, John reported an immigration story set in a federal court house — no mics allowed. All the quotes and descriptions in his story — the color notes — were captured by pen and paper. John relates the backstory on reporting Inside The Trial Of 3 Guatemalan Mothers Separated From Their Children on this episode of HowSound.