Pass the Podcast: Sights and Sounds from the Sonic Soirée

sonic soireePhotographer/videographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson (center) gives feedback on a piece created for “The World” by Sarah Birnbaum. Left: Shannon Heaton of the podcast “Irish Music Stories." Right: freelance producer and event host Amy Bracken. Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

They’re popping up in cities all over the country: San Francisco, Chicago, Portland. In New York, where they call themselves NYC Radio Club, more than one attendee has reported that their group harbors some jealousy for the Boston name.

Around here, the group of public radio producers who meet up each month to share a potluck meal and listen to each other’s work is known as the Sonic Soirée.

Editing audio can be a mostly solitary, invisible business, but if you listen to WGBH or WBUR, subscribe to podcasts or have even taken an audio museum tour, you’ve experienced the results of an audio producer’s efforts. “All Things Considered.” “Radiolab.” “Theory of Everything.” “S-Town.”

In the film world, an audio producer’s job might be most analogous to performing every single role at once: screenwriter, casting director, researcher, cinematographer, voice-over actor, occasional animal wrangler and some wild, all-purpose combination of engineer/soundboard/lights/key grip.

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Producer Wade Roush of the podcast “Soonish” offers feedback at the May Soiree.

But like many art forms, the most expertly finessed audio production jobs don’t announce their presence. You don’t notice how well something was edited, because when it’s well-edited you’re not thinking about its technicalities—how the music bed fades in and out, if an interviewee’s breathing sounds natural or how their consonants hit the microphone. Is the host conversational, or does it sound like they’re reading stiltedly from a script? Did additional sounds in the piece—ocean lapping the beach, ice cubes falling into a glass tumbler—give you a natural sense of place? (“If you can only share three seconds of sound to help a listener understand what it was like to be there in the room, then I’ll agonize over which three seconds it’s going to be,” producer and regular Sonic Soirée attendee Heidi Shin writes to me in an email.) Hopefully, you’re caught up in the story instead.

The majority of Boston’s audio producers live in Somerville or Cambridge and tend to meet around those areas, according Sonic Soirée’s organizer, Daniel Gross. Every month, he emails a poll with meeting date options for its 350 or so members (many are onlookers: approximately 50 regularly attend events), and one person volunteers to host, mostly alternating apartments between Somerville, Cambridge and Jamaica Plain. The group has also hosted events at the PRX Podcast Garage in Allston, the Association for Independents in Radio (AIR) headquarters in Dorchester and various locations downtown.

This May, the meetup was in Cambridge; freelance producer Amy Bracken offered to host at her apartment near Central Square. People began buzzing her doorbell around 6:30 in the evening, holding bottles of wine, bags of popcorn and covered dishes. Some of them had an MP3 stashed on a phone or laptop they planned to play later, but for the first half hour it was a cozy flurry of introductions, drink-pouring and munching in the kitchen.

That’s where I meet Olivia Deng, a recent graduate from Boston University who had never been to a Sonic Soirée meet-up before. She’d become interested in audio production shortly after she began a video project inspired by the recent election. “We take two people who have very different opinions, and we get them to speak to each other and really listen,” Deng explains. “It’s not a debate: the goal is that by the end they can understand the other person’s position and experience.” She’s considering launching a purely audio version of her project as a podcast.

I also speak with Ashira Morris, one of the producers behind the podcast “Adulting,” a tongue-in-cheek storytelling and interview show about millennials struggling to “figure out this growing-up thing,” and Kip Clark, the producer behind “Stride and Saunter.” And multiple people eagerly pointed me to Wade Roush, the host and producer behind the “Soonish,” a podcast that takes a more philosophical angle toward analyzing developing technologies, discussing how they’re forcing us to make decisions and shaping our world. (“Oh, you should talk to Wade, his podcast is amazing!” “Have you spoken to Wade yet?” “‘Soonish’ is one of my favorite podcasts.”) Roush, a tall, gentle personality in a button-up shirt and rectangular glasses, speaks about his work—briefly, and with a quiet enthusiasm—then introduces me to others.

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Daniel Gross, producer for “The World” and freelance writer, offers suggestions after listening to another podcaster’s ambient music piece.

Around 7 p.m., Daniel and Amy usher the 14 of us into her living room, where people pile onto her couch and chairs and sit cross-legged on her floor, creating a circle around her coffee table where a tiny portable speaker is plugged into a laptop. We take turns formally introducing ourselves. Almost a quarter of attendees work in other mediums—writers, photographers and videographers, who, like Galen Beebe, describe themselves as being in the “pre-trying-to-break-into-the-scene stage.”

First on deck is a to-be-aired news story adventurously reported and produced by Sarah Birnbaum, a new voice at “The World.” I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves biological heists, long hikes in the woods and 3-D printing of something you’d never expect. The group listens quietly during the setup of her eight-minute story, then the laughter begins, followed by the occasional clapping or sudden gasp.

“No! You did not!”

“I did.”

Next, Tammy Padina, a musician, plays an ambient track she recently completed, hoping for feedback on how she could market her work toward radio producers as music bed material. Suggestions for different shows to pitch to are thrown into the conversation, everyone eager about what they had just heard. “We can’t all just keep using the same Podington Bear tracks,” someone jokes. Gross, also a producer at “The World,” plays a piece he created about a song written after the Bikini Atoll bomb tests, wondering aloud if his transitions from archival material to new reporting were jarring.

“Anything else? Anyone else want to play anything they’re working on, or something that inspires them?”

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Videographer/multimedia artist Oliva Deng offers some suggestions to musician Tammy Padina.

“I have a question about … the paradigm of my show,” Shannon Heaton, producer of the podcast “Irish Music Stories,” pipes up. Discussion on establishing consistency and brand without falling into “being overly formulaic” follows.

Throughout the evening, I ask different producers about their favorite aspect of doing this kind of work in Boston. The unanimous answer? The community.

“I cherish the ability to know most of the players in Boston,” Gross tells me. “It’s a joy to feel that the creative audio people are all family and we’re all learning from each other. I’m constantly learning from the people who come to the Soirée.”

The importance of getting input from others was emphasized by all, across different projects and production levels.

“I’ve seen these paintings a million times, so to have someone say, ‘I’m totally with you, I can see what you’re describing … until I can’t,’ it’s really valuable,”affirms Somerville resident Tamar Avishai, who produces an art history podcast called The Lonely Palette. “That’s the feedback that I value the most—when people point out that there’s a disconnect, however minor, between my own mind’s eye and theirs.”

At around 9, the Soirée wraps up, everyone gathering their dishes to leave the cocoon of polished sound for the din of Central Square. Once outside, people who’d just met each other linger under the street lamps, exchanging contact information before hugging one another goodbye.

This feature appears in the July/August print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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