Cristina Marras
« Back

Experimental Techniques in Podcast Creation

Experimental, who, me?

I didn’t realise I was an experimental audio creator until I was asked to present a workshop about experimental audio. My ever-present impostor syndrome wanted me to ask, “Are you sure that you want me to present the workshop?”- “Sure, you are our most experimental author!” came the reply.

Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

When I set to retro-engineer the experimental aspect of my audio creations, I realised that it comprised in large part of those layers of languages and cultures that naturally intruded into my work. Intrigued, I started analysing those elements to understand how they worked, and this is what I will share in this article: the utilisation of experimental techniques in podcast creation, particularly focusing on the manipulation through language and narrative structure.

Living multilayered lives is not something unique to multilingual people like me, we all inhabit multiple realities, navigating the world of digital communication tools while deeply involved in the analogical circumstances that represent our existence, each shaping our identities and influencing how we interact with the world, with different storylines developing depending on the situation: at home, in shops, at school, in religious settings, in the family, on social media.

For me, multiple languages and cultural contexts are woven into the fabric of my daily life, and seemingly mundane daily interactions, filtered through a multilingual lens become fertile ground for innovative storytelling techniques.

One key approach that I employ to manipulate language and narrative structure is the idea of taking listeners off guard, this means incorporating unexpected elements, such as shifts in language, tone, or storytelling format, to challenge listeners' expectations and create a sense of surprise.

To translate or not to translate?

Switching between English and Italian mid-sentence and incorporating untranslated phrases help me disrupt established patterns. As a result, I consciously break the suspension of disbelief, forcing listeners to acknowledge that they are listening to an artificial construct, that the events narrated take place in a different world, guiding them to see both the work and the work’s creator. This code-switching affects listeners also by evoking empathy, revealing the protagonist's cultural and linguistic dislocation. One aim that these techniques have in common is to short-circuit and shock audiences into attention.

In Every Library in My Life (welcome to my circus) my narration is punctuated by Italian phrases, each followed by the English translation. Once this pattern has been established, listeners expect a translation after each Italian sentence, so they are taken off guard when Evil Librarian tells off the young protagonist of the story but no translation follows. Leaving Evil Librarian's words untranslated serves a specific narrative purpose: the shame felt by the protagonist is so deep and the scolding is so painful that is left untranslated (people can easily figure out the meaning by the tone of voice), the words of Evil Librarian are ob-scene, in the original meaning of the word, something so atrocious that can not be shown on stage and is, therefore, placed outside the scene, off-scene.

Using untranslated foreign languages with an audience has a long history in radio dramas. One of my favourite examples is the 1957 masterpiece by Japanese writer Naoya Uchimura, the radiodrama Marathon. The entire radiodrama consists of the inner monologue of a runner who, while competing in a marathon, exhorts himself to think about his childhood, having an imaginary conversation with his coach and acknowledging the crowd that cheers him as he runs by. The 50-minute play, entirely in Japanese, was put on air by the German broadcaster Bayerisher Rundfunk in 1962 for its German-speaking audience, with only a few German sentences of introduction. Remarkably, the elaborated realistic sound design and convincing acting suffice to make the meaning clear. Existing photos show the voice actor recording his part while running on a treadmill.

A more recent example, of which I had the privilege to be part, is Ross Sutherland’s 30-minute homage to the Giallo film genre The True Crime of Your Frozen Death. Ross, a truly experimental author, and creator of the podcast Imaginary Advice, wrote in English the script, set in the true crime podcasting scene. In collaboration with Ross, I translated and adapted the script into Italian, selecting, when possible, Italian words that were evocative of their English correspondence, and then acting the script in a bombastic and overly dramatic way, so that the tone of my voice and the convincing music and sound design allowed listeners to understand the meaning beyond language and translation(1).

Being a multilingual podcaster presents a unique set of challenges unknown to a monolingual listener because, as a person who creates in a second language, I am constantly asked to choose the language in which I will create, and each time, I am forced to decide whether to betray my mother tongue in the hope of being more accessible, essentially double-crossing my roots by promoting the use of dominant English while depriving the Italian audio landscape of new content that aligns with my sensibility(2).

This is the topic of I am a Podcaster, in which I mourn the loss of my Sardinian native tongue, having been raised in Italian, and my inability to connect with my grandmother due to language barriers. The short circuit arrives when, towards the end of the piece, after I gained listeners’ empathy for my loss, I turn the cards on the table pointing out that I am using English (and not my first language, Italian) to express my grief. Listeners must acknowledge to be part of that dominant English-speaking community that contributes to my cultural disconnect.

The issue of English-language hegemony is also at the heart of Parlando con Google Home, an audio experiment produced for Radioforme, the show that I hosted on Radio Antidoto, a webradio that - during the Covid-19 quarantine - collected the voices and stories of people in isolation throughout Europe. Out of boredom, I started interrogating the device with the same question, first in Italian and then in English. The result provides an ironic reflection on Google’s language policy: while my Italian questions often achieved a yes/no answer, the same question asked in English produced a longer answer that, besides the factual content, dwelled into the philosophical.

Ready to experiment?

For me, experimental audio isn't about flashy gimmicks. It's about pushing boundaries and crafting truly immersive listening experiences. In this final section, I'll share some of the techniques I use. Remember, what works for me might not work for your story. The key is to stay true to yourself while embracing innovation.

Challenge the status quo with non-linear narratives. Imagine flashbacks, create mystery, and do not spell out everything at once. Or, try an interwoven timeline, where you follow multiple storylines that eventually converge, keeping listeners engaged, guessing what will come next and how the storylines might eventually meet.

Consider introducing an unreliable narrator, presenting information through a skewed lens, creating chaos, mystery, and tension. Leave listeners questioning everything they hear.

Insert unexpected storylines. Set up your audience for a heartwarming tale but throw in a betrayal, and send shivers down their spines. Play with online random plot generators, or try dice-based storytelling. Even unconventional vocabulary choices can create a sense of surprise, keeping listeners actively engaged and eager to decipher your meaning.

This glimpse into my creative process hopefully inspires you to explore your experimental techniques.

Embrace the unexpected, push boundaries, and most importantly, have fun with the process!


(1) - Radio Atlas has published a subtitled version, but I strongly recommend listening first to the version in Italian without subtitles.

(2) - For a detailed discussion on this topic, please refer to my article published in Sound Sourceress.

back to top