I think some of the best stories in sound are about relationships we have with other humans. I suppose most stories in any medium are about this to some degree, but my biased argument for sound is just that; we hear what people sound like—their laughter, their intonations, the nuance in their speech patterns. The rest is up to the listener. I think this stuff is clearer in the ears than it can be on the page. The sound of these expressions can leave us wounded, laughing, crying, stunned, stuck in the car in the driveway—but almost always empathetic to the person behind the voice. Now more than ever, this is what we need.
With that in mind, here is a non-exhaustive list of audio stories I love, which are also excellent examples of nonfiction narratives in sound. After struggling over what to include, I realized that many of these stories are sad, but I think it’s the ones that tug at your heartstrings that can bring you closer to something real. I urge you to extend your attention span for these stories, some longer than others, as they are all worth your time.
“An Interior Life”
Produced by Laurence Grissell, BBC
This story belongs entirely to Bernard. (Or maybe it belongs to all of us.) He’s an 86-year-old man grieving the loss of his partner, musing about aging while he potters around his house.
“Harper High School” (two parts)
Produced by Linda Lutton, This American Life
This investigative mini-series blows my mind, both because of the content and because of its intimacy. It’s a portrait of a place—a school and the homes and families that feed into it. And it’s a portrait of people dedicated to teaching youth confronting something they can’t control—gun violence.
“Parents at an Execution”
Produced by Matt Ozug & Karen Callahan at Sound Portraits Productions
Two sets of parents struggle with opposing sides of an imminent execution.
“What do you look forward to, Aai?”
Produced by Neena Pathak for the Third Coast Audio Festival Short Docs Competition
This one is short, but says more than many stories say in much more time. (Listen for the big laugh.)
“The Fifth Suspect”
Produced by Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer from the podcast, Criminal
This story is all about a misunderstanding that changes everything for Tommy Wall. He was accused of something he didn’t do, something awful that can’t be undone. And this story is the picking apart of all the truths and untruths of that story. It unfolds in its rawness right before your ears.
“Why Do I Stay?”
Produced by Rainy & Courtney Stein of Radio Rookies
This story was reported by a young radio producer, Rainy, about her own abusive relationship and her struggle in and out of it.
Produced by Jay Allison
I love this story because of what can be revealed when you dig from your own clues and intuition and life experience. Intimacy from a stranger, sometimes. And maybe you’ll hear something no one has said, well, out loud before.
“Teen Diary: Josh”
Produced by Joe Richman and Radio Diaries
This is an audio diary of a teenager with Tourette’s Syndrome—another story that could only be told in sound.
SARAH P. REYNOLDS is a radio producer and multimedia storyteller. Her stories have been heard on Australia’s ABC, NPR, PRI’s The World, Studio 360 and public radio stations around the U.S. Her reporting runs the gamut — from hate crimes to smell mapping to migrant workers. Some of her investigative work has culminated in a series of reports for national organizations working to change policy. Sarah teaches radio at Duke’s CDS and has taught at the Transom Story Workshop. (@sarahpreynolds)