How to Spill Your Guts

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by Rachel Baron | May 24, 2021

Non-fiction audio is a varied and generative form. From podcasting, to soundscapes, to personal essays, the method is endlessly mutable and only gaining in popularity as we settle into a hybrid world. We spoke with LaToya Tooles who leads our upcoming Audio Storytelling workshop. Tooles is a multiplatform journalist and educator whose quest to authentically relay personal stories led her into this rich field of media making. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.

Rachel Baron: Can you tell me about your path into audio journalism?

LaToya Tooles: I started on my journey in 2003 when the internet was a thing, but it wasn’t the thing it is today. The only way I saw myself having a career in journalism was print. I was fine with that for my first degree in journalism, which is a Bachelors in News Media. But I quickly realized there’s actually power in having someone tell their own story. When we read a story, we apply a lot of assumptions not only about what that person sounds like, but what their answer is and what their tone of voice is, and also what they’re emotionally putting into the words they’re saying. We’re implying all of that and a lot of times even if we’re reading multiple characters or multiple people, they all sound like ourselves, or we’re processing them like ourselves or like another being that’s not ourselves, because we know they’re not like us. That’s not cool with me and what I love about voice and audio is that when a person gets to tell a story with their own voice, their own tone and intonation, their own emotional emphasis – then we are forced to hear not just the facts of the story, but the impact of the story on the teller.

RB: What do you think are the advantages of telling a story through sound?

LT: I particularly like sound rich or sound design stories that have environmental sounds as well. I’m an auditory learner. When I watch TV, I’m very rarely looking at the television, which drives my friends crazy. My primary way of inputting information is through sound and through my ears. I enjoy a really well done soundscape, whether that’s with scoring or with sound effects or just a really creative use of a person’s voice. That’s my favorite way to take in information so it feels only natural to tell stories that way.

RB: What are some specific examples of audio storytelling that you find compelling?

LT: I really like Pop-Up magazine. Because of the pandemic they’ve been really creative about the reshaping of their storytelling, which is usually a live magazine. I really appreciate their audio. There’s also a particular story from Reveal, the investigative podcast I really like. They tell the story about a Black organ donor who dies and his family is processing what to do with his organs.There’s a beautiful scene with a church choir practicing while he is wheeled away.

RB: What are the challenges of telling a story through sound?

LT: There are very few challenges with capturing audio in 2021 because your phone can capture pretty quality sound. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than serviceable. That’s something really exciting about audio storytelling. We’re seeing YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok sort of decentralize the power of storytelling and make storytelling more accessible. I think that things like SoundCloud and your smartphone do the same for podcasting. There’s an overabundance of white men thinking they can have podcasts so I’m like let's help other folks get podcasts. I think that’s a barrier actually. A lot of people don’t believe their story or their voice is worth the effort. The number one barrier to telling good audio stories is thinking: does the audio exist, particularly when thinking about stories that happened in the past. There are ways to get around that: archival footage or archival audio collection or interviews or recreating the environment as long as you’re honest about the reenactment. There’s a lot of ways in which you can tell stories from the past.

RB: What has your experience as an educator been like?

LT: I’ve taught high school students and college students and adults that are out of school and the things I value in those relationships are all the same; I value curiosity and a desire to do more than they’ve ever done before. I love folks who are like: I’ve never done anything with audio but I want to do it. I see myself as a support person in the lives and professional careers or the creative outlets of anyone in my class. I don’t believe in assigning stories or things for the sake of learning. I believe in learning for the sake of the story or the project. I believe in the power of telling our own stories. Thinking about POC, queer folks, disabled folks. A lot of times, the best thing storytelling can do is develop empathy and consideration for other people’s existence in the masses. To do that we have to reveal parts of our story that maybe aren’t the most fun.

I used to teach commentary writing which are personal essays and I used to tell my students then that writing a personal essay is like cutting yourself open and revealing your internal organs to the world. Don’t do that unless you can find power in that experience. As a journalist, when I’m telling other people’s stories and my own I have the same mindset. If I’m asking the source to reveal the insides of their body to my audience, am I injecting power into that experience for the sources and characters?

Register for a spot in Audio Storytelling workshop with LaToya Tooles starting June 7th! And see our entire Summer Workshops 2021 lineup.