Shreya Sharma (SS): How did your journey in audio, now spanning over 10 years, begin?
Gabriel Urbina (GU): It started with graduating from film school. I had been for a long time wanting to work in the world of film and television. I got my degree and moved out to LA. I was all set to be working in film and television, but I got diagnosed with a very bad case of having no money. I wanted to make film and tv but I found myself working for a long period of time to just put together the money to make one five minutes short. As he cycled through bad scripts, this idea popped into my head – a narrative about four people stuck on a space station. I knew that it was audio-only; like a radio story. It was also lesser money to create. If you’re doing it as a podcast, you still need some money. You need to buy microphones and to edit things and to pay people to go into a studio. But, it’s in the order of a couple of hundred dollars per episode instead of a couple of tens of thousands of dollars per minute of a short film. I knew a lot of people who were in similar places, but in their acting career. A nice little synergy happened and we created something together, back in 2014. We never looked back and are still here making radio plays, 10 years later.
SS: What are the kinds of stories that are best captured in audio, versus any other medium?
GU: Audio is best suited for stories that are built around moments of revelation and re-contextualization, or moments that are custom-made for the audience to personalize something. There’s a great anecdote about Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator and filmmaker talking about, how he loves radio specifically for that sense of personalization. Let’s compare audio storytelling to film. Film is a very information porous medium. It gives a lot of information away. You show a shot of someone in their house and you describe them just by the nature of how they dress, what the house is, where they are, how they stand, their body posture, their dialogue, their haircut, or their glasses.
You are giving away little pieces of information about who this person is, how they live, how they act to the audience, even if you’re just kind of seeing a still shot of them standing in their house. Compare that with audio. If we were doing that as an audio piece, you just say – ‘Here is a man in a house’. And if we don’t say anything else, guess what? You don’t have any information about what the man looks like, about how he dresses, about the house. There is this very real sense of the information only gets out when the storyteller very deliberately lets it out, which sets the stage for all sorts of fun things.
SS: How do approach building engaging worlds, especially the narration aspect of it?
GU: With the sound design, I think the most important thing is to kind of sometimes realize the gap between what someone expects something will sound like and what something actually sounds like. The classic example is that when in Wolf 359, we had an episode where they needed to print something out. I use a kind of a very old like 1983 dot matrix printer sound. Because it sounds different from a modern printer. It makes this like chikachikach sound, which has texture. Like a little je ne sais quoi printer.
SS: How do you see the various verticals of audio storytelling evolving, especially for the creators?
GU: I’ve been paying attention specifically to the the world of fiction podcasting and there are a lot of things that were established as conventional wisdom that are now being challenged. A simple but illustrative example is that for a long time everyone has talked about, how there aren’t a lot of romantic comedies in audio fiction. The conventional wisdom answer is, well, kissing sounds gross on the radio. Then you see somebody including kissing in one audio fiction piece and nobody says anything. So where did this idea come from?
On the industry business side of the evolution though, we’re seeing the sort of eternal dance of companies rushing into and out of podcasting. People are coming in and trying one particular model of doing things and if that doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean the medium is broken. It definitely does not mean that the medium is not worth exploring and doing things in. A very particular kind of venture capital model is beginning to break down. And maybe that has more to do with the venture capital model than it has to do with podcasting itself.
SS: What are you listening to right now that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
GU: I would really like to recommend Cry Havoc! Ask Questions Later, David K. Barnes’s new show with Rusty Quill. It is an amazing part historical drama, part screwball comedy, part play podcast set in the time of the Roman Republic right after Julius Caesar’s death.
Thank you, Gabriel Urbina, for the wonderful interview!