The World According to Sound

This one-hour live show puts the listener in the dark

Have you ever heard the hum of a giraffe? Did you even know they make sounds? Until recently, scientists didn’t either. It was assumed that their 13-foot long necks were too long to produce sufficient air flow to vibrate their vocal chords and produce noise.

However, researchers wondered if maybe the sounds they produced were simply too low for humans to hear. So they recorded them. And what they heard can be found on episode 39 of the World According to Sound, a podcast featuring the beauty of sound.

Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett both believe that sound has long been overshadowed by its glitzy cousin, sight. They wanted to change that with their podcast, featuring long interludes of uninterrupted sound, and two live shows that they tour around the country.

Both public radio veterans, Hoff, a sound engineer, and Harnett, a reporter, had become well-versed in the formula for on-air content. “I felt like I was telling the same stories over and over again,” says Harnett. He felt the format was too one-dimensional. “Start with three or four seconds of sound to set the scene,” he says. “Then this person talks, then the reporter talks.”

They wanted to make something that was palatable to radio listeners, yet not so radical that it will turn people away. “But it’s something that is actually radical, in that it’s about listening to sound with no explanation to it,” says Hoff.

They came up wit h a 90-second show in which they play 30 to 40 seconds of non-narrated sound. “Which seems really short,” says Harnett. “But in public radio, usually you only get a couple seconds.”

“We wanted sound where people could listen and have a whole bunch of associated thoughts with no direction,” says Hoff. Which is exactly what they did.

NPR aired their first episode, featuring the sound of mud pots, which are pools of bubbling mud sitting atop geothermal springs, and they have made nearly 100 episodes since.

Their live shows are an opportunity to sit back, turn out the lights, and be immersed in sound. For their first show, they set up a ring of eight speakers and moved sounds from their podcast around the room. “The sounds are mixed, so that each speaker can be individually controlled, allowing us to move sound to different parts of the room,” they write on their website. “So a tennis ball can fly over your head from one side of the room to the other. Ants can scurry in and out of different speakers. And the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge can twang and thrum on all sides.”

After performing their first show, they were approached by two people who are blind. “They told us how wonderful it was to come to a show where the medium was completely accessible to them,” says Harnett. “They said, ‘We felt the show was made for us.’”

They also had a lot of suggestions on how to make it better. “And they were totally right,” says Harnett.

Their suggestions not only made the show better, it also gave Harnett and Hoff the idea to reach out to blind organizations, and they eventually ended up partnering with the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind.

Their new show is based on sounds collected while at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where they spent three months gathering footage. “There’s a professor who wrote a whole book about listening to the universe,” says Harnett. Another professor records the sound of earthworms moving through soil.

“[The show] is about Cornell, but it’s more transcendent than that,” says Hoff.

It’s less about the specific subjects of the sound, but the experience of being submerged in a sense that most people take for granted. “To be honest, the content doesn’t really matter at all,” says Harnett. “What matters is the format. People ask, ‘What sound will work?’ Any sound we can just get you to listen to for 30 seconds. And that’s the whole goal of the show. To get that moment of deep listening.”

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