Today we have a real treat – an interview with the creators of one of the most intriguing new podcasts I’ve run across in a long, long time. Craig Shank and George Drake, Jr., creators of “Everything Sounds,” have found a way to explore the open-ended world of sound in a creative way. Whether they’re doing a show on the challenge to build a great guitar for less than $100, capturing the low-frequency rumble of the “world’s loneliest whale,” or chronicling the innovative use of pay phones in New York City to share stories from the neighborhoods in which the phones were located to call attention to an art exhibit, these two men are part of a larger movement of podcasters and radio producers who are redefining audio for the current generation.
I had a chance recently to conduct a comprehensive interview with Shank and Drake about how they met, why they started Everything Sounds, and where this show is going. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about each of your respective backgrounds in audio and how you met.
Craig Shank: My background in audio and broadcasting began in college, but my interest started earlier. I’ve always been interested in music and playing drums starting in middle school opened my eyes to how different elements fit together in music. I’ve learned a little more about music and have even written some music for our show since then.
In college, I studied telecommunications and also got minors in music studies and ethnomusicology. On top of that I was heavily involved with Indiana University’s student radio station, which is where I first met George. We ended up taking the same class in our second semester and George usually sat behind me. I wasn’t too sure about him at first, but he definitely grew on me. We worked together at the student radio station as well as another local station. We made a pretty good team.
George Drake Jr.: Craig and I always had an interest in radio. When we were younger, we both frequently chose to listen to the radio instead of television and remember scanning the frequencies on our dial-tuning radios. I always remember skipping around on the dial and seeing how the different elements blended together. I actually did that the other day with M83’s ‘Midnight City’ and a local car dealership ad with great success.
Craig’s recollection of our first getting to know each other is something he’s told me many a time. He’s told me that he thought I was obnoxious (which 18-year-old George probably was), and then one day I didn’t go to class and he noticed I wasn’t there — that was the moment he realized he enjoyed my company.
Part of my interest in what Craig and I do now is finding uncommon elements and combining them to make something entirely new. It’s exciting, fun and — something Craig and I often ask ourselves — why not?
How and why did you decide to begin producing the Everything Sounds podcast?
George Drake Jr.: On May 26th, 2012, Craig sent me an e-mail with the subject line ‘What the hell?’ As he said, he explained — he wanted to work together again, and I agreed. We talked on Skype the next day and I explained to him that I had been introduced to the BBC quote ‘Everything sounds, even silence’ and that I was interested in beginning something under the name ‘Everything Sounds.’ After a bit more discussion, we landed on starting a podcast focusing on our love for the sonic world with that name. Over the course of the next two days we literally snagged the all of the social media pages as well as our domain name. By the 30th, Craig was already drafting logos. When I got back stateside, we just got things started, totally blind and having never done this before.
Craig Shank: I was frustrated with my work and feeling like it wasn’t as challenging or rewarding as it once was. After feeling lost and talking about it with my girlfriend, she asked me, “What would you really want to do if you didn’t have to worry about anything else?” I thought about it and eventually realized that I wasn’t sure of exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I’d love to work with George again. He was in London at the time, so I sat down and wrote an email just telling him that I’d be willing to work on something with him whenever we could. We found some time to talk over Skype and everything fell into place relatively quickly in terms of ideas.
How do you view the scope of your show – is EVERYTHING related to sound really fair game for the show?
Craig Shank: The short answer is: Yes. Everything is fair game. The caveat is that we need time and monetary resources to continue pushing the boundaries of the show. That will come in due time. We’re patient.
I think our scope is going to expand considerably as we move forward. Since we’ve started out with limited resources, we haven’t been able to go as deep as we’d like into some topics or ideas, but I think we’ve given our listeners a good sampling of what’s out there in terms of sound.
George Drake Jr.: That’s the nice part about having a show about sound. If it makes sound, or if it has to do with sound, we can cover it. We could even push the envelope a little and stretch something to fit. We were purposely vague from the beginning. If we had been ‘Everything Art Sounds’ or ‘Everything Nature Sounds,’ we’d be screwed.
I had a feeling, after listening to several episodes, that you took some inspiration in your approach to sound in the way that Roman Mars approaches the built environment in his podcast 99 Percent Invisible. Do you have any audio “heroes” such as Mars who shape how you produce the show?
Craig Shank: Roman is a really great guy and he and Sam (Greenspan) do amazing work with 99% Invisible. I saw that show as an example of what’s possible with creativity and hard work. It’s continually fascinating and a joy to hear. Shows like Radiolab, Snap Judgment, Love & Radio, and the Memory Palace are also frustratingly good, in my opinion. It’s hard to avoid comparing your own output to the things that inspire you, but I think we have incorporated ideas from a variety of sources with a healthy dose of our own personalities to make something that we’re proud to call ours. We’re always looking for ways to improve, but I think we’re finding our voice episode by episode.
George Drake Jr.: I kind of see podcasting as music. We fall into a genre of podcasts and we’re establishing our own beside the others already in the genre. We’ve drawn some inspiration, but we still have our own touches, sound and voice. Craig and I don’t take offense when people say we sound like Radiolab or 99% Invisible — we’re actually quite flattered to be compared to them because to us, there’s no comparison at all. We fully admire the work they’re doing and are constantly working to be on the same level. As far as personal heroes of mine: The ones we’ve mentioned of course, Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions, my audio-nerdy friends, Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong and more recently David Weinberg of Random Tape.
What niche do you think your podcast fills? How did you figure out that niche?
Craig Shank: We really just decided to do the kind of show that we wanted to hear. Everything Sounds is basically just George and I learning new things about the world and sharing them without taking ourselves too seriously. If it doesn’t feel or sound right, then we go back to the drawing board. We’re not entirely sure who our audience is, but I’d like to think it’s people that are thoughtful, curious, and a good sense of humor. You would think that the show has a huge following with audio fanatics, and they’re definitely out there, but it seems like most listeners who have reached out to us are people who just like hearing unique stories and thinking more critically about the world we live in.
George Drake Jr.: There are audiophiles out there — we know there are, and even if people don’t put audio on a pedestal, they still may like our show. We do have a bit of a niche market, but as far as how we’ve gone about things, there’s no science behind figuring it out. I’m not even sure Craig or myself are trying to figure it out. We’re just making a podcast out of our bedrooms which we would listen to. We find good stories with better people behind them — that’s our science — just finding people with stories.
How would you now describe your audience in terms of demographics? How does this differ from who you thought your listeners would be when you got started? Has this shaped any changes in the show?
Craig Shank: We’re still not entirely sure who all of our listeners are! It seems to be a pretty eclectic bunch from all over the world. Most of our audience has been from the U.S., which makes sense, but I don’t think we anticipated having people that listen all over the world. We’re just happy that people think the show is interesting enough to take the time to listen. I’m not sure we ever really aimed for a particular kind of audience and we’re happy to welcome anyone who wants to give us a chance! I don’t think our audience has changed the show other than I’d like to do more stories in other countries when we get the resources to give some nods to our listeners in other countries.
George Drake Jr.: Throughout high school and into college (before radio swept me off of my feet) I spent my time in theatre. I loved performing for an audience and in a sense putting myself out there for them either love or hate. That’s what Craig and I are doing now, only to an audience we can’t see. We love getting feedback from listeners and have been surprised by the reactions we’ve gotten. There’s an audience out there, we’re not sure who they are or where they are — but we appreciate them all the same.
Do you live near each other? If not, how do you collaborate on the podcast?
Craig Shank: I hate to break the illusion, but George and I have only been in the same room to record the show about a half-dozen times since we started. I was living in Indiana, but just moved to New York City. We have traveled together to do a few stories, but most of the time one of us will get an idea, record an interview, and we’ll put everything together online. I actually love it. I do wish I could see George more often, but it’s exciting to come into nearly every episode with at least one entirely fresh perspective on the topic. It can be tricky to get our schedules synced up, but we’ve managed to get out over thirty pieces so far, so our arrangement can’t be all that bad.
George Drake Jr.: Bummer, there goes the curtain. Craig and I work separately most often. It does take its toll at times trying to get episodes and entire seasons in order, but it also provides a helping hand. If we were both in the same city we’d only be able to travel in a small surrounding area for stories. With Craig in New York and myself in Chicago, we have a much larger range to work with. We’ve also developed great relationships with people on the coasts and abroad — we have a great web of audiophiles and storytellers who are willing to help us with episodes as needed.
How do you find ideas for podcasts? What tends to spark ideas for your best episodes – a question, an interesting person, a sound you hear?
Craig Shank: Ideas come from literally everywhere. I’ve saved some ideas in my phone while I’m walking down the street if something catches my eye. Usually it comes from seeing or hearing about something online or in everyday life that seems like it might make a good feature. I think all of our shows have interesting qualities, but I think our best work happens when there’s something we’re passionate about, a great guest, and an interesting story that ends up unfolding into other sub-stories during our recording or editing process. I’ve said this before, but I tend to think of the best stories as being like nesting dolls. A story can open up and lead you to other smaller, but equally interesting facts, histories, or information.
George Drake Jr.: Like we’ve both mentioned — we’re making a show, which we’d enjoy listening to. With that in mind, any story we find interesting is a great story to follow-through on. A lot of research is done online, but other stories we’ve been able to track down through the people we’ve spoken to prior. It’s amazing what typing in ‘sound + (random city)’ will get you online, though.
Are listeners providing ideas for episodes now?
George Drake Jr.: Not yet, but if people have an idea for a show we’d love to hear it!
Which episodes have been the most surprising to produce, both in terms of where the story took you and any challenges you had during production?
Craig Shank: 52 Hz was the biggest and most challenging piece in my opinion. The story is still fairly open-ended and it involves a creature that no one has ever seen. Every idea we had about the story initially was unraveled as we gained more information and got closer to our deadline. It was a challenge to get interviews on both coasts scheduled as well as the usual challenge of just creating a show in general. 52 Hz was really the first science-heavy story that we tackled, so we needed to find ways to share information that weren’t too difficult to grasp in an audio piece. It was a huge challenge, but it was immensely rewarding to complete it.
George Drake Jr.: I would have to say Episode #25: The Packard Campus — we ran into a few speedbumps while getting this episode prepared. Because the grasp of the story is enormous and the subject of the story is millions of items large we initially had an episode that tried to cover as much as possible, but we quickly realized that it needed to be changed. We went through it with a finer than fine toothed comb and came out with a fantastic episode that not only covers most of the bases we wanted to touch, but also told everything in a concise and clear manner. So much so that the guys at The Packard Campus asked for a few copies to include in their collection. Craig and my voices will stand the tests of time in a bomb shelter library, essentially. That’s more that we could ever ask for.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Craig Shank: I think my favorite is #11: Microphone Museum. George and I had a great trip up to Milwaukee to see this amazing museum. After we spent the afternoon with Bob Paquette, who owns the museum, we both felt really good about everything. When we starting piecing the show together it all just seemed to click. The episode sounded great and it seems to be the one I always recommend to people when they find out about the show. I’m not sure what it is, but I think it’s a great representation of what we wanted the show to be when we first developed the idea.
George Drake Jr.: While I think the Microphone Museum is a great episode and to have such a strong piece so early on is something Craig and I are really proud of — I think I’d need to say 52 Hz is my new favorite. As Craig mentioned, it was a challenge to put together both scientifically and sonically. We did great work as a team keeping everything short and to-the-point while still making sense to the overall narrative. A lot more work went into this episode than some may think — Craig and I literally spent the better part of 30-45 minutes on a few sentences at time. The finished outcome I think is something we’re both exceptionally happy with.
What are the greatest challenges, in your mind, when producing a story told entirely through sound?
Craig Shank: Competing for attention. We are available for people to listen to anywhere at any time. That’s a wonderful thing, but it also means we’re competing with whatever else is going on in their life at that moment. We have to do our best to make the show entertaining enough to keep their interest when we get their attention and it still has to be pleasant to hear even if it ends up fading into the background.
We’re aware that we have plenty of competition when it comes to our listeners’ attention. We do our best to bring stories to life and create interesting scenes in our listeners’ minds.
George Drake Jr.: Craig’s right, competing for attention is difficult. One thing we’ve heard constantly is that we’re a very visual culture. It’s difficult to ask someone to spend 20-30 minutes listening to something when there’s television, YouTube, Hulu and video games. But at the same time, the act of producing a story told entirely through sound, while a challenge, is relatively easy. Using just sound (no narration) you can paint the feel of an entire city through its own sounds, you can be transported to a beach where you can almost feel the heat — even following a narrative through sound is easier than some may think. The audio cues in our lives go overlooked, but they still carry a lot of weight. The ding from a convenience store’s front door, the muffled train from under a bridge as is passes over, a car tire screech. Each of these sounds evokes a different emotion — that’s what makes sound so powerful — the emotions they carry and convey.
How do you see the podcast/audio/public radio ecosystem evolving?
Craig Shank: That’s a big question, but it seems to me that shows like ours will be more common in the future. We’re just two guys who had an idea and a few microphones. We didn’t have any money from outside sources or encouragement from anyone else to make the show, but we did it anyway. I think the affordability of making podcasts and the availability of tools and tutorials will allow more people to create their podcasts or other projects and find their own audience. PRX is doing some great work to get independent producers like us more involved in the public radio world. We wouldn’t have been able to produce our 52 Hz whale story without a PRX STEM grant and their Public Radio Remix programming is a great outlet for unique stories that may not fit elsewhere on public radio. I hope that more stations will air Public Radio Remix and the work of independent producers in the future. We’d certainly be thrilled to have more involvement with the public radio world, but I’m proud of the space we’ve carved out for ourselves so far.
George Drake Jr.: I think radio is becoming a very DIY medium. Radio has always had competition from television, MP3 players and now Spotify, Stitcher and Pandora among many others. No one ever envisioned radio lasting as long as it has — and podcasting is a branch off of the radio tree that in turn, I think, will form an entirely different tree. Radio is evolving and it’s exciting to be a part of that evolution.
Podcasting is putting the listeners in control of what they listen — and in our cases — of what we produce. My thesis paper was titled “Over-the-Air to On-the-Web; Podcasting as a Viable Primary Future Alternative to Traditional Radio Broadcasting Methods.”
What are your ambitions and hopes for the future of your podcast?
Craig Shank: Above all else, I want to keep making the show. It’s hard to do without a lot of funding, but we’ve managed to make it happen so far. Joining up with The Mule Radio Syndicate has been great because they’re working to bring exposure and sponsorship to a unique lineup of shows. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more funding to keep it going in the future. Ideally, I’d like to get the show to a point where George and I actually could get paid to do it, but we’re going to keep doing it because we love it regardless of the situation.
George Drake Jr.: While it being our primary source of income isn’t in the cards as of yet, Everything Sounds is our gun to Charlton Heston’s hands. We’re having a lot of fun doing what we do and making what we want to make. Part of the incentive to start the podcast was that we are our own bosses. We set our hours, deadlines and create what we’d like. While it doesn’t pay the bills, we’re doing what we love.
What advice on storytelling in sound would you have for would-be producers?
Craig Shank: I think the best advice is just to start making whatever it is you’ve been putting off. Take whatever the smallest step is towards reaching a goal. You only get better through doing the work. Sometimes it will be good. Most of the time you’ll be frustrated that it’s not better. As long as you’re continually improving, you’ll get to where you want to be eventually. You can learn about production tricks and equipment from plenty of places. The only way you can develop your patience, passion, dedication, and courage is by doing what you love and putting it out there for other people. Set deadlines and meet them. Keep pushing yourself to do more and do it better.
George Drake Jr.: We actually get asked this a lot and Craig and I always have the same response: Go do it! I’ve never really had formal training in audio production — just a few classes here and there but nothing substantial. I’m self-taught for the most part, and even though I swore I’d never become a journalist — look at me now. I never envisioned myself doing anything like this, but then Craig and I wanted to, so we did. We weren’t afraid, we just didn’t know what we were doing. Over time we’ve gotten a routine and a sound. It all comes with time. That’s my advice — stop asking for advice and make something you’re proud of.
How can people find your show to listen to it?
Craig Shank: You can catch us on a few public radio stations and Sirius XM 123 as a part of Public Radio Remix. We’re also in the PRX Remix app on shuffle with hundreds of other great pieces. Of course, we’re always at everythingsounds.org, iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.
George Drake Jr.: Mule Radio is another place you can listen. They’re online at muleradio.net and they also have an app you can download for free with Everything Sounds and the rest of the Mule Radio family’s podcasts in the Mac App Store.