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On the radio, silence speaks the loudest

People tend to be afraid of silence -- they develop verbal defense mechanisms like small talk to instantly fill gaps in conversation. But according to radio journalist Alex Blumberg, some of the most amazing moments on air come from the “raw electric silence” of true emotion. Blumberg gives his Brief But Spectacular take on good tape and why silence really is golden.

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    Next, the latest in our Brief But Spectacular series.

    Alex Blumberg has been responsible for some of the most innovative forms of radio in recent years, including NPR's "Planet Money," along with the podcast "StartUp," that documented his experience creating a podcasting company, which is now Gimlet Media.

    He speaks to us now about creating what he calls good tape.

  • ALEX BLUMBERG, Radio Journalist:

    When I think about good tape, what I think about is some — is tape that is arresting. You don't want to stop listening to it. You can't stop listening to it.

    Great tape is tape where there's a lot of truth. There's a media study where they were trying to figure out, like, through which media is it easier to lie? And so they planted a false story in a TV program, in a radio program and in a print story. The easiest medium through which to detect the lie was radio. You can hear authentic emotion. You can hear people telling the truth.

    I have learned to try to create the conditions where good tape will occur. When I was just beginning, I would go out and I would do an interview, and I would have the feeling like something was there, but I hadn't gotten it. And then I would listen back to my tape, and I would just hear myself ruining moment after moment.

    It was just learning to shut up and just sort of like not fill the silence. Let people continue to talk. We don't want to just engage people on a deep, emotional — on a deep, emotional level, you know, while we're riding the elevator with them or in the subway with them.

    And so we develop these defenses. And so a lot of it is just sort of trying to figure out, like, no, no, no, don't go, like, the small talk route, which is, like, sort of programmed into us.

    And when you actually sit in the silences, it feels incredibly uncomfortable. It just feels like, oh, my God, I'm just sitting here and this person is like mad or angry or upset or — and I should be saying something.

    I think that's the way we feel a lot of time. I don't think it's actually true. If you are comfortable with them sitting in silence and really experiencing an emotion, they feel comfortable, too. But it's just — when it's happening, in the moment, it just feels like it's going on forever.

    Those are the moments that are amazing on the air. Like, those are the moments where it's just sort of, like, sort of raw, electric silence. You know, that's what you're going for.

    My name is Alex Blumberg, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on good tape.


    And you can watch more of our Brief But Spectacular series on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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