Two hundred and fifty hours. This is the average amount of time it takes Dallas Taylor and his team to produce the popular podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. For comparison, it takes an average of four hours to produce National Review’s Editors podcast, and seven to eight hours to produce our show Political Beats. But before you roll your eyes at this seemingly exorbitant amount of production time employed by 20K, hear them out.
What’s so special about the Seinfeld intro music? How did Ben Burtt create Darth Vader’s now-iconic breathing? What is misophonia? Have you ever stopped to contemplate birdsong?* Most of these facts can be learned through a quick Google search, but this special podcast has taken each and found its story. Through a carefully crafted script and deliberately placed audio, the creators draw you in, engaging your imagination and holding your attention. And they do it all through the power of sound.
Have you ever tried to walk through your house with your eyes closed and avoid bumping into furniture? I suspect many of us did, and my attempts were inspired by a particularly memorable Adventures in Odyssey episode (a long-running audio series produced by the lovely folks at Focus on the Family). In it, a blind girl, Jenny, is kidnapped by two book thieves. She’s returned to her family safely but is brought in by a detective to help catch the culprits. The detective plays to Jenny’s strengths — namely, her incredibly heightened sense of hearing — to re-create a soundscape of what happened, and through it, they are able to uncover and solve a much deeper crime. I was entranced by this story, amazed at how much could be gleaned from one’s surroundings if you only took the time to hear, and eager to know more.
Babies and young children are attracted to sound. It catches their attention, scares or delights them. But as we grow older, we begin to talk more, listen less, and grow endlessly busy. Sound surrounds but does not penetrate us. Taylor realized how often we take our sense of hearing for granted. In fact, 20K’s description runs: “A lovingly crafted podcast that reveals the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.” He knows that recognition doesn’t always translate into comprehension, and he wanted ordinary people to take note of sounds and realize that appreciating them isn’t just for audiophiles. But how do you capture someone’s attention? Tell them a story, of course. A story full of life, detail, and fascinating sounds. Paint a picture in their mind and encourage them to concentrate. There is a difference between hearing something and actually listening to it, and Taylor understands this.
In a recent interview on the Working Class Audio podcast, Taylor spoke about the show’s creation process, detailing how they find their topics, work with writers, set up and record interviews, and master the final product. He even gives us some of his own back story, starting as a trumpet player, getting into radio, sound designing for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and finally starting his own sound-design studio. The podcast was an outgrowth of the studio that took on a life of its own. Dallas and his team of four work on a rolling schedule, giving each episode about four months of lead time. While some are timed to come out to coincide with real-time events, the 20K team is careful to pick and write their stories as evergreen episodes.
Depending on your aural tastes, not every episode is a win, and some may not appeal to you at all. “Plants that Sing” was an odd trip into the world of bioacoustics and cognitive ecology. “Baby Shark” had potential, but do you really want that song stuck in your head? On the whole, though, the podcast stays true to its mission, telling the amusing, quirky, and impactful stories behind the sounds of cars (yes, recorded motor sounds are often piped in through speakers), Mel Blanc’s incredible talent, The Price Is Right theme song, who invented the iconic NBC chimes, where the amen break came from, and even how to beat box.
If memory serves me, it was the NBC chimes episode that introduced me to 20K. Podcast crossovers are a brilliant marketing tool, and the show 99% Invisible (which is also worth a listen) decided to run this 20K episode on its feed. Just as that Adventures in Odyssey episode had captured my imagination years earlier, I was completely drawn in by the story crafted by Taylor and his team and immediately went looking for more. 20K is indelibly linked in my mind to long walks down NYC’s Sixth Avenue, my route home every day last summer. A main avenue in NYC could easily be one of the loudest places down which one can walk, and the irony of listening to a podcast about sound during these treks was not lost on me. But it wasn’t just on Sixth. Riding the F subway from LaGuardia to Midtown, I nearly cried listening to the episode “Deaf Gain.” Waiting to cross 23rd Street, I was awed at the intricacy of birdsong. Standing on the uptown D-train platform under Rockefeller Center, I let the rich sound of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir wash over me. And that Seinfeld episode? Well, I was on an uptown C train, and it was all I could do not to start dancing to the beat of that bass.
Now, standing in my quiet Ohio kitchen, 20K moved me again, this time with a sound that is fast disappearing. The Italian city of Cremona is home to some of the most precious stringed instruments in the world. Due to their great age, though, and the nature of wood, their voices are beginning to “fall asleep,” never to be heard again. Curators of these instruments knew how priceless their sounds were and wanted to find a way to preserve the notes and tones for posterity. 20K follows the story as these curators strive for this goal, which ultimately leads to the temporary hushing of an entire city and the delicate capturing of heartbreakingly beautiful notes.
Much more could be said about Dallas Taylor, his team, and their exceptional show. But don’t take my word for it. Tune in, turn it up, close your eyes, and listen. What you hear will amaze you.
*The answer to these questions can be found in the episodes “Seinfeld”(85), “Pew Pew” (94), “Misophonia” (45), and “Birdsong” (64).