If radio is the “theater of the mind,” then what Jonathan Mitchell does with the medium is equivalent to cerebral IMAX. In his piece “Moon Graffiti,” for example, Mitchell creates an alternate history in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin crash on the moon instead of landing on it, and Mitchell’s production over the course of 16 minutes is so evocative, listeners feel like they’re in the cockpit with the two astronauts as they accept their impending doom.
Mitchell is the 18-year radio veteran behind The Truth, one of the founding podcasts on the Radiotopia network. A musician who studied music composition at Mills College in Oakland, Mitchell desired to do something more cinematic for radio. After hearing the work of radio artist Joe Frank and This American Life, he took the first opportunity given to him to make the kind of radio he had always envisioned: a short fictional piece called “Eat Cake,” which he describes as the first version of The Truth.
The next season of the The Truth begins this month. KQED recently spoke with Mitchell about his long career in radio and his creative process.
Did you get into storytelling for radio while at Mills College?
Actually, I was at University of Illinois. I always wanted to take a film class, and U of I isn’t a film school, not a place you’d go to study that. But they had one film class that I always applied for every semester. I could never get in because everyone wanted to take it.
I had this itch to make something like that, and I didn’t really have access to film equipment. I did have access to a really nice recording studio, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll just make a movie, but with sound.”
I fell in love with the magic trick of editing. Taking recordings, two different recordings, and splicing them together to create this new thing. You’re making something happen that didn’t happen in the real world. I just always was really fascinated with that, and I loved working with speech. It was a natural transition into radio.
When and how did “Eat Cake” come about?
That was 2009, I think. I had been working at Radiolab and I knew just from all of my experiences that I really wanted to do my own project. I always wanted to do this fiction idea.
I had a friend, a fellow radio producer named Hillary Frank, who was working as a temporary editor at Weekend America. She was asking a bunch of her friends if they had any ideas to pitch. This was my opportunity.
I’d also been taking a lot of improv classes at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade). Whenever I’d go to these improv shows, I’d think, “This would be really great if someone gave it a really great edit. If you recorded this and edited it really well, you could put this on the radio.” I pitched that as an idea to Hillary, and to kind of give it a creative focus. I said, “We’ll peg it to Valentine’s Day.”
I got the improvisers into the studio and had them improvise for four hours. At the end of that, it was like, “Oh my God, what have I done? None of this is going to work.” They were brilliant improvisers, but it wasn’t giving me what I really felt I needed for a radio piece.
I went back with the tape, found some kernels of some ideas, then I brought them back into the studio a week later with this “Eat Cake” idea.
I edited this Valentine’s Day piece and then as I’m working — I think I’m almost done with the piece — we find out that Weekend America was canceled. The last show was going to be on Jan. 29th. This was a Valentine’s Day piece, and that was a few weeks later. They liked it enough that they said “We’re going to air it anyway.”
The Truth was one of the first podcasts on Radiotopia, the podcasting network. How has your experience with the network been?
Since doing Radiotopia, I would say my audience has quadrupled, or maybe even quintupled. It’s been very, very instrumental in growing my audience and marketing my show to new listeners. The bigger audience you have, the more financial independence you have, the more you can do. Money gives you the ability to hire more people, have a real staff, produce more frequently. There’s all kinds of things you can only really do if you actually are making a regular income from it.
Radiotopia has really made it possible to do that. Because we’re part of PRX, PRX is a nonprofit. They have a lot of infrastructure set up to handle all kinds of aspects of a network like this. We have a dedicated ad salesperson. It’s also where I have a group of producers who are all making podcasts who I can go to and ask questions, we can share ideas, we can collaborate.
How are you spending your time for each episode?
The majority of the time is spent writing the script. We spend probably around two months developing the script. Although that’s not all we’re doing. We delegate. A writer takes responsibility for a story and they’re working on a script week to week.
We have a weekly writer’s meeting, sort of like a brain trust. We read each other’s scripts and we get feedback on them. Usually it takes eight or nine, maybe 10 drafts before it’s ready or even close to ready. That will take a while, and the once the script is close, or pretty, or there, we cast it and record it over about two or three days, depending on how many scenes there are and how complicated the story, how many characters there are, how long it is.
What skills do your actors need to have beyond being good actors or improvisers?
I like it when there’s an effortlessness to the way they perform, and they’re not self-conscious. There’s a natural authenticity that you can’t really teach. Some actors have it and some don’t. Sometimes you can, if they’re not really good at that, and then there are certain things you can do to help it along.
The best actors I’ve worked with have that naturally and right away. You can spend that time working on their character and what the story needs rather than trying to get the right kind of performance out of them.
Are you ever satisfied with your final product?
Very rarely. Usually, a lot of times I’m satisfied with it but then I go back and listen to it two months later and I am horrified. I guess I am my harshest critic in that way. In fact, I think that’s a good thing.
When I think of what I do, I don’t think of what I’ve done as much I think of what I need to do — what’s right in front of me. [My work] is more about how I make the piece I’m working on right now as good as I can. What I did a year ago doesn’t really help me solve the problem that’s right in front of me. Every piece is a different set of problems, and it doesn’t really get easier, unfortunately.