“The Truth” —according to Jonathan Mitchell
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Jonathan Mitchell does not look like a rock star.
The bespectacled creator and executive producer behind The Truth—a biweekly podcast that resurrects the audio drama with a distinctly modern flair—doesn’t claim to be, either. Nor does the motley crew of writers, public radio personalities, and performers that assemble and give voice to each of the show’s roughly 20-minute “movies for your ears.”
Nonetheless, Mitchell thinks he and his team have something in common with the world’s hard-gigging bands struggling for a big break.
“Our type of project is a really hard sell,” Mitchell said via Skype, still groggy and jet-lagged from a visit to a radio conference in Sydney, Australia.
“No one would want to fund it unless we had something to show, something that proved that what we want to do is worth the investment. We’re sort of like a rock band like that. No one’s going to pay a rock band when they first start up. You have to get good at it, build up an audience. and show that people want to listen to what you have to offer. And you’ve got to do that, basically, for free for a while, until you can prove that you have some appeal.”
It would be a different matter if The Truth were about math, or science, or politics, or something else with a social agenda—like nearly every program you hear when you tune into your local NPR affiliate. Were that the case, Mitchell—a public radio veteran who’s contributed to NPR shows like This American Life, All Things Considered, and Radio Lab, among others—probably wouldn’t have as hard of a time getting the show on the radio.
But that’s not what The Truth is. Instead, it’s fiction, in audio form—original, contemporary stories, performed by a cadre of New York theater folks, with story editing and advising by Mitchell and fellow radio vets Kerrie Hillman and Peter Clowney. It’s an idea that’s been brewing in Mitchell’s head since he attended college as a music composition student at the University of Illinois and one that so compelled him that he was driven to bypass the radio altogether, starting the show as a podcast in February.
“What podcasts offer us is the opportunity to prove that there’s an audience for what we do,” Mitchell said. “And podcasting offers us a venue as an excuse to do it.”
Since launching, The Truth’s profile has grown ever larger, buoyed by having a story appear on This American Life in April. One story followed the competing inner monologues of two disgruntled women during spin class. Another, “Moon Graffiti,” plays like a Twilight Zone episode sans twist, following the final moments in the lives of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in a reality where the moon landing failed, framed by an actual speech written for President Richard Nixon in the event of just such a disaster.
The stories are funny, tense and almost always surprising. They’re also enormously labor-intensive, highly professional, and, consequently, pretty expensive. Yet Mitchell is cautiously optimistic about finding a way to make the show pay for itself.
“If you don’t have that [funding], you have to have some combination of other things to make it work,” Mitchell said. “Right now, that other thing for us is the passion we bring to it and the love of doing it. I don’t know how long we can sustain that, but we’ll see. The idea is that we’ll keep going until we figure it out.”
But gigging for free isn’t the only thing The Truth has in common with a would-be pop band. Like any good producer, Mitchell knows the value of the recording studio as an instrument. In fact, it’s the love of the studio that led the music composition student to radio in the first place.
“As a student I really just loved working in the recording studio. It changed my whole idea of what I wanted to do. It immediately made sense to me. My life didn’t suck anymore,” Mitchell recalled. “This was in the days before digital video or anything like that. You had to shoot on film. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have access to film, but I do have access to a recording studio, so maybe I could make a film without pictures. That’d be fun.’ That was a way to satisfy my storytelling impulse.”
Indeed, “movies for your ears” isn’t just The Truth’s tagline. The podcast pretty closely approximates the feeling of watching a film. Performers are layered over surprisingly cinematic music and sound effects. The dialogue is especially naturalistic as well. Characters hem and haw and stutter. They drop plenty of “like”s and “umm”s.
Partially, that’s a byproduct of The Truth’s creative process. Someone with the show will approach the crew with a story outline. The performers take that outline and improvise with it. In post-production, the story is hammered into shape. The show reaps a couple of benefits from this approach: It lets Mitchell create stories quickly, and it lends The Truth a natural believability—which is, Mitchell said, very much intentional.
“I feel like in order for it to really work the actors can’t be these voiceover types of people. They have to be naturalistic. They have to feel like real people and talk like real people. I don’t like to hear things that are, for example, too cartoonish. I like to hear a certain sense of authenticity in the performances.”
Implicitly, that statement’s fairly critical of old-fashioned radio dramas and of modern performance art radio and podcasts. And Mitchell doesn’t back down from the assertion. After all, there must be some reason why the popularity and mainstream visibility of audio dramas have dropped sharply in the last few decades, outside of the places where it’s pursued and subsidized, like on the BBC.
“I’m not a good advocate for modern radio drama. I don’t want this to sound too bad, but I want what I do to seem like a critique of a lot of radio drama. I’m doing it the way I would want it done, that I wish more people would do it,” said Mitchell. “My sort-of theory about [the decline of radio drama] is that I feel like maybe it just hasn’t been done right. And that’s kind of an arrogant thing to say!
“But that’s my hope: If it were done in a certain way, if you could tap into how people listen to things now, that it would appeal to more people.”
There’s some evidence that Mitchell is onto something. After a piece from The Truth was picked up by This American Life, the podcast briefly shot into the top 10 on iTunes; it now has a reliable listenership of about 30,000.
But that’s not really enough to pay the bills. So in October, The Truth is offering a one-hour special to public radio stations, with three stories. Ingeniously, the special combines Halloween and the election season, with three campaign-themed stories, each with a horror element—likely the most delightful mashup of scares and politics since The Simpsons’ famous “Kang and Kodos take the forms of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole” episode.
The funding for that special—plus a recent fellowship grant from Soundcloud, which hosts The Truth— along with Mitchell and crew’s passion should help The Truth stick around. In the end, Mitchell doesn’t care if the podcast makes the jump to radio or continues its life as, well, a podcast. He just wants to keep telling his stories.
“My priority is to find a financially stable way of producing the pieces,” Mitchell said. “I just want to be able to do the work. The venue, to me, is secondary. Whether that’s broadcast or podcast or whatever venue might happen to come along next week is irrelevant to me. What matters is what helps me to do what I really love doing.”
Photo of Jonathan Mitchell via The Truth/Facebook