2 Luftballoons…in one post: Sound in Radiolab’s “A Lucky Wind”


Red Balloon

The Radiolab Piece “A Lucky Wind”  alternates between narrative and reporting in four segments:
1. The story of the red balloon;
2. A piece on a UC Berkley professor who studies random acts;
3. An ASU piece who tells us that randomness really isn’t that random; and finally
4. leaving the listener to ponder it all over an example of people who have won the lottery twice.
The narrative forms a “sandwich” for the more reporting-heavy portion of the show. Similar to the other Radiolab piece on the papermaker in New Hampshire we listened to, the piece used editing, cutting between past, present, narrative and exposition, and layering (I counted up to four layers) and music to set the pace and tone.
Anticipation builds before we even hear what we are talking about: at :22 the opening is interspersed with a teenaged girl saying “ok, ok”—you know, that breathless, anticipatory phrase uttered by teenagers everywhere that clue you into the fact they are about to tell you something pretty awesome. The piece itself opens with telling the listener “it’s like a movie” (around 1:10) and then layers the “character” (Laura Buxton 1)introducing herself with very “movie-like” score music. (I feel very inarticulate describing this- it’s hard to write about sound!)
As the story proceeds, music helps divide the paragraphs or the “and then” moments to build tension, which rises throughout the piece, peaking at around 5:40. However, at 6:30, the music suddenly deflates as the other narrator cuts in to disagree with the lead narrator for the piece on the red balloon.
It’s only then do I realize that this is only the opener to a larger show about chance and coincidence—but no matter because I’m tuned in. They threw out the bait and I took it.

The two narrators take a moment to dissect the story themselves and pose the question to the listener- do we live in a world of chance, or is there something else?
At this point the style of music changes to what I think of as “NPR Jazz” to let me know we’re shifting gears and moving forward.
As the story moves forward, I counted three layers going on during the coin flip sequence- a mixture of narrator 1, narrator 2, students’ voices, ambient noise (coins flipping), and finally music. The effect is to lend life to what I imagine was probably in reality a pretty boring experience, actually—100 coin flips. The layers bring a sense of forward movement and tension to the scene such that the two teams—the real coin flippers and the “imaginary coin flip” team seem to be really competing against each other.
Music becomes strong again around 12:30, when they segue into the final portion of the piece. To coincide with the monologue “strange things do happen by chance…”, the music goes “wavy” and reverbs to produce a sense of the otherworldly or unexplainable.
As the professor from ASU talks about the double lottery winners, two effects add to the reporting: one, in a scene (around 15:20) where the professor talks about “zooming in” on an event (like winning the lottery), the music also “zooms in”. The sound is such that I imagined watching just what he was talking about on a TV- zooming way in on a blade of grass under a golf ball.
The double lottery-winner piece also made me laugh when the sounds of elated screaming were layered in to accompany a listing of instances of known winners- as if we were hearing each winner at the moment they hit the jackpot—again!!

PS- the photo that accompanied the Radio lab piece (above) reminded me of another magical story:


2 thoughts on “2 Luftballoons…in one post: Sound in Radiolab’s “A Lucky Wind”

  1. Radiolab is brilliant with the bait! You’ve done pretty much perfect analysis of the way audio is constructed here to support the direction of the story, I cannot think of anything to add. I hope if not already, you have an appreciation for the complexity of this kind of audio production, both in the depth (the layers) but the pacing of the quick cuts they do.

    I’d say the story opening is effective too for tapping into a common childhood experience; our school had balloon ascension contests, where kids put tags on balloons asking for them to be return if found, and the ones that traveled the farthest garnered a prize (and pride). But also this bigger question of a natural tendency to want to believe in chance, so much that we gloss over the indicators that it is just random.

    And you did well just to hint at the red balloon association in the blog post title, I like seeing that!

  2. Pingback: So long, farewell Week 2… | I haven't a clue what I'm doing!

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