HOW EMILY KNIGHT, PRODUCER/PRESENTER OF THE BBC EARTH PODCAST, IMPLORES US TO “CLOSE OUR EYES, OPEN OUR EARS”
Emily Knight has mastered the art of making listeners of the BBC Earth Podcast fall – hook, line and sinker – in love with nature using just their ears and imagination. We talk to her about the challenges, the discoveries and the downright heartwarming parts of producing/presenting a podcast the size of a planet.
Emily, you’ve become a master of telling compelling stories about nature and human experience through immersive sound design and contributor interviews – where do you start when it comes to building a narrative about nature?
Thanks! I think it very much depends on the story I’m trying to tell, and to be honest, sometimes it feels like I’m working it out from scratch every time. Each story is different and you have to be able to roll with that. There are some basics I guess – setting a scene, establishing characters, the beginning, the middle, the end… But really, if you focus on that stuff too early you can end up telling the wrong story by mistake. I think the people I speak to often come to me with a good sense of how to tell their story, and they’re often right! Then it’s just about finding the little moments of wonder or surprise, and making the most of them.
What do you find most unique about telling stories of nature merged human experience, compared to other genres and formats?
I absolutely love being able to create a really immersive sense of place. So many human stories are told in quite dull human spaces – living rooms, train stations, streets, offices… I’m so lucky to be able to tell stories set in jungles! Deserts! The bottom of the ocean! Hovering a mile above the surface of Venus! (That one was fun). They are such fun places to ‘build’ through audio, and really great to spend time in, even if only through headphones.
As a listener, what hooks you into a story?
A great voice, a sense of place that feels ‘real’, and a narrative that keeps you hooked. Something surprising reasonably early on. A nice balance between action and reflection. Good music!
What is the most challenging part of building the BBC Earth podcast? What is the most enjoyable part?
The most challenging part is getting the stories down to the right length. I’m not very disciplined and easily intrigued, so my interviews sometimes go off on these wonderful tangents – a joy at the time but an editing nightmare! When I’m really enjoying the material it’s painful to make those essential cuts – it’s called ‘killing your darlings’ for a reason. I think I’m particularly bad at it. Luckily my Editor, James Cook, is much more brutal!
The most enjoyable part is doing the interviews themselves. I get to sit down in a studio and talk to the most passionate people in the world, about the thing they love the most, or their most wonderful adventure. I’m constantly amazed by the degree to which a perfect stranger will open up and tell me the most astounding things. If you’re essentially a nosy person, which I am, what could be more wonderful than that?
Is there an interview, an episode or perhaps a learning you’re most proud of when making the BBC Earth Podcast?
In the very first episode, I got to tell the story of Eric Grandon, a veteran of the USA army who came back from Iraq with crippling PTSD. Our story was about how he found a new lease of life when he discovered bee-keeping. It was such an honour to speak to him, and his story was incredibly moving, but after the story went out I was contacted by someone who was also struggling with PTSD themselves and who said that hearing Eric’s story made them feel a bit less alone – I nearly sobbed at my desk to be honest! To be able to reach out and touch someone else’s life like that is a huge privilege, and not one I take lightly.
On a slightly less emotional note, I’m really proud that I get to showcase the work of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The huge teams of people that bring you the big-screen wonders are all having adventures of their own, all over the world, and it’s great to be able to crack open that door a little.
Is there an interview or segment that really stands out in your mind? Tell us a bit about that
So many! I loved talking Jellyfish with Lisa-Ann Gershwin for series 1 – they’re incredible animals and Lisa-Ann could NOT be more passionate about them, which is wonderful to hear. I loved speaking to Eleanor, a school-girl who organised an event where she successfully connected to the International Space Station via Ham radio, from her school in the north of England – her joy in the wonder of space was completely infectious. I loved meeting Sacha Dench, who flew her paramotor from the Russian Arctic to the UK on the trail of Bewick’s Swans – a real-life adventure hero and incredibly down to earth.
In what way do you think people connect with nature through audio differently to video, given that with audio you have visuals to supplement the narrative?
There’s a cliché in this industry: ‘Radio has the best pictures’, and I think it’s so true. The power that our imagination has to create worlds, to put you smack in the middle of a pod of whales or on a beach 10 million years in the future. With video, you can only see what you’re being shown; the visuals are only ever the size of the screen. With audio, you can close your eyes and get the whole landscape in 3D, surround-sound and glorious technicolour. I think we learn this as children – there’s nothing more vivid than the pictures in your mind when you’re being read a bedtime story, and I think it’s great to be able to tap into that.
Have you been in any compromising situations when trying to get that golden audio moment? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
Not for the BBC Earth Podcast I don’t think, but the first piece of ‘real’ radio I ever made was an episode of the BBC Radio 4 environmental doc series ‘Costing the Earth’. It was on green funerals, and I was interviewing an embalmer in his lab. We walked into the room, me walking backwards with the mic so I could carry on the interview. So of course I didn’t immediately see that the mortuary slab was… erm… occupied! It was quite a test of keeping my cool. Luckily I’m not squeamish, but still, nearly accidentally elbowing a dead body will stick with me, I think.
What advice would you give anybody wanting to podcast in the nature space?
Much as I LOVE the natural world, it’s really just a setting, like any other. What you need to do is tell a story, and the things you need to think about are really very similar to if you were telling stories anywhere else. Think about the narrative – where are you starting from, where will you end up, what are the surprises along the way and what have you learned by the end.
Specifically to the natural world, ‘show, don’t tell’ is a great mantra. Let the audience feel how they want to feel. “The forest is magical and amazing” doesn’t actually tell you anything about the forest; it doesn’t generate a mental picture at all. Whereas “The forest is lush, and dense, and dark, and quiet” gets that picture building, and allows the audience to generate their own sense of magic and amazement.
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