Cycles in Audio: RadioLab’s Story on Chris Gay

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What struck me the most about the RadioLab audio story “The Great Escape Artist,” which chronicles the life of expert jail-escapee Chris Gay, was how well the producers of the article were able to reflect a cyclic motif throughout the story using narration and sound.

Over and over, the hosts of this audio story emphasized the cyclic pattern of Chris’s life choices, often through repetition – repeating all the different ways that Chris escaped prison, or listing over and over all the times that Chris would leave and then return home, focusing on the fact that his wife, Missy, would stay with him “again.” The ultimate question the hosts have at the end of the piece is, can Chris break the cycle? It appears that he has – at least for the moment – by the end of the story.

By focusing on the cycles and the patterns of repetition in Chris’s life, the audio story in itself mirrored those cycles. Clips of quotes flowed seamlessly into host commentary, which would flow seamlessly into ambient noise or the music of an old-time radio broadcast. Sometimes the story was edited to make it sound as if a host was finishing his interviewee’s sentence, and vice versa. This is more evidence of how audio can be used to convey a story’s motif.

The hosts were likable, and their tone was conversational. They alternated from humor to a more sober tone, using background music, emphatic pauses, and ambient noise to help guide listeners through the piece’s varied emotions.

The intertwining of one of the reporter’s personal experiences with the story showed that Chris was more than a magical, Houdini-like figure, but was instead entirely relatable – that in a way, there are other men like Chris out there. This audio story was able to convey the likable, charismatic, magical side to Chris, while juxtaposing that with a complicated and, at times, tragic family backstory.

This may not have been what listeners were expecting upon first hearing the campy, old-time “Escape” radio broadcast montage at the beginning of the piece, but by the end of the piece, when the old broadcast is heard yet again (and the cycle motif continues!), listeners know that Chris Gay is much more than just an escape artist.



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