Reviewed by Lukas Herzog
In his practitioners’ manual as part of the Gelbe Reihe series, Sven Preger brings together two phenomena that are the subject of intense discussion at the moment: podcasts and storytelling. He thus finds it impossible to omit the trigger for the ongoing boom in podcasting (cf. Berry 2015: 305f.), the American production Serial (2014, NPR), addressing it right at the beginning in order to dispel some of what he considers common misconceptions on the success of the series. In Preger’s view, its success comes down not to the pleasant presenter, Sarah Koenig, not to the exciting character Adnan Syed, but instead largely to the outstanding craftsmanship seen in the storytelling (cf. 2f.).
The book’s self-declared goal is thus to tell stories in an exciting way that is also as appropriate as possible (cf. 10). It is no easy task, given that storytelling and its relationship to journalism’s duty to provide information is currently the subject of controversial discussion among both academics and practitioners (cf. Schlütz 2020: 8.). In casual style and across ten chapters, Preger provides an overview of all the steps in the storytelling process, from gathering material to mastering the finished audio files.
Each chapter ends with a checklist that brings together the key findings and questions for the work process as a quick reference point. Preger does not shy away from revealing his own working process and anticipating common prejudices and problems in editorial collaboration. At times the manual feels like a card index put together for research and now pressed into book form – with ambivalent results. The author has poured all the knowledge he has acquired on auditive narration into this book, creating a valuable resource for audio journalists. On the other hand, the way it is put together, with countless cross-references between chapters, makes it difficult to follow in places.
The book’s focus on auditive storytelling is undoubtedly a unique selling point, and the author more than does justice to it, repeatedly highlighting the peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses of the medium with recourse to the traditional American school of audio narration (such as the NPR programs Radiolab and This American Life).
In the main chapters on material development, dramaturgy, character development, and suspense techniques, he draws largely on classic dramaturgical literature – from Aristotle’s Poetik to Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and modern screenwriting manuals by Karl Iglesias, John Truby, and Aaron Sorkin. In order to explain the principles on which they work, he moves away from the ubiquitous example Serial and instead chooses numerous non-fictional productions, in German and English, including many of his own works, as well as pop culture references (from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to various television series). Usually well known, the examples demonstrate the narrative principles in tangible form, yet also reveal a lingering problem of narrative journalism: The literature and principles are taken from fictional writing, usually screenwriting for film and television, and thus do not consider the limitations of a journalistic approach. As a result, it sometimes appears as though the non-fiction audio landscape offers no useful examples for some principles.
Time and again, ethical principles rear their heads and are discussed in the context of professional practice. How much can be reenacted? How much emotion is too much? In the context of television programs, Karl N. Renner (2008, 6ff.) sets out three ›traps‹ into which authors can fall in their storytelling. In the suspense trap, the informational function of the program is pushed into the background by suspenseful storytelling. The ideology trap describes how storytelling can replicate worldviews or ideologies without reflection. Lastly, the personalization trap represents the danger of reducing structural situations to individual actions. Although Preger dedicates an entire chapter to ethical questions, this chapter is short and limited largely to rebutting common prejudices in editorial offices. The book continually looks at the major »traps« without highlighting them as such. This gives the readers a sense of the challenges of narrative journalism, but does not make them comprehensively aware of the problems.
All in all, this book gives practitioners a comprehensive collection with well-founded information and blueprints for their own journalistic work in the often-neglected audio sector. Academics, on the other hand, will be less enchanted with the postulates on the way narrative techniques work and the success they have.
Berry, R. (2015): Serial and ten years of podcasting: has the medium grown up? In: Oliveira, M.; Ribeiro, F. (Hrsg.): Radio, Sound and Internet. Net Station Conference Proceedings: CS Atlas, pp. 299–309.
Renner, Karl Nikolaus (2008): Storytelling im Fernsehjournalismus – Ein Zukunftskonzept mit offenen Fragen. Tagungsbeitrag zu »TV 3.0 – Journalistische und politische Herausforderungen des Fernsehens im digitalen Zeitalter« Berlin.
Schlütz, D. (2020): Auditive »deep dives«: Podcasts als narrativer Journalismus. kommunikation@gesellschaft 21(2).
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 10th November 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23038
Translation: Sophie Costella
About the reviewer
Lukas Herzog is a research associate at the Department of Journalism, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. His teaching and research focus on audiovisual media and media technology, auditive formats, and podcasting as a journalistic medium.
About this book
Sven Preger (2019): Geschichten erzählen. Storytelling für Radio und Podcast. [Telling stories] Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 294 pages, EUR 24,99.