Storytelling with Sounds

Sounds spark imaginations, create engaging stories.

Storytelling with Sounds

Storytelling with Sounds Poster 2021
15 March 2021

Re-Imagined Radio explored how sounds, like the storyteller's voice and sound effects, contributed to storytelling throughout human history and provided some interesting listening examples. Broadcasts and streams by our local, regional, and international partners. Archival recordings available for on demand listening.


Optimized for radio broadcast.


Written, Produced, and Hosted by John F. Barber
Post Production by Martin John Gallagher
Promotional Graphics by Holly Slocum Design
Social Media by Regina Carol Social Media and Photography


Scholars suggest that storytelling began as a way of establishing relationships between prehistoric humans and their surrounding world. As humans evolved, storytelling provided entertainment and information, an aid to memory, a way to convey the past into the future.

Today, storytelling is woven into the fabric of our lives. It is a fundamental mechanic, useful for making sense of human experience.

Fundamentally, storytelling involves constructing and sharing narratives of events. Administrators, educators, entertainers, influencers, marketers, researchers, persuaders, politicians, writers, zealots—all use storytelling to engage our attention, enlist our support, and prompt our actions.

On the other hand, storytelling with sounds (the storyteller's voice and other sound effects) sparks our imagination like no other human sensory input, creating a visual world in our mind's eye. This world is believable, full of opportunities for engagement and interactivity.

So, storytelling with sounds is especially effective in creating engaging stories.

This program, "Storytelling with Sounds," explores how sounds have contributed to storytelling throughout human history and provides some interesting listening examples.

Contents and Their Stories
There are stories associated with the contents of "Storytelling with Sounds."

I begin the episode by saying, "Storytelling may have developed as rhythmic drumming or mimicry of bird and animal sounds. These sounds were incorporated into words, and then speech, and eventually, language. Over millennia, storytellers constructed and spoke aloud epic stories from formulaic word combinations, often accompanied by music or other sounds. Storytelling was not only entertainment, but also information. A fundamental mechanic, useful for making sense of human experience. Arguably, spoken, oral storytelling provided one of the earliest forms of collective communication and memory, and may provide an origin for literature." This leads to . . .

The first line of Beowulf . . .
I recorded this at The University of South Carolina in June 2010. I was there as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, part of the Humanities Gaming Institute. We were taken around the campus and introduced to many resources that might be helpful in formulating a conceptual framework for a game context focused on Humanities. Regretfully, I have neither retained or remembered the individual who spoke this line in Old English for me to record. I do remember, however, that he made me wait while he flirted with every female colleague in my cohort. With no responses to his overtures, he, at last, turned to me.

Walter Ruttman's Weekend . . .
I discovered this amazing audio composition early in my research for "Storytelling with Sounds." The idea of a movie shown in theaters without pictures and broadcast on radio as a story told with sounds was especially interesting. Also interesting was the origin of the sounds for this 1930 movie by Ruttmann. Ruttmann's 1927 movie Berlin: Symphony of a Great City was made with sound. But very few movie theaters at the time were equipped for sound playback. Berlin was shown as a silent movie. Ruttman used outtakes from Berlin to create Weekend which quite nicely demonstrates the power of sounds to connect with our imaginations and compose meaningful stories from sounds other than the human voice.

Herb Morrison's report on the Hindenburg disaster . . .
The Hindenburg was the flagship of Nazi Germany's fleet of dirigibles, aircraft designed to be held aloft by helium. In the runup to World War II, the United States restricted Germany's access to helium. So, Hindenburg used highly flammable hydrogen. Hindenburg's trans-Atlantic crossing and buzzing of New York before landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, was designed as propaganda for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Morrison was at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, reporting on Hindenburg's arrival. As I say in "Storytelling with Sounds," Hindenburg caught fire, burned, and crashed in seconds. Morrison, recording his observations, quickly lost his composure, overcome with emotion. Still, he had a recording and allegedly he hid in a barn for several hours, evading German SS Officers who wanted to contain the recording. Morrison was able to return to Chicago where his report was broadcast on WLS radio, the first "live on location" news report.

The War of the Worlds . . .
This, the most (in)famous radio broadcast of all time, is one hour of sheer amazing storytelling by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air. There are many stories about The War of the Worlds. My story is editing it down to three minutes.

Cityphony by Barrett Golding . . .
I first met Barrett Golding when volunteering at KGLT FM radio, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT. He impressed me with his dead seriousness about making a career for himself in radio. I was less serious but enjoyed playing the role of Dr. Shark Barbetz, "the doctor of soul, with all the rhythm and blues you'll ever need. Turn up the volume, kick off your shoes, and roll back the rugs while the Doctor serves up some prime cuts from the Filet of Soul." For some reason my program was popular throughout the Gallatin Valley, an area of southwestern Montana known primarily for ranching and as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Years, many, later I discovered this work of radio art by Barrett included in Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine (issue 11, 1985). Each issue was an audio cassette of new music and other sounds evolving in the uptown New York creative scene. I guess he achieved his career goal and I am pleased to include this really good sound-based story by Barrett Golding.

The Sausage Man . . .
A work of mine, Sound Spheres was selected for exhibition during the Association for Computing Machinery Hypertext 2019 Conference at Hof University, Hof, Germany. The conference theme "Hypertext—Tear Down the Wall," sought to unite different hypertext research directions and communities and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hof lies midway between Frankfurt and Prague, Munich and Berlin and is very close to the former German-German border, in particular to the village of Mödlareuth, called “little Berlin,” which used to be divided by a wall. While in Mödlareuth, touring the exhibits and artifacts of how this town, like Berlin, was physically separated by a wall, each side guarded by military personnel, I met "The Sausage Man" and we had a pleasant conversation about how selling sausages on the streets of towns in the region supported his chosen lifestyle. I have to say I was envious.

Shirley Howard Oral History . . .
The more formal name for this work of sound art is Shirley Howard: A Young Woman Working for the Railroad, 1940s. Following high school, Shirley Howard, born 1926, became a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railroad in Washington state. She recounts her first assignment in Sprig, Washington, as well as subsequent assignments in remote locations in the eastern part of the state, handing off train orders to the engineers of steam locomotives passing through her stations, the movements of troop trains during World War II, and day to day experiences living next to railroad operations. She met a train conductor, married him, and moved to Wishram, Washington, where she raised their growing family. In Vancouver, she continued her work for the railroad, working in the regional offices. More than ninety years old now, Ms. Howard's oral history is bright and vibrant. It still rings with the excitement she felt as a young woman living such an adventure. To highlight this excitement, I produced this work to sound as if Ms. Howard is speaking to a fellow traveler aboard a cross-country train. The interior sounds of the coach car surround her as she speaks leisurely of a past history she clearly enjoys recalling. In the distance, the steam whistle signals crossings and provides transitions for Ms. Howard's story.

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