Audio editing vs photo editing with a splash of ableism

While editing podcasts recently, I had a thought.

Am I doing the audio equivalent of Photoshopping the cellulite or wrinkles off a model?

In some cases, the answer is an easy “no.” The dog barks and we have a laugh about it and I cut it out. The connection fritzes for a moment and I ask the guest to repeat what they said because some words got dropped and I cut out the first part. Those are just making the recording more polished or focused and have nothing to do with the way either of us speaks.

I don’t edit anything in a way that will change the meaning or intention of what anyone says.

But what about taking out the ums? Or the y’knows? Or shortening the pauses?

(I’m saying this about the guests, but I edit ums and pauses out of my own speech as well.)

The majority of my guests are people who have never been on a podcast and will probably never be on another podcast. They’re not comfortable with the process, and cleaning up the rough spots in the conversation makes them sound better and therefore feel better. I’ve heard, “You made me sound good!” several times.

Yes, their comfort level is part of my process.

If you were just having a conversation with them, they’d have the conversational quirks that I’m smoothing out, but I don’t think they’re as noticeable when you’re just having a conversation with someone as when you’re listening to a not-live recording of a conversation.

But if you saw a person, you’d see them as they are, versus an edited photo of them. 

Photo editing—whether through “blemish management” or adding a filter—makes the subject look … different (some say better; others disagree) and it makes them look less like themselves. I remember seeing yearbook photos of friends and thinking that the photo wasn’t really a good representation of them, even if the photo was “better.”

Do we always have to be “better”?

Am I making them less themselves?

If they trip over their words every time they’re starting a thought, is cutting that out making it less like them? Or is it a service to easier listening? Those might not be mutually exclusive.

Are these things even parallel, the audio editing and the visual editing?

Maybe not, because we often interact with photos differently than audio. A photo, you take time and look at it and if you’re drawn to it, study it. While you can listen to a recording repeatedly to study it, it’s mostly consumed as a means of getting the content, not as a means of examining the way it’s delivered.

I came to start to wonder about this as the Facebook persona Father Nathan Monk (a very different Father Nathan than the one I interviewed) wrote about recording the audio version of his book despite having a stutter, and how good he felt about doing it, and how ableist people were for being angry that there was stuttering in an audio book.

I haven’t listened to it, so I have no opinion about it specifically, but it did get me to thinking about the ableist piece, and to what degree is listenability a reasonable expectation? Where is the line outside of the standard American recording voice? How much of an accent or a stutter or other speech impediment can one have and still deliver an audio product that is viable?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can’t interact with customer service as well if I can’t understand them. And I can’t learn from a teacher as well if I struggle to understand them. And I won’t enjoy an audio book or a podcast if I can’t understand the words. There are podcasts where the guests are not loud enough or they don’t enunciate well and unless I’m really invested in the content, I don’t listen to them because the experience of listening is frustrating and that’s not how I want to spend my energy.

But that’s just me.

I am grateful for people and experiences that open my eyes to things I take for granted, whether as a result of my race, class, mobility, etc., and I would love for you to weigh in on this. 

About opening a dialogue: I understand that it would be frustrating to explain something very visible to you that is invisible to me. Please be patient if I (or others) don’t “get you” the first time. For those who chime in who are in the camp of the privileged as I am, please assume that when people tell you about their experience, they are speaking the truth. Whether it’s a truth that is widely generalizable or not, it is their lived experience. If we both come from these positions, I believe we can have a very mutually beneficial dialogue. 

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