Tape Head: Sayre Quevedo on Stories That Get Under Your Skin
What inspired the best creators in the podcasting world to be the best? In the latest instalment of our interview series, Tape Head, audio documentarian Sayre Quevedo picks out the pieces that made him.
Sayre Quevedo is an independent feature-maker and artist. His production credits include NPR’s Latino USA, The New York Times’s The Daily and VICE Audio. In 2018, his piece Espera received the Third Coast/RHDF Directors' Choice Award; the following year he won a Third Coast/RHDF Gold Award for Best Documentary for The Return, which tracks the journey of a man who emigrated to the US when he was a child going back to El Salvador, 20 years later.
I attended a public arts high school in San Francisco – I graduated in 2011 – and was in the creative writing programme there. I had to do an annual apprenticeship. One year, the head of the department was like, “I want you to make a podcast.” A fellow classmate and I would get stoned and smoke cigarettes and then find our friends wandering around the hallways and record them.
Six months in, the person who was supposed to be managing us was like, “OK, there’s no podcast here. But there's this program called Youth Radio in Oakland, and I think that they could probably tell you how to make a podcast if you want to learn.” That was it.
I'm drawn to stories about human relationships. I used to feel quite ashamed of that. Like, if you’re not doing something completely different every time you make something, then what’s the point? But there’s no shame in knowing what you like. I think I’ll be telling the same story for the rest of my career.
The Memory Palace — "Heard, Once” (2012)
"Heard, Once" is a meditation on the magic of listening for the first or maybe the last time. It's told through two stories: the story of the host, Nate DiMeo, hearing a song at a party, losing track of it, and then finding it again, and the story of the 19th-century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind's American tour stop in a small town. DiMeo draws beautiful parallels between these two chance experiences with music.
This was my first exposure to the fact that you could make podcasts that were not related to the news or current events. I remember the preamble especially: I love the voice and the quality of the sound of the band that he’s describing – when that comes in, my heart sort of dropped.
I had been trained in the idea that what audio did was explain things, and this was the first time I'd experienced something that’s about the journey, the enjoyment of listening to two stories that are related to each other and finding some emotional meaning in those stories; this idea that the point of listening to audio is not just informational or intellectual, but also emotional.
You hear that first part of the intro and you're like … interesting. And then you hear the ending of the meat of the story, and it emotionally recontextualises the first part. I remember immediately going back and listening again, just so I could experience that feeling.
Radio Ambulante — "N.N. (No Name)" (2013)
"N.N." is a story about a river in Columbia that became notorious for the anonymous bodies of murder victims that washed up on its shores. The piece features a mosaic of voices of people who live in a nearby town and have built up a relationship with these bodies – naming them, imagining who they were and praying to them.
I think what drew me to this piece is that it's not a story in the traditional sense — there's not a rising conflict and then a resolution. The river is the story, and then you get these vignettes peppered in. Just as important as listening to a work is the experience of hearing the river and sitting in the sound of the river; hearing the music and sitting in the sound of the music.
This piece does a lot with sound; it’s not an A-to-B-to-C story. Just as important to listening to the work is the experience of hearing the river and sitting in the sound of the river, hearing the music and sitting in the sound of the music, or hearing a voice and sitting in the sound of a voice. With producers, there's a tendency to be like, Well, I just said this, so I have to play the sound now. What would it mean for me to just let you hear the sound of this river for a few beats before I let the story start?
It does all this in a way that feels really transcendent, thoughtful and present in the story that it's trying to tell. I love that feeling of coming out of a 40-minute piece and being like, Nothing happened, but I've still been transported. That's definitely something I hope to emulate.
Awful Grace Radio — “To Her Everything Is Precious”
This piece is about disability and shame and family. It's told through two interviews: one between the host and the producer, Elise Byun, and one – in Korean – between the producer and her parents. The conversation unravels across these two languages and intimacies to reveal a story about the complicated relationships between ourselves and our families.
I remember being taken aback by the foregrounding of not translating interviews into English, and not seeing that as a barrier at all in the story. Forcing the listener to let go in some ways of the need to understand. I think this piece does that really well.
It's OK for things to not be universal. It's OK for things to be very specific to one experience, or one language, or one one person, or one group of people. That’s a really powerful message – especially at this moment where we're figuring out who we're making things for and what it means to tell our own stories.
• As told to Galen Beebe