Tim Hinman is a tall man with a very deep voice.
This deep voice is partly what has made him a household name in Denmark over the past few years. Together with Krister Moltzen, he produces riveting, unsettling and beautifully-crafted stories that have won the pair a handful of international awards.
Hinman moved to Copenhagen from England over two decades ago, but it’s only recently that his kind of storytelling has hit a nerve with Danish audiences. We meet in a trendy café of Hinman’s choosing, where the acoustics are bad and the space is limited. He immediately jokes about me recording the interview on my iPhone, saying that as a sound person, this is forbidden. Even off duty, he’s aware of the soundscape.
“But I don’t even know why I suggested this place to begin with – it’s too loud,” he laughs.
“I fell into making radio backwards, really,” he says, explaining how he started in London in music, then film, and eventually theatre, before failing at all of the above. But he kept coming back to sound.
“I never meant to do radio. It was never something I was trained for. I kind of went to school to learn audio engineering, but I never finished. I did have some weird internships, though, like working on the musical Cats. It was terrible. It’s just the worst musical in the world, you know? I hate musicals anyway. I did that and Phantom of the Opera as well. Terrible.”
Still, after moving to Denmark, his haphazard experience with sound and postproduction helped him land a job at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) doing freelance production and editing.
“I was doing weird, bizarre, far-out sound stuff, largely by necessity, because I couldn’t speak Danish. It was different days back then, kind of an open door place. They actually paid you – you could just wander in and do stuff. Today that’s unthinkable.”
He thinks he might be the only person in the world to ever learn Danish by listening and editing. He finds that the constant process of spooling backwards and forwards helped him pick up the intonation of the language faster.
“I could say things without knowing what they meant. You get a very good ear because you listen very carefully. I’ve always had a good ear for Danish. I’ve never made a mistake in terms of editing. Still can’t speak it. I mean, I can speak very well, but I don’t speak perfectly and I don’t write very well at all. But I hear very well.”
Danish feels like wearing a straitjacket
Back in 2009, when Hinman started the now-famous Third Ear podcast with Krister Moltzen, they had a humbling 100 listeners per episode. Recently, nearly 60 episodes later, they drew more than 100,000 for their serialised true crime story, The Woman with the Heavy Suitcase, which was produced for Politiken newspaper.
“Podcasting really took off big time two or three years ago, but there’s not much of it around in Danish. We basically stole the idea of making serialised stories in podcast form. And that really works for us and we really enjoy it. We wanted to make stories that people talk about in bars,” Hinman explains.
The podcast has developed over the years, and the stories are now completely in Danish, but the difficulties of the Danish language are a sore spot for Hinman – especially now that his own characteristic pronunciation has become one of the podcast’s trademarks.
“There’s apparently a guy who’s taking the piss out of my voice on Radio24Syv. Apparently people do my accent. That’s a compliment, I suppose,” he says, laughing.
“But I do find that Danish is a very difficult language for me to express myself in. It feels like wearing a straitjacket – I can’t jump around like I want to. Even natural speakers, when they find fluidity in Danish, it’s a very flat expression. It’s very subtle. And that’s something that’s impossible to learn.”
“Danish is a really tough language, and it’s very hard to articulate. It’s a nightmare. And when you have to work with a microphone, it’s like a magnifying glass. Stick a microphone in your hand and you feel naked and sound like an idiot. You sound a bit dim.”
Permanent fear of failure
One explanation for Third Ear’s appeal lies undoubtedly in its free-spirited approach to storytelling – the result of working without an editor or an overly-rigid framework.
“We’re obsessed with constructing narrative. We write our stories like we write movies or books –scene by scene. We leave cliffhangers everywhere. The cool thing about this new media is that you don’t have the standard roles that you’d have in newspapers or television. We mix it up. I do a little of everything. But we also have permanent fear of failure. We’re always sure we’re going to fail next time. The next series we’re going to do we’re definitely going to fail, we’ve already agreed on that,” he says, laughing.
“You go through the typical creative curve, thinking, ‘this is a terrible idea, this is the worst idea I’ve ever had’, and then hopefully crawl back up to ‘this is actually quite good’, to ‘this is brilliant!'”
Hinman is used to hearing his Third Ear project compared to This American Life and to Serial, the tonal tsunami that washed over listeners in 2014. But meeting the producers behind that popular podcast made Hinman realise that there isn’t a formula to making quality radio – you just have to do your best and play it by ear (pun intended).
“I saw Julie Snyder from Serial give a talk in Chicago, and she said they had 230 million downloads. It’s the most downloaded podcast in the history in podcasts. But it’s wonderful to see that even the people at Serial work in a similar way, with the same shitty set of post-its and a Google Doc saying ‘Remember to make each episode really exciting!’ It’s just as shitty a working method as we have, so that was nice to learn.”
The unbearable reliability of Danish being
Tim Hinman is well aware that his success in Denmark is due to equal parts luck and opportunity. But he also understands that his own lack of conformity or knowledge of the established Danish system played a significant role in his success.
“I said ‘yes’ to everything in the beginning, which I think is a kind of survival strategy, because I don’t fit into the Danish system. If you haven’t been to the right schools here, have the right education, or have the right network, you tend to find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what the rules are. That could be an advantage of course, because sometimes you can just walk to the front of the queue instead of standing in the back, because you didn’t realise that there was a queue. Which is how I think I got in to Danish Radio. I just walked in. I didn’t realise you were supposed to be really nervous about walking in there. Probably pissed quite a few people off without even realising it just by saying ‘oh I can do that’,” he says.
“I needed to bend the rules in order to make it fit. And when you’re not Danish, you tend to think a bit differently. Danish people are quite nicely reliable. They tend to think the same ways. I’m generalising rather a lot, but they are. There’s a tendency towards homogeny in many aspects, which can also be very positive. On the other hand, if you step outside the line, suddenly jump the queue some times, you can get a hit.”
Hinman also admits that he’s benefited from being a specific type of foreigner. Had he stayed in England, he probably would not have been able to work with radio in the same way – he would have been one among many. But after moving to Denmark, his career was propelled forward thanks to a bizarre combination of fetishism and anglophilia.
“A Turkish taxi driver in Copenhagen once told me that British people are on the top-three list of foreigners in Denmark,” he laughs.
The banality of success
Hinman now has his hands – and ears – full. One of the Third Ear episodes is being adapted for cinema, a third season is almost ready for release, and he’s also working on his own English-language podcast, Sound Matters, in collaboration with Bang & Olufsen.
“It’s sound stories, nerdy stuff, geeky stuff, science-y stuff, any kind of stuff, really. Last episode was about sounds from outer space. The next one’s about sounds from the ancient past. We tell stories about people who could never hear before being given back their hearing. It’s stories about silence, about acoustic ecology,” he explains.
So, from failing at music and working in terrible musicals, Hinman’s managed to make a success of himself in Denmark. But that’s not saying much.
“That’s another odd thing about Denmark. If you get really successful, it doesn’t really mean anything. If you get really successful in a bigger country you might get famous or rich or something. Here you just get to carry on with the same as before. Which to me is just fine.” M