"People think I'm crazy," admits Audrey Arbeeny. The blond, ponytailed New Yorker has stepped away from a blissful slugging session with a punching bag at the Flatiron branch of the New York Health & Racquet Club to hold her cell phone near the gym's speakers. Using a service on her phone, she's trying to identify the song playing. What knocked her out was the pulsing guitars of "Stop and Stare" by alternative rockers OneRepublic. "I collect songs at the gym, off the car radio, from TV programs," she says, "whenever I feel the track could augment an Olympic moment."
That's Arbeeny's job. She's the audio archivist of the Olympics, and cofounder and executive producer of Audiobrain, the New York — based sound-branding firm hired by NBC Universal to help design the musical soundscape for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. During NBC's 20-year tenure as the U.S. broadcaster of the Summer Olympics, the network has redefined Olympic storytelling, building the Games into the ultimate in unscripted drama. (NBC acquired the rights to the Winter Olympics in 2002.) Much of the peacock's success airing the Games can be traced to its ability to conjure up believable cinematic moments on a tight deadline. The narrative glue that makes that possible? Sound. "Just as you're looking for the right word or image to tell an Olympic story, you're also constantly looking for the right music," says Brian Brown, NBC's senior producer and story editor.
The Beijing Olympics will be the network's most elaborate symphony yet, as it plans to produce more hours for the upcoming Games than it has for all previous Summer Olympics combined. NBC and its affiliate networks, Web sites, and mobile channels will air 3,600 hours of Olympic programming over 17 days in August. That's eight days' worth of events, profiles, commentary, and highlight reels per 24-hour period.
Audiobrain and NBC are still in the process of amassing more than 30,000 tension-building, mood-enhancing, goose-bumps-inducing tracks. The goal is to ensure that NBC has the right music for every imaginable Olympic vignette — from the bouncing marcato strings designed to build suspense in the lead-up segment to the finals of the men's 100-meter dash, to the heavy cello punctuated by a high oboe that creates tension during a profile of a female gymnast's difficult comeback from adversity.
To pull off this auditory decathlon, NBC and Audiobrain are digitizing Arbeeny's collection of pop songs, classic-film scores, and original compositions. In Sydney, for example, they had only a simple database with a few thousand audio files and rudimentary search tools, but still used more than 7,000 different pieces of music during those Games. Describing the problem, Brown says, "You're looking at 200 CDs on a bookcase, putting them into a CD player to listen for the right moment. It was onerous."
When NBC's producers prepare a segment, they use the database to zero in on the exact tone they're looking to set. Producers can search by artist, album, instrumentation, mood, decade, and culture of origin, so when recapping a Norwegian's javelin victory subsequently overturned by a rules violation, they can utilize key words such as "rousing," "Scandinavian," and "moody" to hone their choices. NBC's editors can tag clips and leave one another tips and suggestions, see when a track last aired, and — if time is running short — even press a button requesting help from Arbeeny or Audiobrain cofounder and creative director Michael Sweet, who will be working alternating 12- to 18-hour shifts from NBC's Beijing headquarters. Although NBC's prime-time coverage will mostly be on tape, "Sometimes the clock is ticking down to minutes," Brown says.
Such was the case during the 1996 Atlanta opening ceremonies, when, with the torch lighting less than an hour away, producers rushed to find music to accompany Muhammad Ali's dramatic appearance. They wanted something that said "sad but proud, regal but not completely majestic,"
Brown says. Ultimately, they picked composer Stephen Endelman's "Johnny's Triumph." "Sound is a very emotional tool," Sweet says. "It gets into your psyche in a different way than visual storytelling."
No matter how immune consumers may believe they are to these kind of audio cues, they're not made out of wood: Positive sounds have a 65% chance of changing listeners' moods, according to sensory branding expert Martin Lindstrom. "What NBC tries to do with music is make its Olympic stories more interesting to a wider range of viewers," says Frank Shorr, Emmy-winning sports-broadcasting veteran and director of the Sports Institute at Boston University.
Indeed, according to a study by media agency Lockard & Wechsler Direct, even when ratings don't meet expectations, such as during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, the Games have still boosted the overall number of households using television by millions of viewers. Then there's ad revenue; NBC expects to generate $1 billion from this summer's Games, the bulk of it during prime time.
It's during those magic hours when NBC and Audiobrain do their most advanced production. The broadcast begins with a tease of that night's major events and personalities, often set to something iconic from famed Hollywood composer John Williams. Like an orchestra conductor, producers dictate the ebb and flow of the evening, building viewers up to the final crescendo, a rousing music video encapsulating the day's memorable moments (set, perhaps, to a U2 anthem). "We can't create emotion," Brown demurs, before explaining that "the purpose of the planning is so the music can follow the events. The beauty of it is that we don't know the destination of the journey."Lucas Conley is the author of Obsessive Branding Disorder, to be released this month.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.