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A whole year since my last post! Among the highlights: four stolen days in Paris (good as when I last visited 30 years before), Leipzig (first experience of having a radio feature I produced critiqued by peers at the IFC: intimidating but valuable), contributing to my first MOOC (about transnational audio storytelling) and settling into our new home – still astonished by the endless horizons.
2014 kicked off with an invitation to be the first lunchbox speaker of the year at the very civilised Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. My talk, The Affective Power of Voice, was a chance to play some choice clips to a large and engaged audience, and reflect on why and how the audio medium has such a singular impact. Serendipitously, it was national Sorry Day, and people listened to my clips of the Stolen Generations with special interest and empathy.
March/April was a hugely exciting period: the publication of the first RadioDoc Review critiques! As the paired reviews went online, with links to the audio feature, my tweets and Facebook posts were picked up and shared by the audio storytelling community around the world. Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions summed up the elation many felt at having the opportunity, at last, to read deeply perceptive analyis by people who understand and appreciate the aesthetic and production aspects of the crafted long-form audio feature. ‘This is invaluable’, he tweeted, of RDR’s first reviews, of Pejk Malinovski’s languid exploration of Poetry, Texas.
Every one of the ten reviews in Issue One brought some fresh insight. ‘Sound is a partnership between memory and imagination’, mused Seán Street. Poetry, Texas has ‘style and substance, enamoured equals engaged in a delightful dance’, observed Kyla Brettle. Sharon Davis saluted producer Laura Starecheski’s ‘endurance and commitment’ in tracking a confined paranoid schizophrenic for some ten years, but queried the efficacy of the narrator-driven American storytelling style of The Hospital Always Wins. Michelle Boyd found much to praise, but asked why the program erased race – given that the protagonist was black, and that race was subtly implicated in his treatment. The next program reviewed, Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, made by German producer Jens Jarisch and reversioned in English by Sharon Davis, elicited awe, admiration – and suspicion – for Alan Hall. He queried Jens’s transposing of his actual response to witnessing an African boy bludgeoned to death, and repositioning it to crank up the listener’s emotional reaction. When I met Jens, at the International Features Conference in Leipzig in May, he was greatly exercised by this challenging critique, and grateful for the unflinching commentary of another accomplished feature maker such as Alan. ‘He gets what I am trying to do, and makes me think’, he told me.
In the second review of Sodom…, Virginia Madsen drew on diverse artistic works to probe its complexity. Bruegel, Bosch, Dante, and Dostoevsky all illuminate this ‘pilgrim’s jouney between heaven and hell’, she suggests. Russian literature was more directly invoked in Tim Keys and Gogol’s Overcoat, a clever, surreal blend of fact and fiction that was also blessedly funny. And as Kari Hesthamar pointed out, it’s harder to make radio features that make people laugh, than cry. Michelle Rayner also saluted this ‘tantalisingly unreliable’ production.
It wasn’t all contemporary audio. Norman Corwin, the US ‘Bard of Radio’ beloved by Studs Terkel, had his 1944 ‘folk-cantata’, The Lonesome Train, receive searching attention. David K Dunaway, a radio DJ for over 40 years and the biographer of the great Pete Seeger, pondered the tensions between history and documentary, in this show about the repatriation of Lincoln’s body. Tim Crook, meanwhile, deconstructed the program using RDR’s brand new Review Guidelines, devised by Gail Phillips, Michelle Boyd and me. His eloquent analysis got traction on Twitter from a Professor of Democracy. I’m sure Corwin would have been delighted!
RadioDoc Review (RDR) was officially launched in April 2014 at the University of Wollongong by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Prof Judy Raper, to mark Open Access Week – a great honour. It’s a particular thrill for me that the whole endeavour is pro bono, emerging from the generosity, insight and commitment of audio scholars and producers. Clearly that enthusiasm and knowledge should be freely available, not hidden behind subscriptions and paywalls.
RDR was barely published when I heard I’d been named the inaugural Anne Dunn Scholar of the Year. This award, administered by the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia and the Australia and New Zealand Communications Association, commemorates academic and former ABC broadcaster Anne Dunn, whom I had last seen at the JEAA conference in 2010, when she had warmly encouraged me in the closing stages of submitting my doctorate. This was typical of her, and I was humbled to have my work in establishing RDR, among other things, acknowledged. Anne had been hoping to attend my Writing for Radio week at Varuna Writers’ Centre in Katoomba, 2012, but sadly became ill. She will be fondly remembered by many of those she mentored and supported.
2013 has been my YEAR OF AUDIO – making it, listening to it, teaching it, writing about it, and best of all, through the newly founded journal of radio documentary studies, RadioDoc Review, discovering a community of kindred spirits around the globe who share my passion for audio storytelling.
We audio producers use the intimacy of the medium to transcend logic and cognition and go further, to gut feeling. As invited eavesdroppers, we feel part of the lives of those we are hearing, and we care deeply about them. For me this year, this was especially true of Hector, an old man from Tennessee, who read aloud an extraordinary cache of letters: correspondence between him and the man who raped and murdered his daughter. As a journey of reconciliation and redemption, it was heartstopping – heard on an episode of Radiolab called, simply, Blame.
Hector Black, with reporter Bianca Giaever, from ‘Dear Hector’, part of ‘Blame’ on Radiolab.
Another moving audio story on the edifying power of forgiveness came from The State We’re In, the Radio Netherlands show that has sadly had its funding cut. Heard on Re:Sound, the remix showcase of great audio stories and sound from around the world compiled by the always diverting Third Coast Audio folk in Chicago, Two Enemies, One Heart was an astonishing tale of how nobility, evil and luck intersect in the lives of two men caught in the Iraq-Iran war.
But how do you keep abreast of the really compelling, memorable documentaries being broadcast every day? And what is it that makes the good ones so good? What is the secret to storytelling through sound? Sure, some shows such as the hugely successful This American Life or ABC RN’s 360 Documentaries have a consistently high standard. Winners of prestigious prizes such as Prix Italia or Third Coast Audio are also likely to be excellent. But why isn’t there a go-to site for audio documentaries where eminent critics list their favourite program, tell us why it merits selection and deconstruct how it achieves its impact, just as film critics do? That was the Eureka moment, when RadioDoc Review was born.
In July, at an international radio conference in the UK, I convened a meeting to discuss the creation of a new online journal to fill this clear gap in radio documentary studies. Excellent radio documentaries would be identified and critiqued by those best qualified for the job: award-winning producers, eminent radio scholars and significant broadcast industry figures. Key individuals volunteered, others I recruited later. By October, RDR had a website, hosted by University of Wollongong, and an international editorial board of truly impressive and diverse ‘elders’ of radio documentary – a rich store of collective expertise about, and commitment to, the extraordinary power of audio storytelling. Each nominated one documentary for the longlist, and from that, the four most popular shows were assigned two reviewers. A fifth program, designated a historical spotlight, will be critiqued each issue alongside the more contemporary works.
Photos: Jens Jarisch
For our first issue (due March 2014), the works to be critiqued range from a startling investigation of the surreal and hellish slum where African children snatch a living by recycling First World e-waste (THE CHILDREN OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH) to a languid, charming exploration of a little town in Texas with the unlikely name of Poetry (POETRY, TX). They include the rare and shocking perspective of a paranoid schizophrenic, whose redemptive journey is tracked over ten years (THE HOSPITAL ALWAYS WINS), and a witty and delightful revisiting of the absurdist Russian writer, Gogol, through the lens of a shambolic London comic (TIM KEY AND GOGOL’S OVERCOAT). In the HISTORICAL SPOTLIGHT is one of the great names of US radio, Norman Corwin, and his landmark program, THE LONESOME TRAIN, about the train that bore the remains of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln home for burial. Full details of programs and reviewers HERE.
The works critiqued in RDR will be preserved along with metadata, both online at RDR and in hard copy at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (rights permitting). This emerging canon will be a valuable resource for all those who share a passion for great audio documentary.
But this is only the start of where RDR can go. I hope it will also become a platform for ideas and initiatives around audio storytelling, as an aesthetic and journalistic practice, as academic scholarship, as teaching and as community building. RDR welcomes articles and essays on these topics, or you can join the debate on Twitter (@RDREditor) and Facebook, or add comments on the RDR Journal page. We’re also happy to receive notices of relevant news, events and publications.
Documentary and feature occupy a spectrum from straightforward reportage to poetic, highly crafted sound-rich mélange. See the RDR Bibliography tab for articles on this theme (coming soon!) or listen to RDR Board member Alan Hall’s beguiling radio program on the topic, The Ballad of the Radio Feature (BBC 2008). We have set the parameters for long-form documentary/feature at (an admittedly arbitrary) 25 minutes, to allow a program to develop complexities of character, unfold story and embed research to a solid and satisfying degree. As RDR Board member and scholar David Hendy writes, “time… is the strongest tool in the documentary-maker’s kitbag”. But shorter audio stories are of course also highly effective. To salute this movement, RDR commissioned Chicago radio scholar Neil Verma to attend the ShortDocs Feast at the Third Coast Festival this year. His perceptive and engaging review captures the versatility and impact of the form.
Since RDR went live with our shortlist this month, it has already attracted a strong Twitter following, from Berlin to Vancouver, a fabulous and eclectic mixture of audio lovers and producers, from the World Listening Centre to Pedagogical Arts to the LondonSoundSurvey. In 2014, I aim to develop practical aspects of audio storytelling to complement the unfolding critical analysis: first up, a series of workshops to teach the genre, particularly to those from a disadvantaged or disenfranchised background, so that they can tell personal narratives of their own communities, and explore the ideas and cultural issues that matter to them.
And to those who thought radio was a dying medium, see my article in The Conversation, A Word in Your Ear: How Audio Storytelling Got Sexy. It’s been tweeted around the world. As that and RDR show, radio ain’t dead yet!
About to publish an unusual interdisciplinary research project, ‘Eat Pray Mourn’…, which seeks to convey scholarly anthropological research as affective audio documentary.
A two-year collaboration between Dr Jacqui Baker, a Research Fellow at University of Wollongong’s Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, and myself, the project received considerable attention from the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC), given the sensitive nature of its themes: extrajudicial police killings, lynching, and women mourning the violent death of loved ones.
One of our aims was to give voice to those normally marginalised – the self-styled ‘coolies’ – and use the intimacy and accessibility of radio documentary to stimulate Australian and Indonesian audiences to ask what kinds of violence we tolerate in a democracy, and against which groups. We successfully argued to HREC that in order to achieve that, we had to be permitted to turn research data into compelling narrative, which necessitated the building of ‘character’ and place, and the presentation of rounded individuals, who should, if they so chose, be allowed to keep their names, having opted from an informed perspective for a level of risk. It may be the first time an ethics committee was exposed to alliteration, as I described the cultural and phonic reasons why I needed to keep an anecdote where all names began with Y.
The resulting documentary, ‘Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta’ airs on national Australian radio Sunday 7 April 2013, on ABC Radio National’s flagship 360 Documentaries program. A Bahasa-language version is expected to air in Indonesia later this year. Program information and podcast available here:
Jacqui and I are preparing journal articles about the considerable learning the project provided: around ways of listening and hearing, about public and private memory, about cross-cultural storytelling, and about the role media can play in disseminating knowledge and effecting change. We believe the radio documentary form is a particularly effective paradigm for conveying scholarly research and honouring our duty as academics to pass on knowledge to the community. After all, you don’t even have to be literate to ‘get’ radio.
In late 2012, I participated in a crossover event at RMIT University, Melbourne, called NonfictionNow 2012. The organisers described it as ‘one of the world’s most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction’. They would say that, wouldn’t they – but in this case, the hype was justified. Organised in partnership with Iowa University and Barbara Bedell, the Copyright Agency, Wheeler Centre and ABC Radio National, it was a rich and stimulating event, as ‘400 conference delegates joined an additional 400 members of the public for three full days of panels, exhibitions, readings and public events centred on the practice, thinking, communication and writing of nonfiction in all its forms… The event enabled a diversity of leading Australian voices to be heard in this unique conversation, which bridges between the academy and the arts and industry.’
David Shields kicked things off with a witty and well judged provocation that revisited themes from his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, about remixing, plagiarism, non-fiction, reality, and the culture of appropriation. He quotes Malcolm Gladwell in “Annals of Culture”, New Yorker, on the thin line between legal and moral plagiarism: “When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’s words – even the most banal of phrases – it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.’ Shields calls this ‘Trial by Google’.
Falling in behind him in the (very long) line for drinks on the first evening, I pressed him on the serious issues behind his breezy bricolage. In Reality Hunger, Shields assembles other folks’ memorable thoughts and aphorisms as an enjoyable enquiry into contemporary cultural forms. But what if, I asked him, someone gouges juicy bits from a non-fiction writer’s hard-won research, and recycles them, thinly veiled, as their original fiction? Is this remix or rort? He frowned, confessed a lack of knowledge of Australian copyright law. Morally, though, he offered a judgement. If the usage of the ‘borrowed’ material was transformative – that is, if it was not used in a similar context as the original, pertaining to similar activities and situations, or for a similar purpose, then, Shields told me, it could arguably be acceptable re-use, justifiable in the service of creating a totally new work of art. Otherwise not.
We reached the counter, where he confronted a new dilemma – whether to tip the bar worker who handed him a can of VB beer. That, at least, was easily decided. No, the waitress said. But her reply needed historical context. I quickly filled him in on the stonemasons who in this very city in 1856 had won the world’s first eight-hour working day, ensuring a tradition of respect for working conditions that had led to award wages that would be the envy of the diner waitress we met in Chicago in 2011, who had to rely on clients’ tips to supplement her menial $2.50 an hour wage. The morning we had breakfast, five tables of Danish students and their minders had just stiffed her. By this stage, Shields was looking edgy, so I ceded the space to his circling fans, and headed to a corner of the rooftop terrace to contemplate the view of Melbourne below, and the rubbery nature of ‘remix’.
Next day I joined ABC radio/online producer, film-maker and RMIT lecturer Kyla Brettle, RN producer and ABC Pool co-founder Sherre DeLys, and University of Iowa scholar Jeff Porter for a panel on Sonic Writing: Radio Nonfiction, chaired by Professor Ross Gibson of University of Technology Sydney. We were there to discuss the expressive nature of sound in relation to other media in the context of radio nonfiction, a genre that shares with literary journalism and documentary film the common goal of examining and constructing unfamiliar worlds that have special relevance to a broader understanding of our collective selves.
Radio nonfiction (particularly the radio documentary) is unique for asking us not to read or gaze at its subjects but rather to hear and listen to their divergent voices and unique soundscapes. This panel discussed the emergence of the radio documentary as a noteworthy turn in the growth of contemporary nonfiction. In particular, the focus was on the way sound interacts with words and influences the meaning of a radio text in surprisingly powerful ways. As many sound makers testify, spoken language is only part of the mix: the editing and layering of sounds, music, voices, and ambience more often than not will reshape the narrative dynamic of any documentary radio text. More by serendipity than design, the presentations extended and complemented each other, though the too-brief time for questions afterwards was disappointing. AUDIO of panel here. Order: Kyla, Siobhan (15 minutes in), Sherry, Jeff.
Later in the week, Helen Garner, as surprised as the rest of us to find she’s almost 70, revealed delicious trade secrets. Age only deepens her insight, her writing these days a killer combination of observation and understanding, as she teases out complex human dramas with wisdom, anger and compassion. Video of her talk HERE.
Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and former staff writer for The New York Times, responded drily to her fulsome introduction by quoting the French writer Collette: ‘what a wonderful life – I wish I’d noticed!’ The Chicago-raised African-American tackles head-on cornerstone issues of US society such as race, and told us she wants to reclaim ecstasy in cultural criticism: the ecstasy of curiosity, and of loathing. Margo’s talk here.
Final session, ‘Out of Place’ had an (unexpectedly) delightful panel linked to Canberra (hence the unexpectedness). Partly due to the range of speakers, from the chair (cartoonist Judy Horacek) to the themes (Francesca Rendle-Short on her unusual family, Kim Mahoud on occupying a strange white/blackfella interface, Robyn Archer a forcefield on 100 years of Canberra). All rounded off by a brilliant presentation by Margo Neale, Indigenous art curator at National Museum of Australia, which showed, clear as the nose on your face, through juxtaposition of slides of remote Indigenous-occupied Australia and paintings and drawings of those scenes and locales that, as Margo said, Indigenous art is not about country – it IS country. Go Margo! Thanks for that revelation: simple but stunning.
Australian Generations is an epic oral history project – the most multi-faceted undertaken in Australia – and I’m proud to be part of it!
A team of interviewers – some of the most experienced oral historians in the country, with thousands of interviews behind them – will gather 300 Life Story interviews from Australians born between the 1920s and 1930s to 1990.
The aim is to document people’s life pathways over the last 90 years or so, and see how attitudes and experiences have changed over that time (or not). A key aspect is to explore what makes a generation actually identify AS a generation – it’s not just about having a common birth era, it’s about being shaped by seminal shared public events.
If you want to be involved and have YOUR story recorded for posterity, click here.
We’ve been swamped with applications from well educated middle-class women in their 40s and 50s (good on you) but now, to redress the balance, we’d REALLY like to hear from:
Young Blokes (20s and up)
The Induction Day at ABC Radio National in Sydney yesterday was instructive and fun. Kevin Bradley, sound preservation guru at the National Library of Australia, waxed lyrical on the project’s state-of-the-art recording equipment (called, not very imaginatively, Sound Device!).
He talked us through its use – always strange for me, as a radio person, to move from one hand-held mic to a stationary mic per person. But oral history interviews being so long (2-2.5 hours in this case), in situ microphones prevent interviewer fatigue. The separate mics also record on two distinct channels.
Besides audio engineering (don’t get him started on anechoic chambers or fluorescent lights!), Kevin specialises in making oral history AUDIO easily available online. We provide a timed summary of the interview, with keywords, and browsers can retrieve the relevant audio with a click. SO MUCH better than using those tired and misleading transcripts. As Kevin said, a transcript is just a map, whereas the audio recording is a whole landscape.
The oral history will be mined for a radio series by Hindsight EP and Project PI Michelle Rayner at ABC Radio National, and also drawn on for two books. It’s a great project, runs till end of 2013, so there’s plenty of time to put your hand up.
Imagine someone listening to the story of YOUR life in 2099!