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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!