Feature article from the May 2012 AIRblast
Why I Love the Indie Audio Community: Thoughts on Radio, Innovation and Interactive Documentary
By Jesse Shapins
Jesse Shapins is one of the co-founders of Zeega, a nonprofit inventing new forms of interactive storytelling. Since the beginning, Zeega has been involved with AIR's Localore project, a broad constellation of producer-led innovation projects embedded at local radio and television stations across the county. Over the next nine months, Zeega is working with eight of the 10 Localore projects to invent a new generation of uniquely distinctive interactive storytelling platforms.
I first started working with independent producer Kara Oehler (2009 AIRblast) in 2005. Hardly a day passed without her telling me about something that happened on the "AIRdaily" Listserv. I'd been on Listservs before, but I had never actually talked to other people about them. These conversations with Kara were my introduction to the network of more than 800 makers brought together by AIR.
At the time, I was living in New York but was partially still in Berlin, where I was completing the multimedia project The Colors of Berlin. In Brooklyn, I was enmeshed in starting UnionDocs, a documentary arts center in Williamsburg, and also engrossed in launching Yellow Arrow, a place-based storytelling project combining stickers, mobile phones, and the Web. I was a self-taught artist and designer, and documentary bled through all of my work, more as a way of seeing the world and approaching artistic practice than as a specific set of rules — let alone a single medium, despite the fact that when most people hear the word they immediately think of a film.
As I continued working with Kara and better got to know this remarkable community of indie audio producers, what struck me most was its open, heterogeneous approach to documentary. It's very hard to put a finger precisely on the reasons why this exists. But my hunch is that because audio documentary is a relatively fluid genre that operates in so many different contexts at such varied lengths (broadcast news magazines, long-form series, live performance, "listening rooms," etc.), the people engaged in it are more open to redefining and experimenting with its boundaries than those who are entrenched in more established modes of documentary (e.g., classic voice-over-driven video docs).
I am now deeply involved in collaborating with this community through Localore. Each project is tackling the same set of problems, but every one will have a distinctive design and conceptual framework. At Zeega, we love this challenge. We create projects across multiple platforms, connect digital media to physical spaces, and develop open-source tools that enable anyone to experiment with the Web as a creative medium. These days, this means spending a lot of time talking about the future of interactive documentary, from SXSW to the launch of the Open Documentary Lab at MIT, from the European i-Docs festival to dialogues with colleagues at Frontline and PRX to a daylong session at the Tribeca Film Festival. During all these conversations, I've been thinking about what distinguishes Localore from other initiatives.
Here are a few speculative early-stage thoughts:
Audio is driving innovative Web experiences
By and large, the public discussion around the future of interactive documentary has been led by the film community and European researchers (e.g., Mandy Rose and Sandra Gaudenzi). The most significant venue for experimentation over the past years has been the National Film Board of Canada.
While filmmakers and TV stations are a part of Localore (we are thrilled to be working with Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar!), the primary impetus for the initiative is the audio community. In my mind, this starting point offers a unique opportunity.
One of the things we've been talking about a lot at Zeega is how important sound is to quality immersive experiences online. Probably my favorite interactive documentary is Welcome to Pine Point. Made by The Goggles, a design duo formerly behind Adbusters, the visual design is certainly a major part of what makes the work so incredible. But it's the sound that grabs you right from the beginning with the buzz of the fly playing with the loading animation and is sustained throughout with atmospheric music, archival audio, and other simple but highly evocative effects, such as slight rustling when we see wheat in the foreground. (For more on The Goggles, see this recent Transom post.)
Another recent Canadian Film Board project where audio drives the experience is Bear 71. What's fascinating to me is that this is basically a linear audio segment that was written for voice, around which users can explore a trove of interactive experiences at their own pace. Overall, I think this works remarkably well. The linear story sustains your attention and narrative engagement, while you control the visual unfolding.
A first wave of thinking about radio's transition to the Web seemed to be simply how to make audio files that were produced for broadcast available online. Then there was podcasting, a unique digital distribution mechanism that opened up new audiences and forced a rethinking of format. Increasingly, reporters have been asked to produce text in tandem with their audio pieces, plus images or slide shows that illustrate the sound. The problem with all of these approaches is that they are looking to translate traditional audio practices for online instead of thinking about what unique characteristics drive the Web and how audio can inform these.
Neither of these Canadian projects was made by people whose backgrounds were primarily in audio, but I think they illustrate the power of audio to be the backbone of rich, interactive experiences that could only be realized in an online environment. And I think these approaches are just the beginning of the potential for creative combinations of sound, story, and interaction.
A recent project with audio Zeega worked on at the foundation is Pejk Malinovski's Passing Stranger, a sound-rich chronicle of poets and poetry associated with the East Village. Initially developed as an audio tour, we worked with Pejk to conceive of a Web-based experience. Instead of trying to illustrate each location with tightly synced visuals, we focused our thinking on how to keep sound at the center of the experience, but use video to draw people into the embodied sense of standing on location. Explicitly rejecting a literal attempt at illustration, each location has a simple full-screen video of the contemporary location, shot from a tripod, coupled with Pejk's produced audio. To drive home the unique relationship of sound and moving image, you can pause the audio, but the video continues playing, which mimics the experience one would have standing on the street — you can pause an iPod, but the world outside will always keep moving (you can see this interaction here).
Authorship in this new space is essential
The changing nature of authorship is one of the questions discussed over and over in the interactive documentary community. In part, this is fueled by general enthusiasm throughout the media industry for user-generated content and the (I would say misplaced) notion that now that the tools of recording are so widely available, everyone can be a producer and share their story. One thing I've learned from the audio documentary community over the years is that good storytelling is very, very hard. In any medium.
Because radio can't rely on images to carry a narrative or evoke a mood, radio storytellers tend to be some of the most exceptional at crafting poignant stories and refusing to let a single moment of potential boredom creep into a narrative. In my experience, This American Life and Radiolab are two of the most successful examples in any medium of tying quality reporting to captivating, surprising personal stories. And it's no coincidence, in my mind, that The Moth is a part of the public radio ecosystem and not TV or film.
This expertise in quality, short-form storytelling will be a huge advantage for the radio community as it makes the transition to creatively combining broadcast and the Web from the beginning of projects. This editorial rigor translates not only into the audio components of interactive projects, but also to works as a whole. Another thing we've been talking a lot about at Zeega is the notion of "editing interactive" — in other words, submitting interface ideas to the same intense editorial process that a story would receive. This forces us to treat interfaces as forms of time-based media, imagining in great detail the sequence of a user's experience. And it requires giving special attention to moments of transition (a classic editorial challenge), which in an interactive context can be addressed in many ways, such as through subtle animations from one click to the next or by atmospheric sound that persists through scenes.
Participatory experiences are also authored. Audiences may be able to participate in new and powerful ways, but they can't necessarily craft extraordinary stories on their own. A great example of this editorial rigor applied to interactive experience is Chris Milk's Johnny Cash Project. Not a conventional documentary, the starting point is a Web-based music video for "Ain't No Grave," Cash's last studio recording. The site has a very simple structure — you start by watching the video. Music begins in tandem with evocative, grayscale hand-drawn images. Below the main player, there is an unconventional timeline made up of a moving grid of tiny thumbnails. If you click to explore this, the video stops on that frame and you realize that each of the little images is a different drawing of that frame. And you are then prompted to draw your own interpretation of the frame. But instead of a totally open format, the site has a built-in drawing feature that provides you a reference image from the original video on top of which to draw. You are provided highly constrained tools (e.g., it must grayscale) for drawing. Instead of feeling limited, these constraints are incredibly enabling. It's simple and a lot of fun. The rule set focuses a contributor's creative energy. After drawing the frame, you can submit it to be included in the website, and your name is added to the credits of the overall project.
Interactive documentary tied to broadcast fosters the unexpected
One of the major challenges facing interactive documentaries is distribution. The Canadian Film Board's work has the benefit of being showcased on a site that receives significant traffic and promotion by the government. Many interactive documentary projects, though, are independent initiatives (even if they have broadcaster support), and to my knowledge, no major projects recently have been tied directly to broadcast series.
A requirement for all of the Localore projects is that they're to be developed in the context of a local public media station. I think this is brilliant and one more quality that sets the initiative apart from others internationally. The potential for this broadcast element is tremendous. It ensures a significant initial audience, enabling novel forms of participatory documentary.
My first experience with tying broadcast to digital was Mapping Main Street, a project made with Kara, Ann Heppermann, and James Burns as part of MQ2, AIR's first-generation innovation project preceding Localore. What I loved about creating a project like this is that you initiate something open-ended, and you actually have no idea what people will do. In addition, you can learn from what people do — and the surprising things they do can become the center of a project. For example, Amy Fichter (aka xenia elizabeth) heard the series on her local station, along with the prompt to contribute photos of Main Streets nearby. She proceeded to use the project as an impetus to travel around her region of western Wisconsin, taking photos and talking to people in towns that she had often passed through but in which she had never stopped. Amy documented so many Main Streets that when a gallery owner ran into her taking photos on the gallery's Main Street, the ensuing conversation led to an exhibition of her Mapping Main Street photos.
While it's possible to create sustained engagement with a project that is not tied to broadcast, I think broadcast makes a major difference in generating an initial wave of participation and having a constant connection to a community of contributors. This is a huge advantage for the radio community. We hear over and over about the death of local news, but local public media stations are unique beacons, where audience is growing and the business model is not driven by advertising, but instead by people invested in content and supporting their local communities.
Jesse Shapins is Chief Strategy Architect at Zeega, a nonprofit co-founded with Kara Oehler and creative technologist James Burns. He also teaches courses in new media and urbanism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is co-founder of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research unit investigating questions of networked culture at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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