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January 04 2012

17:51

Audio danger: stories from the edge of listening

[As part of our mission to look at storytelling in every medium, Storyboard is pleased to introduce Julia Barton, who will bring us several posts in 2012 focused on developments in and examples from the world of audio narratives. –Ed.]

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

But it’s very hard to accomplish, especially these days, when more and more audio comes to us via that distraction machine, the Web. Hence these posts. In the Storyboard spirit, I’ll be talking with audio producers and editors about how they accomplish their best stories, what obstacles they’ve overcome and the strategies they’ve learned along the way. I should point out that conversations about audio craft have long been underway on sites like Transom and airmedia.org. And there’s a great new podcast, “How Sound,” from longtime audio instructor Rob Rosenthal, who also interviews intrepid producers. In the posts I’ll be doing for Storyboard, I’ll simply be adding to (and sometimes echoing) all those worthy explorations.

I got my start in radio in 1995, while pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. Doing airshifts at WSUI, the university’s then-analog AM public radio station, was for me just an amusing side trip on the way to a blurry future in magazine writing. But then we started airing a new show, “This American Life,” at 6 a.m. on my Sunday shift. I had a huge list of things to do during that hour, but I kept forgetting about my impending newscast and listening to the radio instead. The stories, at once mesmerizing and funny and surprising, actually endangered my work. So I had to start putting TAL on cassettes to hear later, like a portable, or pocket – or what’s the word? – cast.

Since those days, I’ve been a radio reporter, an editor, and contributor to such programs as PRI’s “Studio 360” and “The World.” Still, every time I sit down to craft a new audio feature, it feels almost as hard as the first time. Every piece is its own hellish puzzle.

That said, audio – especially broadcast radio – is a pretty conservative medium. Listeners appreciate familiarity and tend to punish experimentation (see below for one example). On the upside, I really don’t have to try anything new. On the downside: well, not to offend anyone, but there are plenty of places on the low FM band where, format wise, it remains 1979. That’s fine for many; I don’t want it to be fine for me.

So I sometimes go in search of the subtle shifts that amount to major trends in our hidebound world of audio storytelling. To that end, I talked with two people with their ears especially open: Julie Shapiro, head of the Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) in Chicago, and Roman Mars, who was a judge for TCIAF’s awards competition this year – and who produces a successful and innovative podcast of his own, “99% Invisible,” about design. (Full disclosure: I’ve edited Roman’s work and also did a story for him).

Hundreds of aspiring Next-Big-Thing audio producers submit their best work to TCIAF from around the world. When I asked Shapiro and Mars what trends they’re hearing, most of their answers fell under one surprisingly simple category: the “Radiolab” Effect. WNYC’s “Radiolab,” in case you haven’t heard it, is an occasional broadcast and regular podcast about science, and it’s as highly produced as anything on the radio. Most “Radiolab” stories are crafted from hundreds of hours of audio, a ratio that that’s hard for even the most accomplished programs to pull off. Ira Glass recently confessed in Transom, “If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio.”

So Shapiro and Mars aren’t hearing a replication of of Radiolab’s labor-intensive production values, but they are hearing another trademark of the show, its conversational style. You’d think, since the talk radio format is mostly talk, that this would be a given. But radio evolved in the age of oratory, when a stentorian delivery helped pierce the broadcast static, and that’s what listeners still expect.

In the age of HD and earbuds, though, producers are finding they can sound more like themselves. “Radiolab” co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich break down complicated stories through a relaxed Socratic dialogue, an approach that’s also been popularized by NPR’s “Planet Money” and APM’s “Freakonomics.”

“People are starting to recognize you can have fun and talk about interesting things as well,” Shapiro says. Or as Mars puts it, “In America, we explain things a lot. So much that we need two people.”

Shapiro and Mars also hear a big “Radiolab” Effect in the deeper integration of music and storytelling, far beyond the musical scoring that’s a hallmark of “This American Life.” You can hear Jad Abumrad’s Oberlin music composition degree in the show’s use of original music to explain concepts (this segment from the episode “Loops” is a good example). That technique is showing up in more TCIAF award winners, like this independent piece, “Kohn,” about a man with a disability that causes him to speak slowly but also causes his brain to hear himself as speaking like everyone else. Producer Andy Mills reached out to the band Hudson Branch to compose a song about Kohn’s brain, and the spoken story acts almost as a setup for the performance.

TCIAF’s winning story this year, “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” takes the musical approach a step further, remixing whole swaths of an interview with an underworld character who runs (or ran) a strip club out of his Detroit home. The nervous, disorienting result crystallizes at the point when Thunderbolt pulls a gun on his interviewers.

“None of us could stop listening,” Mars says of the piece. “It solved problems in really creative ways. Almost every step was chancy.”

“Chancy,” of course, thrills the veteran producers behind TCIAF, and it’s their job to reward it. Yet flagship programs such as NPR’s “All Things Considered” get a lot of flack when they showcase even mildly risky work. So it’s to the show’s credit that it teamed up with the independent producers at Long Haul Productions to air their story about the relationship between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes in rural Arkansas. The piece breaks many formats: it’s non-narrated, meaning interviewees and “found sound” do all the talking; and it features a commissioned song interwoven among the interviews. Listeners were quick to vent their fury at NPR. “I don’t want artsy, stylistic reporting; I want factual reporting,” said one.

“How Sound” podcaster Rob Rosenthal later interviewed the producers, Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, about the experience. The upshot? It sucked, but ATC’s editors are standing by the team, and maybe next time they’ll make more effort to explain experimental formats ahead of time.

At least the angry ATC listeners were, well, listening. And maybe catching a whiff of how dangerous that can be.

September 23 2010

17:30

A Guide to Rising Public Media Networks in the U.S.

While it's taken public broadcasters awhile to catch up to the possibilities and dynamics of social and mobile media platforms, over the past year on MediaShift we have been documenting a flurry of innovation that reveals new possibilities for how the sector might share content, do business, and engage publics. Here's a guide to several types of rising public media networks, and a look at how new policy models might better support them.

Networked Content

Content networks are nothing new to public broadcasters -- NPR and PBS serve as closed and centralized hubs of content aggregation and distribution to member stations, and PRX has demonstrated the benefits of a more open, digital conduit between producers, stations and the public. But the June announcement that NPR would lead a coalition of such distributors in developing a joint Public Media Platform (PMP) upped the ante. A prototype, slated to be done by the end of the year, will build upon NPR's successful API and related experiments, which have powered a variety of mobile and iPad apps, allowed local station sites to feature national content, and enabled external viral distribution of public radio content via data mashups.

If it works, the PMP will expand the audience for and utility of public broadcasting content. It will also serve as a point of entry for new public media contributors, most immediately from non-commercial and hyper-local news projects. And it will create new opportunities for content to flow across public media silos, making collaboration much easier. This would encourage curated cross-platform projects like WGBH's new World Compass site, and targeted aggregation on public broadcasting sites, such as the "Public Media Resources" section on the site of the PBS NewsHour. Plus, as the graphic below suggests, the PMP would support entirely new uses of content by developers, educational institutions, and non-profits.

public media platform grab.jpg

(You can see a larger version of the image here)

Although it represents a much needed (and much discussed) integration of content, the project is not without its tensions. There are many rights issues to be worked out, and public stations are leery that products built via the PMP will pull audiences and dollars away from them. But as Eliot Van Buskirk notes on Wired's Epicenter blog, "Ultimately, the upside to all of this sharing, repackaging and distribution will likely be bigger than the downside, so far as the public is concerned. This Public Media Platform will bring competition to member stations that didn't exist before, and should result in a large number of apps, sites and publications over the coming years, if things go as planned."

What's more, NPR's Kinsey Wilson told Poynter that the PMP could serve as an "engine of innovation" for journalism, powering reporting experiments like NPR's new Project Argo.

Networked Outlets and Producers

Creating a big content repository is just one step in the process of building a vibrant public media network. Both public broadcasting outlets and independent makers need help understanding how best to curate and package digital content, and how to attract networked users [PDF] to it.

Over the last several decades, trade organizations have emerged in the public broadcasting sector to represent the interests of and provide services to discrete groups of outlets and makers, including the Association of Public Television Stations, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Association of Independents in Radio and others. But while most of these are organized according to platform, innovators working in cross-platform, digital and mobile production don't have a central hub to share success and failures and hash out new standards.

While the Integrated Media Association has served this role, currently it's in a transition phase; as a result, the organization will not hold a 2010 conference. In its absence, a number of less formal networks have sprung up to connect stations, makers and developers.

MediaShift has reported before on two of these rising networks: the Public Media Chat (#pubmedia) on Twitter, which is organized by a revolving group of volunteers, and the Public Media Camps, jointly organized by NPR and PBS. (Full disclosure: I've been involved in hosting both, including the next national PubCamp, slated for November 20.)

The PubCamps and #pubmedia chats have been growing and deepening over the past few months, in part because both provide openings for new thinkers and doers from outside of traditional public broadcasting to participate. The chats encourage this interaction because they take place on an open platform, and overlap with other networks of Twitter users focused on the future of news and community media. The Public Media Camps are explicitly designed to bring developers and community members together with both stations and national public broadcasting organizations to brainstorm new projects and apps.

With support from CPB, the pace of local PubCamps picked up over the summer. But even stations who haven't received any hosting funds have started to organize their own camps. These events not only foster the creation of local networks, and feed into the emerging national network of PubCamp participants, who are connected across a variety of social media platforms. Take a look at this presentation from the North Carolina PubCamp to get a sense of how this works.

While such social media-driven exchanges may seem chaotic to those used to more traditional nametag-and-plenary style conferences, they can produce surprisingly effective results. For example, a recent #pubmedia chat prompted WGBH's Chris Beers to whip up an archive of public broadcasting web sites over the course of a few days. Such a resource -- potentially a valuable tool for stations, developers and policymakers -- could have cost thousands of dollars and wasted numerous agonizing hours in planning meetings. But because Beers is operating from an open source perspective, he built this tool with the expectation that the community would use it, contribute to it, and improve it in the process. A similar spirit is on display on the PubMedia Commons site, which archives the chats and offers a shared code repository.

The chats and PubCamps also serve as generative spaces for exchanges between media makers who may share similar goals goals but don't usually interact. For example, this weekend's PubCamp in Champaign-Urbana promises to bring both public and community broadcasters together with open source developers and staff from CU-CitizenAccess, a civic engagement project based at the University of Illinois, designed to both report on and develop solutions with locals living in poverty.

As Jason Pramas of Open Media Boston writes, "we had public media staffers, community media staff, and independent producers involved in planning PubMediaCamp Boston from the get-go ... [with an] overarching goal of holding an event that would help network people from all these communities and encourage collaboration."

He said that his session spawned yet another small network, "a FuturePublicMedia email list where all kinds of public media supporters from the communities represented at PubMediaCamp Boston can talk about the public media system we want to build, and how we might advocate for it."

Networked Publics

Networked content and outlets alone aren't guaranteed to attract new audiences. The real growth area lies in the ability of public media organizations to use digital platforms to meaningfully connect with users around issues, communities and events. This involves both reaching out on existing social media platforms where they already congregate, and creating more specialized networks of users around particular goals.

For many stations and public broadcasting programs, this is still very much a trial-and-error process. They start Twitter accounts, post Facebook pages, and then wonder disconsolately why no one is friending them. Or, perhaps worse, they approach these two-way platforms with one-way expectations borrowed from PR and broadcast, only to discover that their users have more than enough to discuss with them.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting learned this lesson the hard way when it canceled the broadcast of Fresh Air after Terri Gross interviewed controversial comic Louis C.K. The station's Facebook page quickly became a rallying point for protesters, and the crusade has continued on a dedicated page titled "Bring Fresh Air Back to Mississippi."

Beyond interacting with users as content consumers, public broadcasters are learning how to interact with them as sources, and even in some cases as content producers. What's more, they're developing both online and offline contexts that allow publics to form their own networks around shared interests or cultural gatherings such as The Moth, a storytelling slam and radio hour. The National Center for Media Engagement has been cataloging such promising engagement efforts on its Pipeline page and in a series of peer webinars.

American Public Media's Public Insight Network(PIN) has been one of the most tenacious and creative hubs for building effective public media user networks. Now, in the middle of a three-year, $2.95 million grant from the Knight Foundation, PIN is aggressively expanding to new cities and adding new partners and capabilities as it goes.

Joaquin Alvarado, APM's senior vice president for digital innovation, calls PIN an "engagement platform" for public media. Users are recruited as sources with particular expertise, and tapped by journalists in partner newsrooms for interviews, focus groups and story suggestions. Alvarado explains that PIN developers are now working on a Drupal-based ecosystem of tools that will both make it easier for reporters to find relevant sources and networks for their stories, and allow users to track how their own contributions are making their way into coverage. The bet is that seeing themselves as part of the network might increase sources' already impressive response rate to PIN email inquiries.

PIN is broadening the network of public media entities by serving as a conduit for stations to partner up with local commercial and nonprofit news outlets. Take Miami, where WLRN is working with the Miami Herald to recruit local sources; as a result, PIN developers are working on a Spanish-language version of the network's tools, which can then be deployed elsewhere.

Beyond that, however, PIN is uncovering the power of tapping sources' own personal networks. For example, a query to the network about Lutherans' response to a vote allowing gay pastors to serve as clergy yielded a huge response: More than 2500 new sources joined the network to weigh in.

"Every community contains within it fault lines that can, under the right conditions, break open into chasms," reflected PIN Editor Andrew Haeg on the MPR site. "We agree, sometimes silently, to disagree -- or at least not to address our split for fear of upsetting the status quo. Our inquiry became a sort of social Richter scale revealing a community rocked by a temblor that the rest of us hardly felt."

Building New Models of Networked Public Media

Against the backdrop of widespread public experimentation with social media platforms like Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook, these efforts by public broadcasters may seem like too little too late. But what's notable is that all of these networks have been built without policy support, earmarked funds, or consistent collaboration designed to link them together. Right now, taxpayer, underwriter and member dollars are still mostly dedicated to supporting broadcast stations and content. Imagine what would happen if that equation shifted?

Center for Social Media Fellow Ellen Goodman makes that imaginative leap in a forthcoming article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology. Goodman, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law at Camden, worked with University of Pennsylvania research fellow Anne Chen to develop a new model for making public media policy based on a layered structure borrowed from the Internet's own architecture. Right now, they point out, the primary focus of policy and funding is the broadcast station. Future policymaking designed to support a public media network, however, could be focused on four discrete layers of function: Transmission infrastructure, creation of content and applications, curation of public media content and archives, and connection to the public. Note that these layers roughly mirror the emerging networks described above.

Dedicated digital infrastructure, more flexible funding, and a renewed emphasis on connection could work to knit public broadcasting's currently fragmented and resource-starved networks into a powerful national platform for learning, public dialogue, and problem solving. This would not require centralizing operations at the coasts; instead it would involve constructing a network of networks, connected via shared protocols and standards. Such a network could also support the capacity for local reporting, encouraging civic engagement on the ground and feeding diverse content and conversations back up to national programs and sites. It could foster local and national connections with other noncommercial partners who share a public mission.

"Public media has the potential to meet some of the nation's most critical information
needs," write Goodman and Chen, "but only if public media networks are reconfigured for more collaboration, innovation, and service in a networked environment."

In order to be most viable, such a public media network would need to be developed in concert with a series of larger policy efforts: to extend broadband access to all Americans, maintain net neutrality across both wired and wireless broadband services, create network linkages between noncommercial "anchor institutions" in communities, and subsidize new equipment and hosting costs for public media producers. In a March article in Current, APM's Alvarado offered a complementary model for understanding these various needs, as depicted below.

alvarado-pyramid-smaller.jpg

Alvarado urges public broadcasters and regulators to act boldly, citing education and journalism as two major areas for beta-testing the power of new network functions. "The gaps in our current business model will widen quickly as broadband develops nationally," he writes. "We can address them only by radically shifting what we and the public expect from the system and from our individual organizations. Incremental steps will not concentrate enough resources to leapfrog the compounding limitations in resources, ambition and effectiveness."

Jessica Clark directs the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media Project , and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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