After months of being swamped with unwanted SPAM comments, I’m trying a solution offered from my hosting company. I hope to at least get back to making this site worth using – and occasionally entering new posts.
Each day in 2013, Berlin’s Jewish Museum posts online a document that recounts the unfolding of Nazi terror om 1933 – 80 years earlier to the day. Each document presents a tiny story: a letter dismissing a nurse from work; a letter from a teacher to his student, explaining that he must leave the country and cannot continue their private classes; stamps in a passport evidencing one man’s search to find refuge from the growing discrimination and abuse. The online postings communicate the story of Nazi persecution in tiny packages – they illuminate the impact of German policies in the lives of individual men, women and children.
Now, with these small illustrations of how policies were carried out in granular detail, I can understand.
Note: Click “EN” on the top left if the pages come up in German. That flips the website to the English version.
I am no longer responding to or posting any blog comments. This blog has been inundated with spam posts that overwhelm my ability to filter them out or make sense of any legit comments. Sorry to those of you who have sent me valid comments and ideas.
I’m adding this post from Vienna, Austria, where we’ve perched for a few days to enjoy this city of music during a 5-week work/vacation trip to Europe.
Apart from the heat wave we hit recently, this has been a wonderful time to reflect on creativity and the creative process. Vienna, in particular, is a city of sound. Tonight I plan to attend a Motzart concert and capture a portion of that to post here.
But most importantly, this time in Europe is giving me the opportunity to reflect on how I am approaching my creative pursuits and where I want to devote my creative effort. Europe holds layer after layer of creative output. It’s daunting. It’s inspiring. It can’t help but remind you that life is finite, and if its important to add to the collective accumulation then you have to focus, concentrate and commit to the effort involved. There’s not a large system to support artists now, but on the flip side it’s never been easier to distribute an artist’s work.
I noticed Andrew Norton back in February after viewing his website featuring photography, video, and audio stories. It’s well worth a visit as Andrew has a light, engaging style that’s very entertaining. I was interested in his background in photography and radio production, and when I saw that he’d participated in a Transom workshop I contacted him for some additional information about that experience.
As a legit radio guy, Andrew suggested that we conduct an interview over Skype. He offered to record his end. I haven’t done this type of interview before so I bit at the chance. Unfortunately, it’s taken me forever to turn this around, even though I had the recording quickly transcribed through Elance – a web service I use to outsource some of my back office work.
Q1: Andrew, can you give me some background about yourself?
Norton: I originally started as a photographer and actually, the way I started photography was through shooting skateboarding. I was interning with a skateboard magazine while I was in school for photography. They offered me a job so I started as a staff photographer. Eventually I became the Managing Editor and all the while I was still shooting photos for them and going on trips, and also acting kind of as a Photo Editor, thanks to my background in Photography.
Q2: What pulled you into radio and multimedia?
Norton: At the magazine our Copy Editor recommended some podcasts and things like This American Life, Radio Lab, American Media. I started listening to those religiously and it got me interested in storytelling. It kind of opened my eyes to a new form of storytelling and when I was writing for the magazine I adopted a writing style very similar to the radio style of writing: very short sentences and very frank, but adding some humor and person touches to it. I would get people on the phone and do strange interview, little personal stories – that was kind of my outlet. So I learned to write from radio people and I became obsessed with listening to radio & podcasts.
At some point, I got a new D3S camera and it had a video function on it. So I started messing around digital video. The first video I did was me telling a story about a friend of mine who owns a hamburger shop. He makes his own ketchup – it’s like a 12-hour process and the recipe dates from the 1800s. So I brought my DSLR and a wireless mic and we spent a couple of hours together. I interviewed him and shot some B-roll (I didn’t know it was called B-roll at the time). I just asked him to walk me through the process and I made a short little video about him making ketchup.
Q3: How did that lead to Transom?
Norton: About the same time my wife and I got married. For our honeymoon we basically just took off in a car. The whole time we were on this road trip we listened to podcast after podcast. I saw This American Life’s Facebook page with information about Transom. My wife coaxed me to go, so I applied and got in. Transom is a two-month intensive radio-making boot camp. You eat, sleep and breathe radio, going from zero to sixty in two months. At the end of it you have two radio stories. I went into it wanting to learn how to formally interview someone, what makes a good story, and what kind of stuff do you need to collect audio.
I’d never thought about making a radio story. Transom selects people that want to tell stories but from various backgrounds from newspaper writing to someone in our group who was a nurse. Transom is really good at getting you into shape and within the first couple of days you have a recorder in your hand and you’re out there, breaking the ice, talking to people. I think that’s a testament to how good they are, and it’s also a testament to how small the technical barriers are when it comes to radio.
Q4: Which medium do you prefer?
Norton: I just call myself a storyteller. That story can be told through photos, through video, through audio. There are pros and cons to each outlet. It kind of depends on the story. The big pro of radio is that it’s just so much easier to do sometimes. It gives you more freedom because there are fewer technical limitations. It’s quicker. And it’s a lot more personal. Radio set-up time is five minutes. To do video you have to set up two video cameras, you set up your lights, you set up your audio – the set-up time is so long. And once you set everything up, your subject is hyper-aware that you’re recording them. It just takes away a bit of intimacy. People let their guard drop quicker with audio because you’re just there and yeah there’s a microphone in their face but they get over it quickly. It takes less time to go over a barrier.
One advantage of video, though, is that people are much more likely to watch it online. If I put a 5-minute radio story online, only people who are radio nerds are going to listen to it. But if I put a 5-minute video online, more people are going to sit at their computers and watch it. And even though it’s easier to get your audio stories out there now, if you’re not already established the odds of people seeing your video is higher than audio because video has virality built into it. If you do a 50-minute radio story and put it on PRX you hope people hear it; but the pass-around rate is way less. If your goal is to get as many ears or eyes on your work, and your means is just self-publishing, the best way to go is video.
Also, I think video is a lot easier to sell to people. If I approach a local brewery and say, “I’m going to do a 5-minute audio piece on you”, I’m not sure they’d be interested. Whereas with video, you can make more money on that and it’s an easier sell to people.
But for me, the best, the most innovative storytelling is on radio. All you have is the story – just the audio. So you really have to have your storytelling chops honed.
Q5: What equipment do you use for audio recording?
Norton: It’s pretty simple: a Sony M10. It’s just a little handheld recorder. I also use an Electro-Voice RE50 mic, which is just a standard microphone with a little windscreen on it. Finally, I use a pair of headphones. So it’s pretty small for radio standards. And very non-invasive.
Stillmotion recently came out with the first 2 of 4 instructional videos on visual storytelling:
I highly recommend these short, 10-12 minute instructional videos. They present worthwhile information in an engaging, easy-to-understand style. In addition, they preview an upcoming competition where budding filmmakers can employ some of the presented techniques in a short film.
I recently purchased the Tascom iM2 stereo microphone for iPhones. The product cost me a whopping $29.27, and after struggling with the Tascom software app, I spent an additional $5.99 to purchase the Rode Rec app from iTunes. (One note: I think Rode lists their app at $4.99, but I was charged $5.99.)
Bingo! For about $35, I now have an easy-to-use portable field recorder mic that I’ll always have with me because it’s so light and small. It’s that latter point that motivated me: “always with me.” The recording quality is solid — Tascam iM2 Sample (.wav) — and easily executed. Just clip the Tascom iM2 into the 32-pin port of your iPhone, open the Rode recorder app, click “Record” and you’re running. Even better, short recorded files are easily sent via email directly from the iPhone.
The Tascam iM2 is available at Amazon.
My advice: don’t horse around with the Tascam recording app. Just go for the Rode Rec app. It’s intuitive and it works.
My son asked me for a photograph to use in a campaign to run for his high school student council. Rather than using a run-of-the-mill headshot, I asked him how he’d like to portray himself. “Rather not look like a nerd or egghead,” he said. So we came up with this idea:
The concept: late in the afternoon, even as the light fades and storm clouds pile up, there’s a guy out there practicing his hurdling form. That’s the guy you want working for you as your student council rep. The space below is reserved for text.
In a recent post about photojournalist Aaron Huey, I described how he uses Cowbird.com to chronicle his project on the Pine RidgeIndian Reservation. Cowbird.com is a web-based product for “a community of storytellers” that, by offering users storytelling tools for free, will “automatically find connections between your life and the lives of others forming a vast, interconnected ecosystem.”
To be honest, I’m struggling with the concept behind Cowbird. It seems to extract individual perspective from a story, leaving information (such as images, sounds and text) for the viewer/listener to interpret and make sense of. In a sense, the narrator has vanished — or maybe proliferated — and what remains are story elements that we (as viewers/listeners) need to assemble & compose into story.
But I’m running into similar themes elsewhere.
In a September 2012 post on PBS.org, author Sue Shardt in “Public Media Reinvents Itself With ‘Full-Spectrum’ Storytelling” describes a reinvention of storytelling within public media involving citizens as participants — not merely recipients — of documentary stories:
We are working in accordance with the fact that citizens are not only consuming radio and television over the air, they are downloading, creating, remixing, and sharing all kinds of media on small and large screens, and increasingly, in the street via mobile devices… Text, image, audio, video and dynamic user-generated submissions are all converging, spawning dynamic new media life forms.
Sue Shardt, as executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio (“AIR”), explains how AIR’s Localore is one of the “boundary-pushers”. Localore is a platform for independent producers to distribute documentaries about events affecting their lives. Similar in nature to the qualities inherent in Cowbird, Localore provides a mechanism for collaboration and participation in the documentation that is underway. Shardt explains:
There are more than 120 station-based, community, technology, and field producers operating out of our station hubs. The work underway recognizes the full spectrum. From a storytelling standpoint, there are multiple access points for citizens to not only experience, but to contribute as documentarians of their own lives. One operating principle for our work is that these access points should be identified, at least for a time, “outside” the current public broadcasting structure — both physical public media buildings (onto the “street” plane) — and also outside the broadcast space.
I’ve reached out to several radio producers — some of whom have worked in both radio and the visual arts — to ask about the qualities of radio and how those may best be employed in multimedia storytelling.
Jess Engebretson was introduced to radio while a student at Swarthmore College. She participated in the school’s War News Radio and PRX Radio’s Sudan Radio Project. Following that, Jess spent a year “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia, and Rwanda as a Watson Fellow; she subsequently taught radio journalism in Liberia, where she focused on human rights reporting and occasionally freelanced for PRI’s The World (Click hear to listen to two 2011 radio pieces). Jess is currently Associate Producer at BackStory, an outstanding public radio program and podcast.
Q1. What first attracted you to radio production?
Engebretson: When I was in college there was a student group that produced a radio program on the war in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in radio, but I was interested in Iraq, and the radio people were the ones who were calling up students in Basra and MPs in Baghdad. I wanted to do that, so I started turning up at the studio and getting people to show me what to do. I didn’t grow up listening to NPR, so it was new to me on every level.
Q2. I see from your background that while a student at Swarthmore you worked at Swarthmore’s War News Radio (http://warnewsradio.org). Can you tell me a little about that program?
Engebretson: This was a weekly-half hour program a bunch of students put together on the war in Iraq (and later, the war in Afghanistan as well, though I was pretty much exclusively on the Iraq beat). It was started in 2005, and the goal was to cover the war with depth and nuance and attention to both historical context and personal experience. It was important to us that the show be more than a roundup of bombings. We wanted to dig into Iraqi politics and make sense of why politicians and militia leaders made the choices they did, and what impact those choices had on everyday life for Iraqis. We did our best to include a broad range of voices, and give listeners a sense of the diversity of “war stories” out there. For example, there was a great piece about checkpoints that took the twin perspectives of an American soldier (who talked about the fear that any given person coming toward you might be about to blow you up) and an Iraqi civilian (whose daughter had been mistakenly shot dead by an American soldier as she tried to pass a checkpoint).
It was a massive amount of work and we were constantly understaffed and sounding like zombies because we voiced our pieces at 4 am. And we were in suburban Philadelphia, so all our interviews were over the phone or skype, which was a huge limitation. But I adored WNR and it really shaped what’s turned out to be a lasting interest in radio and conflict. The show aired on about 50 stations while I was there; the program’s changed quite a bit since then (especially given the “end” of the Iraq war), but they’re still making radio.
Q3. After Swarthmore, you spent some time “exploring radio and reconciliation” in Indonesia, Liberia and Rwanda, and then training radio journalism students in Liberia. Will you tell me about those experiences?
Engebretson: If you read about the 1994 Rwandan genocide one of the things you’ll come across is the role of hate radio in fueling the violence. Basically, I was interested in the flip side of that — how people in societies that have experienced mass violence are using radio to try to bridge divides and knit society back together. So I spent a year in those three countries looking at projects that approached radio from a reconciliationist point of view. That sounds really lovely on paper, but one of the ways Rwanda, for example, promotes “reconciliation” is by essentially declaring chunks of history and politics off-limits for journalists. And a lot of Rwandan journalists I met are understandably highly sensitive to the way radio has been used there in the past, and feel very strongly that avoiding those politicized issues is the right thing to do. Of course, plenty of other Rwandans disagree — but mostly behind closed doors. Personally, I do think that the lack of space for open discussion works against genuine reconciliation. But it’s a not an easy knot to unravel. I spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose of journalism.
That was all part of a fellowship year. Afterwards, in 2010, I moved back to Liberia for most of another year to be a trainer at the radio station at the University of Liberia. Liberia has a quite a vibrant media these days, and while there are definitely still limits to press freedom, there’s a real sense that journalists can begin to hold the government accountable. That’s never been the case until recently, so it was an exciting time to be there.
Q4. What makes a great radio piece?
Engebretson: Surprise, narrative tension, emotion, presenting people as people rather than stock characters. It needs to give some broader context to whatever the central issue is. It needs to use sound creatively (ie, hearing this on the radio should give me something I can’t get just from reading a transcription). It should change the way the listener sees the world, if only slightly.
Q6. What are the strengths and limitations of radio?
Engebretson: Strengths: You can hear the emotion in an interviewee’s voice, which often communicates much more than the raw words.. Also, you can hear their silence. Long pauses, stumbling for words — in the right context, those can be much more powerful than fluid speech.
Limitations: Often, time. That’s not an inherent limitation, but if you’re making radio for broadcast on an NPR station, you often get three or four minutes to tell a complicated story. A lot gets lost.
Q6. Coming from a radio producer’s perspective, how should multimedia producers employ audio to create the strongest stories?
Engebretson: Think about what story your audio is telling, and what story your images are telling. Often, of course, they’ll be complementary. But juxtaposing audio that points in one direction with an image that points in another can also be a powerful tool. It can expose the gap between what someone says and what the visual record shows.
Q7. Where can people go to learn how to better use audio elements in multimedia productions?
Engebretson: Transom.org is a great resource, as is the Association of Independents in Radio. Nieman Storyboard is not specific to audio, but is a wonderful resource for storytelling in all kinds of media.
Q8. What type of equipment did you use for producing the 2 radio pieces published on The World?
Engebretson: I used an Olympus LS-10. There aren’t any deep tech reasons for that — it was relatively cheap, highly portable, and was one of only two recorders that I’d used in the past. It didn’t actually occur to me that I might buy anything higher quality, or use an external mic. I think being in the right place at the right time trumped having top-notch equipment.