Andrew Norton – Interview

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.

Tascom iM2 mic for iPhone

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.

Jess Engebretson, Radio Producer

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.

Audio Storytelling Workshop

Transom.org, an organization that I would characterize as an “audio thinktank”, has just announced a 3-week “traveling” workshop to be held in New York Aug 12-30, 2013. Applications to this workshop will be accepted up to April 30th. A website with additional information is: http://transom.org/?p=33839, or by clicking the image below:

This 3-week documentary workshop will be co-sponsored by Transom.org, The Bronx Documentary Center and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The class format will be:

Week 1: Participants will be introduced to folklore and oral history approaches. They will also identify potential story ideas for the following weeks.

Week 2: Audio Boot Camp. Participants will learn basic audio skills such as: using field recording gear, approaching and interviewing strangers, writing for radio, voicing narration, digital editing basics. Each student will produce a vox pop and a promo. Audio Boot Camp will be taught be Sarah P. Reynolds (an independent producer and regular Transom instructor).

Week 3: Audio Narrative. This week will build on the audio skills learned in Boot Camp and will focus on storytelling as well as field recording, interview techniques, multitrack editing, and script writing. Participants will produce a short broadcast-quality piece about a creative person. The Audio Narrative portion of the workshop will be taught by Rob Rosenthal (founder of Transom.org).

Transom’s intensive “boot camp” workshops typically run for 2 months, so this 3-week format is somewhat unusual. But the organization is experimenting with some shorter-format classes (such as two 1-week workshops for which, unfortunately, the registration deadlines have already past).

The Art of Storytelling (audio course)

I’m listening in to an audio course entitled The Art of Storytelling, offered through the online company The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com).

The Art of Storytelling consists of 24 lectures, each 30 minutes, which I listen to during my commute. The instructor is Hannah B. Harvey, a professional storyteller and performance artist. Dr. Harvey holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies/Communication Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and she is now an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University.

As a performance ethnographer, Professor Harvey develops oral histories into theatrical and solo storytelling works. Her stories highlight the experiences of contemporary Appalachian people. More important to me, Dr. Harvey is an engaging, fun speaker to listen to. While The Art of Storytelling course is primarily directed at oral storytelling, I’m finding applications to multimedia storytelling.

Yesterday’s lecture, for example, walked through the ways to use time in storytelling to focus the audience on specific elements of the teller’s story. In addition to using just “scene time” (where time in storytelling approximates actual time), Dr. Harvey described techniques to slow time & accelerate time for dramatic effect. Dr. Harvey also illustrated ways to mix past tense, present tense and future tense in storytelling for creative purposes. I’m finding the lectures interesting: they bring up topics that I don’t normally think about.

Today’s lecture focused on the narrator’s role and tools available to the narrator such as switching between “closed focus” (the story’s details in the “then and there”) and “open focus” (the narrator’s connection with the audience in the “here and now”). Again, this discussion was interesting because I wasn’t conscious of how “closed focus”/”open focus” could be used creatively – but as soon as Dr. Harvey mentioned it I thought of Woody Allen’s opening sequence in Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, Woody first speaks directly to the audience (“open focus”) about the characters, setting and background of his film, and then Woody flips himself into a character (“closed focus”) for most of the film. Occasionally we hear Woody as narrator addressing the audience directly. It’s a nice illustration of Dr. Harvey’s “closed focus”/”open focus” narration technique.

I recommend this course, particularly if you have long hours to kill (like during a commute). You can get a sample of the product on the course website page. I also recommend that you wait for the course on sale. I paid $35 for the audio download during one of their periodic sales, but I see that right now that same audio download version costs $130. Finally, I got the audio download but there are a few spots in the lectures where video would be beneficial.

Kate Holt: Effective Audio Slideshows

In an earlier post I wrote about Soundslides, a software package that helps photographers move into multimedia by automating slideshow transitions and incorporating sound. Soundslides also has a blog, and I found this recent post entitled “Kate Holt’s Digital Storytelling Insights – Part 1“.

This is the first of several Soundslide blog posts, each covering Holt’s storytelling process. Holt prefers audio slideshows because of their simplicity. But she describes her not-so-simple preparation and workflow in putting an audio slideshow together.

Kate Holt is a freelance journalist based in the Nairobe. After spending time with the BBC, Holt undertook a project to document refugees fleeing from Bosnia into Albania in 1999. Following that endeavor, Holt spent several years documenting human sex-trafficing in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, followed by a similar expose in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003. Holt has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Award for Humanitarian reporting; she’s also been nominated for the Prix Pictet Photographic Award.

Click image below to view an example of one of Holt’s audio slideshows:


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19060390

Sound Piece

Gearing up for football season is always an exciting time around our house. 2012 is no different. We have 2 boys, both play football but at different high schools. The programs are different – in some ways like night and day – so it’s an interesting contrast in styles, personalities and perspectives. But, hey, underneath it all at any football program is a lot of hard work. Sweat. Frustration. Exhaustion. Commeraderie. Competition. All that stuff which makes it such a fertile environment for honing multimedia skills. There’s a lot of action, a lot of passion and emotion, and if you stuff your camera in there some fantastic imagery.

There’s also wind, distracting noise, 250 lb. guys smashing into each other at full speed (with potential camera/audio gear collateral damage), swearing (high audio recording spikes), coaches who don’t know what you’re doing in their practice, and all kinds of additional impediments to a good multimedia story. Perfect!

Here’s a little “sound piece” that I put together during practice. Later in the season I’ll add some narration layers across the top of shorts like this to build up more of a story. And this year – my resolution each season – I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.

Stills captured with Nikon D700 and D300 using a 17-35 f/2.8 lens. Video capture with (new) GoPro HERO2 (I’m lovin’ this thing!) Audio capture with Audio Technica AT8035 shotgun mic mounted on a monopod (serving as a multi-use boom pole), pumped into Marantz 661 digital recorder. I dropped in one audio track (the “swoosh” sound) purchased off Pond5. Project edited in Final Cut.

Stream of Consciousness

Talking Eyes Media created this short film to promote Ed Kashi’s new book, “Photojournalisms”. (Click on image to activate the film)

This is a short film done is worth watching, as it presents some of Ed’s still images and a running almost stream-of-consciousness narrative to accompany the imagery. Ed discusses some of the emotions he feels working as a photojournalist for 30 years. Physical discomforts, fatigue, anxiety, longing for home and family — these are some of the phrases Kashi as narrator mentions in the film. This stream-of-consciousness narration allows me as a viewer to experience the compelling images from a different point of view. The narration begs me as listener to actively arrange and order the ideas presented into a coherent whole — and my reaction is amplified when still images also cycle past my eyes. I find I’m actively decyphering the bits and pieces that come past me (oral and visual) and reconstructing the piece as it evolves.

We need to employ this stream-of-consciousness technique more often. It honors the listener/viewer as an active participant, capable of forming their own conclusions based on raw information.

Check out another interesting use of this technique: Studs Terkel’s Prix Italia Award-winning audio piece called “Born to Live” (created over 50 years ago but still relevant today), available as a Podcast dated 11/5/2008 from Transom.

The Evolving High School Portrait

Here’s an interesting permutation of the high school portrait, employing audio interviews and ambient recordings with still photographs. (Click image for multimedia player.)

I like the quality of the sound – both interview tracks and recordings of ambient sound. I’m less thrilled with the still photos – to me the photographyer Tom Salyer (www.miamimultimediaphotographer.com) seems to use too many of very similar shots. I think he could insert a greater variety of still photographs and create parallel visual stories to keep the mind occupied while listening to the audio tracks. This guy is a very good photographer, so that incremental change would really enhance the final production in my opinion.

In his blog, it’s clear that photographer Tom Salyer is spending a lot of time working to perfect his audio recording skills. He also references some other photographers who are collaborating to add motion and sound to still photography.

Vexed By The Poet

Norman Chichester, a local poet, presents an interesting challenge. My goal is to create a multimedia portrait of Norman using still images and audio recordings of his voice. We met one evening to record Norman reading some of his poems and discussing their origin and source.

What I’m finding is that while Norman is a very interesting guy, he is essentially a content man who has lived a full life and relishes his memories. Creating a stimulating story about a quiet, content man is surprisingly difficult. I took a number of photos of him from a variety of angles – but despite the variation of angles and perspectives, at the end of the day what I now hold are quite similar-looking images of a man sitting in a chair reading. Norman’s vocal intonations are great, but you can only do so much… It’s anything but dynamic.

The fundamental problem is the lack of story. There’s no beginning, middle, and end — just an end: a vignette of Norman as he is today.

So I went back to Norman’s place this weekend to get something of his history — how this poetry thing came to be. It turns out Norman has a very interesting story. He was always interested in language, even in childhood. But a physical limitation (a tremor in his hands) prevented Norman from living the life of a poet. Norman’s writing was so poor, he told me, that it was virtually indeciperable to read. Instead of the life of a writer, Norman pursued a career for 35 years as a square dance caller and teacher. “A square dance teacher,” he told me, “is something of a bard. He creates poetry in the moment in the great tradition of the storyteller.” He has to create rhymes at the spur of the moment, directing his dancers around the floor. Norman’s 35 years of square dance calling served as his school for meter, rhyme and performance.

In his 50s, Norman acquired a word processing computer which served to liberate him from his physical limitation. “I was finally able to write poetry,” he said. And he’s continued to do so well into his 70s.

I’m now embedding some audio clips and still images within this larger story of how Norman overcame his physical limitations to write poetry after decades of frustration.