How to Truly Listen
As a musician, I was fascinated by the idea that being a musician is all about listening and responding to the parts of music that are not written down. It worked for me as an analogy to being willing and able to listen to people in order to interpret them and uncover the parts of them that are not so readily apparent (in other words, the parts that aren’t “written down”).
Summary of Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad
Ira says two most important tools for broadcasting is an anecdote (story) – he sees even though it may be a boring sequence of events, it draws the listener in. I believe its more than just following a sequence of events that the listener is following with the hope of a destination. I believe that part of the way it works is that the viewer automatically relates to the story, to the main character and imagines what they would do in that situation – unspooling the story both as the teller tells it and how they would live it. They can visualize the story and are experiencing it as it is laid out. As for as the need for Glass’ second point (“the moment of reflection”), that’s the destination he hints at with the first point. I agree that both are needed, although I believe the first is more valuable than the second. My reasoning is that as long as you have a story that works, the listener may be able to gain their own measure of insight or new understanding from the story, even if the listener fails to provide it through their moment of reflection. By way of contrast, if the story stinks, you’ll never get to the end and any chance of connecting with the listener is lost. Mr. Glass seems to underscore my point when he describes the amount of effort expended in finding the great stories out there. I also found it fascinating the way he describes the need to cut out all the crap in a story. It kind of crushes the idea that spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness creativity can work – at least in his vision of story production. It’s also encouraging to hear that creative people work on disappointing efforts, even knowingly. I feel that a lot of my work falls under the heading of “acceptable”, but setting my own high bar helps me realize when I do work that supersedes that and reaches the status of being “very good”. I think what Mr. Glass is saying is that you need to set a high bar for yourself and judge yourself solely on that bar, even recognizing when you fall short. I loved hearing his critique of his own work – ripping it apart and then explaining it again, so simply that you wonder how his 27-year-old self could have fouled it up so badly. The idea of turning the lens away from yourself and pointing it at the world seems so obvious and yet it reminds me of people that are so bad at conversation because they only talk about themselves. As Charles Bukowski once said, the writer’s greatest failure is assuming that everyone else thinks their lives are as interesting as they think they are.
In terms of Jad Abumrad’s take on radio, I agree that the allure of radio has always been that listeners have to fill in the gaps in the story. I still am yet to seek out pictures of the people or places in “Serial” because I want to be able to put the faces I imagine to the voices and picture the park and the woods and the school as Sarah describes them, not as they are dictated to me via reality. It also puts more of a challenge to the radio producers to create those images when they lose the most obvious tool – the visual tool.
Interesting how he talks about the sick-to-your-stomach feeling of creating his radio show. I think this goes back to the idea of challenging yourself and setting your own bar. Clearly, Jad wasn’t judging his work by anyone else’s standards since (by his own account) no one was listening. I had a similar experience when I hosted a radio show on weekend overnights in college. I ended up grabbing a bunch of friends and dragging them in with me from 2am to 6am every Thursday night. While I was sloppy with the rules and didn’t really give the medium the respect it deserved, we ended up coming with a bunch of regular bits – funny stuff that people actually enjoyed (we know because they called up and told us and, in one case, brought us free bagels). Was that the same kind of “gut churn” Jad describes? No, but it does show that once the creative juices start flowing and you eliminate the worries about trying to adhere to anyone else’s standards, you can come up with some fun stuff.
I felt that Sarah Larson’s article in the New Yorker actually downplayed the expertise that the writers and producers of “Serial” bring to their craft. Yes, she pointed out what they don’t do – for instancing, using “pop songs as ironic segues between scenes”. But I didn’t think she went far enough in explaining why they do what they do. To me, it’s because this creation is less about a radio “show” and more about a radio “conversation” or “experience. Larson describes it as a “thoughtful exploration of real, recognizable people” and she’s right. But the key there is that the way the story is told keeps the listener =in= the story. In my opinion, the way you are introduced to people in the context of the broadcast, or the way Sarah Koenig intersperses sound clips into the mix is done specifically in a way to minimize the distractions that remind you that you’re listening to a radio broadcast. Throughout the series, music is used sparingly – only to provide a moment for the listener to catch their breath or to mark the end of one theme or line of thinking and signal the start of another. In this way, I feel the music is expertly used. In fact, it’s not about the music at all – rarely did I even register what kind of music it was because it seemed to be chosen so as not to be jarring – it only served as a kind of refresher for the mental palate. I will say, however, that in the third episode, they used more dark, foreboding music to frame the introduction of Mr. S. I felt it was unnecessary – his story is disturbing enough. Listening to the third episode in the context of Jad Abumrad’s discussion of the need for a listener to use their own imagination to complete the story made me acutely aware of how the producers set the stage for the narrative surrounding Leakin Park. I found it fascinating how Sarah describes the park – both as a dumping ground for bodies (illustrated by others’ stories) and then, later, when she describes the terrain of it (describing it as “quite lovely”) and also the sketchy nature of it (like the sign with bullet holes in it). If I remember correctly, the natural sounds of them walking through the woods was included. I thought that was very effective and would (whenever possible) use more of the natural sounds of these places, to increase the sense of actually being there alongsideMs. Koenig. The article also discusses how the production team goes about creating the episodes and what stuck out to me there was how deliberate they were about trying to the mystery of the story and make sure that the information that led you to believe Syed was innocent or guilty was evenly distributed so as to attempt to never tip the listener too far to one side. I was somewhat surprised about that, in that it seems to clash with the idea of simply following the facts and revealing them as they come to light. But as Larson puts it, “(the producers) didn’t want listeners to think that they…were assuming his innocence or guilt.” So I suppose in the interest of trying to remain even-handed I can see why they produced it the way that they did. The commentary from both Koenig and her producers about sound effects (trunk pop, music breaks) was also fascinating. I have no doubt that Koenig had visualized this entire thing before she presented it. All in all, I believe “Serial” makes excellent use of its resources, relying heavily on what I describe as natural sound – the interviews or the sounds from the park – without inserting jarring music breaks or audio cues that are supposed to guide the listener to the place the producers want them to be. The story itself is powerful enough that the listener will get there on their own.
Listening to more radio
I am now following ds106 radio on Twitter – I should mention that first. The handful of times I’ve tuned in so far, there’s been some kind of music – either an actual song. or a kind of musical soundtrack. I will keep trying.
Working on the Radio Projects
I’ve downloaded audacity and am working on creating a radio bumper. The recording portion of it is very simple but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to cut and paste these tracks. I did it once successfully, but the cut tools and CTRL-X is not working for me. I have a music and an voice track and they are set at the right levels but the music track needs to be faded and cut – it runs for another 2 minutes after the voice track. I am 30 minutes in and can’t figure it out, even with the help of my wife who is a professional Avid editor. The web tutorials are not helping. (10 minutes later). Ok, something changed – now the cut function is working again. I didn’t mess with this too much. Just faded in and faded out and set levels on the two tracks. I uploaded it to soundcloud. (I know I tagged this one AudioAssignments but didnt create a separate tag for AudioAssignments 36 – now that I’ve saved it I dont know how to change the tags).
I also created a very brief story out of sound effects. This one was easy – and amazingly, the cut function worked perfectly this time. Live and learn. Once again, uploaded to soundcloud.
First Daily create – What’s your Flag? (uploaded to Flickr – tdc1038)
Second Daily create – art with a coffee stain (I enjoy the ones involving drawing) tdc1138
I always run into the same problems with these – I always have trouble finding the files where I save them. Ultimately I found it though. Also, for some reason Flickr isn’t allowing me access right now.
Creating stories with just audio is much more difficult than I realized. The timing, volume, positioning of audio cues all play a role in telling a story. And, as we learned from Serial, sometimes the best choice is to leave the more dramatic cues out so as to allow the listener more of an opportunity to visualize the story themselves. Creating udio clips was difficult but not so bad that I gave up in frustration. A glitch with Audacity held me up for a while, but once it was solved, the controls were relatively easy. I think I could create a radio program without much difficulty (assuming I had the time). In saying that, I am taking Iraq Glass’ advice and setting the bar high. Hopefully, not too high. One thing I would like to note before moving on – the sheer number of windows Ihave to have open at any given time to complete my ds106 tasks is a bit daunting. Right now, I have at least half a dozen or more open, including our class site, the ds106 site, Audacity, Soundcloud, the tutorial, etc. Just an observation.