The Making of “The Corner”

October 9th, 2009 | Produced by Jenny Asarnow

The Corner


A Place and an Idea

Transom is working with the Association of Independents in Radio and producers from their Maker’s Quest to bring you behind-the-scenes reports. We’re starting with THE CORNER from Jenny Asarnow in Seattle. She writes, “The Central District is a lovely, lush neighborhood. But 23rd and Union is a ghost corner… I wanted to know why this place is the way it is. And I wanted to invite everyone who knew the neighborhood to collaborate in telling its story.” Jenny is a talk show producer at KUOW, but she wanted to find new ways to tell stories using sound, image, phone, web, and a public installation. Come see and hear what she did and how she collaborated. Get details on the things she learned, to wit: Go Multi Media, Go Public, Share Ownership, Embrace Your Role, Embrace Failure. Jenny is taking your questions.

A Place and an Idea

The Corner installation

The Corner installation

The corner of Twenty–Third Avenue and East Union Street is near the geographical center of Seattle. For decades it’s been a hub for Seattle’s Black community. But that’s changing. Like other neighborhoods in the city, the Central District is in flux. Upwardly mobile folks – many of them white – have moved in, and housing prices have gone up. Now neighbors, old and new, are struggling to find their place here.

The Central District is a lovely, lush neighborhood. But 23rd and Union is a ghost corner. Boarded up buildings and vacant lots exist there. So do memories of violent drug deals and police shootings.

I wanted to know why this place is the way it is. And I wanted to invite everyone who knew the neighborhood to collaborate in telling its story. So I created The Corner: 23rd and Union.

In June, The Corner opened up a phone line and asked neighbors to call in and share their stories about 23rd and Union. Callers left more than 200 messages. They shared memories, desires, hopes and fears. They sang, yelled and prayed. Callers’ stories collectively depict a rich and complicated place.

How All This Came About

I moved to Seattle five years ago. 23rd and Union is where I wait for the bus to get to my job at KUOW 94.9 Public Radio, where I’m a talk show producer. The corner always seemed strange to me. People avoided eye contact there. I was warned not to walk there at night. I did anyway.

When I started to learn more about 23rd and Union, I was shocked by how thoroughly its history had disappeared from the physical landscape. The corner was for many decades a vibrant, bustling commercial and cultural center. There were two big grocery stores, a meat market, a drugstore, churches, doctors and lawyers offices and a Black-owned bank. The Central District was never homogeneous, but it was the only Black neighborhood in Seattle. Because of racially restrictive real estate practices, it was one of the only areas African Americans could live. Since the slow process of gentrification started 30 years ago, the black community has dissipated. Now there is no geographical center for Seattle’s black community and people really feel the loss.

But I didn’t know all of that when I started out. I was just confused. And that made me curious. And I probably would have remained idly curious. But then at last fall’s Third Coast International Audio Festival I heard about Maker’s Quest 2.0 (MQ2). It was conceived and developed by the Association of Independents in Radio with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NEA.

I asked colleagues to nominate me and to my happy surprise I was chosen to submit a proposal. That’s when the idea for The Corner was born.


Making The Corner Happen

The Corner flier

The Corner flier

I wanted to know if there was some way to talk about gentrification that was creative, respectful, and uninhibited. I wanted everyone to collaborate: newcomers and old timers, wealthy and poor, black and white, young and old, angry and hopeful … everyone. Really. Everyone.

I bought a vanity toll free number (877-R23-UNION) and set up a totally automated hotline. Messages people left became outgoing messages other people heard, and if you left a message it showed up on our Web site, without us having to lift a finger.

I wanted to create something big and visual and public on 23rd and Union that would make people want to call in.


The first and most important step was to find collaborators. I found a project partner in photojournalist Inye Wokoma. He and his extended family have lived a few blocks from 23rd and Union his whole life. If I represent change in the neighborhood, he represents continuity. We worked collaboratively to find people to interview and photograph. We were crafting the documentary, and we were also setting the stage for others to join in the conversation. So we sought out recognizable people who would lend The Corner legitimacy and inspire their communities to join in.

Inye took a series of beautiful portraits of neighbors standing on the corner. I made 16 sound portraits. We put the sound portraits in the phone line before it went live, as outgoing messages.

Jean Tinnea

Jean Tinnea


The owner of an empty lot that covers a whole block on the corner said we could put an art installation there. I hired two visual artists, “Scratchmaster” Joe Martinez and NKO. They blew up Inye’s photographs – they printed the biggest one on an 8’x8′ panel – and built a village of gigantic picture frames out of found wood and metal.

BBQ Celebration

BBQ Celebration

NKO painted colorful signs that announced “This is a powerful corner. Call the story hotline.” We put up posters and papered the neighborhood with postcards.

It’s a strange and wonderful thing to see your neighbor walk by a larger than life image of himself. The neighborhood was reflecting back at itself in a very public way!

Next, we had to celebrate. Barbecue!

Ms. Helen’s soul food restaurant used to be where the installation sits. I found Ms Helen living at a nearby retirement home. She graciously agreed to cook shrimp creole and peach cobbler for our barbecue.

The minute the installation went up I got calls to be on the local TV news, the Seattle Times, popular blogs, magazines, and of course, KUOW. Which was perfect because we wanted everyone to know about the project so as many people as possible would call in.

Making The Corner Radio

The Corner Installation

The Corner Installation

I set about making radio out of the many messages people called in.

My goal was to capture the depth of emotion people feel for 23rd and Union and broadcast it out to the larger Seattle area. The conversations happening in the Central District were so much more complicated than the majority of news reports which focused solely on crime or development.

I started by podcasting the sound portraits I’d made, and the best messages we received. Then we broadcast a bunch of those segments on KUOW (on All Things Considered and on the local talk shows) and on Hollow Earth Radio Seattle’s online-only freeform radio station. In every broadcast we’d prompt listeners with a question like “what needs to happen on 23rd and Union?” and invite them to call in.

Then I wove together the interviews I did with the calls we received and created three radio features.

Jim Gates edited the features. Central District MC Yirim Seck was our narrator. The stories aired on KUOW.

These stories are not the only ones that could be told about 23rd and Union. They’re simply the stories that came out of my collaboration with the people who chose to participate in The Corner.


Lessons From The Corner

1. Go multi media. The Corner exists in multiple public spaces, physical and virtual. It’s a public art installation, a radio broadcast, a platform that entices people to confess, tell stories and sing, and a forum that sparks discussion about race, class and home. It’s on a street corner, on two radio stations, on its own beautiful Web site, RSS feed, and Facebook. It’s on your phone. It’s on a poster, and on a postcard you can hold in your hand. Every platform we used was an extension of the project’s mission, which was to spark conversation and deeper understanding of a place and the people in it.

2. Go public. My advice to you: Install a public art installation on the nearest vacant lot. Throw a party. Have a barbecue. Free food = community fun and gets your project attention.

3. Share ownership. Encourage people with conflicting interests to take a stake in your project. Give them a tool that’s fun to use. Listen to what people have to say and give them the benefit of the doubt. Take them seriously.

4. Embrace your role. I put myself in the uncomfortable position of covering a story I was a part of. As a young white person, I represent change in the Central District many residents resent. One person called the story hotline repeatedly and yelled vicious things at me. I had accept that anger was a part of the story of 23rd and Union, and that it was important to include it in The Corner. I also realized it was important for me to explain to people where I was coming from if I wanted them to open up.

5. Embrace failure. MQ2’s staff made clear from the beginning that it was okay if The Corner failed. Knowing I could fail gave me enormous freedom. It’s a freedom we station producers don’t have, simply because we have to get a show on the air … right now! But that freedom is crucial if your goal is to create truly innovative work.

It was scary to do something so big and so new and so public. I didn’t know if anyone would call. Whenever we try something new, we very well might fall flat on our faces. That’s terrifying.

But to move ahead, to find and create new ways of making public media, we must try!

Collaborators and Tech Notes

I’ve been privileged to spend the last few months working with an amazing group of multimedia artists:
Inye Wokoma collaborated through most of the process, and took photographic portraits of neighbors standing on 23rd and Union. Sound artist Anna Callahan built The Corner’s beautiful Web site. Joseph Sheedy created the software behind the automated voicemail system. “Scratchmaster” Joe Martinez, NKO, No Touching Ground and David Rauschenberg created the artwork on 23rd and Union. Yirim Seck hosted the voicemail and the radio broadcasts. Many, many volunteers helped along the way. I’m grateful to all my neighbors who made this project succeed by offering candid criticism and generous goodwill.

Thanks to Inye Wokoma for providing all the photos used on this page, except for the BBQ photo which was taken by Karen Reagan.

About Jenny Asarnow

AIR 2009 MQ2 grantee Jenny Asarnow produces talk shows at KUOW Public Radio. She created a series of nationally-distributed youth radio showcases in collaboration with the Public Radio Exchange. Jenny is the program coordinator at Hollow Earth Radio, an online freeform community station. She performs music as Sweet Potatoes and lives in Seattle in a big blue house.


12 Comments on “The Making of “The Corner””

  • Jenny Asarnow says:
    Thanks!

    Thanks Megan!
    Jenny

  • James Edward Mills says:
    One long ramble

    This piece is rich with a great many voices that reflect several different points of view from throughout the community. To the producers’ credit they asembled the makings of a great story. But there’s more to storytelling than the gathering and presentation of pertinent facts. There was neither focus nor direction to this piece, nothing to captivate the listener’s attention to prompt speculation on the circumstances that created this corner and impacted the lives of those who live now or in the past. A central voice or a narrator would have helped, but what has been presented here is little more than a long ramble of interesting details with no context. A wasted effort.

  • Zak Rosen says:
    um, wasted effort?

    To call The Corner a "wasted effort" is hugely unfair. First of all, I don’t think any sincere, well-intentioned effort can or should be called "wasted."

    I don’t live in Seattle, but I doubt the people people who came across The Corner (whether on the radio, the hotline, the bbq, or the blown-up photographs) felt like this project was a waste. Instead, I’m confident they looked at this place in a new way.

    At the very least, The Corner was an experiment in a new way of getting information/ideas out about a place. But I think it was actually so much more than that.

    The 3 pt. radio story was interesting in that it gave me a real sense of the circumstances in which 23rd and Union came to be as it is today, and in that regard, the stories seemed to anchor the project.

    But I imagine for the people living near 23rd and Union, this project felt/feels like a living, evolving experiment in their neighborhood, rather than just a static story they heard on the radio.

    Jenny, I’m wondering what your favorite part of this project was. Did the "conventional" radio pieces feel less important and impactful to you because of all the other stuff you did with The Corner?

    I loved your thinking in why you and Inye worked so well together, and find hope in these collaborations. Rather than us producers figuring out every layer of multi-media production, I’m much more interested in projects where individual efforts and personalities lend themselves to a greater, nuanced output, like this. Of course, there’s not usually money for such collaborations, but maybe this Mq2 thing will help set a new collaboration precedent.

    Congrats.

  • Judithglasss says:
    Wasted comment

    James your comment only reveals that you are a total loser. Or totally jealous, or a creepy stalker of poor Jenny.

  • Jenny Asarnow says:
    favorite parts / efforts

    Hi all-
    Thanks for your comments …

    It’s interesting, I don’t think I emphasized here, but this project happened over a very, very compressed time frame. We did all of this in a bit more than 5 months. I probably could have spent 5 months JUST working on 3 features about 23rd and Union. They would have been different stories. I don’t know if they would have been better.

    Like you say, Zac,
    " I imagine for the people living near 23rd and Union, this project felt/feels like a living, evolving experiment in their neighborhood, rather than just a static story they heard on the radio."

    That’s how it was. The installation and phone line opened in June, along with the Facebook page … and short sound portraits (including Jean’s which you can listen to above) aired on KUOW and Hollow Earth Radio from June until the end of August.

    Some people probably never heard any of the audio – they just saw the installation or got a postcard.I bet some people only saw the Facebook page. The project was designed to be available to people wherever they wanted to experience it, and then nudge them to also call the phone line.

    Zac you ask: ‘Jenny, I’m wondering what your favorite part of this project was. Did the "conventional" radio pieces feel less important and impactful to you because of all the other stuff you did with The Corner?’

    You know, the final 3 features I made felt like a culmination of the whole process, and also my own way of reflecting on the project. They were definitely important, but they certainly weren’t the only measure of the project’s success. One of my main goals was just to get people talking and listening, which happened all summer.

    As far as what my favorite audio was- I was really happy with the sound portraits I produced. I felt like some of them came out exactly as I wanted them to, which is all I could really ask for. I also think they got people talking in a constructive way. I was feeling the 2 minute format + liked getting to hear one person’s perspective at a time.

    One thing I LOVED is that a lot of people called into the phone line just to listen. I could see on the call records that people called back multiple times and spent 10, 20 minutes at a time listening. So that was really exciting.

    Zac: ‘Rather than us producers figuring out every layer of multi-media production, I’m much more interested in projects where individual efforts and personalities lend themselves to a greater, nuanced output, like this.’

    YES – I couldn’t agree more. Working with people who are masters at their craft was incredibly exciting. The challenge was giving up control. In this case I got to hire people I admire – Inye, ‘Scratchmaster’ Joe Martinez + NKO who designed the installation, and Anna Callahan who designed the Web site. That made power sharing easier, because I wanted to see what they were going to come up with. It was incredibly gratifying to see my idea interpreted and expanded by other artists. And I learned a lot just observing everyone’s working process. And yes, it was essential to be able to pay people fairly for their work.

  • Joe Richman says:
    a community documentary

    I just spent a lot of time on the site and I loved this ‘community documentary’. It’s a reminder to look for big stories in small places. And this advice was inspirational:
    "Go public. My advice to you: Install a public art installation on the nearest vacant lot. Throw a party. Have a barbecue. Free food = community fun and gets your project attention."

    Radio shouldn’t just go out into the ether. It’s good for street corners too.

  • Lu says:
    phone lines

    "One thing I LOVED is that a lot of people called into the phone line just to listen. I could see on the call records that people called back multiple times and spent 10, 20 minutes at a time listening."

    I also love that. What a great way to get audio OUT there.

    Can you tell us more about the phone lines?

    What did people hear when they called? How was it structured so someone could listen for 10, 20 minutes? What kind of sound were they listening to? Raw calls? Single pieces? Multiple pieces? How could they navigate through it? How many calls did you get?

  • Jenny Asarnow says:
    re: phone lines + community

    Joe- thanks so much for your comment. I’m honored.

    Lu- thanks for asking!

    Here’s a recording of what it sounded like when you called (this is an actual real time phone call) -

    http://transom.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/TheCornerVoicemail-transom.mp3

    In the sample, a story I produced plays. But when you called any of the audio could play – a sound portrait I produced or a message someone left. It was totally random.

    All of the messages were unedited. There was a 2 minute time limit for all of the audio. So if you left a message you were cut off after 2 minutes.

    If you were listening, after 2 minutes the story would end. Then you’d be asked if you wanted to leave a message, or if you would like to hear another story.

    You could stay on the line as long as you liked and listen to as many stories as you wanted.

    More details:

    When you called, first you’d be asked if you wanted to leave a message right away or listen to a story. If you chose to listen to a story you were asked to choose a number 1-6. That’s because we divided the stories and messages into 6 categories to correspond to our six questions:

    1 What do think of when you think: 23rd and Union?
    2 Whose corner is 23rd and Union?
    3 What stories do you tell about 23rd and Union?
    4 Why is 23rd and Union this way?
    5 What needs to happen on 23rd and Union?
    6 Rap, sing, pray for 23rd and Union.

    After you heard a story, you would hear one of those six questions, depending on what number you pressed before. You could also choose to listen to all of the answers to that question, in which case you’d hear one loong audio file that played the messages in the order they were left.

    I don’t have a precise count of the number of calls but it’s in the 800-900 range. We got more than 200 messages.

    We tried to keep it an non-infuriating as possible, but you did have to press buttons on your phone at various points to navigate the system. :) I think having Yirim Seck (local rapper) host the voicemail helped a lot because he doesn’t sound like one of those annoying automated voices.

  • Megan Hall says:
    So Awesome!

    Jenny-

    I love this project because it’s not really about radio at all. It’s about all the many ways to build community and actually talk about the places where we live through any sort of media that makes sense.

    Radio is just one tool among many (including the all important barbecue) to create that sort of magic among people that live in the same neighborhood.

    Well done! What an inspiring project.

    Megan Hall Hall Hall

  • Jesse Hardman says:
    Great job

    Really enjoyed your work on this. I appreciate the way you contributed and collaborated with the community. Too often we show up, record something, and take off. I think it’s important to establish a conversation, so people feel like they aren’t just being documented, but sharing and participating. Keep doing this kind of work, I think you are on to something.

    Thanks,

    Jesse

  • Lu says:
    I agree with Jesse

    Jenny,

    What impressed me were the many small details that made it so personal for people. You really did your homework. You learned, you listened and you responded in such a thoughtful way. This is a prime example: "Ms. Helen’s soul food restaurant used to be where the installation sits. I found Ms Helen living at a nearby retirement home. She graciously agreed to cook shrimp creole and peach cobbler for our barbecue."

    I can see why people in the neighborhood responded!

  • Davia says:
    Pulled in

    Jenny and Co,

    I too spent a good stretch seeing the many ways you made this project come to life. First of all, I love your title. The Kitchen Sisters have always dreamed of a project with that name, The Corner, it is so simple and so full of strange possibility. I like that you wanted to know everything about this place, this neighborhood, the now of it and the before, and wanted to collaborate with those whose place it is in the chronicling of it.

    I love that you opened up a phone line so people could not just call in, but could listen to the calls by calling in as well. That lights me up.

    You accomplished a lot in five months. I like the experiment.

    How would you do it different next time?

    All the best,
    Davia Nelson

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