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Audio Danger: Digital Permanence

Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is teaming up with Nieman Storyboard to bring you more of Julia Barton's essays on life in radio journalism: Audio Danger. This time Julia riffs on perfectionism. We used to be able to fail productively (or just abysmally) in private; now everything is etched into our permanent record. And, by the way, how do editors fit in all this?

Epic Fail: Mix Tape Live

The worst of times came soon after I started in radio in 1995, running the evening board at WSUI-AM in Iowa City.

The phone rang in the studio. “Did you know that everything you’re saying is going out on the air?” asked a woman’s voice, shaking.

I’d been using the board to record a mix tape for my far-off boyfriend, and I thought I knew how to do that without broadcasting my intimate messages. I didn’t know.

The caller, who happened to be my boss’s wife, promised not to tell her husband about my disastrous mistake. I hung up the phone and died.

Actually, didn’t die! Also no one else noticed what I’d done. And that’s how I learned about the impermanence of radio.

The World in REC

Our world has flipped, of course, to constant REC mode, and everything we do now is stored somewhere, disasters and all. Like anyone else with an ego, I’m happy about this state of affairs. I like the fact that my work does not go to “waste,” that someone might discover it years from now and appreciate all of it!

But as an editor, part of my job is to help people let go of ideas or approaches that aren’t working. And I find now more than ever, it seems harder to get people to let go of their work; everyone seems to be thinking about his or her output as a continuous audition tape. Within the space of a few years, we went from an ephemeral medium to a publishing medium, and that’s changing the way we think about the work we do. I’m also finding it’s forcing me to change some of the assumptions I make as a broadcast editor.

As someone trained in broadcast, I learned to simply override my inner perfectionist and get on with it. This resulted in so much awful crap, but that crap also wasn’t with me forever. But most of us no longer live in that world, and that internal override is fading away. It’s getting harder for me to convince people to let go — to stop tweaking and perfecting, cutting and pasting and trying to get everything just right. For all the ways that digital permanence rewards perfection, perfectionism kills the story. Perhaps in audio production more than anywhere else. As I’ve written before, there’s a huge, unavoidable gap between what we think makes sense as creators and what actually makes sense to listeners. How do we locate, measure and close that gap? Only through collaboration and failure, through letting go.

Ways to Press Stop

So I’ve been looking around for ways that other people have come up with to build some of the benefits of broadcast ephemerality back into their digital-centered processes.

Here are a couple of the workarounds I’ve found, stacked in order of difficulty, the toughest one first.

1. Ditch The Script

I recently did a piece called “Neither Confirm Nor Deny” for WNYC’s Radiolab. But the “I” part is a convenient lie, because in truth, stories at Radiolab accrete in layers, with different producers coming in and out of the process to help it come together. And part of this process is doing away with paper scripts. At first I was terrified by this lack of control. But I found their process of quick audio sketches, revisions, more sketches, more revisions can create great results very quickly. Here’s a tiny taste of how it worked with this piece.

To set things up: the story is about the Cold War origins of the boilerplate phrase “neither confirm nor deny.” That phrase came about in the aftermath of a CIA mission to raise a sunken Soviet submarine in the 1970s. We interviewed one of the participants in the mission, David Sharp. As we shaped the piece, different Radiolab producers would take turns working through the tape, pacing, and scoring, but without investing too much into any one attempt. Here’s how they worked through one crucial section of narrative.

First audio draft by producer Molly Webster:

Listen to Molly Webster’s first draft
Listen to “Ch2v2”

Then senior producer Soren Wheeler took a crack at it:

Listen to Soren Wheeler’s edit
Listen to “Ch2v4”

Host Jad Abumrad‘s version builds on both of those, but it’s still just a draft:

Listen to Jad’s additions
Listen to “Ch2v5”

Here’s how it all came out in the end:

Listen to the final mix of this piece
Listen to “Ch2FINAL”

More conversation and tweaking came in between each of these versions, and I was adding, changing, and fact-checking things all along the way. But the notion that I “wrote” this story is, as you can hear from these excerpts, completely an illusion. As the piece fleshed out, we worked from transcripts, but that was a descriptive document, not something that we had to stick to.

The Radiolab process purposely builds in multiple failures and keeps things fluid until the very end. Because I never felt attached to “my” work, I never felt that sickening feeling, common during the editing process, of having to start all over–it was always just in progress, until suddenly it was “done.” I found that fascinating.

Abumrad tells me he finds the typical editing conflict — a reporter toiling alone on a script, only to have it torn up in the editing process — “an awful situation.

“I’ve constructed our current process, with all its flaws, to avoid that scenario,” he says. “And I’ve constructed it this way because our stories are often narratively complicated and involve back breaking amounts of production. If we all carry the burden together, it’s just easier.”

2. Create Scary Deadlines

Multiple iterations take time, of course, and preferably a lot of people who are getting paid for that time, as occurs at Radiolab. It’s not always practical for smaller operations–and it can have a dangerous side effect, which is getting stuck in a netherworld of constant tweaking and never-being-done-ness.

I work with producer Kaitlin Prest on the podcast Life of the Law, where we’ve kept to a pretty regular production schedule–mostly out of broadcast habits, and also because deadlines force the many moving pieces of production into a regular rhythm. Kaitlin’s other project, the podcast Audio Smut, also keeps to tight deadlines, but there, she says, it’s for more creative reasons.

“When I’m on a deadline I will go farther than if I had all the time in the world,” Prest says. “I get into this zone of, ‘Anything is possible, no time to think, just do it.'” Real deadlines do seem to help us power through fears and inhibitions, and we may need them not just to finish our work but also to do it well.

Epic Reset: Ask Forgiveness and Include

A bad dynamic can start to happen between audio producers and listeners: we set the bar high for ourselves and then get complaints when we change or experiment, no longer delivering the comforting pleasures we did in the past.

But the best approach may be to use that connection, and be upfront with our audience when we’re trying something new, inviting listeners to go on a new journey with us and pitch in. This is something, I find, that digital natives often know instinctively — it’s the broadcast-trained that remain stuck in presentational mode, afraid of being judged.

“I suppose it would have been nice to not feel the pressure of digital permanence,” one young Brooklyn producer, Nadia Wilson, told me. “But when I went into radio, that was assumed.”

As a Soundcloud Fellow, Wilson produced the series Hear to There, stories from the New York subway system. It gained 20,000 followers pretty quickly. Her project is open to anyone who wants to upload a piece, and in that way everyone can be invested and experimenting. It’s a community effort, and it’s fun. Why would Wilson trade that for an ephemeral, if more forgiving, creative life? “I don’t think I’d have it any other way,” she says.

The Pressure Of Forever

By now, of course, the only thing “new” about digital permanence is that we’re just starting to come to grips with how it has changed our relationship with our work as audio storytellers. There’s so much that’s fantastic about it, but it’s also worth looking back on what we may have lost in this transition. I’d love to hear more from the Transom community on this issue — is it a blessing for you? A curse? Have you tried to erase embarrassing bits from the Internet audition tape of your career? Lord knows I would. I’m just lucky I got to fall on my face a whole lot right before eternity came along and crashed this party.

This piece is presented in collaboration with Harvard University’s Nieman Storyboard.

Comments

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  • Joe Richman

    3.14.14

    Reply

    Thanks for this Julia.
    I remember the dark days when you would spend insane amounts of time on a radio story and then watch as it vanished forever after the broadcast. It was just too sad. I’m grateful for digital permanence.

  • Costa

    3.14.14

    Reply

    I’ve done community radio for years (mostly music programming). When I’m on air, for the spoken parts, I just go with the flow and almost everything comes out pretty good. For my podcasts, using essentially the same format, I can’t help but redo, edit, delete, edit, redo, etc…so what comes out so natural and “me” on air is almost always absent from my podcasts.

    It’s crazy, I know it, but I keep doing it.

    All that to say, “I hear ya!”

  • Julia Barton

    3.14.14

    Reply

    Costa: I know, we all do this. I guess the question now is how can we short-circuit this tendency and still produce good work?

  • Rich Halten

    3.16.14

    Reply

    Even if you have the luxury of time to polish and experiment and think it’s perfect, funny how when you listen a week or year later you find yourself muttering, “damn, if I’d only…”

  • mathist44

    3.21.14

    Reply

    I feel like a tiny spec at the foot of grand doors by even commenting on this but i wonder the best way to bridge the way to suggesting music or soundscapes with people that might want to work together on such a program as radiolab? they must get waves of unique items from all across the airwaves…

  • adi gevins

    3.31.14

    Reply

    permanence means there’s always an opportunity to revise, retract, re-do, add. no such thing no more as the “final version”. maybe the version broadcast this time this place and retrievable, but “final” has gone the way of “privacy”.
    Anyway, that’s the way this producer/archivist sees it.

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