Julie Shapiro

SoundArt_4

Intro from Jay Allison: Radio Art has its detractors, and they don’t hold back. Our friend and audio art enthusiast, Julie Shapiro wrote this manifesto from Australia where she directs Radio National’s Creative Audio Unit. Julie contemplates the virulence of response to art on the air. Why does it engender such animus? Is it different from other art, or is it just part of art’s job to upset people? What is the relationship between public broadcasters and artists? Transom welcomes these questions, because we’re keenly interested in where our boundaries are, and why we put them there. We need to keep a close eye on what we’re keeping OFF the air, and if we’re making the right call.

Haters Of Radio Art, Hear Me Out

Three pre-thoughts:

  1. There are many ways to define the term, but by “radio art” I mean creative audio work presented across the airwaves, and via podcast. “Audio art” and “sound art” also apply, but for consistency’s sake, I’ll mostly stick with radio art here.
  2. These thoughts have formulated over the past year, while producing a nationally broadcast, one-hour radio art show, for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National (ABC RN) network. Think: the NPR of Australia. All italicized inserts are actual comments received from listeners.
  3. For Non-Australians – Manus Island Regional Processing Centre is a controversial immigration detention and offshore asylum processing centre located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and is often referenced in the Australian news.

Hear Me Out

Here’s the comment that prompted this essay, when I read it one Monday morning a few months ago, after our show had aired the previous evening.

The people who produced this hideous mess should be sent to Manus Island immediately. The person or persons who thought it was worth broadcasting should be taken out and shot.

Now I know that radio art isn’t up everyone’s alley. And I know that a lot of unkind and opinionated people listen to the radio all over the world, and many take their thoughts straight to the Internet. But I was stunned at the violence in this message, and wanted to understand how an hour-long radio art show about wireless energy and urban infrastructure could have possibly inspired these words. Frankly I may never understand, but in lieu of that, I hope to at least spark a conversation here and draw some attention to radio/sound/audio art — especially among those in the ‘thanks but no thanks’ camp. Maybe you’ll read something that changes your opinion; maybe you’ll seek out some audio work you wouldn’t have before reading this; maybe you’ll even come to like radio art a bit more. Or not. But hear me out.

Who We Are

Backing up, “we” are ABC RN’s Creative Audio Unit (CAU), a team of four. We follow in the footsteps of decades of audio art production at the ABC, and were preceded by beloved shows like The Listening Room, Radio Eye and The Night Air. The CAU produces two weekly shows — Radiotonic, which takes on “storytelling with a twist” — fiction, non-fiction, dramas and essays, and Soundproof — a showcase of radio art, soundscapes, performance and composed audio features.** Guess which show elicited that comment?

***Update, November 2016: The CAU is no longer producing either Radiotonic or Soundproof. Read more from Julie below in the comments.

Listen to this:

Download
Listen to “Excerpt from Vogage There and Back”

It’s a fishing trawler gradually moving across an Icelandic fjord. All you are hearing is the sound of the motor, shifting slowly as the boat speeds up and slows down. This piece lasts for thirty minutes. Maybe to you it sounds like an Onion-worthy parody of audio art. But in fact, this is one of my favorite programs we’ve broadcast in the past year — Voyage There and Back by Tumi Magnusson, which aired as part of The Remote Series, curated by Anna Friz and Konrad Korabiewski for Skálar | Sound Art | Experimental Music. There are four other installments in the series, which explores notions of geographic and cultural remoteness through audio.

Recently you had a slow diesel putting out across the water like a heartbeat. Entertaining for the first few seconds but after that? And hardly informative.

I’m sort of delighted that this person, despite disliking the program, suggested that the sound of the boat is like a heartbeat. That’s one of the things I love most about this piece — it’s physical. I feel that beat, that putter, resonate through my body as I listen in headphones. It’s beautiful — melodic, soothing, textured and intricate to my ears. It tells me about place — I can sense the fjord around this trawler, and the water underneath. It’s steady, yet dynamic if you pay even the slightest attention to the sounds. It’s full of imagery, and with all due respect to the commenter above — it’s teeming with audible information, as the trawler’s speed changes and the mechanics of the engine shift.
But on the other hand — what if the piece contained no information at all?

[ Pause for thought… ]

Is there something else you might get out of listening other than information, or entertainment?

If this is entertainment I want no part of it.

Soundproof pushes buttons. It airs Fridays at 9 p.m. and Sunday evenings at 8 p.m., showcasing audio that’s equal parts enchanting and challenging. We often receive post-broadcast emails from confused or frustrated listeners who have tuned in to RN, and are baffled by what they hear and/or adamantly dislike the experience. “What is this?” ask listeners, regularly. All caps are not uncommon.

A perfect example of the democratisation of art. Completely IMPOSSIBLE to listen to. Somewhere, someone is proud of their efforts, those of us who have heard it just wish they hadn’t of bothered. Genuinely terrible.

Each Soundproof episode is introduced and recapped carefully and thoughtfully by presenter (Australian for “host”) Miyuki Jokiranta*, and is thoroughly explained on our website, often along with photos and supplementary material, which listeners are encouraged to check out. Every program we commission no doubt entails dozens or hundreds of hours of painstaking craft and production. This genre of audio work is barely ever broadcast or shared publicly at a national level, nor supported, nor taken seriously by those outside the devoted sound art world it’s created within. Every single program was crafted with imagination, concentration and patience, and most ask for this right back, from you, the listener.

Download
Listen to “Excerpt from All Depends On The Sun”

This was produced by Nicolas Perret and Silvia Ploner. You can listen to the full piece here.

Why Radio Art?

Of course, you don’t have to listen. You can turn the radio off, or skip to the next podcast queued up. But what’s the harm in lingering, and letting a new listening experience flow, for ten – fifteen – thirty minutes? Longer?

What utter unenjoyable, unenlightening gibberish. You people need to think hard about what you put to air and whether you actually want people to tune in.

We people do think long and hard about what we put to air, and yes, we indeed hope listeners will tune in and stay tuned in. We challenge, debate and examine each proposal or work that crosses our path. Then we inevitably make some decisions that will result in some listeners turning away. But we always believe in the work we broadcast, and respect the artists behind the work. And we try to find ways to invite and guide listeners through the content we’re presenting, and to help them appreciate what they’re hearing.

Why radio art? Because it pushes, and pulls. Because two hours a week (original broadcast + repeat) help balance the other 168 hours of news, weather, interviews and storytelling across the airwaves. Because radio art has the capacity to teach you something about the world, and possibly about yourself. Because it challenges expectations and notions about what radio/audio/sound is for, and because it’s as much for the heart, as the ears, and brain.

Please rethink — this was awful.

It’s nearly impossible to judge radio art as “good” or “bad” — it’s as subjective and room-dividing a declaration as evaluating any form of art is. But here are some characteristics we think about when we consider a piece or proposal, and try to identify value (or lack thereof) in the work.

– It’s crafted from original concepts, experiences, notions.
– It’s rich with compelling sounds and sound design.
– It may be quite narrative, or sometimes inscrutable.
– It may be cerebral, emotional, or physical. Sometimes all at once.
– It may be puzzling, revelatory, or musical. Sometimes all at once.
– It may be humorous. Or provocative.
– It’s more about execution than ego, and as much about curiosity and a sense of exploration, as the tools and technology used to make the work.
– It offers some kind of organizing principle — understood directly, or sensed indirectly.

Of course it’s not all doom, gloom and impatience in the comments inbox. For all of the complaints we receive, others respond with appreciation and often a sense of discovery.

Download
Listen to “Excerpt from 86400 Seconds – Time Zones”

This was produced by Chantal Dumas. You can listen to the full piece here.

I was driving along in my car and I was channel surfing when I came across this, it freaked me out but I couldn’t turn it off, it was like a beat of a drum in a sense, completely brilliant and at the time I had no idea what it was about, for a second I thought I’d tuned into something other worldly even ha.

Loved it! The sounds of storms and shipping weather reports I could listen to all night until I drift off to sleep. Thank you Soundproof for introducing me to the world of ‘Radioart’ and the global community of sound sculptors creating it.

Final Thoughts

Maybe some of the current disconnect between radio art and what most audiences gravitate toward relates to how public radio and podcasting have evolved. There is so much more out there competing for our attention. (In the time it took me to type that sentence, another podcast probably launched.) And so much of this new — and not so new — content is sharp, and quick, charismatic, informative and electrifyingly narrative. If something or someone doesn’t grab you in the first few minutes — turn the dial, delete, skip ahead to your next download. There is plenty waiting for your ears.

As someone who listens professionally, I crave stories and words and plots and characters, and yes, information, and follow dozens of shows and podcasts that offer this — probably many of the same ones you do. One of my recent faves simply (and gloriously) features two women talking in a studio, often for nearly an hour. But I also welcome the respite that radio art offers, from clever wordplay, overt narrative, and the direct strike of story. In contrast to the present radio zeitgeist, radio art takes patience. Sometimes it takes absolute focus, full concentration, deep thinking. Sometimes it simply takes letting an audio work wash over you, and letting go of the need to know exactly what you are hearing, or why. Always this work invites you to take a closer listen. And that is never a bad thing. It might in fact be a beautiful thing — music to your ears, literally, figuratively, or somewhere in between.

Download
Listen to “Lullaby”

This piece was produced by Phil Smith, for In the Dark Radio.

I’m grateful to the ABC for investing in the CAU, and enabling us to continue cultivating a space for radio art on the air/podwaves. But there’s also a long history and current thriving cosmos of audio art producers, organizations, broadcasters, websites and blogs right around the world. Here’s a starter list to dive into, by no means comprehensive — please help by leaving a suggestion in the comments, and we’ll add it to the list. Or leave a comment agreeing or disagreeing with any of this. Or just go listen to something that stretches your ears a bit. And enjoy. Or at least appreciate.

*Thanks to Miyuki for the extensive and utterly rewarding conversations that have greatly informed this essay.

More On Radio Art

ARTE Radio
Atelier Creation Radiophonique
Audiodays
Australian Music Centre
Deutschlandradio Kultur
Disquiet
Ear Wave Event
Everyday listening
Kunstradio
Liquid Architecture
Megaopolis
New Adventures in Sound Art
Phaune Radio
Phonurgia
Radio Arts
Radia network
Radio Art group on Facebook
RadioWeb MACBA
Radius FM
Resonance FM
Soundry
Syntone
Ubuweb
Wave Farm
webSYNradio
WFMU
Wired Lab
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology

Julie Shapiro

About
Julie Shapiro

Julie Shapiro is Executive Producer of RN's Creative Audio Unit, and a long-time cultivator of innovative audio and listening communities worldwide. In 2000 she co-founded the Third Coast International Audio Festival, where as artistic director she shaped the Festival's creative trajectory and championed an international listening culture. Julie has taught radio to university students, presented listening events and spoken at conferences all over the globe, consulted with radio organizations of all stripes, and produced stories for the public radio airwaves in the US and beyond. Before landing happily in public radio, she worked at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and at countless independent records stores across the US. Find her on twitter@jatomic.

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  • Tim Tattan

    7.22.15

    Reply

    Julie – I think the context in which a listener hears our work, is as much a factor as the actual content and production elements. I’m guessing that Friday night at 8 is not the best time for something this minimalistic to air, and still resonate with most listeners. Late Sunday night, however, might be perfect for this. Any idea if you can track the “tune-outs” during the hour on the Friday versus the Sunday broadcast?
    I’d also suspect a lot of the listeners would have missed the opening explanation of what they were about to hear, and tuned in midway through, wondering what in the world was wrong with the sound on their radio, when they were looking for something more “foreground” to entertain them. But set it up to air at a later hour, perhaps with a quiet reminder of what is in progress ten minutes into it, and I think you might get more people to go along for the ride, literally, in this case.
    I know that late on Sunday nights, when I want to read myself to sleep, I’d enjoy the chance to hear some interesting “natural sound” for an extended period on the radio, to accompany me, and transport me to a different world from my own little room! Perhaps with some minimalistic classical music wrapped around, like John Luther Adams’ orchestral explorations of the Arctic.
    Were you involved in the Soundbridge audio experiment some 15 years ago, that blended sound from the Golden Gate Bridge with sound from a location in Germany? Ran an full hour, if I recall. I’m afraid the chance to hear some inventive pieces are rare on the dial, and applaud your effort for experimenting with sound. But getting listeners primed for such a ride is apparently required as well.

    • Julie

      7.23.15

      Reply

      Thanks for chiming in, Tim. It’s Fridays at 9pm (Sundays at 8pm) but I take your point! We get positive responses to this broadcast as well, so it’s hard to know what and when would ultimately work the best for everyone… if there even is such a magical time. I’d be keen to see if/when people drop away, but we don’t have that data available. Yet.

      I guess it all comes back to expectations, and the willingness to go somewhere new and unfamiliar every once in awhile, through your radio. Or engage until the end to find out what’s just been broadcast. Or follow up online if moved to. Or move on to something else, and see what the next week brings.

      I wasn’t involved with the Soundbridge experiment, but sounds cool…if you have any links to any more information about that, please post so others can check it out.

  • Heather Niday

    7.22.15

    Reply

    Art is in the ear of the listener is the first thought that goes through my mind. I love the sound of the fishing trawler, but even knowing what the sound is ahead of time, listening to it, I got antsy after the first minute. Blame it on our get-the-lastest-song-news-whatever-right-now-and-move-on-to-the-next-thing society and losing our ability to really focus on the sounds around us.

    I love the use of sounds to augment story telling – it’s why I’m in radio. But 30 minutes of the trawler sound – you would have lost me after five; unless I had it on in the background to fall asleep to – the sound is very much like a heartbeat and soothing in that regard. This kind of reminds of Hearts of Space – some consider it soothing and enjoyable to listen to, to others it’s just weird spacey music not worth their time…different strokes for different folks.

    All that said, good on ya for pushing the boundaries!

    • Julie

      7.24.15

      Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Heather. I agree that every listener brings her/his own parameters to any ‘art’ experience. Case in point – I find the 30 minute duration works, considering Tumi’s intention and desired impact on listeners within the context of a sound art program. That said – it’s a tricky thing to suggest listening in the middle of reading an article, because you’re not settling in for an extended listen – you’re presumably waiting to get on with the words. I hope some people were moved to go hear the full piece…

      In any case, here are some thoughts from Tumi about the duration:

      “The length is one thing, but I was actually very happy to get this much time. It is very important for the work. In the beginning the engine sound is slowed down very much, and in the middle (when the destination is reached) it is just over real time. If the change in pace had been faster you would have heard it speeding up all the time, and that ruins the experience. As it is, I see the speeding up as not being clearly audible, but present enough to build up tension, and some strange excitement about what changes in sound and rhythm happen next.”

  • ronmader

    7.22.15

    Reply

    Just my opinion, but the ABC is far superior to the NPR. Perhaps I’m annoyed by the incessant beg-a-thons, but US radio could learn a lot from broadcasters and podcasters down under.

    • Julie Shapiro

      7.23.15

      Reply

      Hey Ron. The ABC is a pretty special place, but from my experience there, in the US, and within the international community of producers/broadcaster/indies… everyone is learning from everyone these days. There seems to be more cross pollination than ever, and this bodes well for all of us…!

  • Jim Freund

    7.23.15

    Reply

    Fascinating, fabulous use of the medium. Would I keep some of these pieces on? Not during my workday, but late at night/early morning it’s entrancing. One needs to be in the mood and correct setting. With art, context is important.

    ‘Unlistenable?’ I could go on a diatribe about certain modern classical avant-garde composers, but there are smart, intelligent folk I know who love that. So I’ll just say some of that is not for me.

    But the fact that someone is trying to push the (sound) envelope is nothing less than what the medium demands.

  • magz hall

    7.23.15

    Reply

    Since 1998 I’ve been engaging people with radio art via radio broadcasts and radio courses at colleges, universities and hands on workshops, most recently at the Tate Britain. You can also read my recent practice based PhD on radio art via this link https://magzhall.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/radio-after-radio-phd-finished/

    What excites me and many people I’ve discussed on the subject over the years have found it a liberating way to listen, engage and make radio. It’s a new concept for most but one with a vibrant radio history. It is important to throw away convention and re think and examine what you expect of radio. There is a banality in formatted radio and even the most exciting podcasts like Radio Lab soon fall into an editing and structural rhythm. Radio needs to be stirred and shaken out of its slumber and the ABC Creative Audio Unit are doing some great broadcasts to keep the art of radio alive, so no need to apologise so much to what you term as the ‘haters’. Radio art is about active listening and having such conversations, as most know nothing about the art and its many forms and this is something you can rectify.

    I am a sound/radio artist and senior radio lecturer at Canterbury Christchurch University and run artist led group Radio Arts http://radioarts.org.uk/ based in the UK, we’ve been airing new radio art works across 15 partner stations including public broadcasters RTE and ABC. We are funded by the Arts Council England and currently a different artist is streamed for the whole month on our dedicated radio gallery have a listen and read about the works and broadcasts at http://radioarts.org.uk/

    • Julie Shapiro

      7.23.15

      Reply

      Magz! Great to see you in this space and thanks for your kind words about the CAU. I’ve just added Radio Arts to the list, as it should be there of course, and thanks for your own efforts in championing adventurous radio. I don’t see this as an apology, as much as an attempt to engage people who don’t usually care or think about the medium beyond their usual listening routines…we’ll see how that goes.

  • Hal Cannon

    8.04.15

    Reply

    Thank you Julie for writing this clear statement in response to impatient listeners. Having lots of visual artist and poet friends I hear many of the same frustrations towards the abstraction of the visual and of language. I understand this frustration because I can be impatient too. I know, as a longtime radio producer, how hard we work to build narrative, to make an abstract world understandable. However, the more I work with sound, the more I long for something raw that hits you in deep and in unexplainable ways. I find myself sometimes tired of story lines that lead me like a puppy on a leash. Good on you for providing a place for the experimental. I have loved my experience working with Radio National and all the good people you work with daily.

  • Julie Shapiro

    8.13.15

    Reply

    Hal! Thanks for taking the time to read, and respond, and describe your sometimes urge for ‘raw that hits you deep in inexplicable ways.’ It doesn’t always work, but when it does…! And besides all of the amazing work you’ve done across the US and beyond, you’ve brought lovely voices (and clip clops) to the Australian airwaves. More, please…

  • Imani Briscoe

    8.30.15

    Reply

    Loved this piece. I am by far an amature radio host, podcast producer, etc but this gives me hope. Not anything definite but rather plants the seed that radio is still evolving and what one may consider to be rubbish simply because THEY do not understand does not negate the fact that in some form it is art. If you feel it, it is real.

  • Julie Shapiro

    11.28.16

    Reply

    In mid-November 2016, the ABC’s RN network announced that along with several other programs, Soundproof would be decommissioned (Australian for ‘cancelled’) effective late January 2017. I’m disappointed, I’m angry… and I’m not surprised. Soundproof is expensive, has limited appeal, and a relatively small audience. Why would a national broadcaster support this show in the first place?

    Except that for decades, the ABC *had* chosen to nurture radiophonic, artful and experimental work on the radio. Had deeply valued investing in the artists and producers making this work, and had found their creative expression an essential ingredient in its mix of national programming. Had employed cultural visionaries who led the charge in bringing these programs to the Australian airwaves and in more recent years, to audiences around the world via podcast. And the ABC was highly respected and recognized the world over, for all of these things. Until now.

    Now the ABC has turned away from what had always seemed an indispensable strand of its DNA, one it is no doubt weaker, blander, and less impactful as a cultural institution, without.

    I want to acknowledge all Soundproof accomplished, and emphasize the impact of the ABC’s decision to let it go. Whether you love, hate or could care less about radio art, the loss of Soundproof, and what it stands for – honoring creativity and imagination, taking risks, and believing in the power and importance of art in our lives – is your loss.

    I’m grateful to presenter, producer, and Soundproof captain Miyuki Jokiranta, who steered the show so ably after I left Australia with the help of Rosa Gollan, and Sophea Lerner for helping us set sail on the airwaves in the beginning. I’m grateful to the hundreds of talented audio artists and cultural mavericks whose work was commissioned by Soundproof. And I’m grateful to the countless listeners who supported the show, to the Australians who tuned into (or stumbled upon) the radio broadcasts and to fans around the world who were devoted to the podcast.

    The list at the end of the original essay is still a damn impressive one, pointing to so many other brave and devoted forces for radio/sound/audio art in the world. I hope you’ll explore many of those links further– in addition to Soundproof’s outstanding archive. But it pains me to now strike the ABC from this list.

  • Gregory Whitehead

    12.02.16

    Reply

    Julie, thanks for the passion, intelligence, courage and care you brought to Soundproof, in collaboration with Miyuki, Rosa and Sophea, continuing a long line of fierce advocates for creativity at the ABC, such as Roz Cheney, Robyn Ravlich, Sherre DeLys and Tony MacGregor.

    Shows like Soundproof represent the wild gardens of the airwaves, humming with acoustic life, not all of it pleasantly benign. Thorns, nettles and earwigs are part of the mix. How we respond to wildness tells us who we are and what we are about, and that might come as an uncomfortable revelation.

    Those radio art bugs and worms remind me of my own inevitable death: kill them! That electroacoustic swamp stinks and stings: pave it! The vast behavioral algorithm we still euphemistically refer to as “the internet” provides the killer metrics, with the willfully idiosyncratic artist just another pest to be bagged and burned. Rip out the garden in favor of yet another parking lot, with each parking space numbered and reserved.

    Yet every week, I receive emails from young audio artists who are bored with the narrow formats and flat aesthetics of digital “platforms”; they are seeking a more open spirit of radiophonic adventure. National broadcasters may turn a deaf ear for the time being, while consumed in their spasms of soul-crushing neoliberalism, but that spirit of adventure will live on.

    I also hear daily from listeners with hungry ears, seeking alternatives to the monotonous echo chamber of podcast playlists. In the end, the wild gardens will reclaim all the parking lots, all the stats, all the tidy market niches — and all of us.

    To your list of alternative spaces for exploratory radio, I would add: http://radiorevolten.net/en/
    Cheers to all radio revolteners!

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