Intro from Jay Allison: I confess, I'm a story guy. I resist the idea of listeners messing around with my time. My story goes this way, not that way. You want to make your own radio story, get a tape recorder. I'll help. That's my idea of interacting. But the notion of interactive story has always been intriguing, made moreso by endlessly clickable possibilities of the Web. Intriguing, too, are the possibilities of text and photos firing along a guide track of audio. So, as long as we're here on the Web in its early multimedia days, let's play. Ian David Aaronson has been thinking the same way. His subjects and sensibility have their roots in public radio, certainly. His work is not exactly radio, but sound drives it. His stories fit the mission. He is interested in accessibility and has managed to create a fine sheen to the image and audio, while still keeping it available to people with very basic connections. There's a lot to talk about in here. Read what Ian has to say first. Then check out the work (you need to download the Flash plug in if you don't have it), and join the discussion.
- Listen to Brown
- Listen to After the New Economy
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I first had the idea for multimedia documentaries in 1995 when I was working as News and Public Affairs Producer at NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo, NY. PRI had recently distributed “The First Year,” an hour-long radio documentary I produced following a group of students through their first year of college. I had all this great tape that didn’t fit into a linear documentary, but I still wanted to use it. I figured if I could create a program that people could navigate through in any way they wanted, I’d be able to work in all my out-takes. Of course at the time I didn’t know anything about multimedia, so I put the idea on hold.
After spending three years at WBFO, I left to attend graduate school at Stanford, where I received a Master’s degree in Documentary Film and Video in 1997. I edited my thesis documentary “Tell Them You’re Fine,” a which follows three recently diagnosed cancer patients as they come to terms with their illness, on an Avid and realized that the only difference between digital post production and multimedia is the method of delivery. A documentary film is edited digitally on a computer and then put back into an analog format (a video tape or reel of film) to reach its audience. I thought, why not create something entirely digital that could be delivered over the web? In 1997, however, the newest and fastest modems were only 56K, so while my idea was good in theory an online documentary was not the most practical idea I could have come up with.
I went to work as an assistant editor on some PBS documentaries, edited digital audio for some CD-ROMs, and taught two multimedia courses at City College of San Francisco. I still loved to work with audio and I kept looking for a way to make something substantive and interactive. Audio files take up lots of memory, but just around the time I graduated from film school, people started to stream audio files on the web. Streaming means a file starts to play while it’s still downloading, so people don’t have to wait forever to listen to your work. I converted some of the audio from “Tell Them You’re Fine” and put it onto a web page. Although it worked technically, it was no great artistic success.
“Tell Them You’re Fine” is a movie and trying to make it into an audio program was the wrong direction to go in. Just like reading a newspaper in front of a microphone doesn’t make for good radio, I realized that Internet I’d have to start from the ground up.
I returned to my native New York City on Christmas Eve 1999 and about two weeks later found a job at an Internet company (this was the height of the dot-com gold rush). At the job I taught myself Flash, a streaming vector graphics program I had been hearing about for years. Vector graphics are drawings such as shapes or logos which download very quickly on the Internet, unlike bitmap graphics such as photos. Flash also compresses audio using MP3 technology, which in a nutshell makes audio files about 95% smaller while maintaining really good sound quality. This means you can put two or three minute chunks of near-broadcast quality audio online and only take up about 450k for each chunk (not even half the capacity of a floppy disk). Best of all, Flash streams automatically from any server – other streaming technology like Quicktime and RealAudio require special servers which you have to pay for. In addition, the Flash player is transparent, so the viewer to your Website sees only what you have put on the page. RealAudio requires viewers to use the RealAudio Player which opens in its own window and displays advertisements. As you can see, I was ready to make something with Flash. All I needed was the right story.
I was re-exploring my hometown of lower Manhattan when I ran into a friend from high school. Alex had gotten married and was raising his first child. A few weeks later I had drinks with Alex and his wife, Cheryl. They started telling me about the prejudice they encountered as a bi-racial family (Alex is Italian American, Cheryl is the daughter of an Irish American father and an African American mother). Their story was really powerful, and I thought this could turn into the multimedia documentary I had been daydreaming about for the past five years.
I interviewed the two of them using a Tascam DAT recorder and an ElectoVoice RE-50, which is the same mic I used back in Buffalo. I have always loved good audio, especially interviews, and look at documentary as a way to bring people new perspectives. When the interview was over I knew I had something good, the trick was how to package it.
I logged my tape, decided what to use, copied those parts as .aiff files (.aiff is the native audio compression that Mac computers use), loaded them onto a Zip disk and took them home. I edited them on an iMac DV SE using SoundEdit 16, which is a really good multi-track digital editing software package. I then scanned in some of Alex and Cheryl’s family photos for visuals (I edited them in Photoshop) and went to work putting them into Flash.
There were two big considerations I faced. The first is the non-linear nature of the web. People don’t want to watch movies online, they want to interact with things they can click through. The second is the limitation of current Internet connections – most people use 56K modems in their homes so in order not to alienate a significant portion of my audience I needed to design something that would work on a standard dial-up connection. As it turns out, these two considerations worked together to form my solution.
I chose really strong pieces of tape to work with and the test I used was whether or not each piece would stand up on its own. I wanted tape that was so good people would be intrigued enough to wonder what came next. I also knew that if I could play each piece by itself the file size would be much smaller. As a result, the download would be a lot easier for users at their home computers. Through trial and error, I managed to come up with a system that loaded a menu on screen and allowed users to choose what part of “Brown” they’d like to see. When they click on a button, that piece of the story loads, replacing the menu on screen. When each piece of the story (known technically as a “Flash movie”) ends, it automatically loads the menu back onto the screen. This makes “Brown” more workable, since the viewer doesn’t need to download all the material at once, and also makes it more interesting since the user can choose what they see and when they see it.
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My job at the dot-com didn’t work out (how many times have you heard that before?), so I made a second online documentary called “After the New Economy.” Digital media has become remarkably affordable. I recorded the interviews with a minidisc recorder I bought for less than $200 and they sound great. Online production is also efficient and a great space saver, I was able to produce all of digitaldocumentary.org in my living room – and believe me I have a small apartment, I live in the East Village.
I recently started a job as Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Ramapo College, a public liberal arts college in Northern New Jersey. So far the job is a perfect fit – as you may have noticed, I love electronic media and I’m really interested in sharing my experience. I encourage anyone who’s interested to send me an email at email@example.com, or write to the discussion board here at Transom.org. I look forward to hearing from you.