Intro from Jay Allison: Brad Klein was a creative producer in public radio until he was drawn away to work with Acoustiguide, the museum audio company. Brad's Transom Manifesto is about the intersection of these two worlds, with lots of examples and links. It will get you thinking about narrative in the context of place, the audio interpretation of art, and the future of museums... and of public radio for that matter.
It’s a pleasure and an honor to address the Transom audience. I’ve learned a lot about audio production over the last two decades, mostly from NPR colleagues in DC and New York, and mostly before the Internet Age. But I’m acutely aware that there is much that I haven’t learned yet (or have forgotten). About radio, writing, editing, technology, museums… you name it. So rather than teach or preach, I hope we can converse about an area of audio production that will be much less familiar to most of you than NPR-style journalism.
Consider the audio tour, a type of ‘narrowcasting’ that has thrived for the past 50 years, and is currently facing unprecedented changes. Widespread access to technologies like iPods, cell phones, portable game platforms, PDAs, etc. are combining with the internet to drive those changes. They may lead to growth, or perhaps obsolescence for the small companies that make audio tours. Interesting Times for the tiny industry that lured me away from public radio. I’d like to hear your ideas about museum interpretation, and share some insights into a process that is both like and unlike cultural reporting for radio.
Even if you rarely enter a museum, you probably have some impression, and maybe strong opinions, about audio tours. It’s probably best to recognize right now that these devices and their content are not universally loved by museum goers. Objections include: sound leakage from wand or headphone type players; a tendency for visitors to focus their attention exclusively on the works included in the audio tour; and a feeling that the content encourages a single orthodox interpretation of the objects on display. But many museum educators and visitors are devoted to the audio guide, and that’s made it a regular and expected feature of large-attendance temporary exhibitions and major permanent collections around the world. Supporters cite: the increased length of time visitors spend in an exhibition; the museum’s ability to produce content in multiple languages; a decreased need for lengthy text panels; a ‘richer’ visitor experience.
When I came into the field in 2000, I had never heard a museum audio production that I thought lived up to the potential of the medium. I’m not saying they had never been done, but I hadn’t run into them. Those that I had encountered all took the form of ‘gallery lectures’ by curators, authoritative narrators, or the occasional movie star. The passion and creative energy that mark the best cultural reporting on radio, was missing from these productions.
When I took a job at Acoustiguide, I knew I could help the experienced and talented writers and editors there apply the fundamentals of public radio production to the task at hand. Here’s an example. In 2003, the Detroit Institute of Arts presented the exhibition, On the Edge: Contemporary Art form the DaimlerChrysler Collection. This would be considered a ‘challenging’ exhibition to many visitors. The collection is of contemporary abstract work, with a European emphasis.
The museum wanted this exhibition to be particularly inviting to their Detroit audience, and not off-putting. We arrived at a creative approach that combined scripted text with a strikingly informal conversation between the museum’s director, Graham Beal who was born in Great Britain, and artist and professor of Fine Arts, Gilda Snowden, who is a native Detroiter. That’s me in the middle.
I think it was Matt Sikora, then in their Education department, who suggested the phrase, ‘modeling the visitor experience’, for what we were attempting. The idea was to help the visitor experience the art work, rather than force them to understand it – if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous. Here’s an example. The work is Pietro Sanguineti’s, NOW. You can see the image here:
Here’s the stop on the audio tour:
I love the humor and unguarded glimpse of two smart, engaging ‘visitors’ seeking meaning in this art work. Both Graham and Gilda were capable of giving a lecture on the works in question, but this approach seemed to fit this particular exhibition.
We certainly are not the only ones, or the first to break from the ‘gallery lecture’ model. A surprising number of NPR veterans have toiled in the audio tour fields over the years. In addition, Acoustiguide had a formidable competitor in the SF based Antenna Audio, who swept into the market in the late 1980s with a powerful production at Alcatraz.
As an aside, let me remind you that, unlike radio, the audio tour is all about PLACE. It’s a production designed to work at a particular place (in front of, say, a painting or a Ming vase) and at a particular time (this particular exhibition). This presents constraints and opportunities. You know where your audience is standing, and what they are looking at. And as the writer/producer, your job is to support and enhance the visitor’s experience, which, in most cases, is defined by the VISUAL aspects of the exhibition. The writer/producer is not charged with creating her own audio documentary on the subject at hand. Rather she is presenting the vision of the institution’s curators and educators – a vision that they’ve likely been honing for several years.
For the remainder of Part One of this essay, I’d like to look at the massive audio production that Acoustiguide has created for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) here in New York City. Acoustiguide has a long history with MoMA, and worked closely with their education department to create an audio program to compliment the museum’s new building, which opened in the Fall of 2004.
The main program features curators, responding to, or ‘in dialogue’ with an opening statement by or about the artist.
With contemporary artists, we try and use only the artist’s voice. This is a first draft of the audio for an installation that will take place this Summer. It’s an empty gallery, whose lights switch on, then off, every 5 seconds.
There are special thematic tours for Kids, and an extensive program of visual description for blind and visually impaired visitors.
I hope this stirs up some ideas and questions among Transom visitors, so let me know what you think. In Part Two, I’ll continue presenting examples, and try and suggest some of the directions in which Interpretive Media may be headed.
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At the end of Part One, I mentioned that I’d look at the changes that technology is bringing to the audio tour business. I’ll take a quick shot at that, and if folks are interested, we can continue that conversation online. I’d also like to review the basic categories of production that we work within, and provide a closer look at the use of oral history collections by museums and other institutions.
We all know it’s a fools errand to predict the future, but I can say a few things about the present. A number of companies around the world, including the one that I work for, provide the hardware that visitors typically use to listen to audio tours. For various reasons, off-the-shelf MP3 players normally won’t hold up to commercial use, and so we’ve arrived at a happy state with institutions buying or leasing heavy duty players and racks to charge and program them.
This equipment is surprisingly expensive, and so there is a strong temptation to simply provide produced audio for visitors to download and play back on their own iPods. This trend works for independent audio producers who can now post audio content without any explicit permission from the museum or other site. A well-publicized example is the production produced by college students as an ‘unauthorized’ tour of MoMA that you can check out here.
I don’t think that these efforts signal the end of companies like my employer, (in fact we offer consulting help to institutions who are interested in creating their own podcasts) but I think they certainly point to a greater diversification of sources for audio production. You can probably imagine many of the possible scenarios, so write in, and we can talk more about them.
No matter who is producing audio tours, most are going to take one of the forms below:
Gallery Lecture: This can still be an effective form, and it certainly has a place. In fact, I sometimes find it particularly soothing to hear a single voice guiding me through the museum. It puts the least demands on the listener, and if the narrator can read a script with intelligence and feeling… so much the better.
Acts And Tracks: As in radio, combining scripted narration tracks with unscripted actuality usually provides the best of two worlds; the spontaneity of an unscripted interview, with the exactitude of a carefully reviewed script.
Artists Voices: As heard in the examples in Part One, this is always my preference when working with living artists.
Candid Conversation: As heard in the NOW example in Part One, the conversational form can be between curator and artist, two curators, or increasingly between ‘expert’ and ‘non-expert’.
Dramatization: Except in ‘Family’ or Kids tours, this technique can be the problem child of the audio tour business. It’s one thing to have a skilled actor reading from a letter or quotation contemporary to the work being discussed. But full theatric dramatizations must be very carefully crafted, or they sound somewhat old-fashioned and stilted. You know…
[SFX: distant hoof beats approaching]
Colonist: “Who is that riding toward us? Why it’s Paul Revere, the silversmith.”
PR: “The British are coming…”
Oral History Projects: I’ll spend a bit of time and include examples of two productions in this category, since I think it is so interesting, and lends itself to the skills of many in the Transom audience.
Using oral histories to complement museum exhibitions is a wonderful, and underutilized technique. It was used effectively in the Oakland Museum of California’s, “What’s Going On?—California and the Vietnam Era”, produced in 2004-2005. For that exhibition, Acoustiguide played a consulting role, advising the museum on technical and production considerations. Museum staff then spent a year or so collecting their own tape from Vietnam vets and others, documenting the profound effects of the war on the state of California.
One portion of the exhibition included the fuselage of a period airplane, and you could sit inside and listen to vets like Charles Benninghoff recall their trip home to the States.
Jan Wollet was a flight attendant who recalled the controversial 1975 ‘babylift’ of Vietnamese orphans to the United States.
The museum did a splendid job on a thin budget collecting tape, and we were able to combine that with scripted narration throughout the audio tour. The American Association of Museums recognized the effort with a Muse award, remarking that, “Judges agreed that this was probably the most engaging audio tour they have ever heard.”
Another wonderful use of an existing Oral History archive is in the audio tour at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State is the stabilized ruin of an early 19th century penitentiary in Philadelphia, and well worth a visit. Working in close collaboration with the site’s staff, we used both existing oral histories of prisoners and guards, and collected new ones as well.
The site’s staff is committed to preserving the ambiance of dramatic decay that makes the Penitentiary so haunting, and the audio program brings the building to life, without cluttering it with excess signage.
Thanks for your attention, and for your thoughtful correspondence. I do believe that there is plenty of opportunity in this niche of the audio production market. I hope that I’ve introduced some new ideas to the Pub Radio crowd, and that you’ll continue to share your ideas with me.