Brad Klein

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.

Download this document in PDF
Manifesto Part 1
Manifesto pt. 2

Part One

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.

Brad Klein
Brad Klein

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.

Recording SessionThe 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:

Download
Listen to “NOW audio clip”

NOW artworkI 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.

Bicycle Wheel and StoolAs 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.

Download
Listen to “Modern Voices audio clip”

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.

Download
Listen to “Artist audio clip”
Martin Creed
Martin Creed

There are special thematic tours for Kids, and an extensive program of visual description for blind and visually impaired visitors.

Download
Listen to “Visual Description audio clip”

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.

Part Two

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.

The Future

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…”

OMC imageOral 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.

Download
Listen to “Charles Benninghoff”

Jan Wollet was a flight attendant who recalled the controversial 1975 ‘babylift’ of Vietnamese orphans to the United States.

Download
Listen to “Jan Wollet”

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.”

Eastern State PenitentiaryAnother 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.

Brad Klein

About
Brad Klein

Brad Klein is the Creative Director of Acoustiguide Inc., creator of audio and multi-media programs for museums, municipalities, and heritage sites.In 1989, with no qualifications or training, he talked his way into a job with the late-night, short-lived, fondly-remembered NPR show, HEAT with John Hockenberry. Since then, he has been an unprolific freelance contributor to many public radio shows, and has held production jobs on NPR-News shows in New York and Washington.  He helped create programs including NPR’s Talk of the Nation and Weekly Edition: The Best of NPR News; MSNBC’s Edgewise; and Public Radio International’s Satellite Sisters. He taught at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1998 and 1999.

Comments

  • Jay Allison

    7.24.06

    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.

  • Brad Klein

    7.25.06

    Part One

    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.  You can learn more about here.

    Recording SessionThe 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:

    NOW artwork

    Here’s the stop on the audio tour: Listen to NOW audio clip (mp3)

    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. That tour is on-line here.

    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 complete MoMAudio production is downloadable from this MoMA web page.

    The main program features curators, responding to, or ‘in dialogue’ with an opening statement by or about the artist.

    Bicycle Wheel and Stool

    Listen to Modern Voices audio clip (mp3)

    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.

    Martin Creed

    Listen to Artist audio clip (mp3)

    There are special thematic tours for Kids, and an extensive program of visual description for blind and visually impaired visitors.

    Listen to Visual Description audio clip (mp3)

    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.

  • Joe Richman

    7.27.06

    don’t forget about the birds

    Hey Brad,
    This is great. Thanks for the manifesto and audio samples. I don’t want to stray from the audio tour conversation before it’s begun, but…. can you also post links to some of your past bird/nature commentaries on ATC. I’d love to hear you talk (and answer questions) about doing that sort of writing. I think your ‘voice’ in those was totally unique.

  • Brad Klein

    7.27.06

    All Birds Considered

    Thanks for the kind words Joe.

    I have posted a few nature commentaries on http://www.bradleyklein.com . Just click on the ‘radio’ menu. I love doing these sorts of pieces, and I hope I can find time to do more. There’s a special subgenre of nature observing, the kind you can do with a subway token, that I am happy to champion.

  • marie winn

    7.31.06

    "Modeling the visitor experience"

    I enjoyed this insight into audio tours very much, and loved hearing Marcel Duchamps . The only bit of jargon in the whole thing you weren’t even directly responsible for.

    It was a quote: "Modeling the visitor experience." Pretty meaningless, I’d say. You’re using the word "modeling" in a rather weird way here. Moreover, making a distinction between understanding an art work and experiencing it is pretty vague and close to meaningless. What exactly do you mean by "experiencing" a work of art. I didn’t experience Duchamps’ bicycle assemblage at all after hearing his funny words. I understood it better. You might even say his words forced me to understand it better, much in the way that a traditional audio tour [with, say, Phillipe M] forces me to understand the meaning of impressionism, say, or the nature of Van Gogh’s brush strokes.

    The real difference between the two types of tours, I’d say, is that yours is more fun. That’s worth a lot. I don’t want to have my experience modeled, in short. I want to learn in an amusing way.

    Anyhow, thanks for amusing me with your manifesto.

  • megluther

    8.01.06

    Museum Audio tours rock

    I became a convert to the idea of museum audio tours back in the 90’s when i saw the degenerate art exhibit at Chicago’s INstitute of ARt..I remember Daniel Shorr did the narration, and it really filled in so much that the pictures alone couldn’t tell me..why even certain colors in paintings were considered degenerate by the Nazi regime.

    I never find that an audio tour detracts from seeing an exhibit, but rather that the exhibit becomes a richer experience bc of the additional info..i especially loved hearing Marcel duchamp in his own words…i find that i look more closely and see things i otherwise wouldn’t have paid much attention to in a painting, when i understand what the artist’s intention was.

  • Samantha Broun

    8.01.06

    the process

    Thanks for this peak into audio tours. I have to admit, as a museum goer, I’ve never used an audio tour. I’ve always feared that they would cut me off from rather than deepen my experience. As a new radio producer, however, I find I am suddenly curious about them. You stated that writing/producing audio tours isn’t like making your own documentary – telling a story you want to tell. Instead, you are actually helping museum curators and educators share what they know. So, where do you start? What’s the process of creating an audio tour? How do you decide who the best ‘explainer’ will be – curator, educator, artist, museum goer? What has been the biggest learning curve for you?

  • Brad Klein

    8.02.06

    Experiencing v. Understanding the Artwork

    I like Marie’s comments about ‘understanding’ versus ‘experiencing’ a work of art. She’s a sharp writer and sharp thinker, and her nature writing has been an inspiration to me. She posted, “…making a distinction between understanding an art work and experiencing it is pretty vague and close to meaningless.” I’m a little out of my depth here, but it seems to me that there is a real difference there, and it’s sometimes a trivial and sometimes a profound one.

    What I love about NOW (audio in the manifesto), is that Gilda and Graham are reflecting their immediate ‘experience’ of the piece. For one thing, they are not drawing on ANY prior knowledge of Sanguineti’s work, but they are still thought provoking. They are NOT saying, “The complex interplay of the communication systems used in verbal language, semantic signs, and mimetic visual references are what Pietro Sanguineti’s works are all about.” (found by googling the artist)

    I’m not saying the approach we took with the DIA is the only or best way to view or think about art… or the best way to design an audio tour. But it IS different, and it shows what anyone can bring to the gallery with them; their own life experience, their imagination, a companion. A lot of folks are afraid to open their mouth in a museum for fear of being thought not smart or sophisticated enough.

    I’ve heard Philippe de Montebello suggest that he considers his primary mission at the Met to be, to provide a place where visitors can have a nearly mystical communion with a work of art. I don’t think you can really have that experience while listening to an explanation of pointillism… although that’s often my job, to explain pointillism. That explanation helps in ‘understanding’ a work, and that is also of great value I hope.

  • Brad Klein

    8.02.06

    the process

    Samantha — Good questions about how the job actually gets done. It’s both like and unlike approaching a news piece. Unlike, because we are typically working with a curator who may have spent years of her professional life on this exhibition, whereas I’ll only be spending a few months on it. And of course, my personal interpretation of the work is not the issue. It’s about conveying the messages that the museum and curators have settled on. That said, these are people who are passionately interested in communicating with their visitors, and they are often eager for help doing that. They tend to respect that audio production is a specialty-skill that most writers haven’t had a chance to develop.

    The process is LIKE radio journalism, in that I’m looking for the same qualities in the participants that I look for in radio. It’s that same search for good tape. You talk to the curators and educators, and keep an ear out for who will sound great as actuality, who might do better scripted. You start to get a sense of what you want, and then you use all the tricks you know to get it.

    But again, UNLIKE journalism, you can’t just please yourself and your editor. You have to run everything past the museum, multiple times for their approval.

  • Steve Mencher

    8.03.06

    being subversive

    Hi – and thanks for your thoughts. I’ve learned a lot already listening in.

    I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of tours for the Getty Museum and Villa in LA, and I’ve found that audio uniquely is a way to throw everything up for grabs.

    For example, the Getty Villa in Malibu presents one of its treasures, a statue of a Greek boy, as possibly real, possibly the work of a forger. But the curators hope that they paid millions for something that’s not a fake, and their presentation emphasizes the object’s value, while being unable to ignore the questions of authenticity.

    But with the audio tour, I was really able to dig into the question of whether or not the piece is real, and more importantly, why it matters. This, to use your language, is "modeling" the experience, of listening in as two experts argue – say Malcolm Gladwell who writes in his book "Blink" that the piece is definitely a fraud, and former curator Marion True, who believes it’s probably real.

    In this tour stop, the final script was still approved by the presenters of the tour, that is, the museum itself.

    I think the difference for the new generation of tours that come to visitors "over the transom" so to speak, through websites, perhaps from mavericks or independents who aren’t tied to the museum’s own curatorial staff, will be the multiplicity of points of view. That’s already happening at MOMA and elsewhere – and that’s the promise and challenge of this work going forward.

  • Melissa Allison

    8.04.06

    Audio Imitating Art

    Thanks for your interesting perspectives, Brad.
    I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about the use of music alongside the Scottish artist. It seemed like the perfect thing to do for a radio piece, but I’m wondering if/how that gets complicated for museum audio.
    Did you select the music? Did the artist? The museum? When you use the artist’s own voice, standing before (within) his artwork, do you have to be extra careful to consider how your own creative contribution may alter the visitor’s experience?

    Also, as someone who’s about to be producing some audio for a museum, I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about how you measure success in such a venture. What makes an installation good or bad? Does the determination of success rest with the visitor? the museum? yourself?

    Thirdly, have you ever created audio for a museum that is not referencing an object/installation… say, for example, an acoustiguide for the Civil Rights Museum? How would this differ from the work you produce for MOMA?

    Many thanks.
    Melissa Robbins

  • Brad Klein

    8.06.06

    Audio Imitating Art

    Melissa, you raise a number of points, and I’ll try and address some here, and some in Part Two of the Manifesto.

    Regarding the audio for Martin Creed’s “Work No.227: The lights going on and off" (audio in manifesto part one) , I’m wondering, was it clear to folks that it is the artist himself who wrote and performed the song? In fact, what I posted was my first edit of that audio, and I’ve since added a line to clarify that point. This week, I’ll walk through the galleries at MoMA with their educators and curators, and see how the audio works on-site, which gives me one more chance to tweak.

    As for how music (for example) affects the visitor experience, we give that a lot of thought, and it’s an important point of discussion with the client from beginning to end. In the case of Creed’s work, I would not have felt comfortable using music if the artist had not: written and performed the work – suggested that particular song and talked about its significance – indicated that he liked that idea that people would experience his work in many different ways one of which will be, ‘listening to his voice and music through an audio device’.

    Measuring success… It seems to me that there have to be multiple, equally valid, measures of success. For example, at NPR, I had the great pleasure of co-creating and producing Weekly Edition: The Best of NPR News, which meant that I had a lot of leeway to decide (along with Neal Conan) just what WAS the best of NPR News. Pretty presumptuous of us! But I’m convinced the show was, well… better, than if a committee of Desk Editors had made the selections. Then again, we needed a degree of approval from station managers, our bosses, etc to stay on the air.

    In the audio tour biz, there are visitor surveys, and measurements of various degrees of sophistication. But divorced from idiosyncratic personal impulses by the writer, producer, client, artist – those measures can push everything to a bland, built-by-committee sameness. And since the productions receive almost no attention from cultural journalists and popular or academic critics, stand-out productions often are overlooked.

  • Rob King

    8.07.06

    Experiences – and a question

    I’ve used audio-tours at MFA (Boston), PFA(Portland, Me) and the Met and MoMa(NYC) – easily over 24 times in the past ten or so years. I find them to be a great help, especially if the subject is someone’s view of a thing, or it is work that I am not familiar with. Matisse and Picasso had good examples of both, for me. The audio tour helped me get the point with the right facts (years between paintings, for example), and subject contexts (themes being depicted).

    I’m curious about a "running" statistic and comments that I would make public. # of visitors, # using audio tour, feedback on perceived value……….Rob King

  • Brad Klein

    8.07.06

    Experiences – and a question

    Rob, I’m glad that you brought up the Matisse Picasso show from 2003 (when MoMA was in it’s temporary home in Queens). I really enjoyed the audio tour that was crafted for that show by our senior editor, Toni Bryan. Like the DIA example I provided in the manifesto, it was an unscripted ‘conversation’ between two people, MoMA’s Chief Curator, John Elderfield and the late Kirk Varnedoe, then at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. But this was a dialogue of experts bringing all of their vast experience and knowledge to the table. Still, the facts and figures were ‘leavened’ by the personal asides and the conversational structure.

    I’m not sure I understand your question, though. Are you asking for statistics about audio tour usage rates?

  • Sydney Lewis

    8.11.06

    marcel, song, time

    Thanks Brad, this is so interesting. I’ve rarely used audio guides but after hearing the NOW conversation, I shall in future check them out. What delighted me about that style of guide was that I felt much as I do when I’m eavesdropping on other museum-goers in conversation about a piece. It was such a human, non-lecturing exchange. Hearing Duchamps was delightful, and I also appreciated the curatorial two cents, though I think that could just as well have fit on a text panel, probably because Duchamps is a hard act to follow.

    Yes, I found it clear the Scottish artist is singing his own song, it seemed to flow naturally from his statements.

    When you’re planning these, what considerations are involved in figuring length of time?

  • Ian Gray

    8.12.06

    Outside the Museum

    I appreciate the insight into producing audio for museums and exhibits, but I feel this discussion is just getting off the ground.

    I know Acoustiguide also does tours for National Heritage Sites and other outdoor venues. What about producing "tours" outside the museum: in the National Park, in Chinatown, in the small New England fishing town? It seems with easy to transport mp3 players and downloadable files, there is a growing market for audio walking tours of streets, neighborhoods and entire towns and this market won’t be hindered by the costs of signing on to expensive equipment or services!

    What’re your experiences with outdoor walking tours? Museums are static environments where attention of the patron is very controlled. Outside in public a million things are competing for a viewer/listeners attention. What are your thoughts on the challenges of producing walking tours outside versus inside? What are your thoughts about listeners hearing the voices of local people they might bump into on the street as they stand and listen to the story of a particular tenement building?

    I see great potential for tours conducted in public, capturing the stories about a place that locals tell to each other. Seems to me that street level walking tours can serve as a form of urban archaeology in much the same way as Charles Dickens’ early serialized sketches about London life (published as "Sketches by Boz"). Dickens captured the complexity and ephemerality of the city while at the same time giving readers (in our case listners) narrative threads to connect them to the changing urban landscape.

    Hope I’m not peeling back the cover too much on the Part 2 of the Manifesto…enjoy the discussion so far and looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks,

    Ian Gray

  • Viki Merrick

    8.13.06

    convert

    ok ok you’ve convinced me! next time I go to the musuem I’ll get the audio tour. But what if it sucks? I actually never thought of one guide being different from another…But these examples show how it is the tidbits about an artist, or a work or a different angle or thought you might not have had that pique the interest. Duchamps for example, I might not have lingered on before and this is the wholesome goal of your current occupation…to get me to linger and not merely view, is it not? Is the Acoustaguide goal infiltrating the business so that production expectations will rise throughout?

    I appreciate what you say about place – here in Woods Hole Jay Allison created a low power AM loop of oral history and stories that people can hear in the Steamship parking lot waiting to go to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the captive audience in PLACE that informs the work, the very restriction provides a creative challenge. My "experience" of a piece of art enhanced by this very kind of accompanyment becomes more first person as in: "I" heard this guy Martin talking about being sure he didn’t know what he wanted to say…. it’s more personal, like me being at the Post Office or the bakery in a town and overhearing the locals talking about how some guy got stuck at sea in the fog the night before. I say this also in reference to a real first-hand experience vs the experience that Ian speaks of trying to re-create in an audio tour of a town where, unless carefully controlled, is less apt to be controlled by place where often the actual goal is to wander.

    So, like the restriction of writing a sonnet or Haiku – the confinement of PLACE and perimeters given by the museum forces you, as the producer, to make it as vital and provocative as possible. How does this project rate compared to your other projects as a producer? Could you move from place to place, injecting a tour with your creative quirk?

  • David Kestenbaum

    8.14.06

    is it better not to talk about art?

    Hi Brad!
    Great discussion, thanks for hosting. I’ve never been a huge fan of museum audio tours, maybe because my mother told me to rent them, maybe because they tended toward the pedantic. I think they’ve gotten much better recently, thanks no doubt to people like you.

    Can you tell us how the artists (in cases where they are still alive) feel about the audio tours? Do some of them have ideas for what they would like the audio component to be? What are those ideas?

    David Kestenbaum

  • Brad Klein

    8.17.06

    is it better not to talk about art?

    Sorry to have been away from the site for a few days. Before posting a couple new audio files, I thought I’d ramble a bit. It’s an interesting question about the artists, David. Besides Martin Creed, who we’ve talked about, there have been quite a handful who were sincerely enthusiastic about the possibilities in the medium – many who cooperate out of general good will toward the museums and/or their education departments – and a handful who were actively uncomfortable about participating, or turned down the museum completely.

    I walked into the studio the other day to interview Jeff Koons, who I had not met before. I was moderately nervous, but JK is socially adept, and greeted me warmly, followed by, “there’s just one thing that you should know… I really dislike talking about my work”, and a look of apologetic concern on his face. My mind raced feverishly for about 3/4 of a second, before he cracked a smile. Of course, Koons LOVES talking about his work. But the truth is, a lot of artists don’t, and extracting good quotes from them is just one more of the uncomfortable situations that journalism puts you in to. (not as bad as calling friends and families of the recently dead, at least…)

    I fell for Elizabeth Murray the moment I met her, and I think it’s fair to say that she earnestly believes in the educational mission of museums, and is happy to participate in these sorts of programs for that reason. She’s a delight to talk to about her work, thoughtful and earnest. As an aside, remember it is ONLY the educational mandate of museums that justifies their tax-exempt status, and thus has come to define the institutions in recent decades.

    Ed Ruscha is a good example of an artist that I approached with a great deal of initial suspicion. Remember, I’ve never had an art history class (or practically any other college level instruction for that matter). I personally found his work off-putting and the critical interpretation of it, pretentious and overblown. When I spoke to him for MCA Chicago, I had an experience that I have since had, over and over again. The artist himself spoke plainly and modestly about his work. I felt my own reaction change from suspicion to appreciation. Maybe I had felt too defensive… afraid that there was a joke here, and it was on me. The thoughtful, laconic humor that ER put forth, made me comfortable enough to enjoy his work, and that feeling has never gone away. I hope it came through to folks listening to the audio tour.

    Lastly, I should say that I’m still waiting for the chance for a true collaboration with a contemporary artist, as distinct from even the most willing interview. Where s/he is involved from conception through execution with the museum and Acoustiguide as partners in creating and presenting the work. I haven’t had the chance in over five years in the business, but it’s bound to happen soon…

  • Brad Klein

    8.17.06

    time

    Sydney asks about the running time of these audio programs. In general, I think 30 – 45 minutes of produced audio is plenty for most temporary exhibitions. I mean, that’s a lot to absorb even over the course of a couple hours.

    I like to try for 30 to 90 seconds per object, as a rule of thumb. But as we all know, a foolish consistency…

    As in radio, the rule should be, cut till it hurts… and then cut some more. I’d rather give visitors a thoughtful tidbit, than stuff them with information till it hurts. Sometimes, it’s a hard concept for curators and educators, who are so grateful for the ear of the public.

  • Brad Klein

    8.22.06

    Manifesto Part Two

    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.

    The Future

    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:
    OMC imageI’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. You can learn more about the exhibition, here.

    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.

    Listen to Audio Clip (MP3)

    Jan Wollet was a flight attendant who recalled the controversial 1975 ‘babylift’ of Vietnamese orphans to the United States.

    Listen to Audio Clip (MP3)

    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."

    Eastern State PenitentiaryAnother 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. Samples of the audio tour can be found here.

    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.

  • Brad Klein

    9.11.06

    Thanks

    Thanks to all who participated in this discussion during the past month or so. Two parting notes.

    I’d like to draw attention to the web site of the Dayton Art Institute. As part of the audio production for, “Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art”, a show that opens 24 September 2006, we produced an interview with NGA curator, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

    You can listen to it on the ‘programs’ section of the exhibition’s web site: http://www.daytonartinstitute.org/exhibits/upcoming_rembrandt_RelatedPrograms.html

    Although this 2-way doesn’t break new ground from a radio point to view, I think it does indicate a growing willingness on the part of museums to provide content in a wider variety of media. It’s a trend that I hope will grow.

    Finally, I hope that I’ve interested more of the ‘radio production crowd’ in producing audio for museums and other location-specific sites. Whether you’re working independently or with a vendor, let me know about your experiences. You can reach me through Acoustiguide or my own website at http://www.bradleyklein.com.

    Best wishes, Brad

  • Jay Allison

    9.11.06

    Thanks to Brad…

    Thank you so much for the time you spent with us, Brad, and the new ideas you brought. Soon, we’ll create a edition of The Transom Review from this discussion, so anyone can download and save. Finally, I appreciate your invitation for people to be in touch. That’s generous.

  • Adam Weiss

    9.30.06

    Beyond the "Audio Tour"

    As the creator, producer, and host of a museum science news show, I wanted to know more about some of the "future" aspects that are already here. Could you comment on that?

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