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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
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.
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.
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.
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
Atelier Creation Radiophonique
Australian Music Centre
Ear Wave Event
New Adventures in Sound Art
Radio Art group on Facebook
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology