Radio’s Art

It was 1987 when I stumbled upon Joe Frank’s voiced artistry on a community station. “You can do that on the radio?” I whispered to myself.

I didn’t need a critic telling me I could.

In nearly 50 years of networked public radio; in podcasting’s rebellious surge and influence upon its ‘parents’; in radio’s ephemeral-blessed invitations to aural aesthetics; in brick-and-mortar spaces engendering new ways to listen to sound art—there can be intentional blurring among genres. Practitioners try to lay claims. Territories seem closed, but are evidently malleable, more porous than listeners and makers imagine.

Earlid opens a portal for the public to engage with some of the assumptions about what practitioners do, how we talk about it and how we find resonances among all the dispersed vibrations of radio and sound art. We open our ears to its public sounding, as storyteller Dragan Todorovic suggests we hear all forms derived from radio.

Ironically, we’re doing this online as Earlid has always existed here. We’re hoping that this is a useful gathering space to discern ideas in more inventive ways around media criticism that can sometimes be too exclusively positive, sometimes flippant. Radio artist Gregory Whitehead and I co-moderate. Ten written vantages unfurl via short ‘page-long’ essays from critics and podcasters and academics and experimenters of the air.


Towards an exacting ear

There’s a keen desire for a bridge—or maybe it’s more akin to a wheel with spokes towards a center—to connect legacies or expand out to other arts and media. No matter the analogy, this forum’s focus aims to raise voices in the din of contemporary radio, podcasts and sound art amidst the context of earlier critical discourse.

When reviewers silence a vibrant history, failing to mention the 20th century’s critics, how are 21st-century practitioners to understand where their medium was born? There’s a lively gamut of writers who crossed from theater and film genres over a threshold to radio in the late-1920s: Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Kurt Schwitters, Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Upton Sinclair; then later, Norman Corwin at mid-century and Studs Turkel in the ’60s. They invite us to listen, but also to funnel perspectives from many directions.

How are practitioners to discern what hue their medium’s poetics took without such context? Radio poetics is very different from podcasting. Perhaps it’s the longer tail of the broadcast medium compared with the shiny glitter of a little more than a decade of online transmission. But which kind of podcast? Is it the storytelling that tumbles out of years of public radio or theater aesthetics, or the kind that rises, seemingly anew, into a form that isn’t quite any one thing, but might be limiting itself without an ear towards these legacies that came before?

Like the cassette sound-art underground or museum installations, these territories borrowed from theater as much as they did from radio. But in those eras, as today, critics have been gnashing about it significantly more than simply offering a shrug of silence.


A suspension bridge, not a toll booth

Barry Lam and Cathy FitzGerald, Sherre DeLys and Neil Verma and Sarah Montague open the conversations towards other artistic criticism—fiction writing, theater, film, dance—forcing intersections between them and radio criticism. When Lam, host of Hi-Phi Nation podcast, collides 19th-century gothic fiction’s veiled and obscured hues with some of radio’s narrative traits, a critical discourse unexpectedly greets our ears. Other participants suggest that critical awareness is vital, no matter the source.

Listener-theorist-academic Daniel Gilfillan says in the very vibrancy of our contemporary radio and sound art culture, characterized by an old-fashioned set of industry standards as it is by DIY play, the critical language and practice deemed missing are readily apparent. And in use.

Today’s practitioners have penetrated their own styles forging and plowing through boundaries with their own languages, questioning poetics, even knowledge (dare we mention “theory”?). Why gate such inventions as hybrid documentaries, impressionist narratives, and audio fiction; sonic ethnography and oral history?


Cathy FitzGerald
Dragan Todorovic
Sarah Montague
Daniel Gilfillan
Neil Verma
Sherre DeLys
Olivia Bradley-Skill
Barry Lam
Karen Werner
Christopher DeLaurenti


Radio re-think

It’s prescient to read Jacki Apple’s “The Art of Radio” in my dog-eared anthology, Radiotext(e) from the early 1990s, though I don’t agree when she says practitioners have yet to establish a critical discourse (given my over-flowing bookshelves of writings from Gregory Whitehead and Allen Weiss; Dan Lander, Doug Kahn and Frances Dyson; and David Toop and Helen Thorington and Brandon LaBelle and Johnathan Sterne and Anna Friz and Seth Kim-Cohen).

Today, when I hear someone bemoaning a ‘lack’ as if someone making the work isn’t suitable to talk about it, I consider two realities.

First, we’re not blessed by The New Yorker opining on radio’s art every week (and as Cathy FitzGerald wonders, maybe that would harm more than help); and secondly, perspective is useful: only two percent of Americans’ ears in a recent Pew study are listening via podcasts. In our little landscape, it feels like everyone’s tuned in to storytelling and so there should be a staff critic for radio or podcast narratives, like we have for film, at every publication.

Talking about new forms of radio and sound art seems the thing we want to do more of; who is the right critical voice seems to be an unanswerable question.

Pre-internet, Jacki Apple is astutely speaking to the same issues around radio’s seductive medium that a listener can have in her drive-way as she can intentionally seeking an adventuresome sound-art program that only exists via an app or here online, that doesn’t bombard with ads and metrics and invitations to review (in this democratization, anyone with a set of ears becomes a critic).

Apple lasers her attention towards radio’s space-time territories. Its inherent poetic qualities as a medium are recognized 20 years later in the writings of Salomé Voegelin (her 2010 Listening to Noise & Silence immerses a reader in sound art and the everyday acoustic environment). Voegelin echoes her progenitors, R. Murray Schafer and LaMonte Young. Their examinations of sound and art and physical space and its relationship to a singular medium from which so much has billowed into our ears for a century is mind-boggling. John Cage at mid-century invites us to tune the radio and the body to different frequencies, drones, durations. Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening carries us into new territories as we navigate radiophonic voices on the air today as it did in the late 1980s when I first discovered Joe Frank, or just this year, when I stumbled upon the independent podcast, Mabel.

What does that suggest to the different kinds of creative makers toiling in story and experimenting with sound today, mostly on the radio or its mediated relatives such that Joe Frank’s 30-year oeuvre is still on terrestrial radio via KCRW’s UnFictional, but so too is the five-year-running podcast, Here Be Monsters? We seek more laterally the archives and dialogues built at the launch of popular virtual worlds (Ubuweb, Transom, Third Coast) or rising more recently: Radio Nouspace, Sounding Out!, Sonic Field. And, here, at Earlid.


What’s inaudible to Audible

This forum is especially curious about narrative and its incarnations. We reach out to consider experiments in both narrative and radio’s sound itself in such artists as veteran Christopher DeLaurenti and recently DJ’ing Olivia Bradley-Skill, as well as Karen Werner’s inquiry about the very politics of storytelling.

From its launch, Earlid has been grappling with critical context around how makers of sonic works appeal to our ears and brain’s desire for stories. I often point towards literature to bolster the earworms: writer Italo Calvino’s invisible cities coheres the work of radio artists Dragan Todorovic and Pip Stafford; social media as ‘storyteller’ platform aids comparisons of DeLaurenti’s protest symphony to Sontag’s ideas of complicity. In a wise essay by Em Strang about distant horror, there’s resonance to Gregory Whitehead’s recent Soundproof piece on Guantanamo torture and Scott Carrier’s refugee series on Home of the Brave.

It’s always in service to story and, no doubt, a question of style and content, something a producer will consider no matter the genus of radio or podcasting, sound artistry on the air on in a physical space.


You’re invited

Let’s have a conversation about how we approach our work (and our audiences) around these themes and what institutions we navigate or walls we bump our heads into. It’s not one linear path; rather there will be spurs and surely the legacies of writers and thinkers and critics prevail.

Maybe you work in radio or podcasting (or both) and want to invite in artistry or teach it more readily to new makers or surprise your listeners. Perhaps you are steeped in radio’s artistry or other spaces of sonic arts for decades: step around known inquiries and mind the gaps among maker and platform and consumer and share your knowledge with others eager to learn—even (especially) to those navigating new realms of podcasting and old radio formats.

The divisions of artistry are better when made more blurry. How we use constricting terms as radio and sound art even seem crippling. Maybe we can make these distinctions less rigid and more rounded. This forum and this platform have the potential to distill discourse into streams rather than a concretizing into hierarchical canons.


The radio clock

Regine Beyer, who co-founded New American Radio (1987-1998), and, since returning to Germany, continues to write about radio art’s history, suggests we broaden the concept of an ever-changing medium. Transmission artists and their ‘airwaves’ offer us new listening publics, such as those created and installed, networked and narrowcast at Wave Farm. This is a more expansive definition, says Beyer, than what we thought radio was in the 1980s and 1990s. But still, wise and generous advice prevails today:

Dear Folks … as I told Joan already, I am too busy at the moment to write something coherent and in depth for Earlid, but I happily agreed to make a few comments. My very practical advice for further procedures:

Read and listen as much as possible and know which tradition you’re coming from.

Be a part of or at least be aware of interdisciplinary efforts surrounding the various fields of sound.

Keep in mind that everyone, of course, has his or her own agenda: to protect turf, to bolster reputation (rampant in academia!), his or her own aesthetic perception and preferences, etc.

Find your own position and be ready to promote and defend it!

Above all: keep producing – and archiving.

Greetings, Regine …


Won’t you join us? Make a comment.

The open forum remains throughout the summer and, after September, is archived at Earlid. Its robust writings of participants and commenters will be available as PDF download for the many different kinds of students (self-taught, with open ears) and teacher-mentors to further study and share.

Explore the short written pieces of our ten contributors. Visit all three exhibit ‘rooms’: scroll up and select the vintage Victrola horns or link here—Agile Critics; Tulips & Radio History; Veils, Politics, Static.

Return to the ‘lobby’ to engage with your comments. Either select “Reply” to a comment already made (link is to the furthest right, atop the comment) or make a new one in the field below. We’d enjoy hearing your thoughts, questions, linked examples.


—Joan Schuman, Earlid


  1. Pingback: Agile Critics | Earlid

  2. Pingback: Tulips & Radio History | Earlid

  3. Pingback: Veils, Politics, Static | Earlid

  4. First, loud and heartfelt BRAVAS to Joan Schuman for curating the strong, polyphonous statements linked above, and for hosting this forum. A few words just to get the juices flowing: 

    In my long experience since the early 1980s, three “P” words have never failed to create discomfort in public radio circles, at least on this side of the Atlantic: Philosophy, Politics and Poetics. Yet broadcast radio is deeply entangled, riddled and steeped in all three! To my ears, once we enter radio space in all its slippery ambiguity, the Triple-Ps are everywhere, whether one wants to hear them or not. 

    Thinking through the space then becomes inseparable from creating in the space, or in collaboration with the space. When radiomakers become more deeply aware of the poetic, philosophical and political puzzles intrinsic to radio in all its phenomenological sloppiness, their radiophonies become ever more irresistible to the hungry ears of the absent other. 

    Podcast space fires up a different kettle of fish in each of the Triple-P dimensions, as different from broadcast radio as a frog pond from the Sargasso Sea. Same goes for installations, audio walks and every other acoustic modulation; each space suggesting a distinct poetic, a distinct politics and a distinct philosophy. There is no blanket poetics of sound as such, only diverse poetics of sounds in relation to distinct listening situations, each with its own inherent politics.

    Forget this, or ignore it, and everything starts sounding like everything else, with the rich diversity of our acoustic ecology sacrificed to the convenience of “multi-platform” formats, ego brands, blandly predictable modules and other shallow blurts and blahs. 

    OK, enough preliminaries: in the interests of creating a collective repository of ideas and inspirations, intended to tickle the minds and ears of a fresh generation of audio adventurers, Joan and I will do our best to mediate in days and weeks to come. Welcome one and all, and let the comments flow!

    • Joan Schuman

      Context is king, Gregory. When we first started talking about this forum, I considered another arts-community brewing contested ideas of critique.

      There may be parallels or simply synergies, but I think it’s important to peek around at other artistic genres, as many of the writers in this forum have done. For me, one of the salient examples is the visual work by Dana Shulz and her Whitney Biennial painting responding to Emmet Till’s funeral. It caused both heated protest and defense by artists, curators and museum visitors and continues to motivate critics to contest who’s allowed to paint, speak, etc. (Shulz’s painting is a response as a mother herself, a white woman, to another mother’s insistence on an open casket so her son’s unimaginable torture at the hands of racist white men in the South could be blatantly viewed.)

      There were demands for the painting to be destroyed. There were inquiries into whether it should have been included at all. One of the Whitney curators suggests these many strands of discourse unravel due to the speed at which engagement happens online.

      The latter is a curious zone. Is this what happens when we talk about radio experiments or hybrids of conventional approaches (dare we say, commercialized) and offer them up to listening ‘publics’? Are we too quick to offer glib responses (opinions) without maybe more deep tackling? How would that look/sound for ‘radio’s art’?

      What do you want to see that’s not out there, being engaged with?

  5. While my work is primarily funded for broadcast radio in Ireland, I always consider online the ‘medium of record’. I’ve been podcasting since 2005, and coming from an online first I’m interested in the distinct characteristics of that audience – which to my mind relate more to ways of listening than demographics. Primarily the podcast audience is choosing to listen, and indeed subscribe to a programme or series, rather than happening upon it in the chaotic stream of the airwaves. And at least here in Europe, where satellite radio never took off and podcatchers in cars are less prevalent – the audience are primarily listening on headphones.

    I grew up – like Karen Werner, a lonely child filling the late night silence, listening to BBC radio four. There was little difference in my mind between book serialisations – like John William’s wonderfully evocative but barely remembered ‘Silver Threads’, and radio drama proper. Primarily monologues from that time stick in my memory for some reason – adaptations like Wallace Shawn’s ‘Fever’.

    In the years since I’ve begun creating my own work, despite finding much to love in the production and sound design aspect of radio, I’ve rarely enjoyed listening to radio drama. For me the most exiting ‘fictional’ work is being created in the narrative journalism space: Liminal work mixing reality and fiction to explore subjectivity through sound. Not by mimicking the faux discursive chattiness of American public radio, but by merging recollection, found recordings and outright fiction – in a manner influenced by the ‘new journalism’ of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, Gregory Whiteheads cutups, the experimentalism of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.

    I’m thinking of work like Kaitlin Prest & Shani Aviram’s ‘Movies in your Head’, Pejk Malinovski’s ‘Everything, Nothing, Harvey Kietel’, Julia Barton’s ‘One Time’, Paolo Pietropaolo’s ‘Signal to Noise’. These pieces, and numerous others by outfits like Nick Van Der Kolk’s Love + Radio, merge hypnogogic sound design with fragments of real and fictional memory. They seduce empathy from tiny moments of personal experience and fling time up into the air pizza dough. They employ leitmotif – both musical phrases and repeating sounds and words to support their themes, keeping the affective tonality of sound on an even footing with language. Above all they are sound native: They could exist within no other medium. They turn the weaknesses of podcast – it’s linearity and isolation, into attention and intimacy.

    For me this is interesting soil in which a new kind of audio fiction could grow. I’ve only begun to think about how to develop such work. Its need to emerge through experimentation with sound, through cutup, foley and the pillaging of personal archives and found footage. It’s allergic to funding streams which demand (as here in Ireland) a finished, readable script prior to production. As a writer / director I’ve tried to engage with aspects of the ‘distinct qualities’ of radio referenced by Christopher DeLaurenti – the mechanics of surveillance, the body as both a storehouse of sound and a physical presence which can be explored and invaded. Too much of the current crop of radio drama – and I include much of my own work in this – treats sound as a secondary consideration. The possibilities inherent in the singular attention of the listener – positional audio, textural noise, the physicality of sound, tone, POV, exposure of the mechanisms of listening – are often discounted in favour of ‘accessible’, linear narrative.

    Meanwhile the explosion of creativity occurring in the fine art space, as sound art has become the flavour of the day, seem to have had little impact on the day to day work of the radio dramatist. What’s lacking is exactly the kind of awareness of context, and interplay with work in other mediums that defines work as contemporary. If podcast drama is to develop it needs to respond both to the polarised political context and it’s artistic context – not only in the tradition of narrative radio or sound art as a whole, but also visual art and performance. It requires a criticism that provokes and elevates serious work, that serves a curatorial role, identifying and cataloguing pieces and artists worthy of attention. Perhaps criticism emerging from makers and artists engaged in the same effort at sonic innovation. Ideally criticism that values equally the aural, literary and sonic aspects of the art form.

    In 2013 I had the great fortune of attending an event called ‘Ears Forward’ at the Brooklyn performance space JACK. This listening event curated by Brendan Baker exposed the audience to a revelatory variety of contemporary audio. Events like these – where sonic art is presented in context, with exposition, fidelity and selection, seem to be springing up everywhere. Often where radio makers present recent discoveries to one another in their own homes. They’re vital to the emergence of a creative conversation, and have had an enormous impact on the development of my own awareness of the ‘radio’ landscape. What’s missing – at least in the Irish context – are events where makers from distinct sonic worlds like radio, the metal noise scene , fine art audio, audio hacking, and podcast can meet collaborate and gain exposure to radically distinct work. Locally there is one festival which does this ‘Hearsay’ in Kilfinnan, Co. Limerick. Internationally, I’m aware of one other, Philadelphia’s Megapolis.

    These kinds of events can help engender alternatives the stagnant modes of storytelling – narrator driven, found tape, discursive, genre bound – that are becoming mainstays of the revival in podcast audio drama. From a pragmatic creator standpoint, they can potentially point towards alternative funding sources that allow writers and producers to escape the demand characteristics of specific advertisers or funding bodies. From an artistic point of view their invaluable jumping off points, that transform a solipsistic introspective medium into a lively conversation.

    • Joan Schuman

      Gareth, I’ll jump back towards your robust ideas in a moment, but want to offer clarification about Megapolis that you mention.

      It is a festival taking place in Philadelphia, but that is a result of the roving nature of Megapolis itself. It takes place in a different city, every other year or so since 2009 (Boston; New York; Oakland, California; Baltimore). It is this kind of roving that allows for nearer-by locals to participate.

      In fact, Earlid’s “Radio Art”—this very forum—is going to be revisited there in Philly in September. I’ll be taking a sort of snapshot (or several poses) of what transpires this summer and participants at the festival will parse the activity of this very gathering.

      • Joan Schuman

        I would add to your list of festivals for engendering the much-needed in-person moments that foment excitement enough to take us home and do more work. Deep Wireless is one of those to add to your list. I attended in 2005 (met both Gregory Whitehead and Dragan Todorovic there, among others). It takes place annually in Toronto, Canada, since 2002, and they have numerous spin-offs (installations, symposia, festivals, commissions, sound walks, etc.). Invaluable

      • Joan Schuman

        I’m on a variety of Facebook group pages where I discern activity and festivals around these themes.

        Gareth and others, here’s a tidbit I just gleaned from The School of Radio in Italy. Its director, Roberto Paci Dalò, chimed in at FB about this Earlid gathering with excitement. He says: “We’re working on a little radio art symposium (scheduled for next November 2017 in San Marino) around The School of Radio / Scuola di Radiofonia and this conversation is a treasure. Let’s share ideas, wishes, and thoughts.”

        Seems a vital connection … and resonant with others we’ve linked to (many links Chris DeLaurenti offered in his essay here)

  6. Gareth (and others!), I would be curious to hear your response to Neil Verma when he writes:

    “Let audio fiction be radically other, let it be impossible to stage. As I’ve written elsewhere, podcasting needs to be twice as weird as it is now if it is going to be nearly as weird as radio is all the time.”

    To my ears, those occasions when linearity and isolation transform into attention and intimacy, to use your own wonderful description, are all too few and far between.

    In contrast to the open egalitarianism and entropic ambiguity of radio space, qualities that support non-linear and freely associative forms of radio art, is there something inherently flat and aesthetically reactionary within podcast space, with ambitious podcasters engaged in the eternal search for the exact balance of elements that will secure the highest number of downloads, the best statistical metrics, and thus hook commercial sponsorship, after which it will become imperative not to do or say anything controversial, upsetting or disorienting?

    Podcasts are packaged bits of digital acoustic flotsam in the vast informational and global surveillance ocean of the internet, with its nasty riptides of taste algorithms and push-media feedback loops, loops that terminate only when our subjectivities have been fully mined and commodified. Or? What am I missing?

    Then come these powerfully persuasive thoughts from Karen Werner:

    “Words, sounds, and narrative sensibilities subtly reinforce notions of the coherent self; the meaning of community; the centrality of the human; empathy as a virtuous feeling, and the world as by and large knowable.
    This co-creation of self and world happens within (and energizes again and again) a broader social and economic narrative and context. So much podcast and public radio storytelling is typically listened to alone these days—at the gym with headphones or as part of a solo commute. And increasingly these radio stories and podcasts are underwritten by companies that prepare your meals and snacks, deliver beds, send automated newsletters, and so forth amidst an insidious hush about the slashing of public funding for radio and art in the U.S. (and to varying degrees outside the U.S. as well.)”  
    Against the branded self and artist-as-entrepreneur as required in podcast space,Werner proposes a storytelling practice as spiritual activism and resistance to neo-liberal exploitations of the self. What think ye? What about the ethical dimensions of our artistic practice? Anyone?

    • Joan Schuman

      Gregory and Gareth, you raise vital experiences that feed your curiosity. It is the former that changes how each of us conjures up the latter as we listen—flung to the far reaches of radio’s ears, which have now landed here online as both of you are noting. This experience is robust and wobbly, depending on funding and metrics.

      I echo the examples you cite, Gareth, for their inventive intertwining of sound and story. Something you raised resonates for me about ‘re-inventing’ the wheel. We’ve got an explosion of platforms beyond what once was ‘just radio.’ Recently, a multi-part exploration of how we producers (artists, radio-makers) can create anew, popped into my iTunes via a podcast that had been dormant for more than a year. I kept peeking around to see if the podcaster had added any new episodes. And then he came up with this.

      Anxious Machine is Rob McGinley Meyers’ consideration of how we humans relate to technology. Stylistically, it borrows from public radio; it pushes story to the front; often it is transparent and the host lays out his relationship to the story. In fact, this ‘series’ lands us squarely inside his life and why the last two episodes have a gaping hiatus between them. The gist of this series is to explore if podcasts could be treated like creating a masterpiece of literature for the audio medium. It’s not about creating audio fiction. Rather it’s about ambition, like Joyce’s Ulysses, Meyers suggests. He asks: What if we think of audio as a new medium for audio storytelling, encouraging people to take it into new directions?

      Isn’t this already happening, I wanted to shout? Or, louder, isn’t this what has been happening in cycle after cycle of creative radio-making across generations? Let’s make something really big! He realizes this might sound like re-inventing the wheel (and the other gist of this series is about Meyers’ grappling with his own mental health, but that’s another story, or another part of this story and a fairly radical one because his content isn’t reliant upon metrics or funding). But he rightly questions, I think, that we are in an era not unlike the printing press and its impact on novel-writing or the electric guitar, on rock bands.

      As I listened, I became curious (and yes, Gregory, it was in private, in a cross-country flight, 42- and 36-minutes apiece for each of the two episodes he finished, despite suggesting there’d be a third, but with a year between these two, who knows … the joy of independent podcasting non-responsibilities). I thought more about the cycles for many of us (and mirrored loudly in Meyers’ own depression and manic episodes). He raises an excellent issue to consider: public vs. private failure. Both seem to matter. And I guess if you accept more failure or demand to rise above it, pushing creative energies or experiments aside, it’s possible to devalue your own work or never get it off your hard drive.

      Meyers’ positing these ideas as if they are brand new (and his own acknowledgement that they aren’t) could be a template for critical discourse. He’s talking about energy, mental health, creativity, masterpieces; he’s looking at how to make money; he’s transparent in his style and yet not completely naval gazing.

      Anyone else hear this ‘series’ on Anxious Machine, which is one of the founding members of a small, podcast network, called The Heard (originally launching with six and now eight podcasts, all of them in varying stages of funding or sheer independence)? Even comparing smaller networks against larger ones (like Radiotopia and Panoply or Gimlet) is a relevant launching point for critical understanding of media structure, no?

  7. To my mind there’s a radical discontinuity between hobbyists and those seeking to make a living in the podcast space. While access to the airwaves – outside spaces like community radio, and the American public access channels, has always been an expensive, limited commodity; podcasts, like the web itself are defined by there accessibility. Traditionally in the radio space, as with print and television – the broader the audience, the most rigid the gatekeepers. Podcast initially lacked this restriction (though that has largely changed). It comes with a host of other qualities that differentiate it from the broadcast space – from time shifting to an overwhelming overabundance of programming. By it’s very nature, everything released in podcast format exists perpetually. Yet paradoxically, podcasting still largely flies under the radar of defamation and even copyright law. It’s a somewhat lawless space, and yet one almost entirely coopted by the curation and promotion of the large podcatchers.

    Within podcasting, you have this ongoing tension between hobbiest makers, who tend towards relatively simple discursive formats, and ‘professional’ producers with a more substantive production skillset. For this later, highly diverse group, podcasting may be an offshoot of journalist and radio broadcast, an aspect of arts practice, an opportunity to ‘build a personal brand’ or some other form of resale of existing ‘content’. As Gregory points out, this can tend towards highly market driven, or at the very least market influenced programming. This is made more problematic by the algorithmically driven nature of the filter bubble, and the tiny subsection of podcast audio – usually from well known media companies – promoted by gatekeepers like the iTunes podcast store. Network effects make the popular ever more popular: Creating a pressure towards replication of production approach and content.

    This was part of my thinking in suggesting the utility of curatorial criticism. There are almost certainly large number of more interesting ‘experimental’ podcasts – be they individual documentaries or one off programmes, or ongoing series – that are all but invisible to the winner takes all popularity contest that fills podcast recommends within apps and app stores. Aside – I’ll be sure to check out the Anxious Machine podcast.

    Moreover, frequent updates build audiences, and audiences build on themselves creating network effects. Given the much larger amount of time taken to produce more substantive audio, whether it be sound native drama, art radio or sound driven documentary – there will always be less of this kind of programming than simpler discursive programmes. The end result being that it will be harder for such podcasts to build and maintain listenership, and hence to be heard and noticed at all.

    The more ambitious podcast networks – like Radiotopia & The Heard, do a great deal to help promote more abstract and innovative programming. This includes the syndication of award winning or boundary pushing episodes from other sources. A parallel can be drawn here to how blogging developed from a vast series of isolated voices, inexorably towards aggregated curated experiences that occasionally invited outside contribution – e.g.: Boingboing; eventually towards cooption and near irrelevance in the wake of the large social media platforms. The problem aggregation is an inevitable homogenisation, both of political and cultural perspective, and of aesthetic. In the case of Radiotopia, the otherwise excellent homegrown programming tends towards the creative side of the didactic NRP approach. There had of course long been a tradition of this kind of aggregation of sonic art and creative radio in the broadcast space, from Between the Ears and Short Cuts in the UK, to Nova on RTE Lyric in Ireland. These however, remain niche government funded programmes.

    Another parallel with the early days of blogging is as Karen & Gregory suggest – is the element of self expression and exploration. What has always excited me about the podcast space is the freedom for the public to engage with rather than passively consume the media conversation. This has never been simpler with the ubiquity and relative inexpensive of recording and compositional platforms, from the smartphone to tablet computers. This lends itself to Dave Winer’s original conception of citizen journalism. A pioneer in the development of the RSS media syndication technologies underlying the podcast, Winer rote extensively in the early – mid 2000s about the possibilities for sousveillance and citizen reporting to redress imbalances in power created by the emerging surveillance state.

    The ubiquitous podcast creation device that Winer called for (and even attempted to build) at the birth of podcasting is with us today in the form of the smart phone. And we see active resistance to corporate and government malfeasance from radio journalists turned podcasters like Scott Carrier. In a sense, the easily skipped sponsorship ecosystem of podcasting, still provides an escape from the linear inescapable product placement and explicit advertising of television, cinema and broadcast radio.

    A precarious ecosystem exists here too, with the crowd funding platform Patreon providing an essential source of funding to iconoclastic voices – at least those who manage to develop and maintain an audience. Reading the industry newsletter Hotpod however, it quickly becomes apparent how tenuous the open nature of podcasting is – with a number of highly funded efforts seeking to replace MP3 / RSS in order to create better metrics for advertisers; with the inevitable side effect of sealing access to a previously open platform. Some of these – like the NPR One app, even spring from the American public radio space.

    The issue of maintaining open platforms and indeed funding streams, be they public patronage, foundation grants or something else entirely, is inseparable from the future of podcast as a platform for both self expression and resistance. In it’s absense we have access to the only the most popular, detoothed, or ‘gentleman scientist’ forms of alternative media. While aiming for mass popularisation delimits the possibilities for both creative and critical audio, avoiding any hope of a wider audience succeeds only in creating echo chambers that intersect only trivially with the wider cultural discourse. It’s certainly true that podcasting has yet to find its Michael Moore or even its Banksy. Personally I’d rather see a greater number of more truly eccentric creators find an audience – ideally through the aggregation of informed, diverse, opinionated critics.

    • Joan Schuman

      The question seems to be, where would you/we like to see or hear those informed, diverse, opinionated critics? What kinds of media? How often? And how would we preserve or define those spaces? Should they be for practitioners or outsiders? Many of the contributors to this forum suggest a multiplicity of approaches. Interestingly, I think the more refined and robust and serious of criticism happens offline and yet we spend so much of our time (I do) online, listening and forming an opinion and seeking out the opinions of others. Right here in this ever-so ephemeral of spaces in which everything is saved and archived.

  8. Good question Joan.

    Speaking as a writer and programme maker, while academic criticism can be fascinating, I find it of little practical use. It surprises me that podcasting hasn’t already given rise to a legion of popular recommendation and critique programmes. In the video space, youtube is swamped with such things – and for all the sound and fury of vapid polemic, there is at least an ongoing community and conversation.

    Expanding on a point I implied before. I do think that there’s a real and immanent danger of podcasting being subsumed into another medium. One better suited to the needs of advertisers and ‘big content’. We’ve seen this happen before with both blogging and user generated video, and till now it’s only been the lack of investment in the space that’s kept the open technologies of podcasting sacrosanct.

    Should this happen, the owners of the platform will have the power to effectively censor, to ‘demonitise’ and of course control the promotion of individual episodes and programmes – in the way Youtube, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook do today. To exclude creators from the platform all together, or accede to the demands of censorious regimes.

    I’m not sure what can be done to prevent such an outcome. Perhaps it’s an inevitable outcome of technological media under ‘late capitalism’ (i.e.: in an era when monopoly legislation is detoothed to the point of irrelevance). Right now though, we have a period of relative freedom and concomitant creative engagement.

    What we face is what has often been referred to as the discovery problem. Despite (and perhaps because) the ever expanding hold media and online media especially has on our attention – independent media of all sorts, most notably highly creative and original work faces greater difficulty than ever being noticed at all. User ranked recommendation systems have proven inadequate to the task of promoting ‘the good stuff’. They’re readily gamed, payola’d and tend towards the lowest common denominator. So what I suggest as an antidote are specific outlets and avenues tailored to the criticism of adventurous and original programming: Be they blogs, online videos or indeed podcasts themselves. The logical homes for such criticism would be where the audience is (and has been paid for) – large podcast producers and distributors. And indeed Gimlet did have a podcast show of this type – Sampler, which was cut from their schedules last year. The question is, how can ‘big content’ be incentivised (or guilted) into giving back?

    In the absence of this kind of worthwhile ongoing criticism and promotion, I think we’re going to see ever fewer programmes taking broader and broader swathes of listenership. With independently produced shows at best irrelevant, and at worse ultimately excluded from emerging platforms.

  9. Can I invert the pyramid? Much of the discussion so far remains rooted in systemic issues. As systems are enveloping constellations of individual attitudes and actions, I would like to respond to Gregory’s question about the ethical dimensions of our artistic practice.

    How we approach our material, topics, and interviewees could spawn separate discussions, but I wonder what is our obligation to ourselves and each other as makers and listeners?

    Before fulfilling obligations to others – and potentially solving the discovery problem by creating a community – it’s crucial to know yourself and what you can do. The thrust of this discussion has a wonderfully brainy, activist stance, but activists (especially young, inexperienced, or inattentive, out-of-practice activists like me) tend to bite off more than they can chew. “Reform yourself then pick one, only one, cause,” remains a great gift of advice I received from a veteran activist.

    My first obligation is to know why I make the work. “Putting endless time and work,” writes Kyle Gann “into a disciplined, unremunerative activity for the potential benefit of audiences unknown constitutes sufficient defiance of capitalist imperatives.” Sufficient or not, I make the work to teach myself to listen.

    My second obligation is to history and histories. I seek out lost ghosts, ranging from low-bitrate .mp3s of classic radiophonic works hacked from various sites to providentially mispriced CDs. FOUR discs of Jose Pivin for US $18! The four-disc Pivin set I mentioned in my initial response likely stands as the “Heaven’s Gate” of radio art.

    Rather than imagine oneself into a place of oppression, imagine the pre-neo-liberal Pivin pitch to a record label: “Yep four CDs, all in French, some of it guttural, amidst lots of silence. And cowbells! The guy died in 1977 so he’s ripe for a revival. Sure, the 4 disc cardstock wallet and booklet is extravagant, but we’ll save money by printing in one color on the discs. Oh, and this set just focuses on works Pivin made in and about Africa. After this release, we can do multi-disc sets from his great run of work in the 1960s.”

    Our history has yet to be written, so I re-write it often by seeking out new (to me) makers and listening to what they make. I regret “discovering” Sherre DeLys via Soundproof only last year; I blame myself and our fractured communities for the doltish time-delay.

    Reading is crucial. Most everyone has recommended a text, yet how a text is handled is just as important. Every summer, I beat up on The Wireless Imagination.

    My wife asked why I didn’t buy or borrow a used copy of the book. I figured my repeated library check-outs were a selfish middle finger to the cosmic undertow of someone else’s serendipity; my “actual,” proudly shelf-sitting copy was out on ten-year loan, likely never to return (I think the cover was pink).

    So my battered, shoved-in-the-bottom-of-a-backpack copy (hardback, natch) is written-in, dog-eared, and otherwise brutalized in unmentionably hyphenated ways. There, Douglas Kahn take that! I underlined and starred three sentences vigorously, so you’re wrong (or really right)!

    I wish I could do better regarding my third obligation, which is to advocate for fellow artists. I did so when I hosted two radio shows in succession from 1997-2002 and 2006-2009, but now I teach in the classroom to a much smaller audience. For some of my students, the apex of radio is “This American Life” or other fine NPR programmes whose evergreen formulae remain invisible to most of them.

    Earlid and other shows and sites I mentioned in my initial response offer activist acts of advocacy for our art form. Not everyone can (or should) cobble a website together; for some making the work and surviving is all they can do.

    So aside from “know thyself,” know your history, and champion fellow artists, what might be effective ways of advocating for adventurous listening rooted in the radio?

    • Joan Schuman

      These questions of ethics and branding, that you raise Gregory (and Karen Werner, you mentioned in your essay), are vital. I get all sorts of notices in my email and on social media for podcasting classes (and of course, the ubiquitous ads from platforms that will assure your project gets pushed out beautifully via Squarespace and Mail Chimp) and they seem, lately, to overshadow what used to be workshops for storytelling or sound artistry. We can divide up ‘them’ and ‘us’ and fall into whichever camp feels comfortable, our stances being noble, our goals hidden or overt. I think without the more corporate-leaning structures, we’ve got the democratic nature of online spaces to become ‘radios’ of sorts. But it depends, of course, on your financial motivations. Art has always had these divides.

      Get yourself a mentor; become one. Reinvent the medium.

      Chris, I agree that in your inversion of structures in favor of listening to oneself, to re-invigorate and stabilize one’s own aesthetic ballast might be the best (better?) place to focus. But what if you’re just beginning in this sonic medium and/or you want to ‘make it big’? I think by being a real artist-maker standing in front of (or online with, in my case) newly experimenting practitioners, is the place to offer up your first two obligations and even a bit of your third one. Be a repository or archive. Earlid was in the ‘note-taking’ stage for five years before launching and has only been ‘open’ less than three years. I have no plans on stopping. It’s more than a labor-of-love; it’s a kind of beckoning to this far-flung community to land, get lost, listen for a while.

      I’m not sure there’s any bridge from the big leagues towards the margins. Gareth’s wondering about how big content can give back to smaller-scale programming pockets. Everything’s changing in ways that were once thought unimaginable (the disappearing material listening or viewing object—LP, cassette, CD, movie theater screen). I like that you take out Wireless Imagination from the library, Chris—a 25-year-old book that the library was astute in shelving. It’s like checking out an old LP. I remember listening, over and over, to Antonin Artaud’s To Have Done With the Judgment of God before I ever found it available online at UBUWeb. Crackling static. LP going round. I even secretly recorded it in the tiny library LP-listening room and wove it into a sound art piece, Artaud’s voice bellowing from the late 1940s into some wobbly early-internet era, destined for gallery spaces and some radio programming in the early 2000s.

      Check out these kinds of LPs and books. Have a listening party.

      Something Dragan Todorovic mentions in his mini-provocation, is that community-building is key. I think it goes further than being asked, democratically speaking, to offer an iTunes review (that’s not what Dragan is arguing for). There’s something of this constant request that feels like a fake kind of community, even a fake kind of critic (a gathering of data rather than real voices, real bodies—although some podcasts invite even more creativity into this request and will offer an ‘enacted’ kind of review, like I just heard on The Organist).

      What I’m wondering is can these divisions be vitalized somehow or co-equal? Can a regular critique of ourselves be enough? This goes back to Sarah Montague’s ideas towards criticism and the numerous responses to her original essay.

  10. Christopher, so beautifully put, and that is an extraordinarily powerful trio you have voiced, beginning with one’s own ears, extending into our shared —if obscured — history, and then building community through hearing each other out, and helping in the hearing. Yes!

    Your own website is a fantastic resource for our community, so much food for thought and further, deeper reflection. I take special note of your artist statement:

    “My work, the offspring of my love affair with sound, incorporates murky atmospheres, everyday speech, and unusual field recordings.

    I bear witness to current crises which impel me to respond. I also heed my impulse to conjure sonic places where raw emotion, memory, and imagination find refuge to dream.

    To listen is to liberate. I start with myself, taking my microphones towards and sometimes beyond the boundaries of property, the law, and oppression. I make field recordings, but I’m not interested in capturing a place or building a documentary archive. When I tape small microphones to my skull, or button up a stout vest with sewn-in mics, or strap a stereo pair to my homemade mic boom, I am venturing into the world to ask “Who is heard?” “Who has?” “Who is here?” and “Why are we listening to this right now?” I ask these questions to open my ears and open my heart. Can I listen bravely? Can I hear justice?

    I attempt to bear witness to current crises. Activist Sound is one way I describe the sound pieces, performances, and installations I sculpt from field recordings of protests, testimonies, and other pertinent sonic materials of social change. War, poverty, inequality, racism, and climate change impel me to respond.”

    Hear hear!

  11. I wonder if I might complicate or “complexify” (I think that’s the neologism of the day) the conversation a bit, and ask about the art of radio that isn’t centrally located with human voice as its main structuring agent.

    I wonder about artistic projects that center on the use of ambient sound, that seek to articulate an understanding of spaces/places not always tethered to human experience of them.

    This may sound a bit too abstract, but as sound and radio artists capture and archive their pieces of sound, I wonder how those pieces of sound themselves tell their story, prior to a human-centered organization of that story. Is there narrative prior to human-centered narrative? Or does the capture itself already presuppose an organizational narrative?

    Then in an artistic rendering of those pieces of sound, how true is the story that is then told? What alternate stories might be produced were the archive offered to other artists to produce narratives? Or does the experience of sound capture, the physicality of being present or being telematically present, afford an understanding of these sounds that resist archivization? Do the field recordings sound and radio artists capture take on a type of bio-acoustic signature specific to each field recording?

  12. Daniel, I think immediately of the last passage from Heidegger’s essay on art (particularly sculpture) and space, as expressed in the following three sentences:

    “Sculpture: the embodiment of the truth of Being in its work of instituting places.

    Even a cautious insight into the special character of this art causes one to suspect that truth, as unconcealment of Being, is not necessarily dependent on embodiment.

    Goethe said : It is not always necessary that what is true embody itself; it is already enough if spiritually it hovers about and evokes harmony, if it floats through the air like the solemn and friendly sound of a bell. ”


    Sound sculptures often aspire to work in — and on — space in the same way, but the question of “embodiment” (and agency) is so maddeningly complicated and complexified, isn’t it?

    Even the microphone in R. Murray Schafer’s so-called Wilderness Radio required placement, and monitoring. Then comes the question: at what point does the disappearance of active human embodiment (voice or otherwise) become a form of passive surveillance, or acoustic voyeurism?

    Can you write a bit more about the complications brewing in your mind? Once technology enters the space, isn’t human experience always present, even when it is not central or dominant?

    Let’ say that I am in a deep cave, listening intently in the dark. I am acutely aware that my presence is of no consequence, even as I try to make sense of the space around me. Yet if I record that experience, and listen again in my studio, that experience is completely dependent on my agency, my active decision to record that space, in all its acoustic diversity, no matter what I make of it later. Or?

    Agency is also present in the act of listening, as Goethe inadvertently discloses in the above quote; I mean, why is the sound of a bell “solemn and friendly”?

    As soon as we listen, we name and create narrative, and impose a specific truth onto an acoustic space. Yes, there can be many such narratives, yet aren’t they all the product of human embodiment and agency? Do the multiplicity of possibly interpretations or uses of the archived material in any way dislodge the supremacy of human engagement, within any mediated space, no matter how abstract?

  13. Joan Schuman

    Daniel and Gregory, I love this kind of question particularly for the very relationship of sound and radio. We tend to think of radio as all voice, stories, narrative. There’s much ‘explaining’ of how things work or are or should be, even in creative approaches to storytelling. Narrators abound.

    But when there is just sound for our ears and it’s on the radio, I’m mesmerized. A great example was the 3-year-running program on ABC/Australia, Soundproof, that was consistently brave enough to offer this kind of sonic palette. The range was immense, and two of this forum’s participants (Whitehead and DeLaurenti) had work on that program. But another piece comes to mind, also featured here at Earlid. Pip Stafford’s Iris, offers only the sounds of her grandmother’s house as another doorway into a story. Of course, much editing, rather much composition, ensued, to transport our ears throughout this old house. But radio’s relationship to these sounds seemed key for its disembodiment. You could hear the humans inside this piece; yet they were not offered as the usual human engagement of voice and story.

    Perhaps Soundproof’s producers (Julie Shapiro and Miyuki Jokiranta) could expand on these ideas?

    Slightly different in nuance, is a web project produced by La Cosa Preziosa (Susanna Caprara) who focuses on the creation of experimental miniature audio pieces, all composed out of field-recorded material. These are fragments of impressionist realities. Sitting atop the online surface, we are transported for a minute or two in a similar way as the aleatory radio signal. I’d be curious if Caprara also offers her work to be transmitted via other ‘signals.’

    We’re beyond the one-pass experience of radio. We are beckoned, invited, urged to listen at whim, at our discretion, repeatedly. I can return to La Cosa Preziosa’s compositions for a couple of minutes, to sample or re-listen in the same way I can revisit all of Soundproof’s archives. I am less-inclined to return to revisit sounds on sites that are designed solely for sound ecology (sites such as The Paris Soundscapes Archive) perhaps because it is less-composed. But someone else might return there for untainted nostalgia. And then wouldn’t they be designing their own story in listening?

  14. Thank you for the kind words, Gregory. I agree that “as soon as we listen, we name and create narrative…”

    Daniel, I too struggle with words like “true” and “story” as the traditional usage of those terms can dig in giant roadblocks to listening.

    “Narrative” is often coded as “a familiar way of telling a story.” Radio is often cursed by an introduction (“On this week’s programme, we take a visit to….”), the expectation of a single chronology, and other markers (can I say “signs”?) both obvious (like names) and overlooked (like last names – quick, what’s the last name of the heroine of “Sorry Wrong Number”?).

    Myself, I avoid naming and introducing voices as I believe the voice continually _names itself_ in our memory (that sounds like [insert name of person I know/knew] who is from _____, who has a gender and age of _____ etc.) as do non-human creatures and other sounds amidst the soundscape.

    We in the West can (or try to) name everything we hear. After a soundwalk, my students report only one or two unknown sounds, but they can describe them without a trace of fear or dread of the unknown. Naming the unknown is nonetheless a name.

    I wrestle with the notion that the field recordings captured by sound and radio artists embody or record (ha-ha) or take on “a type of bio-acoustic signature specific to each field recording.” Can field recordings capture a signature specific to a place?

    Sound archives are filled with bird-song recorded with parabolic (i.e. narrow focus) microphones and steep hi-pass filters (get thee gone, wind below 120Hz!*). Let’s not forget that almost every field recordist strives to eliminate (or later erase) their own audible presence. I and a few others don’t, but that’s more phonography than field recording.

    Remember when geo-tagging sound was all the rage? To me, this tagging was astoundingly and ignorantly visual by assuming that a 5 minute (or 5 hour) recording could mark or adequately tag a place irrespective of time, day, season, year, etc. Such recordings are basically a stretched-out sample interpolated and elongated by the listeners’ memory and response to the photo glued next to the soundfile.

    So there is a “signature” there, but is it reasonably “bio-acoustic”? Perhaps only with repeated visits and careful, annotated comparisons such as in the work of Bernie Krause.

    I have to remind myself (after 20 years of making field recordings!) that the microphone is not the ear, but akin to an ear. There’s a wonderful passage from Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl: “The ear selects, you see, dear. Machines don’t.”

    Many factors (frequency response, neural aka sensory adaptation, etc.) distinguish the ear from the microphone. Note that the single diaphragm (two if recording in stereo) distortion of the microphone is broadband while the ear can handle distorted and non-distorted frequency bands at the same time (e.g. listening to wind and rustling leaves).

    What about “true”? For me, the truth happens only while recording. The microphones and the deck (no I don’t record with headphones – monitoring is not listening) somehow make me listen and live more intently than when I do not have that stuff with me.

    After recording, techniques and tactics such as multi-band compression, editing, EQ, forgiveness of my own incompetence, and so forth, are tools to recreate what I remember happening and feeling about those crickets, those birds (or whatever else I recorded out in the field).

    Listening while recording is the only truth I know. Subsequent editing is an honorable fiction, a leavened-with-love lie to tell a truth worthy of the listener’s time.

    * I know, wind is broadband way above 120Hz.

    • Joan Schuman

      Just to point out that today is World Listening Day, in commemoration of R. Murray Schafer’s 84th birthday. This year’s homage is to the passing of the great listener, Pauline Oliveros, with “Listening to the Ground.” WLD launched in 2010 and is a hands-on (ear’s on) day to listen, listen some more.

    • Joan Schuman

      This is fascinating, Chris, that not wearing headphones provides you a pathway to hear while recording. In production courses for students learning to make radio or voice-based narratives, I drum into them the importance of wearing headphones so they can detect extraneous sounds while interviewing. Their goal is to get a voiced story that doesn’t get obscured by the rustling of a mic against a jacket or a disrupting whir of a computer fan—unless they actually want that sound. My goal is to get them to hear everything around them during the non-studio interview—a skill that has to be practiced and honed before they can begin to experiment. (They often suggest that they are happy to rely on ‘fixing’ the unwanted sound in ’post-production’—which for me, and maybe you, is ‘production’ or ‘composing,’ and not ‘post’-anything—only to realize it sounds worse than if they just listened at the source.)

      Phonography’s goals are different or, maybe laterally, distant from these voiced-story kinds of narratives that eventually find their way to radio of some sort. But in understanding these divides (and bridges of artistic practice), you’ve given me some ideas for recording with and without headphones in order to ‘hear’ and to ‘hear differently.’ I hope to build that into a listening exercise (for myself and for my students … so thanks!).

      What do you think of ideas Daniel Gilfillan raises in his “Agile Critic” essay about critical language when it comes to how critics might be drawn towards these distinctions (phonography, composing, radio-making that leans towards creative non-fiction, the didactic, etc.), when he says this:

      In the very vibrancy of our contemporary radio and sound art culture, characterized as much by an old-fashioned set of industry standards as it is by a DIY experimentation, the critical language and critical practice deemed missing are, in fact, readily apparent and in use.

      Daniel, I’d be curious, also, to hear what you think about Chris’ motives or stances around archiving and truth as these are intertwined conversations that span out to what we hear on the radio as well as on social media. Chris’ piece about the protests at Ferguson is a great example of the ‘archive’ or the ‘cloud’ and the phonographer of conscience, as he and I talked about in late 2015 when he shared his protest symphony here at Earlid, commissioned first at Soundproof.

  15. Olivia Bradley-Skill

    Thank you for pointing to Daniel Gilfillan’s essay, Joan — I couldn’t agree more about how the idea of ‘the critic’ can be expanded to include artist and listener, in addition to the academic. Criticism’s embodiment/meaning is continually molded and diversified by artists and listeners themselves and can take shape far beyond the perched essayist. As artists we build upon others, and criticism is inherent in our work, whether recognized or not, on paper or through sound, formally and informally, within and without academic conventions. There’s a certain responsibility that this process encourages for the artist (and listener). Know your history. Attempt to understand your own (and/or another’s) intentions. Take the time.

    I like to think that this kind of ‘folk’ criticism is especially enhanced by the medium of radio, which relishes in multiplicity and anonymity, where a communication develops that is at once rhetorical and real. In this imaginative, expressive “radio space,” artist and listener engage in their own forms of critical language, perhaps even swapping roles in the process?

    What I enjoy most about formulating criticism as a way of listening is the patience and attention that it emphasizes on both practices. On an average workday, I spend a large portion of my waking hours in front of a computer screen. I absorb an insane amount of random content, as I click through emails and flick through a slew of tabs that delineate ‘work’ and ‘play’, switching modes between pressure and relief. I welcome the purposeful escape from the continuous social media scroll through focusing on a piece of work and really listening, allowing the work to unfold in unfamiliar ways.

    How does reframing the conversation from a need for more ‘criticism’ to a need for more ‘listening’ (on both a wide and intimate scale, harkening to Oliveros & her deep listening, R. Murray Schafer, & a listening to historical voices/ghosts, as Chris DeLaurenti so beautifully put) interact with the barrage of content in our online world? How has that platform/mindset impacted our (specifically sound+radio) work? How do we emerge triumphant from the cacophony of our online world?

  16. Joan Schuman

    Before I get to your useful questions, Olivia, I want to recommend a compelling article by Kate Crawford who suggests that all this ‘lurking’ we do online is really ‘listening.’ There are numerous versions:

    “Following You: Disciplines of Listening in Social Media”

    -in Jonathan Sterne’s 2012 Sound Studies Reader

    -an earlier version in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
    Vol. 23, No. 4, August 2009

    • Daniel Gilfillan

      There is so much in these last few threads that my synapses are firing all over the place. I’ll get back to an organized reply soon, but just wanted to submit a quick tidbit on lurkers as listeners:

      In the early history of German broadcast radio, there was much discussion about the issue of “Zaungäste” — lurkers/listeners who clandestinely listened without participating (two-way transmission/reception sets) or, after the technology was refined to do away with sets that could transmit as well as receive, didn’t pay their subscription to the government but listened anyway, known as “Schwarzhören” or listening in the black.

      More soon as I try to piece together some ideas based on the interesting comments and questions coming at my post from last week.

  17. Olivia, your own radiocasts provide an excellent example of “thinking aloud” in the flow of your decisions and selections. I can hear your mind embody thought down into your fingers, as one idea spills into another!

    I’ve always thought the philosophical/critical side of radio work cannot be avoided or dismissed; the space itself is so full of philosophical puzzles, noise, interference, paradox. A space of intoxicating bewilderment, which calls for us to enter the wilds and navigate, find our bearings, figure out where we are and who we are, rocked by the riptides.

    For my blood, the most invigorating radiocasts embrace the murky, slippery nature of the space in all its terrifying beauty, and refuse cheap “clarity” or “resolution” of the sort one hears with alarming regularity on NPR.

    For those who want to pin things down, print offers a far better medium; for artists in tune with the medium, radio offers an infinite expanse of honest bafflement and meaningful chaos, where all sorts of sounds and ideas, at odds with each other, may nonetheless find themselves on the same dance floor.

    For those who have not entered into the worlds of Olivia and Radio Ravioli, open your ears and be prepared to get blissfully lost:


    Chris, I also want to spotlight your sentence:

    “Listening while recording is the only truth I know. Subsequent editing is an honorable fiction, a leavened-with-love lie to tell a truth worthy of the listener’s time.”


  18. Joan, I agree that students should wear headphones, and I ask mine to do the same. Your insight that it’s a different kind of focused listening is a marvelous one. A tool must be fully visible before casting a spell to make it evaporate.

    I agree with Daniel that the terms are already in use, but we as radio makers lack a crucial corner of the Gann triangle – the work, the listener (I hope more than one), and a critical apparatus. We’re missing the latter – which might be a good thing – unless there’s a blog or forum (this one?) I don’t know about. On the other hand, it may be a great gift to be an artist about whom no one has ever written about accurately.

    I confess before hitting Post Comment for one of my previous posts, I excised a gentle jab at the Prix Italia – not for fear of my own career (their website and the awarding of the prize itself are too arcane for me – almost nothing I do is state sponsored) but because I didn’t want to make fun of a group that helps many artists I admire.

    The texts and terms are there, but we need more writers with no skin in the game as makers to critique, goad, damn, and praise.

    And, crucially, to refine what Olivia Bradley-Skill calls folk criticism: there are plenty of sly nods, grateful allusions, and angry responses to other work in what we make. Connecting these works “where a communication develops that is at once rhetorical and real” as Olivia writes, can only deepen our understanding of the work.

  19. I just gave a two-day workshop on producing audio for philosophers at Sacramento State University. The philosophy department there contacted me because they were interested in pursuing public-facing projects in a new medium. One of the things workshop participants found helpful was listening to familiar pieces of audio, things they just heard for content in the mainstream podcasting and public radio space, with the ear of a producer/maker. Once they did that, they not only appreciated a lot more of the nuances of production, but had more informed opinions about what they think worked for them and what didn’t. In addition, I explored the idea that different minds process audio information differently, with some people getting too distracted by sound and music to fully appreciate the content of spoken word, while others really needing it to keep their attention. I think one of the things about academic criticism that can be helpful is that the cycle of teaching, research, debates, back to teaching has a way of helping to bring out insights over time that would otherwise be hard to do in solitary or even strictly professional environments. New students mean new virgin ears that are otherwise curious, and that has a way of pushing even the seasoned sound artist toward new ways of thinking.

    • Joan Schuman

      This idea, Barry, that different minds process audio information differently speaks volumes about the audience more than it does about the intention, artistry and motivation of the solitary person making radio. (And perhaps this is a broader conversation about funding and/or our coddling towards those ears or desires to be heard ‘right’ or ‘right now.’)

      Yet, as a maker of radio art that sometimes even I don’t know why I’ve structured it a particular way (my right-brain takes over; I’m excited to experiment), I’m always fascinated when a listener responds in unexpected ways. I will whisper: “Hmmm. … that isn’t where I was going”… when where I was going was un-mapped from the beginning. How to teach this process is my greatest challenge when so many of my students want to be the next Roman Mars or Sarah Koenig or comedian-with-a-podcast.

      Do we make art for ourselves first and then find a ‘Focus Sentence” to describe it to others’ ears? I’m beginning to lead new makers to doing this. Forget about where it ‘can’ air and just get it to be their own true voice so they can massage it strongly rather than trying to sound like someone else that can guarantee its airing. In this world of ‘anybody can make a podcast,’ maybe that’s the better approach to expanding the palette and the media platforms. I used to try to get students to listen and hear where their work can stylistically fit. Now I want them to dive deeply into their voice and art and eventually they’ll find a home or build a new nest. Olivia, you seem to be following this ethos; Chris, it seems that has always been your approach.

      I agree that new students mean new ears. Mine get a work-out each semester. But I am constantly up against those ears thinking there’s just one way to make a radio story or a narrative in sound. Like Gregory’s asking, I’d be curious to know how your workshop students consider the platform itself. I find it’s my responsibility to bring to students the context of many different kinds and eras of radio in all its bone-rattling vibrations and disembodied tactility. In that way, while figuring out which toggle to switch to make the music fade, or how not to give the story away in their ‘I’m here to tell you what you’ll be listening to” narrations, they will engage with broadcasting and all its many, jelly-fish forms.

      It’s a delicate balance among Story (yes, capital “S”), original voice and artistry, and where to air when we’ve got this expansiveness of many options of the broadcast landscape and all of it, seemingly, sounding the same.

  20. Gregory Whitehead

    Barry, I am curious if any of the philosophers in your group engaged with or even mildly resonated with the deep philosophical/phenomenological qualities within radio space, or whether they heard it merely as a platform for (forgive my yawn) “public-facing projects.”

    Also, regarding your prepared statement: as someone who has long favored open structures with unlimited possible interpretations, I disagree with your characterization of such an aesthetic as “veiled”, since that assumes that the radiomaker always has a predetermined “message” that is the “right” interpretation.

    You refer to such structures as having a “lack of transparency”, as if the radiomaker is engaged in a perpetual game of hide and seek with the listener. Yet what if an open structure is an honest admission of not knowing, and an invitation to the listener to find their own way?

  21. “It’s always in service to story” – from Joan’s introduction, referring to certain kinds of narrative. If course Pauline Oliveros, R. Murray Schafer, La Monte Young, John Cage (and many, many more) were/are not exactly storytellers, but this has been forgotten by many. I have over the last two decades become more and more disturbed by this word – storytelling evokes wonderful work (as the original producer of radio’s Selected Shorts I know how vital it is) but meanwhile it is a term that has been appropriated by advertising mavens, fashion designers, and perverted into cliffhangers, confession, scandal and voyeurism to generate clicks and sell mattresses. It is almost as though if a producer can find a person with two heads that will talk, or discover an actual moon man, s/he can lay driving or moody music over it and claim a Peabody.

    Of course much of the radio and podcasting work focusing on storytelling today is first rate. When This American Life is great, it’s layered and subtle and reverberant like a wonderful piece of fiction – and when it’s not, it’s because they are caught in a mechanism that requires them to deliver every week. I was very admiring of S-Town for many reasons. I felt that it was, as the author claimed, a kind of novel for radio, as The Wire was for TV. The patience, passion and talent that went into it was as careful and deliberate a high-level work of fiction. But also, I wondered about the ethics of this kind of audio autopsy. Has “but it really happened” ever been a defense of a choice in creative writing? Or is it the effect of story, story, story driving high profile radio for a couple of decades now. My jury’s still out.

    “As makers we have to stop being so noble and say I’m an artist” – from Cathy FitzGerald’s piece.

    I agree, but I’ve often felt that broadcasting and art are strange bedfellows. I like Heidi Grundmann’s “zero audience” phrase, when referring to the important work she has done on Austrian radio by making a space available for art that doesn’t make it on the audience-measuring graph. That’s it, art needs a space. A safe space – room to fail. It needs to be able to fail to sell mattresses. It needs all the time it needs to be created, in whatever length or vocabulary. People point to Beckett, Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Brecht etc. as having been attracted to radio. Of course, radio is magical. But they were invitees that did their work as one-offs, not cranking out series to feed the hungry beast. (Norman Corwin did his best to feed it – and it didn’t always serve him that well.) In the past, I had the pleasure of creating pieces for BBC Radio Three’s Between the Ears which I would not have been able to do with the creation of a national window where I could take my time and make something that was, if not art, artful – with a rather demanding editing brief. Are “zero-audience” slots “à l’antenne” still available? I think not so much.
    So enter podcasting. Audio broken free of the antenna-mooring – and I welcomed it – having fled radio in the 90’s and spent my time exploring galleries, performance spaces and other off-the grid spaces until now. And how do we garner criticism, develop audience and grow our art? Keep the spaces out there. Support the Heidi’s and the Joan’s. The transmission people, the poets, the jugglers, the screamers, the winners and losers. Don’t create camps – united we stand. I’ll be listening.

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