Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the June 2008 AIRblast  

Flocking Together: Smitten Mittens, Ladio, and Other Producer Groups

Neenah Ellis

Safe in our electronic bunker/offices, we write, edit, mix, research, and interview. But all this independence and do-it-yourself can make a girl lonely. Producer Neenah Ellis examines some of the ways independents are breaking down the walls of our cozy virtual worlds to find inspiration and collective soul. 


 

Nearly 20 years ago, I was part of a group of six to 10 producers in the Washington, D.C., area that called itself the Acme Content Providers. We met, we wondered what the Internet would bring, we gossiped. The group ran its course, but two decades later most of us are still making independent radio.

Five years ago, I again started meeting - with a smaller group this time - to talk about our individual projects. 

These monthly meetings were structured: Each person got half an hour to complain, boast, read aloud, ask for help, or play some tape. There was some gossip, too, of course. It was HIGHLY therapeutic and productive. Three of us got CPB grants during that period. Lots of good radio was the result.

After the third year, the group evolved into something new. Less focused on our own work, we're listening to what producers all over the world are doing. We call ourselves Hear Now. We present events in a theater, and we even have a sponsor.

There are others in our area - including the DC Listening Lounge -who meet to listen and talk. And its happening all over the country, independents getting together to teach, to inspire, to network - to take some of the loneliness out of independence.

Anne Glickman was once part of an art collective in Austin, Texas, called "H2Hos," a feminist synchronized swim team. "I like to put myself in a place where I'm having so much fun I can't believe it," she says. Anne moved to Chicago in 2006 and interned at WBEZ before setting out on her own. She finds independence challenging at times. "You can go crazy going from the bedroom to the office," she says.

In order to be around people, Anne sometimes goes to a nearby coffee shop to work. She has also joined a group of Chicago-area independents who have been meeting for a few months to talk about their work. 

"Innovation doesn't come from CPB mandating new work," she says. "Institutions don't create it. It's the individual artist who creates innovative work. The onus is on us to organize ourselves. Throughout history, cool people have always gotten together. Look at the Harlem Renaissance," she adds. "It's always been that way. I'm craving that kind of synergy."

Glickman says the members of the Chicago group have talked about going beyond meetings to having a space of their own, maybe a storefront, where they can work on projects collectively.

But for now, they are refining their focus. Story pitches have been at the heart of their meetings thus far, but Anne thinks the agenda will move away from that before long.

In New York, Casey Mallinckrodt has also zeroed in on the pitch as a focus for getting independents together. The monthly "Pitch Group" grew out of an AIR-sponsored workshop in 2006 at Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center

After the workshop, people wanted more, says Casey. So she volunteered to organize monthly Sunday afternoon meetings, still at Harvestworks. She invites professionals to come and talk about their work. Amy O'Leary, an AIR member who's worked since last year as the New York Times multi-media producer, was a recent guest. 

Casey hasn't settled on a direction for the group. "There's a broader range of need aside from just pitching," she says. "Some of the members are coming out of print, some are changing careers. The ease of becoming citizen-journalists means we have to give people the tools they need."

Kara Oehler saw a different need in New York and filled it. She was inspired by UnionDocs, a documentary arts collaborative in Brooklyn, geared toward independent filmmakers. Kara lived at the UnionDocs house for a while. "We had a gallery on the first floor and a 40-seat screening room where there were three screenings every month," she says. "I thought we needed to do audio." In 2007, Kara organized a monthly listening series called "The Documentary Bodega."

The guest list was impressive, including Jad Abumrad of Radio Lab and independent producers Pejk Malinovski, Kelly McEvers, Judith Sloan, and Jonathan Mitchell. Typically, twenty to 40 people showed up and paid seven dollars admission, she says. Most of the money went to the speakers.

The programs were meant to introduce independent filmmakers to the work of audio producers, but a lot of radio folks began coming too, she says. It filled a social need for them. "The independent film community is pretty together. They might go to five film festivals a year. They see each other more than the radio people do. "

When Kara left New York, the monthly listening sessions were taken over by AIR members Amber Cortes and Lila Dobbs. Now living in Boston, Kara meets with a small group of audio producers, mostly just to get out of the house and "nerd out over public radio," she says.

She's also part of a collective that calls itself the New Factographers, a group of 31, who describe themselves as an "evolving network of sonic bricoleurs, moving image interventionists, experimental documentarians, urban dramaturges, and critical theorists."
 
"We're documenting neighborhoods," says Kara. "We make our own pieces and then come together for a program."

For their first collaboration this past April, The New Factographers produced a sound installation called "The Chirping Sidewalk" in a local Boston pub. Because it's a sports-drenched city, there tend to be a lot of televisions hanging over the bars. These same places tend to also have great sound systems. From this standpoint, The New Factographers view Boston as a city crawling with multimedia galleries in the world. 

AIR member Ann Heppermann is part of an all-female, New York City listening group they call "Ladio," whose members work on a range of audio projects, including NPR, Free 103, Harvestworks, the New York Historical Society, and Pacifica. "Some are independents," says Ann. "The range of gifts is really incredible and inspiring." They listen to pieces together, and they're considering collaborating on a project. It's really great to meet with people from different backgrounds," she says. "We've been able to make it a regular gathering for four months!"

 "The Smitten Mitten Radio Collective" meets monthly in Michigan. Some members live in Ann Arbor and work for Michigan Radio; others, in Detroit, work for WDET. They rotate their meetings between the two cities, about 45 miles apart.

Zak Rosen from WDET got things going. "We have an obligation to teach each other," he says.

"A lot of people come to public radio because of their interest in journalism and news," says Zak. "Then a whole bunch of others come because of how cool it can be to tell personal stories. I think it's important for the former folks to embrace personal stories and for the latter folks to learn how to embrace journalistic principles."

Their meetings center on homework assignments: to make one-minute pieces on a given theme. The first theme was "winter," followed by  "anger," then "apple." The pieces spark rich conversations, which get into all aspects of making radio, says member Kyle Norris, from Ann Arbor. And the one-minute format, she notes, is not too daunting.

Kyle Norris is jazzed about the learning that goes on in Smitten Mittens, but she's in it for something more:  a sense of community.  "All the other members have jobs in public radio," says Kyle, "but I don't, so I get lonely. Selfishly, I wanted to build a community. I want co-workers and allies."

People find the group meetings exciting, says Kyle. "They talk fast, their eyebrows go up, they feel like there is potential in this field. They are bright people with a lot of ideas. They are doers. I think in 10 years some of these people will have their own shows. They are already doing quirky, independent things."

In Minneapolis, there's the "Listening Lounge Salon," organized by Todd Melby and Diane Richard. It's named after Melby's weekly program on KFAI called the Listening Lounge.

"We are mentoring a younger group, says Todd, "scooching them forward to produce better pieces."

Why? 

"I have a mandate from KFAI to air work by local producers," says Melby. "And because I like to hear good stuff on the radio, and I like to share what I know."

New members are always welcome, he says.

Bay Area producers have The Freelance Cafe, a monthly gathering at a pub in downtown Oakland and a web site for and about freelancers. Mia Lobel started it, inspired by other social gatherings she'd heard about. At the Freelancer's "Happy Hours," says Mia, "a radio producer meets a photographer, an audio producer meets a Web designer, a filmmaker needs a Marantz."

Lots of other folks out there say they would LIKE to have listening groups and are moving toward that goal.

Dianne Finch has been trying to get a radio group going on Facebook, with colleagues who attended Columbia University's Radio Workshop with her. "The list is building," she says, "but we frankly haven't done anything yet. The intent was to share scripts and ideas, and to critique each other's work. It's difficult," she says, "when everyone is so busy."

Sandra Sleight-Brennan would love to have a listening group, but she lives in rural southeast Ohio and travel distance between producers is great. She was once part of a group that shared their work through the mail. "One person would send out tapes to everyone ... and then ... a week or so after that, everyone had to have their comments in to the sender. I think we commented via e-mail. It was fun and very beneficial." 

If you want to start a listening group, the first thing to do is to find other people in your area. AIR can help. Contact Membership Director Erin Mishkin or try AIR's searchable member directory. PRX lists its members by region. Colleges and universities that teach radio or audio probably have prospects as well.

Start an e-mail list. Don't wait for the perfect time or the perfect agenda. Some groups are purely social, some want to work, others have public events. Just get together and figure out which model works best for the group you have.

If you want to play tape and get serious feedback, a smaller group is better, in my opinion. Stick to a schedule so people can plan ahead, especially those with children.

If you've already got a group together in your area, let Erin know. She's organized periodic teleconference calls for a group of seven AIR members who have taken the initiative to organize local gatherings.

Executive Director Sue Schardt hopes that bringing local group leaders together in conversation will help them propagate ideas and strengthen their efforts. She also believes that by making local producers groups visible, it will "build the geography for our growing organization," which includes members in 42 states and nine countries. "It's an antidote to our virtual world," she says. 

My advice is to flock together, even if it's just to talk. It's more fun and more productive to work alone if you have a group to share with. Other producers can inspire you when you feel tapped out, and can keep you moving forward when you feel slow or lose your direction. 

Virtual meetings can get the job done, but they can't replace the camaraderie or the collective wisdom and experience of living, breathing, laughing colleagues. 
 

Neenah Ellis got her start in radio at age 15, as a reporter at her parents' radio station in a small town in Indiana. She worked at All Things Considered and other NPR programs before she became an independent in 1990. She's also the author of If I Live to be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians, which has been published in five languages.


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