Feature article from the May 2009 AIRblast

Doing it yourself (and with others)

MQ2, New Media, and the Joys of Collaboration

By Kara Oehler

Kara Oehler is an independent producer based in Boston, Massachusetts. She and her longtime collaborator, Ann Heppermann, produce radio stories and sound installations ( Kara is one of the MQ2 producer-grantees chosen to invent new ways of marrying traditional broadcast and digital media. For this initiative, AIR, with principal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is dispersing grants to eight makers with the aim of allowing individual producers to help lead the public radio industry in the transition from public radio to public media. We invited her to give us insight into the influences she brings to "Main Street," her MQ2 project that launched in April with Ann Heppermann.

Recently, I've been thinking about how we independent producers are all supposed to tell our radio stories while also producing PodcastTwitterfeedFacebookGoogleMapSlideshows.

Then, a few nights ago, I went to a lecture about German artist Martin Kippenberger. Kippenberger was known for pissing people off — at one point, he bought a Gerhard Richter painting, attached legs to it, and turned it into a coffee table — but he loved being around people. He needed them. And that need was so strong that he paid assistants just to hang out with him.

This got me thinking. I am an independent producer who also needs people. I may work from home, but I engage collaborators on nearly every project. Instead of neediness, I like to think of it as having multiple symbiotic relationships. I need them to help me create work. And hopefully, they need me too.

A Vast Network of Pipes

Radio is one-sided when it should be two-. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear.
                                —Bertolt Brecht

In 2005, I began collaborating with Yellow Arrow, a public art project that used mobile phones and stickers to tell stories via text messaging. I got involved because Yellow Arrow wanted to expand the project and produce audio stories for people to hear on location using their cell phones. This project was called "The Secret New York" and for it, we installed glowing yellow lightboxes at more than 80 locations across the five boroughs. By calling a number from their mobile phones and entering the unique code printed on the lightbox, participants would hear stories from local residents and could also record their own messages.

The Yellow Arrow crew interviewed New Yorkers, produced short audio stories, and set arrow-shaped glowing signs next to hot dog stands, Russian social clubs, and the city's largest landfill. One of my favorite spots was on Manhattan's Lower East Side. At East Sixth Street and Avenue B, there's a community garden that once had an enormous sculpture made of weathered stuffed animals, bizarre-looking toy horses with missing eyes, and random pieces of wood. It was nearly five stories high and known as the "Tower of Toys." Until it was destroyed in 2008, this was one of the great landmarks of the neighborhood.

We showed up one afternoon and interviewed an old-time gardener. She told us that the man who made the sculpture was named Eddie Boros. He started building the tower in 1985, and the gardener said she loathed the behemoth because it blocked the sunlight out of her garden plot. We created a one-minute-long story of her complaints and installed our Yellow Arrow sign on the sidewalk outside of the garden. Anyone walking by could call the arrow, hear her story, and leave a message. We started getting a slew of messages from angry people defending Eddie and his sculpture. They said, "Talk to Eddie! You've gotta get Eddie's side!" Through their comments, we were able to find Eddie, interview him, and feature his story for a few days. (Note: Eddie died in 2007 and in May 2008, the tower was torn down after the city's Parks Department declared it unsafe.)

I was blown away. Never in radio had I been able to get listener feedback, use it to do more research, and then rebroadcast a story with additional information. In a way, each arrow functioned as its own little radio station. And it could evolve over time, depending on the stories and feedback we received. Perhaps I should have known this kind of communication was coming. I mean, Bertolt Brecht predicted it in the 1920s when he said, "Radio is one-sided when it should be two-. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out." Brecht suggested changing the apparatus of radio from distribution to communication that allows the listener to "speak as well as hear." Finally, almost a century later, we're doing that.

Letting the Story Idea Lead the Tech

Ann Heppermann and I were working on a piece for Marketplace a few years ago in collaboration with musician and author Ian Svenonius. Ann and I both had been big fans of his bands, Nation of Ulysses and Make-Up. Ian had written an essay about Alan Greenspan's low interest rates as a catalyst for the death of the acoustic drum set and the birth of the music genres electroclash and neofolk; we decided to turn it into a musical commentary.

We went to D.C. to record Ian. As he and Jerry Busher, another D.C. musician, were driving us to the studio, the van ride unexpectedly turned into a retrospective tour of the D.C. punk scene. The guys were pointing out a Starbucks that used to be an arts space and a theater where Minor Threat played their last show.

I couldn't believe it. This was the D.C. tour I never knew I wanted. I grew up with this music. Bands like Rites of Spring and Minor Threat, Black Flag and Fugazi inspired me to eventually start my own bands, live in group houses, and have bands play in my living room. I was sure there were other people like me, who would want to know which theater was the one where the Cramps played and vomited on stage or the location of the Häagen Dazs store in Georgetown where Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye used to serve ice cream.

When I arrived back in Brooklyn, I told all the Yellow Arrow people about the experience in D.C. and said, "We need to do an audio tour there!"

After a little brainstorming, this audio tour I had imagined quickly became a text-message tour and a feature-length video documentary broken into 10 individual segments about specific places. People could take a walking tour with only text messages to guide them, watch videos on location by downloading them to their iPods, or experience them online via a Google Map interface. Admittedly, I would have never thought of this combination of technology and on-site broadcasting on my own.

So, on a teeny budget, we cruised down to D.C. and started interviewing musicians and even former mayor Marion Barry. (That's another story altogether, but I will say that he talked about strip clubs and, at the end of the interview, asked for my phone number). In about five weeks, we had completed "Capitol of Punk."

Podcasting: A Cautionary Tale

Remember when podcasting hit the scene? Every publication and broadcast outlet was like, "Oh! We need one!" All of a sudden — audio storytelling nightmare. Podcasts were clocking in at 72 minutes. Print reporters were reading their stories word for word into a mic and distributing that as podcast content.

Public radio producers are definitely the winners when it comes to podcasts. We know how to write for radio. We know how to paint a picture with sound. We started using it as another means of distribution. Some former public radio producers have made a career out of creating audio podcasts for publications.

But now, with video podcasts, audio slideshows, Google Maps, etc., we have a different situation on our hands. Audio remains our core, but now we are also expected to produce visual and interactive media content. But tacking on a slideshow or making a Facebook page isn't going to bring the people running.

At the same time, public radio is not Silicon Valley. It's not our job to invent the next Google or YouTube, just as it isn't the job of the Valley's tech enthusiasts to probe and express the most compelling stories of everyday life. Our job as producers, especially if we want to stay employed as producers, is to experiment with these existing technologies, creating innovative mixtures of formats. As Marshall McLuhan said, "It is the artist's job to try to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new. To this end, the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience."

My philosophy, and that of many collaborators with whom I've worked, draws on the open-source movement and the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic. Open source is committed to collaboration on all scales, bringing together people across geographies and disciplines to co-create projects that are ever evolving. Now, doing it yourself is easier than ever, with technological advances making it possible for people of all abilities to create films, records, audio stories and distribute content. It's about searching for means to create new possibilities with what currently exists, creating it, and in the process, often subverting the intentions imagined by a technology's original creators.

Pejk Malinovski is an incredible radio producer who also writes poetry. In 2002, he started messing around with the online translator Babel Fish. He took verses from Shakespeare and translated them from English to Russian to German to Spanish, until he got extremely interesting (and very avant-garde) results back. After that, he started using Google to write poetry by typing in a phrase like, "When I die, I want …" and then composing a poem using all of the results. He didn't know it at the time, but others around the world were doing the same thing — taking one of the oldest forms of literature and combining it with technology to create a new art form.

In the past couple of decades, producers like Joe Richman and David Isay have handed people recording kits and asked them to keep track of their daily lives through audio diaries. The diary format has yielded incredibly compelling, personal documentaries like Isay's Ghetto Life 101 and Richman's Prison Diaries. In 2005, producer Benjamen Walker took this idea of radio diaries and applied it to video cell phones. While working for PBS's American Experience, he handed out phones to Native Americans as part of the We Shall Remain Citizen Storytellers project. The video was edited down to create short, personal narratives. He ran with the idea. In April 2009, he gave four architects video cell phones to record their thoughts about architecture in New York City for a new project at WNYC called Cityscapes.

Even Sports Bars Can Be Collaborative Frameworks

About a year and a half ago, I packed up my things and moved from Brooklyn to Boston. My second night there, my boyfriend and I decided to escape the boxes and go out for a drink. Not as easy as one might think …

We hit up a bar a couple blocks away from our new apartment. I opened the door and a blast of cold, loud, sports-television air chapped at our faces. The bartender and the one (one!) patron turned away from the game blaring on the TV screen to look at us. We backed out of the bar. We tried a bar across the street. This one had four TVs and NO people! I was starting to perspire. Where were all the people and why on earth were there so many televisions? Do people drink in this city? Do the TVs make up for the lack of humans? This was not like Brooklyn at all.

Finally, we found a bar with six or seven people. Yes, there were about a dozen flat-screen TVs with a basketball game blaring, but at least there were people. We ordered a couple beers and sat down. And then we noticed something. The speaker system was so incredible that we could hear the sneakers squeaking on the wood floor and the ball dribbling as if we were courtside.

"The sound is incredible in here!" I said.

We turned to look again at all the screens and had this "ah ha" kind of moment. All the high-definition television screens. Thousand-dollar sound systems. Boston bars are the perfect multimedia gallery.

That night, the New Factographers were born. We decided we would organize an event that placed videos of local places, audio interviews, and music alongside footage and sound from around the world to sonically and visually transform a bar into a gallery show about localism for a night. After a few months in our new home, we met enough people to form a collective.

Boston-based co-conspirators and fellow AIR members Sean Cole, Justin Grotelueschen, and Nick van der Kolk could cover the audio installation, and we knew a couple of filmmakers, but the majority of our collective were urban planners, architects, and economists. We asked everyone to explore the local neighborhood in his or her own way through photography, video, or audio. What came back was amazing.

One of the economists used photography to document squares in Union Square. Another economist took photos of all of the three-story apartment buildings. Two architects created a video by putting their digital camera in a shopping cart and recording the local supermarket from the perspective of the cart. Individually, the content was pretty odd. But once it was up on the screens in the bar, alongside sound and music, it made sense. The content was totally dictated by how an individual person perceived the city. No one needed to be a professional to do that. And because there was a lot going on with the music, televisions, and general bar clamor, the photos and videos didn't need to be professional quality either. Reappropriating the bar had become a collaborative framework that allowed for many people to contribute to a larger, cohesive project.

AIR's Makers Quest 2.0

When I was nominated to submit a proposal for MQ2, I talked to some of the Yellow Arrow creators and said, "Ann and I need to come up with a new media project. What are some interesting new technologies right now?"

They looked at me as if I had learned nothing over the past few years. "Kara, assume anything is possible with technology. What is the story you're trying to tell? What experience are you trying to create?" Don't be like those print people who read their stories and put them out as a 72-minute podcast!

Well, they didn't say that last sentence, but they may as well have.

I started thinking about the story. It was right around election time, and we were being bombarded with political rhetoric about Main Street. But we realized that Main Street isn't simply a political constituency or a mythical place. There are streets named Main in nearly every city and town across the country. We decided to pursue a project that aims to unsettle assumptions about Main Street by giving voice to the people that live and work on America's actual Main Streets. We knew what worked with Yellow Arrow and the New Factographers — place-based storytelling and collaboration with the general public through photography, cell phones, and video. Ann and I had commissioned musicians in the past to collaborate on scoring our public radio stories, so we knew that original music should be a part of it, too.

Our new project for MQ2 is called Mapping Main Street. Over the next five months, we'll be traveling to Main Streets across the country, taking photos, making videos,and interviewing. We'll also be commissioning musicians to create songs out of fieldrecordings and interviews gathered on the streets. A street sign will be making its way around the country, one that captures stories via cell phones. And in August,the stories will air on Weekend Edition.

We're also bringing in some of our former collaborators to work with us on Mapping Main Street.   Two of the Yellow Arrow creators, Brian House and Jesse Shapins will design the interactive components. Brian is with Local Projects, the firm that did the interactive design for StoryCorps. Jesse is an urban media historian, artist and archaeologist at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. And James Burns, the game theorist who took photos of the Boston squares, will lead in developing Mapping Main Street as a new form of economic ethnography.

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University will help support Mapping Main Street through a grant focused upon collaboration, networked publics,and the democratic potentials of new media.