Programs/Publications

Feature article from the August 2011 AIRblast  

Designing and Producing Audio Tours: An Introduction for Radio Independents

By Bradley Klein

Bradley Klein got his start in public radio listening to All Things Considered in his parents' car. He got his first actual radio job in 1990 with Heat: with John Hockenberry. He then went on to work at Talk of the Nation: Science Friday and Weekly Edition: The Best of NPR News, hosted by Neal Conan. After a stint creating new programming for WNYC, he left public radio in 2000 to work as executive producer and then creative director of Acoustiguide Inc., an international leader in audio tour production for museums, historical sites, and public spaces. We asked him what work is out there for radio professionals who write and produce audio tours.

LISTEN  – AIRmuse audio: Bradley Klein on Producing Audio Tours (12:25)


A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AUDIO TOUR

If you're an independent radio producer interested in expanding your base of clients, the rapidly evolving audio tour industry provides some interesting possibilities. First, it will help if you understand a little history. At the end of the 20th century, Acoustiguide, based in New York City, was already 43 years old and had weathered the change from bulky reel-to-reel players to cassettes to fairly crude digital players. The clients were primarily museums, and the creative content was still directly based on a curator's "gallery talk," a linear trip through an exhibition from beginning to end, with pauses of set duration at specially chosen works. If anything, the content was somewhat duller than a live curator's tour through the galleries, since they were scripted and often read by the curators, few of whom were gifted narrators.

There were obvious opportunities to apply the production values that had long been commonplace in public radio. In the U.S., these were seized upon first by San Francisco-based Antenna Audio, a former theater group who took a theatrical and journalistic touch in their groundbreaking Alcatraz tour in the early 1980s. Here, the voices of former prisoners and guards were a real improvement over any curator, museum director, or historian. Over the next 10 years, better technology combined with their fresh creative approach allowed Antenna Audio to seize most of the U.S. audio tour market from Acoustiguide, which formerly had a near monopoly.

After I arrived at Acoustiguide in 2000, I gradually introduced (or reintroduced) changes to many aspects of the creative department. "Actuality," in the form of bits of unscripted audio interviews with curators, living artists, and others, became commonplace. We sought out better archival audio of dead artists, and we greatly expanded the variety of voices that might be included. Depending on the goals and ambitions of a museum, these sometimes included other artists, museum guards, conservators, an artist's model or friends, even vox pop of visitors.

At the same time, projects were expanding from the traditional art museum special exhibition to historical sites, municipal walking tours, and even Web-based virtual tours. The digital audio technology improved, allowing high-quality stereo sound and, more importantly, random access programming. In other words, visitors were free to take the tour in any order and at their own pace.

Today, most audio tours produced by Acoustiguide and Antenna include some or all of these elements. Both companies rely on freelance writers and producers, many with roots in public radio. There are also myriad small to midsize start-up companies trying to break into some aspect of the audio tour market, using smart phones and the Internet as their playback and distribution tools. An example is Guide by Cell.

You already have many of the needed skills: writing chops, the ability to collect audio and conduct interviews, the creative vision of what's possible in the medium. There's one major difference, though. As a journalist, you are creating content to please yourself and your editor. As an audio guide writer/producer, you need to satisfy your editor, who in turn can be overridden by the client, and you'll have to roll with that. In addition, you will often be in direct contact with clients and have to present your company in a professional manner, and that requires "people skills" and a desire to get along and leave a good impression.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT

In my experience, you can expect $1,000 to $4,000 for writing a 30-minute to an hour audio tour, which may contain 20 to 40 discrete news spot-length "stops," each focusing on a different work of art or object of interest along the tour. You may travel locally or to another city to conduct interviews and view the installation. Or you may work entirely off of fuzzy color copies and floor plans. You can expect extensive revisions based on feedback after the first draft. You may be required to "walk through" the complete script in the gallery space with the client before they approve the script for production. You may be asked to cut acts, direct tracks, and mix the final product — but not by the major companies who have facilities in-house and tend to use their own audio editors for the final mix. And finally, you may have to wait 60 days or more to get paid(!), depending on your agreement with the company.

TECHNIQUES FOR WRITING AND PRODUCING

If you're still interested, here are some guidelines to writing and producing for this unique market. In most cases, you'll be working from electronic proofs of an exhibition catalog or some other research provided by the client. Or you may be conducting interviews with the curator(s) to determine the content of the tour. Every museum exhibition represents long labor by one or more curators and educators, and they are the ones who determine what the exhibition is trying to convey. The audio tour producer comes in during the final weeks and finds a way to convey that message to the public through headphones. Whatever materials are provided, you need to be clear about that message.

As creative director, I work with the client on a document that specifies the length of the tour in produced minutes, the number of featured objects, the primary narrator and any additional voices, the key creative goals, delivery dates, and a summary of the overall sound and style. That gives the client something concrete to sign off on, and something for the writer/producer to work from, so everyone's expectations are clear. In some museums, the curators set the agenda, in others, the education department, and this can profoundly affect the priorities of the tour.

Radio folks have a huge advantage over other writers in this game. All the techniques that you've learned in "writing for the ear" apply. These include familiar concepts such as: writing in short clear sentences, avoiding complicated subordinate clauses, writing smoothly into and out of actuality, and repeating information from earlier in the program that may have been forgotten. In addition, audio tours are overwhelmingly about "PLACE." As you write, you must keep in mind that the listener is standing somewhere and looking at something. You have the option of guiding their eye to details in the work or you may choose to give them more freedom to wander. And finally, there are some concepts unique to this art form, including traffic management. You should be sensitive to the floor plan of the exhibition, and avoid longer audio "stops" in places where people bunch up, such as the entrance to a special exhibition.

Opinions differ, but I think that 1 to 1.5 minutes, is a good length for an audio stop in front of a work of art. People are standing, and you should be too when you're proofreading your script. As in all forms of writing, it can be harder to write short than to write long, but it's worth the effort in this case.

SPECIALIZED AUDIO TOURS

In addition to the classic art museum tour, there are other specialized productions, including programs designed for the blind and visually impaired. MoMA in New York City has, perhaps, the most listened-to program for visually impaired persons (VIPs!) in the world, and it is an excellent example of its kind. I won't go into detail here about the art of visual description, but it is an enjoyable and challenging exercise for any writer.

Another specialized genre is the "kids" or "family" tour. These are often dramatized stories with fictitious characters serving as narrators: the pharaoh's cat, or a precocious know-it-all kid who wants to be an artist when she grows up. The conceit can change at each stop, with inanimate objects speaking, etc. Here's a link to MoMA's kids tour.

GETTING IN THE DOOR

As with radio, a skilled and experienced freelance audio tour writer/producer is a valuable asset to a company. But getting that first job may be tough. I feel it's best to present yourself as someone possessing some expertise, beyond the ability to work with sound and write for the ear. Useful areas of expertise include science and technology, art history, decorative arts, archaeology, urban planning, design, American history, etc. If you have dramatic writing skills or children's education credentials, those can be valuable.

Solicit work where you can, and try to arrange a face-to-face visit with the creative director. Dress well for that visit, and make them comfortable that you can be trusted as the point of contact with a sometimes unpredictable variety of clients — prima donna curators, touchy artists, imperious directors (these are thankfully rare for the most part). And for goodness sake, be familiar with at least a couple of the company's productions.

CONCLUSION: PROS AND CONS

When I left public radio, I wondered if I would enjoy working in the museum world, where most audio tours live. In fact, I loved it. The curators are passionate about what they do. They often labor for years on a project before I arrive, just as objects are arriving from around the world, galleries are being altered, the installation folks are getting busy. It's an exciting time, and the writer/producer is a kind of "perfect visitor" — smart, informed, interested.

Brad Klein recently founded Brooklyn-based Twang Box Productions to create music-related multimedia content for public radio and commercial clients. In 2006, he hosted a Transom discussion on making audio tours.

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