Venus Zine / Fall 2006
Audio artist Julie Shapiro shares her thoughts on the current radio renaissance and shows how you can get in on the action
By: Gretchen Kalwinski
As managing director for Chicago’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, an annual and on-going celebration of documentary and feature audio works, Julie Shapiro is an expert on fascinating radio segments, but her girlhood listening was uber-ordinary; "Typical for a white Midwestern Jewish girl,” she laughs. “Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peter, Paul, and Mary." Shapiro began working with TCIAF in 2000. There, with executive director Johanna Zorn, she chooses radio documentaries for their competition, hosts "Listening Room" events, and travels to worldwide radio conferences, which has been life-changing: “It’s opened my ears and mind to audio work from all over the world, and stretched my mind about the power of sound.”
Shapiro did a college radio show at Transylvania University, where she played typical indie stuff of its time; Husker Du, Uncle Tupelo, The Slits. During the 90’s, she lived in Boulder, Colorado, Portland, Oregon, and Durham, North Carolina, where she worked in a record store and public radio station and played drums, which helped her become “more receptive to sound” and led to her appreciation for experimental artists like John Cage and Meredith Monk. "I got into composition and very beautiful spacey sounds."
An audio artist herself, Shapiro produced a tribute to model-horse collectors titled, “Are There Any More Rare, Plastic Ponies?,” which was picked up by TCIAF’s Re:sound. (thirdcoastfestival.org/resound_2005_june.asp). She also runs an audio-blog called notetheslantoftheovals.blogspot.com, and, apart from TCIAF, hosts Lissenup!, a listening event that began as a potluck, where she plays beloved audio pieces including one by Benjamen Walker (about a Darth Vader impersonator) and another in which Brooklyn student Natalie Edwards does a tongue-in-cheek investigation of prostitution. She’s currently considering new Lissenup! venues and the use of blindfolds to engage the senses.
Shapiro claims that we’re in a radio renaissance, evidenced by the number of younger people, journalists, and filmmakers exploring the field. “Radio's being recognized as an art form as well as a source for news and information, like in the pre-TV days. And, being surrounded by radio stories at TCIAF, I'm constantly learning--whether about blood feuds in Albania or one guy's encounter with a blind dog in Wyoming. Being able to help bring these stories to many more ears has been such a privilege. And a blast.”
Julie’s Advice on Producing Audio Segments
There's tons of used equipment online. The basics are: a microphone, recorder, and editing software, such as Audacity. (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/).
--Choosing a Story
Listen to many different styles of radio, and learn to be critical. (See transom.org, prx.org, and radiocollege.org.) Be careful with personal stories - they're often not that interesting to others. Make sure your story's really a contender for audio, and isn't just a spoken print piece. Think about stories that will surprise people or show them something new about the world.
Ask simple, straightforward questions. Watch for sounds that may disrupt conversations, like barking dogs, or humming refrigerators. It's ok to ask someone to repeat something or to stop wriggling in a squeaky chair. Always gather more tape than you think you'll need, and keep recording as long as possible. (Very often the best tape materializes after the "real" interview ends.)
--Putting Words Together with Music/Background Sound
Use the medium to its fullest! Sounds can play as important a role in telling your story as the narrative, [because] they're crucial to setting scenes. Music can add a lot to a listening experience but can also be a huge liability; don’t use the same songs you've heard in dozens of other radio stories. (No more Yo La Tengo!) In general the old adage "less is more" applies.
Writing is very different for radio than for print. Write like you talk - keep sentences simple and use words you usually use when you speak. Cut out every bit of tape you don't absolutely love. Then cut some more. If you're using narration keep it minimal and let the subjects of your story speak for themselves and move the story along. But don't leave out crucial information that'll help a listener understand the full context the story takes place in. Try to show, not tell. This is easy to do in radio, because you can actually include a clip of, say, a dog barking.
--Where to Send Your Finished Audio Segment
My advice to someone who wanted to get a serious start in radio would be to get an internship somewhere, not to start making stories cold and sending them around. That said, it's much better to contact any show or station you're hoping to work with BEFORE you produce anything, to find out what sort of work they're seeking; (most stations and shows' websites have contact info for this). Besides getting work onto airwaves, you can make a podcast and, or post it at prx.org, (a web-based marketplace for public radio pieces), where it can be reviewed by peers, and possibly picked up by a radio station. You can also just invite a bunch of friends over for a potluck, open a couple bottles of wine and beer, and have a listening party. ----GK