Those who grew up with the internet, an infinite virtual store of every kind of music and podcast, may not appreciate the joy of waiting until nightfall to twist the dial of a transistor radio to catch a radio show from a station a thousand miles away.

Maybe it was not so great. But with so much video endless information, news, we may forget the power of a story that generates fear, desire, suspense, or fond joy in the singular medium of sound.

Just as we start an appreciation of literature by reading, we begin an appreciation of audio storytelling by listening. Next week we will start making noise.

A Simple Listening Activity

For this activity you are going to need the following technologies:

  • A piece of paper.
  • A pen or pencil.
  • Your ears.

Where ever you are, set your alarm for 2 minutes. Close your eyes. Now concentrate. How many different sounds can you here? When the two minutes are up, write them down, in order of the most prominent to the least.

We live in a audio spectrum of ambient sounds, background noise, sharp noises, buzzes and hums. All of them give you a sense about where the space you are is located. If there was no background sound, and we recorded a conversation for a story, it would sounds very un-natural without these layers of sound.

Audio in film is all designed; no sounds is there that is not planned. This clip below is from the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting; it’s a four minute mostly facts of life monologue by the character played by Robin Williams to the brash young man played by Matt Damon.

In this clip, I have removed all the visual elements. So just listen. How many different sounds can you identify? Can you visualize where this scene is taking place? Can you see it in your mind? How might we create a different setting just by adding different background sounds?

If you are curious watch the full clip to see where it is shot.

Stories for the Ears

The kind of audio we are talking about is not news or shows or music, but drama / fiction done in sound only. We will see that this is more than voice, but also a space of environmental sounds, ambient noise, sound effects.

The stories we will ask you to listen to are mostly linear, so we are not yet talking about networked audio narratives (?), but we want to first appreciate how the audio form works for stories. And we turn to some of the experts in the radio form (though their shows are now broadcast online)

As co-host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad describes, his radio shows can create a sense of empathy:

We also turn to This American Life‘s Ira Glass to understand the building blocks of radio stories

As we introduce you to examples of audio fiction, we want you as well to try tuning into the subtle audio techniques that make it effective. I took a 55 minute RadioLab episode and edited it down to about 9 minutes worth to demonstrate their techniques.

You will listen to this excerpt on a audio production site called SoundCloud that we will use this week as well. You might think of SoundCloud as a YouTube for sound.

As you listen to this segment on SoundCloud, when the playhead rolls over certain points, you will see comments appear below the wave form (most are from me, but that Dogtrax guy is there too).

Soundcloud with comments attached to the timeline

This as a form of annotation for audio.

Do not worry about trying to understand all of this technique. We are just starting to try to tune your ears into all the dimensions of audio in a show.

We ask that you listen to one episode of drama from The Truth Podcast – “movies for your ears”.  They are about twenty minutes long.

You can pick from a few recommended stories below or any other from their archive. Just pay attention to the way sound is used for both narration and background. Listen for the development of the story in sound technique.

Studio Visit: Fanfiction

On Tuesday we will run our third studio visit, this week with producers of the Fansplaining podcast Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

The archive is available right after the tour ends (kind of magical, eh?). We are going to convert the archive to sound, and will try annotating it in SoundCloud just like the Radiolab example you saw above.

To be ready for this, you should create a free account on SoundCloud.

Here is the audio version of the studio tour

If you listen it on SoundCloud you can pause the playback and add a comment write at that moment. See the examples that are already there.

Try to add at least 3 comments within the audio timeline.

In Class Activity: Blackout Poetry Storymaking

Stepping out of audio for a bit, this week in class we are running an activity that you might think of as creation by deletion. In blackout poetry you take a printed page, maybe from a newspaper, maybe a transcript of a speech, or a page of a novel, and you cross out most of the words so the ones left behind leave a poem:

From The Free Woman blog How to Create Blackout Poetry

You can find many examples made popular by Austin Kleon or see how Tom Woodward plays with the idea of truth by applying the technique to historic documents.

See also a similar concept in what is called erasure poetry and more examples from the concīs online literary magazine. Is it hard to imagine what can you create by removing words?

We are doing blackout poetry activity in class with a bit of a Networked Narratives twist. And we are going do the first part without a computer. Just get a black marker or thick pen / pencil.

Now, for the Kean University students, we are going to pick a broad general theme for our stories. Maybe it’s “love” or “loss” or “family” or “luck” or ??

The selected theme was “Time”.

Next, we are going to work from the same source material, the opening page to the “The Old World” chapter in Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostras. You can print out the page as a PDF or the image below:

Your goal here is to create ONE line out of this page that might work in conjunction with other lines your fellow students are making (we are going to try to combine them).

If you read the post mentioned above from The Free Woman, or another one from Bit Rebels (where the video below came from), they suggest drawing boxes around words you want to keep, crossing out ones you don’t need, then start blacking out the rest.

The words will have to go in order too, left to right, down the page, to make a single sentence.

Relax your mind.

Now go ahead and generate your one line, cross out the rest.

When you are done, tweet out a photo of your work, and include both hashtags #netnarr and #blackoutpoetry (so they come up in a combined search).

Here are the results we tracked in twitter…

Your creative goal is to find three other lines you can use along with yours to make the spine of a story. It may not work. Think of when we did the Five Card Flickr exercise, the story is not just in the photos.

In this case, your mission is to NOT use text to fill out the story, you can add a title, but try to find a few photos that might help connect the story AND at least one background sound (not music) that would help describe the setting.

Where can you find sounds? Try:

You do not have to assemble this (yet) into a coherent whole, just see what kinds of raw media materials you can find to create a story with the basis being four lines from our Blackout poetry activity.

Things to Check off For This Week

Whether you write one mondo blog post or bunch of small ones, make sure you include mention (and links to your work) for

  • Keep up with your Daily Digital Alchemies (are you still having fun with them??)
  • What did you learn about audio space from the simple listening exercise? Try to find a short scene from a favorite movie in YouTube. Just listen to the sounds without looking at the screen. What do you hear that helps create the sense of the environmen? Share your work from these activities in a post tagged or labeled #justlistening
  • How did you do with listening to both the story and the audio techniques in the shows from The Truth?
  • Reflect on the discussion from the Tuesday Studio visit. What did you take away with from learning about fan fiction communities?
  • Summarize the outcome of the Blackout Poetry exercise. How different were the lines people made? Were you able to find other media that can make the story parts whole? Is it possible to perhaps do a blackout of audio or video? Can you What might that sound / look like? Write up your thoughts in a post and tag/label it blackoutpoetry
  • Again, write a full week summary, integrating what we have done this week with your growing series of experiences in networked narratives. Relate back to our work on netprov, E-Literature, the shape of stories, etc. Tag/label this post weeklies.

The Bottom of the Page Bonus

His work is more in the vein of digital art as narrative, but you might be interested in the gallery of a friend of Alan’s Emilio Vavarella

Emilio Vavarella is an artist whose work merges interdisciplinary art practice and theoretical research and is centered around the study of the relationship between humans and technological power. His art practice presents a combination of using new technologies with alternative (non-productive, poetic, dysfunctional) goals in mind, imagining technology’s future effects through the use of speculative fiction, and decontextualizing and misusing technology to reveal its hidden mechanisms.

I had hoped we might do a visit with Emilio, but he is just starting a PhD at Harvard. But explore his works and if you want to say anything send him a message on twitter @emiliovavarella.

Featured Image: An insertion of “Bundesarchiv Bild 102-08307, Berliner Funkausstellung, Riesenlautsprecher” licensed CC BY-SA into part of single frame of video “MP3 Generation Risk Losing Their Sense” licensed CC B

Alan Levine
Alan Levine feels weird writing about himself in the third person. A 1990s pioneer on the web and early proponent of blogging, he shares his ideas at His interests include web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), mocking MOOCs, daily photography, bending WordPress, and randomly dipping into the infinite river of the internet. He and his dog enjoy the peace of a little home in Strawberry, Arizona.

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