Josie Holtzman wears many hats. When she's not producing NPR's Jazz Night in America, she's flying to Anchorage Alaska and working with KNBA to bring stories of Alaska's changing climate to the airwaves. And when she's not doing that, she's doing just about everything else. Radio has evolved in the past 10 years and Josie is at the cutting edge of it all. She's a content strategist, designer, videographer and sonic story teller. Here's her story.
1. How has radio evolved over the past 10 years and how has it changed your role?
JH: It's moved from terrestrial towards multi-platform - live recorded shows, downloadable podcasts supported by a more robust web presence. This diversity of outlets has freed up the format, style and content. If you're not confined by the NPR clock, a weekly broadcast or the pressure to appeal to a broad public media audience, you can experiment.
As far as my role changing, it has allowed me to wear more hats and to think beyond just the radio broadcast medium. I produce Jazz Night in America, NPR Music's first multi-platform program, which includes web videos, live events, website and a radio program. So when I am producing, I am not just thinking about a radio broadcast but also how a story can work visually, across social platforms and how it can be build out on the website. Another example, I just finished a project funded by a radio initiative aimed at bringing radio to the streets. We created audio scavenger hunts, interactive soundwalks and live events. Now I consider myself a radio producer, content strategist, designer, videographer and live event producer!
2. How important is mobility when it comes to recording your work?
JH: Very important. A good kit for recording in the field is essential for a radio producer. Radio producers are now expected to be multimedia experts, so you need an accessible carrying case for audio gear and ideally a free hand to also take pictures, take notes and video. Luckily sound gear is much more mobile than video so you can be relatively nimble and responsive in the field.
3. What are some key factors you’ve found to be effective when telling a story just through sound?
JH: Sound can activate the "theater of the mind" if it employs good storytelling supported by evocative recordings. So, trust the tape and try to let it speak for itself whenever possible. But also, be generous with your listeners - guide them through the story by crafting a strong narrative arc. The assumption with radio is that people are doing other things while listening - getting ready for work, cooking dinner, driving. Only half of their brain is engaged, so you have to guide them with a little "hand-holding". That means concise writing, GREAT tape and smart storytelling that hooks people's attention.
4. We live in a visual world, yet monthly podcast listenership has increased 75% since 2013. Why do you think this is?
JH: Content-wise, I think Serial proved that audio storytelling can be as engaging as visual storytelling, which raised the profile and visibility of podcasting. A few years ago few people knew what podcasting was. My parents still don't really understand it, but at least they know it exists.
Technologically, smart phones are allowing greater access to podcasts. iTunes has created a pretty user-friendly infrastructure for publishing and consuming podcasts. With more on-demand TV, I think people like the on-demand nature of podcast programming as well. There's also the factor of momentum. More listening begets more money, begets more talent, begets more listening...You get the idea.
Technically, podcasts are relatively cheap to make. You don't need a ton of expensive equipment to make a podcast (though people do often underestimate the skill required in crafting an interesting podcast). You know the refrain "there's an app for that" I think you could soon safely say "there's a podcast for that".
5. Where do you see podcasts in 10 years?
The dystopian vision is everyone has their own podcast - 24/7 broadcast of their day to day life, playlist, meandering thoughts and feelings - highly personal, confessional, self-referential. Everyone is broadcasting, but no one is listening. Or, the podcast bubble could burst and all the new podcasts lose funding. Or, we could keep going at the rate we are at in which more and more money will be devoted to developing high quality podcasts. I could see podcasts overtaking terrestrial radio in a decade.
6. In the last few years we’ve seen more attention being payed to binaural, ambisonics, HRTFs and head tracking playback thanks to Virtual Reality. What are your thoughts on this new space?
JH: I think it's huge. Immersive visual storytelling is all the rage, and people are finally starting to realize that you can't have an immersive experience without 3D sound.
Ambisonics in support of visual is exciting and full of potential, but I hope that it can also exist on its own as immersive audio storytelling. With the proliferation of podcasts, I think audio journalism and storytelling could be moving into the 3D audio space as well.
7. How would recording and producing in 3D Audio change the way you produce radio?
JH: It would cause me to think more experimentally and experientially about ambient sound as it relates to audio storytelling. I would seek out sonically dynamic and interesting environments, "soundscapes" that enrich and inform the story, rather than seeking out quiet venues for clean recording. I would think more about sonic perspective as a narrative device. Just like the camera, what story are you telling based on the perspective of the microphone. I would also reconsider pacing of storytelling - let the soundscapes breath and evolve rather than quick cuts and dominant interview tape.
8. What are the types stories you would tell if you recorded and produced them in 3d audio?
Imagine if you could hear a radio story about a coal mine and you could actually descend into the mine, hearing the 360 sounds as you turn your head. Or a 360 sonic experience of a war zone. I think it would be incredibly powerful. Maybe even more-so without visuals to accompany it.
Radio typically requires narration to describe the scene and orient the listener in the location. The number of radio pieces I've produced and heard that begin "I'm standing outside X, Y is happening around me" it's helpful but cliche. But 3D audio has the capability to sonically describe the scene. It would require more patience and attention from the listener, but I think VR is changing the paradigm and pace of storytelling towards slower, exploratory, first-person experience of story.
I just returned from Alaska where we created immersive audio pieces that placed listeners in the shoes of an Inupiaq man walking through his mile-long rural village in the Arctic, that will soon be underwater due to climate change. I want to continue to create stories that place people in a scene, in a story in a landscape they will never experience first-hand. Only 3D audio can do that, and I'm tremendously excited for its potential for audio storytelling.
Thanks to Josie Holtzman for this opportunity to learn more about radio and sound in journalism. Make sure to check out her website and keep up to date with all of the amazing stories she continues to tell!
From One Ear To Another,