- Hi, my name is Andrew.
- This is
“You have presence in your ideas and presence in your body, but your voice is sort of right in-between those two things.”
- Ray Fenwick
Are the voices on public radio too white?
This is the debate happening amongst public radio enthusiasts in the United States this week, thanks to a piece written by Chenjerai Kumanyika on Transom.org. In it, he discusses his experience as an African-American radio producer subconsciously changing the way he spoke to emulate white people:
“The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koenig. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people. My natural voice — the voice that I most use when I am most comfortable — doesn’t sound like that.”
“Challenging the whiteness of public radio”
One of the things I like about radio over TV is the lack of baggage it brings to the table. On TV we’re used to seeing people in proper makeup, wearing expensive clothes, in studio environments. We make all sorts of pre-judgements about a person based solely on how they look that it limits our ability to hear from “real people” without subconsciously making assumptions about them.
Radio has less of that, but it’s still there, and it’s largely in the way people speak. For most of its history, radio has been the domain of white men with deep voices. That’s opening up, but people are still more likely to react positively to a traditional radio voice and, conversely, react negatively to someone without one.
Having read listener feedback on radio hosts male and female, I can say with confidence that people are far more likely to write in complaining about a woman’s natural voice. It’s alternately shrill, ditzy, or just too darn high, and can not be listened to/taken seriously.
I don’t think that the people writing in are being deliberately sexist, either. It’s just that for years we’ve been trained that the intelligent, authoritative voice is that of the baritone male who speaks in “proper” English.
And the issue of race isn’t limited to the United States, either. This past week, CBC Radio welcomed Shad as a guest host of Q. Shad is a bilingual, award-winning musician who earned a master’s degree at the same time he was becoming one of the most successful rappers in the country. He also used the word “dope” on the radio.
Again, I don’t think this Tweet is deliberately racist (indeed, the person who wrote it says he has no idea what race Shad is). But it is making a judgement call on what the “correct” linguistic patterns are on public radio. People who use words like “dope” do not belong in these upper echelons or, if they do, they must silence that part of themselves to be more acceptable. And more often than not, those are going to people who aren’t white.
This conversation doesn’t just affect hosts, either. It’s something that happens to guests. More than once, I’ve been part of a debate about whether someone’s accent would be understandable to the average radio listener and, therefore, whether we should have them on. Again, an accent is not necessarily a race-based thing. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the people who have these accents are usually not white.
We’ve also had intelligent, passionate people with brain injuries or hearing loss that cause their pattern of speech to be slower than what we’re used to, and it represents a conundrum as to how to fairly present them and their views without risking alienating the listener. One method is to pretape the interview, and then edit out the pauses or difficult to understand passages. It works, but I question sometimes whether we’re being fair to the subjects themselves by altering their voice in this way. That point is presented powerfully in this piece, in which a man who stutters uses the power of radio editing to clean up his own voice, only to reject the artificiality of it at the end.
The last point I’d throw in there for consideration in Canada is the subject of First Nations speech patterns. From here I’ll turn it over to the Reporting in Indigenous Communities website, a resource for helping journalists understand how to cover indigenous issues fairly and holistically, in particular this passage on speaking with elders:
“Interviewing elders can be a frustrating and puzzling experience. Traditional Aboriginal storytelling is elliptical and sometimes, it’s difficult to pry specific information out of an elder. “How do you feel about XYZ?” may result in a half-hour tale about a childhood experience. If you’re only looking for a 10-second clip, or a short quote, explain the conventions of your medium – at least that person is forewarned that you plan to reduce their teachings to a sound-byte.”
In my experience, this method of speaking isn’t just elders, either- there are a number of First Nations people across the north who speak more deliberately, who pause for a longer-than-expected amount of time before delivering an answer. There is nothing wrong with talking like this – in fact, there are many advantages – but it doesn’t fit in to what we are used to hearing on the radio. How do we bring more of those voices into the conversation without erasing their cultural nuances?
Again, no answers from me here, on any of these fronts, except that I agree with Kumanyika when he says “the sound of public radio and podcasts must reflect… diversity if we are serious about social justice and encouraging active, constructive participation.” That’s true in the United States, and it’s true in Canada.
“Challenging the whiteness of public radio” by Chenjerai Kumanyika (audio version via NPR)
“How Code-Switching Explains the World” by Gene Demby
“Is There a #PubRadioVoice That Sounds like America?” by Kenya Downs
“Special Effects” by Kevin Murphy
“Aboriginal Customs and Protocols” by Reporting in Indigenous Communities
Opening quote by Ray Fenwick
So Ghostbusters is being remade with an all-female cast and there are a number of people who feel this will ruin their childhood.1
My childhood was in the late 80s/early 90s. I remember playing with friends in my neighbourhood, pretending we were characters in our favourite TV shows.
We would divvy up the parts: Huey, Dewey and Louie. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello. Superman, Batman, Spiderman.
The common thread? Boys were the protagonists.
If my sister played with us she usually had one choice, if any: Daisy. April O’Neil. If there was more than one girl, there was often no other female character for them to take on.
We didn’t do this out of deliberate sexism. We were six years old. We were emulating behaviour learned from pop culture: boys are the heros. The girl (rarely girls, plural) were sidekicks, at best.
Do I want to eradicate all the male characters I enjoyed as a child? No. I think it’s great that boys like me were able to imagine ourselves as the heroes of different narratives, stopping crimes, defending the world.
But I’m not overly concerned that anyone’s childhood is going to “ruined” by an all-female cast of the Ghostbusters.
Instead I’m hopeful that it will let little girls the opportunity to have a childhood similar to mine. One where I was able to pretend to be a Ninja Turtle or superhero or Ghostbuster and not have anyone tell me it’s not my part to play because of my gender.
Eleven years ago, two major things were going on in my life: the first is that I was turning nineteen. The second is I had met a girl.
Flash forward to today and that girl is my wife, and I am hours away from entering my thirties.
Somehow, this doesn’t feel like much of a milestone. I take that as a good thing, because it means I’m generally happy with the direction my life is going. But it does make me pause and reflect a little on how I went from there to here so that I can be as happy with the next decade of my life as I am with the last one.
I realize at the top of that list is people. Everything I am most grateful for is the direct result of someone else helping me, guiding me, pushing me or generally being there to move me along.
Last year at about this time, I got a phone call from a friend asking if I could ski. When I said yes, he told me we were signing up for the Prince George Iceman, a race I’ve thought about doing for years but never had. Even though cold weather cancelled last year’s even, we went out and did it just to do it, and we’ll be competing again next week. If it weren’t for that phone call, I probably wouldn’t be.
My wife is currently taking the steps to plan a trip to Turkey. I love travel, but she’s been the motivating force behind our trips, including a six-month experience in China that I talked about doing but probably wouldn’t have had she not actually figured out the logistics.
This past week, I helped our UNBC intern create a documentary about a Prince George man who has been helping fight Ebola. It’s a great piece, and it’s been picked up for airplay across the country. And it was almost five years ago to the day that I was being shown how to create my own audio piece about “International Soufflé Day,” a Prince George-made holiday that had been taking off a little. The piece was also picked up nationally and I credit it with helping secure my place with CBC.
Speaking of that piece, last week was the tenth anniversary of Soufflé Day and we were invited to the home of the event’s founders. Their tradition is to have people they don’t know very well come over, so it was basically dinner with strangers- and it was great.
I could go on- family, friends, mentors, co-workers, and even loose acquaintances who have positively affected my life every step of the way.
So what made my twenties work? Two things. The first is the relationships I already had that continued to grow. The second is the new people I’ve met who have also become important parts of my life.
So that’s my goal for the next decade: cultivate relationships, old and new. Friendships, mentorships, family. If I’ve learned anything over thirty years it’s that so long as you have the right people around you, it’s tough to go wrong.
Thanks for everything.
“Beyond just people moving towards streaming rather than buying music (old news), the discontinuation of the iPod Classic and future mp3 devices presents a whole other problem: a lack of devices and applications that are for music listening only. There is no right or wrong way to listen to music, but there is admittedly a stark contrast between listening to music on your iPhone and listening to music on an iPod that does not connect to the Internet. The benefits of an iPod are the ability to literally contain your entire music library and just a lack of notifications in general, to enjoy it without the temptation to blindly scroll through Instagram or tweets while you do so. “
Ever since everything on my iPod had to be deleted, I’ve moved to listening to almost all my music via streaming services. Mostly Rdio, but also Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Hype Machine and CBC Music. It works, for the most part, but I do sometimes miss the act of scrolling through my library, my music that I’ve selected, as opposed to the global music archive. Also, there are some situations – a long road trip, for example – where it was far easier to just grab my 160 GB library with all the music I could want rather than having to choose which few albums I want to sync to my phone ahead of time.
I think there is some reason for concern, but then again if the minidisc can come back, maybe the iPod classic will be the stuff of revival, too.
I’ve only ever received one death threat. It was from someone I didn’t know, but who clearly lived in the same city as me. They took to Twitter early one morning while I was on air, saying they were going to kill me and others, insinuating they knew where we lived and what we drove.
The police officer called in said they would go check this person out, but in the meantime was there any way we could “not look at it?”
My experience on the internet has largely been a positive one. But I recall this incident as a reminder that it can turn ugly, fast, the world is not always welcoming, and words can be used to make you feel unsafe, even when outside observers suggest the solution is to just ignore them.
Odds are, if I were a woman I would be reminded of this more often. Here’s a nice little video summarizing the sorts of comments women get for being online (short version: harassment and solicitations). And in case you think this is just what it’s like to be on the internet, here’s a piece on what happens when a black woman changes her Twitter avatar to a white man (spoiler: she gets harassed less).
So women and minorities are harassed more online. What to do about it? In Twitter’s case, they are working with an organization called Women, Action, and the Media to create a tool to report harassment. This, in the eyes of some, is an attack on freedom of speech.
I’m a pretty big fan of freedom of speech. But I’ve been wrestling with what exactly that means.
If every time a woman speaks she is told by anonymous dudes to “make me a sandwich” and “nice tits”, does she really have freedom of speech? Or more to the point, is she being given the same opportunity to exercise that freedom that a man is? Sure, nobody is STOPPING her from saying anything. “Make me a sandwich” and “nice tits” are not illegal or necessarily threatening. But it’s pretty easy to see how dealing with that would make someone more hesitant to speak up. And that’s before we get into the rape comments and death threats.
So yeah, I’m for freedom of speech. But perhaps in a platform like Twitter there’s an argument to be made in favour of cracking down on or discouraging one type of speech in order to encourage other, more inclusive ones. Maybe it’s worth temporarily banning someone from the service for saying “make me a sandwich, bitch” if it means more women feel safe speaking about, well, whatever.
I bring this up because in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo killings, a number of cultural commentators have resumed railing against what they see as a problematic form of self-censorship taking hold in North America.
Let’s take, for example, the debate about whether to republish those cartoons or not (to be clear, I’m speaking for myself here and I have no decision-making over whether or not these cartoons are show in any media outlet). One argument in favour of publishing them is that one must do so in order to show their commitment to freedom of speech. In not doing so, we are either bowing to the extremists out of fear or self-censoring because we put Islam on a pedestal (or both).
But let’s take this to it’s logical extreme (and I’m well aware that I’m creating a strawman argument here). Let’s say a group of neonazis were killed because some activists objected to their publication of documents arguing for racial purity and the supremacy of whites. If one believes in freedom of speech, are media outlets around the world then obligated to publish those documents in solidarity? If they had racist cartoons, should newspapers around the world start publishing them?
I’m not saying the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were necessarily racist (I’ve seen arguments from both sides and my conclusion is I lack enough understanding of French language and culture to fully evaluate this). What I am saying is there’s clearly people who do find the cartoons insensitive and wouldn’t have published them before the killings on those grounds. I don’t see why disagreeing with the killings means you have to publish something else you disagree with. You can think something should be allowed to exist while simultaneously not wanting to hang it on your wall.
Let’s circle back to women on the internet and self-censorship now. As a general rule, I’m in favour of freedom of speech– to the point I believe things I find absolutely reprehensible should be allowed to be written and said. But I also don’t think freedom of speech = freedom to say whatever you want, anywhere. I think people should be allowed to spew racist, sexist nonsense, but I don’t think they should be given free space in the newspaper to do so, or handed the mic between the second and third periods at hockey games.
It gets more complicated in places like Facebook and Twitter. Are these publishers or utilities? If they are utilities, anything goes. But if they are publishers, well, then they can exercise some editorial control about what is and isn’t acceptable. That’s what traditional media does. It’s also what universities, folk festivals, book stores, and any number of semi-public spaces and organizations do.
As time goes on, more people are recognizing the way language can be used to reinforce stereotypes, to silence minorities. Language can be used to belittle women, to make Aboriginal people feel small, and to drive a wedge between Muslims and the rest of society. Freedom of speech is important, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean that the use of language is always a net good. It can be hateful, hurtful, and deeply damaging. It’s not always obvious when you are part of the majority. But when you aren’t – when you’re already an outsider – “freedom of speech” can easily translate to “freedom to reinforce the status quo,” or straight-up bullying. It’s not a matter of rolling with the punches or just not looking at it – it’s there, and it hurts.
This isn’t a post where I’m leading to some grand conclusion. I don’t have an answer. I believe in freedom of speech but I also believe in a world where people can go wherever they choose without being subjected to harassing, hateful language. I’m not always sure how to reconcile the two. The only thing I feel certain about in this whole thing is that no one deserves to die for what they say or draw or write, no matter what. But everything else? It’s complicated.
I believe in freedom of speech.
I believe in being sensitive to how using that freedom can affect others.
I believe even those who aren’t sensitive to using that freedom should be allowed to speak.
I believe we should be allowed to ignore them.
I believe we should be allowed to condemn them.
I believe it is tough to agree with freedom of speech when it results in terrible things being said.
I believe there is real danger in allowing terrible things to be said.
I believe words can bring us together, skewer hypocrisy, and be a beacon of freedom.
I believe words can tear us apart, incite atrocities, and feed hatred.
I believe it’s all pretty complicated.
I believe in freedom of speech.
“Considering the speed of change, the money and smarts being thrown at the problem, and the desperate need, it seems likely that sometime in the next decade, Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or another rival will perfect vegetarian beef, chicken, and pork that is tastier, healthier, and cheaper than the fast-food versions of the real thing. It will be a textbook case of disruptive technology: overnight, meat will become the coal of 2025—dirty, uncompetitive, outcast. Our grandchildren will look back on our practice of using caged animals to assemble proteins with the same incredulousness that we apply to our ancestors’ habit of slaughtering whales to light their homes.”
At this point, eating meat is like a dirty habit I can’t quit. I do it all the time, but I increasingly wish I didn’t. Learning to use eggplant, portabellos, and tofu properly has helped, but this would be huge.
“Last week we asked you in a survey where Vancouver ends, where northern B.C. begins, and everything else in between. Thousands responded.
“Here’s what we found.”
Interesting to learn how differently people define these regional boundaries that divide up our province. The Kootenays, in particular, mean wildly different things to different people.
Also, as a follow-up to this discussion: most people think of Prince George as part of northern B.C., and not the interior.
Every year, I put together a list of my favourite songs of the past twelve months. This is obviously subjective, because it’s impossible to hear every single piece of music released in a year.
So what to do when you come across a great new song that’s not actually new? For me, it’s share them here in the first annual “Great Songs From Previous Years I Missed the First Time Around.”
[Read more →]
stream | download
In my basement, I have a whole pack of mixtapes I made when I was younger. At first I just recorded stuff off the radio, but when I got older I figured out how to feed the TV audio into our tape machine and was able to get stuff off of MuchMusic, as well.
I would usually divide the tapes up by their source: pop (the top 40 station), rock (the alt station), indie (the Wedge, Going Coastal) and hip-hop (RapCity).
This was a good system for when I could pack all my tapes around, but every once in a while I’d be going somewhere space was limited.
When a trip like that was coming up it was time to make a best of tape: a combination of tracks from across genres, dubbed from my collection into one master mix.
I found the best formats for these mixes were the 90 minute ones – 45 minutes on each side. A good long listen, but not so long that you would never listen to it more than once.
So anyways, here’s what one of those mixtapes would sound like if I were to make it today, using my favourite tracks of 2014 as a start point. Enjoy.
Almost Mainstream: the 2014 Mixtape
Mixcloud | Download | Bop.fm
(please note: I’ve put streams of individual tracks below, but the best way to listen to this is by streaming or downloading the full mix above)
[Read more →]
I’ve been thinking about time more than usual this year. I’ve witnessed my niece go from speaking full sentences to full run-on paragraphs and I realize that in the time she’s learned how language works I’ve been sitting at the same desk. Not that I’m complaining about the desk- it’s a nice one- it’s just that things change differently for you as you get older.
Case in point: we just realized that this is the sixth Christmas in our house. That means that for the majority of the time my wife and I have known each other, we’ve owned a home together. It feels far more recent. This is an interesting exercise to do: where have you spent most of your life? Who have you known for more than half of it? It puts things in perspective.
Google, Facebook and other social networks are trying to automate my year in review. They aren’t doing a very good job, because I don’t always share the most important moments in my life with social networks. The things that shape me aren’t generally captured in photos, but in growth and experience.
On a professional level, the big moment came in January. I spent weeks putting together a special hour-long series on the VLA neighbourhood, colloquially known as “the hood” in Prince George. It was by far the biggest project I’ve ever taken on and I spent nights wracked with self-doubt over how long a pause should last in an interview I was editing. When you start working in journalism you become aware of the editorial control you have over how your audience perceives reality. Breaths and stutters might be just breaths and stutters or they might add resonance and emotion to the words someone is saying. I was a bundle of nerves but now that it’s out in the world I’m incredibly proud to have done it.
In the summer I was given the chance to go to Toronto for some professional development and my wife wisely suggested we seize the chance to visit one of our top-three destinations and spent a week visiting Montreal and Quebec City. It was indulgent and unplanned and full of moments that we’ll remember and treasure. The lesson I took from the whole thing was be willing to indulge in experience even if you haven’t budgeted for it, and budget for the occasional unplanned experience.
Shortly after our return, my grandma Kurjata passed away. Most of the extended family gathered in Dawson Creek to see her off: 101 of us, by the last count. As I wrote at the time, when I was a kid I didn’t think much of these large family gatherings at Christmas or weddings. Today, I see how special it is my grandma and grandpa managed to raise fifteen kids who still wanted to see each other in their adult years. A lot of patience would have been involved… and a lot of love.
During my formative years, every grandkid would get a Christmas gift from grandma: socks and a bit of money. When you’re young the money’s the exciting part, but today I have no memory of what I spent it on. I remember the socks, though. I also remember the hand-addressed cards I would get on my birthday, and I think about the fact that my grandma did that for fifty, sixty, seventy people as time went on. I have a hard time remembering to get birthday cards for about a dozen people in my life. But she took the time to show she cared about each of us individually.
All three of these things comes back to time. The time you spend on things you care about, the time you have left to cross things off your bucket list, the time you take to show people you care. I’m not very good at time management, but I’m hoping I’ll enter 2015 with a better idea of how to spend it wisely.
Look, a lot of bad stuff happened in 2014. We should never be complacent with the status quo or accept things that could be better. But it’s worth looking at the big picture from time to time and make an empirical assessment about how the human race is doing.
To that end, here’s Ramez Naam on growing acceptance for gay marriage, the rise of solar power, and the decline in child poverty, among other things.
And here’s Steven Pinker and Adam Mack on the decline of homicide rates, violence against women and children, mass killings, and war.
Pinker and Mack include plenty of commentary in their piece on how news reporting does not do a good job reflecting the world as it actually is.
“News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news.”
A point that’s been made before but worth making again and again and again.
So here’s to 2014 – one of the best years in human history, and the hope that 2015 will be even better.
I’ve been writing about Serial and what it means for audio on here quite a bit. I sent out a little Twitter essay yesterday that’s a pretty good summary, so I thought I’d put it here, too.
1. I think Serial and shows like it are a step towards the Netflix-ization of audio http://andrewkurjata.ca/blog/2014/11/21/podcasts-arent-back-a-new-type-of-podcast-has-arrived/
2. “podcasts” as a form have been doing just fine, as Marco Arment and Jesse Thorn point out
3. But what’s new is the high-quality production of Serial. This isn’t two people and a mic. This is archival tape, field sounds, etc.
4. Like , this is the sort of audio I love: HBO-quality storytelling, not blog-level.
5. The problem is, people too often confuse podcast the media form with podcast the genre. They are not the same…
6. Just as Breaking Bad and E-Talk Daily are not the same just because they both appear on TV, podcasts are wildly different
7. And, for that matter, so is audio. I tried to capture that here….
8. Fortunately, did a much better job here in describing the power of tape
9. On Serial: “The story was compelling because if felt so immediate, so real. Tape was what made it real.” http://www.anxiousmachine.com/blog/2014/12/18/serial-and-the-triumph-of-tape
10. On audio’s strength: “Tape bridges the divide, capturing reality without distorting it too much” http://www.anxiousmachine.com/blog/2014/12/18/serial-and-the-triumph-of-tape
11. So that’s what I hope about : that it hit a critical mass of people that now understand the power and the beauty of audio.
12. … not true-crime. Not “on-demand” listening. But well-produced, audio storytelling. That would be a big win for the whole industry.
I’ve finished listening to Serial now, and am onto the Serial thinkpieces (you can find most of the worthwhile ones via Nick Quah’s Hotpod Newsletter, editions 1-12).
Most are full of praise, but there is a fair share of criticism, as well. After reading a few critical pieces, I felt prompted to Tweet this:
At the risk of creating straw-men, I’m going to divide the issues people have with Serial into four main themes.
- Serial is voyeuristic, because it took an old case about people’s personal grief and reopened it for the entertainment of others
- Serial is irresponsible, because it reported in realtime, rather than doing all the research and then presenting a finished package
- Lots of other important things happen. Why spend so much time on this one case?
- Serial isn’t journalism, or is shoddy journalism, because Sarah Koenig put herself and her doubts at the center of the story
My issue with these arguments isn’t so much that they aren’t valid, but that it’s unfair to lob them against Serial without simultaneously making the charge against virtually all forms of journalism.
1. Serial is voyeuristic, because it took an old case about people’s personal grief and reopened it for the entertainment of others
Let’s take point one: how many newscasts, newspaper headlines, and Tweets do you read in any given day that are about someone’s personal grief? Two die in car crash. Murder victim’s family begs for information. Those aren’t fake people dealing with those things- they are literally people who just lost someone in their lives. And we blast that information out, reporters ask for quotes, video cameras are on the scene.
Journalism is inherently voyeuristic: it’s the act of reporting the facts of other people’s lives for others to consume. The standard line is that it’s ok so long as what’s reported is for the public good.
Unfortunately, what’s in the public good is not written in stone. Is it in the public good to know what political leaders say in private conversation? Is it in the public good to know whether celebrities are engaged in borderline legal activity? Is in the public good to find out whether a man whose been in prison for the last fifteen years was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit? I’d argue that if we use your average news cycle as a standard, Serial had more potential to be in the public good than much of what’s out there.
Which brings us to criticism two:
2. Serial is irresponsible, because it reported in realtime, rather than doing all the research and then presenting a finished package
I’ve got to say I find this one the most bizarre. Most journalism is presented in realtime. When media outlets started covering Ferguson, they didn’t know whether the army would be called in, what eyewitnesses would say, whether the case would go to trial. They just started reporting on what was happening and then when new developments opened up, they reported on those as well.
I suppose part of the reason people might expect Serial to be wrapped up ahead of time is that the case is fifteen years old so, presumably, all of this research could have been done first without having to wait for new information to come forward. But I also think that’s unfair.
I can easily imagine a “normal” treatment of this story. A newspaper headline says “15 years on, questions still linger in murder case”. The basics of the story would have been there: the disappearance, the body, Syed’s ongoing insistence that he’s innocent. The whole thing could have been wrapped up in a package in a few days. And we would never hear about the reporter making a new discovery because we would never hear from the reporter on the case again- they’re onto the next thing.
Koenig and her team spent a full year on this story. In doing so, they unravelled many more threads and communicated a much deeper understanding than the one-off article would have. That it wasn’t all wrapped up nicely is, I think, a lot more honest about the way the world works, and it allowed them to be more thorough than 99% of the journalism out there.
3. Lots of other important things happen. Why spend so much time on this one case?
I’ve seen this more than once- the question of what is so significant about this case that it deserves so much digging, so much research, so much attention. Koenig herself addresses this question in episode one:
“If you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me. It wasn’t halfway across the world or even next door. It came right to my lap. And if I could help get to the bottom of it, shouldn’t I try?”
I doubt there’s a journalist alive who hasn’t had someone question why they are wasting their audience’s time with some story or another. Some people hate hearing about politics. Others don’t get why you would cover anything- anything- except climate change.
The fact of the matter is there isn’t some universal hierarchy of importance out there. We can’t say empirically, “ok, yeah, there’s not enough beds in the homeless shelter down the street, but that is less important than the fact that women are being murdered at higher rates than men which is in itself less relevant than the latest international trade discussions.” There are a lot of important stories, and they are important to different people for different reasons, and unimportant to other people for other reasons.
Why do you spend your time one way when there are any number of other ways you could be spending it? Why do you donate to this charity instead of that one? It’s the same limitation faced by journalists choosing stories, especially when you’re choosing one story to focus on for a twelve episode podcast: you’re going to have to do it at the expense of something else.
And there’s a nice segue-way into criticism four:
4. Serial isn’t journalism, or is shoddy journalism, because Sarah Koenig put herself and her doubts at the center of the story
I’ll admit it isn’t standard for a reporter to publicly share her process- the false trails, the doubts, the back-and-forth about whether you’re doing the right thing. But I’d also warn you against a journalist who doesn’t have these moments of doubt. No one is completely unbiased, and the best defence against letting your biases affect your reporting is to be aware of them, and to challenge them. It’s the same with knowledge: the wisest thing you can do is admit your ignorance.
Would I want this style of reporting to leak into every piece of news I read or heard? No, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opening the curtain on the sausage factory of how journalism works once in a while, either. We’re certainly happy to pull up the curtains on other professions, why not our own?
* * *
Like other journalists, the Serial team dealt with the real world. In the real world, memories are faulty, lies can be told, biases are inherent, doubts are cast, and mistakes are made. What made them unique is that they admitted those rules apply to journalists, as well.
“Even a year ago, I obsessively checked my follower count on Twitter, and my site’s visitor stats. I looked through my referrers daily. That’s a path to unhappiness. You notice when people inevitably unfollow, and you see which articles are of niche rather than widespread interest. It gets you down, particularly because the niche-interest personal pieces are often the ones that matter to you the most, as their author.”
From time to time I’ve toyed with the idea of making this a more focused site, one that is about something that could develop a specific audience.
The temptation used to be greatest when I’d write something with mass appeal. The visitor and new Twitter follower counts would go through the roof and I’d try to follow-up with something that would be equally interesting.
The problem with that is there’s no point, really. I’m not doing this for a living. I don’t sell ads. I write and I tweet because I find utility in it for myself. When others do, it’s gratifying, but chasing an audience would dilute the point of this, which is having a place for me to think out loud about whatever I want.
Plus, if I only wrote about what got the most visitors, it would just be a whole bunch of posts like this.
Great write-up by Robert McGinley Myers on the strength of audio:
“This is the power of tape, and I’d argue it’s a power tape has over any other form of journalism. Print can’t convey the full texture of emotion in a conversation, and film often shines too bright a light to get into these private moments of our lives. Tape bridges the divide, capturing reality without distorting it too much, and remaining sharable in its original, organic form.”
It’s tough for me to not just quote the whole piece because it so perfectly captures some of what I’ve been trying to express.
“I want, or would like, more Serials, more… Breaking Bads, more True Detectives, more Scandals, and more Game of Throneses in my headphones. In my eardrums. In my head.
“In my opinion, that’s the real North Star here. Podcasts shouldn’t aspire to be the next blogging platform, vis a vis Odeo. It should be the next-next HBO.”
I understand what Nick is saying- he wants high-quality, well-produced podcasts. So do I. But podcasts are just a media form, not a platform or producer. Just as video is used by YouTube and HBO, podcasts can be used by the low end and the high.
I think what we need to do is stop lumping all podcasts together. They are wildly different in scope, subject, and production. Four guys having an unedited conversation about movies for two hours is not the same as a skilled interviewer talking to someone for an hour, and that in itself is wildly different from a production like Serial. Categorizing them as a single genre and tier is like telling someone who enjoyed Breaking Bad to check out E-Talk Daily because it comes from that box in the living room, too.
That’s why some people are saying podcasts are having a renaissance while others are saying, no, they’ve been doing just fine, thanks. Both sides are correct. Podcasts, as a form of storing and delivering content, have been humming along just fine. The new thing is podcasts like Serial, StartUp, and the Radiotopia network- high-quality, well-produced, podcast-first storytelling: the HBO-quality content.
As I’ve said before, podcasts aren’t back, a new type of podcast has arrived.
Update: Robert McGinley Myers has an excellent piece on this that you should read.
I am reading a series of back-and-forths between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait on the subject of race relations in the United States, as well as this accompanying thread over on the Dish.
Within that thread, I took note of a reader comment:
“Coates actually says this: ‘I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge.’
“The difference between the two seems pretty obvious to me. Coates isn’t saying that Washington was nothing more than a slaveholder. He’s saying that being a slaveholder isn’t cancelled out by his role as president. He’s saying the two things are inseparable, in the face of lots of people who try to separate the historical greatness of the Founding Fathers from their faults.”
That is the point I was trying to make in this post, and something I don’t think we talk about enough. The heroes of history had their strengths, but they had their share of weaknesses, with differing degrees of terrible actions to go alongside them. That’s true in Canada, as it is elsewhere.
People pine for the days when John A. Macdonald could build a national railway, conveniently ignoring the head tax and dangerous conditions forced upon Chinese workers to get it done and policy of starving Aboriginal people who might get in the way.
Does all this negate the fact he founded the country and built the railway? No. Nor does the fact that he founded the country and built the railway negate the fact that he did some pretty awful things. It’s all connected.
People will sometimes dismiss these criticisms by saying it’s easy to judge the the past with perfect hindsight. And that’s true. But if we’re going to invoke the past as justification for our present actions, I’d rather we do it with 20-20 vision rather than through rose-coloured glasses.
As we go into the Christmas break, the big news is that the provincial government has announced the creation of the biggest public infrastructure project in British Columbia history: the Site C dam.
Before we go further, let me be clear: what I am about to say is not an argument for or against the building of this or any other project. It’s simply an observation about the narratives surrounding the decision to build it.
The government says the dam is a necessary investment to provide clean, reliable power for the province. Opponents, who include residents whose homes will be lost and First Nations whose traditional territory will be flooded, say the loss of land is too great and alternatives should be investigated.
In counter to these arguments, supporters of the project point to the importance of “vision” from leaders, and the “visionaries” of the past who took on similarly large projects. The case study in visionary leaders is W.A.C Bennett, the B.C. premier responsible for the damming of other rivers back in the mid-twentieth century. Writing in support of Site C, former MLA Kevin Falcon opens with a quote from the Lieutenant-Governor at the opening of the W.A.C. Bennet dam:
“It may be apparent to everyone that harnessing of the Peace River promises great benefits for the people of British Columbia, but this was not always so. There were some who expressed concern when the project was launched. Despite this criticism, one man stood above all others in his faith in the future of the province.”
There is a distinct sense of nostalgia in much of the talk around Bennett’s time: a time, presumably, when leaders got things done instead of having to wring their hands over opposition. Over in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason characterizes this version of the past thusly:
“Building dams in B.C. used to be a relatively straight-forward procedure. Governments did not need to worry about constitutional challenges to their authority. Or spend years trying to broker deals that would make those affected by the project happy.
“It was an era that some recall fondly as the good old days.”
But this is only one version of history. The mid-twentieth century wasn’t the good old days for everyone. Yes, government could build major projects without court fights, but that’s because the 1940s and 50s was a time when the notion of First Nations rights were all but non-existent. It was a time when over 1,000 children were starved in residential schools for the sake of “science”.
So noticeably absent from the talk of Bennett’s visionary dams are things like the forced relocation of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, who lost their homes and way of life and were moved to an isolated reserve and only recently received any form of compensation.
Here’s the story of another dam built in the “good old days“:
“When the Kenney Dam opened in 1954, it turned the Nechako River into an enormous reservoir, flooding a significant part of the Dakelh territories. The Cheslatta people were displaced ‘with little or no warning, [they were] forced to flee the rising waters and watch[ed] as their community’s hunting grounds, trap lines, and burial sites disappear[ed].’
This is not the distant past. Remains from the burial ground still occasionally wash up in these waters, an ongoing reminder of the utter lack of respect and attention given to an entire community of people whose existence is an inconvenient footnote in the visionary, province-building narrative of the past.
a cross in Cheslatta Lake
Look, it’s complicated. I recognize that British Columbia as we know it may not exist without these projects, that we all use energy produced by these projects, and that we need energy to come from somewhere in the future. Some people say a new dam is necessary, others don’t. That’s not what this post is about.
My point is this: in having these discussions, it’s important to remember the past is not as clean as the simplified “grand vision” narrative would have you believe. It’s messy and uncomfortable. There were very real negative consequences for real people, and just as the energy from these dams is still flowing, so too is economic and social fallout for the people they displaced. The legacy cuts both ways. And we need to look at history holistically- the good and the bad- when using its example to make plans for the future.
One of the trending topics on Twitter right now is #2014In5Words. My choice:
“In Case You Missed It”.
Google searches for ICYMI since 2004
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ICYMI is primarily found as a prefix to a Tweet or Facebook post. It’s used when someone is re-posting something they shared earlier- the acknowledgement that yes, you may have seen this before, but I’m posting it again in case you missed it.
I think of ICYMI as the flipside of another term created by social media: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. Just as FOMO describes the anxiety people have that they’ll miss someone else’s awesome thing, ICYMI comes from the fear that other people will miss our awesome thing.
Once upon a time I would write a blog post like this one and just assume people would see it. They had bookmark bars or RSS readers that they used to catch up on stories from a few people they were interested in. Maybe they’d come every day, maybe every week, but they’d come without me having to work too hard for their attention.
In 2014, that version of the internet is gone. More and more news organizations and independent outlets are building their strategies around pushing their content to people on social networks, primarily Facebook but also through Twitter and others. And posting just once isn’t enough. Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm and Twitter’s lightning-fast speed means you have to be strategic: post at the right time, with the right headline, reaching the right people. Screw up and few people will see it and even less will pay attention. In Case You Missed It is a way of hedging your bets.
There is a backlash to all this. The slow web movement, exemplified by the things like email newsletters, ~tilde.club and even a return to personal blogging are all driven in part by the desire for those quieter days when we could hear and be heard without being drowned in a series of quizzes and listicles and photos of puppies.
But the audiences for those quiet parts of the web is low compared to the carnival going on elsewhere. If you have a thought that goes beyond 140 characters, put it in a Twitter essay or screenshort because lord knows no one’s leaving the stream to spend any time digesting what you have to say. And if you’re posting something on Facebook, put as much information as possible in your headline because that’s all most people will read anyways.
At the beginning of this year, I took on my most ambitious creative and journalistic project yet. Hours of interviews, archival tape, stories and sounds, painstakingly edited together over the course of weeks to create a radio series that is probably my proudest professional achievement. When it was all packaged up and ready to be heard, I put it online and then I posted it to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr where it was up against memes and selfies and breaking news. I had no guarantees that even the people who had chosen to follow me on Twitter or were my friends on Facebook would see it because things just go by so fast.
So throughout the year I posted it again. And again. And again.
In case you missed it.