This week, I attended the Third Coast Audio Conference in Chicago, IL. Some of you were there, some of you were not. I wanted to do a quick wrap-up of what it was like for me.
If you don’t know what the TCAF is, this is how they describe it:
We also organize a bi-annual conference where audio makers from around the world gather to share skills, experiences, and philosophies, and to build new collaborations. And to dance.
I’d say it’s a collection of public radio and podcast producers, editors, and creators, as well as some of us a bit on the fringes.
If you want to hear what some of it is like, past conferences were archived here.
I wanted to meet other people who are making podcasts, and start feeling out what I wanted to do next with podcasting, and maybe lend some help to people who had audio and technical needs. I also wanted to see some of the sessions they were hosting.
First, I’ll talk about the sessions and what I thought, then on to some of the people and other experiences.
Journalism and Storytelling: Frenemies? – This was somewhat of an ethics panel with Roman Mars, Brooke Gladstone, and Andrea Silenzi. Boring, right? No, and they even noted how boring these kinds of panels could be. They mentioned a question that came up in a previous talk, about whether or not it was right to use sheep sounds that weren’t recorded at the time, and unfortunately, they got into that with another piece (gunshots were the new sheep). Other than that, it was a good and interesting talk.
Making News Stories Good Stories – One of my issues was that the conference didn’t always have something I was interested in, but has several topics at the same time I wanted to see. This is not a fault of the conference, but I wound up missing out on a few talks I wanted to see. This one was outside my core, and not something I would have gone to had there been something else I wanted to see. I am glad I went, as I got a lot out of this talk. Much of it was about how to approach your work with ways to make it more interesting and fun than straight interviews and reporting. Due to hunger and how hot it was in the room, I had to leave early, but I wish I had seen it all. I was surprised in a good way with this talk.
Sound Design 101 – This one was about the philosophies two audio-rich shows have about making their shows. Public radio has an ongoing argument about if the use of “sound” (music, effects, foley) is acceptable or not, or to what degree. It was interesting to hear what the creators of The Heart and Love + Radio thought. Mostly, I took it as permission to create what you heard, to the degree you wanted, and that combining multiple sounds could get you something more rich than using the first thing you come to. Also (and this came up later), experiment.
Getting to Yes: The Art of the Pitch – This was interesting to me, in part because it is so outside my world of operating. I have never pitched a story (although I have pitched a podcast, and that went well) to a show, and my current plan doesn’t involve pitching. But to see other people pitch and hear the criticisms and thoughts from a panel of professional producers (Bob Carlson of Unfictional, Leda Hartman of Latino USA, and Jamie York from Radiolab) was interesting. I felt like I got some insight out of it. I got to chat with Jamie a little afterwards, and that was interesting. I mostly wanted to see how the themes of their shows and how audio-centric (or maybe the audio potential) a piece was affected their pitch consideration (does this sound like an audio rich story? What can you bring to the table in terms of sounds?). Also, he said that enthusiasm could overcome other factors in a pitch. After I heard that, I wanted to test him on it.
Building Worlds of Sound – I knew I was going to be interested in this one, but I didn’t realize how much. Patrick Balthrop (@gameaudioguy) is a sound designer that works for video games. Big video games. He talked about his techniques and how he gathered sound, as well as his philosophical ideas on what he did. I wanted to talk to him more after the session, but we never crossed paths. He mentioned some software he used (Kyma was one, Reaktor got name-checked), but said that this might have been too nerdy for the audience. As far as I was concerned, he could have gotten nerdier. I loved this talk.
Three Shows/Three Techniques – This one broke down the sound and story structure of three very different and popular shows, This American Life, Radiolab and the NPR news magazine (like Morning Edition or All Things Considered). The presenter was late to start this one, and I had an UNconference to get to at the lunch break (more on this in a bit), but what I saw and heard was really interesting. She described how the small changes in style (she described them as small, but they seemed pretty big) affected the sound of the show. The biggest takeaway from this was “Process is destiny in radio.” What she meant by that was the way you make your show will inform how the show sounds. A looser process of recording in studio or the WAY you gather tape (instead of just what tape you gather) will directly affect the sound of your show. She said to understand all three models, then play around with them. In the end, she showed how she combined all three models, and what the outcome was. I didn’t get to stay for that part, unfortunately.
The Amazing Radio Vertikalisator – This one was weird, but good. The host, Rikke Houd, had drawn a radio time machine, that was designed to make decisions on how your story is told. I can’t do the talk justice, but the concept of where to place the author, scenes, narrator, interviews and more in various planes (distant, medium, close) in terms of style could be played with, and the “machine” would help with that. After the talk, no one had questions for a bit. What I realized shortly after was that I had questions for myself about the style of what I wanted to make, and this talk had given me some tools to answer those questions, ones I didn’t even know existed yet. After, I went back and told Rikke that.
Looking back on all the sessions, I got more out of them than I thought I would initially. As I’m not (yet) a storytelling driven podcaster, I didn’t think I would have much use for some of the topics. I was pleasantly wrong about that.
The last session was Nancy Updike giving the keynote address. She gave examples of “bad” in radio and storytelling that were interesting and good (well done and funny, much of the time). It was interesting, but I was a little burned out on sitting in sessions all day, and ready to be done. I did ask about the This American Life “This Week” podcast they had talked about, but she couldn’t give me an answer. At least I finally got to ask the question.
Another question was asked by Luis from Vocolo.org, but is was more challenging. He wanted to know how independent producers were supposed to get their work heard if they weren’t getting picked up by the This American Lifes, Radiolabs, NPRs of the public radio world. You could sense his frustration, and I really wanted to talk to him afterwards (hopefully, I’m doing justice here what he had to say).
I got my chance after most everyone had gone to dinner, when he sat down at a table next to me to charge his phone. We had a fascinating conversation. It was friendly but bold. Intense He had interesting things to say, and I had some interesting things for him. At the end, it was the best thing to happen to me at the conference. Luis was inspiring with his ideas and passion, and I think he has a few big things coming. I don’t want to talk about everything we talked about – I leave that up to him if he wants to share – but some of it was pretty awesome. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.
A few other things:
- I posted an UNconference topic (basically, want something to talk about over lunch? post the topic and a table will be given) about Audio for Podcasting. One or two people asked what it as about, but then moved on. Right when I was able to give up, Meradith sat down with questions about what gear to get. I was really fun to help someone in this way. I was grateful to be able to provide some help and ideas on what to get.
- The first day had a vegetarian lunch called the Namaste lunch. I couldn’t think of a more public radio lunch than that.
- I signed up for AIR (the Association of Independents in Media). I was on the fence before. I almost did it after I attended the live HowSound in Boston, but I wasn’t quite convinced it was right for me. After meeting more people associated with AIR, and talking to all the people at the conference, I knew I wanted to be a part of what was going on in a more direct way. The decision was easy after that. I hope I get to meet more people making cool things, and have the opportunity to help them, and for them to help me.
- Race was a big topic at the conference, with a diversity meetup, several diversity UNconverences, and and two sessions of Audio Code Switching: Tackling Race on the Radio. It’s a touchy subject, and I steered clear of the sessions, partially because there were other things I wanted to attend, and partly because I didn’t want to get into that heavy of a discussion. I don’t think I was prepared for it. I heard after that they were very good sessions, and some of the tweets I saw after talked about how good it was. I will certainly listen to the archives when they are posted.
- Friday, the first day of the conference, was a rough one for me. I was late getting there, missed the panels, knew almost nobody, and wound up roaming the crowd but not meeting anyone. Part of the problem was how I was dressed. I was wearing what most men at the conference were wearing, but not what I usually wear. I changed that for Saturday and Sunday (and beat traffic with plenty of time), and everything changed. I had my swagger back, and felt more comfortable. Mind you, NO ONE dressed like me, and I wonder how out of place I looked (and really, not that I care).
- Yes, I was the guy in the hockey jersey. Hello.
- Hey, it’s Rob Byers, the loudness guru. It was great to finally meet him.
- I didn’t take as many photos as I wanted, but that wasn’t the point of the conference. I did learn that not all screens are easy to accurately photograph. Although they are interesting, I didn’t get good shots of what was being shown at the Three Shows /Three Techniques session. Good thing I took notes.
- Meeting people at these kinds of things is always a little hard at first. But one easy way to do it is (and was) simply to walk up to a table and ask if they were interested in meeting new people. I never was told no. Also, if someone was using a piece of gear, I asked how they liked it. That was a simple way to start a conversation. I even helped a few people out this way. If someone asked an equipment-related question in a session, I would try to catch them immediately after and see what their gear needs were. Sometimes, I could make a helpful suggestion, sometimes it was illuminating in what a person’s needs really were, rather than what I thought their needs would be.
- Another thing I did when I wanted to say hi to people who’s work I liked was to simply say, “Hi, I really enjoy your work.” If they wanted to talk, they could. If they didn’t, or weren’t available, I wasn’t taking them away from something or they could easily beg off. 90% of the time, I got in a conversation with the person I had approached. Avery Truffelman was one that comes to mind here. I chatted briefly with her about a question she had asked in a session, but started simply with “I enjoy the work you guys do.” I like to give that complement. It’s simple and straightforward, honest and nice. If you find yourself in a situation where you want to say something to someone you admire, who is famous, who has “fans,” give it a shot. “I enjoy your work” just feels right.
- I got my hug from Roman Mars for donating to the Radiotopia Kickstarter. He hugged a guy in a hockey jersey. I hope it was at least a little bit awkward for him.
- There were people I wanted to talk to that I missed. I wanted to talk to Brendan Baker of Love + Radio and Kaitlin Prest of The Heart about combining audio clips in sound design. I wanted to ask a few questions of Alix Spiegel about the ways she sees play in the process of creating a show. I wanted to ask Brooke Gladstone a few things about the ethics panel topics. I wanted to talk a bit more to the woman from Planet Money who’s name I did not get more about the sound of the show and the way it’s changed. Some of the reason was time, some was how busy everyone was at the conference. But I feel like I could get in contact with them at any time, since at the conference, everyone was very open.
- Looking over the list of attendees we got, I see that Zoe Chase of Planet Money was there. I thought I heard her ask a question in one of the sessions. I would have told her I love her voice (it came up on an episode of Tape), because I do. She always sounds really passionate.
I could probably go on, but this would become really unwieldy, which it probably is already. I might have more to say about it later.
Final thoughts, I don’t think I’m done thinking about this conference, or the people I met. Much like good radio, it will roll around in my head for a while. There were a lot of people who made the conference for me. I hope I helped make it a better conference for a few people. I’m really excited to see what happens next.