Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The powers and problems of the audio slideshow

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 1, 2009

Match the absorbing power of a beautifully crafted photograph, with the intimacy of some crisp, clear audio and you have a potent force.

Yes, the audio slideshow has fast become a rising medium for multimedia journalists, and it’s unique because it’s been born from the digital revolution and not threatened by it. It only exists in digital form.

If you haven’t heard of an audio slideshow, the name pretty much gives it away: a sequence of photographs, soundtracked by audio, usually of a person speaking, plus music and “actuality” where possible.  I’ve been making them for about a year now, and spent last week both in meetings with radio producers about them and in classrooms teaching students about them.

I figured it’s time to give them some blog-respect.

The powers of the audio slideshow

I decided to show my photojournalism students some audio slideshows last week as an introduction to the medium. Most of them had never seen one before, but they were completely engaged by The New York Times’ sublime “1 in 8 million” and Duckrabbit’s new MSF project. Why?

01. the powerful combination

For nearly a century each, the mavens of both radio and photography have raved about the immense power of their particular medium.

Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers and infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution

Ansel Adams

A great advantage of the aural medium over print lies in the sound of the human voice – the warmth, the compassion, the anger, the pain and the laughter. A voice is capable of conveying much more than reported speech.

Robert McLeish

On their own great radio and great photographs pack a real punch. Think of the famous images of the D-Day landings, the Vietnam War or 9/11. Think of the lush vividness of Ed Murrow’s This is London reports, the intimacy of This American Life and the solemn colour in Richard Dimbleby’s report from Belsen.

Put together they hold equal if not greater power. Either through being able to see something you’re hearing, or to hear the richness of the voice of someone you’re looking at.

02. it’s not video #1

We hear all too often how video is the medium. How moving pictures are the ultimate way to tell stories and how film is more arresting that anything before it.

Now this may be true. But let me tell you if you don’t know already: video is also really hard to do. Don’t get me wrong, radio, print, podcasts, flash interactives, photography – they’re all really hard to get right. But video is another beast, and you can sweat piss, and still come out with a ropey product.

I’m not saying audio slideshows are easier…they’re less time consuming, less brainpower consuming – meaning you can focus on getting it really good, rather than just getting OK pictures.

03. it’s not video # 2

Equally, video is not only demanding on the sanity of the artist, but on the story too. Video stories have to be told in certain ways. We need sequences and visual grammar, and so storytellers must usually bend or break their craft to fit it into a 720×526 screen.

Again radio and photography are more flexible. And as a result, the audio slide show is not bound by the same rules and formulas which TV finds so hard to break free from.

04. cost of production

In terms of the kit you need, audio slideshows are cheaper to produce. A good enough Digital SLR camera will set you back hundreds, sure. But an audio recorder of a good standard need only cost you just over a hundred. And the editing kit – well the standard seems to be the Soundslides Software, which goes for just over £50.

And that’s a snip of your video costs.

The weaknesses of the audio slideshow

Now we’re seeing lots of audio slideshows being made. And some of them are pretty awesome. Websites like the New York Times and The Guardian have their own online sections dedicated to them. Hoorah. But they are still not gaining huge traction. How come?

01. it’s not video

Aha, this again. Well, sort of. Video’s popularity relies on several things: the fact we were all brought up on television and crave the moving picture, the glamour associated with television production also rubs off on video; we’re led to believe video is more real. And technology is forcing video to be popular with more and more smaller cheaper cameras.

This instantly gives the audio slideshow a disadvantage.

“What? The picture’s don’t move? This sucks!”

02. it’s slow

Video and television are a bit like crap magicians. If their trick is no good, they can stun you with a quick flash or spark. They do this with fast cuts, fancy transitions and montages.

Audio slideshows aren’t like that. They’re a lot slower. One image will stay on screen for 5 or more seconds, before slowly dissolving into another. In video, we see images lasting just a matter of frames.

To some, this lack of visual ecstacy makes audio slideshows appear duller, when really they’re not.

03. saboteurs

A lot of audio slideshows, especially in the mainstream media, aren’t very good. I wondered for a long time why this was. Why did the audio and pictures not match up? Why was the editing so bad?

Then I heard one photojournalist at an expo in London. He’s been trying audio slideshows out, and I asked him why more generally, many slideshows out there weren’t very good. He said he knew cases of newsroom journalists resenting being given multimedia work.

“They make it shit on purpose, so they won’t be asked to do it again” he said.  Incredible, really. A relief though, because it means just because so many slideshows are dull, does not mean the medium does not have potential.

04. the name

This came up in a meeting with radio producers in London last week.

“Audio Slideshow” is a crap name. It ain’t web 2.0 that’s for sure, and conjours an image of your aunty and uncle showing you their holiday snaps. Worst of all,  if people have not heard of one before, they can tell straight away what it is from the name, and draw their own (usually negative conclusions).

Compare that to the emergence of the podcast. It’s name is unusual and not self explanatory, so you’re forced to listen to one to investigate.

So here’s the deal: audio slideshows need a new name. Let’s find one.

I’m creating a poll to vote on a new name. It starts with the first idea I came up with, and you can add your own suggestions too. If you have an idea, put it in the comments box and I’ll add it to the poll manually. Everyone can then vote on the best ones. Ready? Here goes:

And while you’re thinking, here are some awesome examples of [INSERT NAME HERE] out there:

New York Times: 1 in 8 Million

Duckrabbit: Praying for the Rain

Ciara Leeming: Born Free

Eileen Mignoni: Facing Deportation

John D McHugh: Memorial

Adam Westbrook: Hirst v UK

BBC News/Paul Kerley: Tommies’ Tales

Nick Hand: Slowcoast

Resolve Blog’s coverage of audio slideshows

6×6: audio

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fifth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

audio

Audio is one of the most powerful mediums available to the multimedia journalist. Whether its radio, podcasts, on video  or audio slideshows, audio brings a piece to life. So why is it almost always an afterthought? Too many good films and audio slideshows have been let down by bad quality audio. Here’s 6 tips to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

01. let sound breathe

…as soon as a voice comes out of the speakers, the listener attempts to visualise what he hears to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice…unlike where the pictures are limited to the size of the screen, radio pictures are any size you care to make them.

Robert McLeish, Radio Production

In other words, with audio your limit is the size of the imagination. Last time I checked, that was pretty big.

So for the love of God, show audio some respect. First off a piece of audio does not have to consist entirely of voices with no gaps in between.  In fact that sucks. When you’re out recording, take a moment to listen for sounds – in radio it’s called actuality and it is a key ingredient in bringing sound to life. Doing a story about some people on a boat? We want to hear the water lapping up against the bow. Is your scene in a cafe? Let’s hear the cups clinking, the chatter of everyday conversation, the whoosh! of the coffee machine in action.

This more often than not recorded as wildtrack. After filming, taking photos, interviewing, whatever, record at least 60 seconds of actuality. It’ll make editing a lot easier too.

Let the audio breathe. Give it a few seconds just to play in your listeners imagination and don’t talk over it. It’ll do more to paint a picture than overladen voice over will.

Marantz PMD620

Marantz PMD620

02. invest in a good microphone

Audio is so often an afterthought for video and photo journalists alike. This is mostly manifested in using a crap microphone. VJs – don’t use your camera’s onboard mic unless you’re lucky to have something nice like a Canon XL2, Sony EX3, Z1 etc. If you can, buy an external microphone to attach to your cameras horseshoe. For interviews, it is worth investing in a lapel mic.

Rodemic do some pretty decent offers, including a camera mic for under £100 ($180). For radio journalists, or photo journalists doing audio slideshows, there are a good range of digital audio recorders you can look at. The Marantz PMD620 is small, easy to use and so reliable you’d let it babysit your kids. I took it out to Iraq earlier this year and it was great. It starts at around £300/$500.

The Edirol R-09HR (£211/$349)  has had produced some great sounding audio for freelancer Ciara Leeming and journalists are raving about the Olympus DS-40(£82/$135)

03. get the mic in close

Microphones do not have selective hearing like our ears do: they won’t pick out the voice across the room you’re pointing them at. So get in close to your interviewee – really close – like a little under their chin (if they’re ok with that). It eliminates a lot of  background noise, like air conditioning, traffic, squeaks of chairs and all that. And more often than not it gives the recording a richness and an intimacy.

Compare, for example, the effect of these two recordings: the first with a mic held too far away in a large room, the other with it right in close.

Another great tip I picked up: if you can, record your interviews outside – it eliminates that shallow echo you get in peoples’ offices and living rooms.

04. let the characters talk

A bit of a personal bugbear this, but often the temptation with multimedia projects is to talk all over them, y’know, like they do on the TV and that. But new media means new ways of doing things. And I think one of the great new trends emerging is the silencing of the journalist/reporter voice over.

If you’ve recorded some great audio for your story, let it breathe – let the characters tell their own story. We don’t need to hear you saying “Angie is a mum of three struggling to make ends meet” when we can hear Angie saying “things are really hard right now, tryin’ to support three kids, y’know, payin’ the bills…every days a struggle.”

This takes some planning in the interview stages – most of all, you need to ask open questions, so your interviewees answers start as full sentences. It has been industry practice for many years to ask interviewees to include your question in their answer:

Why are you finding it so hard to make ends meet?

I’m finding it so hard to make ends meet because….etc.

05. use pauses

If you’re new to using audio, especially if you’re moving from print or photo journalism, the first thing you will notice when you listen back to your interviews is yourself. Going “uhuh, yeah, hmmmm, sure…” all over their answers.

Ask a question – then keep shtum. This pays dividends in some interviews – especially emotional ones – where your interviewee finishes their point. There’s a pause…you would normally fill it by asking a question…but don’t. Stay silent – and let the interviewee fill the pause. It’s a bit mean, but it gets them to reiterate their point, and in the process show what they’re really thinking.

And then keep those pauses in your piece. They are a natural part of speech and often reveal more about your character than their words.

06. take them on a journey

There are times when it’s right to bring yourself into the piece. But try not to use it just for dry voice overs recorded in a studio. Your voice is best when you’re somewhere your audience wants to be, and you can show them what it’s like.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be very descriptive in your writing. Tell people where you are and what you’re doing in vivid detail.

For the best examples, we have to go way back, to the first broadcast journalists:

I began to see what was happening to Berlin. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies-the four thousand pound high explosives-were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad.

And then, as we started down again still held in the light, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly. And the light still held it, and I was very frightened. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate.

Ed Murrow, on a boming raid over Berlin, 1944


Richard Dimbleby

Richard Dimbleby

There were perhaps a 150 of them, all so thin that their skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they’d  never lived at all.  They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.

At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a small fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight.

Richard Dimbleby at Bergen Belsen, 1945


The BBC’s Alan Little is one of the finest radio writers, still alive – here’s his advice:

Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact….beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed.

The final word…

From award-winning multimedia producers Duckrabbit, the combo of a great photographer and a great audio producer:

Many great photographers make really bad audio slideshows because they treat audio as afterthought, or they try to do a voiceover without having any presentation skills. They might as well not bother.

Actually I’d go further then that.  When you put your photos together with poor audio you actually diminish the value of your photos. Good audio is like a bad dog. It gets its teeth into you and won’t let go.

Next time: making things happen!

Choose your multimedia, wisely

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 12, 2009

He chose, poorly

"He chose, poorly"

Video, audio, pictures, timelines, slideshows, maps….multimedia’s great isn’t it? As a journalist it gives you an amazing choice of how to treat a story.

But how many journalists use that choice? And how many chose wisely?

In order to know which medium to use for which story, you must know its strengths and weaknesses; not of the software or  the content – but of the very medium itself.  Because some mediums are only good for some things.

Video

With so much talk about video journalism, it’s not surprising so many journalists take a camera out and shoot whatever they can. I rarely see a big multimedia project without any video in it. And that’s a shame, because video, really, is only good at a couple of things. And bad for some others.

Video/Film/TV whatever you want to call it, is great for showing action. For evoking an emotional response. For creating atmosphere….so use it for this.

But video is bad, really bad, for getting across facts, figures, and complicated arguments. That’s why overloaded documentaries and TV reports are so dull.

Writing about online video’s older, more glamorous sister, television news, BBC journalist Vin Ray says:

“The problem for television news is that it is at once both an immensely powerful medium, and yet an inadequate way of explaining complicated issues in a comprehensive way.

“Academics, sociologists and newspaper columnists the world over have criticised the shortcomings of television news for years, but they have rarely – if ever – come up with a realistic, practical alternative.”

So whatever your story, save the complicated bit for another type of medium. Use video to show us something happening, or make us angry or sad. Video is the ultimate medium though in many ways because – done correctly – it is totally engrossing. We surrender ourselves to it and you can make an impact with video. It’s great to use as an opening gambit to suck your audience in.

Audio

In a world where pictures dominate, the power of radio is often underestimated. This is a mistake though because audio’s power to penetrate the mind is very strong. And don’t forget, while in the US, UK and Europe we may prefer to watch films on our laptops, in the developing world, millions upon millions of people live with a radio by their side.

Still unsure of audio’s power? Robert McLeish sums it up perfectly in Radio Production:

“It is a blind medium but one which can stimulate the imagination so as soon as a voice comes out of the loudspeaker, the listener attempts to visualise what they hear and to create in he mind’s eye the owner of the voice.

“Unlike (video) where the pictures are limited by the size of the screen, radio’s pictures are any size you care to make them”

With the size of most web video players that should hit home even harder. So think: if you haven’t got or can’t get the amazing pictures which show your audience what you want, some good audio interviews and vivid writing can let the audience do the work inside their own head.

And audio’s other strength is the fact it is uni-sensory: you can listen to audio, while doing something else.

Audio weaknesses though are the same as videos: as a temporal medium it is exceptionally bad at explaining complicated issues comprehensively. So again, save it for the emotional/action/umbrella elements of your piece. And it is very reliant on good quality sound – and good voices. This piece by the New York Times is excellent…but weakened by the monotonous drone of the voice over.

If you’re going to use sound, please make sure it’s high quality!

Images

The renaissance in photography thanks to the internet reminds us of how powerful the still image can be.  Of course it’s cheaper and quicker to produce photos for your multimedia project than video or audio; but don’t mistake that with easier. If you’re going to take photographs which have an impact you’re going to need a good SLR, and you’re going to need to know your f-stop from your shutter speed (and, indeed, how they are related!)

So when should you use photographs and slideshows in your work? It’s weaknesses are the same as video – but then you would never use a photograph to convey information. The photo is about that one moment in time, and because of that it is about smacking your  audience across the face with some emotional trout. Use it to make them feel something about your story.

And some great advice from multimedia experts Duckrabbit:

“The point about a still photo is that your eye explores it. When you put too much motion into a slideshow you’re removing the viewers ability to pause and reflect, to explore.

“Slow pans on a big screen look great … but at the small size the images are reduced to on our computer screens the panning looks as rough as a dogs dinner that even the dog refuses to eat.”

Give your audience time to explore your photographs.

Text (and quotes, maps, graphics)

Poor text. The original medium, it’s kind of been given a back seat by those of us too excited by the glitz and glamour of the video camera and the audio recorder.

But text covers the other media’s ass – because it’s the one which can get across all these details, background, statistics; all the things the audio visual mediums are rather poor at.

There’s no escaping it: if you’re going to be a multimedia journalist, you need to be damn good writer; being a great editor, or good voice don’t cut it. So use text to convey the nuts and bolts of your story, but make sure you don’t bore them while you’re doing it.

Maps, tables and graphs are great assistants to this: they can brighten up a page of text and add an element of interactivity. And text too becomes interactive, the moment you put in a hyperlink.

So remember: as a multimedia journalist you have a choice. So use it!