Monday, 23 April 2012

The story of how "To the Heart of it" came together

A few months ago I stood up to tell a story at a the Spark London Open Mic that takes place upstairs at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. I hadn't prepared the story in advance. I hadn't intended to tell a story. I was moved to tell my story by some of the other stories that I'd heard.

I can't now remember the specific theme of the night, although from the stories I can remember it must have been something like "Parents".

I stood in front of the audience with a dry mouth, banged my teeth on the microphone, looked out at the audience and started to tell my unprepared story. It came to me as I spoke it and it went in different directions than I'd expected.

It was a true story, made up of real memories. But I told them in a sequence that I hadn't put together before. The thoughts about them and connections I made between them were a surprise to me.

The story was about my Dad's mortality. Something I've been acutely aware of since I was 6 years old. All my life my Dad has always been an "old man". He had both a heart attack and a quadruple heart bypass whilst I was growing up.

I ended the story talking about my podcast Getting Better Acquainted. I've recorded conversations with both my parents about who they are, and significantly who they were before I was born, for the my weekly podcast series. To my surprise I found myself urging the audience to talk to their parents while they still can.

The story was over. The audience clapped.

Later I realised I'd missed a big part of it out. I hadn't even mentioned the heart bypass.

This was a good thing. It didn't fit and I'd edited it out. It was a whole other story.

Above is a conversation I had with Joanna Yates who runs Spark London. We go into detail about what the night does amongst lots of other things.

A week later I received an mp3 of the story. This file contained the genesis of two ideas. Or maybe developments.

One was a song. When I sat down with Hayley Gullen to plan the new album by our band The Reactionaries  this story came to mind. Our album is called 'Bouncy, Poppy Songs About Death' and the idea of talking to your parents seemed to me an upbeat yet challenging topic for a pop song.

Before starting to write the song I listened back to the the mp3. I wrote lots of notes about the story and ideas that sprang from the story. I fashioned some of the best ones into lyrics, came up with a melody, wrote the rest of them to this melody using the notes.

The song is a long song now but it was so much longer then. I wrote the song on a retreat with my writing group and this meant that I played it to a room full of writers. They critiqued it pretty much as they would a short story or a poem. When the verses were on the chopping block it became clear that the heart attacks weren't where the heart of the song was. It's so strange how that can happen, the thing you were chasing turns out not to be what you find. The heart of the song was in the moment that I woke up in the night and realised that death might be nothingness and was comforted by my father, and the time when he read to me the Lord of the Rings. Which is a challenge, finding a way of making a song be about the Lord of the Rings but not have the annoying connotations that songs about the Lord of the Rings suggests. I hope I navigated that successfully. It feels like I did but some things you only find out when you give them over to the audience. That's when you find out if you are speaking to more people than yourself.

The second thing that came from telling the spontaneous true story at Spark London was a desire to tell the other story. The part I'd missed out. And luckily it fitted with a theme for the curated Spark London night that they hold at the Cafe Canal Theatre on the first Monday of every month. It's not an open mic so the stories are planned, and to an extent crafted, before they are told live. You submit your stories to Joanna Yates. They are always looking for stories. If you have some and live in London then why not tell them. This is her email:

So I submitted my story for a night with the theme of  The Kindness of Strangers. It was about how I spent the day when my dad was having open heart surgery. The people who were kind to me that day weren't strangers exactly, but they were people who I'd found out were different from my idea of who they were. All three "strangers" are very dear to me and have been guests on GBA. Owain recorded a conversation with me. Steve features in the Cardiff Special and I hope to record a full episode with him later this year. My sister Jo's conversation went out the other week.

I recorded her GBA after I'd told both Spark London stories. Near the end of it we found ourselves talking about the details of Dad's first heart attack. As a big chunk of the rest of the family were coming over that night I suggested we continue this discussion with them on mic. I just had a moment where I got a sense of the shape of the GBA special that it would become. A few weeks later more family came to stay and so I recorded their side of the collective story. I took these conversations, mixed them with both Spark Stories and the new song and made this:

GBA inspired both Spark stories. The Spark stories inspired GBA. The project is really creating itself now.

Seeing us all together in this episode ties up the relationships of that side of the family nicely. One strand of the show is a kind of family album, an audio portrait of my family. It isn't the focus of the show but it is one element. I am collecting these episodes in their own playlist.

Another important element of this episode is friendship. The friendship you hear between the family. The friendship that is suggested in the way everyone speak Sue who is all praised by all the family at some point. (I've since then recorded a conversation with Sue which will come out on GBA  in the future.)  In the kindness of Owain and Steve friendship. And lastly in the friendship that I have with Liz, who is a much more recent friend but a very, very dear one. Her episode of GBA was one of the early ones. It's really good but it may have been missed by latecomers.

Liz was the outside ear for the rough cut of this episode. Not being a member of the family she could let me know if it would communicate more widely with audiences. Her notes were essential to the show, they shaped the episode very much, not just because of the structural and framing suggestions she gave me, but because her own story is one where she wasn't able to talk to one of her parents as much as she would have liked to. Remembering that there isn't always that choice, that we are all lucky for every conversation we manage to cram in with our parents, and with everyone we love, especially if we manage to have real conversations where we talk to each other and not at or around each other.

I asked my dad about how he felt about the episode when I was sitting with him in his flat having a cup of tea the week after it had aired and he said it made him think about his father, what they'd spoken of, and what they hadn't. My grandfather died when Dad was very young, a long time before I existed. He died of tuberculosis when my dad was serving in the army during the second world war.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence" an appropriate quote from a blog by @NathalieLeonora:

"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

Calvin Coolidge

I was staring down both barrels of admin that are about to shoot away my sunday afternoon and this quote made me feel much better about it. Thanks Counting Zeroes

Sunday, 8 April 2012

@GBApodcast extract selection help!

Hello people who listen to Getting Better Acquainted,

I am submitting some extracts from 2011's episodes of GBA to something and I was wondering if any of you could recommend episodes or even bits of episodes that stood out to you?

Which episodes did you enjoy the most?

Was there anything people have said in episodes that have stood out or stuck with you?

Do you have favourite GBA moments and what are they if you do?

We are specifically talking about episodes that aired in 2011 which means anything in episode 1 - episode 36. Although feedback on other episodes is still welcomed :-)

I'd be so grateful for any suggestions. You can reply on this blog, tweet me, comment on facebook or email me at GBApodcast[at]gmail[dot]com with any suggestions, responses or thoughts.

Thanks for your time.


Saturday, 7 April 2012

Comment on "In Defence of podcasts (even if they don't make money)"

This is a comment I made in the comment thread of this article:

So we’re talking here about comedy podcasts, pop culture podcasts, news podcasts, tech podcasts, educational podcasts, interview podcasts and music podcasts. This shows some of the range of what is out there.

Then you have 3 strands of content:

1. Podcasts made independently by people who are complete unknowns
2. Podcasts made independently by people who have an existing brand to draw audiences in
3. Podcasted versions of existing radio shows

In my view all of the above are great. Together they can form an on demand user created audio world. You get to choose your own radio station. And importantly you get to mix up “amateur” and “professional” content, both can, and should learn from each other, and both offer much to the listener. You have to seek out what you like which is actually one of the barriers not mentioned in this thread. Lots of people talk of not liking what is out there, but really they mean what they can find out there, since podcasts are not all long and not all anything. Sure it is an outlet for long form and free form audio. And I think audiences do desire long things and improvisational things. But that isn’t all that podcasting is.

One thing podcasting needs are filters. The tech stuff is getting better but people will still be overwhelmed by having to go through all the material on their own to find what works for them. Lots of people don’t want to have to search out shows they want them given to them by a reliable filter, such as a TV Channel. That is what is really great about the development of podcasting networks and of shows that review and recommend other podcasts, that stuff is important to mainstream audiences. And niche audiences too come to think of it.

In terms of the tech, app culture is helping to make podcasting more mainstream, now with apps like Stitcher Smart Radio there is less transferring and less hassle for you to programme your own stations. Smart phones are very mainstream and people have learned through them to download and use apps. They don’t consider that hard the way they do searching on iTunes. This means that it doesn’t matter that apple don’t really give a shit about the medium, we basically don’t (or won’t) need them anymore.

The genre that is missing from my list and from the discussion on this thread that will help take podcasting into the mainstream is drama. There are few great audio dramas or narrative serials out there, or at least none that I’ve managed to find yet, none with the same profile as the other genres. Most of podcasting has settled into conversations or documentaries. Even within comedy podcasting this is the case, although the sketch comedies do lead the way on this. Drama and serial narrative stories are genres that capture the public’s imagination. They also require more writing time, more performance development, more editing, and are generally a much harder beast to create to a high standard from an independent or DIY perspective. But they will come eventually I think.

Podcasting does offer new tones that you can’t find in other media. It is more intimate, more interactive, unmediated, due to how it is done and how it is consumed. That’s why free flowing conversation has become its strongest strand. This isn’t available in the same way anywhere, not even on talk radio where the pressures and structure is very different. Two people in a room is very different from two people in front of mics in a studio.

The potential DIY element of podcasting is something that feels fresh and new. It can take us into personal spaces, from the dressing rooms of the famous to the bedrooms of the unfamous, and to so many places in between, catching people in moments that are a world away from what you capture on TV or on most radio. The microphone can go anywhere and because podcasts can be fully independent often there is no one telling the podcaster where to take it and how to do it. They figure out their own rules on their own and so hit on different solutions to the ones we’re used to.

I make a podcast that tries to explore these elements of the form. It’s a series of conversations with people I know, from my closest friends and family, to someone I met once at a party. It’s tagline is “There are lots of shows about famous people this show is about the rest of us.”

Or search for it on iTunes or Stitcher under its name Getting Better Acquainted.

It’s one of a few independent audio shows that I work on. None of them make any money. I have a day job. They all cost lots of time and quite a bit of money to produce. But I love the form. I love the freedom. I love connecting directly with audiences. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t be able to do all of them more and better if I could figure out the monetization problem. But I’m happy to keep pondering that problem as I work on making great audio.

Getting rid of the barriers between creator and audience is a wonderful thing and something that both creators and audiences want. Not all the time sure. We still want lots of mystery out there too. But in a world where so much is mediated, where so much is impersonal, where we feel fragmented, having this direct link, cutting out all the middle people, is a powerful and exciting thing. And that is what podcasting has to offer.