In Praise Of The Audio Slideshow – Kevin Marsh, BBC College of Journalism

Before I joined the BBC the one news programme that I would always try and catch was the World at One on BBC Radio 4.  It had in Nick Clarke the best news presenter and in Kevin Marsh the best Editor. Kevin went on to take charge of the Today Programe, arguably Britain’s most important current affairs programme and sadly Nick Clarke died of cancer in November 2006. The BBC lost one its great broadcasters.

Kevin is now Editor of the BBC’s College of journalism. He writes one of the best blogs about journalism both on the BBC website and off it.

You can imagine then how chuffed duckrabbit was that he used our recent talk at DIGITAL STORYTELLING ’10 to examine just how kick ass audio slideshows can be.   I don’t think anyone has quite so successfully nailed why they offer something different to video, and why the still photograph can never be replaced by the moving image as a tool for making people think. They both work in such different ways.  Kevin has kindly allowed duckrabbit to republish the post.

Of all the sessions at Digital Storytelling ’10 – an event in London on 19 March (co-organised by the College) – that is/was about … well, digital storytelling, the one presented by Benjamin Chesterton of duckrabbit in praise of the audio slideshow was a stand-out.

Duckrabbit is a production team that focuses on journalism and advocacy touching, mostly, development and human rights issues … it also does stuff that is just, well, beautiful. And one of their most effective tools is the audio documentary illustrated by – usually very high quality – still images. The audio slideshow.

As Benjamin Chesterton said, it’s both a new language and a very old one – and it’s one that’s much better developed in the US and amongst non-broadcasters than it is here in the UK and in (former) broadcasting organisations. Take a look at Interactive Narratives for some recent good, and bad, examples.

The audio slideshow suffers from a default perception that it’s neither one thing nor the other; something less than video while tainting the purity of audio. One questioner at the conference put it succinctly: “Why would you choose a slideshow when you could use video?”

Benjamin Chesterton’s response: with moving video, the viewers eye is centred – broadly, locked to the framing of the video camera. With still images, the eye roams. It stops and moves and stops and moves. Frozen gestures and expressions kick off a cognitive process – thinking – that moving images simply never do.

Something similar is true of good audio. The best audio blends reportage (‘being me, being here’) with the kind of aural cues that make audiences think and wander off down their own pathways while still engaging with the sound.

Put the two together – great audio documentary and great still images – and you have something that is potentially MORE than great storytelling.

“Most storytellers want to get people to think” was a striking line from this session. Would that it were true … true about journalism, at least. You’d need to add the phrase ‘… like them’ to apply it to much modern journalism.

The point about audio slideshows is that they’re not storytelling – at least, not in the conventional journalistic sense. You can, of course, build a traditional story in audio and images … but why waste what you have?

Take one of duckrabbit’s pieces of work with Medecins sans Frontieres, Condition Critical – a suite of shows beginning with Francoise’s Story. This, and the other stories in the suite, don’t so much include excluded voices (actually, traditional journalism is much better at that than its critics allege) as lift those voices out of the constraints of formal storytelling, the straitjacket of a single beginning, middle and end; an external, journalist-imposed conclusion.

You, the viewer/listener bring your own narrative arc – or none at all – to the audio in the same way as, and at the same time as, your eyes roam the images. It is engaging and involving – and very, very personal. We will all see and hear something in the shows that no-one else will.

The antithesis of the story – and all the better for that.

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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