Audio Slideshows: an assignment on new media forms and communities of practice

I decided to study audio slideshows because in the practice of multimedia online journalism, it’s important to choose your tools based on the information you want to communicate.   There is a wealth of content and a story that needs to be told buried in a dusty, moldy vault  at our local public school in Birch Cliff, where I soon plan to launch a community news website.  The school’s 100th anniversary is approaching and I’ve been toying with the idea of exploring the archives for the better part of ten years.  I’ve joined forces with a member of the parent council, Tamara Hermann, who has started digitizing the  old photos, diaries and newspaper clippings and the best way to get them online is through audio slideshows.

I’m also interested in the genre because, as a journalist who’s worked in television for many years, I was intrigued by the concept of audio slideshows in general — why use audio when you can use video?   My first step was to explore the wealth of audio slideshows online in order to determine best practices and find slideshows that work just as well, or better than video, which I blogged about here.

What makes a good audio slideshow?

It was interesting to discover that the criteria for excellence is the same in both television and audio slideshows:  great visuals, compelling characters,  good stories, emotion, lots of natural sound, behind-the-scene access, brevity and innovation.   They key difference,    according to Benjamin Chesterton of BBC Radio and Duckrabbit:  revolves around the way the viewer processes the information:

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.

It’s one thing to blog about best practices and another thing entirely to utilize them yourself, as I discovered as I set about to create my first slideshow.

Do’s and Don’ts

I read extensively about do’s and don’ts from some of the masters of the craft including Paul Kerley and Duckrabbit,  Colin Mulvany and Joe Weiss. I explored the biggest mistakes in creating audio slideshows and identified examples of common problems on my own such as this piece about Irish fog horns which could have benefitted from better pacing.

Communities of Practice

What I had trouble finding, however, was communities of practice in terms of independent forums (as opposed to platform-sponsored) where I could ask questions about the relative merits of Soundslides vs. Vuvox for example.  When I saw that Andy Watt was struggling with the same issue and had established his own Linked In online audio group, I finally completed my Linked In profile, joined his group and asked my questions there. I also attempted to generate discussion through my blog by asking people to recommend other great audio slideshows as well as forums, but met with limited success.

I’m pleased with the content of my first slideshow which can be found here but there are some technical issues which I will address.

Technical Hurdles

Determined to follow the best practices I had researched, I decided not to employ wall–to-wall music and use soundbites to improve pacing.  Once I started editing in Audacity, however, I realized why so many slideshows use music from start to finish because my approach, coupled with a difficult interview, made for a complicated project that took an inordinate amount of time to edit.  At one point I had nine timelines open.

I would have been lost without the excellent Audacity tutorial by Mindy McAdams which ran on the background of my laptop for two days.  I realized towards the end of the edit that I had made a technical error with my attempt to use background audio from the vault — instead of cutting it into the interview I should have opened a tenth timeline. Going back to fix it would have shifted all of the timelines and involved more risk that I was willing to assume so I left it in.

The interview subject is very soft spoken and there were other technical problems with the audio levels that will disappear once I become more familiar with my new Zoom H2 recorder as well as  the audio controls of Audacity.

Although Soundslides is very user friendly, there is lack of flexibility with the platform, particularly in that the photos are up for a uniform length of time and you can’t alter the pacing.  Embedding the project in my blog was very difficult and in the end I could only generate a link through Dropbox.  I’m going to try my next project using Vuvox even though it appears to be more diffifult. (Update on Sept. 2, 2012 – 18 months after I wrote this, the community website is launched and I still can’t upload.  Don’t use Soundslides)

Public Domain Music

One of the problems I had anticipated was finding appropriate music in the public domain but was thrilled to discover that I could use Duke Ellington.   According to my research (here too) anything published prior to 1922 in the US is public domain while the threshold is 70 years in most other countries in the world.

I was also very careful with the copyright of the material in the vault itself.   I joined the Scarborough Historical Society and met with their lead archivist who indicated he had been through the vault and salvaged all of the material required by law for the City of Toronto as well as the Toronto Board of Education.

Assignment 2:  Specialist Portfolio

It is my intent to complete my MA by Practice by launching the Birch Cliff Blog and for my Specialist Portfolio, I plan to create a wealth of audio and video content in order to draw traffic to the site and generate community.

I have only begun to scratch the surface of the history of Birch Cliff and plan to complete several more audio slideshows including:

  • A general history of Birch Cliff featuring the chief archivist of the Scarborough Historical Society
  • A feature about the history of Birch Cliff told through the eyes of elderly residents
  • A feature about schoolwork in the 1920’s based on a remarkable portfolio in the archives by a young student named Leslie Whitford
  • A feature about Birch Cliff and World Wars I and II which (I hope) will tell the stories of students who died in both wars.

The video content will include:

  • A story about environmental protection measures for the significant landmark in our neighbourhood — the Scarborough Bluffs
  • A piece about Rosetta McLean Park.
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One Response to Audio Slideshows: an assignment on new media forms and communities of practice

  1. rochekelly says:

    Hedy, this is fascinating work you’re doing. Bravo -it’s inspiring to see someone who teaches j-school students turn around and take on advancing technology herself. “Why use audio when you can use video?” –that’s exactly how I feel. Chesterton is right…my eyes did roam and process the visuals in the audio slideshow quite differently. Never thought about analyzing it that way…keep blogging, please.

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