Audio, hope chest

Third Coast 2018: Folding an Audio Quilt Into a Hope Chest

 

About three weeks before this year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, two of its organizers (shout-out to Maya Goldberg-Safir and Emily Kennedy) asked if I might want to attend and deliver a Late Night Provocation, one several opening-night, rapid-fire talks meant to challenge, inspire, and ignite the hundreds of audio-makers who converge on the city of Chicago for the festival each year. I waited a couple of days, because even with their offer to waive the cost of registration, I still wasn’t sure I could pull off the flight and the hotel costs. In fact, I was certain I couldn’t. This year has been the most financially unstable of the last five. Hopefully this won’t still be true when the year wraps in December. But it’s very much so in October. I mentioned the offer to my aunt on a phone call a few days after I received it, and as she has done at more times in my adult life than I can count, she told me I shouldn’t miss it, then paid my way there.

Securing professional development opportunities is challenging for freelancers, even more so for single parents. Even we can afford them — and sometimes we can, though rarely without sacrificing something else — it’s hard to attend them if they’re multi-day, out-of-town, and we can’t bring our kids (bringing them compounds the expense and makes it trickier to maximize the learning and networking experiences, since your attention is constantly divided between caring for them and attempt to participate in anything else).

Third Coast, while warm and fuzzy in many ways, is first and foremost a professional development opportunity. I’ve attended once before, back in 2015, and the only in-office audio production job I’ve ever had is one I attained as a direct result of a connection I made at a lunch table there. Just attending and talking to people and exchanging information is deeply valuable, but to be a participant, in any way, can be even more of a game-changer. (I think that will prove to be true for me in the upcoming months, but only time will tell.) I always find myself in the company of people who leave me awestruck. That was no less the case as I rehearsed and waited on line with the rest of the provocateurs.

So with about two weeks from the time I accepted the offer to the opening night of the festival, I started prepping my talk and planning the trip. I was also juggling writing and audio production deadlines (I’m starting to write about culture again. Check here and here.) and parenting and personal stuff.

About a day before the conference, we found out our host hotel was in the throes of a month-long strike and the union and the hotel chain had yet to strike a fair and acceptable agreement. The fate of the festival hung in the balance, as the organizers made the choice to divest from the host hotel as its venue and the hundreds of us who were in route kept refreshing our email to figure out where we would be headed on arrival. New provisions were evolving hourly and for a time, it seemed that the fate of the Late Night Provocations hung in the balance. I didn’t really have time let myself feel anything about that; I’d barely had time to brace myself for the travel and the stage fright. If it wound up not happening, I’d still be there, attending.

For anyone with an ounce of awareness or empathy, it would’ve been difficult to feel disappointment about the conferencing inconvenience while looking into the face of a protesting worker or into the face of a non-union worker who couldn’t afford to forgo the four weeks of wages they’d have to sacrifice to negotiate future gains. For my part, I just kept an ear out for updates. In the end, the Provocations happened after all, but not in the hotel where they’d been originally scheduled. They took place in the cavernous event space where the annual opening night party is held.

There’s no guarantee that I would’ve nailed the onstage sound mix, even if conditions were as favorable as planned. But I definitely flubbed it in the cavern. I think they’re still going to make everyone’s provocations available in podcast form, so if you’re curious about the real-time reading and delivery, you’ll likely be able to hear it then.

But I decided to make a clean version, mixing it the way I heard it in my head. It seemed a fitting move, since my talk, titled, “Folding an Audio Quilt into a Hope Chest,” was all about recreating a world, just as you’d want it to be, for an audience of one. Here it is:

The union and the hotel reached an agreement hours before the festival began. Then, on the first full day, Friday, October 5, a jury delivered a verdict in the LaQuan McDonald murder case. On Saturday, the last official day of the conference, Congress voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. I feel like I’ve never attended a conference or festival at a time when stories like these weren’t breaking, but I can’t recall attending one where life-altering national stories broke back-to-back over the course of a weekend. Stakes seem to be piling high atop one another. Wandering through a convocation of journalists and storytellers is an ideal experience in times like these. You are among people whose ideas and intentions are quick and powerful. You are among people who are awake. You are among those who know enough to be terrified and too much to be histrionic. Even so, it’s still hard to catch our breath, and all I can say, all I can encourage anyone to do, is to find ways to keep themselves and others from fracturing. If the message of the provocation holds any meaning for you, whether you’re an audio-maker or not, I hope it’s that.

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Appearances and Publications, Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

What Women Hear.

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Suppose she awakens at dawn beside a partner with whom she is still in passionate love. What might a woman hear? A subtle symphony of breaths, a nearly imperceptible whimper seeping from the gallows of her beloved’s subconscious. She would know by the pitch of that whimper the nature of her lover’s dream.

Her legs may scissor the rustling cotton sheets until she is out of bed and, in the shower, the towering bricks of her day’s to-dos crash down and drown the noise of pelting water on tile.

She hears herself: No way I can get through this. She hears herself: You can and you’d better.

On her commute, she hears men, erecting themselves and squaring their shoulders, hoping to appear formidable, psyching themselves up with trap tunes through earbuds, with menacing admonitions to anyone who bumps them or scuffs their shoe or dares to change lanes, despite their speeding up to prevent it. She can hear the menace in the blare of a horn.

The woman hears a man’s lewd stare, whether his mouth gives it voice or leaves the work to his bellowing eyes. And she hears herself, shouting it down, whether she uses words gritted aloud or leaves the Back. Up. to her glowering eyes. And at her job, praise sounds faint, or else as cacophonous as critique. Unequivocal praise is the only thing she cannot quite hear.

A no, when delivered to her, will often sound like a door sealing shut. A no, when delivered by her, is often the soft sweep of a door revolving.

She can hear her body, can hear what it longs to house, how it longs to heal. She hearkens to its shifts and its sloughs.

She can hear her uterus thicken and swell as it molds and gathers the cells that make a body. And she, perhaps remembering the ancient, infant sounds inside another woman’s womb, can recognize each knot and gurgle in her own.

It is fitting, then, for women who hear so keenly to congregate in summer and unscrew the lids of their jars, where they’ve collected of thin air all those flittering sounds. And it is powerful beyond measure for us to gather on a single porch, holding each other’s jars to our ears, sharing these secret frequencies that only we can hear.

Werk It! is one such porch, an annual two-day communion in June where women feel less sequestered in solo silos of sound, where we listen to each other distill our processes and confide our uncertainties, where we celebrate the wondrous outcomes of our ever-sharpening skill, the breathtaking innovation that comes of learning to trust our hearts and ideas and our ears.

There, in a room of 150 women, we are told that at least 600 more audio-makers could’ve joined us, that the applications submitted for attendance were endless, that ingenious women are embedded in this work all over the world. And it’s a comfort, not a competition, knowing how many of us are capable of creating works of aural brilliance. For we know acutely what women are forced to listen to as we try to translate for others all the sound only we can hear: the undermining criticism of men; the insidious doubts of bad colleagues; the ultimatums our families or bosses or lovers deliver; crude epithets passed off as sidewalk compliments.

It’s tiresome beyond the porch, and there is no place else where we feel so free to admit it. In that freedom, we replenish each other. With that freedom, we recommend to the women beside us what should be done when we depart. We do not abide tones of apology. We whisper what certainty should sound like. Our ears hustle so, so hard. We hear and we hear and we hear.

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Appearances and Publications, Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Nonfiction

Quick Updates.

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Laura Mvula’s second studio album, The Dreaming Room, dropped yesterday, and you must have it. Go get it. Trust.

It’s been months. I know. And I can’t even spend too much time writing this right now. But I wanted to do a quick round-up of things I’ve been writing and doing lately, in advance of what I hope I’ll have time to write soon: a longer reflective piece.

Here goes:

1. I’ve still been writing. I guess the most notable recent pieces would be the one about the Lifetime series UnREAL at Cosmopolitan.com and the one about Chance the Rapper and co-parenting at The Washington Post (where I write every week still).

2. Black Girls Talking invited me to a Writer’s Roundtable episode of their show, to discuss the ups and downs of cultivating a career in writing.

3. I attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference in Denver last week, where I gave a two-hour presentation with my coworker Ali and also participated in a panel. Both gave me rich opportunities to share Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City‘s work and to figure out how to extend its life (something I was already contemplating). NFCB felt philosophical and sort of wonky while I was here. And I left grappling with a huge question: How can we contemporize, revolutionize, and financially sustain radio at the intersection of community service and activism?

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3. I was featured in Baltimore’s alt-weekly City Paper (but I waited too long to get a print copy, so if you live in town and happen to have one, do me a solid and screenshot it for me?). Props to the reporter, Lisa Snowden McCray, whose work you should definitely check out and whose voice you can hear in Episode 2 of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City.

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4. I just got back late last night from Werk It! A Women’s Podcasting Festival, which was pretty glamorous — especially in comparison to the NFCB conference. I was on a panel there, too, (you can listen here, beginning around the 31:00 mark. I only spoke twice, I think, and one of those times was pre-empted by a fire alarm system drill, and I definitely dropped my notecards in the fray, so if you’re into that kind of thing — or into great, insightful discussions about women in radio and innovation, give it a whirl…). There are powerful women quietly producing incredible audio work everywhere, every day, and it’s astounding that that isn’t more widely known, reported, and celebrated. Props to Werk It! for fighting that fight and looking fly while doing it.

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction

I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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This post is titled after a Laura Mvula song of the same name, because she’s my current musical obsession (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But it’s also apt because the year’s end is nigh and, though I am starting every day bursting with anticipation and ending each day, full — of anxiety or accomplishment or some amalgam of the two — I really don’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t scare me in the way it did for most of this year because, now, I am always certain that something is coming. As a freelance writer, things were typically more precarious and largely left to my sense of ambition on any given day. The weight and panic of trying to secure work left completely immobile some days.

Now, at least over the next seven months, I have a long-term project to execute. No day is fruitless. I’m never frozen. It’s refreshing, but shifting professional gears again is frightening, too.

Producing an audio program is different than the work I’ve done as a freelancer for print/written media. As a writer and a borderline agoraphobic, I’ve tended to write things that required the least amount of interaction with others. I didn’t leave home when I didn’t have to. And I was loath to consider myself a reporter of any kind. With Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, the radio show/podcast I’m developing with AIR and WEAA, I have to go out — a lot — and when I’m not actually going out, I have to be making plans to go out. Not only do I have to talk to people, but I have to learn something I’ve spent years — decades, really — avoiding: leadership.

There’s no place to hide, especially not in towers of lofty ideas or behind hanging tapestries of language. As a radio producer, there are always directives to create and to give — and even when every instinct inside me signals that I should defer to someone else or to take instruction rather than to give it (I still do this whenever I can; you can ask my collaborators about that), I have to force myself to the fore (and then challenge myself to stay there).

I have help with that. We’ve built a small production team that includes two civic-minded young women I hired with audio and video documentary experience and one radio vet and organizer with a passion for the city of Baltimore. The general manager at the radio station has been supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for or imagined, despite how busy she is. And whenever I work in their offices, everyone seems excited about our project.

My production team is a mix of assertiveness, confidence, knowledge and emerging skills. Where I’m timid, someone else is not. When I have a firm idea/show concept, someone does whatever they can to help me execute (and improve upon) it. When I’m unsure about how to proceed, someone offers a ton of great leads.

It’s a good time to be starting at square one on something. I’ve been 36 for one month. It’s the first year I’m spending on the backside of my 30s; I’m officially closer to 40 now — and there are so many underdeveloped social and professional skills I still need to strengthen. This project will help. At its end, I hope to know how to record and edit my own segments, to be able to better gauge which direction an interview needs to take (in the moment I’m conducting it rather than in retrospect), and to develop a project management style that’s at once collaborative and confident. I also just want to overcome my anxieties about meeting new people, being around a lot of people at once, and asking any number of those people a lot of probing questions.

I’m hopeful.

Our ideas are only as good as our ability to execute them. Our execution is only as good as our ability to pivot, adapt, accept feedback, delegate, and recognize our own limitations and our collaborators’ strengths.

Last Thursday night, three members of our team went out on our first big night of recording for the show’s first episode (about the history and future of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center), slated to air in mid-January. I was scared going in and my heart raced the whole way home, but it was worth it to hear people talk about things they cherish: their faith, their childhood hobbies, their memories of Baltimore’s thriving black businesses and safe, open communities up until the late ’60s, their $400 skates, their ability to teach their children or grandchildren to skate, just as they learned to as kids. There’s something magical about good memories and how they animate a face, how recounting them makes the years that have etched themselves into forehead and cheek fall away. I get to watch that happen nearly every week for for the next seven months.

I’ll probably be as surprised as any listener will about how each episode turns out. That’s part of the thrill of it: the discovery, the surprise, the trial and the error, the vanquishing of fear. But I can’t wait to make it all come together. I can’t wait to remind myself that my abilities aren’t as narrow as I’ve defined them for myself and that my potential can still press beyond its long-set perimeter.

I’m also hoping to approach writing differently in the new year. It’s already nice not to have to rely on essay-writing as primary income. And it’s refreshing to be able to call myself something else for awhile. Being a “professional” writer is a realized dream and the goals I had for a career in writing and/or editing have needed adjusting for awhile now. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to make those adjustments now.

For those keeping track, I’m still a weekly contributor at Washington Post’s Act Four blog. I’m no longer a weekly contributor at New Republic (though I do still hope to write there from time to time in the future; it’s a very cool publication, both in print and online). And though I don’t anticipate pitching much in the first half of 2016, while the radio show is in production, I’m always open to it.

In the meantime, the upcoming launch of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City was written up in Baltimore magazine. It was the first time I’d had a professional photo taken to run with an article.

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Back to Laura Mvula: she’s incredible and I can’t believe I just found her albums two weeks ago. But I immediately started making up for lost time by learning and Acapella-ing her songs. This is probably the best of my efforts, taken from the chorus of “Diamonds“:


Runner-up, this from “Father, Father“:

For fun, here’s a longer attempt at that one, with a cameo from my daughter, who really doesn’t respect singing-with-bathroom-acoustics alone time.

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