Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Placecasting with Jeff Jones, Pt. 1

Have you ever surveyed the land around you, and the spot you're standing on, and asked, "Who was here before me? What were their lives like? What motivated them, hurt them, drove them from another place to be here, in this place above all others?"

Jeff Jones has, does and will continue to ask these questions. As a public radio producer and a blogger at Placecasting, he's constantly thinking about with how best we can connect and understand place through audio recording and documentation.

The following Q&A took place over email and will be split over two posts. While Jeff told me he appreciated the value of an editor, I couldn't bring myself to make cuts. There was just too much good, interesting material to share.

Today's post will deal with the "what" of placecasting and audio tours -- how are they defined now, and how has technology changed the form. Tomorrow Jeff digs deeper into the "how" angle, offering practical advice on creating audio, and what makes it great.

Enjoy! Comments are very welcome.


OT: Can you explain a little bit about Placecasting?

JJ: Broadly, Placecasting is digital media that is created specifically to be consumed at a particular location. More specifically, I see placecasting as a new medium for helping people make sense of their world, while they're standing in that world. Anyone curious about the culture, history, nature or architecture around them can benefit from a placecast that answers simple questions like "why is that there?", "why does it look like that?", "how is it related to the landscape around me?", and "what was here before?" In my opinion, audio is the most logical medium for effective placecasting because it allows the rest of our senses to keep experiencing the real world around us. The advantage of knowing exactly where your audience is standing is that you don't have to put pictures or video in front of them.

OT: Is it part of a long tradition, or a fairly new phenomenon?

JJ: Audio tour guides have been around for a long time; I remember my family buying a cassette tape to guide us around the Gettysburg battlefield when I was a kid. It came with a little map. The voices of park rangers and historians were laid over battlefield sounds and period music to make the quiet landscape come alive...and to help us make sense of what we were seeing. Tour creators have mostly been museums, historic sites, chambers of commerce -- any institution wanting to help visitors understand the stories their particular place has to tell. But the fact is most places in our world don't have organizations advocating for them or spending money creating media about them. That doesn't make those places any less curious to visitors or residents fact, it can often make them more so.

This is where the new phenomenon comes in. There's a remarkable convergence of key technologies taking place that is unlocking the potential of placecasting both for consumers and creators. For example: my cell phone now knows exactly where I am (not to mention which direction I'm pointed in and how fast I'm travelling in that direction.) Not only that, my cell phone also has high-speed access to the most complete reference library ever created, the Internet. Not only THAT, but my cell phone also has speakers attached to my ears. The potential exists for a device in my pocket to cross-reference my location with my interests and deliver useful, interesting information about what I'm seeing...and to do it all with minimal distraction to me, the user, experiencing the world.

In short, the convergence of GPS, the geospacial Web (Google Maps, etc.) and handheld computing is increasingly making place-based interpretation available to anyone, anywhere. The qualities of audio storytelling haven't really changed much in the digital era. What has changed the most is the technology for receiving and playing it back. Programs like Garage Band also allow producers to include photos, graphics and video along with their podcast, which can be handy enhancements to the placecast experience. Now all we have to do is create the content.

OT: Who is the true audience for audio tours: residents or tourists, or both?

JJ: This is a great question. The institutions that have traditionally created audio tours would say their placecasts are for the matter where that visitor comes from. When we expand the medium beyond the walls of these institutions, the concept of "visitor" gets trickier. Is someone who exercises by riding their bike through Grant Park a tourist? If I commute by bus down Broadway, am I a visitor? If your summer home is on Lake Tahoe, are you a resident? The answer shouldn't really matter as long as all three people want to know more about what they're seeing on their ride, their commute or their vacation. The successful placecast, using effective storytelling, will respond to the curiosity of the user, not to their status as newcomer or native.

Indeed, tourism is a HUGE market for placecasts -- and understandably so. But too many of the ones I've heard amount to an actor reading a guidebook into a microphone...with very little thought put into the user experience and even less into telling compelling stories.

I think placecasting holds amazing potential for community-building. People LOVE learning new information about their neighborhoods, and often the more they learn the more connected they feel to the places and people around them. I think neighborhood arts and culture organizations will be the next group to really embrace placecasting to enrich the residents around them (as well as any visitors who just happen to catch wind of a good walking tour.)

Check back tomorrow for Pt. 2 and learn how to placecast in six easy steps!


Jeff Jones is a producer for Minnesota Public Radio News in St. Paul. He blogs about audio tours and place-based media in his free time. He loves to travel and discover new places from small towns, to national parks to grand cityscapes all over the world. Jeff grew up near Chicago and graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 2001 with a degree in Urban Studies. He's also worked for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and for Twin Cities Public Television.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Small Town On The Silver Screen

In the following post, guest Sheridan Dupre investigates how a movie set in his hometown of Ridgefield, CT, channels the town's character -- its quiet depths and easy acquaintances -- and, in doing so, makes it anonymous except to those who know it well.

Dupre blogs at Guard the Guardians on art, culture. and the 1970's. Of particular note are pieces on overlooked product opportunities (Manatea!), the vicissitudes of job hunting, and, lately, a brilliant series on the recovered items of his childhood.


What about movies or directors with a strong sense of place? There are a few working now who I think can be praised for their sensitivity to locality. David Gordon Green and Kelly Reichardt come to mind. Perhaps the great cinematic poet of place in my book is the Scottish director Bill Forsyth. But their worlds, the South, the Pacific Northwest, Scotland, are far removed from my own.

It’s something else to see your own town up there. Though the general area in Connecticut that I grew up in has had exteriors grace the screen, usually in movies about suburban dystopia, I know of only one movie that was actually filmed in what I still call my town: Tom Gilroy’s 1999 Spring Forward. It’s a lovely piece about the friendship between two parks department workers played by Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty.

The thing about the movie is that it doesn’t obviously set itself in the town of Ridgefield – there are no shots that I can recall of Town Hall, of the quaint Main Street, of the historic Community Center building, no references to the name. This reticence beautifully suits a film focused on two figures who seem to be both at the periphery of the town and central to its life. A very different movie could have been made about Ridgefield, and it wouldn’t be an less true. But Gilroy emphasizes the smallness. Things like the stock people put in family history, and lasting friendship by sheer circumstance, both of which seem not only to be more prevalent in smaller towns than in cosmopolitan cities or larger, more anonymous suburbs, but that have been part of my own life there. The movie is made with a small town pace -- the seasons pass from scene to scene but the conversations between the two men, months long in the making, continue unrushed. Filmed, as the two often are, alone, together, the characters sometimes seem forgotten in an otherwise anonymous, New England town that I just happen to recognize as my own.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Safest Place

You've heard the old saw: there is no place safer than a cemetery because everyone there is already dead. Excepting Thriller, Night of the Living Dead and the recent glut of zombie literature, this pretty much holds up.

I grew up four blocks from a cemetery, Roseland Park. I didn’t find this to be at all creepy, or even usual. Living near a cemetery had become normative, my everyday. My dad taught my sister to drive on the twisting, all right-away roads; I threw stale bits of bread to Canadian geese near a shallow pond. It's always a curious process of being blindsided when places become our homes, or get in our blood -- no more or less so when those places are dangerous or unbecoming or extravagant. The sooner these unconventional places show up in our lives, the less likely we are to question them, to get spooked.

Because of the early initiation, I’ve always felt comfortable crossing the iron bars of a cemetery’s gates. More than comfortable: I’ve often sought out cemeteries as zones of solace, cut-outs for quiet reflection and clean air.

When I spent a few hours alone at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, recently, something shifted. Not that the grounds, headstones, and masoleums aren't beautiful, wonders of stone and landscape architecture (they are); not that I felt overwhelmed by the scores of anonymous dead (Boss Tweed and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are buried there); not that the day was grim, overrun by shadows (it was gorgeous, breezy and fragrant, as evidenced below):

But for the first time, I felt like a trespasser. I wasn't there to grieve. That obelisk? Built in honor of no one I had heard of. This towering sculpture of an angel? Nightmarish with the sun setting behind it. The only sounds were my footsteps, and when I stopped walking, my pulse, and if you're anything like me, cursed by a nervous imagination, you start to think of silence as a precursor to noises you'd rather not hear, stirrings you'd prefer not to identify. I was alone but no longer felt alone.

Which pointed me, as luck would have it, to collegial memories of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA, where the wards get fat on cutting off solitude. Instead, pack a cooler, spread a blanket, and melt to the stylings of DJ Two-Tone's fusion of bossa-nova and house.

Cemeteries as centers of society, commerce, and entertainment? I'm game. I saw a screening of The Apartment at Hollywood Forever, and waded past revelers eating churros and buying skeleton trinkets at the least threatening Day of the Dead festival imaginable. Hollywood Forever -- "the resting place for Hollywood's immortals" -- actually has a forward-thinking service called Forever LifeStories, where loved ones -- digitally, with the help of a trained Biographer, and for a price -- compile photos, spoken descriptions, text, video clips, old film reels, awards, or other memoribilia to honor the deceased.

Are cemeteries sacred, vast wastes of space, or perfect for a night out with a few friends, a bottle of Merlot, a pack of Clove cigarettes and a Ouija board? How do cemeteries fit into your towns?

For the truly avid, check out the The Graveyard Rabbit, an association and blog dedicated to the historical importance of cemeteries, grave markers, burial customs, burying grounds, and tombstones.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Exile in Novy Bydzov

The following is a post from guest blogger and friend, Matt Corbin, reflecting on his first weeks as an ex-pat in the Czech Republic. For the next year, Matt will be teaching English in Novy Bydzov, a small town outside of Prague, and working on his first novel.

He blogs about the perils of lesson plans, hotels with strict occupancy policies, and the strange pleasure of trading television for writing, at A Broad Study.


Novy Bydzov – a town with a population of no more than 1,000, nearly 300 miles from where the once invisible Iron Curtain stood, where people get around with their legs and bikes rather than cars.

As I take my daily walk to The Matrix, a friendly café/pub in town, I pass children smiling as they walk, and elderly men and women carrying groceries in baskets on the front of their handlebars and attached to the back of their seats. I see teenagers hidden slightly in the corners of dimly lit parks, smoking cigarettes and sipping on beers.

Beer seems to be the drink of choice here. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I am surprised when my Coca-Cola Light costs more than my girlfriend’s 20-ounce or .5-liter beer. As proof of its abundance, this price difference between beer and Coca-Cola Light holds true no matter which café or pub we’re in.

At night, I step out on the balcony of my fourth floor flat and look out at some of the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever seen. There is a strong smell of fertilizer in the air. As the sky grows darker, I watch a stray dog scamper back and forth across the field of maybe fifty yards below me, barking at anyone or anything that passes. On these nights I read instead of watching television, I play cards instead of watching television and I write instead of watching television.

I think I could find no more peace here than anywhere. I had always said I could never imagine living in a small town, but I believe in this small town, that even many people in Prague have never heard of, I may have found a state of bliss.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

All Signs Point To North Carolina

I spent the long Labor Day weekend visiting my wonderful sister in Mooresville, North Carolina -- taking pictures, playing Yahtzee, chewing the fat. Mooresville tends to be more Southern than not (patrol cars are decorated with checkered flags, its alias is Race City, Dale Jr. lives there, etc.,) so the Americana is bountiful. Since there's very little rain in Mooresville, or precipitation generally, outdoor signs and structures degrade very slowly. Old things appear new and they're not replaced. It's a photogenic place, in other words.

The business signage in the following gallery is mostly drawn from Main Street in Mooresville. The Grand Overlook sign is taken from, well, the Grand Overlook.


Love that stencil work. It's how Sam Spade's name would have been detailed on the door to his office in The Maltese Falcon.

The D.E. Turner & Co. hardware store has been staple of Main Street for over 100 years, and it's still owned by the Turner family. Not only are the shelves stocked with the usual fare -- nails, lightbulbs, sandpaper -- but they also have vintage typewriters, Radio Flyer wagons and tin washtubs. The shelves also extend a good fifteen feet high.

You might do well to purchase a watercolor of the storefront.

You're looking out at the Yadkin Valley, by golly.

The Grandview Overlook is one of the many scenic overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, reputed to be among the most beautiful drives in the States. Which it was, lodged in between construction detours. Alas.

Across the road were criss-crossing, rolling hills, green as Irish Spring. The sound of insects in the hills -- what I assumed to be cicadas but was later told were locusts -- outdid the passing cars. If ever asked, "How do you know when you're in the country?" this will be my answer.

Note the puffy, cloud-like theme to the sign's lettering. Fitting, since at 3,240 feet above sea level you practically stand in the clouds.

A quiltery (new word for me), whose name I didn't record. I do know that Pfaff is the name of a brand of sewing machine. Banners of fabric, of all imaginable types, hung from all conceivable angles and spaces in the store.

It doesn't come through in the photograph, but the colors of both the Coca-Cola and Livery signs are incredibly vibrant. The "Relieves Fatigue" slogan dates back, I believe, to a time when Coca-Cola had traces of a narcotic other than caffeine. It's never stopped being "Delicious and Refreshing," of course. According to an artist's note in the bottom right corner of the sign, it was last touched up in 1995.

If you're yearning for more vintage Coca-Cola wall ads, there's a great collection here.

Q: What's better than ice cream? A: De-Luxe Ice Cream!

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Sound of the Suburbs: Serene, Or Eerie Pretext to a Slasher Film?

(courtesy of Meredith Lee)

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Live So Close To Me

I've always had a passing interest in Ergonomics, the study of designing work spaces to lessen bodily strain. The irrepressible drive within science and scientists to tinker, uncover and fix-what-ails-ya is most impressive, to me, when it zeroes in on things like the angles of chair backs and the dimensions of cubby holes. When I think back to offices and conference rooms I felt happy in, the feeling had litte to do with people around me and everything to do the sense of the space, the light and the order of things. Spaces can seem to influence mood, and the longer we spend in comfortable places or in uncomfortable places, the more strongly our moods will tend.

Can extremely uncomfortable spaces cause unrest? Psychologist Collin Ellard thinks so. Ellard, who directs a program called RE.L.I.V.E (Research Lab for Immersive Virtual Environments), recently came out with a book called You Are Here, explaining how over centuries of navigational innovation we've lost the ability to instinctively "find our way."

In a section titled, "City Space," Ellard discusses the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, a predominately North African Muslim suburb of Paris, and what may have caused them. As was widely reported, two teenagers of North African descent were accidentally electrocuted as they hid from the police. This incident may have ignited the riots, Ellard suggests, but one key element that received little press was the "built environment occupied by those who participated in the violence -- that is, the ability of buildings or even neighborhoods to shape collective or individual human behavior."

"At the time of the unrest," Ellard continues, "Clichy-sous-Bois was occupied by almost 30,000 people, among them some of the most impoverished in all of France." The area was isolated from the rest of the country due to a lack of access to public transport; the streets were flanked by high, concrete buildings; intersections and pedestrian traffic were rare. Furthermore, this cloistered setting couldn't have been more different from Muslim urban centers, "with their houses that face away from public thoroughfares and their graceful courtyard designs [that] emphasize privacy, family hierarchies, and clear lines of separation between public and private space."

Photographer Nico Oved, in an exhibition called "L'Habitat marginalisé," documented the gloomy, concrete confines of Clichy-sous-Bois. In a caption to the photo at bottom, Oved underlines the failure of this type of regimented, highly modern design: "What were designed to be open public spaces have ended up becoming havens for all sorts of crime. With little or no traffic moving through these places, they become hidden enclaves that protect drug dealing and other nefarious activities from the eyes of police patrols."

The mood-altering dwelling isn't an implication, or an excuse. But the suggestion is strong, and not to be ignored.

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