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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