Audio documentary at True/False: A Q&A with Third Coast Artistic Director, Julie Shapiro

Feb 24, 2012

One of the stranger events at T/F this year isn’t even a film. The Third Coast International Audio Festival is bringing seven audio documentaries to Columbia and “screening” them in a darkened theater. It’s called the Third Coast Breakfast Club and it’s playing Saturday at 10am in little Ragtag.

Scott Pham spoke with Third Coast’s artistic director Julie Shapiro:

So what are you bringing to True/False this year?  This year we are presenting the Third Coast Breakfast club. We’re going to infiltrate the film festival and bring audio stories to people in the morning, in the dark. All of these stories are going to center around the idea of darkness. The reel is titled “Lights Out.” It basically will be like sitting down to watch a reel of short films. Except there’s no film, it’s going to be all audio.

You’re calling this the Third Coast Breakfast Club. Are we talking weekend detention in the 80s? Or will there actually be breakfast? Ha! I mean that Breakfast Club is a signal that there will be coffee and cereal served. Well we’ve been trying to poll our audience to ask what cereal goes best with listening to radio. I haven’t gotten as much response as I’d like. [Ed note: tweet your cereal suggestions @truefalse and mention @thirdcoastfest as well]

So what can we expect at the Breakfast Club? We’ll be in a theater setting at the Little Ragtag Cinema, the lights will go down and you’ll actually see a video trailer which we were inspired to create after attending T/F for the first time years ago. And then you’ll see the credits and some animation to tie everything together. But as the radio stories play, there’s nothing on the screen except for a still image.

Usually when we listen to radio we’re distracted with whatever we’re doing in that moment. But in a theater situation we’re a captive audience. How does that change the experience? I think it just kind of elevates your listening experience. You really can zone into the stories. And you’re surrounded by people listening carefully. The whole feel of the room gives you better concentration. So you hear the little nuances, the sound design that producers labor over to help tell their stories--a lot of that is often lost when it comes out of your radio.

When you’re in a theater setting like that, the lights go down, everyone’s quiet, you get swept away by the story. We think you can have that experience without watching an actual film. We think you can do it by just hearing the audio in a darkened theater.

The radio stories we’re going to hear aren’t exactly what you hear on the radio. You don’t even hear things like this on This American Life very often. What exactly is this kind of radio? How can you describe it? Well we often use This American Life as a starting point and then say “that’s one way to tell radio stories.” So I’d say that we curate sound-rich interesting radio stories about everything and anything around the world. They’re “documentary” in that they describe the world around us. But we also just talk about general storytelling on the radio. Sometimes they’re personal. Sometimes they’re investigative. Sometimes they’re more in the sound-art realm.

What exactly is the Third Coast Festival? I know what the festival is. But Third Coast, as an organization, is so much more. It’s a podcast, it’s a conference, it’s a competition-- You’re doing great!

Well--what are you guys? Yeah, the Third Coast Festival is kind of a big project. "Festival" doesn’t exactly speak to everything that we do. In the broadest sense we curate sound-rich documentary work that’s produced for radio or the internet. We have a weekly radio show on WBEZ called Re:Sound. We have our Third Coast podcast. We often bring people together to listen to radio in a public setting. We also have a website, that has nearly 1000 different radio stories that you can browse by topic.

We also have a public audio challenge that we’ve just announced this week called the Short Docs challenge. We’re teaming up with a website called Every Block “the online portal for community solidarity and neighborliness.” The rules for this Short Docs challenge are to make a three minute story that features at least two of your neighbors, includes a color in the title, and involves three consecutive seconds of narrative silence. So these are the rules that can get you started on making your first radio story if you’ve never made one before. Or if you do make radio, it’s an excuse to make it in a different way.

Tell us about some of the stories you’re bringing this year. The last story in the screening is a personal favorite of mine. It’s called “First Steps.” It’s a story narrated by a new father. It’s important not to give away any of the details. But this one had me weeping in public on the L in Chicago. I still remember exactly what stop I was at when I emerged out into the world having just heard this story. Really beautiful, very subtle production. Great storytelling.

I want to point out a personal favorite that you’re showing. “Moon Graffitti” by Jonathan Mitchell and Hillary Frank is one of my favorite pieces of the past two years, I think. It’s an incredible story because it’s one of the only examples of radio drama that we’ve heard that feels contemporary, takes storytelling to a new level, blends fact and fiction, is beautifully produced and really gets you thinking: what if the moon landing happened in a different way? I agree, it’s an incredible piece of radio. We’ve never heard anything like it.

One last thing: you’ll be at the University of Missouri as well, right? Yeah we’re going to be at the Tucker Forum at 11:30am on Friday, March 2. This listening room is called news can sound beautiful. We’re going to embrace the J-school vibe all around us. It will be very different from what we do on Saturday at True/False. We’re going to play some news stories that have maybe a little more sound design than you’d expect from news. We’ll talk about the fact that news can indeed sound beautiful.

A shorter version of this interview ran in Off the Clock, KBIA's weekly arts and culture program.