Intimacy and Distance

Nina Garthwaite and Eleanor McDowall

We both have a history of turning to the radio when we feel untethered from the world.

There’s something about its liveness. That experience of being on your own but listening collectively. Waking up and shouting at BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with people across the country, feeling the world slow down as a voice unexpectedly full of feeling cuts through the air, or eavesdropping on a conversation unfolding between strangers on a late-night phone-in show when you, too, are unable to sleep. There’s a comfort in being together, alone.

These last few months, as we’ve worked on the second incarnation of the Soundhouse, we’ve found a phrase looping in our heads. Intimacy and Distance. It’s part of the title of an old Resonance FM radio broadcast by Ed Baxter and Chris Weaver that we both love. A beautiful, odd multi-hour live transmission which interweaves a writer’s monologue with the sounds of a climber ascending a rockface — surreal imagery and crumbling stone. Although it’s not the broadcast itself that’s causing it to linger — it’s that title — Intimacy and Distance.

This September, we conducted a survey, curious about how these recent months of ‘social distancing’ had impacted people’s relationship with the voices in their ears. We asked just over 200 audio-makers and listeners whether they felt their listening habits had changed since the pandemic began — over 75% said they had. Whilst some sought silence, listening less as they turned away from the anxiety-inducing news cycle, many more spoke about a different kind of shift. 'Companionship' and 'comfort-listens' kept coming up, as did listening at night to distract an anxious brain, filling the house with voices to counteract the absence of human contact, seeking connections, respite or something 'to disappear into'. Many were listening more than they had previously, but found themselves drawn to presenters they considered familiar, comforting or friendly; to podcasts and radio programmes that offered humour and escape.

It may be amplified at the moment, but this kind of intimate relationship with radio and podcasting isn’t new — radio and podcasts have long inhabited our solitude. Their soundtrack slips into our lives and speaks to us in the kind of moments we might reserve for a lover — whispering in our ears late at night — or a close friend comforting us when we feel sad or anxious.

In ‘Remote Work’, Sayre Quevedo explores this feeling and the connection — both as a listener and a maker — between loneliness and listening. Sayre is just one of a new generation of makers in audio storytelling whose work occupies a more personal space than traditional broadcast radio, where audio-makers weave their own vulnerabilities into their narratives. Experiences that may previously have only been shared with close friends — or not at all — now hope to gain meaning and resonance with an unseen audience.

Making personal audio work can be a political act.

These stories, this testimony, can have the potential to challenge the narratives we might traditionally hear in mainstream radio broadcasts. They can alter our perception of which experiences are meaningful and which aren’t, how they should be framed and who is entitled to frame them. Arlie Adlington’s curation speaks to this specific idea, presenting work which foregrounds lived experience as a mode of exploring systemic problems. Although, as he notes, this kind of work often comes at a cost.

In her essay ‘Listening is an Act of Power’, Sandhya Dirks addresses the uneasy imbalances in both collecting and offering personal testimony. Audio-makers often talk proudly about storytelling’s ability to generate empathy, but what does it mean to make someone understand your humanity, your experience, by having to 'show your scars'? And what happens to your complex, fluid, lived experience when it sits inside a story somebody else has crafted? Particularly if you don’t happen to have power over its design.

The narratives we tell can carry a presumption of who is listening — of what that listener might need explained or translated, of what words or ideas are likely to cause them offence. As Renay Richardson pointed out in her Soundhouse essay from 2018, broadcasters often presume that this listener is white. We’d add to this the idea that they are also often conceived of as cisgendered, heterosexual and middle class. Although these presumptions can be masked by ambiguous language: 'will our listener understand this?' or 'I’m not sure our listener will be interested in this'. The imagined listener hovers on the other side of all of our stories — on what gets funded or commissioned — but they are rarely explicitly defined.

As makers, particularly those of us working in public service broadcasting, we also have a tendency to frame ourselves with an imagined neutrality. Offering the idea that we can stand outside the world — impartial, balanced, objective. But is this state really possible, or even desirable? As Lewis Raven Wallace points out in The View From Somewhere, there’s 'a troubling double standard in which cisgender white men are treated as inherently 'objective' even when they’re openly biased, while the rest of us are expected to remain 'neutral' even when our lives or safety are under threat.' While there's great value in striving to be aware of our own biases, the way in which we sometimes use words like ‘objectivity’ can mask the assumed worldview lying underneath. 'Here are some words I use to describe the journalism I want to do instead of the word objective', the Chicago-based criminal justice reporter Shannon Heffernan tweeted recently, 'accurate, fair, factual, rigorous, comprehensive, independent, well-researched, ethical, fact-checked, diligent, honest, transparent, meticulous, truthful.'

Finding a language for something can help us imagine new ways of making.

It can sometimes feel like there’s a real absence of vocabulary for audio-makers as we borrow words from film, theatre or music — or struggle to agree on what a ‘producer’ or an ‘editor’ or an ‘author’ might do. When we’ve looked for language to describe what you might find in Soundhouse 'audio storytelling' and 'spoken word radio' are two phrases that crop up most frequently. They are useful — people generally have a sense of what you mean — but they are both phrases we don’t exactly feel enthusiastic about. Both imply language as the primary vehicle for communication and — when it comes to the type of work we’ve been talking about so far — words are key. But of course tone of voice, rhythm of speech and edits, music and sound are essential ingredients to the experience of listening. Sound matters. Dr Jess Hayton’s essay on Sonic Architecture and Accessibility addresses sound’s primary impact — that it is felt physically before it is understood in thoughts. While Jess explores the lived experience of sound, Ariana Martinez’s loop follows this thread into the imagined environment — exploring the visceral and tactile qualities of audio that hover in the space between feeling and thought. It is an experiential demonstration of the way audio is able to access an unlanguaged place — our inner landscapes of half thoughts, textures and feelings that cannot be expressed through voice and language alone.

This meeting of the meaning-making of language and the feeling-inducing of sound and music is often what makes up the medium of radio and podcasting.

And yet, whether in film or audio, the translation of sound for deaf and hearing impaired audiences is still an emergent art. More often than not, literal translations become a poor substitute for the listening experience, conveying something that evokes nothing of the felt experience of sound. In ‘Poem With Captions’, Raymond Antrobus points towards the possibility of captioning as a potential path through which sound may be afforded a language of its own.

Axel Kacoutié’s loop seeks to explore where the ingredients of audio — sound, music and speech — might alchemise into art. Framed with the idea of work he’s revisited - like a favourite song or a much-loved painting. It’s surprisingly controversial to speak of radio and podcasting as art. When we asked if there was any podcast or radio show that the respondents to our survey would frame in this way we received answers angry at the pointlessness of asking the question, a lot of emphatic negative responses, through to the equally emphatic, 'all podcasts are art.' This is the second time we have brought audio into the Barbican, under the banner of 'art', and yet it still sits uneasily with both of us. When the power of the medium is in its simplicity and the humdrum surroundings that it usually inhabits, placing it in an art context can feel like it risks breaking the magic, removing that intimate connection between listener and maker. Questions of (questionable) taste are often not far behind such a move, and with it issues of elitism, hierarchy, exclusion.

So why put audio in an art gallery, with all the baggage that it brings when it’s got along perfectly fine without it?

Why pull it out of the private, intimate spaces it inhabits so easily? In an era of enforced distance it’s easier to understand the value of public art spaces, even with all the complexity they bring. They can be a place to come together and share ideas, celebrate creative work and ask questions. As with the last Soundhouse, we hope that what is offered here will provoke discussion and generate new ideas beyond the scope of this project. And that through the listening rooms and essays you’ll discover new audio to keep you company — at least until the time comes that we can be together again.