Multimedia Essay - Journalism in 2016

The Melbourne Found Sound Project

Written by Ash Beks

 

The biggest irony was that I lost my iPod on the day I was recording the sounds of the city.

I had spent hours wandering the lanes and landmarks of Melbourne CBD, headphones finely attuned to the pitter-patter of pedestrian footprints and the iconic clunka-clunka of the trams, holding the zoom recorder with a vice-like grip for fear of the techies evil wrath should I lose or break it. The aim was to collect an array of field recordings from around Melbourne, with the intent of creating a city sound map to present to my class. I felt good about the work I’d done, which comprised of me pin-balling around the city manically, collecting km’s for the exercise and sounds for the archive. As the evening neared and I’d collected almost 40 sounds from different locations, I decided to pack it in for the day and go home to reflect on my work. This is when I first noticed the iPod was missing.

I checked my pockets as I carefully put the zoom recorder away, searching frantically for that device which holds my music library and blocks out the frightening world revolving around me. I check again and again: back pocket, front pocket, jacket pocket, nothing. I moved to a quiet corner of Melbourne Central, desperate to get out of the way of the thousands of commuters rushing to their evening train, so that I could sit down and have a more thorough look through my backpack. Nothing.

I checked my phone; the time was just short of 5 and I couldn’t think of a worse time for this to be happening. I politely asked the lady at lost property if anybody had handed it in, but she shook her head “nope”. Nothing. The sweat was forming on my forehead; I could feel my hands shaking.

***

My hearing is my most prized and despised sense. As a musician, my ears are incredibly important to me – irreplaceable, even. But as someone who suffers from hyperacusis as a symptom of anxiety, my ears often prevent me from enjoying myself in loud or sonically busy situations – you’ll rarely see me at a club, for example, and peak hour train stations without headphones are a nightmare.

For journalists and storytellers, our hearing is an absolutely crucial sense, especially if working in radio or video. As is often stated throughout my journalism degree at RMIT University: “Audiences will accept bad video but they will not accept bad audio.” Shaky or blurry video is fine, even average iPhone footage is better than nothing, but if the audience cannot hear what the talent is saying because wind is up in that microphone, you’ve lost listeners.

Moving forward into the digital future, clear and interesting audio is essential to maintaining the interest of ever-changing, ever-restless audiences. For podcasters and radio especially, sound is literally everything, meaning concise audio with little interrupting noise is a must.

Browsing the Nieman Labs predictions for journalism 2016, there is a notable emphasis on audio storytelling, as podcasts especially become increasingly popular. For CNN editor Mira Lowe, “The amplification of storytelling” means journalists and audiences “should expect to see – or perhaps hear – more podcasts as newsrooms find success with audio content.” Fascinating too, Lowe predicts audiences should be “on the lookout for more viral audio that focuses on interesting sound produced for social web, like NPR’s clips of an erupting volcano or inside a hurricane.” These field recordings, often shared through social media, have huge potential considering the uniqueness of the sounds and their ability to reach a wider audience if they catch on and “go viral”.

Field recordings became increasingly popular in the 1960s, when audio equipment was portable enough to capture high-quality sounds. But in 2016, the potential for field recording is basically limitless, with technological advancements enabling ease-of-access (most people carry a decent quality microphone with them all day, it’s called an iPhone) and specialty microphones, like those designed specifically about recording under water.

Also, modern headphones are becoming more impressive and compact than ever, with loads of people choosing to take their headphones everywhere they go, as they would their wallet or phone. As noted in the seminal text Beyond Powerful Radio: A Communicators Guide to the Internet: “Radio, no matter the delivery method, is very, very personal. People no longer sit around in groups listening to it. Today, much listening is done alone, almost in secret, through headphones, computers, on mobile devices, or in the steel-and-glass-enclosed privacy of a car.

With all of this in mind, I decided to set out for the day and experiment with recording sound from all around Melbourne City, with the intention of one day establishing a full archive of found sounds. I wanted to try experimenting with this unique mode of storytelling and present audiences with a sound map of my travels.

***

The following day I’m back in the city calling Metro Lost Property. There appears to be only one person working this doubtless huge job, and each time I call I get told that the “line is busy” and to “try again later.” After several tries, the friendly lady at Melbourne Central Station informs me that Lost Property is located at Flinders St, outside the station and just across from Degraves St.

As I make my way across town, I listen back to the recordings I had taken on the previous day. I was able to cut down my collection of sounds to a specially curated half hour comprised of ten different recordings. The city performed brilliantly, producing some stunning and unique sounds: footsteps, planes overhead, trams and trains, voices in different languages, music blaring from shops, birds, water, poker machines.

I finally arrived at Flinders St after a brief detour via RMIT to return the zoom to the techs. I waited patiently outside the window; it was one of those abrasion resistant Perspex slats with the little holes in it so the person on the other side can talk and hear. An A4 piece of paper had the words “Metro Lost Property” printed on it in plain black writing and the man behind the counter stared at me through his glasses as while he spoke firmly on the phone to someone who had also lost something.

I shuffled on my feet while I waited patiently, expecting the worse. There seemed a very slim chance my iPod would be found; I’d already resolved that in my head.

Upon hanging up the phone the lost property man turned to me, expecting me to begin talking. I explained to him my situation: that my black iPod had gone missing the day earlier, possibly on the South Morang train, or, possibly somewhere in Melbourne Central.

He patted away on his keyboard and adjusted his glasses. “Someone handed in a grey iPod to South Morang Station yesterday, nothing about a black one though.” He turned away from the computer and looked at me through his glasses again, “Are there any other defining features?”

Minutes later I was sitting on the train, South Morang bound. I’d called customer service at South Morang Station and was informed that some amazing person had found an iPod on the train the day earlier and handed it in at the end of the line. The crotchety old man on the other end confirmed that it was mine once I told him its most defining feature, the one that would set it apart from all the other “grey iPods” out there. I explained that mine was unique in that it had lots of scratches on the back and that the last song playing on it was “No Problems” by Chance the Rapper. He was confused but assured me he was holding my iPod.

I smiled to myself about my sheer dumb luck.

Click here to hear the Melbourne Found Sound project.

 

Bibliography:

Geller, Valerie 2012, Beyond Powerful Radio : A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age News, Talk, Information & Personality, e-book, accessed 9 August 2016, <http://RMIT.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=680859>.

 

Embed?

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About the author

Ash Beks