NYF Open Mic: Radio on Radio with Robyn Ravlich

NYF’s Radio on Radio features New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards Grand Jury’s insights and observations on the transformation taking place in the industry today, their opinions on the importance of free speech, their thoughts on creating their dream show and much more.

NYF’s Grand Jury is comprised of award-winning directors, producers, journalists, writers, actors, creative directors, composers, on-air talent, and programming executives who are actively involved in creating the innovative radio programs heard on radio today. Who better to share their insider information on the wonderful world of radio than this respected group of prominent industry thought leaders?

Robyn Ravlich, Writer and Independent Radio Feature Maker

This week NYF’s Radio on Radio will explore the evolution taking place in the world of radio with 2017 Grand Jury member, Robyn Ravlich, Australian writer and independent radio feature maker.

Robyn had a long and extremely successful career at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a highly-regarded producer and presenter across a range of innovative, specialist programs, including The Listening Room and Into the Music. She has collaborated with composers, performers, writers, sound artists and musicians to create unique radio works for these shows and mentored emerging radio creators and artists in residence.

Robyn has been honoured with international and national awards and broadcasts, receiving Silver awards at the New York Radio Festivals (Encountering Marina Abramović, Artist and Icon in 2016, Nora Guthrie, Her Father’s Daughter in 2013, Afterimages – Carol Jerrems Through a Lens in 2012, and Blind Tom – Slave Pianist Sensation in 2010) and Bronze for Diana Jones and her Appalachian Roots in 2014.

In the interview below, Robyn shares her insights and observations on the transformation of radio, the dream program she’d like to create, and how “the invisibility of radio has allowed magical illusions.”

New York Festivals: How will radio transform in the coming years? What is the biggest shift you’ve noticed this past year?

Robyn Ravlich: I’ve grown up in Australia, a vast country that has regarded radio, especially public service radio such as the ABC, as a vital good available freely to all. It is democratic in reach and spirit and has played a significant part in fostering understanding of our stories and histories, complex events and phenomena worldwide, as well as stimulating and enriching cultural life. It was wonderful to grow up in a remote mining town and be connected to a richness of ideas that emanated in airwaves faraway in big cities and were being experienced simultaneously by other listeners all over.

Radio managers increasingly speak of radio as we’ve known it (a common schedule of live and recorded programs broadcast to many at once, usually via terrestrial transmission) as ‘linear radio’; or ‘heritage radio’, implying old fashioned limitations. Flushed with the success of podcasts and spurred by the increasing ubiquity of social media usage, there is a rush to catch the attention of younger audiences who have not yet come to radio by a strategy that shifts intensively towards ‘digital radio’. Not so many years ago, that meant DAB (high quality sound delivery of existing and additional channels for special events and genres) for which the take up was generally underwhelming due to costs of the receiver sets and limited geographical coverage. Now it means radio delivery by smartphone or any internet enabled device, or more particularly, radio that is assembled by the listener from a preferred selection of podcasts and audio downloads.

On the positive side, this gives the listener a lot of choice if informed and able to negotiate the available offerings, rather like assembling mix tapes and collages. The old and the less dexterous and those without affordable data plans may find themselves disadvantaged if ‘linear radio’ winds down, or strips its program schedule to kick start digital-only offerings as has already begun. Content is the buzz word for the digital platform, rather than programs or shows or documentaries. Podcasts arose from radio (making programs available at a time that suits) and benefit from the link to the network’s skills base, reputation and resources. Ditto for podcasts that have emerged from quality newspapers and journals.

So, it’s a challenging time of change, some of it exciting, some of it problematic. The BBC looks to be vitalizing its radio offerings by making more of them available worldwide. I was saddened to see ABC RN simplify texture, tone and substance in its 2017 schedule by shedding most of its music programs, along with the playful Pocket Docs and aurally adventurous Soundproof.

New York Festivals: Is there a revolution going on today in radio content?

Robyn Ravlich: In delivery method, yes, but not necessarily in terms of what is made and how. Shock jocks and state radio propaganda aside, the agenda of most considered radio is essentially humanist in orientation – exploring humanity past and present, shining light on dark deeds, sparking our imagination, providing context and meaning to events, ideas, and lives.

New York Festivals: What would be your dream show to create, budget no object?

Robyn Ravlich: Radio is such an important outlet for musicians, writers and actors; and a creative medium of itself. So, my dream show is always going to involve creative

Patti Smith

collaborators. I have many dream shows, some rather elusive: one would involve Patti Smith (singer-songwriter, writer, photographer, artist) on an odyssey of her own choosing,but if it were mine it might be to travel with her to experience the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca, or to spend time with Bob Dylan, a common artistic hero. Another dream show would be to remake Under the Skin, a series of documentaries exploring race, ethnicity, immigration policy and multiculturalism that Stan Correy and I produced in 1980, as the subject is so hauntingly alive today.

New York Festivals: Will you talk about the importance of freedom of press?

Robyn Ravlich: Press freedom is vital in these turbulent times with populist insurgencies, exclusionist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies on the rise in many countries. Speaking truth to power is tough but necessary. It has been fascinating to see how tenacious the quality media has been in the US since the 2016 election, maintaining rigorous investigative and independent journalism in a new era of ‘alternate facts’.

Helen Boaden, outgoing BBC Director of Radio

I noted with interest that Helen Boaden, outgoing BBC Director of Radio (and formerly Director of BBC News), spoke at the 2016 Prix Italia about problems in journalism exacerbated by technological change – the fast and furious flow of television news tidbits, which lack overall context and, which online, frequently act as digital ‘click-bait’. She asked:

“Do we the media, do enough today, to explain and explore? Or are we too busy moving on to the next thing, in thrall to the pace of news?”

I was especially heartened by her plea for what she called the ‘slow’ medium, radio: ‘it should be encouraged to survive and thrive whatever platform we hear it on … context and explanation are its forte’.

New York Festivals: Audio landscapes, theater of the mind, how does imagination come into play?

Robyn Ravlich: Sounds – real or artificially conjured. Words – spoken actuality or written and performed. Put them together in a judicious way, taking account of texture, tone, rhythm and, above all, deeper meaning – and you have something to stir the listener’s imagination. For me, in radio and other creative art forms, truth and beauty are honorable companions.

From its inception, some writers and producers have understood that the invisibility of

"For me, in radio and other creative art forms, truth and beauty are honorable companions."

radio has allowed magical illusions, including magic carpet rides beyond borders, travel where it’s not otherwise possible to go – to other countries, other worlds, other times, past and future. An early German radio maker spoke of the ‘enchantment of radio’, something understood by Orson Welles in the Mercury Theatre’s dramatic presentation of The War of the Worlds – widely believed, generating panic and riots. Woman Found Dead by the Lake Shore, a Swedish Radio program, which I heard as a member of the NYF Grand Jury in 2014, was an exemplar of dramatically constructed storytelling. Based on a true crime case, its surreal Kafkaesque turns led to the revelation that the killer was a moose, not the victim’s husband.

To me, dreams (and crushed dreams or nightmares) are the natural materials for poetic radio making. In an era of compassion fatigue and information overload, my aim is to have listeners ‘feel’ what they are hearing, to experience ‘trembling moments’, to experience ideas and people’s remarkable stories of survival, creativity against the odds.

The deadline to enter the 2017 World’s Best Radio Programs competition is March 17, 2017. To enter go to: Log In and for additional information go to: Rules and Regulations.

Join New York Festivals Monday, June 19, 2017 as we honor the World’s Best Radio Programs at an awards ceremony at in New York City. To view the 2016 World’s Best Radio Program Ceremony Gala, please visit: http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/media/rp/2016/

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