NYF Open Mic: Radio on Radio with Natalie Oram

Radio on Radio features insights and observations on the wonderful world of Radio by New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards Grand Jury members.

Each year NYF recruits a world class Grand Jury 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.


Natalie Oram, Composer, Producer and Voice-Over Artist for Rockbarn Media, UK

In our weekly Radio on Radio interview we’ll take an insider’s look at the evolution taking place in the world of radio with 2017 Grand Jury member, award-winning Natalie Oram: Composer Producer, and Voice Over Artist for Rockbarn Media United Kingdom.

In 2012, Natalie won Gold at the New York Festivals International Radio Programs and Promotions Awards for Best Music Special for her hour-long BBC documentary, “World Piece” that she single-handedly created, composed the soundtrack and produced.

In the interview below Natalie shares her thoughts on the development of radio into a multi-format audio visual interactivity; her dream show she’d love to create, the importance of freedom of the press and so much more.

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

Natalie Oram: I think that we are going to see a real continuation of the transformation of radio from pure audio traveling through airwaves from broadcaster (informer) to the listening consumer (receiver) to further reaching multi-format audio-visual interactivity where the informer and receiver lines are blurred and combined, online presence, on-demand and apps for example, all of which we are seeing and hearing now. That’s the point, we see and hear radio now!

I know that this has already been the case for many years, with the development of the ‘story’ for instance needing to be conceived and conveyed not only as speech over the radio, but the impetus has grown enormously for creating added-value content; putting it up online, adding photographs, videos, posting it on social media and inviting the audience to engage and interact at their convenience. In fact, I think that potentially these elements are not really seen as ‘added-value’ content anymore, instead, I think that all these additional items to the original format have now become integral facets of the content, all rolled into one.

It seems more and more now however, that radio stations are not just the focal point of information from which the information gets formulated into content and transmitted. Instead, it seems it has partly become a sort of ‘filter’ or sieve through which user-generated content is given a platform and proliferated as well as, interestingly, acting almost like an ‘exchange’.

Radio broadcast is certainly not one-sided anymore; informer to receiver. I think a big shift is in audience and how they feel about their radio station and interact with it. I think it used to be a sense of belonging, like picking the newspaper that you choose to read and sticking with that one. Now, I believe we do still have that sense of belonging to ‘my favourite radio stations for ‘these’ reasons’, but also, I think nowadays we, the listeners, also have a sense of ownership and arguably, content ownership.

The freedom and ease to interact, comment, engage with a story or feature is enormous and fairly unbounding. I don’t know whether I’m alone in thinking that several years ago, it was quite a ‘big’ thing to do to contact a radio station…almost brave! Now, you can just pop on to social media or your email and instantaneously ping off whatever your reaction or thought is and reach the hub of the action immediately. And, of course, a number of years ago, one would call the radio station as the principle means of contact, or write a letter. Quite a lot of personal effort and investment goes into actually physically talking to someone or penning a letter. You think more about it, it takes time and you ostensibly feel the pressure of more ‘solid’ two-sided interaction. Now, it is a little more ‘faceless’ and less intrusive upon your own personal space because social media or email for instance seems to remove certain barriers; I allude the phrase, “People say things on social media that they would never say to someone face-to-face”. And of course, with the instant/immediate nature of this kind of communication, one could consider that less thought goes into what is being remarked.

Listeners can now grab whatever subject with both hands and continue the conversation, debate, discussion etc. ‘off-air’, online and immediately in communication with other listeners any time. Radio content appears to be a sort of catalyst for this now across more mediums than before – which reminds me of a tip while studying my Masters in Broadcast Journalism degree, “Find the angle that people will talk about first thing when they get home or to the pub later!” Now, it’s presenting the topic (using the same tip!) and pushing it away from the jetty into the river of wild, wide-ranging, multiple platform interaction and seeing where it goes…And here’s another development, the ‘deliverers’ of that content within radio can now gauge reaction immediately, monitor it and watch it develop virally and see what is trending…a word we are all so used to now, but technically, in this denotation, has only existed for a few years!

Interestingly however, radio can now feed from these interactions and potentially, spin out even more angles! So, does this mean that topics or points of interest get discussed more in-depth, more intensely picked apart, more widely consumed or comprehended? I don’t know. Possibly and logically, yes. Is this a good thing? Yes, I think so. Is user-generated content and interaction potentially moulding and influencing the direction of news and media discussion through the media monitoring and assessing how much traction a subject is getting? …Yes, to a certain extent I think, but I’ll leave that up to you whether you agree or disagree if that’s a good or bad thing!

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

Natalie Oram: Ah, a dream show. Well, from me, it would have to be musical one way or another! I’d like to organize a great big jam session live on air with the greatest musicians, past and present, living and departed! It would involve musicians ranging from famous artists and composers to undiscovered ones and ones who just play because they love it, from all over the world and from all genres. It would be driven a little like that comedy show, ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ in terms of genres to play etc. and everything has to be improvised. Oh, and I’d like to be able to play my instruments too – naturally! All the while, the music would be interspersed with great flowing conversation about music and opened up to the listeners. You could even open it out further to listeners and invite them onto video-calling to then jam together across cyberspace (I’ve done that in the past – one instance was me in the UK, a friend in Mexico, another in the USA and another in Patagonia! It was amazing!) It all would then of course be so successful that it would have to be serialised and I could live out my days jamming and listening to music in great company. Oh, and in the serialisation, it would then just have to travel all across the world, a little like ‘The Grand Tour’ and have pop-up jam sessions in an endless number of destinations, celebrating the music of each and every culture. Completely impossible, but you did say ‘dream’ show! …Although, if that were possible (not the actual bringing people back from the dead part though obviously!), then you heard it here first and don’t you dare do this without me!

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

Natalie Oram: Freedom of the press is vital, there’s no doubt about it. It can be delivered perfectly, but, it can be abused. It can be the lynchpin of a situation or it can be the potential downfall. What I do believe is that it should be a real sign of a true democracy. But, is the press ever truly free?! Ha! There is the big question! Think consumerism, commercialism, populism, elitism so many ‘isms’ (!), spin, propaganda… While we all perhaps wish to believe that none of these things have an effect on the news or press be it from the outside world or internally within the media, I think, intentionally or not, they have the potential to. The key is for the press to have the freedom to work within these ‘isms’, the power, ability, free objectivity and knowledge to sift out the bias and influence from the fact, and finally have the capability to produce and transmit material and content that is fair, accurate, balanced and contemporaneous.

While perhaps some of the above seems a little ‘idealist’, I do like to think that the press that I am used to does have a freedom and does work to the benefit of society within these ‘isms’ (among many other things!).

An interesting influence on the press nowadays however is the practically exponential growth and abundance of information sources from which it is being fed. I wonder if there could be a case of ‘saturation’ within the press because of this; with the advent of rolling news, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week and the need for sustenance to support this. I think this is certainly amplified by the constancy of social media, online media and global social interaction. The combination of the arguable influence of consumer-lead interaction making discursive trends (as mentioned in one of my previous answers) and the press being able to monitor and assess how ‘stickable’ a story is for instance by gauging the reaction and interest in near real-time, does make me wonder whether items get developed further or sustained because of what is seemingly coming out as ‘popular’ and thus further content gets steered towards the ‘popular’ trends. Funnily enough, I do not really see much wrong with that, just as long as there is always a platform and appetite for independent thought. There must be a freedom for this however as if there is not, then arguably, the freedom of the press could be being degraded by the movement of the populous showing interest in one story and not another…interesting! I’m being devil’s advocate here I know! I do believe though that the press should have the objectivity and capability of sorting through all of this and getting to the factual nucleus and they should definitely have the freedom to be able to do just that.

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

Natalie Oram: Now, this is a great question for a musician and radio documentary-maker!! Everything I do comes through the medium of sound. I once wrote a paper at university while studying for my Music degree arguing how sound/music could be considered the most influential and powerful form of art. Among many reasons and concepts/ideas, I presented that it is one of the few things that rely almost completely on just one sense – hearing.

Sound is not tactile, you cannot see it in its natural realised form (i.e. when it is actually making noise, not on paper or a score or in waveform on a screen – unless of course you put it with another medium like sand or water for instance…but you need that other medium to do that!). You cannot taste it, yet it can have an effect on how you taste food… Yes, you can feel it, quite literally when the sound waves are vibrating in such a manner that you can feel it pulsing through your body, but you cannot touch it. It can touch you, but on an emotional or reactionary basis…again non-tangible. I LOVE that! Sound is even exceptionally powerful when it is absent. Sound rocks! So, in my opinion, while the essay was of course beautifully balanced, discursive and comprehensive (naturally! Ha!), I think that this existence in the principally intangible makes sound so close to magic you can almost taste it…or not as the case may be!

So, what does this all have to do with your question, well, because of the transcendental nature of sound, audio, music etc. I believe that it has the power to be a short-cut to the brain, your emotions and imagination. You, as a pure listener, don’t have many ‘horizon-points’ to focus on, or anchors to hold on to and guide you with sound, because you are not able to use your other senses as much to pilot you, so, you start drawing on your imagination and your emotions. Equally, because your other senses are less called upon, it means you can focus more on the senses being stimulated. You don’t particularly have to compute, comprehend or decipher any visual, taste or smell for instance to absorb the sound and compute what you are hearing. This means your brain is really rather free in the boundless arena of the computation of the sound that immediately our less tangible facets like emotion, feelings, memories and imagination can come to the fore and directly into play. This then becomes a completely unique and personal and utterly individualised experience.

All of this provides us ‘Audioteers’ (yes, Musketeers of audio…does that work?!) an infinite world of boundless creativity and invention. Telling a story through sound or creating a sonic experience that is purely based in sound is one of the most exciting, challenging, interesting, fun, creative and immersive things to do in my opinion and I love it. Equally, it can create, again in my opinion, the most immersive, resonant (pardon the pun!) and individual experience for the consumer/receiver of this material.

For my documentary that was very kindly honoured with Gold by the New York Festivals, I

Natalie Oram Accepting the NYF Gold Trophy for Best Music Special in 2012

wanted to do more than ‘just tell a story’. I wanted my listeners to come into the world of my documentary with me and dive into the journey completely in an intimately shared experience. Taking this to its absolute base level for instance, yes, I could have just described being in an aeroplane flying over to America and landing in the cacophonous LAX all on my own. Compelling? ‘Yeah, kinda’, especially with the inclusion of my actual feelings at the time. What’s even better? Setting my narration on top of a bed of aeroplane atmos, taking actuality from LAX and engineering it so when I stepped out of the airport in the narration, the audio changed sonically to represent the change in location, give motion to the character, to the narration. Yes, I could just describe the emails at the start of the documentary story…what’s better, putting typing noises in there! The ‘bing’ of an email being received, reading the emails out in character voices and engineering them so that they sound like their coming through a form of communication technology rather than in person…Simple! And you know what, it’s FUN to do! But it localises the story and gives literal, recognisable, digestible ‘hooks’ with which my listener could identify and ratify their imagination, making the imaginary journey even more immersive and real, without asking them to work too hard to have a fulfilling experience.

There are so many other things that you can do with audio landscapes and theatre of the mind when it comes to sound and inspiring the imagination – these two examples are just very basic examples. Others are the use of music and/or soundscapes and the emotional effect of that; sonically illustrating and amplifying emotion in soundtracks, creating emotion through soundtrack and so on.

With audio and sound, you have the unique opportunity to effectively and cleverly put all your eggs in one basket and not worry about trying to portray literally what something looks like for someone to actually see, what something smells like for someone to actually smell, what something tastes like for someone to actually taste etc. Equally, you don’t need to worry how accurately to your concept or intention it is actually going be seen, smelt and tasted by someone. Instead, you use one medium – sound – and try to replicate, inspire, create and encompass all those senses through that one medium in ostensibly one of the most immersive and personal ways possible. And that, is all done though engaging someone’s brain through their auditory system and inspiring someone’s imagination and emotions to create the images, the scene, the smell, the touch and feeling etc. themselves.

No-one’s imagination is identical to another and as humans, we are naturally predisposed to using our imaginations. With sound; creating audio landscapes, soundscapes, capturing actuality, creating sonic hooks, composing or using music etc. etc., we have an amazing tool to tap into anyone’s imagination in, in my opinion (!), the most unsullied, direct, pure and beautifully magical way, and what’s more, do it well, it is a work of transcendental art…in my opinion!

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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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