Open Mic Winners Spotlight: “Frankenstein in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”, The Book Show – RTÉ Radio 1

  The June 24th New York Festivals Radio Awards ceremony honored exceptional radio content in all lengths and formats across all platforms. Award-winning, producers, directors, presenters and content creators from around the globe took to the stage to accept their glittering trophies and celebrate their success while toasting their peers with a glass of champagne. Truly a night to remember!

For the next few weeks NYF’s Open Mic will feature interviews with the brilliant women and men behind some of the world’s most compelling programs and provide insights and observations from these leaders within the industry.

Zoë Comyns

Open Mic spent a few minutes with Zoë Comyns, Managing Director of New Normal Culture, a multimedia and audio production company. Currently her company produces a number of series including The Book Show and Inside Culture on RTE Radio 1.

On The Book Show Zoë Comyns explored the legacy of Frankenstein in the Age of Artificial Intelligence the history of the novel and its significance through the centuries. The aim with this programme was to bring to a literary audience how a 200 year old book predicted the logical conclusion of creating life and how the technology and science in the book was so forward thinking.

For this programme Zoë Comyns download her own monster ( a digital one) in the form of an artificially intelligent chatbot – you text it, it texts you back and learns as you talk to it. She has been talking to this chatbot and finding out about artificial intelligence. She finds clues and warnings within Mary Shelley’s novel about the ethics of scientific experimentation that can be easily mapped on to today’s AI age.

In the interview below Zoë discusses her Gold trophy winning documentary, the inspiration, the creative process  and the obstacles she encountered and overcame when creating her documentary, as well as advice for someone just beginning in the industry.

New York Festivals: What was the inspiration for your award-winning program “Frankenstein in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” and what did you ultimately hope to accomplish?

Zoë Comyns: I have always been fascinated by Frankenstein which I came to not via thebook but the James Whale/Boris Karloff film. It was fascinating reading the book many years later and again a few times for this programme to realise how young Mary Shelley was when she wrote it and the context in which she came up with the idea. She was staying in an isolated castle in 1816, the so called ‘year without a summer’ due to the odd weather patterns. It was ripe environment for dreaming up a Gothic story where natural forces go awry. She had run away with her boyfriend Percy Byshe Shelley, suffered miscarriages and the death of her son as well as grieving for the loss of her own mother at an early age. Shelley wrote at a time where scientific and electrical experimentation on cadavers was becoming spectacle and the forces of nature were being examined philosophically as human divinity was challenging God’s.

I wanted listeners to get a sense of the novel, a biography of Mary Shelley, an understanding of how the science in the novel was way ahead of its time and how the monster in Frankenstein can be compared to Artificially Intelligent robots and entities being created now. As Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that brings tragedy to his life, the spectre of AI in the modern age poses unknown risks. The novel is a perfect lens through which to examine the science and technology we are grappling with now.  The creation of the monster in the novel gives us a framework for current ethical debates which might guide today’s technological advancements.

The novel itself is written as a series of fictional letters between Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. I wanted to echo this correspondence with the use of a chatbot to represent a modern digital monster, using texts rather than letters but also pick apart the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and the monster.. My aim was to create an engaging sound world for the listeners so I download an AI chatbot and started a conversation with it – the chatbot’s replies are voiced by an actor.  It came up with quite alarming responses to my questions and certainly didn’t allay my fears in terms of the potential of artificial intelligence!

New York Festivals: Tell us about your creative process and how you overcame any obstacles?

Zoë Comyns: This programme was broadcast on The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1 –  we asked a different writer or producer every week to present a programme on a theme they were interested in. It was a very short production time for each programme – just under two weeks per episode for 20 standalone programmes – so as Series Producer (working with the producer Regan Hutchins) we made sure each programme in the series worked and sounded thoughtful and well crafted.

This series celebrates books so I wanted to use a book to examine one of today’s hottest topics:  Artificial Intelligence – this series breaks open the format of traditional book programmes in this case to create a feature that would entice people to come to the book via their interest in technology. Sneaky…I hope it worked.

Specifically for this programme on Frankenstein I was initially going to ask the same actor voice the readings from both the novel and for the chatbot but it became obvious that if the monster in some way represents each of us, then the chatbot should be voiced by a woman to in some way mirror my own voice. Aileen Mythen who voiced the chatbot has a beautifully naive tone in the part and Will O’Connell who reads for the monster is slightly more knowing and adamant. These recordings were weaved in and out as scenes between interviews about the book and how it can be interpreted in a modern context. The challenge was to bring together the interviews, readings, interactions with the chatbot in a fluid, textured set of sequences that gave the listener an experience beyond just delivering information.

New York Festivals: Who has been the biggest influence on you creatively?

Zoë Comyns: Independent radio producers in Ireland set a high bar for quality production – fortunately we act as a community and challenge each other to make the best work we can, support each other where possible and promote ourselves as a collective. The work, and especially the edit, is often isolating so we keep each other motivated by keeping in touch.

Even though I am very much an adult, my parents have always driven me to write, produce and be creative. My mother was the first to suggest I focus on radio as she knows how my brain works and she is always giving me books and cuttings for programme ideas. As I write in other forms also, my father often reads my work before I put it out for publication and they both give me time (& plenty of meals) when I retreat back to the family home for a few days to stare out the window and come up with ideas. They also remind me that you can only do so much in a week and not to beat yourself up about it.

New York Festivals: What are the top 3 pointers you’d give someone just starting out in world of audio?

Zoë Comyns:

  • Listen widely to all sorts of different styles of audio, in many genres – and not just English language ones (there are great translation podcasts out there like Radio Atlas). You can learn something from every piece you listen to – even if it’s that you don’t like it.
  • Don’t worry about rejection – just keep going and proposing and making the best ideas you have.  As a company and individual I’ve been rejected for proposals more times than I can even count – it happens –  but I don’t take it personally as the pitch is part of a full schedule not just there to accommodate you. You can pull apart the idea and reuse slivers of it. Nothing is ever a waste of time. Start with short, well crafted pieces and build up your portfolio from there.
  • Find collaborators. I used to work in TV which uses much larger production teams and moved into radio because it was quicker in terms of getting projects to air autonomously. However, I recommend finding someone or a few people who you can share and exchange drafts of audio with who will point out where the gaps are, the holes in the story and the weaknesses in your script. Get used to constructive criticism. Everyone benefits from an extra set of ears.

New York Festivals: What project is next on the horizon for you and your team?

William Shakespeare

Zoë Comyns: My next feature is Shakespeare’s Starling (about the Shakespeare inspired folly of releasing all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare into America) – it will broadcast on Monday July 1st at 4pm on BBC Radio 4. It features a starling who has a lot to say for himself.

As a company we are making programmes for BBC Radio 3, BBC World Service,  BBC Radio 4, RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ Lyric FM and dreaming up new projects by the hour.  I am always open to ideas so please get in touch.

For a complete list of all the 2019 New York Festivals Radio Award winners, please visit: HERE

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