The bureaucracy surrounding support for the unemployed is often mindless and ultimately de-humanizing for everyone involved.
But that doesn't mean that audio stories about the issue must also crush your soul! Case in point: The Signing reconstructs the experience of contacting the UK's federally-run JobCentre (or "signing") and finds some sympathy for both sides of the effort, through reconstructed phone calls, sound design and a wee bit of humour.
The Signing was commissioned from Ellie Richold for In the Dark's Sound Bank series. Read more about In the Dark from founder Nina Garthwaite (including how you can get involved) and about Richold's own mind-numbing Jobcentre experience, Behind the Scenes.
Since graduating from Goldsmith’s MA radio course Ellie Richold has worked part-time for the BBC Spanish American service with occasional stints with the African service. Richold was shortlisted for Reuters Student Radio journalist of the year in 2007 and nominated for a Sony award in 2008. Over the years, she has produced and contributed to the World Service’s Heart and Soul programme and worked as a researcher for several different production companies. She is currently studying a Masters in Cinematography and Post-production.
Nina Garthwaite began her career as a documentary filmmaker but in 2010 set about pursuing her love of radio features. She is the founder and Director of In The Dark, an organisation dedicated to celebrating audio storytelling through live listening events. She also presents Short Cuts, a series that showcases short creative radio features on BBC Radio 4 and works part time at a rest house for retired seafarers.
BEHIND THE SCENES with In the Dark founder Nina Garthwaite and producer of The Signing, Ellie Richold.
Nina, how would you describe In the Dark to, say, my mother?
In The Dark is an organisation based in London that aims to create a mini-revolution in the way we think about the art of spoken-word radio and audio feature-making by lifting it out of its traditional settings and curating it in new and unusual ways. We are run by an enthusiastic team of volunteers and we've been holding monthly events since 2010, gathering in bars, galleries, theatres - even under a motorway - to listen to creative radio. It's kind of like a film club (but without the pictures).
ITD is very supportive of "live listening culture." Describe a few recent events you've hosted. How do they compare with listening to stories on the radio, or with your headphones on by yourself?
Initially the idea of "live listening" was partly just about finding an excuse to play programmes we liked and having a chance to chat about them afterwards, but the live aspect has definitely taken on a life of its own. One of the first moments I realised the power of this was at an early event when Tim Hinman from Third Ear came over and played The Garden at the Whitechapel Gallery. The room was crammed full of people, and the laughter was infectious.You don't get that when you're listening on your own. It's really nice!
Sometimes things work better in the live listening context, sometimes worse and part of our challenge is understanding that. We had a lot of fun recently with our sex-themed night "One Night Stand". Knowing that people would be sitting squeezed in next to each other had an impact on the way we picked pieces and curated it. At a live listening event everyone is, of course, free to leave, but to some extent they are compelled to stay and that makes things interesting. We don't ever intend to annoy or disappoint the audience, but you get a little more time to play, perhaps. I think live listening has it's own rules which is really exciting and we're learning about them and experimenting with them more and more.
How does The Sound Bank work? The Signing is from the second round of commissions; is there a Round 3 on the horizon?
The idea of The Sound Bank was to create an opportunity for producers to imagine and create work purely for the sake of it. There are no broadcasting guidelines to contend with, no anniversary hooks, no "house style". It's just about a spirit of adventure and making a piece because you want to make it - and getting paid for it.
We run about one round a year, giving grants of between £500 and £1500. Anyone can apply. We're particularly keen on supporting producers who are pursuing an idea that pushes them creatively in some way - regardless of whether they are a student or a professional. Most proposals involve convincing funders or broadcasters you know what you're doing. In some ways The Sound Bank is about convincing us that you don't... at least not entirely.
The Sound Bank is currently funded on a pretty small scale so it is quite precarious - people and production companies who like what we do put money in the pot and when we have enough we'll hold a round. If there are any people or companies out there interested in becoming patrons of Round 3 now is the time to get in touch - we hope to launch it in October and hopefully we'll be announcing it at a legendary audio conference in Chicago [ed.'s note: !!!] we are going to be attending at the time...
What does the future look - er, sound - like for In the Dark?
I'm slightly concerned that the future sounds like glass smashing. We're definitely busier than ever events-wise. I think we have 6 events in July which is a lot of live listening, even for us. We've also got a bit of an experiment in cinema-based live listening that we're working towards - more on that soon. But most significantly we've just been given a Glasshouse in Wapping to turn into a radio-record-store-come-full-time-listening-space. We're opening in a couple of weeks (which means we're looking for producers whose work we'd like to stock and play - so get in touch if you're interested!). We'll be there for 6 months at least so if you're going to be in London between now and Christmas there's no excuse for not paying us a visit. But no leaning on the walls.
Now to Ellie...
Where did the idea for The Signing come from?
I signed on for the first time and found the forty minute phone interview intrusive, but at the same time, really ludicrous. It was an odd experience for me, but a totally mundane one for the woman on the other end of the phone, who spends her days and weeks asking the same questions over and over again. One of us was dehumanised via humiliating interrogation and the other by repeating a mantra and shutting her brain down.We were both forced into an insincere dance, reading a bureaucratic script which meant we were interacting on some level, but that neither of us was really there. I wanted to make an audio story that would convey that bizarre experience to someone who had never had the pleasure of claiming job seekers allowance.
The Signing uses sound design playfully, and to great effect, to convey the experiences of both the job seekers and job centre employees. What were you specifically aiming to accomplish through music, editing, pacing, and other production elements?
Thank you! There is a certain genre of bland “uplifting” music that accompanies corporate videos, which my musician friend Ant Channer managed to imitate perfectly. I wanted the listener to feel the job centre corporate vision washing over them, before being introduced to the reality.
The second piece of music, "The Ghost Office," by Xylitol (played by Belbury Poly) was intended to enhance the sense of plodding on with this interminable list of pointless questions. I wanted the pace to demonstrate how mindless and meaningless the questions become for both people. I love the track. It's got a silly side and almost turns the phone interviewer into a wind-up toy.
Although it's a serious matter that the whole process is ridiculous, I was aware that it could come across as really depressing, so I also tried to use the sound design to make it funny where possible and to push it through a farcical lens rather than an investigative or moralising one.
What was most challenging about telling this particular story through sound?
No one working at the job centre would talk to me, not even anonymously. I tried several different routes and in the end I had to interview someone who used to work there. They wouldn't even allow me to record the phone call, so I had to write the questions down and do a “reconstruction” with my ever-patient boyfriend as the applicant and then edit him out.
Do you produce stories regularly? What are you working on now?
I am working on a short film project at the moment, so radio is on the back-burner for a couple of months, but I'm really interested in caceroladas. [Ed. note: We had no idea what these were, but now think this sounds like the best radio story ever.] I proposed an idea to the World Service a couple of years ago and they didn't want it, but perhaps I'll try again now that the Quebec protests have adopted the medium. Steal my idea though and I will hunt you down...