'Giving voice to the voiceless': How the Internet can fulfill public radio's mission

Jay Allison, 55, is a broadcast journalist and producer whose pieces have aired on National Public Radio’s This American Life, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Along the way, Allison has picked up five Peabody awards and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award, the industry’s highest honor. In other words, he has a “golden touch” in public broadcasting.

Allison’s touch seems just as potent on the Internet. In 2001, he helped launch two Websites, Transom.org and the Public Radio Exchange that encourage citizen involvement in public radio. “I would like to see public radio become more invitational,” he says, “and the Web is the way to issue that invitation.”

Allison spoke to OJR about the future of public radio on the Internet; about what makes powerful Internet audio; and how he hopes the Internet will help bring new voices to public radio.

OJR: What the original goal was for starting Transom.org and how that goal has evolved since that time?

Allison: When we started it, it was kind of cutting edge and now it’s sort of old fashioned. It’s hard to keep up with the changes in literacy and expectation and community tools and all those kinds of things.

But in the beginning it was simply an effort to give out the tools and ideas that people might want to be able to tell their own stories on public radio. I’m a lifer in public radio and I’ve always had the notion that public radio could be a little bit more like the way the Internet has turned out to be–namely that the users are also the content providers.

When we started Transom there was no real repository of either the practical tools to make programming or the sort of philosophy and mission behind the origins of public broadcasting. My interest is in getting more voices involved and from communities we may not be hearing from and from demographics we may not be hearing and ages we may not be hearing from. The Internet presented itself as a chance to build a library of that kind of thing and keep that library current.

OJR: How is Internet audio different from public radio pieces?

Allison: I don’t think it is all that different but I think the point is that in public radio it would behoove us to admit a greater range of style. I think one of public radio’s weaknesses is a sameness of style and an expectation of a certain kind of presentation and a certain attitude and sensibility. While it is important to be able to rely on the credibility of the source and it’s comforting to know what you’re going to get, that can also be a weakness. It eliminates the element of surprise, which is one of the things that captures attention.

I think I’m more often surprised on the Internet than I am by public radio. At Transom we hope to embrace a greater range of style–we don’t impose an expectation of how someone should sound or how a story should be told.

Which means that some of the pieces we put on the site may not ever make it to public radio because they are too far out of an accepted existing style. Still it’s important to explore those boundaries and very important I think to talk about what makes the cut in public radio and what doesn’t, and, more importantly, why.

OJR: Is that line shifting, as to what will make the cut in public radio?

Allison: I think public radio is scrambling to figure out what its identity will be, and it should. Since public radio began, there have been so many changes. Its earliest incarnations were as an educational broadcasting system. Most of the early stations were University licensees. As they began to get into the news, it was far from the mainstream. I think it considered itself a kind of an alternative news source in the early mission statements, with language about giving voice to the voiceless, and shining light in the shadows. It suggested that our obligation was to look where others were not.

Then public radio became the radio source of record. It now is relied upon by many for their daily fix of news and information, and it’s no longer an alternative. The Internet has created greater public involvement and, in that framework, public radio needs to figure out what its role is.

OJR: What can it learn from what’s going on in the Internet in terms of audio and the ways of presenting the news?

Allison: I think it’s a lesson in humility, and that it’s important to recognize that if you are not delivering a tone and style and substance that people want, they now can find it elsewhere.

OJR: What I see now in terms of community citizen journalism is very text-driven. What role is Internet audio is playing in citizen journalism?

Allison: I tend to be more involved with citizen storytellers rather than citizen journalists. Journalism is an actual profession and does have a sense of ethics and boundaries and rules, which are appropriate. On the other hand each of us has stories to tell which don’t require a particular training other than making it a good story. I’ve always been a champion in all kinds of projects of trying to get people to realize that they can take advantage of the opportunity to get their stories and voices heard.

OJR: Is there more tolerance for different sound quality on the Internet?

Allison: I have a pretty great tolerance for a range of sound. The problem is if the sound interferes with your comprehension or hearing the heart in the voice, which is what’s important. If technical issues overwhelm our ability to hear the piece then it’s less effective.

OJR: And those are the rules that you still teach on Transom?

Allison: Yeah, simple stuff like: “mic close to your mouth” and “get the appropriate levels.”

OJR: Many citizen journalism sites tend to tend to cover a small community or a niche topic. That generates community involvement and debate. When I look through Transom there is just such a richness of topics from different places. Can you get the same kind of sense of community when the topics vary so widely?

Allison: When you are organized by theme or subject or special interest, you’ll get the zealots involved. Whereas at a site like Transom you are focusing more on the skill and practice and effectiveness of the story, and therefore the story can be about Possums or it can be about torture. And our goal is to get people to be able to communicate their story and truth, no matter what the subject. The community gathers around the practice of using the medium rather than a given topic area.

OJR: Transom still relies on the community to give you the stories?

Allison: Yeah, Transom spawned another site, Public Radio Exchange, which is built with the next generation of tools. Transom covers the how-to and the why of making and the Public Radio Exchange deals with the distribution of that content. It’s been a rather effective tool in getting people to the air on public radio stations around the country.

OJR: You talked about how there is often a formulaic expectation on public radio and now if a site that helps people get back on the air, maybe they are not going to be as experimental or creating new ways of telling story. Might Public Radio Exchange actually have the opposite effect of what you may want?

Allison: I think you’ll find a huge range at the Public Radio Exchange, everything from your “meat-and-potatoes” public broadcasting reports to lots of experimental and odd and interesting stuff. It really just depends on the taste of the public radio station as to whether they’ll take a chance in airing it.

OJR: Print news organizations now use audio, video and photographs to complement their print pieces on the Internet. Radio is posting the audio on the Internet along with photos and video. What does that do to the visceral connection one feels when listening to audio? When you bring in images, how does that change the audio storytelling?

Allison: Well, dramatically. Images are very powerful. I’ve worked in television, I used to shoot specials for Nightline and the image tends to rule the eye. So sometimes if you want your listener/viewer to simply pay attention to the story and you have an image present, the image can often work against you. It can work against your receiving that voice and letting it fully get inside you because the picture captures you in an instant.

We’re soon going to have a new feature on Transom with a guest talking about attaching images, slideshows and video to audio. They will discuss how to keep a program audio-driven when there are visual images. We will also feature two pieces. One about the last day of an old country store and one about a guy who was released off death row on DNA evidence. Both of them are slideshows but the narrative could stand alone as radio pieces.

About Sandeep Junnarkar

SANDEEP JUNNARKAR is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (The City University of New York). He entered the online journalism world at its infancy in 1994 as part of a team gathered to present The New York Times on America Online, a service called @times. He later became a breaking news editor, writer and Web producer when the paper went live on the Internet as The New York Times on the Web. He served as a reporter and New York Bureau chief for News.com from 1998 to 2003.He received a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in 1994. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley.