When some of us think of DIY media, the first call is video – smartphones, compact cameras, or if you’re lucky and have the money, a DSLR. And that’s good, because pictures tell great stories.
But so do sounds.
The ground-breaking US news website, ProPublica, published a podcast this week which stopped me in my tracks – and not just because of what we regard as the liberties which the US legal system allows journalists to take on air and in print when someone has been arrested and a trial is pending.
When I began listening, I knew nothing about the case of the 1979 disappearance in New York City of 6-year old Etan Patz, still less about the (ProPublica’s reporter argues) “questionable” confession by a man with learning difficulties who has been charged with Etan’s abduction and murder.
But within moments of clicking to start the podcast, I was gripped.
This was the heart-rending story of a child abduction and now, a potential miscarriage of justice (according to campaigners), told in a simple, compelling way. No bells and whistles, just what people used to call “great radio”.
Now, there was a time when being a radio reporter required bags of (usually really expensive) kit. Getting on the air from outside a studio required heavy boxes of ISDN gear and (not “lite” at all!) satellite equipment, before you even got started on the laptops, the mics and what felt like miles of cables you had to lug around with you.
I’ve been there and done it: from the Lockerbie Trial at Camp Zeist, via Westminster and Holyrood, to election campaign roadshows and car crashes.
Been there, done it – and loved it.
But now, a smartphone, a good microphone, set of cheapo headphones and a home-soldered cable made from £5-worth of bits from Maplins or wherever (numerous other fine electronics retailers are available) seems to do the job just about as well.
If it’s bells and whistles you’re after, there are some pricey apps you can spend your money on, but there are lots of free ones that do the job, too.
During the second half of 2013, I was using this kind of kit in a really brilliant training project with secondary school students in Highland region. Now, in 2014, I’m hoping to be taking those lessons and that experience out on the road with the Digital Commonwealth project, to help set up 4 community media hubs around Scotland.
I’ve also been talking to a number of volunteer groups about how they could use minimal equipment and free software to make the kind of enhanced podcasts I was doing in my old job, which include still images, some text and active weblinks in amongst the audio reporting.
It’s proper, full-spectrum multi-media stuff. And it has the capacity to change the way you think about sound – as well as how you think about dodgy confessions made to the NYPD.