Most of my students associate radio news with brief story summaries read at the top of the hour by a person broadcasting from a studio. They have yet to experience the rich storytelling to be found at public radio staples like This American Life, Radiolab, or on NPR’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered. So I’m always looking for a good story that can be used to demonstrate what good radio should sound like and how that same audio can be adapted to the Web.
The broadcast vs. online story that students seem to relate to the best is “Music Written For Monkeys Strikes A Chord,” produced by Richard Harris for Morning Edition in 2009. The main character in the story is cellist and composer David Teie, whose musical tastes are wide enough that he has been asked to perform with both the National Symphony Orchestra and the heavy metal band Metallica. Teie is curious about the innate biological response that animals have to music. The composer reached out to Chuck Snowdon, a psychology professor who manages a colony of monkeys called cotton-top tamarins at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The composer and the scientist compared the tempo and pitch of noises produced by tamarins when they are calm, and the noises they produce when they’re agitated. Teie explains the process like this:
“Basically I took those elements and patterned them the way we do normally with music,” he says. “You repeat them, take them up a [musical] third — you know, using the same kind of compositional techniques we use in human music.”
He played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys’ voices. Monkeys don’t respond at all to music written for humans, but they did respond when they heard this composition.
I play the broadcast story first for the students, without revealing how it is presented online. My first question is what elements are absolutely essential as audio? The answer is the sounds made by a calm tamarin, the sounds of an agitated monkey, and the sounds Teie produced when he wrote songs that agitate or calm a tamarin. Trust me, the monkey sounds and the music are indescribable in text. All the quotes from the researchers convert easily to text. It’s interesting to hear the tone of their voices, but that audio isn’t as essential as the sounds of monkeys and music.
I also ask what can’t the broadcast story show? For example, I ask if anyone in the class can describe what a cotton-top tamarin looks like, or how big it is? Then I reveal the online story, which has a photo of a tamarin by Bruce Richter of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
If there’s any doubt about how essential the audio is to the story, I ask students to compare the NPR story, or a similar story published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison news service (both of which contain the audio clips), with “Writing Music for Monkeys, A D.C. cellist knows how to make tamarins swing,” written by Sadie Dingfelde for the Washington City Paper.
The power of the audio is clear.