A Storytelling Renaissance in the Digital Age

From a 140-character count ephemeral tweet, to a behemoth Jonathan Franzen hardback, forms of storytelling today are ever-elastic and changing. We read, we watch, we listen, we mass consume stories with less discrimination on the form and delivery, and more on the authenticity of the voice. We yearn for stories that shed light on the human experience, and in a world fast-forwarding with technology, a return to the pure, elemental forms of storytelling is sometimes what can fuel and transport us.

This summer at the Los Angeles Public Library, ostensibly the greatest civic record of stories in our city, storytelling is going retro, with ALOUD events featuring tried and true in-person discourse—with people talking and people listening. (With a little technology mixed in for good measure to record and transmit the events.)

Richard Montoya, Myriam Gurba, Alie Ward, Héctor Tobar, Brenda Varda, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Philip Littell, and Tom Lutz. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Last week, ALOUD and the LA Review of Books teamed up for a first-ever experimental live-storytelling extravaganza. Local writers (pictured above) put down their pens and took the mic to retell personal anecdotes from their own lives in the City of Angels. Tom Lutz and his band Blue Tuna provided a soundtrack for the festivities and Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, in his role as provocateur and MC, opened the night with his own L.A. rhapsody, “It’s still a desert after all,” he said of the mystifying landscape, “Nothing is concrete except the river.”

The stories ranged from humorous run-ins with elderly strangers, to the good-old-days of outdoor theatre on Topanga Canyon, to ghost stories of the Black Dahlia, to Héctor Tobar’s piercing recollection of his stepfather’s suicide—a story with such factual acuity and intimacy of Los Angeles county that perhaps only a LA Times journalist could tell it with equal parts of heart. Listen to a podcast of this event here.

Next up, a group of storytellers will bring radio to the ALOUD stage. On Tuesday, June 26, Daniel Alarcón and fellow radio producers and reporters will present a live broadcast of the new Spanish-language radio show, Radio Ambulante. In the style of This American Life, Radio Ambulante is the first show to tell the stories of latinoamericanos de todas las Américas.

Radio Ambulante and team rehearsing for ALOUD event.

As part of this special bilingual evening that will also examine how radio and digital media are impacting the way we tell stories today, Sonic Trace, KCRW’s new multi-platform story-telling project, will be at the Central Library to collect your story before the event. We caught up with Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, a producer of Sonic Trace to discuss how this project is sweeping L.A. for stories.

What are you planning for the ALOUD event?

Anayansi: We see the ALOUD event as a way to present ourselves to the part of the Los Angeles community that knows good story-telling, understands the power of radio and will understand why Sonic Trace is important. Radio Ambulante’s audience is our audience – Latin Americanized Americans and Americanized Latin Americans. We are planning on meeting and greeting at the event, and we are bringing our recorders with us. We want people to answer our questions—¿Por qué te vas? ¿Por qué te quedas? ¿Por qué regresas?—and through their answers, give them a taste of what we envision for Sonic Trace—an oral history mosaic of what makes us stay, go and come back to Los Angeles.

Can you talk about the curatorial process of finding these LA stories? How are you reaching out to the community?

Anayansi: Good storytelling is universal. It is quotidian and timeless at the same time. Sonic Trace aims towards this core in every single story—radio feature, sonic ID, contributed web story, podcast, video and blog post. Making stories universal and timeless is both a goal and a curatorial parameter. Beyond that, a Sonic Trace story should represent a very local Los Angeles narrative that crosses into a local narrative of a city, town and village of origin. We want to know what it feels like to bump into a childhood friend from the Honduran highlands in the heart of Santa Monica. Or, the ways in which entire communities in Mexico and Central America have been transformed by el otro lado (the other side).

Gary Scott, KCRW’s News Director puts it nicely, “Where other news stations might see “local” as constraining, we see local as a pathway to other parts of the state, country and world; a pathway to other cultures and across generations. These pathways connect us, and they sometimes serve as lines that we fear to cross. The concept of “local” is an entry point. After all, we might not be ready to hear about a tragedy or triumph in El Salvador, but we might learn about it if the story starts at our corner store—and we learn that foreign really isn’t foreign at all.”

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes collecting stories.

We are reaching out the community in various ways. We are finding points of engagement with potential audiences through events, like the one in which Radio Ambulante is participating.  But we are also actively going to high schools and working with young people across Los Angeles, we are hosting events at hometown associations from the states and cities of origin. We are targeting “cultural ambassadors” who already have the trust of the community, and think that our project is relevant, like the clergy in Santa Cecilia Church.

We also held a design competition reaching out to L.A.’s design community to design our sound booth. The winner was announced this week, and in a month and a half we should have our booth out in communities gathering stories. Our aim is to set it up in places where people already convene—like MacArthur Park and La Guelaguetza Restaurant in Koreatown.

Image of winning design for Sonic Trace mobile sound booth.

Are there any trends or themes you see surfacing in people’s experiences?

Anayansi: I’ve found that our questions ¿Por qué te vas? ¿Por qué te quedas? ¿Por qué regresas? Why do you go? Why do you stay? And, what makes you return? bring up surprising answers. So often we hear cliché immigrant stories that are framed as “the other”. The truth is that as Americans, we can all relate to why people make these decisions. At the same time, the answers are unique to each person. There is a storytelling balance there that my co-producer and I are constantly searching for. The trick is to be recording….

How do you think storytelling has changed in light of the high-tech world we live in? What role does “audio” play in our cultural landscape?

Anayansi: The digital age is presenting a renaissance for radio and audio. It is a charmed time for independent radio/audio producers. Of course, there is the aspect of both targeted digital distribution and massive on-air reach. But what is less obvious is how the format has changed. It has gone back to its core of entertainment and storytelling from pre-TV times, and it has also evolved into a space of flourishing creativity and endless possibility for narrative. From more staple documentary programs like This American Life and Radio Diaries to entire format breakers like Nick van der Kolk’s Love and Radio podcast, the work of Kara Oehler and Ann Heppermann and now, Radio Ambulante.

They say radio is dead. But I say radio has been dead, and we’re still here. We’re used to the bad rap, so we’re not hung up on it like print and TV. I think radio is resilient, and the digital age is paying radio back for it.

Click here to read more about Sonic Trace.

Reserve your free ticket for the Radio Ambulante event at ALOUD here.

Sonic Trace is part of Localore, a national initiative of AIR–Association for Independents in Radio– with principal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  It is produced in partnership with AIR and Zeega. The broadcast home of Sonic Trace is KCRW’s Independent Producer Project. The full project will go live this fall. In the meantime, tune into our radio features.

–Posted by Bridgette Bates

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