Interview: Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson

This past summer, Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson launched The Sarah Lawrence International Audio Fiction Award (known as “The Sarahs“), a new initiative designed to transform fictional radio drama. Along with the award, the two are producing a fiction podcast, Serendipity. The Sarahs was met with a great deal of enthusiasm within the audio industry, a world dominated for years by traditional documentaries, as people recognized that this could be a shift toward the next big thing in podcasting. Prior to launching this award, founder Ann Heppermann worked for years as a documentary artist, reporter, and producer. She has done stories for This American Life, Radiolab, and 99% Invisible, and has won a Peabody for her work. She teaches audio fiction and narrative journalism at Sarah Lawrence College. Co-founder Martin Johnson hails from Stockholm, Sweden, where he is the creative director at Ljudbang Production and a radio producer, journalist, sound designer, and writer. In 2008, he won Prix Italia for his documentary, “My Father Takes a Vacation.” The Timbre’s Devon Taylor spoke with the two recently about their vision for The Sarahs, why now is the time for fiction in podcasting, and how they are trying to kick-start a revolution.

 

THE TIMBRE

So how did you two come to find one another?

ANN HEPPERMANN

Do we give her the true story, or…?

THE TIMBRE

Give me the true story.

ANN HEPPERMANN

All right, we’ll dabble in truth here.

MARTIN JOHNSON

We met on the street in a small village in Ireland.

ANN HEPPERMANN

Yes. That is true.

MARTIN JOHNSON

I remember you had just come from the airport, more or less. You were quite jet-lagged, and you were going to have a coffee. That’s my first memory of you, Ann.

ANN HEPPERMANN

I guess I was so jet-lagged, I don’t remember it.

MARTIN JOHNSON

You don’t even remember?

ANN HEPPERMANN

<laughs> I don’t.

MARTIN JOHNSON

Oh, that’s good.

ANN HEPPERMANN

I don’t remember that moment, but I do remember you with a cup of coffee in your hand, walking around the corner to Molly’s. That is very much burned into my brain. So maybe that was the same moment, or maybe it was also just one of many moments like that, you know?

MARTIN JOHNSON

Hmm…maybe.

THE TIMBRE

So what happened after these coffee moments?

ANN HEPPERMANN

Well, Martin and I got to talking. I teach at Sarah Lawrence and, even though I haven’t necessarily been focusing on fiction for all of these years, it’s something that I’ve been dabbling with in various forms. I was an editorial advisor at The Truth for a little bit. But primarily, I got into fiction, and thinking about fiction, and teaching audio fiction at Sarah Lawrence because of my students.

Sarah Lawrence is incredibly creative and experimental, and they encourage you to infuse in your students this element of play and experimentation. I always found that the students were doing these really incredible audio fiction pieces that felt fresh and new and in their own voice. And there was no place for it. It’s frustrating, as a teacher, to be teaching your students, infusing them with enthusiasm and knowledge and skill, and then to be like, “Well, there’s actually no place for this.”

When I met Martin, he was in the same situation at his school. And we just got to talking about how incredible it would be to start working together and make this more of an international movement.

MARTIN JOHNSON

Yeah, because I was similar to Ann, I was trying to figure out a way to create a home for the radio that has no home.

The radio drama that we have in Europe sometimes feels like black-and-white television compared to what it could be. It’s such a well-guarded world, where only a few people are allowed to step in. Those people, for the most part, aren’t radio people; they’re people who come from the theatre world, so their perspective on the radio medium is totally different from very creative radio producers. I just felt like there are so many people out there who could make fantastic audio drama but never get the chance.

So our ideas merged, more or less.

ANN HEPPERMANN

Yeah, and I think we also kind of clicked creatively. We clicked, right, Martin?

MARTIN JOHNSON

Yeah, we did.

ANN HEPPERMANN

I got the sense that we just felt like common souls with a mission. I don’t feel like I’ve met anybody like you, Martin, who’s had the same idea that I’ve had, you know?

THE TIMBRE

When you two first met, did you know that you were both radio producers?

MARTIN JOHNSON

Yes, because we met at a radio conference.

THE TIMBRE

Okay, that makes sense. I was thinking, “What are the odds of two radio producers with a similar dream bumping into each other on the streets of Ireland?”

ANN HEPPERMANN

Oh, yes, we were at an audio arts conference, the HearSay International Audio Arts Conference in Kilfinane. It was the first year, and it’s the most magical of places. So it was a place that was, in a way, conducive for people like Martin and me to meet and think about these ideas.

THE TIMBRE

There’s so much kismet involved in even being able to get into a conversation where you tap into those ideas, and discover that you’re likeminded. How were you able to unearth that in both of you?

MARTIN JOHNSON

I think it’s called alcohol…

ANN HEPPERMANN

Right, I was going to say, I think it was a pint of Guinness… Well, maybe a few pints of Guinness.

MARTIN JOHNSON

After that, we met up in New York, and Ann was like, “Should we make a podcast?” and I said, “Yes, let’s make a podcast.”

ANN HEPPERMANN

Basically I can get Martin to do anything that I want him to do.

MARTIN JOHNSON

Yeah, that’s it.

ANN HEPPERMANN

<laughs>

MARTIN JOHNSON

It was very easy, because I had the same experience as Ann. I felt like, “Oh, this is a person who has thought exact same thoughts as I have and has really been thinking about this for a very long time, like I have.’ So the startup process was actually very short. It was just, we have to do this.

ANN HEPPERMANN

To put some context into it, I had come up with this proposal I would say two to three years ago and brought it to Sarah Lawrence and they raised all of the initial funding. It’s called the Sarah Awards to embody the spirit of Sarah Lawrence.

By the time I met Martin, things were already going. But it wasn’t until I met him that I realized that there was this piece that was missing. By having Martin involved, we were really able to make the vision start coming to life.

THE TIMBRE

What do you feel was the piece that was missing?

ANN HEPPERMANN

This idea of being able to experiment with the form. How to really push that. And also, I’ve always thought this was going to be an international fiction award. But, to be honest, I didn’t know too many international people at the time, and Martin, you know, fits that bill. <laughs>

MARTIN JOHNSON

Also, I think that both Ann and I really appreciate that when you make a documentary, there are so many things that you have to be considerate about. There are so many people that you have to be considerate about, and there are so many feelings and emotions and facts. It’s real people, in a real life, and you have to be considerate of ethics, and how far you can actually push a story, and what happens when you put it out there.

But with fiction, you can kind of free yourself from a lot of those things, but it can also close a lot of doors. And so Ann and I really want to encourage other people to change their ways of how they tell a story. We want people to consider, “What is narration? How can you work more with emotions that surprise you, rather than a very narrative-driven story?” All of those things that we thought separately, we are both intuitively applying to the podcast.

ANN HEPPERMANN

And I’ve been thinking about just how much I wanted to expand the definition of what audio fiction could be. I feel like, rather than considering it to be this one form that we all think we know that is just a remnant of radio days from the 1930s, we want it to be something that we could experiment with. And, even more excitingly, I think since we’re at this time of re-emerging audio fiction, we, as creators and producers, have a chance to really redefine things like, What does it mean to make fiction for the ears?

I think this is a time like no other, and I think—not to make too bold of a statement—we’re at this moment when we can help to shape and define what the art form is. And when I say we, I don’t mean Martin and me, but I mean we as producers and creators can help elevate and refigure what we’re thinking is audio fiction and elevate it to art.

THE TIMBRE

You mentioned 1930s audio fiction. Fiction was a mainstay in the audio world, and it just fell away at some point. Why do you think that is?

ANN HEPPERMANN

You know, I bet you there is an answer somewhere out there from somebody who has studied the history of radio drama in the United States, and the history of radio in the United States. I can only speculate from my own 40-year-old vantage point. I think once television came in, fiction in the United States just went away. Although, that said, as somebody pointed out, there’s always been a thriving genre of fiction on television.

Why is it that radio just kind of switched from entertainment to news and music?  My guess is that it had something to do with capitalism and corporate interests. Maybe it was just too expensive to make, and news and music was easier.

As a bit of a radio junkie, when I’m in the car, and I’m in different places across the country, I like to turn on the radio and go to the AM dial, and usually there will be a Christian station where they’re doing biblical re-enactments, which is a form of radio drama. And I always love listening to that kind of stuff, because it feels like something that I am not really hearing anywhere. I mean, yes, it feels old and antiquated and has a message that I don’t believe in, but I am incredibly taken with the—I don’t want to say the newness of it, but just with the unique nature of it still existing.

MARTIN JOHNSON

It’s completely different in Sweden, because radio drama has been around from that time and still is. It is protected by the public service itself. The public service contract has said that the national radio station has to have a radio drama department. So it still exists, even though the listener numbers are quite few.

When I grew up, we were listening to radio drama for children. That’s one of my fondest memories: we sat in the car, or we sat at breakfast, and listened to these fantastic pieces. That was my introduction to radio drama.

ANN HEPPERMANN

But why do you think it stayed the form that it did over there?

MARTIN JOHNSON

I think it’s because it’s been so connected to theatre, and so it’s very theatre-driven. And also because the people who are usually the head of the department come from the theatre direction. They’re not radio producers trying to expand the way that we can do fiction. The people who are the head of the department always come from outside. And so radio isn’t as intuitive for them as it is for you and I, for example.

THE TIMBRE

Often, it feels like the audio fiction being made right now is taking a different medium and trying apply it to a podcast. It seems like the conceit is that audio doesn’t offer as robust of a sensory experience. But my hunch is that you would totally disagree with that. And I’m curious how you see podcasts as a medium that can do fiction in a way that other mediums can’t.

ANN HEPPERMANN

I think we’ve already been using the rules of storytelling in podcasts. We stole storytelling concepts and put them into our nonfiction. We talk about character, we talk about plot, we talk about twist, we talk about resolution, universal themes…all of these are storytelling concepts that come from fiction. I think we’ve been kind of overlaying these ideas onto the ways that we tell nonfiction stories. And I think maybe we’re at a time where producers are now more comfortable exploring fictional ideas, or starting to explore fiction.

There’s something very scary about creating a work of fiction, because you really have to convince the audience that this is a story worth listening to, even though it’s not true. There’s something that’s a little bit sexy about having a story that’s true and being able to tell it in this very enticing way. I think that part of the reason that we’re at this point now is because we have so many more people who are creating these kinds of stories, and who’ve been trained in storytelling, and maybe they’re starting to have the realization like, “Wait a minute…I’ve been using these fictional concepts all along, how about I…” And maybe they feel bold enough to make fiction.

MARTIN JOHNSON

What Ann’s saying is the trick to this. We know it’s not true, but how can we make the listener feel they can enter this world and just explore something. You have to work with what you have in a different way. We all still want a good story; the question is how you make it.

ANN HEPPERMANN

This second golden age in narrative journalism has shown that people just want fantastic stories. Places like The Moth, places like This American Life—for years, they’ve been proving that people want good stories. And then you have the phenomena of a podcast like Welcome to Night Vale that proves that there’s a definite audience out there for fiction.

MARTIN JOHNSON

Mmm hmm. And also, one thing that I’d really like to point out, working as a sound designer myself, the way that you can work with sound when you work in fiction is so freeing and so liberating and so fantastic. You can actually create these sonic experiences that are never really justified in documentary pieces, because it takes away the focus from the true story. With sound design in a fictional piece, or a semi-fictional piece, you have completely free hands in a totally different way.

THE TIMBRE

I’m not somebody who works in sound design like that, so tell me a little bit more about that.

MARTIN JOHNSON

Because you need to create a world for the listener to enter, you need to create a soundtrack for a film that just exists in their head. You can’t just work with music and force feelings. You have to create something where the story lives. You have to create rules. You have to build grammatical rules into the sound design itself that make sense. You need to audio-visualize feelings in a different way.

ANN HEPPERMANN

And I should say, there are places like Radiolab, and other shows now, that have been experimenting with that. Walter Murch has a fantastic essay that’s been on Transom for years that talks about this idea of the spectrum of embodied and encoded sound and how certain sounds are more musical and elicit feelings, while other sounds are more literal and just give us content. I think that is also part of the skill set that we’ve developed here. But, as Martin said earlier, there’s only so far you can go with that in nonfiction before you either really…is denigrate the right word?

THE TIMBRE

Interfere, maybe?

ANN HEPPERMANN

Yeah, before you really interfere and muck up the story and the truth. Or just take something that is so wonderfully a true story and put too many bells and whistles on it. Sometimes you just want your true story just to sit there.

But I think with fiction, you really have more of an invitation to create these worlds, sonically, in a way that don’t necessarily feel so cliché at this point.

THE TIMBRE

It’s funny that you both come from documentary backgrounds, but you’re both pushing for fiction. And you’ve touched on it a little bit, but I’m curious why you feel like this is a shift that is vital to the future of audio narratives.

MARTIN JOHNSON

For me, it’s about challenging the way we’re making radio. In Europe, we’ve been doing documentaries for a very long while in a very European style. In the U.S., you make these heavy, narrative-driven stories. If you’ve heard one, you’ve basically heard them all, in a sense. But there’s this huge void just waiting to be explored and challenged.

So, for me, it’s more looking at it as a radio artist and seeing what there is left to explore, and what there is that we can make the listeners experience that we never could otherwise. I do sincerely believe that there are so many things left to do in the audio world, and I think that radio fiction is really one of those areas where we can challenge ourselves as producers, and, foremost, challenge the listener, making them experience the world in a new way, making them think about themselves in a new way. You want to reach that moment when they kind of lose contact with the outside world, but not only that, you want them to reflect on themselves and who they are. When they finish listening, you want to create that moment when they shift, where there’s something shifting inside them. Audio fiction can explore those kinds of existential and emotional experiences.

ANN HEPPERMANN

As I said earlier, part of the inspiration for this was just listening to how—I don’t want to say mind-blowing, but possibly mind-expanding—some of the works were that my students were creating, and how that excited me.

I always feel like it’s important as an artist to want to have that spark and to continue to have that curiosity. I think right now there’s new ground to explore, and we have more people learning and more people interested than I’ve ever seen in my time doing this.

I think the people who are making this are also ready for a challenge and ready for something new. This isn’t to say that it completely went away. We’ve had people making really fantastic experimental fiction works, like Gregory Whitehead, and Joe Frank, and other people over the years. But we’re just at a point where audio fiction is the next frontier that people want to explore. And they’ve been exploring it in different ways, on different shows. They just haven’t been calling it fiction—they’ve just been calling it “truthiness,” and “playing with the truth,” and “confusing the listener.” I want to call it fiction.

THE TIMBRE

Ann, a few weeks ago when we first spoke about The Sarah, you mentioned the word revolution, which I loved. You said you wanted to start a revolution.

What makes you choose that word?  Do you feel like this world really just needs to be shaken up?

MARTIN JOHNSON

Yes.

ANN HEPPERMANN

Yes, yes…Yes!  <laughs> I believe in this so much that the term revolution does not feel like a hyperbolic, crazy statement. We are at this point where we can shake things up. In fact, it’s dangerous if we don’t feel like that we should shake things up. Because as audio fiction begins to emerge again, I think that the saddest and the worst thing that could happen here would be for us just to return to the old way of storytelling. It would be like if, all of a sudden, people re-discovered filmmaking, and everybody just went and bought black and white film. I don’t want that to happen. I want people to say to themselves, “How can I change this? What do I have to offer? What has never been done before?”

This is a point when we can make our mark on an art form. How many times in history has that happened? It’s almost like we’re at this time when filmmaking was just kind of like anything goes. What was the film that Dali did that is just like insane? This is where my stupidity comes into play.

THE TIMBRE

Well, my stupidity’s in play as well, because I have no idea.

ANN HEPPERMANN

Un Chien Andalou!

Certain things will be more acceptable to a mainstream audience, but we are at this time where I hope people feel that they can be like a Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, when they made their film Un Chien Andalou in 1929.

To look at that film, and to think, “Oh, that’s made in 1929”—it still feels experimental today. That is because it was almost like anything went, because there was no sense of what things were “supposed” to be, and how things were “supposed” to look. I want people to feel that we’re at a point where they don’t feel like there are any barriers. That’s the beauty of podcasting. And who knows how long this window will be open? I mean, I hope it’s open forever, but who knows how long it will be open to a point where everybody just feels like they can try and experiment with anything.

That’s why I think revolution is also a very apt term, because if we’re just saying we’re bringing things back—well, I don’t want to bring things back to the way that they were. I want to change things.

THE TIMBRE

Martin, do you want to add to that?

MARTIN JOHNSON

Amen, maybe? I don’t know. I do really, really, really believe that, in this age where people are really discovering what it means to actually listen to a story through the headphones, there are endless possibilities. There are so many things you can do.

THE TIMBRE

Now this might be sort of a false dichotomy, but I’m curious if you think this revolution is going to come from inside the audio world, or if it’s going to come from other artists—writers, and filmmakers, and playwrights—entering this space?

ANN HEPPERMANN

That’s a tough one, because I’m a person who wants to invite in experimental musicians and other people who’ve been working on what I think are some amazing audio fiction style pieces. I think it’s a balance, you know?

Maybe the problem is that for a while—and I’m definitely saying maybe, maybe, maybe—we handed over the reins to people who work in theatre, or are playwrights, and people who are fantastic storytellers, but aren’t thinking specifically of storytelling for audio. And so I think that we need to recognize, as producers and creators, that we have the skills to make very immersive storytelling in our craft.

But I also think that we do have things to learn from people who have been telling stories all along. I hope that people think about that and collaborate, or maybe just look toward those people as inspiration.

MARTIN JOHNSON

I just want to get back to your question about the idea of revolution. I do really think that this is the time for audio fiction. And I think one of the main reasons why I believe that, besides everything that Ann said, is that the response that we got when the Sarah Awards was official was incredible. People were like, “Finally, finally, finally! Why hasn’t this existed?” There are a lot of people out there who think this is a fantastic idea.

THE TIMBRE

And count us among them.

MARTIN JOHNSON

People need a starting point, and this is just a starting point. And then people can take it themselves, and create those revolutions—with a push from us.

 

The Sarah Awards will open on November 23, 2015. Currently, The Sarahs is accepting submissions to The Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Award with a deadline of October 15, 2015. Winners will get free a Hindenburg Journalist Pro License and a personalized artistic print of their radio story by Cal Tabueana-Frolli.

~

 

 

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

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