Radio Atlas: Audio Goes Visual with Eleanor McDowall

Radio Atlas logo designed by Moon Hussain

This coming weekend marks the fifth annual Megapolis Festival, a gathering of radio fans and creators from all over the world. Philadelphia has been blessed to play host to the event this year, which has taken place in previous years in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

A plethora of events, workshops and presentations, will be happening all weekend. One event in particular seems to be pushing the boundaries of what we consider radio- the Radio Atlas presentation.

Eleanor McDowall is the mind behind Radio Atlas, and is based in London. She works essentially as an archivist and translator, taking radio pieces in other languages and communicating them in English- but with the original language intact. Those of us who listen to NPR regularly know the common solution to interviewing folks who speak another language is to dub a translation over the person speaking, whose voice gets relegated to the background. McDowall goes for a different approach- she creates subtitled translations that accompany the audio as it plays, so that their voices get front and center representation. Think of these as subtitled films without the onscreen acting. The listener is still then required to imagine the scenery for ourselves, the way that great radio always makes us do.

Per the Megapolis description, this particular event will “…premiere a Belgian radio story about a residential home for the senile where music is an important form of occupational therapy; patients who can’t remember their children can remember songs of their youth in perfect detail, a frivolous way of conjuring a merciless deterioration.”

I spoke with McDowall over e-mail about her love of radio and other languages, and the importance of leaving our English-only comfort zones.

Andy Elijah: Hello Eleanor! My first question to you is, can you give us a brief overview of what a person attending the Radio Atlas audio listening event can expect to find, at this year’s Megapolis Festival?

Eleanor McDowall: Absolutely! Essentially it’ll be like going to see a subtitled movie but in this space you’ll get to access some of the innovative, odd, moving audio documentaries that are being made in languages you don’t speak.

In the Megapolis programme I’m featuring one of my favourite old audio docs – a beautiful, tender Belgian feature from the ’90s and a couple of shorts – some evocative, absorbing Spanish sound art and the sound of an enthusiastic Danish football coach shouting obscenities while he tries to rile up his flailing team.

A: What inspired you to focus on archiving and presenting non-English audio docs?

E: Many of my favourite radio-makers working today aren’t working in English and I found it frustrating how hard it was to share their brilliant, odd, provocative, beautiful docs with other people. I’d found it baffling for a long time how little we seemed to care in the audio industry about documentaries being made in languages we don’t speak. As if in film they’d heard that people were making movies in Italian, French and Spanish but thought they were probably rubbish so they just ignored them.

English-language audio can flow into iTunes charts around the world much more easily than, for example, brilliant Danish or French podcasts can reach English-speakers. This gives it a really dangerous, out-sized stylistic influence – something I think it’s healthy to challenge.

Not opening your ears up to the world means you lose out on all the different ways a story can be told. There’s also a political dimension here – it’s dangerous to only understand a place, a language, a culture through our own lens – we need to hear stories that come authentically from other places, rather than just flying in to tell stories as audio tourists.

A: So in order to reach these pieces to English-only speakers, you have created subtitled visual accompaniments. I am sure you put a lot of thought into how to portray these pieces onscreen. How did you arrive at your solution? And were there any film, art, or visual influences that you took into account when creating the docs?

E: I was keen to find a solution that would get a listener as close as possible to the experience of hearing a documentary in their own language. Sometimes audio docs are translated within the sound (large chunks of interview tape get over-dubbed with a translation voice). Whilst it’s great to keep it purely audio – and I have heard these done very thoughtfully – my feeling is that this changes the original more than I’d like. You’re listening to something new – with the pregnant silences, the musicality of delivery, the sense of the interviewee’s comic timing obscured.

I’ve tried to design subtitles that work in concert with the sound – to reflect the stutters and pauses, the timing and music and, most importantly, to get out of the way when you don’t need them. First and foremost this should be a listening experience.

I’m not the first person to subtitle audio either – the first time I saw a film like this was in London at an In the Dark screening (a group who host live listening events in the UK). Previously I’d always listened to docs in other languages with a big paper transcript on my knee, desperately trying to work out who was talking when, so the ITD experience was revolutionary – it was the first time I really felt myself able to get lost in something.

Eleanor Mcdowell via

A: One of my favorite parts of watching foreign films is listening to the rhythms, sounds, timbre of a language that I don’t know. It’s completely fascinating, and so much of the culture is contained purely within the sound of the language. It honestly never occurred to me to seek out something like what Radio Atlas offers!

What is the biggest challenge you have run into, putting together these docs?

E: I think the biggest challenge is discovery… for me, the easiest way to find great docs in languages I don’t speak is through international competitions where the broadcaster has already made a written translation.

But I’m painfully aware that there is so much I don’t know… what gets put forward for awards might be completely unrepresentative of the documentary culture in a country, or might be completely biased towards certain types of sound, certain producers. So I’m always trying to find other avenues of discovery, stumbling around in the dark.

Obviously Radio Atlas isn’t seeking to be a space which gives you a definitive view on the sound of a broadcaster, or a place, but hopefully it’ll give you enough to spark your curiosity.

A: What is one thing you would want someone to know before they come?

E: Haha, oh I hope that people will hear something that will surprise them, that will challenge their expectations about what a radio doc should sound like. I don’t think you need to know anything – just come with open ears!

The Radio Atlas event will take place at WHYY (150 N 6th St, Philadelphia PA, 19106) on Saturday, September 16th at 5:00 PM.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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