Articles

Blank on Blank: The Back Story

We first met David Gerlach at a recent Pub Camp in Washington DC. Soon after that, he became a member of AIR. We asked David to write a guest blog post about his project Blank on Blank, which enables journalists to rediscover, revive and recycle the conversational gems buried in their recorded interviews.

 

THE LIGHTBULB

The idea to create an archive of unheard American interviews started brewing about five years ago. I was still working in print then. (I moved to television news in early 2007, first as a producer at MSNBC before heading to ABC News.) Over the years I covered politics for Newsweek and wrote about arts and culture for the New York Post, Time Out and others. One thing always stood out: interviewing people was my favorite part of the process.

I always recorded these interviews. I would listen to these conversations and find the choice pieces to plug into the story. Yet after a piece went to print, I would often think about those amazing parts that didn’t make it to the page. Those gems on life and living and experience lost due to story length and relevance. I would always wonder why no one would ever get to hear these remarkable American stories. It was a shame. A waste really, that nearly every print journalist I knew had recognized at one time or another. So a couple of questions began swirling in my head: how could the best of these interviews be brought to life and why couldn’t print journalists bring their recorded work to listening audiences?

BLANK ON BLANK

Fast forward to early 2010 when I decided to take my knowledge of the print world, my experience in television production, and my passion for interviews and public media to launch Blank on Blank. We are a multimedia nonprofit with a simple mission: build, preserve, and broadcast journalists’ best unheard interviews. Think of Blank on Blank as a Storycorps for journalists. It’s a digital archive of the American interview built primarily from amazing, untapped audio content that would otherwise gather dust on tapes and computer hard drives.

Forget recording interviews merely to help write a story or a book. These interviews should be transformed and brought to listeners online, on mobile devices, and on the radio. I believe we can help print journalists bolster their portfolios and transition in this rapidly shifting multimedia landscape. 
THE INTERVIEWS

Our contributors have written for the likes of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Details, The New York Times, Fast Company, and more. Together their interviews bring us universal tales from everyday Americans and unexpected chats with big names like Kelly Slater, Christina Ricci, Ricky Gervais, Tim Gunn and Dwyane Wade. 

The process of creating a Blank on Blank involves mining our contributor’s raw interviews for the best unheard outtakes. Sometimes a journalist knows exactly which back-and-forth to use. Other times they upload an entire interview from a digital recorder as a WAV or mp3 file–or even hand over a cassette tape. Either way, we’re looking for unexpected, frank, stop-and-listen conversations that have staying power. We want conversations that say something.

Once we find that choice interview outtake, we piece together an engaging audio piece peppered with a little narrative and the right scene-setting music to frame the interview. Our audio editors polish and clean up the rough bits to create three-to-five minute digital pieces produced on par with public radio’s best.

WHAT’S NEXT?

To say I am excited about where Blank on Blank is headed would be an understatement. There are endless possibilities to how we can build and distribute this archive. The enthusiasm and feedback from print journalists and the public media world has been great. We have a solid beta website up to highlight our interviews with big plans for bringing our contributors’ interviewers to an array of channels. Yet there is much work to do.

While we have had success raising a base of funds to get things off the ground, we must continue soliciting donations. We are applying for grants and reaching out to supporters in a crowded public media space that is itself regrouping in a struggling economy. We have a multi-tiered revenue and distribution model that we think is innovative and will work. But who knows? There are thousands upon thousands of hours of remarkable interviews just waiting to be heard. Yet all of this takes work, patience, vision… and time.

MAKE YOUR INTERVIEWS HEARD

Right now we are looking for new contributors and interviews to add to the archive. As I mentioned we want the unexpected. An athlete talking about why he won the big game, or a DC politician on the big vote in Congress, is not what we are looking for. We want these individuals talking about something they don’t usually bring to light. We also want invigorating, poignant tales from regular Americans. If you are a radio or print journalist with a great interview that’s gone unheard, we want to hear from you. We can bring new life and new audiences to your work that might otherwise gather dust.

While we are not currently paying for raw, unedited interviews, we are paying for produced interview pieces that require minimal further editing. In addition we are paying skilled audio editors to transform raw interviews. We need editors who can work efficiently and take a rough interview outtake to a finished product on deadline.

Thanks for taking the time to hear our story. If you have skills or content to share, please drop me a line: david at blankonblank dot org. Stay tuned and keep listening for interviews that have never been heard before.