An Interview with Eleanor McDowall of Radio Atlas

Finding a way to understand the language without destroying the poetry of its delivery seems key to me.

Radio Atlas is an exciting new project gathering together subtitled audio from around the world – introducing listeners to a whole slew of inventive, genre-bending documentaries, drama and sound art made in languages that they may not necessarily speak.

Eleanor McDowall is an established radio documentary maker and producer with Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company based in London. She has helped to pioneer “animated radio” productions at home in the United Kingdom, and produces BBC Radio 4’s much-lauded series,‘Short Cuts’, with the British comedian, Josie Long.


David Maclean: Can you give me a brief history of Radio Atlas, i.e. how it came together and its origins?

Eleanor McDowall: Radio Atlas emerged out of a desire I had for a platform that didn’t exist—an easy, accessible way of engaging with interesting audio in languages I didn’t speak. I’d had a lot of experience listening to documentaries with big wads of paper on my knee, flicking through a translation as the audio played out, and desperately hoping that I hadn’t lost my place. A few years ago I saw an early event by the wonderful In The Dark where they played a Norwegian audio documentary in a cinema with subtitles and I was struck by how natural the experience was. This was the first time that I got away from feeling I was ‘reading’ a documentary and felt like I was really ‘hearing’ it. Radio Atlas is an attempt to make the most sympathetic subtitling experience I can for the audio—so hopefully you stop thinking about the text and start listening.

DM: Does Radio Atlas have a manifesto? What is its raison d’être

Through Radio Atlas I’m hoping to start a conversation about how we tackle this huge structural problem in audio. I was always surprised that the big audio companies like iTunes, Mixcloud, SoundCloud and Acast hadn’t integrated technology into their podcast apps that would let us hear and understand more interesting work in other languages—many of them are using our phone screens for images already—why not text too? I hope that Radio Atlas might prove there’s an audience interest here and offer a window onto a world we might otherwise miss.

4:AM by Louise Tjaerandsen (Denmark), produced for the HearSay International Audio Arts Festival 2015. In this piece, Tjaerandsen ventures out with her recorder late one summer night in Copenhagen. Being too shy to talk to anyone, she ends up sitting alone on a bench by the lake, until she is approached by a stranger.

Given that most listeners (myself included) will have little knowledge of the languages featured, there is a great reliance on the subtitles in order to understand the meaning. However, I found myself paying more attention to the paralinguistic cues in the audio, i.e. tone, diction and vocal stresses. Is that an intended effect?

The intention is definitely to help delivery, timing and tone come to the fore—although I’d hope people understand what’s going on too! I’m conscious that if you’re able to read too far ahead you might miss the gaps between the words, the pregnant silences, or ruin the punchlines to someone’s joke. Finding a way to understand the language without destroying the poetry of its delivery seems key to me in making radio work in this space.

Obviously a key element of Radio Atlas, or at least as I understand it, is to raise awareness of podcasts and podcasting culture outside of the Anglophone countries. Is that a reflection of your own listening tastes?

Oh definitely! However, I’m able to listen to less than I’d like to because of the translation issue. I keep on falling for Danish documentaries at the moment (Radio24syv are doing really interesting work, as are Third Ear and Rikke Houd with her new podcast at DR). Radio Ambulante are great at translating their work so that’s a big resource to dive into. In English at the moment I’m most excited by The Heart from the Radiotopia network, Imaginary Advice from the poet and filmmaker Ross Sutherland and the Adam Buxton podcast.

‘I Am Analog’ by Jonathan Zenti (Italy), winner of the Create GranBéarla Award at the HearSay International Audio Arts Festival 2015. For five years, Zenti has been making recordings with elderly Italians that explore old cultural rites in his country that are in danger of disappearing.

What does the future hold for Radio Atlas?

I’m working on a few collaborations with other organisations at the moment so I hope there may be some additional, interesting resources coming to the site. At the moment, I’d just like Radio Atlas to keep expanding what it offers—more languages, more countries and not just a single programme to represent one space but multiple, diverse offerings. I’ll keep building what I can but possibly in the future this could expand to an open platform so people can subtitle and showcase their own work in a collective space.

David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote.


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