The Yellow Phone

The woman on the train has a yellow handset for her Blackberry. It’s a classic from what could be the rotary age and plugs into her mobile with what must be several feet of spiral stretch cable, also yellow, replete with that curious kink I swear must be a design feature, not a casualty of over-extension — because no cord was ever big enough for the American kitchen. The handle of the receiver seems so wonderfully ergonomic in her hand, so sculpted and branch-like. I want one.

The Phone in repose.

The Phone in repose.

Too self-conscious, I probably wouldn’t use it. Now, I think I want to try it just once, feel it in my hand, not because it is new but because it fills that hole in the heart we forget is there — because I recognize it, because if I held it, I know for a fact that I’d remember things I’ve forgotten. Now, having seen it, I will for a short time imagine everyone on the other end of every line has one, and they are looking out the window of a moving train. This one, good glimpse of it has set memories afire. I have my laptop out so I can type these thoughts right away. I have WiFi so I can get as far as opening the Universe, thinking, I can find this thing in seconds and know just how much it will cost me. I could look up that little kink. I do neither. To do so seems strangely intrusive, anachronistic, bringing such technology back down memory’s lane. Maybe later.

AURORA laughs at this. “The kink is a defect,” she says. “The plastic has retained the memory of a traumatic event.” She smiles. “You’ve forgotten it. The plastic remembers.” She thinks it cute when someone waxes nostalgic. This coming from someone who carries absolutely everything she needs with her at all times. I remind her this is a unique trait of character hailing from a universe of sound. “Yes,” she says and reminds me she’s also largely imaginary. She does this by pulling out her own mobile phone. She puts in on the tray table, which rattles because it must. She looks at it and then at me. Yes of course. Rumor has it, her tiny machine already has more than a few tricks up its headphone jack.  

The Phone Agressive.

The Phone bristles.

As I’m editing the first 6 episodes of Polar Voices, listening to each iteration Kelsey slaves over, and then writing / rewriting, I am constantly surprised by the vastness of the medium. A character pulls out a phone and everyone listening will have a completely unique image of what that phone looks like. If I say the phone has slipped out through a hole in a pocket, the imaginations adjust. If I casually mention that the phone has asked a lecturing scientist about what it’s like to work in the remote, isolated, unconnected parts of the globe… It not the same as reading about the phone in a novel, where details tend to obliterate the wonder of the abstract. The audio script and play is more like a poetry. The words are deliberate, and the listeners engage by lugging their own memories. The width of their imaginations expand and collapse from moment to moment, like breathing. A character can say that a penguin is running across the museum lobby, that a great, grey zeppelin is parked outside — and it’s real, or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s absurd. Perhaps you have to decide for yourself.

We chose this story for Polar Voices, the story you have yet to hear, because the medium allows us to go very big, very fast. Anything we can define in a word or a sound is fair game. We can develop a globe-trotting story about change and the invisible with somewhat less concern for the spirally constrictions of budget. We can snap our fingers and a helicopter lands on a glacier. We can snap them again, and our characters are aboard a train.

I’m not often on trains anymore, not since college, but I have a fondness for them and when I’m aboard I can’t help but pull out a microphone and record the sounds of the cars gliding across the country, the upholstery-muted clacks in the pews of the passenger cars, the hard steel and squeak and groan in the vestries. It’s the sort of sonic ambiance that always sounds good later. It is complex and changing and perfectly recognizable to anyone. It’s the sort of sound you relax into and just want it to go on and on and on. It’s hard to hit stop on the recorder. You can spend time on trains. You can image people spending time on trains.

The Phone sulks.

The Phone sulks.

We were never meant to get from A to B in a blink of an eye. Trains accomplish this — so well. Airplanes seem to compartmentalize space in the same way, but 30,000 feet is terribly divorced from the world. And driving? I don’t think travel is travel unless you can safely turn your mind inward. Feet were made for traveling, not hands. They should be free to use the phone. We shouldn’t have to pay attention to where we are going. We should be looking out at where we are. Turns out Amtrak is going to host writers-in-residence. Heck yes! Travel isn’t travel if you can’t run the threat of catching a cold from a writer, if you don’t have the chance of navigating a conversation with a stranger. Trains are for stories. Buses? Well, buses just make me ill, almost as bad as video screens in yellow cabs, flashing away at you a foot and a half from your nose.

AURORA has nothing to say to this. She either agrees with me, or is just looking out the window, or is just waiting for the next plot point to drop.

I read something earlier this winter decrying the amount of time fantasy novels spend on characters getting from one place to another – as if all stories should take place within a single area code, or should dance past all the tedious getting from A to B. This is probably true for some series, but adventure is about travel and it’s about the time it takes to get there. I’m thinking about how when our characters start to really travel, that they are going to pop from one place to another in the blink of a scene change, just as the good author recommends, in the hard cuts between one audio track and another recorded months and years apart. The seeming immediacy is necessary to the story and the running length of the episodes, but even if we follow our heroes quickly on their way out into adventure and the world, I want to bring them back slowly. Open scene: AURORA will snap from the museum in Alaska to the thick woods of upstate Vermont in the blink of an eye. Even she will be confused by this. It will feel unnatural and wrong. It should. But getting back? I think we all have be able to sit back and enjoy the sounds of a train on the move. Come back the slow path.

AURORA rolls her eyes at that one. “There comes a point,” she says and then lets the thought go.

airships for science

Airships for science.
(NASA/Eric James, Oct. 6, 2009)

I point out it’s not just about trains. Ships are probably my dream mode of travel. All the wonders of the train, but I would willingly sacrifice the purity of the line for the level vastness of an ocean. And travel needs the vast like it needs time-of-flight. Travel’s not travel if you take for granted the wide-spaces between where you were and where you need to be. And if you pretend to be concerned about the future, these are the places that will live there. Now, something more perfect than an ocean-going ship? Well, I’ve never had the opportunity to ride a zeppelin, but I expect cruising in the gondola at a height not so far to the ground would be…

AURORA grins like the Cheshire Cat. She nods as if to say, write that one down. I remind her that airships are now completely stuck in an alt-universe trope. “So what?” she says. “Go willingly. The first time we travel, it’s almost always as circumstances dictate. We don’t know what the true goals are going to be. But then… It’s not as if we’re traveling because no one has ever been there before. We’re traveling to meet those who think a place a home and to compare perspectives.

Aurora's sketch.

Aurora’s sketch.

“Airships for science?” I say, hedging my bets. “Yes,” she says, brushing aside the bluff. “There is a growing need.” I tell her I have recordings on-board trains going back a couple decades. Boston, Ireland, Maryland… “I’m not just recording for the show, I remind her. I’ve always done this. I think there will be trains in your future,” I tell her. “And zeppelins,” she says. “Okay,” I say. “For travel though, not just filling in the corners of the frame. Who do we know who has an airship for hire?” She pulls out sketch she’s had Hannah draw-up. “Well, that’s not what I was expecting,” I say. “I thought it would be more – grey?” She shrugs. 

This is how ideas become real. The dropouts in a phone call are filled in by the imagination. Everyone’s dream of an airship is unique, and in a universe of sound, that’s all perfectly okay. Before a short couple hours on a train between New York and Philadelphia, I had a completely different picture of AURORA’s phone.

I could never carry around that yellow handset, but AURORA can get away with it. Because it is an instrument of sound, in her universe, made wholly of sound, it will appear and disappear with ease, as mobile as any mobile. Because we cannot see it, it will be exactly like every giant, tiny, or multi-use/tooled/functioned phone we’ve ever seen. In a month, I could forget my new image of the phone, and it will change again. I think it important that it does. Hannah will draw us another airship, something completely different, not because the sketch AURORA shows me is wrong, but because any sketch will be absolutely right, and every sketch will make us think a little differently about how things really are. Polar Voices is an audio adventure story about the science and realities of climate change, and I’m talking about the science here. Every little trigger, every little unique perspective has weight and it has sculpture. The world is defined by how things change.

We forget things for reasons that are mostly, completely beyond us, but the rediscovery of forgotten memories is one beautiful adventure into the invisible. Nothing brings back the past like travel. I need to hop on a train, or a ship, or an airship (oh yes please) once in a while — and remember while going slowly, think while going slowly, change my perspective while going slowly. Nothing allows us to better reorder our misconceptions about the world. Those little kinks are everywhere, and there is where the adventure is. There is where we learn about all the traumas in between. The world makes sense if you pay attention to it. The phone too. We’re live in May.

–Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media)


Influences and Peculiar Heroes

The PoLAR Voices team is on the eve of the next set of adventures, simultaneously tackling the East Coast and West Coast in search of audio atmosphere and storytellers. As sound files travel back to the project’s production hub, the UA Museum of the North, characters breathe and interact for the first time on an audio playground.
Episode One in draft mix.

Episode One in draft mix.

So we begin this grand adventure into radio play and documentary, fiction and the hard reality of our age. My gut tells me this will be quite the challenge to pull off. I find that fascinating — the challenge alone — but we’re not just interested in this medium because it’s completely new to us. We’ve had some experience, some influences as well?
Lots of science and storytelling podcasts, as well as whatever mix of the two I can get my hands on. Radiolab, This American Life, Science Friday, The Story Collider and re:Sound.

Kelsey Gobroski

I found audio the beginning of my last year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, when I was still clinging to my natural resources management degree despite my deep infatuation with journalism. I approached a researcher for an audio assignment in a catch-all new media class. The researcher offered to let me see a part of the building I’d never seen, and soon I was face-to-face with an angry ground squirrel, only a microphone and a cage door between us. I went back and recreated the scene using the magic of audio layering. I was hooked. A year later, I moved to Juneau to start a public radio internship.


I was taking a class in radio production when I realized I had very little interest in news and was totally there for the idea of making weird stories out of found samples. I borrowed a mic and a cassette recorder and my computer at the time was a hand-me-down 486 that took all night to mix the tracks into clips a few minutes long. It was a big deal. Shortly thereafter I discovered the land of computer animation. It’s good to be back.
I think we are tackling something unique here. We’ve begun recording scientists and partners on the PoLAR project, and we’ve got well into the writing of the scripts, above all, the character of AURORA. Where has she been? Where is she going? What is she like?


It’s tough to talk about where she’s been and where she’s going without spoilers. I’m most enjoying hearing her when we start the series. You discovered her voice, and I find myself still studying her.
She looks very different on the page than she will sound in the series. We often do not talk the way we’d write ourselves talking. Still, even in audio, I think something about her will seem off. She has different goals, different priorities, than those around her. But she’ll be asking some of the same questions we all have.


She’s peculiar. She will react differently to events than we might expect. I’m hoping that will call attention to them in a way that might have us think about them differently. I think there’s a lot precedence for this. The lead “detective” is the quirky one and the sidekick is the one catching up. As much as the cast of characters is exploring the plot’s mysteries, everyone is also trying to ferret out her backstory. I mean, she isn’t an alien or anything. Her props are a mobile phone and a walking stick polished only through long use.
That’s what I love about writing for this medium. “A walking stick polished only through long use.” I mean, it’s not hard to get that detail into a script, but the description is about image and texture, not sound. A narrator can express this perfectly well, and poetically at that, but what are the other options? How else to make it a part of the soundscape? What if we don’t use a narrator? How does that limitation breed creativity? I’m revisiting audio drama and adventure games right now, which is to say, listening and playing, to wrap my head around the tricks, the tropes, the trials. It’s a tough job.


You say there’s a lot of precedence for this — in some ways, yes, every one of our tools is well-tested. We have the storytelling side of things: the main character who is new to town, the sidekick. We have the science, as we bring together many observations from folk who have done the long hours of tests and modeling and exploring. We have sound, bringing in that tradition of oral storytelling, of captivating an audience without visual cues. Yet, even with all these facets and inspirations, neither of us have run into quite this mixture of fact and fiction before. So we are doing research, but we are also trying to pioneer something on our own.
In our own lives, we don’t each get personal narrators, and yet we make it along just fine, by learning and doing. So we’re following along with Aurora, going to the places she’s going to go, and learning alongside her. We will bring in lots of subtle hints to create that learning environment. It’s limiting because it is not how we are used to teaching things. But that is what the PoLAR project is about, twisting a thing on its head so you see it in a new way.
What methods have audio dramas and adventure games taught you so far?

Roger Topp

Any decent scripted drama has to feel spontaneous. We know the story is plotted, but it needs to feel completely in the moment. It has to be willing to go where it needs to. I think our design concept is going to do this in ways that will make spontaneity truly a part of the plotting. Specifically though, I just played The Stanley Parable, which while dressed in the guise of a first-person adventure video game, was really just a stellar example of IF (interactive fiction), Choose Your Own Adventure for computers — the stalwart text adventure. I played them in the 80s and the 90s, but here is a “game” that guesses the player actions so, so well. The designers know you are going to try and jump on the desk and they are waiting for you to do this. Imagine your surprise, when you think you are being clever and they are like, yes, yes, back to business… Imagine your sense of self as your natural actions are justified and rewarded and critiqued. Everyone jumps on the desk. Good for you. But now what? What do you do now? You don’t know. You haven’t thought about it. But we have.
That’s what I’m thinking about right now – what are the natural actions of our characters, the natural expectations of our listeners? How do we meet those expectations, but then push further and still SURPRISE. The Stanley Parable is a meta-fiction about CHOICE in a medium that tries it’s hardest to give you the illusion that you actually have CHOICE, but inevitably do not. I like this idea, and I’m wondering how we can play with it. Our listeners have no CHOICES to make but to keep listening or to listen again, or to do something because of what they hear. The serial runs from start to finish. It does not diverge. You do CHOOSE to listen next to page 46 or page 97. But does that mean we can’t generate a sense of CHOICE in the listener by playing with divergent actions, with SURPRISE and EXPECTATION? Just thoughts, but they are not wholly impractical. In museums we love words like hands-on, interactive, and participatory, while acknowledging that all these things are fleeting experiences. Standing in a gallery, with a limited budget of hours and minutes, you cannot truly immerse yourself in the interactive, or the participatory. More often it’s a sense of fleeting engagement we’re after, and that is more than enough if the memory lingers. To what extent are our characters choosing their paths, and to what extent are they being made to think they are making significant choices?


I was listening to an old episode of Radiolab today and was surprised at how much chaff is left in for texture. The awkward mic tests, off-hand remarks about the interview, group chatter. It seems spontaneous, unpolished, and in the end, endearing.  But there was a point to all this. An example before an underwriting break could reappear and become a landmark in the episode’s narrative. Is that too much like Chekhov’s gun? How subtly can we induce expectation? This is why it helps to have multiple writers on this project. A common high school exercise: write a sentence or three, then hand it off to a classmate. With no common theme or end point, these exercises often spiral into trying to derail the other writers. But here, we have a few goals in mind and we can surprise one another in how we reach those destinations.
Speaking of destinations, we have planes to catch. [Cue stock-tape: 737 on take-off]. Kelsey will be in San Francisco at AGU this week, and for anyone lucky enough to stop by the PoLAR’s  booth, we’ve a few newly minted scene drafts available for listening. Kelsey will be the one standing behind you with the microphone. At the same time, I’ll be on the east coast with a contingent from our museum, primarily working other projects, but if you see us, I’m also the one with the microphone.
— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)
— Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)
— Concept drawings by Hannah Foss (UAMN Production Modeler/Animator)

The Art of Conversation


We have a crazy idea, an idea borne of traveling and research and  lurking in museum galleries oh, and the love of things and how they tend not to make sounds on their own  oh, and sounds, and how sound is transporting and imaginative and somehow freeing while curiously devoid of physicality.

We are writing a radio play that will transport characters and listeners to the far corners of the earth. Audio can do that! With audio, the earth can have corners and ends and everything can be closer together than nature dictates, like penguins and polar bears, and people can walk through walls, and sit and ponder and we don’t have to wonder what they are doing sitting and pondering, because we can’t see them, and…  I think it will feel seamless. I think we will be able to play with time and space like magicians. I think our scripted words will be guided and informed and crushed by the unscripted words.

We will interview scientists and experts on climate change, stakeholders and those affected by a changing world. We will be collectors of story, not only to archive, but to exhibit. We will tell a story about stories.

There will be spontaneity in this, and the story as we imagine it now will be thrown for loop after loop. This is good. Drama relies on broken expectations. It relies on characters (and writers) getting out of a jam. Sometimes I think if we make this more difficult for ourselves – if we show no fear before so complex a puzzle, a simple and elegant solution will be discovered to help plot the adventure. There is a great challenge here, and this is half of what I find so exciting about this project: how to meld the unscripted with the scripted, the found poetry with the metered rhyme? And the other half of what thrills me as story maker: the dream that we can create a globe-hopping narrative that is so clearly a metaphor for what a museum does well.

Polar Voices is not a museum, but we are, and Voices will work in many ways just as a museum does.

Museums are not about exhibits and galleries and buildings. No, they are about everything else. A museum is a point of collection, a point of study, a point of awareness. A museum is perhaps something like a beach, but the most orderly of beaches. Objects are numbered. Everything is arrayed artfully for the looking. Making sense of this menagerie is the work of many lives… Okay, maybe it’s not so much like a beach — but the artifacts we find here come from everywhere. Also, unlike a beach, we seek out the context that, virtually, takes the artifact back home. So, like a bottle on a beach with a note and an address inside.

The UA Museum of the North produces exhibits, print, and digital media. We are writers, engineers, and artists and we are thrilled here to be tackling a project that resides near exclusively in the audio spectrum. When we consider that exhibits, films, and games rely heavily on audible elements – a project IN AUDIO feels minimalist. With Polar Voices, it is AUDIO that will grab the audience, create the physical space and drive the plot through fantastic doorways. The format is not limiting. It is uniquely freeing.

Back at the beach, or is it a museum, or is it a soundscape — beachcombers maunder through, cameras clicking, heels clicking, tongues clicking. One museum visitor remarks with joy. Another with wonder, another with understanding. At this point walls and architecture no longer matter. They are as faint as reflections in the surface of a polished shell, and everything in the gallery is suddenly — other places. A radio play is a similar type of space, one which vanishes once the story takes hold. A museum is a jumping-off point. Polar Voices is no different. We come to the experience to find objects to connect with, and everyone finds something to connect with.

Recording ambient sound at the California Academy of Sciences

Recording ambient sound at the California Academy of Sciences.

Museum professionals travel and they travel a lot – because the surf-beaten fragments of the world do not all wash up to one doorstep. The beach is far larger than that. We travel to see and to bring back, and to pull together the objects that make up the story.  We travel to find what there is on tundra and in rain forest, glacier and back stoop, in other cities, in other museums. When we travel, we collect objects and we record – video, audio, soundscapes – conversations: the seabird rookeries of the Pribilof Islands, the streets of Boston and San Francisco, the sea ice at Barrow, a new volcano, an old seabed. Because objects are more comfortable in context. Objects sound better when they think they are home.

Polar Voices is a fictional adventure-mystery in audio form, constructed of climate change science spoken by those who study it and those who are affected by change at the poles. The voices are precious objects. The adventure is an exhibition and an experience.

Polar Voices is about how conversations possess the qualities of an engine with a head of steam, where themes build, and though the travelers think they know where they are going, they have no idea if they will end up in the station they anticipate, or curve about onto some path they do not yet know exists.

We are going to record interviews and lectures and conversations  on the street and in museums and lecture halls and labs and offices and the remote parts of the world. We are going to take this “tape” and draw it across a panoply of audible modes interwoven with a fictional script – and create voice-rich soundscapes that will move deftly through contemporary issues and environments in a way that an “expert by expert” lecture series never can. We are going to create a world. The principal trick is structuring our world to keep the science TRUE within a compelling, dynamic, and sometimes fantastic plot. Our characters are going to travel – a lot, and we are going to go with them.


Recording sound in other places.

And how is this not just like a museum, an experience in a place that, deceptive in its act of collecting, transports us all around the world? Who doesn’t look at a mounted triceratops and not think about walking with dinosaurs? Who doesn’t look at an exhibit of ice and seals and walrus and not imagine the cold of the Arctic? Who doesn’t hear the calls of whales and not imagine the dark and the fathomless deep of the oceans?

In a space of seconds, sound makes travel both abstracted and effortless. Our voices are no longer constrained by geography. The projects, the research, becomes the reality of the soundscape. It’s a thought. Let’s see what happens.

Polar Voices is conversations, and so it feels appropriate to structure this blog as a conversation and be a record of our thoughts and travels and the messy business of cleaning up after characters that get away from us. In this the post above has failed miserably, so by way of slapping a patch over the hole of a leaking airship…

ROGER: Hey Kelsey!

[Kelsey is our Digital Media Producer here at UAMN]

KELSEY: Howdy Roger!

ROGER: What do think so far?

KELSEY: Voices is this amazing project I’ve known a bit about ever since I started working earlier this summer. It was very ethereal then   it’s always had the elements I enjoy talking about, not to mention the medium, but as it’s taking shape, it’s also becoming something big and new and adventurous. How about you?

ROGER: Oh, rushing about getting ready to travel. We’re both traveling this weekend! Different cities, both geared up for sound! But more importantly, did you like how I snuck a steam engine and an airship into the above?

KELSEY: I almost didn’t notice it at first, other than thinking it an appropriate metaphor  but, there are many things you need to read through or listen through again to get all the hints.

ROGER: Hint, hint. All packed for Anchorage?

KELSEY: The gear’s getting to the point of being ready, which is most important. My personal effects — well, I have a few hours before the plane, at least. You?

ROGER: Have microphone, will travel. Oh, and a logo. We got a logo.

to be continued…

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)