Archivist by day, audio enthusiast by night: an interview with Dana Gerber-Margie

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By Andrew Shaffer

This week, we’re pushing the boundaries a bit to bring you an interview with Dana Gerber-Margie, who publishes The Audio Signal, a “weekly digest about audio.” Troy and I are huge fans of the newsletter, as are Pop Up Archive and even the Wall Street Journal. The interview covers some of the nuts and bolts of sorting through massive amounts of audio, as well as Gerber-Margie’s philosophy on the importance of audio. If you’d like to discuss an innovative project you’re working on, consider submitting it for publication on this blog.

I suppose we should start with the most basic question: How do you regularly discover such great audio content?

I listen all day. It’s getting a little overwhelming, actually. Audio discoverability is a really hot topic in the radio world right now. Pop Up Archive is doing a lot, along with its child Audiosear.ch. They’re trying to go beyond what we call “word of mouth” discovery, which includes my newsletter and similar newsletters like The Timbre, podcast broadcast, and Adolescence is a marketing tool. I subscribe to all of the above, plus budding newsletters, to catch something new. I also often use recommendations from podcast hosts.

I use PocketCasts to listen to podcasts and Overdrive for the audiobooks I get from my library. PocketCasts offers a Discover page that features new and upcoming shows, like a recent fictional horror series called Limetown. I also use PocketCasts to follow Trending and Top podcasts, and every two weeks or so I poke around through the PocketCasts categories—Education, Science, Arts & Culture, etc.

Lastly, I made a little submission form for people to recommend things to me. As for discovering archival audio, I put out a call for audio clips a few months ago. I keep a spreadsheet of websites and catalogs to look through each week. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to poke around and find something each week, so I love when archivists send me recommendations from their collections. (Hint, hint)

What is your process for choosing which stories to include in the newsletter?

It sounds complicated but it’s become pretty simple to me! As of early September, I’m subscribed to 253 podcasts. Every day, I go through the updates from new episodes, and choose whether I’m personally interested in the subject. If I’m not personally interested, then I consider whether it would still be of interest to my readers. For example, I don’t usually listen to Fresh Air because interviews with famous people don’t interest me as much as they do other people, but sometimes the subject matter covered really does interest me, like when Terry Gross interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates. I don’t listen to many comedy podcasts or two-people-chatting-about-pop-culture ones, but sometimes particular episodes will make the rounds in the radio world as a “must listen.” I do this because I found myself listening to new, bad, and uninteresting-to-me content and listening was becoming a chore. I didn’t start the newsletter for it to be a chore; it’s supposed to be an outlet. That’s when I made the decision that I had to have a personal connection to it, and if people didn’t like what I was recommending, there are other options out there for them.

I listen while walking home, taking the bus to work, doing chores around the house, getting ready for work, before bed, at lunch, and at work during routine tasks like barcoding or burning CDs for patrons. I can’t focus well enough when I’m doing something that needs attention to detail. I write each episode title, show, and length down into Google Sheets as I listen. If I have time or energy to write some initial comments, or mark a particular point in the episode that meant a lot to me, I have a comments tab.

On Sunday, I pick and choose my favorites. I opt for the episodes that made me especially emotional, stimulated me intellectually, or tickled my curiosity. I also aim for some variety, so that it’s not all storytelling, or economics, or history. The hardest part has been history podcasts and serialized podcasts, because it can be odd to recommend episode 37 when you might want to listen to all of the podcasts before that.

I find audio to be deeply intimate; someone’s voice is right in your ear, speaking only to you.

Aside from your weekly favorites, do you have a short list of stories you think our readers should check out first?

Ah! What a difficult question. There are a few shows that I will always, always listen to first, but let me try to suggest some specific episodes.

As someone whose life is so immersed in audio, do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

I find audio to be deeply intimate; someone’s voice is right in your ear, speaking only to you. The podcast community is only now developing ways for listeners to share thoughts and feelings, so most of it has been consumed alone for me to ruminate over by myself. Sometimes producers expertly use sound and music to enhance the experience. In archival audio, there’s an element of time travel to it—that you are in the room listening to a conversation that never imagined it’d be overheard. And listening to oral history is so much more profound than reading transcripts, because you can hear the raw emotion coming through. Overall, oral history and audio always remind me that other people are living deeply, going through difficult times, and thinking strange or funny thoughts. I still love to read all the time, and love what my imagination conjures up. I also still really like movies, and getting the chance to see what other imaginations dream up. But audio bridges the two, and seeps into my brain in a way that I’m still imagining and feeling my own feelings but feel like I’m in the mind of the person speaking.

Image Credit: “The Audio Signal” by Dana Gerber-Margie. Used with permission.