Article

"Audio, Empathy and Neurodiversity". An Interview with Professor Jeremy Strong

Authors: Jeremy Strong (University of West London) , Sue Bowerman (University of West London)

  • "Audio, Empathy and Neurodiversity". An Interview with Professor Jeremy Strong

    Article

    "Audio, Empathy and Neurodiversity". An Interview with Professor Jeremy Strong

    Authors: ,

Abstract

Jeremy Strong talks audio, empathy, and neurodiversity with LSFMD colleague and Senior Lecturer in Radio & Sound Design, Sue Bowerman, winner of UWL’s 2023 Teaching Excellence Awards for Best Lecturer & Inclusive Education – Academic Staff.

Keywords: Audio, Empathy, Neurodiversity

How to Cite:

Strong, J. & Bowerman, S., (2024) “"Audio, Empathy and Neurodiversity". An Interview with Professor Jeremy Strong”, New Vistas 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.36828/newvistas.248

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Published on
07 May 2024
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You started teaching at UWL in 2014 but let’s begin rather earlier than that. Could you tell the readers of New Vistas how you got into radio?

First let’s start with what I mean by ‘radio’. Maniewicz contends that “Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse.” (2022). I agree. When I speak of radio, I refer to a model that facilitates communication through sound and listening. This might be via terrestrial broadcast, listen again, podcasts, or even within physical spaces such as galleries or theatres. To me, ‘radio’ is a medium designed especially for the spoken word to ignite imagination and refers to a whole spectrum of meaning.

Growing up, mum and dad always had the radio on - Radio 4 and 3, predominantly. The Archers theme tune was a daily soundtrack. I think home is where I began to develop my sense of its power to connect people, as well as learning the devices of spoken word and sound design. Through the radio I was surrounded by music – it gave me a sense of self. From a young age I studied the clarinet and saxophone classically, as well as singing in the church choir. By my mid-teens I had attained grade eight on both instruments. The performance-based exams suited my learning style and I always scored highly. Equally, when I had reached grade eight I was persuaded that performing music wasn’t a stable career, so I didn’t continue to a conservatoire or related university course. You could say that performing music transitioned into the art of listening critically. By my late teens, I began fastidiously listening to pirate radio, in particular to a presenter called, Gilles Peterson whose show was the only way to discover new music. This, alongside hanging out in record shops and sifting through jazz records in the local library. Many years later I worked with him on his BBC Radio 1 show, Gilles Peterson Worldwide.

How did I get my first job in radio? I was an avid collector of a specialist music magazine, Straight No Chaser. In my final year at Middlesex University, (graduating in 1996 in Media Studies with Writing and Publishing), it was suggested we find a placement. This beloved magazine was the only place I wanted to work. Those first two weeks grew into a decade long contribution as a features writer, reviewing records, events, and festivals around the world until the magazine’s untimely demise. In the January of 1998 I was contacted by Radio Producer, Lyn Champion. She had successfully commissioned a new specialist music jazz show on BBC Radio 3 for the production company, Somethin’ Else (now owned by Sony Music). She had heard I knew a lot about jazz and might be just the person she was looking for. Within the year, I became one of the founding team producing Gilles’ show for the BBC and fourteen countries worldwide. And it was within this show that I really found my love of making features, finding curiosity in the art of ‘telling true stories in sound’, as I prefer to call them. There also happens to be a brilliant book edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth of the same name.

And you are still active in audio production today, combining your work at UWL with a career in the industry?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve never stopped. For me it’s crucial to be fully immersed in both worlds. Although long form documentaries are no longer practical due to the time they take, I continue to create short form stories and quicker turnaround works across BBC, commercial and independent spaces. This is where my passion lies. Presently, I am series producer for the ‘Mojo Record Club’, a specialist music podcast which is an offshoot of the legacy music brand, MOJO magazine - and part of the Bauer Media catalogue. Recent projects have included collaborating with BBC New Creatives, and Screen South, where I have been able to create a space to continue producing stories, in partnership with early career audio creatives. I provide a space for inquiry and learning, to guide fledgling producers towards getting their work commissioned and, most importantly, to facilitate their ideas through to completion. Their works are then heard on BBC radio, archived on BBC Sounds and, in some cases, exhibited in public spaces. At the heart of projects like this is mentoring - one of my favourite roles. Currently I’m doing my annual stint of judging for The ARIAS (Audio and Radio Industry Awards, something it’s a wonderful privilege to be involved in.

When did you start to combine ‘doing’ radio with teaching radio?

That would be 2005, at the Roundhouse in Camden. Although most people know the Roundhouse as a famous music venue, I was involved in the launch of a new youth focused station, Roundhouse Radio (now, Transmission), led by Karen Pearson (founder of Folded Wing). Aimed at the under-twenty-fives, we had a particular emphasis on inclusivity. Our mission was to use the vehicle of radio so that young people could discover their voice, their ideas, their leadership, and of course, their creativity. It was a nurturing environment. Mentorship was an important aspect of the work, and as it evolved we also spent time one-on-one with students who were then keen to get into the industry. Many did.

In 2014 you came to the University of West London as a Lecturer, and were later promoted to Senior Lecturer, in Radio & Sound Design. What does that work involve?

I teach audio production. When people ask me what that means I always say that ‘I teach people how to listen.’ As strange as it may sound, we are generally not taught ‘how’ to listen. Most of us are really bad at it! When I start working with students, one of the first things that we do is to explore the qualities and nuances of sound. We pay close attention to how sound works, the fundamentals of listening practice and explore how sonic experiences can make us feel. This might involve using a Tibetan singing bowl, experiencing the harmonic overtones, the physical resonance felt in the body. The notion that we listen not only with our ears, but our entire body. We study the science of soundwaves, acoustic environments and the technology available to capture and reproduce sound. Then we move on to how acoustics work with the aim of taking listeners on a journey of discovery, of wonder even. For me, radio and auditory storytelling is first and foremost about the imagination. That’s why I’m so fascinated by the documentary format and associated sound design, its capacity to help people imagine lives utterly different to their own. For me the most valuable listening experiences are those where the subjects and the audience may be separated by cultural, geographical, or economic divides, but where a skilled producer (who must above all be a ‘deep’ listener) can cultivate empathy and understanding. Exploring the technology to capture sound is a huge part of the learning environment but it’s nothing without the ability to truly listen.

I am always hungry to discover new possibilities in the fields of sound production, listening practices and knowledge exchange - with likeminded people. One of the fundamental pedagogies I adopted circa 2015 is that of Deep Listening™ (Pauline Oliveros). Her ideas about the holistic space in which human beings can be connected through sound practices has shifted my way of being with students and the way I create learning environments. Lifting of judgement is one of the foundations of Deep Listening and this is the ethos I bring to my students. I hold the space for them to ‘see’ their potential and then become it. I think Pauline’s words beautifully sums this up. “Deep listening is a foundation for a radically transformed social matrix in which compassion and love are the core motivating principles guiding creative decision making and our actions in the world.” (2022. p23).

What sort of expectations do students first bring to the classes in terms of their own listening habits and preferences?

Several years ago, I asked a group of students to choose an audio documentary to listen to. I thought it was a simple task. But their response indicated otherwise. “Why would we want to listen to a documentary? We just want to watch stuff.” This experience fundamentally changed me as an educator and a producer. I have talked about this moment at conferences (most recently ECREA 2023) and within industry, ever since. If we don’t understand who our students and audiences are - how they live, how they ingest content, and their ‘why’ then we are failing them. That’s not to say that we can’t challenge them, but we need to meet them from a place of curiosity. If their view is that there is no value in listening, then it’s our job to bring that world to them until they experience it with wonder. Then, there is no stopping them. Avid listeners become avid audiences who in turn become brilliant auditory content creators. The discovery and wonder of listening is the catalyst.

This also formed the basis of the way I now produce stories in sound, by utilising binaural technology (reproducing the real-life experience of hearing sound). This places the audience inside the world of the storyteller and subsequently, the ability to empathise with them is phenomenally successful. One ‘feels’ the actuality when it is recorded in this way. This cyclical discovery of what sonic tools can create for audiences – along with the human approach to storytelling - exponentially shifted what I brought into learning environments and was able to replicate in my own productions.

Part of the teaching journey is covering how there is much to be gained from close attention to sound alone. One of the things I always point out is how, if you want to elicit something from someone – their story, a difficult truth perhaps – the microphone can bring out what a camera might close down. Inviting people to ‘just talk’ and having the patience to let them tell their story in their own way and, crucially, in their own time, is something that the unobtrusive technology and techniques of radio do so well. The microphone quickly dissolves when a space is held between two people without judgement and where integrity and mindfulness are front and centre.

You were diagnosed in late adulthood (2016) with Dyslexia and have recently been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and this is a topic you have spoken about with colleagues and students. Can you talk about this in terms of your own experiences as both a learner and a teacher?

Knowing at your core, that you experience the world differently to most people is isolating. Being frequently misunderstood is isolating. However, my ability to solve problems, to see what others can’t see, to create solutions fuelled with an abundance of empathy - are all qualities which make me a responsive educator. I embrace these super powers wholeheartedly! Back in school I loved many of my classes and teachers’ reports would always say how I contributed so well to sessions and could talk confidently about the topics, but then the exams rarely reflected this. When I could immerse myself in the learning experience and the production of the work, in my own space and in my own time, I thrived. I failed when I was forced to recall information under pressure. I can remember examinations where I sat in the hall, gripped by panic, and couldn’t write anything. On other occasions I would write with velocity, but when the script came back it would transpire that I hadn’t answered the question. I could articulate things in the spoken word, but I just couldn’t get them onto paper in an organized and logical flow. In the years of writing for Straight No Chaser, I was in the care of a brilliant editor, Paul Bradshaw, who would lovingly take my ideas and transform them into a cohesive narrative. He saw my potential as a writer. He admired my way with words. And he did the rest. I am forever indebted to his ability to see in me what I did not see myself. This is how I teach and why I teach. To enable people to see their potential and live it.

Even before I had a formal diagnosis, I was always transparent with students about what I found challenging. Being vulnerable and honest means I am perhaps more approachable and ‘human’ and students who may be neurodiverse, or have other conditions that may impact on their studies, do tend to respond well to my way of being. At UWL we use Individual Support Plans (ISPs) that help staff and students approach study and assessment in an informed and flexible way, but, some students might not have a diagnosis or may be resistant to any suggestion that they are different. I’m careful not to overstep the bounds of my teaching and pastoral role, but I find that being candid about what I struggle with has meant that many students have sought me out after class for a discussion.

Someone with ADHD will likely require significantly more time to produce work. We will want to research exhaustively, write more, say more, and whilst doing this we will likely be more self-critical and progressively self-doubting. We need a space to work, without interruption. All of which takes up time. The end result gets further and further away. And so, the cycle continues. Experiencing this first hand provides an advantage when it comes to teaching and mentoring. I see the needs of my students and I am willing to create the time and space to accommodate them, the two essential factors in having people like me win in life. Sadly, this is in opposition to how most of the world operates. I have to constantly make a stand to create ways of working and learning that support both my needs and the needs of students. In that respect, you could say it has made me a better educator.

The empathy that I’m looking to nurture in students as audio producers and creative practitioners is also relevant to a classroom dynamic where we all listen to each other. A space devoid of hierarchy. When these encounters work well, they are responsive, negotiated. As someone with a background in music, I think of it in terms of the varieties of ‘call and response’. We’re making something together, something dialogic and democratic.

References

Biewen, John & Dilworth, Alexa. 2017. Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Maniewicz, Mario. 2022. ‘Radio: The universal medium that leaves no one behind’ https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/02/1111882

Oliveros, Pauline. 2022. Quantum Listening. Ignota.