The Short Doc Challenge

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , ,

Here at gnovis we rebooted our podcasting program in September. Since then we’ve had a few really great podcasts (and we have a few more coming out soon, I promise), but today we’re issuing a challenge to all our listeners, bloggers, and readers out there. Participate in the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Short Docs challenge. Third Coast is a premiere venue for independent radio producers to put their work out there and have it evaluated alongside radio personalities from around the world, both young and seasoned. Each year in Chicago the festival issues several awards for things like Best Documentary; like the Grammy’s for radio. But it is also a national radio show, a weekly program on WBEZ, Chicago, a podcast, and an audio library. And occasionally, they issue challenges like this one. The Short Docs challenge invites everyday creative individuals (like you!) to jump into making radio. It goes like this:

participants should “produce a short audio story (2-3 minutes) that features at least two of your neighbors, includes a color in the title, and contains three consecutive seconds of narrative silence. Stories of all styles are welcome – from documentary to drama — and everything in between.”

That’s it, that’s all you have to do. These rules come from EveryBlock, a group out of Chicago that promotes “neighborhood and community solidarity.”
One term in the rules that people who have never made a radio story might be unfamiliar with is narrative silence. It is a trick of the radio production trade that Ira Glass of This American Life loves. If you break it down into bits it is not hard to understand the basic idea of narrative silence: it is a technique of telling a story through the absence of sound. Easy enough right? But how does it work. It doesn’t really work when your story is all silence. Sure, in some abstract way it does work, but for practical purposes a story of complete silence relies a lot on the assumption that both you and your listener have the same story in mind from the beginning. In practice it means adding silence after someone in a radio story says something profound, or makes a point that you want your listeners to reflect on before moving on to the next part of the story. No music, no ambient sound, just silence. There are many examples of this working in the radio world. Its in almost every episode of This American Life, all the American RadioWorks documentaries, and even some shorter stories on news magazine programs like All Things Considered. Third Coast gives an example from John Biewen’s piece Scared.
Give it a listen. About 1:40 in, you’ll hear Biewen ask how old his daughter is. 8, she answers, and then at 1:51, silence. Then, “I’m scared,” she says surrounded by the sound of crickets outside. Then silence. Then Biewen says, “but you have to let go. Let her go, little by little,” as he, the narrator comes to terms with his daughter growing from the innocent child she was four seconds earlier, into the teenager, capable of making her own decisions she becomes four seconds later. Biewen is a professional producer. He recorded that piece over the course of thirteen years. No matter how many times I listen to it, though, I am struck at the sheer, almost frightening quality of the silence that starts at a minute-fifty. It’s a perfect demonstration of how powerful silence can be in a short story like the ones you will make for this challenge. Third Coast has its own incentives for this challenge including free SoundCloud upgrades for the winners, early submitters, and the permanent hosting of all the stories on the Third Coast SoundCloud account. (More on that here.)
For any gnovis readers out there who participate in the challenge, we will also feature your audio as part of a special podcast. All you’ll have to do is send your story to us. Share the uncompressed audio file (preferrably wav, but an mp3 320 if you must compress) with us by sending an email to multimedia[at] If you send it to us on SoundCloud, make sure we can download it. We really hope you will submit to Third Coast and to us. This is a great opportunity.
TL/DR: Third Coast International Audio festival recently launched a short doc challenge. You can submit to them by visiting the TCIAF webpage. We are encouraging our readers and listeners to participate and will include any submissions sent to us in a special podcast.

  1. Your story should be short, 2-3 minutes.
  2. It must include at least two of you neighbors.
  3. It must include a color in the title.
  4. It must contain thee seconds of narrative silence

Recommended Listening: American RadioWorks