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January 7, 2019

The Sound of Research: Phantom Power Podcast from Conception to Realization

Mack Hagood (Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Assistant Professor of Comparative Media Studies) and cris cheek (Associate Professor of English) were the recipients of the 2017 Humanities Center Research Collaborative grant, which supports innovative scholarly collaboration. Mack and cris used the grant to create “Phantom Power,” a podcast dedicated to the sonic arts and humanities.

How did this project start? What inspired you to create a podcast dedicated to sound?

cris: I was really interested in what Mack was doing with his scholarship, particularly the paper about noise-cancelling headphones, the story of Bose.  We had talked about sound a bit on and off over quite a period of time, just bumping into each other and chatting once we realized that we were both interested in sound.

Mack: I don’t remember when the concept of a podcast first came up but I feel like we talked about it. Then, within a week of the deadline, we had a very intensive weekend where we  worked back and forth on diligently drafting the proposal. One of the goals for me was for this to be a public facing form of scholarship, and also a form of scholarship that wasn't ocular centric. So a place where sound scholarship could actually be done in sound.

cris: I actually can fess up, and it’s still kind of true, I had no idea what a podcast was. I thought that people would be sitting down and listening, not doing the washing up or mowing the lawn. I think this has been for me a huge and difficult and exciting and troubling investigation as to what this medium is, which is one of the things that we set out to do.  Let’s bring sonic arts and humanities together. Let’s think about bringing theorists and creative practitioners together, and let’s investigate what the medium is. And I found that I had no idea what the medium was. And now I'm kind of struggling with what it seems to be.

You both come from different fields (cris—poetics, performance, new media and writing; Mack—digital media, sound technology, popular music). How does has your collaboration changed or enriched your work, and what are the values of cross-disciplinary collaboration?

cris: When we’re having conversations on tape, I feel weirdly uninformed about sound. I’m thinking, “oh god, this guy knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea.” I’m just kind of like a bumbling amateur compared to somebody who’s really thinking about critically informed discourses around studying sound. And so, it puts me on my mettle. I’m excited to hear Mack talk about the sonic arts.

Mack: In defense of cris, I think his contribution is incredibly important, too, because it would be too easy to fall into these NPR-like patterns of podcast discourse that are just so habitual now. It would be very “Radiolab,” and while I am very inspired by “Radiolab” and podcasts like it, I think it's really good to have a different energy and to have someone who's got a very careful ear that has never listened to a podcast before.

cris: So I think we're kind of teasing each other in different ways that I hope is a productive tension between disciplines, between sensibilities, between us in terms of how we talk about things, how we relate to them.

Mack: Another thing that has happened for me is that sometimes I go to a conference or something, and I'm a little bit listening through cris’s ears and going, “oh that would be interesting to cris, he might be interested in working on a piece about that.” The podcast went into my tenure review packet, too, and external reviewers all wrote a lot about the podcast.

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating the first season of “Phantom Power”? Were there unexpected successes?

Mack: I don't think we realized that we each came to the table with a set of assumptions that are really quite different from each other.

cris: I wanted to make a listening experience where attention floats rather than being locked into a frame. Where people would just be listening, without worrying where it might be going. And then I started listening to podcasts. And we started working on this, and I realized that I was working with something that I'm profoundly antithetical to: the notion of story.

Mack: Because I listened to podcasts I was well aware that people would be doing other things and that we needed to be kind of--at least from my perspective--directive of their attention and consider parallel forms of attention. And I'm kind of okay with that. In fact, I think it's kind of interesting, because there's some research out there that if you have basic repetitive tasks that you're doing, it can actually help the mind be more creative.  My favorite example is that a lot of scholars (particularly women), knit while listening to lectures or at conferences. I think this is a fantastic feminist move. So for me I feel like I can get deeply engaged with something while mowing the lawn.

cris: And there was the editing.  It  takes ages to get to the good stuff. We’ve both done quite a lot of work in sound production, with studios as musicians and in radio, and I don’t think either of us quite expected the amount of time it was going to take. It was really days and days.

Mack: One of my favorite things that's happened on the show, and I wish would happen even more, was that there are a couple of episodes where cris brings his work as a writer of words and a reader of words directly into the show. The piece on interruptions of different kinds of media transmission, different kinds of silence, paired with John Biguenet and Rodrigo Toscano, I thought were  fantastic. I just loved that.

How did the Humanities Center Research Collaborative grant helped you launch “Phantom Power”?

cris: we couldn’t have done it without the grant. Partly, we had to sort out some technical things, so that what Mack might do in his place, what I might do in my place, or whatever, would be, broadly speaking, compatible. So we had to find a working environment that we could share. The grant enabled us to be more ambitious in terms of the quality of the podcast. Not just the sound, but the quality of the podcast itself.

Mack: It wouldn’t have been possible. I mean, it gave us time, and I was able to get a course release. There was so much back-end stuff that needed to be taken care of--like the web server, setting up a website. There’s a whole other kind of server that you need for podcasting that hosts the audio files themselves. We had to decide on what software to use to produce the thing. There was so much research that had to happen. But the really important thing was that it gave us the time to work together

What are your goals for the second season of “Phantom Power”? Where do you want to take “Phantom Power”in the future? Has the podcast informed or had an effect on your teaching?

cris: As a poet, I want there to be poets involved in this podcast. But I sort of erred towards sound artists more than poets during season one. It’s taken me awhile to work out how to bring the thing that I feel close to and that I love into this collaboration. I think there might be a bit more of that in the second season, which is really exciting to me--that I can begin to think more about the boundaries between poets and sound art.

Mack: One of the outcomes for me is that these are materials I’m able to use as a teacher. I’m teaching a class next semester on sound, music, and media culture. I've used other podcasts in my classroom for years now, but now I'm able to use some of our podcasts. I've also heard from sound scholars in the humanities across the country who are using our stuff in their classes. I actually just got invited to talk about podcasting in the humanities and will give a couple different talks on it.

For more information about season 2 of “Phantom Power,” please visit the Phantom Power webpage and listen in on iTunes.

Applications for Research Collaborative grants are due January 17, 2019. Visit the Miami University Humanities Center website for information about the Research Collaborative program and application process.

Contributed by Sidne Lyon, Humanities Center Graduate Assistant

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