More than 25 years ago, retired music executive Joe Smith accomplished a Herculean feat – he got more than 200 celebrated singers, musicians and industry icons to talk about their lives, music, experiences and contemporaries. In 2012, Smith donated this treasure trove of unedited sound recordings to the Library of Congress.
In an effort to bring these interviews to life for the public, multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank is producing, in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, an animated series featuring excerpts from the Joe Smith collection, made available through PBS and as podcasts. In addition to recordings from the Joe Smith collection, the web series also features recorded interviews from journalists who have written for Rolling Stone, WIRED, SPIN and Esquire, among others.
Currently featured from the Library are interviews with Barry White, Jerry Garcia and Ray Charles.
The Library caught up with David Gerlach, Blank on Blank founder and executive producer, to talk about the animated series and working with and using the Library’s collections.
Tell us about your web series, Blank on Blank. What inspired you to create an animated series based on journalist interviews? And, why use old journalist interviews as the source material?
Prior to launching Blank on Blank, I was a television producer at ABC News on Good Morning America. In the mid-2000s, I was a writer for Newsweek and also wrote for publications like Time Out and the New York Post. I recorded the interviews I gathered to write my stories, and I always wondered why no one ever got to hear some of these conversations. Other print journalists I knew would talk about the interviews they did over the years, and the remarkable stories and anecdotes they got on tape that no one ever got to hear. Maybe a few lines ended up in a story, but that was it. Yet these interviews stuck with writers. This is their art. Journalists drag these cassettes – and hard drives filled with digital interview files – as they move from apartment to apartment. I knew there was this untapped archive of amazing interviews that was just waiting to be heard. An American interview archive from some of the country’s greatest storytellers: journalists. We first launched a podcast and series for public and satellite radio curated from these interviews. And I always knew we could use this audio to create new kinds of video content like our animated interviews series with PBS Digital Studios.
Several of your episodes feature interviews from the Library of Congress’ Joe Smith collection. What interested you about these interviews? And why use this particular collection?
This collection captures the stories of American cultural icons. Joe had engaging, casual conversations where you get to hear who these musicians are. But, for the most part, most people never get to hear these tapes unless they know where to find them online. I knew there was an audience in America and around the world that would engage with this unheard slice of American history.
Tell us about your research in using the collection. How do you choose which soundbites and musicians to feature?
We look for stories on life, living and the American experience – the things binding people together that will be fresh and insightful today and years from now. We seek out reflections and asides that you may not expect to hear from a legendary musician whose music you know. It’s about showing what is behind the name and the face.
What are the challenges and benefits of presenting these historical interviews through animation?
The occasional challenge can be sound quality. Oftentimes these historical recordings were made using cassette recorders. For the most part, tape hiss and crackling from analog recordings provides an intimacy, this fly-on-the-wall quality to what people get to hear. There is a beauty in the rawness of these interviews.
But sometimes too much distortion can be a challenge for the viewer. Thankfully we work with a great team of audio restoration experts who are wizards at cleaning up even the roughest of cassette recordings. Plus, by combining a well-known voice with the animation of Patrick Smith, we hope to provide the viewer with images and ideas that complement what is forming in the mind, as the tape rolls.
Why do you think it’s important to present and offer these historical interviews? What are you hoping to achieve by bringing them to the public in such a way?
I like to say: the future of journalism is remixing the archives. The Internet and cloud technology has made it possible to dust off and distribute so much remarkable content. But it’s also important to go beyond simply offering a huge archive for people to discover. There is so much content out there, and so much to choose from that great stories go unheard. We like to dive into these rich archives and present the interesting nuggets that someone may not know was there.
Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical collections, and what do you think the public should know about the Library’s mission to preserve this cultural heritage?
The Library of Congress is one of the most vibrant institutions in the country. These collections tell the American story and, in many ways, help explain where we are and where we are going as a nation. Blank on Blank is honored to collaborate with the Library of Congress to help people realize this history that’s being preserved.
What’s next for Blank on Blank and using the Library’s Joe Smith collection, or in fact any other of our sound recording collections?
We have an episode upcoming with legendary jazz musician Stan Getz, and now we are busy going through a new crop of interviews from Joe’s collection. This includes his conversations with the likes of John Mellencamp, B.B. King and Pat Benatar. In addition, we are interested in uncovering lost interviews with legendary athletes, artists and thought leaders that are part of the Library of Congress. There is so much to uncover and re-imagine.
And, in closing, any final thoughts on your project and your work with the Library’s collections in producing part of it?
Last winter I had the chance to visit the Library of Congress and the Recorded Sound Reference Center. What a day it was to put on headphones and hear all these amazing interviews. It was like discovering a lost treasure – thanks to the help of the great staff who know these archives inside and out. I knew we could help bring these interviews to life.