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Project Lets City Speak for Itself

Open Sound New Orleans creates ‘collaborative sound map of the city’

Mapmarkers indicate available audio files from around the Greater New Orleans area, with the Mississippi winding through and Lake Pontchartrain at top.
Creating content by using on-location interviews and ambient sound is nothing new. Letting a city’s residents produce their own audio landscape? That’s something else.

In a nutshell, this is the idea behind Open Sound New Orleans, “a community project that invites New Orleanians to document their lives in sound,” according to Jacob Brancasi, curator and co-creator of the project with Heather Booth.

“Participants record, or make recording requests for, the important sounds and voices in their lives. The sounds they record are archived and organized geographically on a soundmap of the city, which can be found on the Web.”

How it works

The focal point for the Open Sound New Orleans project is its Web site at This is where people can upload whatever audio they have created for the project, be it their personal stories and recollections, “wild sound” recordings of actual events, street scenes or concerts; or whatever melange they might edit together themselves. (After all, with today’s computer-based editing software, a thoughtful novice can put together a reasonably decent radio documentary.)

In those instances where people can’t do their own recording, Booth and Brancasi are there to help.

“We have four Zoom H2s” — handheld stereo digital recorders with built-in microphones — “which were purchased with donations from friends, family and other New Orleanians,” says Brancasi.

Visitors click on a mapmarker for download information and details about the recording. “Since August 2008, we have loaned these recording kits to community organizations, neighborhood groups and individuals to facilitate a diversity of direct dispatches from around our city. A majority of the content on the site has been recorded by New Orleanians who use the equipment we lend out and train them on.”

At the Web site, the sound clips are organized using an interactive “soundmap” of New Orleans. By clicking on various locations, surfers can take an “audio tour” of the city as heard through the ears and imaginations of its citizens.

“Our intent is to make more accessible the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans,” says Heather Booth. “We believe that archiving the sounds of our city as everyday people hear them, move through them and create them, is an act of preservation.”

The site’s list of available audio files suggests the difficulty in building a large-scale effort. Among their recent efforts to build content, Brancasi and Booth invited musician Quintron to contribute “ambient and musical snapshots” documenting the creation of a new album he is recording in 2010 in the galleries of the New Orleans Museum of Art, with museum patrons at hand.

Last year they issued a call to people who live in the area of the Dwyer Canal. The ground on one side of the canal is lower than on the other, making the historically African-American side more prone to inundation. Now flood mitigation efforts are being carried out, and Open Sound invited residents to share thoughts and experiences about their neighborhoods via audio recordings.

An example of the specific sound file pages created for each sound added to the map. The Open Sound New Orleans site uses a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 license. By contributing to the site, people automatically certify that all of their sound can copied, distributed, transmitted and adapted without payment of rights claims.

Radio angle

The project was featured in a recent broadcast of NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” with listeners given a “tour” of the city soundscape.

Booth and Brancasi had been working on the Web version of Open Sound New Orleans since early 2008. The idea of taking it to public radio occurred after they won one of eight 2009 grants from the Association of Independents in Radio Inc. with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The project was funded under the Makers Quest 2 program, according to AIR Executive Director Sue Schardt. The goal of that initiative was to encourage producers to bring “do it yourself” culture and new media to traditional public radio platforms.

That funding ended last August. But Open Sound New Orleans remains a going concern.

“We’re eavesdroppers,” Booth said. “We love sound and conversation, particularly the sounds and conversations of our city, New Orleans … We chafe a little at the ‘voice of authority’ required in radio, and the gatekeeper strategy that has long kept so many voices out. That is why we were so surprised and thrilled that CPB and AIR wanted to support our project, which is simply about encouraging the people of our city to get involved in their own representation.”