by Connor Walsh
The International Features Conference hit forty this year, and went to Leipzig to go through it's mid-life crisis. After a roller coaster week, the Conference came out the other side with a positive outlook for the future.
This is my fourth IFC and the format was slightly different to my previous parties, um, conferences. The days were still topped and tailed by workshops from great features makers; the mornings were still spent listening to and discussing features, and the evenings are still a great social event with friends old, new, and annual. But the afternoons, rather than listening and discussing, were presentations on applying a feature-makers mindset to online multimedia and social media. These sessions were perhaps the inappropriate-spending splurge element of the mid-life crisis. What is the right thing to do? The far-out thing to do? The best thing? The acceptable?
I had been to the same venue, the Medienstiftung Leipzig, two years ago for a meeting looking at the radio feature in the digital age. At that time, German online features were in the stone age. The IFC shows they have come a long way. A feature tracing the ages of man through the small ads has an online component; and this examination of a Berlin tram line even includes a "feature machine", putting together stories on the fly according to theme and narrative role. That such a project comes from a public broadcaster, RBB, which is otherwise tied up in legal red tape, is a tribute to the efforts of Jens Jarish and the team of three young producers he enabled. Jens also made a morning presentation about one of his specialities, creating and using scenes in features – scenes meaning action, where things happen, rather than a structural element within an act. Between this, his insight in discussions, and his confidence in what features makers do, Jens was my hero of IFC 2014.
There were many more presentations, asking how we make radio features more visible online, and about different multimedia skills that can involve or complement crafted sound. It was largely a case of practitioners delivering presentations for the management, showing them what radio producers are doing in other media, or other parts of the same media.
This process went round in circles for a while, before finally pushing through in the final two full days: in 2014, some people want to craft great radio features, some want to get them out there as much as possible, some want to use their skills and talents in new arenas. The features departments of public broadcasters may be reaching fewer on FM, but the sort of radio they can make and facilitate, is cool. Keep helping each other make it, and get it to new ears. The presentations on the future culminated, and reached a resolution, in an open debate on the final day – all delegates sitting in a circle (well, a double-layered oval) and expressing the restrictions and fears of the public broadcasters, the optimism and balls of the (mostly younger) independents. These two somehow came together at the end and my main hope from IFC 2014 is that the station managements hold onto the positivity, let go of the fear of digital, and regain their excitement of the creative potential in the community of staff and independent sound wranglers.
The number of programmes played was lower than usual, and the mix was also a bit different – one delegate suggested the selection was designed to spark discussion, rather than showcase the best programmes out there. And indeed the quality of discussions was high, with a wide range of participants. As well as the regular representatives of European public broadcasters, there were independents from the US including the new Artistic Director of The Third Coast Festival Sarah Geis and Transom Workshop graduate Kathy Tu, making a very welcome connection between the creative radio worlds on different sides of the pond. Academia and production in Australia were represented by editor of new journal RadioDoc Review Siobhan McHugh and Eurydice Aroney.
For a relative newcomer like me it was a thrill to hear, for the first time, from the likes of Rene Farabet, a French master. The BBC were present like never before, with a dozen attendees, and of course the host nation Germany was well represented.
We were treated to excerpts of programmes from less regular IFC names, including France Culture, Third Ear, and the Swedish Academy of Dramatic Arts. We also had one award-winning producer detained at the pleasure of the Leipzig Polizei for a while but, hey, fortieth birthday and all that.
Awards? Well, there is a Taurus, just like the Prix Europa trophies, that travels to each IFC. Kasia Michalak from Polish Radio took that away to Lublin (site of the 2015 IFC) at the closing ceremony. Then there is the Ake Blomström Prize, a fellowship to attend the IFC for three producers under 30 – their pieces get played too. And they were all great! One Swedish murder mystery, one Norwegian war mystery, and one American fighter pilot. As well as playing their work at IFC, the winners come to Prix Europa in November, have an EBU coach for their next feature, and get chocolate.
The venue and catering were excellent, and what was perhaps missing in terms of knock-out features was made up for in the great mix of people and their spoken (and shouted) inputs to the conference.
For my part I was able to extend the vibe by a day, taking the train overnight from Leipzig to Amsterdam for the final half of a narrative journalism conference with IFC-worthy content. Multi-award winners Laurence Grissell and Lasse Nederhoed excellently deconstructed some of their own award-winning work, and former TAL and Radiolab staffer Amy O’Leary gave her insights into multimedia from The New York Times, for the Stichting Verhalende Journalistiek – Het fileermes conference (that’s copy-pasted, don’t ask me to pronounce it). While not affiliated to the IFC at all, it fitted in perfectly both in scheduling and tone, to round out a highly stimulating week of exploring where the radio feature can take us.
Find out more and start planning for next year in Lublin, Poland, at the official IFC blog. International Features Conference photos courtesy of the IFC.
Follow Connor Walsh's audio work and observations at his blog, Coffee Flavoured Tea.