Tapes on Tapes - Journalism Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Blank on Blank.

If there’s any agony to the craft of journalism (besides, you know, crushing deadlines and meager salaries), it can be how much of any given interview never makes it to the final story. In anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours, experts and sources bare the wealth of their experience – if not their souls as well — most of which will be summarized and boiled down to the clearest terms that the average literate, informed citizen can understand.

After that, perhaps a few spare moments are pithy enough to include in quotations. It can be a real shame, especially when a writer is given the great fortune of hearing Project Runway host Tim Gunn expound on the trials of growing up with a FBI agent for a father.

Fast Company Magazine writer, Danielle Sacks, found herself in such a position when writing a feature on the television personality back in 2008. How much of Gunn’s self-proclaimed “most painful memories” made the final draft? Only a slight mention in one paragraph of an illuminating and dutifully reported 3,500-plus-word profile.

It may have only been four minutes of a digital recording, but the story therein is fascinating to behold.

“It certainly impacted me because he was my father and he was a major part of my life. But I will say, not wanting to turn this into a soap opera, but it was not the best of relationships by any means. I was not the son he wanted to have,” Gunn cathartically explained to Sacks. “He was a big sports guy and I wasn’t. He was one of those guy guys. I was about as far from that is you are going to get.”

These revealing details came to light recently thanks to a new website, Blank on Blank, that features podcasts consisting of at-length audio interviews derived from different media sources, sometimes decorating the audio with stimulating visuals in brief, often animated YouTube videos, like the one above.

Photo courtesy of Blank on Blank.

“I just kept thinking about this great untapped archive of interviews that was going to waste,” says David Gerlach, founder of the nonprofit site, of his original inspiration for starting Blank on Blank. “Just because an interview took place on an iPhone or an analog recorder, didn’t mean it couldn’t be re-packaged and remixed to be brought to all these new audiences.”

As a long-time writer for publications like Newsweek and The New York Post, Gerlach has a wealth of connections in the journalism community to tap as resources for his project (for instance, his marriage to Danielle Sacks). Through his background in television, having served in the past as a producer for networks like ABC and MSNBC, Gerlach found he could operate a multimedia platform for journalism not beholden to the 24-hour news cycle, but instead, to the trove of lost treasure left in its wake.

Yet even in happening upon such sacred artifacts – take for instance, his latest project: cleaning up an interview with James Brown from the 1980s – Gerlach laments the challenges of not only dealing with transferring between different kinds of media, but the fact that little of the media was recorded with listenability in mind.

Between hearing the hardest working man in show business lending his support for President Reagan while preparing for an upcoming gig in his dressing room, Gerlach is trying to negotiate how to treat the obtuse hum and buzz of a hair dryer in the background of the recording through the editing process.

Then again, that can be part of the fun too.

“It’s great because if you know James Brown, you know he had well-quaffed hair,” says Gerlach.

Paired with playful and sometimes equally stunning videos, Blank on Blank not only makes good use of priceless moments of history and pop culture, but also the wide ranging visual artistry of talent from across the internet.

While intricate and expressive, Gerlach tells BTR his approach isn’t all that different from his days producing primetime for pundits like Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson.

“Since it’s audio, you have to think of ways that you can cover it – what can you do to make it visually appealing? And that’s something we did in television all the time,” says Gerlach.

As a website, Blank on Blank enjoys the capability of serving eyes, ears, and minds on a leveled playing field through a platform consumers are used to obtaining a multimedia experience from. More dubious is the site’s distinction as a nonprofit, whereas in interview, Gerlach frequently refers to Blank on Blank as a business.

When probed on the subject, he acknowledges the inherent duality of a project like Blank on Blank symptomatic of balancing their mission with the demands of finding underwriting for their podcasts.

“We’re a nonprofit specifically because media companies, journalists are competitive by nature. So I want to be seen as this kind of partner, this opportunity for journalists across the board to basically have a multimedia production at their disposal,” Gerlach professes, while also maintaining, “we are fully a business, but our number one motive isn’t profit. Our number one motive is creating what I think is some pretty remarkable American journalism in history on tape.”

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