Listen and be Heard

Nearly four years and counting, with almost 1,000 visitors a day, it’s enough time and support to review the spoken word site: listenupnorth.com.

The owner of the site, Rachel Cochrane, is a published author who has sent her work out in the past to well-established publishers, only to come to a commercial full stop – as she told me, ‘I was continually frustrated by the commissioning process.’  Hers was a typical reaction, and with the advent of digital media, she began to look at the pros and cons of setting up a spoken-word site as an alternative to the printed text.  She went through the necessary financial and legal obligations of insurance (about £1,300 per annum) and a data protection fee; other key areas were publicity and finding a suitable recording studio. At last, satisfied with the technical back-up of the right web designer, she conducted a mock-run of the site before going ahead within two months from her home in Stocksfield, Northumberland.

To begin with, the site featured writers mainly from the North East because that was her home base.  Then things developed through groups of writers who had grant-aided projects, such as my own involvement with a book of poetry, short stories and photographs on North Tyneside landmarks called ‘From Segedunum to the Spanish City.’  The site’s geographical area soon expanded.  As Cochrane says, ‘Although it’s called listenupnorth, it’s not restricted to writers in the north.  I have taken on writers from other parts of the country.  To save writers travelling to record their work here, I even accept podcasts as pre-recorded material.’

Preparation is vital.  First, it’s selecting the writers and their text.  Whether it’s poetry, a short story or the writer or others out a piece of drama, it has to be read well and sound clear; as this is audio the work needs a strong narrative, little dialogue and no digression.  After that it’s necessary to have a contract to allow the written work to be recorded.  Then a profile of the writer, complete with photo, goes on the site, before a recording time is booked.  This all takes time and money.

Finding writers for the site is, as Cochrane notes, ‘all about the quality of content, which must be challenging as well as down-to-earth.’  Any editorial decision is always going to be highly subjective, but she gets good feedback from other writers, and her site has not been of interest only to the budding or early career writer.  Its eclecticism means an author’s age, style or track record is no barrier to being accepted.  Having people read their own work is a financial consideration, but it’s also a learning curve for the writers as performers, and in hearing their own voices played back on that first take, it gives them the opportunity to appreciate what the listener hears at the other end.

The inclusion of the interview on the site is a godsend for both writer and listener – this was certainly true for me.  I have been involved in a sideline of writing lyrics for several composers over the years.  Also, as an adult education tutor in creative writing and literature, and giving special courses on writing lyrics and poem set to music, the interview meant free advertising.  It’s a great opportunity for proven writers to discuss their interests and ambitions, and to promote their recent publications.  More than anything, it’s an excellent way to raise an author’s profile.  For the listener, it’s a clue to understanding the person behind the writing, and because you listen close up, it’s an intimate portrayal.

Cochrane has also moved out into the community to record writers and their work.  This has often been the result of community leaders and administrators of community projects responding to the listenupnorth monthly blog, a diary of who, where, when and what has been covered on the site.  For example, Cochrane recorded a women’s writing group from Easington, County Durham and duologues from Live Theatre Workshops.  Writers have also come via the New Writing North Agency’s newsletter and subscribers to Facebook and Twitter.

Recently, there has been an increase in collaborations such as the site’s pairing with Writers’ Block, new publishers from Middlesbrough, with the prize winners being published in an anthology and a contract to record their work through listenupnorth.

Such joint ventures gives recognition to the authors and their work, whether it’s through the printed page or the listen-and-be-heard personal touch that Cochrane has always insisted on as crucial to her spoken-word site.  She wants the way in which the site is listened to kept flexible – through a PC, downloads to an MP3 player or in a car.

The site started out at the owner’s expense.  Now Cochrane admits, ‘it has become bigger than me.’  The high volume of manuscripts means a £20 reading fee has had to be introduced.  As to recording, the sound production has been centralised with a move to a Tyneside studio, which is more expensive but provides greater technical support.

But Cochrane says, ‘now I am in the process of changing the way that listenupnorth operates.  Plans are afoot for even greater collaboration with writers on projects that will attract funding or sponsorship to enable me to keep the website going.  This new way is in the early stages and a positive step both for projects and individual writers and larger projects alongside workshops.  Attracting advertising and local sponsorship is a must.  Two local advertisers already support the site.’  That said – she intends to keep up the community work, and perhaps publish CD versions using the site’s archives – anything to spread the word, so to speak.

Listenupnorth has featured over 200 pieces of audio content by 69 writers including radio plays, monologues, short stories, poetry and book extracts plus author interviews.  It’s been an experiment so far which has given writers the opportunity to have their work encouraged, and, for some, the all-important interview has enabled the writer behind the work to gain a wide and listening audience, not just in points north.  The natural progression fort the future is to go from sole trading to a partnership of some kind.

G. F. Phillips is a member of the Society of Authors, PRS and adult education tutor.

Rachel Cochrane’s blog on setting up the site can be found at www.listenupnorth.typepad.com.

(Published in the Winter edition of The Author, 2011 and The New Writer, 2014.  Another version was published on Thresholds at the University of Chichester, 2012).