WILLIAMSBURG – The room is packed. People are squeezing past one another for the few empty seats in the middle of the audience. A bright, fluorescent sign with the words “On Air” hangs from the ceiling, adding an extra bit of gleam to the stage where the live audio programming and storytelling of 120 participants will be showcased.
The On Air Fest, held March 1 to 3, was produced by Work x Work and hosted by Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel (80 Wythe Avenue). The weekend-long event brought together DJs, artists and more for an immersive experience in the world of audio.
“I’ve always had a love for live radio and live storytelling,” said Scott Newman, founder of Work x Work and On Air Fest.
Newman’s audio experience came from his past roles as a radio producer and as an independent producer. From there he created the Scott Newman Agency, which works with organizations to develop storytelling strategies.
After speaking with Peter Lawrence, owner of the Wythe Hotel, the two began to form an idea around radio. “We drew a correlation between pirate radio to what was happening with podcasting,” Newman said. “Artists and new voices were grabbing the mic to protest, tell stories and be creative.”
From there the planning began for what would become the On Air Fest. Newman aimed to create an inclusive and diverse event with people from different backgrounds utilizing various mediums within audio. “We want visual artists to think about what they can sound like with their stories,” he said.
Producer of the Flatbush + Main podcast Zaheer Ali; Manager of Brooklyn Public Library’s Our Streets, Our Stories project Taina Evans; and Preserve This Podcast’s Molly Schwartz were just three of the many guests invited to the event to talk about their work in audio. They discussed their expertise in preserving audio in the session ‘Saving the Sounds of Brooklyn’ moderated by Virginia Marshall, producer of Borrowed Podcast.
“There are things that don’t make it into a transcript—how people use silence, how they pause, the rate of their speaking,” Ali said. “There is so much more information that an actual audio recording brings to the story being told.”
Evans, who coordinates Brooklyn Public Library’s Older Adult Services, shared the importance of preserving audio in the Brooklyn community through the Our Streets, Our Stories project. “We leverage the community voices of older community residents because they’re in the position to talk about the changes that they see over time,” Evans said. “The project lends itself to a neighborhood’s specific archive, so we tend to look at placement, landmark or what they feel is really important.”
In addition to sessions, On Air Fest hosts a residency program for emerging artists. Applicants are invited to submit an idea for a body of work that is then selected by a panel of judges.
“This is the first year that we expanded it to two residents and the second resident being what we called the Brooklyn Sound Residency,” Newman explained. “We wanted to tell a story or have an artist that was more tied to place first than the medium.”
Omari Soulfinger was On Air Fest’s first artist-in-residence through the Brooklyn Sound Residency. With a background in comedy and silent comedy, Soulfinger began recording friends, clients and strangers as a way to explore performance art.
“Someone said I should do a podcast, but I like to do abstract things that are not so direct,” Soulfinger said. “Then someone mentioned audio art.” It was then Soulfinger found out about the residency program and applied.
“I think most New Yorkers have to balance their creative and their professional life,” Soulfinger said. “So, this was important to me.”
Soulfinger was given a room at the Wythe Hotel for five nights to develop and cultivate his craft. “It takes time to really be with it,” he said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing five days in a row—cutting up audio and trying to play with it.”
Newman shared that the organization received a good amount of pitches, but ultimately Soulfinger’s in particular stood out to the judges. “His project is really born out of him documenting voices in his communities of Brooklyn,” Newman said.
Soulfinger also had a chance to perform his work at the On Air Fest. “It’s a sound collage,” he said. “To me, all together it sounds like random scribbles you might find on a bathroom wall.”
Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, the city played an influential role in Soulfinger’s creation. “There’s a dialogue about new Brooklyn and old Brooklyn that’s not trying to juxtapose them, but instead put them equally on the same,” he said. “To accept that new Brooklyn is here and to remember, acknowledge, and give honor to old Brooklyn.”
Moving forward, Soulfinger hopes to see the expansion of On Air Fest and the platform it gives emerging artists.
“I hope that it expands, but I hope that it reaches all kinds of people,” Soulfinger said. “If this can constantly be about whose voice is missing, what story’s not being told, then it’d be amazing.”