Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Behind the Scenes at CJSR

By Kate

If you’ve ever sat in the lower level of SUB early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, you’ve likely heard an eclectic mix of music and voice stream through the hallways. The source: CJSR 88.5 FM, the U of A’s very own campus radio station. The station provides students and community members with opportunities to produce and star in their very own radio shows. The station is like no other in the Edmonton area, as its small imaginative team stirs up a fresh sense of novelty on the airwaves. So how do they do it? What keeps them going?

It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and while the rest of the campus settles into its morning routine, the CJSR office is already operating at a low hum. News director Matt Hirji, one of the lead members of CJSR’s staff, is brewing a cup of coffee and preparing for an interview to use in his latest project: a spoken-word documentary on false promises.
Though some of his time is spent interviewing in the studio the bulk of Matt’s work lies in producing and managing the station’s ten flagship shows. He helps the stations volunteers craft their stories through the medium of sound.

“Since I started working here, I’ve realized that you need to be more of a storyteller and less of a journalist,” he says. “Since it’s such an invisible medium, it’s not very tangible oftentimes. I need to make audio as tangible as possible.”

Matt explains that he strives for his work to create a “cohesive, engaging story that actually means something to the listener” and after spending two years as an editor at the Gateway before working at CJSR, he is no stranger to creating engaging community content. At the end of his undergrad, he had his heart set on becoming a documentary filmmaker, but was drawn to radio after realizing he could share the same messages on a smaller budget. He started out working on the show TerraInforma, a weekly show which covers breaking environmental news in Canada and beyond.

“There’s something incredibly engaging about radio,” he says.  “I think radio can be a more emotional medium out there because it allows listeners to kind of fill in the blanks and create their own reading of the stories.”

Across from his desk, a poster on the office wall reads: “Radio is a peculiarly didactic medium. It’s not enough to tell a story. You have to explain what it means.” Matt explains that although radio is “a solitary medium, spoken word can feel so genuine and so wonderful and so magical when you break that fourth wall. It’s just incredible when a story hits your heart like it can’t in any other way,” he muses.

The “fourth wall,” Matt explains, refers to the dividing line between performers and the audience in a theatrical performance. While editing sound bites for a feature on a physicist’s work, he includes side-comments and quips from his interviewee and splices pieces of background mechanical noise with dialogue. Though these are things other editors may glaze over, Matt keeps them to add a touch of personality to his work, adding that extra aura of tangibility.
“Somebody once told me whenever you make a story, you should throw a piece of yourself into it. And I just think that’s so funny. Normally an editor would cut that out,” he says.

While Matt’s become comfortable in his style, he admits that a large portion of radio producers stray away from breaking the conventions between media. However, he explains that pushing boundaries is what makes his job worthwhile, and what truly separates CJSR from other radio stations in Edmonton. With shows like the feminist Adamant Eve and  the critically thinking Skeptically Speaking, the station pushes the boundaries of what is accepted beyond style itself, delving into radical and critical topics not often approached by other stations.

“I realize that I’m breaking convention and I’m really excited about it. If I was just sitting here doing what everybody else did every day, (it would be boring) because it doesn’t challenge the status quo, which I’m mandated to do here,” he says.

Specifically, CJSR’s official mandate is “to enlighten and entertain our audience through high quality and diverse programming that constantly challenges the status quo;” with over 250 volunteers working on shows ranging in scope from LGBTQ interests to local Aboriginal topics, it’s safe to say they’re on the right track. With shows such as Gaywire and MocassinTelegraph, the radio station brooches subjects that are somewhat marginalized by mainstream coverage.

“We should be challenging people’s notions of what radio is, because if we’re not doing it, no other station will.” So if you are interested in learning how to break the fourth wall and would like to learn more about the station, check out CJSR’s website. (And don't forget to tune your radio to 88.5 FM!)

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