Audio visual: ‘Filmless Festival’ honors radio docs as art form

How do you raise the visibility of something you can’t see?

For more than a decade, that’s been the challenge for Johanna Zorn as founder and executive director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Chicago-based showcase for audio documentaries known informally as the “Sundance of Radio.”

“It’s hard to find a category for what we’re doing,” says Zorn, who launched the enterprise in 2000 at Chicago Public Media WBEZ-FM (91.5), where she’d worked as a producer since 1980. When WBEZ withdrew financial support, Zorn kept the Third Coast Festival going by transforming it into an independent media arts organization in 2009.

Now funded entirely through foundation grants and individual donors, the non-profit entity defines its mission as “celebrating the best audio stories produced worldwide for radio and the Internet” by hosting a series of competitions, conferences and public listening events, as well as radio programs and podcasts.

The main event of the year will take place this weekend at the Third Coast Filmless Festival, billed as “a daylong celebration of storytelling, sound and the art of listening.” From 10am to 5pm Sunday, radio pros and fans will gather at the Joffrey Ballet Rehearsal Studios, 10 East Randolph Street, to sit in darkened rooms, listen to dozens of acclaimed audio documentaries from around the world, and engage their producers in Q&As. Winning entries will be honored at an awards ceremony that night.

This year’s competition drew some 300 entries from 12 different countries, with eight selected as winners of prizes ranging from $1,500 to $5,000. Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, will host the awards ceremony.

Among the winners is The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt, Chicagoan Nick van der Kolk’s profile of a private strip club operator in Detroit, who pulls a gun on Van der Kolk during the interview. Others include Finding Emilie, the story of a young art student brought out of a coma by her devoted boyfriend; Patriot Games, the exploration of Tea Party politics and the strain that places on two friends in Petoskey, Michigan, and Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, a German and Australian documentary about children in Ghana who eke out a living on a toxic scrap heap of discarded computers that the West no longer needs.

Calling it a “filmless” festival gives you some idea of how tough it is for Zorn and her small but devoted staff to promote the work they’re doing as curators of the world’s most compelling radio stories. Even their reference to “audio screenings,” borrowed from visual media, doesn’t quite capture it. After all, she says, “there aren’t pictures to go along with the documentaries because the ‘visual part’ is really what’s happening in your mind’s eye.”

Although her husband is one of the city’s most prominent journalists (Chicago Tribune columnist and uber-blogger Eric Zorn), it speaks well of their ethics that she’s never exploited that connection to benefit her cause. I couldn’t find anything on the Third Coast Festival on either daily newspaper’s website.
“Audio documentaries are an art form that deserves to be recognized and honored,” Zorn says of her mission. “There’s nothing else like this anywhere else — and Chicago should be proud that it’s here.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)