Transmedia storytelling: An interview with the makers of Love Radio

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Love Radio, a transmedia documentary with interactive elements, explores the process of reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda in a unique format; a radio soap.

I spoke with Anoek Steketee and Eefje Blankevoort, the pair behind the project:

What compelled you to make Love Radio? 

Travelling and working in Rwanda in 2008 we met the team that created Musekeweya, a popular radio soap that is not only a soap story full of bad guys and good guys, but tries to prevent new outbursts of violence. We were really enchanted by this project, which is hugely popular among Rwandans.

It is broadcasted from the same frequency that in 1994 incited the murder of the Tutsi ‘inyenzi’ (cockroaches). 

Musekeweya was launched in 2004 by the Dutch NGO Radio La Benevolencija. The soap applies the theories put forward by American psychologist Ervin Staub on the origins of genocide and violence. The makers hope it will heal the wounds inflicted by the genocide and prevent future bloodshed.

Why transmedia? The project could have just been a linear documentary, what made you do otherwise?

For us, a photographer and writer / filmmaker, making a project about a radio soap opera which is spoken in Kinyarwanda was a great challenge. We first made a short article/photoseries about it that was published in a magazine. But we felt the story deserved a more thorough project in which the audience would not just read about it but experience it. But to make the soap understandable we needed to retell it in our own words: with our own images and voice over.

We also wanted to play with the thin line between fact and fiction. The web documentary therefore comprises two layers: an upper layer – ON air – and a lower layer – OFF air.

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The ON air layer is the starting point and tells a linear, cinematic story from the outside: the fictional reality of the radio soap and the message of reconciliation being preached. Viewers sense that something is amiss, but exactly what is not immediately obvious.

At various moments, viewers are given the opportunity to delve into the lower layer. This is where the soap’s other side becomes apparent; we ask critical questions about the positive image portrayed and uncover what is not said ON air. This layer provides a glimpse into the minds of the actors and listeners and thus also a peek behind the scenes of contemporary Rwanda.

In the Off Air layer the audience can also find slideshows and essays on the different themes of the episodes: hate media, identity, justice etc., in that way offering even more information about these different subjects. Whereas (fiction) film in the upper layer seduces the audience, in the lower layer film paints a different picture. And archive material, photography and text all have a part to play.

So it is up to the viewer to choose if they only want to see the simplified version of reconciliation, as told in the soap, or see different perspectives.

We wanted to see if we can captivate an online audience

Also, we wanted Love Radio to unfold in episodes, just like a soap, with its own plot lines and cliff-hangers. We wanted to see if we can captivate an online audience in such a way that they will subscribe and come back for more episodes. Another reason to do this, is that we feel with subjects like these there is always one media moment (around the 20th anniversary of the genocide) and then we just move on. We want to explicitly use the 100 days that the genocide lasted. Within this period, new instalments will be released on a bi-weekly basis.

Love Radio trailer from Prospektor on Vimeo.

How will the exhibition work at the end of the project? Why did you chose to finish the project this way?

In the exhibition, the different layers of the project (facts vs. fiction, the smooth surface of the soap vs. the complex reality) are experienced in a physical way.

Multi-screen installations with fragments from the radio soap are combined with photographs of idyllic landscapes, well-paved roads and neatly raked parks. The photographs provide a tangible, uneasy feeling that there might be more beyond the visible surface. In another space the visitor can have a look ‘behind the scene’: photographs, audio and video-interviews with the makers and actors of the radio soap, but also perpetrators and victims of the genocide, give an insight in the complexity of todays Rwandan society. Walking through these layers, gradually it becomes clear that ‘the truth’ does not exist – only different versions of reality.

An important part of the Love Radio content is photography. While the documentary mainly consists of film, audio and text, the exhibition puts an emphasis on the images. It allows for an other, more contemplative experience of the story.

The fact that the exhibition opens at the end of the 100-days commemoration period, closes the circle. It also simply gives us for more time to develop a good and well thought-through show. As a matter of fact, I (Anoek) am in Rwanda right now to shoot extra material.

You mention sharing parts of the project over social media, including the mobile ‘tap stories’ – what was the thought behind this?

Smartphone visitors to the website will see special tappable stories: short stories in photography and text that complement the fortnightly episodes. With a simple ‘tap’, visitors are immersed in an intimate story, which is especially designed to be enjoyed while on the move or between activities.

Our goal was to make dedicated content specifically made for each platform

The full web documentary experience – although it’s already broken up in episodes of 7 minutes – does not lend itself to be quickly viewed while being in transit, which is the case when you’re browsing on your mobile phone. Our goal was to make dedicated content specifically made for each platform. While exploring the possibilities for mobile, we came across the tap essay fish by Robin Sloan, and were very inspired by it. Our tap stories are poetic, personal stories which give yet a different perspective (from Love Radio listeners, characters or actors) on Love Radio.

Mobile tap stories

Mobile tap stories

Social media is an important tool in attracting the attention of the audience to our web documentary – especially since our momentum lasts for 100 days. By offering content which is specifically designed for mobile users and for sharing on social media, we hope to stimulate our online reach.

Do you expect Rwandans to interact with the project or is this purely for an outsider audience?

Our main audience is Western. Rwandans themselves listen to the Radio soap Musekeweya, we wanted to tell a western audience about the soap, the genocide in Rwanda and the complex process of reconciliation. But we also definitely want to bring the project to Rwanda.

What is the sort of budget for a project like this? Is it significantly different to producing a linear documentary?

The complete production budget of the project (from research to execution, including exhibition) is 180k EUR.

In this case the budget is not significantly different to producing a linear documentary because we made the content ourselves (Eefje and Anoek). By doing camera and sound, production etc ourselves, this part is actually much more low budget than most linear documentaries are.

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What are your main objectives for the project?

The project aims to raise questions about outbreaks of group violence, reconciliation and healing. The genocide in Rwanda is not unique. History is punctuated with outbreaks of violence between nation states but equally between ethnic or religious groups within nation states. How do we deal with the violent episodes in our past and with animosity between different groups in our society? Are we ourselves prepared to reconcile and coexist?”

The story of Musekeweya symbolises another universal topic: the role of the media in a society, its manipulative power and the emergence of collective memory. Media – in particular radio – played a significant role in dehumanising victims in Rwanda (“Your time is over, cockroaches!”). The use of propaganda to reduce the other to the enemy is a recurring phenomenon – even in countries where outbreaks of violence of the kind seen in Rwanda are absent. So we too must ask ourselves: where does this need to create social distance come from and where can it lead?

Love Radio can be followed on New episodes are released every other Thursday, with episode 3 released today.

Visitors using a smartphone are redirected to the Tap stories automatically.

You can leave your email address on the website in order to receive a notification each time a new episode is online.

At the end of the 100-days period, an exhibition will open at Foam, photography museum in Amsterdam, 11 July – 7 September 2014.