Art, Math, Mystery: Stylometry

Image credit: Jenny Chen
Image credit: Jenny Chen

Can style be measured? Is it possible to express with numbers?

Visual stylometry is a new branch of mathematics that uses math to determine the style of a particular artist’s body of work. In this #PRXSTEM piece, co-producers Jenny Chen and Molly Jean Bennett take a look at how this works, how well it works, and what the implications are.

You can think of visual stylometry as the measurement of style with higher math. The method has been used to determine the authenticity of art by identifying, analyzing, and mapping unique stylistic elements.

Chen and Bennett talked to several mathematician friends about different types of stories before landing on this one. After meeting Dr. Yang, who previously used literary stylometry to authenticate an ancient Chinese work called Dreams From the Red Chamber, the co-producers discovered that there was a visual branch of stylometry too.

“We all have this stereotype that mathematicians do work that isn’t relevant to the humanities,” says Chen. “It was delightful to discover how wrong that stereotype is – and to find a branch of math that depends on the collaboration between art connoisseurs and mathematicians.”

The co-producers hope that this piece shows listeners that neither the hard sciences nor humanities have full answers to life’s questions: “Only by embracing as many different disciplines as possible can we get more complete answers.”

“Art and mathematics are so far apart that they actually become neighbors again…both are interested in patterns and life.”

Radiotopia on Kickstarter: Give Now for Great Radio!

Radiotopia is PRX’s podcast network. Today, we’re asking you to support our Kickstarter campaign.

Led by Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, this collective of seven amazing radio shows is forging new models for distributing and funding audio storytelling in the digital age. In a short time we’ve grown our audience, brought on enthusiastic sponsors, pooled our production talents, and collaborated on promotion.

We’ve built a strong core. Now, we’re ready for your help. We want to add more shows, grow our audience, and continue to shorten the ramp to sustainability for our producers.

Please give whatever you can, and tell your friends. Let’s make this one of the best Kickstarter campaigns ever. We’ve done it before

The Case of the Nutty Dish: A Science Radio Detective Story

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Image credit: Center for Disease Control

It all comes down to one question: chicken or peanut butter?

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. The Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers.

In producer Philip Graitcer’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, you’re invited to step into the role of an EIS officer and join two rookies as they help solve a science mystery. This is the case of the nutty dish.

Don’t think this is purely a work of fiction, for truth may be far stranger. Philip Graitcer himself was an EIS officer from 1976 to 1978. He remained at the CDC for another 18 years after that: “The first day at CDC, I was sent, from work, to Philadelphia to find the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease. When I became an independent radio producer, one of the things I wanted to do was prepare a radio drama based on an outbreak investigation.”

Almost 40 years after his first introduction to epidemiology, he still says that he’s in awe of the process of solving an epidemic. The piece not only gives us insight on how an agency works to investigate an outbreak, but it also highlights deductive thinking, a core part of the scientific process.

Graitcer reminds us that field epidemiology and solving disease outbreaks is not an exact science in spite of the technology available to us today. Still: “There is still a lot of hypothesis testing and plain old detective work needed to solve an outbreak.”

Younger Ears and Different Dollars: Funding Public Radio in a Mobile Era


Is public radio on the cusp of expansion or disruption? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and‘s Mark Fuerst talked about listenership and public radio funding models on the PRX couch.

From crowdfunding trends to historical comparisons between public television and public radio—some of their observations might surprise you. Listen here, or read the transcript below.

Jake Shapiro: I’m really excited to be sitting down on our couch with Mark Fuerst, who is the director of the Public Media Futures Forum and former executive director of the Integrated Media Association, and a longstanding public media maven, researcher, occasional provocateur.

We’re talking about taking a fresh look at the public media/public radio audience opportunity for this moment we’re in, which still feels like a shift, in a way. We’ve been thinking a lot about that at PRX, around how to help producers navigate their way towards new audiences and their habits of consuming and supporting the media that they love.

I think you were saying that you see some historical comparisons in public television two decades ago.

Mark Fuerst: One of my jobs is to call people and ask them what they’re thinking about in terms of making investments at their stations or working with networks. I think it’s widely shared in the industry that we’ve lost a bit of track of what people are actually using. And some of that is podcasts, because asynchronous use of audio is very hard to track.

Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.
Mark Fuerst (left) and Jake Shapiro at PRX.

There’s also the problem of when people move across platforms, there’s no continuous way right now to look at a person who might in the morning listen to Morning Edition, during the day listen to downloaded audio, come back and listen for a few minutes in a car on the way home, but maybe listen to something totally different in the evening.

The reason why that’s so important is that the more people use public radio the more they are likely to support it, and individual contributions are the largest factor in the business model.

JS: And how big is that business model? Can you talk a little bit about just the sort of sizing of the public radio economy?

MF: I don’t remember what the total number, Jake, for the whole economy is; it’s more than a billion dollars right now. The individual giving sector is 350 million, 360 million dollars and has been growing fairly steadily.

JS: And I think you said there are about 3 million givers?

MF: Just slightly under 3 million I think. So there are about 3 million people contributing, it’s the highest it’s ever been.

What’s happened now is that across the system, there is a topping off, there’s another leveling we’re hitting where the number of people who are contributing, it’s not going down but it’s not growing very much, but the amount of people are contributing is going up because of sustainer programs—most people listening to this going to know what that means—and huge growth in major giving.

So the question really becomes, of the younger people entering the public radio, audio world—can we bring those people into the same relationship of appreciation support that so many people have developed over the last 30 years? And we don’t really know because we don’t actually even know what they’re doing.

We know when they listen to radio station, because Nielsen or Arbitron is going to measure that in some way. But when they move to other use forms—going to website, or listening to downloaded audio—we don’t know what they, we don’t know what they really value. That’s a hugely important piece of information.

I found information in the spring that showed that the peak of donations to public television occurs in 1993 at 5 million members. It had been growing in the previous decades. And then it begins to decline, so that from 1993 until now its been reduced from from 5 million members to 3 million members, almost the same now in public television and radio. And what I was asking myself when I saw that was, what happened in 1993? Why does that occur?

And my hypothesis is that this is related to the explosion of delivery capacity. Because that year literally is the beginning of digital cable. We go from analog cable systems that would deliver 70 radio channels to digital cable systems that delivered 500 channels.

We seem to be in the same moment. The advent of the phone as an audio device as opposed to something that you use to talk to people, that seems to me to be somewhat similar to the expansion of analog to digital cable.

And what I’ve been asking my colleagues is are we seeing something like that happen now with membership? Because what happens is you don’t originally begin to see your membership money go down, your individual giving, because you’ll figure ways to get people to give more and more. But the group of donors begins to contract.

Well, I don’t think we’ve seen contraction yet. There’s a flattening. So the question really now becomes how to take the people who appreciate public media and serve them in new ways and keep them appreciative enough to donate as they make their own transition to new usage patterns.

JS: It’s a fascinating hypothesis which I hope is born out by further research.

It illuminates all kinds of other ways to think about that lost opportunity in 1993—how public television managed that transition—and then what that might say for the opportunity have now.

In the last 10 years, which is the arc of PRX’s own evolution, there were a  bunch of false starts sensing that that moment had come. Whether it was XM satellite radio being this kind of “is that the cable television of radio that’ll change the game?” No it didn’t really, partly because adoption didn’t happen fast enough.

Podcasting, when it first emerged, seemed like that was going to be this huge democratization of distribution, of expression, and that actually really flattened out and never took off for a good six, seven, eight years—until the mobile platform has transformed because of its huge penetration, because of its ability to a consumption, distribution and production device.

That has some interesting parallels, but also huge differences in that it’s not sort of top-down controlled, major players who only are the ones through cable channels that you have to lobby to get programming approval or massive investment in order to even mount the kind of content creation that you’d think for that.

So where PRX is sitting, we see this as part of our challenge with public radio. Within that universe, where do you see PRX’s opportunity to help navigate this?

MF: First of all I think you’ve already established yourself as a center of independence, meaning independent thinking but also independent producers. Attracting a lot of talent. We were discussing this over lunch. PRX has a character that is different than the built-in system of public broadcasting.

The built system of public broadcasting is a geographically based system. PRX is not. The digital world is not a geographically based system. So that there’s universal reach to almost every single producer.

So for PRX, I think you’re positioned to begin to look at how do you take talent and give them the support—some of it’s going to be coaching around making great programs, but some of it’s also going to be technical support, marketing, delivery capacity—to reach people.

And 99% Invisible is a great example you’re using. The audience for people who are really interested in how design affects life is large enough to be an audience for a podcast but might not be large enough to be an audience for a radio station.

If you look back now to the digital cable thing, no commercial network ever had a cooking show. After 1994, there were cooking channels. Because the audience size needed to support a cooking channel was a fraction of the audience size needed to support a million-dollar-per-episode sitcom.

So there’s a shift in the fundamental production dynamics. There’s a release of a certain amount of creative energy. You need structures through which people can accomplish things. You know not everybody’s a genius to do everything. So I think PRX represents this structure that can attract capital.

And the reason why we’ve been talking is there is is also a level of understanding of what the market looks like. Who are the audience members? What do they think? How do they use this stuff? What would they prefer? You need people to collect that information. Most producers are not going to do that. They are just going to produce programs. So PRX has to play some kind of role there, some galvanizing role to pull these pieces together.

JS: You did last year talk about the effect or non-effect of the sort of Kickstarter economy on the larger public radio giving economy, and that there’s a potential misperception of how influential that is. So you took a look at that and said, despite what seems like a potentially very disruptive piece of how giving is happening as it migrates to some direct-to-producer support, this is actually not, when you talk to stations or talk to listeners, threatening the edifice of that cornerstone of the economy.

MF: Well, I never talk to any listeners except for my wife and a few other friends. I talk mostly to PDs, program directors.

The people who make decisions as to what to put on the air view the relationship between distributors and the audience as basically a wholesale retail thing. “We buy programs, we put them on air, and we retail them—we give them to people in exchange, and people give us the money that we pay you in fees.” And the direct relationship between some of the best producers and their audiences—and there are a few, not a lot—that do bring back some substantial dollars—that seems a violation of that model.

But when I would ask people, “Do you see any deterioration in your membership revenues or your membership relationships based upon that violation?” The answer was universally “no.”

But remember, Jake, you just were referring to something: There’s almost always a very big lag between the emergence of a disruption and when it really starts to happen. So, while Kickstarter or other forms of financial relationships that could support new production models may be small now, you have to draw the trend line up. And then where does the trend line become strong enough that it begins to undermine the other business model? I don’t know that we would see that for years, but it’s certainly nothing to ignore, and every subsequent discussion I have with people, I’ve included questions about whether you, for example at a station, would want to start doing Kickstarters. And I’d say half the people say we’ve at least thought about it.

Most producers, even station people, don’t realize the size of the public radio economy. The program economy’s $500 million. So if there are producers taking $5 million in Kickstarter and direct contributions, it’s just not really rockin’ the boat. Is there within ten years a possibility of that changing? It’s not inconceivable.

(Radio image via Shutterstock)

Podcast Workshop Giveaway Winner

Congrats to Whitney Henry-Lester for winning our Podcast Workshop Giveaway!

Whitney will be flying in from Seattle to attend the “Make Your Own Radio” week-long workshop at UnionDocs in New York.

About our winner:

Whitney loves seeing new places and making radio, especially at the same time and with friends. She produces as part of The Recollective, and is currently working on a series about the future of a city with a notorious past (Destiny & Grit). That city is Tacoma, WA, where she currently lives and has for nearly 9 months! She thinks about podcasts a lot and is excited to hear some smart people talk about them in her home city of New York.

There are still open spots available in the UnionDocs podcasting workshop, so REGISTER NOW.

Work with some of the top podcasters in the country including: Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, Anne Sale of Death, Sex and Money, Benjamen Walker of Theory of Everything, Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, Jonathan Goldstein of Wiretap and so many other amazing producers. Get on this.

700 Fathoms Under the Sea: The Deep Sound Channel

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Jacques Cousteau called it the “silent world.” Let’s just say he got that one wrong.

Something unusual happens 700 fathoms under the sea. Ocean physics create a special zone where sound travels for hundreds, even thousands of miles.

David Schulman gives us a preview of the ocean’s Deep Sound Channel in his PRXSTEM story:

You can think of the Deep Sound Channel this way: sound gets bent (refracted) by layers of pressure and depth in ocean water just as light gets refracted in a prism. Scientists discovered this “sound channel” in 1944. Whales use it to communicate across oceans — and during the Cold War the Navy secretly used it to track nuclear subs. This 1948 graphic shows sound traveling on an axis 700 fathoms down in the Atlantic.

When asked about how he got the idea for this piece, Schulman says, “I got talking with Bill McQuay (audio person for Cornell Ornithology Lab, sound designer, and former team member on NPR’s “Sound Expeditions”), a brilliant and imaginative sonic polyglot…[He] mentioned that the general field of anthropogenic noise — human-made sound — and its effect on other species and habitats, is an area where research is accelerating rapidly.” This eventually led to Schulman connecting with Chris Clark, whom you hear in the piece.

Ewing and Worzel 1948 report #2


Ewing and Worzel 1948 report


(above) Morris Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel discovered the deep sound channel in 1944, and published their results in 1948 in a paper titled “Long-Range Sound transmission.” In this image from their report, it’s possible to see the reading recorded on paper by one of their hydrophones just after an explosion set off 800 miles away in the sound channel. Photo credit: Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel

In every radio story, there’s at least one things that doesn’t make the final cut. Schulman points out one outtake he wishes he could have included:

“In early April 1944, a destroyer called the Buckley (also knows as DE-51) assisted in the experiments that, for the first time, proved the existence of the deep sound channel — and set the course for Naval intelligence for three decades of the Cold War. The crew of the Buckley set off charges that traveled through the sound channel, and were recorded more than 800 miles away by Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel aboard the USS Saluda. These tests were by far the longest transmission of human sounds recorded to that date.” (You can read more about that history here.)



Bioacoustic researcher Chris Clark by the San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Michael Johnson

We asked Schulman what he hopes listeners get from this piece: “A sense of the power and extraordinary reach of the sound channel operates. And a dawning sense of how human activity may be changing the fundamentals of undersea life, through the noises we are making.”

Spoken like a true science storyteller, he adds, “This is as good as going to Mars.”

A Rainbow of Noise

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

There is a rainbow of noise out there. We just don’t usually see it.

Most people know white noise as the static on old analog TVs, but there’s pink noise, and blue noise and black noise; enough to recreate a scientifically accurate audio rainbow. Marnie Chesterton tells some of the stories of the different kinds of noise.

In her PRXSTEM 2.0 piece, we meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head (tinnitus); Professor Trevor Cox at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way; and Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work.

Chesterson came across this story idea after having heard about pink noise. She began an investigation sparked by her own curiosity about the spectrum of sound: “I started unpicking the stories of different colours of sound, mainly by talking about this topic to everyone I could think of,” she recounts. “After a few chats with various academics, I came to Professor Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at Salford University, who is obsessed with qualities of sound – reverb, echo. “

Through Trevor Cox, Chesterson got a first-hand look at an anechoic chamber, a whole room constructed to deaden any type of sound whatsoever. She describes the room as the most bizarre one she’s been in for a while: “The walls and ceiling are covered with these meter-long, dark grey foam spikes, and the floor, if you can call it that, is a mesh a bit like that of a trampoline. Through the holes in the floor, I could see down into darkness, maybe more foam spikes.”

Imagine a room that is so silent that the sounds seem to come from your own head. Chesterson explains, “The brain’s response to that kind of silence is to fill it with something, anything. And that’s what tinnitus is.”

If you’re interested in exploring the different bands of sound described in Chesterson’s piece, you can play with the piece’s companion interactive rainbow of noise. Listen to which bands are used to treat tinnitus, to describe regime shifts in climate, to help sirens cut through background noise, and more. Click the image or here to interact with the rainbow.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 2.14.43 PM

Podcasting is Back. Did it Ever Leave?

There has been a lot of talk about podcasting lately in the news. We’re not surprised, we’ve got a podcast network of our own! But, it’s good to see podcasting get some love and make its mark in mainstream media.

Because we know how many of our producers are also podcasters (or budding podcasters) PRX is giving away a ticket to a week-long podcasting workshop. Take your podcast from zero to HERO in five days at UnionDocs in New York City.


Now, a roundup of some Friday podcasting reads of note:

James Donaldson closer

When Quotation Marks Just Don’t Cut It

“It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river.

It’s been years since I’ve gone fishing. But hear a line plop in water, the rapid click of a reel, and I feel like I’m there. That’s what sound does.

Yes, other things—the smell of the river, the view of dark trees lining open sky—make fishing tranquil. But to me, it’s the sound—what you hear while you silently wait for a bite—that centers and calms.

Jessica Murri sent us this story about military vets, and in our Second Ear edit session, we tried to make that sound sing. We trimmed narration and music, re-structured to clarify the narrative, added ambient sound and slimmed the character list down from four to three.

It’s Not About The Fish” juxtaposes trauma, rage, and violence with the surreal order of a gurgling river. I hope you take the time to listen.




Producer Jessica Murri
“I have a bit of a love affair with radio,” says Boise Weekly reporter Jessica Murri.

Here’s Jessica:

I have a bit of a love affair with radio going. Even though my day job is staff writer at the Boise Weekly (in little known about but really amazing Boise, Idaho), I still miss radio.

It’s my favorite medium for telling stories because it’s one of the truest ways to put a person in a place. For this story about a few military vets going fly fishing, I couldn’t resist bringing along my recorder.

I wrote this story for print as well, but I couldn’t make the reader really hear how George Nickel told me about being in an armed standoff with the Boise Police Department. I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

In print, I couldn’t capture the way James Donaldson’s voice dropped when he said, “It’s still hard to accept the fact that I don’t have my legs.” Sometimes quotation marks just don’t cut it.

Jake Thacker
Jake Thacker (photo by Jessica Murri)

Turning on my recorder for four hours really takes the listener to the Boise River, I hope. You can say “the birds chirping” all you want, but sometimes it’s just better to be there.

I don’t get to do much radio working in print, so I end up doing these little side projects for myself, just for fun, and then they sit on my desktop and no one ever hears them. Well, Erika and Genevieve wanted to! And after, like, 50,000 emails back and forth, they made my little radio project something more than a, well, little radio project.

I’m really glad I got such professional help on this story. I hope it makes it to a wider audience so I can share a piece of Idaho life.

Explore Jessica Murri’s other work here. You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.