Q+A with Ann Heppermann of The Sarah Awards

PRX is very excited to be a sponsor of The Sarah Awards, a new international audio fiction competition from Sarah Lawrence College.

Submissions open today (November 23) and PRX Community Manager Audrey Mardavich corresponded with Sarah Awards Founder Ann Heppermann to chat about how The Sarahs came to be, what kind of work they’re looking for, and what greater goals they are hoping to accomplish.

The Sarah Awards Founder, Ann Heppermann
The Sarah Awards Founder, Ann Heppermann

AM: Can you begin by telling me what prompted you to start The Sarah Awards? And once you decided, how did you convince Sarah Lawrence the awards would be worthwhile?

AH: The spark for The Sarah Awards happened about five years ago when I was teaching a radio class at Sarah Lawrence College. At the end of the semester, I allowed the students to create fictional pieces for their final projects. The work they turned in was unlike anything I had heard before. With audio fiction, it was much easier for them to find their own voice, experiment with form, and freely play with sounds. My theory is that this expressiveness was possible because the students did not have preconceived notions of what audio fiction should sound like. With their nonfiction pieces, they already had Ira Glass or NPR tucked away somewhere in their subconscious. It was hard to shake the voices they listened to all the time from their heads. But with fiction, the students kept casting about their creative ideas and seeing how they landed. I loved the pieces.

But after the class was over, these fictional pieces had no home. It was disheartening. I thought to myself, “Audio fiction needs its own Third Coast.” In my opinion, the Third Coast International Audio Festival has completely transformed the narrative non-fiction and audio documentary landscape. It is a huge reason why we are currently experiencing a second Golden Age of Radio, and significantly shaped its sound.

Luckily, it was not difficult for me to convince Sarah Lawrence to get behind this initiative. Sarah Lawrence College is an academic institution that fosters experimentation and playful creativity. Over the years, Sarah Lawrence has cultivated the talent of visionaries like Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk, J.J. Abrams, Alice Walker, and many others. They embraced the idea of The Sarah Awards and raised the money for the launch. Thus, the revolution was born.

AM: What are a few of characteristics of superb audio fiction? What are you looking for? What gets you excited?

AH: For me, superb audio fiction affects your entire body. It makes me belly laugh. It causes me to weep unabashedly while riding the subway. Most importantly, it should sound like it is a part of the 21st Century. Audio fiction these days should have the same complex sound design listeners demand of non-fiction shows along with exceptional writing and acting. Just like a good book or piece of art, a superb audio fiction piece should stick with you. Because amazing fiction can say more things about the human condition than reality sometimes.

What we are looking for, and encouraging, is audio fiction that challenges the way we think about the genre and pushes the boundaries for what audio can and should be. No more stuffy studio overacting, no cliched sound effects—sound has evolved since the 1930s, let’s use this century to redefine the genre. We want to hear pieces that are so sonically advanced you feel as though you’re watching an entire movie inside your head. Radio drama for the 21st century. That is what the Sarah Awards stands for and celebrates.

Serendipitylogo

AM: Can you tell me a little bit about your podcast Serendipity? Serendipity showcases stories from other producers but also includes a plot about you and Martin, your Sarah Awards cofounder. Can you explain how chose this format?

AH: With Serendipity, we wanted to create a podcast that showcased audio fiction from around the world. When thinking about Serendipity, Martin and I didn’t just want to say, “So, here’s a piece of audio fiction you’ll enjoy.” We wanted to create a podcast where the feature story is nested in another story—kind of like a Russian doll. So we decided that we would have our own story to tell, the story of Ann and Martin. Sometimes you don’t know where the story of Ann and Martin ends and the piece we’re featuring begins. We really wanted to use podcasting to play with the form. It’s more fun this way.

My hope is that you hear things on Serendipity that you’ve never heard before. The first handful of episodes feature pieces we commissioned for the launch of The Sarah Awards. When we launched we knew that people would ask, “What is audio fiction?” So this was also our attempt at an answer. The answer is, “It’s varied.”

We are also using the podcast as a springboard for collaborations with various shows, artists and audio institutions. In October, we collaborated with Snap Judgment as part of our Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest. Snap Judgment producers Eliza Smith and Mark Ristich created a hauntingly beautiful sonic triptych called “Sleeping Girl.” It’s so different than anything that we would have made on our own and we loved it. We plan to do more collaborations in this way so that we can introduce both listeners and creators to the possibilities of audio fiction in the 21st Century.

AM: Submissions for The Sarah Awards open today—what are you hoping to accomplish with this contest? Do you have any secret goals (you can tell us about) that you want to reach with the entries?

AH: The ultimate goal for The Sarah Awards? Revolution. Yes, I know it sounds silly and hyperbolic but I am serious with my answer. I want awards to completely change the expectations of listeners and creators when they think about fiction for the ears. I want The Sarah Awards to help define what audio fiction is for the 21st century. This also means opening the award and its mission to the entire world. The Sarah Awards’ official name is The Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Award. We take the international aspect of the award seriously. We want to hear and share audio fiction stories from around the world and in different languages. What is the culture of audio storytelling in countries from around the world and what can we learn from them? I hope we can help start those conversations.

In the end, we want The Sarah Awards to be both inspired and inspiring. We want to be the beacon of light that has producers swarming together like moths on an autumn evening, to make some of the most awe-inspiring works people have ever heard. Because the audio fiction revolution will not be televised. It’s headed straight for your ears.


Ann Heppermann is a documentary artist, reporter, and educator. She is the founder of The Sarah Awards and its podcast Serendipity. Her Peabody award winning work has aired across the world and on numerous public radio shows in the United States including This American Life, 99% Invisible, and Radiolab. In 2011 she was named a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow. She teaches audio fiction and narrative journalism at Sarah Lawrence College as part of its writing program. Bitch Magazine has called her a “sort of Goddess of podcasting.” She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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