When I was teaching DS106 there were not many rivals for teaching the craft of audio storytelling than to ask students to listen closely to the way what I consider the standard bearer of the form is- This American Life. I’ve gotten back to listening to more episodes lately, and they maintain that form.

Episode 758, Talking While Black, was just gripping, and turned out to be some ideal material Cori is using in a university class she is teaching this week. It was the previous episode, Ghost in the Machine that triggered some thinking of a past project I am pondering rekindling. As good connected things do, it led to one thing, then another.

The tagline of this episode hints at its stories– “People use machines to find people they lost.”

Stay with us.

The opening of episode 757 begins with one of Ira Glass’s early experiences of audio editing, the genius is how he arcs something that happened in the days when “tape” was really audio tape but to include something as modern as modern artificial intelligence to do creative writing. Maybe.

But it was the prologue that got my gears going, where Ira shared a tae two sisters who did not have memories of their father who took his life when they were very young. One sister, who was 5 when he passed, always yearned for more connection, the other was too young to have any memory experience.

The “ghost” in the machine turned out to be old reel to reel tapes a family member found and sent the sisters, they were mostly of their father practicing his love of opera singing (his day job was installing/fixing phones). The interesting parts they heard, once digitized and shared via Skype, were in between, as her father included in the taping snippets of his conversations at work or talking to himself as he composed.

The “ghost” was a portion of her father talking to the older sister then maybe 3, playing game of “who is that” as they looked at family photos. Think about hearing the voice of your father you never knew, and not just talking, but talking to you.

I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me, you know? Everything I thought I understood, it just fell away. I had seen photos of him. I knew a little bit about him, but he wasn’t accessible. And this man that I assumed was not accessible to me suddenly became so.


The precious sound of the voice of a family member gone. I know a bit about that.

Ira Glass again puts this into perspective, going back to the father of recorded audio

Putting ghosts into a machine– it just happens when you record anything. You know who understood that very clearly? Thomas Edison, the person who first figured out how to record and playback sound, who created the first phonograph machine back in 1877.

In an article listing the possible uses for his new invention, one of the things he listed– preserving the voices of family members so you have them after they die. He says when it comes to this, quote, “The phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph.”


Again, Edison saw one of the most important uses of his invention was not to play music or podcasts or radio or drama, but for people to have the memories of their loved ones as a playable phonograph recording. Pictures can show locations and faces, but stories in the words of people who experienced them bring them to life.

And as well, Ira Glass explains the story of the well known mascot of RCA, the dog listening, head tilted, to a record player. But, as we hear, it’s not the record player itself the dog is listening to.

You Don't Get Nipper on a Digital File
You Don’t Get Nipper on a Digital File flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Nipper is not tuned into the music, he is seeking his master, whose voice he hears speaking from the machine.

And this idea of using a machine to hold on to the dead, it’s also part of a famous bit of audio history, or maybe this is more like a legend. You know that illustration of a dog listening to the old-fashioned phonograph with the caption, “His master’s voice”? This was the RCA logo for years and years.

OK, Google “RCA trademark painting.” And what’ll come up– you’ll see the painting that the logo was based on. You see the dog and photograph are on what looks like a coffin, and here’s where there’s a question, OK? There’s no record of what the artist, Francis Barraud, actually intended here, but look for yourself. Lots of people, me included, we only see a coffin.

In fact, the dog, whose name was Nipper, first belonged to Francis’s brother, and then became Francis’s only when the brother died. So in this way of seeing the picture, OK, the master is dead. He’s inside that coffin, and the dog is listening to a recording of his dead master’s voice.


And this is just the intro to the episode of This American Life, but goes to show, as it does often, that creating effective audio stories is a bit more than turning on a recorder and yakking into a mic.

But alas, while the power of audio recordings of loved ones is something I consider beyond just “important” but critical, I am not here to write about family stories, but the stories of unexpected positive coincidences that happen in the big machine of the internet because of its capability to enable personal connections.

Amazing ones.

Talking of time machines, this blog is one iself, let’s dial in the year 2009… I am going back to a thing I did for the 2009 Open Education Conference, the first time it was called Amazing Stories of Openness. Then, as it is now, much of open education was focused on the things- open content, open resources, licenses. I had been fortunate in my haphazard career though, to have experienced a number of serendipitous connections that I could somehow relate to have shared something openly in the internet.

I wanted not to talk of the open things, but the experiences it enabled. And I wanted to have those stories told by people, not just written. Voices in the machine. I’ve done a few iterations of the talk since then, but the description is close to the original

While the Open Education movement focuses on institutional issues, a large ocean exists of powerful individual accomplishments simply from tapping into content that is open for sharing and re-use. As colorful as old covers of “True Stories” magazine, this presentation shares moving, personal stories that would not have been previously possible, enabled by open licensed materials and personal networks. Beyond my own tales, others have been culled from the net, and you can share your own.


Getting the stories always took a lot of urging, nagging, begging, teasing, often through email or twitter. For many of them, I ended up making times to have skype conversations where I could record it. I would also during presentations ask people on the spot to stand up and share a story for their colleagues (which I recorded if they allowed me).

I got rather shameless in ways to get stories.

Sharing them was a lot of fun, because I had made use of this nifty dead technology called “Cool Iris” that allowed me to load all of the media, links into an RSS file, and it would create an interactive “wall of media” where I could arrow through sequentially, or jump around to any example.

I have tried a few times to get another wave of new stories (usually when I had a chance to share these, last done in 2015), but rarely seem to get a whole bunch.

I see them float by often in twitter (see the ghost metaphor?), like this recent example from Lisa Noble, sharing a connection experience that came out of the old ETMOOC experience

These things are small, and perhaps not all the consequential if you are out there Changing Education, but… they really matter, at least to me.

This is wonderful, and garners a round of likes (including me) and retweets. But what happens to this story as it flows down the stream of past tweets, drowned by wordle tweets, etc. Wouldn’t it be worth having Lisa’s own voice tell the story, even if it’s just 90 seconds? The sound of a voice versus a tweet with a bunch of likes.

Likewise, a few weeks (months?) ago when I visited Ken Bauer’s #educoffee session repurposed as an OEGlobal podcast there was re-sharing of one of these “amazing” experiences. It was back when ken started, and Lawrie Phipps was on and and his offhand remark about Canadians turned out to be an opening that Lawrie and Ken’s dad were at one time on the same ship together.

Lawrie has blogged it and Ken too — but wouldn’t it be even more fantastic to have them telling us this story– in their own voices.

I’ve not even kept up with adding them to my own collection. I’d written a few clicks back about a friend of my grandmother’s who was a bit eccentric to me as a kid, a woman who lived to paint, her apartment literally filled with works in progress, easels in the living room (my vague memory). I have a few of Mrs Hammer’s paintings, and out of that came a series of blog comments from her own descendents who were able to fill in my own gaps of knowing who this woman was. From one that mentioned how she got to know my grandmother that literally reveals the location in Baltimore of where my grandparents lived long ago. Out of the blue a month or two ago came a tweet from another of Mrs Hammer’s grandchildren.

Myself, I need to give voice to this story. Even in just looking for some photos for this post, searching my flickr on “machine”, I came across a photo I got from a cousin I reconnected with while passing through Portland a few years ago. He has a trove of old family photos like this one, where my father’s grandparents are standing in the back left corner… there he is, “Isodore” or how my Mom said he was just known as “the old man” as he was pretty stern.

The Family Wayback Machine
The Family Wayback Machine flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I wish I had some recording of my parents talking about these people… the ghosts of them are rather faded.

Because of my belief in the power of stories in voice, I am just circling about this idea of trying to get more people in the “internet machine” to somehow get their stories into something like Edison’s machine.

I’ve recast the Amazing stories site a few times, but the last is the ideal (I think)- it is set up using my own SPLOTbox theme so people can contribute stories as video (YouTube, Vimeo) audio (uploaded, SoundCloud, even recorded directly into the site), or just a picture with a written story.

It’s always seemed to take a huge amount of effort to solicit these, yet I see potential in so many interactions I witness.

So here’s my thought, I am thinking about making a pitch for a 2022 round of story collection for the upcoming OER22 conference. Is there ever more of a time for these kinds of stories? As Lawrie Phipps blogged in his written reflection of what I consider an “amazing story”

So this post is here only to remind me that in these times of crisis and uncertainty it is good to lean into those small moments of serendipity within the network.

I have blogged before about how we are more connected to others now than at any other time. There are people like Ken who are out there reminding us that it’s OK to be social, and that every online engagement does not have to be about this crisis, or getting your teaching online, or whatever else is “urgent”.


Can we do even more leaning into the network? Is anyone game to step up and contribute?

Can we leave more than ghost tweets in the machine, maybe something more than a tweet flown by?

Featured Image: I spotted this Bell and Howell 16mm projector in Willow Bunch, SK, and the ghost sound of the film flickering through came back from my years in fifth grade being in charge of operating these for or assembly events. Sounds carry deep and far, and into our souls.

16mm Glory
16mm Glory flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


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