On September 30th, 1970, veteran Village Voice writer Howard Smith interviewed rock and roll legend Janis Joplin about her negative portrayals in the press, rejection, why she doesn’t have a female drummer and more. Four days later she was dead. The bulk of the interview sat in a drawer for more than three decades, but now you can watch it on YouTube—as a cartoon.
This week, the PBS Digital series Blank on Blank returns with a 14-episode season of carefully curated, cleverly animated audio from musicians, authors, politicians, and other cultural icons past and present, starting with the Joplin interview. Select episodes will also be shown nationwide on PBS after Masterpiece Theater, making it the first Digital Studios show to do the reverse commute to broadcast. Not bad for a series that was only a Kickstarter campaign just last summer.
Blank on Blank founder and producer David Gerlach says the idea for the series came about when he saw a connection between three things. First, how print journalists carry around old interview tapes or digital files like an audio albatross that follows them around from city to city, apartment to apartment. Second, for all the bon mots eventually published, there are just as many stories, anecdotes, and interesting thoughts left to rot on tape or survive only in random barstool banter. And third, as YouTube proves daily, the public’s appetite for interesting interviews and compelling web video knows no bounds. So why not bring them all together?
"For better or for worse, people love to hear famous people talk about things you might not expect them to talk about," says Gerlach, a former print journalist and Good Morning America producer. "It’s about showing you this different side of people you think you know."
Beyond the PBS series, Blank on Blank is also collaborating with Sports Illustrated to help bring its archive of classic interviews with legendary athletes to life. Gerlach has also started talking to content-hungry marketers about teaming up with Blank on Blank.
"All these major brands are trying to use the web to be part of content," says Gerlach. "And we’ve been able to tap into something that’s kind of different and stands out so there should be a way we can partner with brands interested in creating something compelling that people will want to watch."
Each segment takes about a month to produce, from finding the audio to passing it through animator Patrick Smith’s hands to finished episode. And while Gerlach has an extensive network of veteran journalists from magazines like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Playboy to turn to for audio, the series also taps a wide range of archives, including the Library of Congress and WNYC and the JFK library. Then there are the random goldmines.
During the Kickstarter drive last June, Gerlach got an email from some guy named Michael Aisner in Colorado. Back in the mid-'60s, Aisner went to high school outside Chicago and interviewed a laundry list of famous names that came through town, including Louis Armstrong and Muhammad Ali. "He held on to these tapes forever and no one had heard them other than the few people who may have been listening to that 10-watt student radio station 40 years ago. All of a sudden, we had a piece on it that everyone can experience."