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West of Center, Episode 1: Scale

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Jason Albert is a climber, backcountry skier, and self-described “field audio junkie” who is creating a new series of podcasts dedicated to stories about adventure and the natural world. Over the span of 53 minutes, the first episode explores climbers’ sense of scale, from micro-crystals of granite and flakes of lichen to the overwhelming bulk of El Capitan. Albert takes listeners up the Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell and Jonathan Siegrist, and relates a harrowing rescue off the Nose in a snowstorm.

Listen here or download the podcast at the link below.

We asked Albert to explain the origins of West of Center and the role of audio storytelling in an intensely visual sport like climbing.

What’s your story? Obviously you’re a climber… How did you learn to do this kind of audio storytelling?

I’ve been an escapist since I can remember. Early on, children’s adventure books like My Side of the Mountain captivated me. That morphed into high school summers crisscrossing the White Mountains. Gradually I became desensitized to hiking-induced endorphins. And so hiking evolved into rock and ice climbing and backcountry skiing. Kind of a typical story: The dreamy East Coast kid wanders towards the mythical West.

As for sounds and stories, I’ve been collecting field audio since 1994. NPR’s sports program lent me some audio gear for a trip to Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. That audio became a three-part series. I’ve still got those recordings; they’re full of self-conscious ramblings. Needless to say, I won’t be releasing them anytime soon. But I was hooked. I carried my recorder and mic around for years. I dabbled in audio storytelling on the side, but made a living teaching science in Colorado. A few years back, I became untethered from a fine job and moved to Bend, Oregon, with the family. Since then, audio projects keep my brain engaged, mostly journalistic pieces for public radio.

But I still found myself unable to produce creative pieces about adventure or the environment. Public radio editors have a job to do within a scarce amount of “air” time. I no longer wanted an editor’s email reading, “No thanks, who would this story appeal to? Too niche!” So I’ve thought about developing a podcast for several years.

What are your goals for West of Center, and what kinds of stories do you plan to do?

For now, West Of Center is simply a personal audio project. But, like many folks, taking the risk to put their creative work out there, I’d love to see it become viable. I’m setting that bar low: Do not lose significant $$ in the process.

My scope for stories on West Of Center will be broad. For example, I love how National Geographic produces science, anthropology, environmental, and adventure content. I’m thinking that to keep my ADD at bay, I’ll have to cast a wide net. But thematically, I’ll develop stories linking back to the natural world and a sense of place.

How often do you hope to publish a new piece?

At this point, I plan on releasing a new episode every month or so. I’m embarrassed to say how long episode one took to produce. I fretted over some ambient sounds that most listeners will barely notice.

Given that climbing is such a visual sport, and that traditional and most new climbing media have both been so visually oriented, what can audio storytelling bring to climbing that print or visual media miss?

I believe audio can be an incredible visual experience. When you’re engaged in an audio story, your mind creates the visual storyboard. I suppose it’s like great writing. A wonderful sequence of descriptive words stimulates neurons, and, presto, you’ve got that mental image of the narrative. I’d like to think that solid audio storytelling embodies those same qualities.

People tend to be less self-conscious in front of a mic than a video camera. So perhaps recording audio lends itself to authentic interactions with subjects. I believe audio storytelling shows us at our most basic and humble level. Like an honest conversation between two people.

That said, I do appreciate that some stories are best told using stills and video. Think Alex Honnold shuffling out on Thank God Ledge. Now that’s a perfect visual media story.

Learn more at the West of Center website.