Melody: So our special guests today are audio, descriptive narrator Roy Samuelson, and Stephen Letnes, who is also a composer and the founder and director of Able Artist Foundation. I'm so glad you guys are here today.
Roy Samuelson: Thanks so much for having us. Jinx.
Melody: And poor Roy is out of power. So he's in the car right beside the post office, hanging with us today, you guys, so that's dedication. Without knowing it we're twinsies, we're rocking Alexa Jovanovic “Fashion is For Everyone” shirts. So, let's get right down to this where, Roy, you were our inaugural guest in April. Can you believe it's been that long?
Roy Samuelson: I can't believe it, no I can't.
Melody: And so much has happened, right?
Roy Samuelson: It sure has. Yeah. Yeah. Things have really been, it's been really fascinating to see how many changes.
Melody: And good changes, especially in such a really crazy world. So, for some of us who haven't been here with the first, we're going to kind of, talk about how you talk about audio description and what it looks like. Can you just kind of share for the audience, we're going to go into what it's going to, but why don't you give us a little flavor of how you would describe audio description as far as the process.
Roy Samuelson: Oh yeah. It's really simple. So in the world of audio description, it's also called video description or descriptive video or descriptive narration, a describer who might be the writer or a narrator, or maybe it's both the writer and the narrator, or maybe it's the company, but not the production company nor the distributor, but a special other company, it gives the re-creation of a split track or a mixed track of a narrator. If the film or TV show even has it, which is depending on the distribution channel, like streaming, theatrical, broadcast, physical like Blu-ray or DVD or downloadable to your iTunes or Google play, or even YouTube with any of these, each of which offers varying levels of access to the audio description, either on an app or a TV or a cable box or a Chrome browser with a special plugin or with YouTube.
Maybe it's a special YouTube video with audio description, but maybe the audio description is separately downloadable that syncs up that you can listen to a narrator or a synth voice. So it sounds like a conversational robot, or maybe it's a narrator that sounds like a synth voice, but you don't know if the audio description is there until you hear it, which could be a few minutes into the show. So you wait and wait and hope, and then you don't hear it. So you have to decide either to stop and complain or just put up with it. But if you to decide to complain, who do you complain to? Is it the local broadcast affiliate or the movie theater manager who's dealing with Karen's complaint about the unpopped popcorn kernel, or do you contact one of the 47 plus streaming services by email, message, fax, or Facebook, tweet, by phone.
But to find that phone, you have to hunt down a number. And once you find that number, go through a press one, press three, sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed or try a different number. And that's the main line and other press four, press zero. Oh, good. A real person. It goes something like this. You say, ah, yes, my speakers are working. No, audio description isn't closed captioning. Sure, I'll hold. Or better go through an accessibility webLink buried so deep it feels like they don't want to talk to you. And even when the audio description is there and it's bad, what does that even mean? Is the writing indicating things the visuals don't have? Does the narrator of a suspenseful movie talk to you like you're a baby toddler? Does a kid still have an uninterested adult narrating his sounds as tasteless to cereal too long in the milk?
Or is it just that format and synth-voice like you, Melody call a puppet or even kind of creepy like a horror monster made to describe the lighthearted comedy romance film to you and who chose that voice? And why does that voice get in the way of your experience? If you have to keep fiddling with the volume up and down and down and down and up, try to hear it depending on what's going on in the background, or maybe the production audio ducks out of the way. So you can hear the narrator, but all the other audio disappears and it's jarring and it takes you out of the story. And does this work that is created for blind people actually include blind people in the process? Maybe. Does that answer your question, Melody?
Melody: You know, I am very clear and I think we all are about how chaotic it is right now, but I think you did an absolute wonderful job with just those very few words, Roy.
Stephen Letnes: An Economy of words.
Roy Samuelson: Nicely done, Stephen.
Melody: Well that, you guys, was part of ACB keynote speech that he did, but I think it really does give you guys a picture of how chaotic and crazy we all feel about audio description processing, but we have a solution. And so that's what we're talking about today. I'm giving you a round of applause, that performance was amazing, buddy, thank you so much. So, Roy, taking all of this into context and everything, and then the beginning, your heart is in such a place and then you always go with the nothing for us without us. And that's really what we want to focus in today is where you've taken audio description, all of those, that beautiful explanation and moving into, and you have a new process. Can you tell us about it since we last talked?
Roy Samuelson: Sure. So one of the things I've been working on for a little over a year is talking to different audience members who work with audio description, different content creators, different talents that are involved in audio description. And I noticed there was a real inconsistency of excellence in quality that was not in parody with the cited audiences experiences of TV shows and movies. And it seemed like there was a real gap between our audio description audiences and the entertainment industry. And there's so many companies out there that are doing incredible work when it comes to audio description and providing audio description audiences with that immersive experience where they can just be into the story and focus on all the emotion and nuance and content in a way, like we said earlier, that's in parody with sighted audiences. And there's also an inconsistent experience. And it seemed like with the different efforts that have been made, as far as the mandate goes, those requirements that say, you have to have audio description.
That's an absolute necessity. We need to have that because that does change culture, but that's just addressing the quantity. And what we look to do is find a way to address the quality of audio description and let our audiences know that you, as an audio description audience, don't have to choose between quality or quantity. That's not really a fair question. That the real question is how do we get that consistent experience? And that's where Kevin's Way comes in. And in that keynote speech, we introduce what was called Kevin's Process, and now is called Kevin's Way. And it's directly linked to making sure that the audiences of audio description get that quality and excellence that they deserve.
Melody: You know Roy, right before we move on a little bit further, I think it would really be great, can you kind of just tell us a little bit about why it's called Kevin's Way?
Roy Samuelson: Sure. Kevin is a friend of mine. He recently passed away. He was one of the most influential people who guided not only my performance and craft of audio description as far as voicing it, but also gave his experience with audio description. He was an audio description connoisseur, like many of us. And he became a very close friend of mine and we would talk several times a week about the different things that were happening in audio description and how some of them were working, and some of them weren't, and his frustration as a blind person in navigating the accessibility of accessibility, and what that means. And because of these conversations, I started working on how can Kevin's voice be made, known in the entertainment industry in a way that makes sense? And so that's where it came together.
Melody: Oh, it's so beautiful. So by having you here today, we're taking Kevin's legacy on onward and upward. So I love how you mentioned that the mandates, they're mandates, but they don't address the quality, just the quantity. What do you envision when you look at the quality and the process, and also to bringing Stephen into this conversation too, how you guys work together and at first you came up as we do wait and wait and wait and wait, and what pops up for us to let you know there's audio description right now, currently.
Roy Samuelson: One of the cool things that's happening is there are a lot of different organizations and companies that are addressing quality. I look at Apple TV plus, which provides audio description in Dolby, Atmos sound. And I can be in Spain, listening to Japanese audio description and have the French dubbing on. And it works. I look at Netflix who has detailed white papers that are published on the internet than anyone can find to talk about quality. I look at Amazon having nearly 40% of all the close to 4,600 original audio description titles. And each of those titles is like a series could be a title. So that 4,600 is really underrepresented. There could be, it's probably closer to 10,000 different titles that Amazon is saying, yes, we'll include it. Spectrum Access who I'm sure you'll be talking about shortly [crosstalk 00:09:48] has addressed some really great things with their approach.
So there's all these different silos, these different approaches that are happening over here and happening over here. And that's where the inconsistency comes. One of the great things about Stephen is that he is a composer who has the Able Artist Foundation. I'm sure he can talk about that. And he was also my date, one of the Emmy parties, and we had such a great time connecting and talking about the different things that were happening in audio description. And he's been an integral part of Kevin's Way.
Melody: Can you tell us, Stephen, tell us a little about what you really enjoy about working in Kevin's process. The two of you collaborating.
Stephen Letnes: Well, as you might imagine, any opportunity there is to work with Roy Samuelson is a great opportunity just to, just to hang out to chat. And, so Roy and I knew of each other before with Emmys last year, but when a film I worked on and got nominated, I was able to go out to LA and actually meet Roy for the first time and hang out. And that's where we really got to get to connect, just person to person. Hey, we're into audio description, I discussed the film stuff and as someone who's visually impaired, Roy really is somebody who listens and who pays close attention to what blind, low vision people are seeking and gives us a voice. And so, when Roy came to me to say, hey, I am working on a new project for audio description, would you assist me in creating the tone that signifies the standard of excellence we are looking to achieve, to bring that parody to an industry? So people like myself, and you, Melody, and other blind, low vision people don't have to wonder a minute or five minutes into a show if it will be any good. And so, earlier this spring, me, Roy and Roy's friend, Charlton, Charlton Pettis, I don't know, Roy, if you want to–
Melody: –Yes, he couldn't join us today. He was going to join us, but he couldn't, he's recording.
Stephen Letnes: We all worked together to create this tone, something that could be seen in heard universally as a signifier, a signature tone of quality and excellence. And so we developed all together for several months this summer now, turning and now becoming Kevin's Way.
Melody: That is awesome. When it comes to collaborating together, what was something that you all really learned out of moving this forward? And there are so many moving parts, where did you start and begin?
Roy Samuelson: One of the most important things to me was to model the connection between our audio description audiences and the entertainment industry. Stephen's got his feet in both worlds already. And because of his knowledge, it was imperative that I work with him. And I wanted to make sure that the partnership that happened between he and Charlton, that each had their own contribution, each have their own experience that was necessary. And making sure that this creation of this audio tone, that basically signals you're in good hands. That's the intent of it, and to explore what that would sound like and how it would come about and what to do with it.
I'm going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here that, in addition to the creation of the tone, the technical, the musical side of it, which obviously Stephen is an expert, he's been a great sounding board that I've been able to come to him and say, here's what I am hearing from our audiences. Does this sync up with your experience and how does this come across? How's this message, is this clear? Is this not clear? And my memory of our conversation, Stephen, over the last year or few years have been just me with my headphones on pacing in my office, looking around and kind of gesturing a lot, you just listening and saying, Oh, okay. So our experience in working together has been both him creating a sound and him also being a sounding board.
Melody: And I think that is so important that we, especially when we're talking about collaboration, which leads to innovation, which really is down to what we're doing, we're constantly as blind individuals, but also, and Stephen, you can speak to this, looking for different ways around, right. We do things differently, you have to, and that's just how it is. And one of the things that I really love about that collaboration that you just mentioned of being soundboards for one another, it doesn't happen much really. It's hard to do in the community. Stephen, do you find that to be the case when you're in collaboration, sometimes finding that your voice is not being heard?
Stephen Letnes: Yeah. There's so much that's lost in translation and especially the last six months, everything going to online and zoom, we are so heavily reliant on technology, but we're missing the person-to-person connection, which helps with communication. Here's a perfect example. So the director I worked with on the film that we got the nomination for, he and I have a way of talking and communicating that is very simple, but I've noticed in the last six months, we're working on this film, on a documentary for George Floyd and everything that happened here in Minneapolis. And it's been a challenge to communicate for whatever reason. There's static in the lines. We're buddies, but it's finding the right words to connect has been a bit challenging. And I don't know if it's in the ether, if it's just the chaos of the time we're living in.
But that simply means all right, as people with disabilities know, okay, well, this didn't work well, guess we get to create a different way to do things. And so long as you are collaborating with somebody who is of a similar mind to find things work, you'll navigate your way through the forest. But it's like backpacking, you're only as your slowest backpacker, and that works the same with collaboration. You're only as effective as your least collaborative person. And so how do you lift them up? Or how do you alter the way you present things? Because I might be misunderstanding or misinforming somebody.
And so there's a constant reevaluation. And I think for people like myself, we're blind, low vision, we have to make sure that as we evaluate ourselves, we don't torture ourselves with reevaluation. Reevaluation isn't synonymous with, I don't know, what's a negative word. So constant re-inventing and that's a positive. Holy cow, what a time to live in. We must reinvent and people with disabilities, we've got that in spades. We do that in our sleep. I think that was a tangent.
Melody: [crosstalk] –No, it was a beautiful tangent and it was full of a very highly economic words. It's very true. And I'm glad that you highlighted that here. And Roy, with that being said, working with the blind community at which you do listen so well, how has that changed the way you approach things, because it's had to help your thinking and innovation.
Roy Samuelson: Absolutely. Everything. It's a really easy question that every time that I record an audio description track as a voice talent, I'm thinking of the hundreds of pieces of feedback that have become part of what I'm performing. And it's all based on what audiences want. I had a lot of assumptions of what audiences want. And until I opened up and started listening to saying, Oh, okay, this is important, this isn't, this is something that is a nice to have. This is something that needs to have. And being able to see that there are companies that are starting to change their culture and educate themselves on the importance of inclusion of blind professionals. Whether that's an engineer, a music composer, even writing and editing of voice talents that as our blind community gets the training in that professionalism, that this work was created for blind people by blind people. And when blind people are not involved in it, the work suffers.
Melody: It does. And that collaboration also really suffers. And your voices are tamped down. So, as we're moving through, can you kind of walk us through, I love that the collaboration you both have shown about coming up with the tone of knowing your own quality. Can you tell us about, we've talked about the consistencies. What does that quality look like through Kevin's Way?
Can you lay out for us what that does?
Roy Samuelson: Sure. So Kevin's way is again, a collaboration with our blind and low vision audiences and audio description audiences connecting with the entertainment industry and giving that voice the power that it deserves. And empowering our audience to be able to speak up and say, this is what we want. And we've got kevinsway.com, which has resources that people can look at, including contacting the various streaming services, the companies, and as that information grows, we're going to keep on growing that aspect of it. At the same time, we also have the entertainment industry connections that we're collaborating with different organizations on the entertainment industry side, as well as organizations that represent disabilities and how to bring those together. And as I said earlier, there's a lot of different efforts that are happening right now. That Kevin's Way is among many.
And the idea behind Kevin's Way is to take all of these ideas, whether it's the writing of the audio description, the voice talent, the choice of the voice talent, making sure that a blind person is included in the process at some point, whether it's quality control or otherwise, and that sound engineering where. So these are the core. There's a total of five or six core elements that our audiences have said really do indicate quality. And Kevin's way is intended to be kind of like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to give you that immersive experience. And so where we're at now is collaborating with those different organizations and coming together and getting that conversation started.
Melody: And streamlining to make one beautiful process. I like it. I know people who are probably in our audience, I'm going to let them obviously for questions, but just when you are working with quality control, can you kind of walk us through what quality control? I mean, I've had the experience, you brought me do that, which is really exciting and fun, but when you bring someone who's vision impaired, we last a couple of weeks ago, Chris had some sound engineers talking about mixing, but how does the mixing look when it comes to audio description? Cause you've always said to me you want to be there. You're doing audio description, but you should go unnoticed if it's done properly. Can you walk us through how the mixing and how the writing and all that works together?
Roy Samuelson: Sure. This is the two things that come to mind are, if you have to think about changing your volume during a TV show or a movie that is an indication that the quality isn't at the place it needs to be. So if you're constantly fiddling with the volume, starting it up whenever there's a loud explosion or turning it down, or sorry, turning it down when there's a loud explosion or turning it up, when there's a quiet, intimate scene on on a TV series or a movie, then that's an indication to me that you, as an audience member are doing more work than you need to be. So that's kind of a way to kind of share what the sound engineering quality needs to stand for. And from your experience Melody, I know that you bring a level of commitment and quality just because you are a self-proclaimed audio description snob.
These are our conversation is changing from that, does it have audio description or not to do these things, these different elements, whether it's the engineering or the writing or the voice talent, or maybe some mistakes that were made in the script that were caught, did these things directly impacts the experience of the film-going experience for our audio description audiences. And we want to reduce those as much as possible. So, the bottom line is when you experience audio description, you're not thinking about audio description. You're thinking about the story that's being told. You're thinking about the characters. You're thinking about how you feel when those characters connect with one another. And the audio description is a part of that, writing it in a way that doesn't get in the way. I tried playing around with an analogy of driving down a freeway with a bunch of potholes that are filled, but the analogy may have fallen apart. So I'm not sure if that's fleshed out yet, but the idea is that–
Melody: –I think you did get flushed out right there, cause you do fall apart–
Roy Samuelson: So that's the intent is if you notice it, it's in the way. If you notice it, it's in the way, if you don't notice it, it's doing the job that it's meant to.
Melody: I love it. Yes, it's being there, but not being there. I love it. And Stephen, in your being a composer and in films, when you're looking at your description, you too, what do you look for in quality audio description?
Stephen Letnes: Well, first to see if Roy did it or not–
Roy Samuelson: –By the way I have somebody, I have so many favorite voice talents and you just made me feel really good, Steve, thank you.
Stephen Letnes: It's I mean, it depends. I am a hopeless romantic. And so whether it has audio description or not, my first thought is, my question is which show or which movie do I want to watch? Because I know there's that challenge of, I don't want to have to ask which show has audio description that I want to watch. I look forward to living in a world, in hopefully a short amount of time where we can all just ask, what movie do I want to watch? And it will have great audio description on it. You know, we ask blind, low vision people all the time. We always have to ask ourselves anyway, I would like to do this today. Okay. Well, what are the challenges that get me from A to F or Z. For movies, it shouldn't be like that.
Roy is exactly right. If you're having to raise or lower volume or adjust certain things, you're doing too much. It's designed to be entertainment for Pete's sake. Sit back and relax, chill out. I don't want to stress out over my audio description. And so sometimes I just, whether it has or not, I'll also watch it because gosh, darn it. I want to watch that show, but I know I'll be missing out on stuff. And so it's kind of a naive kind of hopeless feeling that, whether it has it or not, this is what I want to do, and I'm not going to have somebody dictate to me whether or not I want to enjoy it. That might not necessarily be the answer you're looking for, but I'm a dreamer, Melody.
Melody: I think it's a beautiful, no, I'm a dreamer too. I am also a hopeless romantic, and I that's why this is just the best way for us to move into the question and answer, because we're already there, which just seems like we just started. But I also look forward to the day where you turn on the TV and it's just there. You don't have to ask. It's just there and it's quality. And it's much like at the American Foundation for the Blind, it's creating systemic change. And guys, my hats off to you for doing that, you are creating systemic change and it's not just an employment. It's not just entertainment, and it's in every facet of life. It's where we all need to be. And I am just so grateful that you're here today to share your stories and how you've worked together, and highlighting the ups and the downs, but the positive that comes.
I hope that everybody checks out Kevin's Way. And thank you for showing us, both of you, Stephen and Roy, how we can be involved and elevate our voice in this area, because this is the time to be doing so. So thank you so much for being here today.
Stephen Letnes: You're absolutely welcome.
Melody: You guys have been the best. We want to move into the question and answer portion. Now we're already there and I'm really, really excited to see what people will have and how they can get involved. As Suzan moves into that, you guys think about questions you can ask, because this is where our voices can be heard. And these are two really great people that, trust me, will let your voices be heard. I've grown so much from both of these individuals that have been brought to your whole new level, or a world being opened up to me through the entertainment industry by the two of you. So thank you for that.
Stephen Letnes: I miss your laugh. I haven't, we haven't talked enough lately. I love your laugh, Melody.
Melody: Yeah, I know. We'll have to make it happen. Suzan, are we ready for questions?
Suzan: Yeah. We have some questions and comments today, and this has been a great conversation. So our first question is from Libby Thaw, and she has a comment and a question. "I use the Clips app to make videos to post on YouTube and Facebook. I'd like to make them accessible to my blind friends. Once I learn the technical process. Do you have tips I might use when adding description?"
Roy Samuelson: I'd be happy to jump in on that. As far as actually putting up audio description, one of the resources that we have specifically for YouTube is called youdescribe.org. That's y-o-u-describe.org. And it's a place where audiences request YouTube videos to have audio description. I think the requirements are you need a Chrome browser. And one of the cool things that's happening is that a lot of up-and-coming writers of audio description, as well as up and coming voice talents in audio description are using that as not only a way to make sure that our audiences get access to the YouTube videos that they want to have audio description, but it's also a great training ground for people to practice. I think the other thing is there's AD retreats, audio description retreats, as well as Joel Snyder's book, The Visual Made Verbal, as far as guiding how the audio description gets written. There's a lot of nuance there. And both the Visual Made Verbal, as well as Joel Snyder's retreats, as well as audio description retreats really do incredible work for guiding how this work is done.
Suzan: Excellent. We've talked a lot today about Kevin's Way. If our audience would like to speak up and support, Kevin's way, how would you encourage them to do so?
Roy Samuelson: We've got a few hashtags that we like. If you're on social media, hashtags seems to work pretty well. Kevin's way is a hashtag, audio description is now becoming the more common term as opposed to those others, video description, descriptive video. Audio description seems to be the one most companies are using now. So if you use the hashtag audio description, and two of my favorites are blind people watch TV and blind people watch movies, that anytime that there is a way to compliment a company that's doing incredibly great work, that that audio description experience worked, and it worked in a way that it made you, as an audio description audience, experience it in a way that it didn't get in the way, the reaching out and use those hashtags and say, thank you for providing this audio description in such an immersive way. It means so much that if we get nearly 30 million blind, low vision Americans to do this, we're going to be at a place where our voices are going to be speaking up in a way that that make a difference.
And the same with, if there's a problem, if you go to Kevin'sway.com, there's a page where you can find the phone numbers, the email addresses and others that you can reach out to. The FCC has made it extremely clear that they're very interested in hearing back from our community. And they use that information as best they can. Will Shell is on that FCC disability committee and is able to take those messages and see what he can do from that perspective. Currently, the FCC does not cover streaming services. However, he still welcomes those messages. So that's another resource. I think I answered the question there.
Suzan: Yeah. And I think I got all of the hashtags. We have another question from Ron Adams. Could you tell us more about the George Floyd documentary that Stephen mentioned?
Stephen Letnes: Oh sure. Yeah. Minnesota has been a different place in a lot of ways over the last few months. I live in downtown Minneapolis, so heart of downtown. And so there are demonstrations a lot. And so I'll go and take photos and you don't hear them. And then we have Chinook helicopters above my building, and sometimes you have National Guard out, but that's rare. Most of the time it's protests around the cities and friends and family go to them and peacefully protest. But the reason why I'm involved is because my director Cy Dodson, who I've worked with on several films. He lives in the neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered. And so Cy, each night from the night, George Floyd was killed, walked out his front door and just walked a few blocks and interviewed people from his neighborhood. He was able to walk to the third precinct that burned and walk to the Memorial each night.
And so the documentary is from a neighbor's perspective. This happened in our neighborhood. Here are the variety of people that live in this neighborhood. Doesn't matter. It's all races, all genders, all ages, ability types live in this few block radius. And here is our perspective of how the murder of George Floyd is affecting not only our community, but has gone nationally and globally. And so it follows the beginning of that journey that we are still in. And so we've been working over the last few months with putting together the footage and me along with another composer friend have been writing the music for it. And hopefully we'll have something to premiere in the next few months here, but its been quite a journey because getting in that head space and watching footage over and over. Oh man, sorry, sorry. It gets me. Cause it's in my hometown. And it's a little tough, but it's for a greater good. And, and I'm also going to be pushing for audio description for the darn thing so everybody can watch it. Everybody has access to it. So, but thank you for asking. The volume might be down.
Melody: Oh, hold on. Do we have any more questions for today, Suzan?
Suzan: We're having a little bit of difficulty hearing you, Melody.
Melody: Oh, no. I was just asking if there are any more questions. Can you hear me now?
Suzan: We can hear you now.
Stephen Letnes: Hey, that's a little better. That's better.
Melody: Sorry about that. As I lean up into my computer and actually, I just took my earphones out. Do we have any more questions?
Suzan: Back to you now.
Melody: Okay. Well guys, I just want to thank you so much for being here today and for helping us wrap up the season. Roy, thank you for everything that you do, Stephen, for all of your input and for showing us what it really looks like to be in collaborative. As I'm leaning into my screen, so you guys can hear me.
Stephen Letnes: That's great, you sound great.
Melody: I really, really just have loved the time together with you this afternoon. And the audience, thank you so much for being here. And I think this is just the biggest testimony that we all are better together in creating a life with no limits, if we work together and we keep ourselves moving in creative ways and voicing it and not always being stuck in that one area that Stephen mentioned, I love that so much.
It's about moving forward and knowing that each and every one of us has a unique identity and brings something to the table. So follow your dreams, keep up with us.