Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Want to be like StoryCorps? Here's expert advice

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

This is the third post in a three-part series on the power of oral storytelling. Read the first and second posts.

So, you want to try recording your own oral narratives? Here are some tips from two experts to get you started: the StoryCorps team in New York, and Neal Augenstein, a DC-based radio reporter who runs workshops on using the iPhone as a reporting device.

Equipment and software
  • You can use a variety of devices to record an audio interview – an actual tape recorder (remember those?), a smart phone or a laptop. (Augenstein recommends either the iPhone or the new Samsung S5.) Whatever you use, practice with it before the interview! 
Neal Augenstein
  • Particularly if you’re using a computer or recorder, StoryCorps recommends adding an external microphone (read this handy "how-to" guide) to improve sound quality. Another good add-on is a windscreen, a foam sleeve (available online or at music stores) that slides over the head of a microphone or the bottom of a smart phone to protect against the harsh air sounds.

    “The built-in microphone of the iPhone is very susceptible to wind — even a stiff breeze can ruin a recording,” says Augenstein. “ Yet, a simple windscreen has allowed me to use my iPhone during coverage of a hurricane.”
  • StoryCorps also recommends wearing a good set of headphones while conducting an interview to allow you to hear how the finished recording will sound – and detect any problems early.
  • Augenstein and StoryCorps suggest SoundCloud, a free site like YouTube where you can upload and share audio files. For editing, Augenstein recommends Voddio, which he says “facilitates both down-and-dirty or intricate reports from the field.”
  • Bring a camera too! When you post and share your audio clips, they are more visually appealing if you include a photo of your interviewee(s).

Interview prep
Story Corps interview in progress
A StoryCorps interview in progress
  • Create a list of five to 10 open-ended questions (nothing that can be answered with a yes or no), designed to elicit the “mundane details” that make stories seem real and authentic, as well as feelings. Augenstein suggests beginning with some “throw-away” questions first, such as what he or she likes to do during off hours, to establish rapport and allow your interviewee to become comfortable with being interviewed/recorded. (That is one advantage to audio interviews, however! People are typically have a much harder time relaxing when a video camera is on.)
  • Choose a location for the interview. StoryCorps recommends selecting the quietest place possible, ideally a carpeted room with any electronic appliances or devices that could make noise turned off or moved into another room. However, Augenstein recommends recording a minute or so of ambient sound that captures the interviewee’s unique context – whether it be church bells, horns honking or the simple sound of toast popping up. “Audio can create theater of the mind, bringing the listener to the scene,” he explains. “Using sounds effectively helps listeners paint a mental picture.”

The interview
  • Augenstein recommends standing while conducting the interview, if possible. “It generally increases your energy,” he explains.
  • Remember that your pre-planned questions are only a starting point! You want to have a conversation, and to listen for “golden nuggets”; when you hear them, follow the direction they take you. At the same time, avoid interrupting, even with “uh-huh.” Instead, use visual cues like nodding your head to encourage your storyteller to keep going. Look your interviewee in the eyes and stay engaged. (It’s good to take notes to remember “high points” or follow-up questions, but too much of that and you will lose your connection. The beauty of recording interviews is that it frees you up to converse!)
  • But most important of all: Be curious, sincere..and keep an open mind and heart. 

If you try out audio storytelling, share your experiences with us!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Using oral histories to bring a city alive

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

This is the second post in a three-part series on the power of oral storytelling. Read the first post.

HANDS, a NeighborWorks member in Orange, NJ, was an early believer in the power and versatility of the human voice, and has put the medium to a unique use – an oral history “tour” of the community that is helping the old and young alike re-discover why they should love their home town.

“Orange is only 2.2 square miles, but sort of embodies the historical arc of American cities,” says Molly Rose Kaufman, who discussed the project called [murmur] at the May NeighborWorks Training Institute on Purposeful and Powerful Storytelling. “De-industrialization left it with a declining population and employer base, and a lot of vacant properties. It’s a contagious process. A lot of young people just want to escape; they don’t know or connect with the rich history of the town, and the progress that’s happening that should make them proud.”

Murmur, however, has helped change that dynamic. The concept, first piloted in Toronto and now in cities ranging from Sao Paulo to Edinburgh, is simple: Record stories of residents explaining the history behind a particular spot – whether a park, a building or just an intersection – and set up “listening posts” around town. A green ear-shaped sign marks the location of each story, inviting passers-by to call a special phone number and listen to a narrative about what happened at that spot in the past.

Two [murmur] volunteers interview a resident about
a local story.
Orange now has 15 sites, all within four to five blocks, with 30 stories. The stories run the gamut from memories of boxing legend and Orange native Tony Galento, to recollections of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit shortly before his death, to the accomplishments of local hero Monte Irvin, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his performance with the Orange Triangles, a professional baseball team in the Negro National League. (Click on the links to hear for yourself.)

While HANDS loved the idea of being part of an international movement, however, it gave the concept its own twist.

“We recruited high school students in our youth arts program to find and record the stories,” explains Kaufman, who launched the program while a community organizer with HANDS. “Some of them ended up telling their own, personal stories. It was the first time for many of them to discover and appreciate that they have roots in a pretty fascinating town.”

Khemani Gibson (left) in the process of installing the
ear-shaped [murmur] signs.
One of the eight youth who recorded those first stories was Khemani Gibson. And he is quick to agree that the [murmur] project changed his life – by awakening a love of history, and his town.Gibson was born in Jamaica, but moved with his family to Orange when he was just a few months old.

“But I really didn’t feel any connection to Orange until [murmur],” he says. “Actually, I wanted my family to move. I just saw it as a broken-down town. Now, though, after learning so much about the city’s history and the people, my perception has changed to ‘why would I want to leave this place?’”

Gibson is particularly interested in black history, and has gone on to major in pan-African studies and Spanish at New Jersey’s Drew University. He returns to Orange regularly, however, to help the next generation of youth follow in his footsteps. Since September, he has been working with sixth through eighth graders to help them gather a new round of stories that will be used not only to update the listening stations but to develop a booklet about their city’s history for the third-grade curriculum.

“I was a little apprehensive at first, thinking that maybe the kids would be too young to really engage on this topic,” laughs Gibson. “But they ask questions like you’d hear at a town hall meeting; I’m learning a lot from them.”

And what’s next for Gibson? He already is planning to pursue his Ph.D., focusing on the African diaspora, but ultimately, “I feel so connected to Orange now that I wouldn’t mind coming back when I’m done.”

Next post: Tips for recording your own “naked voice” interviews.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Have a story to tell? Try focusing on the ‘naked voice’

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

Video is all the rage these days, with YouTube views in the millions and the rise of new social-media apps like Vine. But while there is no doubt that video is a powerful way to tell a story, it can be an expensive, time-consuming tool – and not always the best or only way to “move” hearts and minds.

At May’s NeighborWorks Training Institute symposium, Telling a Purposeful and Powerful Story, three of the speakers highlighted what they call one of the most overlooked vehicles for storytelling – oral narratives.

“The soul is ‘contained’ in the human voice,” says Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, former NPR producer and the symposium’s keynote speaker. “It’s like someone is whispering in your ear; it’s much more intimate. When it comes right down to it, everything else is a distraction.”

I know exactly what Isay means, in a very personal way. Several years ago, as my mother and father edged into their 80s and I knew their years were likely numbered, I ordered a “do-it-yourself home kit” from StoryCorps so that I could capture their memories, and their advice for the next generation, before it was too late. (Today, it is much easier; you only need your smart phone or laptop to record, then upload a recording to StoryCorps’ Wall of Listening. Check it out.) Last August, my father succumbed to illness, and died before I could fly out to be with him. Alone in my sadness, I played the recording of our conversation. Indeed, it was like he was “whispering in my ear.”

I really don’t believe that the stories told by my father would have touched me in such a deep, visceral way if I had watched a video, with its attendant focus on background, lighting and physical appearance. If you doubt the impact that the “naked voice” can have, listen to the StoryCorps selections aired each week on NPR's Morning Edition. (There were few dry eyes in the room when the 400-plus attendees at our Louisville NTI symposium listened to the stories played by Isay during his talk.)

Neal Augenstein conducts an interview with his iPhone. 
For nonprofits with small budgets, there is another advantage of oral stories, says Neal Augenstein, the tech editor for DC’s WTOP radio and a symposium workshop leader. “Audio is easy to digest, and unlike video, can be appreciated even while listeners are doing something else. Video is also very difficult to do well, and bad video isn’t worth doing.”

Harnessing audio for organizations

One NeighborWorks organization is about to experiment with its own oral narrative project: Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago is working with the StoryCorps organization through the local NPR affiliate, WBEZ. A team will set up a booth at one of the organization’s offices Aug. 5, record six to eight stories and help edit them down to two to three minutes for social-media and other types of sharing. The organization lucked out; Chicago is one of three U.S. cities where StoryCorps operates permanent recording centers (StoryBooths), along with Atlanta and San Francisco. (In the next few weeks, the studio in Chicago -- located in the Chicago Cultural Center, an 1897 historical landmark --  will be expanded to include an exhibition space, including interactive listening kiosks and a photo wall.)

Organizations located in other cities may pay a sliding fee for a crew to come to them. You can also record oral narratives on your own (the next post in this series offers tips). However, only StoryCorps-facilitated interviews not included in its Library of Congress collection or considered for airing on NPR. (A warning: Don't consider participating in an activity like this based on possible NPR coverage! StoryCorps reports that due to the sheer volume of narratives it collects, fewer than 1 percent are aired. Rather, do it to incorporate compelling storytelling into your own outreach and promotion.)

The stories collected by NHS of Chicago will focus on the importance of home, tying into the Home Matters initiative.

“We’re very good at collecting data to document our work, but we want to find more creative ways to tell the story behind the numbers,” explains Mary Carlson, director of resource development and public affairs for NHS of Chicago. “I’m a longtime fan of the NPR StoryCorps segments and wait in my car before going into the office just so that I can listen. When you focus in on just the voice, you feel like you’re in your own ‘bubble.’”

Next post: A New Jersey organization uses audio storytelling to build community by connecting residents with their history.