Making “Verite”

Last week, I went to Chicago with some Youth Radio colleagues for the Third Coast International Audio Festival. It’s a gathering of audio folks–mostly radio producers and podcasters, but also artists and film people and university-affiliated types (not that those categories are mutually exclusive, of course!). I’ve attended the conference before and always hugely appreciate a chance to hear great stories (including some by incredible young producers) and to get inside the craft and ethics of engaging listeners with sound.

I took some notes on two sessions in particular that got me thinking about making radio and writing ethnography–two projects that emanate from very different fields, politics, intentions, and institutional contexts, but still hold much in common to the extent that both are about capturing and conveying meaning. Making a point or moving a public through narrative. Observing and participating and immersing yourself in a complex social world and keeping record of that process–and then repackaging the source material into a story.

So… about those two sessions…

The first was from Claire Schoen, a documentarian who works in radio and film. She was talking about “verite”–using real-life scenes to “show” rather than “tell” your story. Some points that struck me from her talk:

* Big Rig: Schoen says her audio gear is pretty massive–shotgun mic, big old headphones, chunky recorder, etc., and that’s partly because she wants the best quality sound, but it’s also because she wants people to know that she’s recording. That struck me as important, given the temption to hope that the folks in your story–whether for media or academic research–will kind of halfway forget what you’re there for, even if you technically asked their permission, so they’ll “act natural,” which might to some extent compromise the ethic of informed consent.

* Remix: Schoen was really open about how radio producers manipulate sound in order to create in impression that listeners just heard something “deeply real.” We layer “clean” takes of voice tracks, ambience, sound effects, scenes, etc., and then remix and “sweeten” those elements in post-production to make it all “sing.” But where do you draw the line with this kind of amplification of the real? Is it okay to ask your characters to do something they would normally do (like go shopping), but maybe not on that day, or in that specific store, because you need that scene for your story? Can you use one sound (shooting a squirt gun into a bucket) to represent another (milking a goat)? These were among the questions Schoen asked. I found myself trying to think about not only how I would answer those questions for radio, but what are the analogous questions in ethnographic research?

Seems like lots of the really tricky stuff comes up when you grapple with the way you as a reporter/researcher participate–or try not to–in the scenes you capture and re-present. One strategy Schoen talked about was “nodding to the mic,” meaning those moments–and we’ve all heard them–when someone in a documentary makes it obvious that they know they’re on tape, by referring directly to the recording process. I’ve used that device in my academic writing, too–to break from the conceit of “realism” by calling out the fact that the story is made, as in, created–and in this sense is always partial, positioned, and incomplete.

A second session made this issue of putting yourself into your story its central focus. Sean Coles, who files stories for Marketplace, Weekend America, and This American Life, did a workshop called “The Wonders of Narcissism,” where he touted the virtues of jumping right into your own narrative, abandoning the old “fly on the wall” stance. Sean’s advice:

* Refer to yourself in your story.

* Talk to your friends for your story–just make sure you’re honest about who they are (e.g., don’t do a story about the latest greatest garage band and fail to mention that the lead singer is your college roommate).

* Make yourself the guinea pig, he says–so if you’re doing a story about Twitter or hula hooping–two examples he played–then actually try those things out, and use that tape in your piece.

* Admit the fact that you exist (instead of using the old convention of referring to yourself in the third person as “this reporter,” which is almost always cringy).

* “If you see something, say something,” Sean recommended. What I took from that last comment was, when something happens while you’re recording that you have a real life genuine human response to–a response that maybe says something about the kind of person you are, even when you’re not “on the job”– put it out there. I really like that idea–especially when I think back on all these painfully awkward interviews I carried out for my dissertation, where I sounded like I was doing my best to approximate the cadences of a “real” social scientist–and I came off sounding stiff and fake, at least to me when I listened back. Wish I had followed Sean’s advice back then and known, in his words, “not to hide the madness.”

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