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Catching Wind with Audio Storytelling
Radio pros make it seem so easy. Their voices sound confident and friendly — like a buddy telling you about his or her day. After spending a weekend learning what they've mastered, I'm reminded that when someone makes something looks easy, it's usually because they're pros, not because it really is that simple.
Following our visit to Salem and our off week, the fellows reassembled like the Super Friends and spent the weekend in an audio storytelling class. Let's be honest: we're spoiled. Not only do we get amazing seminars, classes at almost any of Boston's colleges, and incredible field trips, we also are provided with numerous training opportunities. For our audio class, Ibby (like Libby without the "L" as she'd say) Caputo spent three days with us to guide us through the essentials of audio storytelling. Although I had some experience with audio storytelling (primarily audio/photo slideshows) while a multimedia producer at USA Today, I was eager to relearn all I had forgotten and further my skills.
For most of the fellows, working with audio was entirely new. We spent our first day listening to examples of rich audio storytelling, discussing best practices, and becoming familiar the equipment the program had purchased. We interviewed each other and were reminded not to say "uh huh" and "interesting!" as the other person talked. We fumbled with the levels and failed to record conversations, thanks to the devices automatically pausing themselves when the "record" button is first pressed. And that was the point. Work out the kinks now so you don't screw up in the field.
On our first foray into the "real" world, we paired off in teams for the "blindfold" exercise. One member of the team donned headphones and a blindfold. The other held the recorder, the mic, and their partner. The sighted partners steered their partners and exposed them to various sounds — leaves rustling, snippets of conversation, rolling skateboards, opening doors, HVAC vents, dog sniffing — so we could get a fuller sense of the rich aural tapestry we usually tune out.
On day two, we ventured out on our own to record stories. For this, I decided to try my hand at a "postcard" — that is, a story to give you a sense of a place. Having just taken sailing lessons from the MIT Sailing Pavilion, I knew it was a place of great sound and good characters.
I headed down with my headphones on, recorder active and microphone in hand.
"Uh, excuse me," I haltingly said to one person. She ignored me. "Sorry to bother, but I'm working on a radio story for a class at MIT," I tried again. "No thanks," she said without looking up. Ugh.
Eventually, though, several people gave me their time and attention. Several even asked to be interviewed. Confidence restored, I chatted with sailors new and old, people who simply admired the boats on the water, and sailing instructors. The water gave me good sound bites and the wind made its presence known.
Back in the office, I loaded my clips and started editing. Although I had never used Adobe Audition before, it wasn't too dissimilar from the old Audacity or Final Cut Pro 7 I spent hours with at USA Today. I organized my clips and wrote out my script.
Unlike my previous audio experience, this story would require a narration. With a face made for radio and a voice for print, I have long avoided being on camera or mic. But, this wasn't about being comfortable — it was about learning new skills.
I locked myself in a quiet room and read my script. "It's a picture-perfect day," I started. "Seventy-four deg...blah." Take one.
"It's a piture-perfect day..." Take two. Three. Four. Ten.
Eventually I got the track down and finished the edit. Others did the same and then it was time to listen to everyone's work.
Most of the fellows created Vox Pop pieces and they were terrific. One asked people about their food memories, creating a funny and poignant piece about the importance of family and mom's home cooking. Another queried people on the street about things they had memorized. It perfectly and hilariously captured people's personalities and quirks. Another crafted a first-person, This American Life-esque piece about the underground success of a vegetarian fast-food chain. Ira Glass, watch out.
I played mine and cringed. The writing was overwrought and the voicing was a bad imitation of Murrow over London. Oy vey. But, the feedback was good. Do this. Don't do that. Make these changes, but keep those things.
That night I rewrote and re-tracked. Better, but still bad. The next day I did it again. No longer cringe-worthy (uptalk notwithstanding), nor is it NPR-worthy. Some edits are off, and the narration still needs work. But, it's a start. Have a listen: