A Piece of Collective Memory

April 24th, 2013 | by Catherine Welch
old postcard of the Gorham Plant

The Gorham Plant, Providence, RI

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Catherine Welch’s co-worker at RIPR, Bradley Campbell, for suggesting this Sidebar. He wrote to tell Transom about a “jaw dropping” non-narrated profile Catherine had produced on the now defunct Gorham Plant in Providence. Bradley said: “What’s really interesting is how she organized the story and conducted the interviews. She’s a long-time NPR freelancer and was meticulous about each section.” He suggested Catherine share some details about her production process.

I can’t take all the credit for this piece. The “radio gods” played a major role, and This American Life’s Ben Calhoun is its patron saint. Ben set the template in a piece he produced for WBEZ back in 2008. It was on an old Zenith plant in Chicago. Since then I’ve learned that these pieces are called “collective memory pieces.” This is where a reporter assembles a small group of people (three’s a good number) who remember the same thing, or place, and you have them tell the story by overlapping dialog and drawing out individual memories. The piece is just their voices, a little music, with no narration. When I heard Ben’s piece, it was different from anything out there, and it hijacked a brain cell so fiercely that I never gave up the quest to do something similar. Five years later, the opportunity arrived.

If by now you’ve listened to the piece and thought, “that sounds like more work than I have time for,” I want to give you a pep talk. I manage a newsroom of seven, and as news director at Rhode Island Public Radio I spend a lot of time in meetings. If I can find time, you can find it too. Just latch on to the piece like a Chihuahua on a pant leg, and don’t let up until it’s done: book the interviews close together, cut your tape right after your interviews, and stay late the next day to assemble the first draft. So, are you ready? Let’s go through the steps.

Finding Your Subjects

Firstly, what story are you going to tell? Rhode Island is home to the birth of the American Industrial Revolution so I wanted to find an old factory to reflect that history. I searched for a place that occupied enough of a collective memory that the story would mean something, that’s how I landed on Gorham Manufacturing. Gorham had been around so long (Mary Todd Lincoln ordered a tea set from Gorham for the White House) that by the time it started going downhill in the 1980′s, generations of Rhode Islanders had worked there and knew it well.

Former employees were dying off, so finding my three subjects is where the radio gods came in. One guy was the radio station’s building maintenance man. No sooner had I asked him in the hallway of our radio station about working at Gorham than he started saying things like, “it was loud, it went ‘boom boom boom’ all the time!” Consider it a good sign if someone’s making sound effects while answering your initial inquiry. Another former employee came from a casting call on the station’s Facebook page, and that guy brought along the third person for the piece.

Structuring the Interview

I wrote a list of direct questions and used it in all three interviews. Immediately after each interview I wrote down the six best things I heard. One happy accident was that Paul and Don were together in the studio but interviewed separately. I’m convinced Paul’s answers are a bit more thoughtful than they would have been because he heard what I was asking Don and could think about his answers. It’s up to you whether you want to go that route.

Sound Effects & Shared Experiences

To make the piece work I needed sound effects, mental pictures and shared experiences. So when they talked about anything that could make a sound, I stopped them: “What did that sound like?” “Can you make the sound?” and often followed with “Can you do that again?” and “I’m sorry I didn’t get that, can you do it again but a little bit longer?” Also, find tape of where they tell you something in such detail that you get it. In my story, Don talks about making bowls “by the ton” when he could have said, “we made a lot.”

The shared experiences are the intersections that these pieces can pivot on. In the Gorham story, Bill was my first interview and when he started talking about people missing fingers I asked the other two guys about it. As gruesome as it is, the piece comes alive when all three are talking about the danger of losing fingers. Other examples of shared experiences in the piece include the strike and the description of the last day at work.

Turning Tape into Gold

Don’t sit on your tape. There will be a lot so cut it up while it’s still hot in your memory. Organize it in folders named for a single topic such as: “what it sounds like” “what it looks like” and “the last day.” Cut big chunks of tape that can be polished later. For example, in my “what it sounds like” folder I have cuts called “BILL BOOM PRESSES,” “PAUL KABOMM,” “DON TAP TAP.”

Then create an outline of the story arc starting with the basics: establishing the characters and establishing the event or place that the memory piece is about. Think about the voices as you start piecing together your audio – if you have three interviews of all men, is there one who sounds different enough from the other two that he can act as a buffer between the two similar voices? You’ll feel your way as you move through the outline, cutting blocks, adding some that weren’t planned, trimming tape, and weaving together stretched out stories with fragments of thoughts. Be mindful of the dynamic of pairing short and long tape. Be alert for words in common, don’t be afraid to bump together and layer words. Just don’t get crazy with it; you don’t want production to override the story.

The music was a Zen thing. I followed Ben’s lead using an industrial moody sound to set the tone, but mixed in some piano for texture. There’s a lot of looping and editing the music itself to fit the needs of the piece. Think of the music or even a few beats of silence as ways to divide the piece into chapters or as places for listeners to absorb what they just heard.

With the mixing, it was my colleague Bradley Campbell’s suggestion to mix it in stereo and play with the left/right channels when there was a sound effect moment. So in my piece, the “tap, tap, tap” and “kah-boom” parts move between ears. Listeners in cars may not catch it, but it’s an Easter egg for those listening on headphones. Just make sure you mix down the website mp3 in stereo as well.

photo of Catherine Welch

Catherine Welch

These are not easy pieces. You risk them either sinking or soaring. But if you find the right subject, the right people, and enough meaningful tape, you’ll know you’ve got something.

Catherine Welch is news director at Rhode Island Public Radio. She has won Edward R Murrow and AP awards. Catherine has reported in the Midwest, the south, and now New England. She has done quite a bit for NPR on military families and DTV.

Related Links

Ben Calhoun’s piece on the Zenith Plant. http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/big-time-hurt-zenith-plant-10-years-after-closing

More info on Catherine’s piece on Gorham Manufacturing.

7 Comments on “A Piece of Collective Memory”

  • L.T. Hanlon says:

    Excellent sidebar. I especially like Welch’s advice on organizing the material.

  • Thanks, LT. They sound like too much work, but you’ll be surprised how easily the pieces come together. (And how your audience responds!)

  • Sean Daly says:

    In the right hands, as here, this is an engaging style of storytelling. These guys definitely take me there.

    I love working with what people say when we talk on tape. I think I just love tape, and this long-form style without narration devours tape, which is what makes it so authentic.

    I like how she wrote that Ben’s piece “hijacked a brain cell so fiercely” that she couldn’t let go of the pant leg.

    Nicely played, Catherine, both on tape and here.

  • Could you speak more about your music choices? Who was the composer? The performer? Did you buy the rights to something that was already produced or did you hire someone to create it for this piece?

  • Hi Richard. So I tapped into a website called Free Music Archive (freemusicarchive.org). A friend turned me on to this guy who has music on that sight, Johnny Ripper (don’t know if that’s a real name). He offered the more industrial sounding music. Then I noodled around on the site and found the piano piece to add a different texture and mood to the piece. Then what I did is take the good stuff out of Johnny Ripper’s songs (they tend to skid sideways after :45) and loop it in Adobe Audition to make a long stretch of looping music. That help?

    • Thanks. Yes. I appreciate that reminder. I looked into FMA a long time ago and did not find anything I wanted to use but there is a lot of rooting around one needs to do.

      thanks again, Richard

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