Intro from Jay Allison: This is absolutely the most basic TOOLS Guide we have on Transom. It's the place to start, and it's born of the experience of Katie Davis, who has been a foreign reporter, a writer, and a host of All Things Considered, but mainly she works with kids in the neighborhood where she grew up and still lives, Adams Morgan in Washington, DC. She runs a group there called Urban Rangers that "gives kids the tools for life" -- service projects, conflict mediation, a bicycle recycling program, an oral history booth. This last one has taught Katie what kids need to get started in recording and gathering stories, and she has laid it out in a simple guide with pictures. Download it and find a good way to use it where you live. If you have questions, ask them here.
[NOTE: This was first written back in 2005. Most of it holds up but we’ve updated references to recording gear and added some valuable resources. – Jay Allison, October 2013]
Collecting stories is easier than you think. Find a park bench or front porch. Invite your grandmother, your friend, or coach to join you. And listen.
That’s the key. In the listening, you will hear stories that people often keep to themselves – that we don’t slow down enough to hear. These stories can be truer and more important than many things we hear on radio, see on TV or read in the newspaper.
This guide will help you gather those stories. It is an introduction to spoken history.
The stories you gather may be from your family, your neighbors or your coaches — everyone has a story to tell.
You may want to save the interviews as family history, send an audio letter to someone or give them to a local library.
How to Find Stories
Stories are everywhere. Take your iPod off, stop chatting on your cell phone. Take a walk, hang out in the park, tune into the conversations. You will find people are always telling stories. We are not always listening.
Ask someone to tell you his or her story.
How to Choose a Person
For your first interview, choose someone who likes to talk. That will make your job easier. Which aunt tells great stories at family dinners? Is there a local storeowner who has something to say about everything? Do you have a best friend who was born in another country? These are some people to interview. There are many other people to choose.
This summer I taught teenagers how to do oral history interviews. This was their first interview list.
Sahara: Ask local artist about how he got started.
Oscar & Brandon: Ask a local deli owner about his life.
Claudia: Ask a friend about Quincinera, sweet 15th birthday.
Henrietta: Ask my brother about his native country, Liberia.
Make a Date
Once you think of a person, call or visit them and ask if they will give you some time for an interview – 30 minutes or more. Make a date to do the interview.
Write down about a dozen questions that you have for the person. You will also think of questions as you talk because an interview is a conversation.
There are no rules for doing interviews. Ask a question — and listen. Ask another question and listen some more, especially in between the words, to the things people are suggesting. Don’t be afraid to be a part of it – you can laugh, you can be sad. You can say, “Wow, I didn’t know you did that.”
Suggestions for Questions
- Where and when were you born?
- What are your earliest memories of childhood?
- What things did you do as a child?
- Describe the neighborhood where you grew up.
- What is your full name?
- Did you have a nickname? How did you get it?
- Tell me about any animals you had growing up.
- What was your favorite food your mother cooked?
- What were some family traditions as a child?
- Is there a family story that you will always remember?
- What’s the best advice your parents gave you?
- Were you aware of world events as a child?
- What do you remember the most?
- What have your learned in life?
- What are you most proud of in your life?
- What would you change in your life if you could?
There are many other things to ask and they will change depending on the person. The StoryCorps: Record Your Story website lists lots more questions.
If someone seems nervous or quiet, ask him or her to show you some family photos and talk about the people in the photos.
Here is part of an interview with Aniekan Udofia, the artist who drew the illustrations in this handbook. He was interviewed by Sherifa, Sahara and Charlotte, who were in our oral history camp. Notice that they mostly asked questions about his native country and his artwork. That’s what they were interested in and that’s fine.
Sherifa: My name is Sherifa and I’m here interviewing Garnett.
Aniekan: My real name is Aniekan Udofia and I’m from Nigeria. And I got here in 1999. Actually the name Garnett came up as a result of my basketball skills. Because of my ups and the way I play. They say it’s because of Kevin Garnett and the way he plays plus my name is hard to remember.
Sherifa: Where did you learn how to draw?
Aniekan: That was at an early age in Nigeria, I was 10 or 11. It was my love of comics and from comics.
Sherifa: What was the biggest difference in Nigeria?
Aniekan: They have greetings where people lay flat on the ground. And the girl kneel. Where I’m from you shake older peoples hands with both hands.
Sherifa: Who inspired you to draw?
Aniekan: It’s funny. A lot of people say Picasso. To me it was this one guy back home. He used to draw hairstyles and price list for barber salons. His nickname was Arabian. He was the guy who inspired me for real. He does magic with a pen. He creates all these images and it looks so real. I would borrow Arabian’s drawing from the barber and go home and practice with it. That’s my inspiration until today. I’ve still got a copy of one of his drawings.
Before the girls did that interview, we spent about an hour practicing with the tape recorder. I want you to do the same. Borrow a tape recorder or a boom box that records and if none of those work out, you can take notes!
If you can get a tape recorder, plug in the microphone and do some practice interviews. Ask a group of friends an easy and fun question to get things started. Delontae used the nickname question.
Delontae: Jane, I heard your name is Vanilla Ice, why?
Jane: Brandon made it up one day
Delontae: Sahara, do you have a nickname?
Sahara: Yes. La La.
Sahara: I don’t know.
Delontae: What is your nickname Brandy?
Brandy: Bad Brandy.
Delontae: Who gave it to you?
Brandy: My father.
Delontae: Clayton, do you have a nickname?
Clayton: Moo Moo.
Delontae: How did you get that name?
Clayton: My brothers couldn’t say my name so they said Moo Moo, then they changed to Man Man.
Delontae: Miss Katie, I heard you’re known as Miss Second Chance and Grandma, is that true?
Katie: Yes, it’s true. I think they call me Grandma because I’m old as dirt and Second Chance because I have a soft heart.
All you need to get started can be bought at your local Radio Shack: a digital audio recorder with built-in or plug-in microphone. A smartphone will work too.
If you want to get fancy and buy a recorder and microphone that will produce what radio people call “broadcast quality” sound, check for equipment advice at Transom.org. You can even track down used equipment.
People who do interviews for a living have written some great books and posted information on the Internet. If you can, order a book. Other guides can be downloaded for free! My favorite “How To” guides are these:
Getting a Good Recording
- Test your equipment before the interview.
- Make sure batteries are fresh.
- Label the tape or disc on the outside.
- Choose a quiet place to talk.
- If you can, listen to what you are recording with headphones to make sure it sounds good.
- If the level is too high, it will sound bad. Fuzzy and distorted.
- You can mess up the other way too and put the level too low.
- Some recorders can set the level for you.
- The best thing is to practice before you go.
- Practice setting levels.
- At the beginning speak into the microphone to identify yourself and the person you are going to interview. Example:
Hi, this is Katie Davis here, aka Miss Second Chance, and I’m about to interview Delontae about why he gave me this nickname.
On the Microphone
Get Close and Closer
Get the microphone close to the mouth of the person you are interviewing.
Keep it close – about 5 or 6 inches
This is the most important thing, keeping the mic close makes it easier to understand what the person is saying. Sit close to the person so you are comfortable. Don’t put the mic TOO close, or their voice might make weird distorted sounds. You should hold the microphone. You’ll do a better job of keeping it in the right place than the person you are interviewing would!
Henrietta sat crossed legged on the floor to interview her brother, Jeremiah. He was born in Liberia and came to the U.S. when he was six years old.
Jeremiah: About the war… when I was young five or six, that’s when it started. We were in my dad’s house and my dad was not there. I was with my uncle. The rebels came into our house, took us outside, and lined us up. Asked us questions. One by one, they shot people who didn’t answer.
Henrietta: The war in Africa, how did it affect your life today?
Jeremiah: At first it had a big impact on me. When I first came, I was very violent. My first day at school, I got my butt whooped. My mom told me not to fight. After a while I started learning the street life. I got tougher, my heart got harder. Wasn’t too much caring for others. I started doing violent things; like fighting. Things that when I look back, I’m not happy. From elementary to high school, all I did was fight.
When you finish an interview, thank the person and tell the person what it has meant to you. Did you learn something? Was there some advice you might try to remember?
When you get home, listen to the interview. Make a copy and give it to the person you interviewed. Play it for friends and family. Listening always brings up more stories.
To start – try one interview. See what you find.
- Choose a person to interview.
- Create a list of questions.
- Borrow or buy some equipment.
- Practice with the tape recorder.
- Choose a quiet place to do the interview.
- Ask questions and listen.
Recording and Interviewing Resources
- Radio Rookies “Educator’s Guide to Teaching Interviewing Skills”
- StoryCorps “Record Your Story”
- Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage “Interviewing Guide”
- Unicef MAGIC Radio Resources
- New York Times Lesson Plan: “Learning the Art of an Interview”
- NPR “The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style”
- YouTube Reporters’ Center
- National Geographic “Interviewing Guide”
- Poynter’s News University “The Interview”
We’d like to send a big “Shout Out” to Transom.org, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Download the PDF: “SHOUT OUT – A Kid’s Guide to Recording Stories”.
The Transom Online Workshop, with support from the Knight Prototype Fund, helped update this article.
Additional support for this work provided by
with funding from the