Southern Flight 242: Bringing My Father Home
You can understand his hesitancy because the story is about his father’s death in a plane crash when Will was a boy. His feelings about that event had scarred over, and Will’s job here was to go dig back in. We at Transom worked with Will for many months during this process and it was powerful to watch and hear him get closer to that time, to hear how even his voice changed a bit, and to see him emerge back into the present.
Transom is presenting this story in cooperation with KCRW’s UnFictional and they’ll be premiering the piece today on the air. I hope you’ll give a listen to Will’s trip into the past. It will stay with you.
About Southern Flight 242
When I was seven years old, my father died in a commercial plane crash. It’s a fact I grew up knowing and something I never wanted to look into, until now.
After I decided to make a radio story about the crash, I often wondered if it was the best choice as my first big project as a new radio producer. It took far longer than I ever expected, in part because it was so personal. But I realized that if I couldn’t answer tough personal questions, how could I expect others to do the same?
The initial kernel of the story idea came back in 1997 when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times about the 20th anniversary of the Southern Flight 242 accident (my family somehow missed being invited). And then in 2012, fifteen years later, I happened to be in Georgia for a conference that was 70 miles from the crash site. The key event in those intervening years was participating in the Transom Story Workshop. In Woods Hole, I learned much of what I needed to tell the story. I learned even more along the way.
Be vulnerable in your interviewing.
Researcher Brene Brown argues that vulnerability is vital for true human connection. Looking back on the project, I see now that I connected with my interview subjects out of weakness. In practice, this meant that my interview subjects knew that I was the child of a crash victim. We empathized with each other. Faith Thomas, the stranger I met in the airport, was scheduled to fly on the same delayed flight; we were equally powerless. Connecting with her was as simple as shaking my head and asking if she’d heard a recent update. Knowing about the power of vulnerability makes me wonder how I’d approach other interview subjects in the future. I’ve heard that oft-told story about Studs Terkel fiddling with his recording equipment and asking his interview subjects for help. Also useful, things like asking interview subjects for directions or advice on where to park even though those could be Googled. It also helps to be introduced by someone. I was fortunate to connect with Cherry Waddell of the New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Committee who was integral to my meeting with survivors and family members.
Get the best sound for the type of story.
I used an Audiotechnica 8010 omnidirectional mic throughout (mostly I paired it with a Sony PCM M-10 but I also had a Zoom H4N as backup). This was important for this project, since I knew that I’d need to be part of it and I also wanted to get location sounds. Unlike non-narrated radio stories where the interviewer needs to become a mime, I loosened up on reacting to the interview subjects and often pointed the mic at myself. It’s still funny to hear my reactions like affirming mmm’s and incomplete sentences. But that’s what happened! I tried to record interviews in quiet spaces but there were still noisy toddlers and determined dishwashers that wouldn’t be silent. In the end, I think all those extraneous sounds help tell the story. Recording on airplanes was a challenge, especially with flight attendants enforcing the no-electronics-during-takeoff rule, but I still managed to secretly record. I had a great foundation on this issue (and lots more) from my radio guru Rob Rosenthal at the Transom Story Workshop.
Listen to yourself tell the story.
I once heard Robert Krulwich of Radiolab talk about how producers should listen to themselves when recounting a story and write from that. Since this project took so long to produce, I had lots of opportunities to talk about it. I started to notice what stood out in the retelling. If someone told me it was a great story, I asked why; what stood out for them. This information helped me construct the script but also helped me write the story the way I spoke it. Numerous people helped me tell this story by actively listening to me tell portions of it, particularly Reverend Rebecca Benefiel Bijur, Samantha Broun, Bob Carlson, Martin Cohen, Jacob Conrad, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Loris Guzzetta, Lea Thau, Transom Workshop alumni and members of Listen Up Los Angeles.
Edit both on “paper” and with audio.
If you have the time, transcripts are great for finding key phrases to use in a radio story. But I’ve struggled with the process of transcribing. I really don’t like to do it and can easily find lots of other things I’d prefer to do. Due to the amount of “tape”, I paid people to transcribe for me (thanks Alex Lewis, Bianca Giaever and Sharyn Bean). In my work as a consultant and videographer, I often work with clients on drafts of scripts. So I focused on getting everything on paper when sharing it with my editors. But that meant I used big chunks of transcription that I hadn’t listened to recently. When co-editor Viki “Dig Deeper” Merrick prodded me on my narration, I went back to the tape to put an audio edit together. And that’s when the real emotional connection started happening. The script was then useful in honing my new narration and shaping the piece. In hindsight, transcribing it myself might have helped me emotionally connect to the tape… but I might still be transcribing today. I was also very lucky to have the sage advice of Jay Allison in crafting the script and handling the final audio edit and mix.
Get comfortable when “tracking” (recording narration).
With information from Transom.org, I created a sound booth in my bedroom. It’s really just some sound foam, a mic stand for a shotgun mic and a blanket. I probably could have gone to a real studio but this intimate space helped me relax and make my narration sound more confessional (I hope). I took the advice of other radio producers and said the phrase “So here’s the thing” before every section and tried to speak from memory rather than read from the script. I had to record narration several times for this piece but Viki Merrick reminded me to listen to my “acts” (actuality tape) while recording. I brought my laptop into my sound fort and listened to clips before narrating sections. It really helped me connect to the tape and better match it in tone. For this, I used a brand new Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone and a Tascam DR-60D.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help with music.
Since the story was set in Georgia, I knew I didn’t want any banjo music (although I like bluegrass). Nor did I want plaintive pianos. Surprisingly no one in my family remembers what music my father listened to. I was stumped, but asked for the expert advice of Myke Dodge Weiskopf (see the list of music we used below). Through The Third Coast International Audio Festival, I also connected with musician Will Bangs who provided the final track.
So what’s it like to be done with this radio story? Well, I feel lighter somehow. I resisted digging into the story for a long time but many people encouraged me to do it. I’m glad I did. Now it’s like all my memories related to the crash have been compressed, making room for me to think about other things… like more radio stories. I encourage you to explore those foundational stories in your life. Often you don’t want to go there because it might feel egocentric, self-aggrandizing or even schmaltzy. But those are excuses you have to push through. It’s important to tell your story, to understand yourself as a human being… who happens to be a radio producer. In the end, we learn from each other’s stories. I hope you can learn something from mine.
I’m curious what you think of these lessons I’ve learned (and what you think of the piece). Please leave a comment below.
About Will Coley
Will Coley is a digital media producer, social media strategist, and trainer with experience in a variety of social justice campaigns and activism. Will has been an advocate and organizer with immigrants and refugees in Charlotte, New York/Newark, and Los Angeles, as well as in Zimbabwe and Great Britain. Through Aquifer Media, Will now designs social media strategies and digital storytelling for funding collaboratives, national nonprofit networks and local nonprofits. Will is a graduate of Wake Forest University, has a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University and participated in the first-ever Transom Story Workshop. In 2012, Will was selected as a SoundCloud Community Fellow to develop the Working Now project with other Transom Workshop alumni.
New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Incorporated is raising money for a permanent memorial near the crash site. Click here if you’re interested in learning more and possibly donating.
Listen to an interview with Will Coley and Transom’s Viki Merrick on How Sound.
Music used in the piece
- Sore and Steal “In the Cogs” (Free Music Archive)
- Daniel Lanois “Bettina” (iTunes, Amazon)
- Bruce Kaphan Quartet “Highways Remembered” (iTunes, Amazon)
- Boards of Canada “Corsair” (iTunes, Amazon)
- Bionulor “NCHR.03” (Bandcamp)
- Sore and Steal “Lost” (Free Music Archive)
- Will Bangs “Sunday Morning“