Intro from Jay Allison: Cariad Harmon is a musician and emerging radio producer who attended our recent Traveling Workshop in Nashville. Our week-long training sessions are intense; participants have to find a story and then get solid with everything from recording gear and audio editing software to conducting interviews and determining story structure. Cariad focused on a student at a local adult literacy center and she produced a quiet, beautiful, non-narrated piece. When you listen, you hear only the story, not the stress of making it.
How I Came To Transom
I first heard about Transom on a subway ride in New York City about 10 years ago. I had been listening to a piece on This American Life by a new producer named Jake Warga. Jake had used resources from the Transom website to make a complex and intensely personal story called “How to Write a Note” and I was so moved by it that I was late to an appointment. I sat down on a bench at Bleeker Street station with my earbuds in, and let the story finish as hundreds of commuters filed past me on their way up to the street.
I checked out the Transom website back then, but it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville a couple of years ago that I had the time to think seriously about making stories of my own. When I saw that the weeklong workshop was coming to town the timing was perfect and I immediately applied. I was over the moon when I found out I had been accepted.
Finding A Subject
The staff at the Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC) were incredibly helpful in my search for the right student to interview. They did a fantastic job in matching me with Robert and I can’t say enough about their thoughtfulness during this process.
Robert and I had a brief conversation on the phone before we met. He was warm and friendly, and I was mostly interested in making sure there was some kind of rapport between us. Once I felt comfortable, I made a conscious decision not to find out too much more personal information before our interview began.
Preparing For The Interview
I arrived with three pages of questions that I divided into general categories. This was definitely more than I needed but I liked walking into the room feeling over prepared. I knew that if I got sidetracked during the interview and missed anything really important, I could check my sheet at the end of our session. That helped me to relax and stay in the moment during the actual conversation.
I think having so many questions may have also helped me later in the process when I decided to make the piece non-narrated. I had a lot of information in my interview, and that gave me plenty of options when editing dialogue.
Turn Information into Stories: In order to turn information into a narrative, it can be helpful to ask an interview subject to walk you through their experience step by step, from the beginning.
This was a very simple piece of advice that I really took to heart and it made a huge difference in my interview.
For instance, when Robert told me about finding out some difficult news, I asked him if he could go back to that day in his mind and talk me through exactly what had happened, right from the very beginning. He painted a very real picture of his experience from that point on, and you can hear in the story just how powerful those details are on tape.
I was very lucky in that Robert is a natural storyteller and so it didn’t take much prompting on my part to get him going.
Follow the Momentum of the Interview: If your interview goes in a direction that you didn’t expect, you probably have a great story on your hands.
I expected my conversation with Robert to be mostly about the pressure of living in a literate world as someone who doesn’t read. To my surprise, our conversation went in a very different direction.
As we got deep into the interview, I learned that literacy had affected Robert’s life in profound ways that I could never have imagined. As his story unfolded, I tried very hard to stay present with Robert instead of sticking to the agenda I had when I walked in. I followed my curiosity and let Robert’s story guide us to the right place, even though we spent a lot of time on a very different topic.
Once the bulk of our interview was over, I brought out my lists of questions and was able to cover anything that we had missed.
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Feeling A Connection To My Subject
Something that I ran into very early on in the process was that I really fell in love with my interview subject. Sitting so close to a stranger in a quiet room while they share intimate details about their life is a new experience for me, and I felt a responsibility towards Robert and the NALC that was overwhelming at times.
I had to work really hard throughout the editing process to keep the quality of the project in the front of my mind, and not allow my own idea of what Robert might want to influence my edit. I eventually realized that the best I could do was to follow my own instincts and let my own sense of propriety guide me.
Choosing A Non-Narrated Format
I hadn’t planned on making a piece with no narrator and I actually tried very hard to write a script. I was really excited about the tape that I got from Robert, but every time I added a second voice it either felt too voyeuristic or too detached and seemed to take all the air out of his story.
I stayed up most of the night writing and re-writing the first few sentences and when we came back together in class the next day I had less than a page of dialogue and I felt totally dejected. Finally, out of desperation, I edited a rough introduction together using just Robert’s voice and I immediately liked it a lot better. Robert is a great storyteller and speaks in complete sentences that were relatively easy to edit, so from a practical standpoint, I thought there was a chance I could make it work.
Thankfully, when I pitched the idea to Rob Rosenthal, he was open to the possibility. We listened to the tape together and talked about the difficulties of producing a piece with no narration and where I might run into problems. In the end, Rob encouraged me to follow my excitement and I’m so glad that he did.
Working Without Narration
Because I hadn’t approached the interview or transcription with the idea that my piece would have no narrator, I spent a lot of time digging through audio for extra bits of tape.
I found that when the subject is also functioning as the sole storyteller, you need the same great quotes that you want for narrated projects, but you also have to find practical pieces of tape that just move the story forward.
Had I known that I was going to be working on a non-narrated piece from the beginning, I would have asked Robert to clarify and condense a few parts of his narrative. I also would have transcribed a lot more of the tape with practical use in mind, instead of just zoning in on quotes that I thought were important.
Before working on this piece I didn’t really understand how to use music effectively in a radio piece. My instinct was to use music in a much more cinematic way, to underscore emotional moments, and punch up the dramatic content of a scene.
Speaking to Rob and working through this process really helped me to use music as a way to delineate scenes, mark changes in direction and move a story forward. I also spent a lot of time finding music that wouldn’t editorialize the story, or push a listener into a particular emotional space. It was a big change in approach for me and it made a huge difference.