Audition your subjects. Unless you happen to stumble across a unique story that only one person in the world could tell, chances are that in most stories there are at least a handful of people who could serve as your main character.
For my story, I was looking to follow a Puerto Rican hurricane survivor who had resettled in New Bedford, MA. I knew from my research that a number of people had fled the island and come to the area. I had a hard time coming up with my second story, so by the time I decided to pursue this one, I was way behind schedule. I was so stressed out about making progress that I just chose the first people I found — a pair of sisters who’d recently arrived with their kids.
The sisters, naturally, were having a really hard time adjusting to life in New Bedford. And although they initially agreed to an interview, they were pretty uncomfortable around the microphone and really didn’t want to talk beyond our initial half-hour conversation. I wish I’d looked longer and found a more expressive subject. To hear expansive details and emotions from a survivor would have added a powerful sense of what others in a similar situation experience, and might have done justice to the sisters’ story in a more powerful way.
Active tape is powerful. Working on this piece, maybe more than anything else, taught me that. I had very limited interview tape, but since I had followed the sisters around for a couple of days, I had a lot of tape of them doing things. The listener still gets a clear sense of what their day-to-day is like, without the sisters ever really talking about it. And it’s amazing to me how much I enjoy listening to active tape, even when nothing particularly noteworthy is happening. I feel like I get to peek into a world that I otherwise would never encounter.
Notice what you notice. I really believe the story lives in the details. I think, especially for this story, where I had limited interview tape and the sisters didn’t speak English, it was particularly important for me as the narrator to swoop in and direct the listener’s attention to help them see what I was seeing.
Aviva’s Sonic ID
This sonic ID cemented the lesson that you don’t collect great tape, you make great tape. You have to engage with your subject — sometimes you have to be silly, try out different theories on them, or ask a potentially dumb question, because you never know what they’re going to respond to. It’s a rare person who just gives you gold, unprompted. I was talking to this firefighter for a long time, and he wasn’t saying anything very interesting. Then I said something along the lines of, “You guys have a way better reputation than the police.” And he had an awesome response to that, which became the last line of this sonic.