What I'm Doing

Good Tape

The week we moved to New York, I found out I had been invited to participate in a podcast development program sponsored by the City of New York. There were hundreds of applicants for just 20 slots, so I felt rather humbled to be included.

By the end of the class, I should (in theory) be able to put together a basic audio story that I have conceived, recorded, edited, and otherwise produced on my own. The work is fast-paced—just two weeks in and I’ve completed my first assignment and am in the middle of editing and recording the second.

The class has stretched me in the best possible ways. The thing I always knew I was good at—using words to tell stories—has much higher stakes in this format. For one thing, I have to get someone else to say the words I want to use, then as I twist and shape the words in editing, I have to ask myself if I’m remaining true to their intentions when they said them. When I hear a story now, I just hear the compounded parts of the effort: The music sweeping in at just the right time. The decision to cut here instead of there. The minute instances when I can hear a rough edit. The entrance of the narrator to move the story along.

Growing up, I wanted desperately to be a journalist—Diane Sawyer. Barbara Walters. Connie Chung. Christiane Amanpour.—and yet I remember the slow realization during freshman year of college that it would not be my path in life. After all, unpaid internships presented an impossible hurdle to a poor kid from the south.

There were a lot of reasons I might not have succeeded as a journalist anyway. Again, as a woman from the south, I was taught to be deferential—to move and shift in such a way as to never be a burden to anyone; politeness to the point of non-existence. Combined with my deep reverence for the craft, I struggled with insecurities about “doing it right,” of putting anyone out with my questions, of bothering people who so clearly didn’t want to be bothered. These are not, I suspect, fears that Christiane Amanpour takes into her interviews with world leaders.

A few months ago, I had a chance to interview people I respect and admire. People who make audio for a living, and very good, smart audio at that. I mapped out my questions so that I would not stumble over myself. I learned how to use my phone to record their answers so there were would be no missteps of lost audio. Even with all of my preparation, I can hear the fear in my voice standing next to them. I cannot be indifferent. I cannot ignore their power in the world, or their power over me. It’s a reflex to enthusiastically celebrate things I love.

And so now I am here again, nudged to reach out to the world and ask it questions. It is a delightfully terrifying challenge. The first week we were tasked with creating an “audio postcard,” a snippet of a scene. On my way home from class, I pulled out my recorder and captured the sounds of the 1 train—the bing/bong of the closing door, the static-filled voice over the loudspeaker—and then, the voice of a busker.

At first, I just record him from the other side of the train, and then as he’s about to get off, I ask him if he’ll stay on another minute so I can ask him questions, and he does. He sings his song again for me, closer to my recorder this time. And then the next stop comes and he hops off.

I go home and I listen to what I captured. The sound is not very good, but his laugh is magical. I edit and tweak and walk away a hundred times before I finally say, this has to be done now.

This week the assignment is more challenging. We’re to go out on the street (any street) and ask questions, and from that build a story. My introversion is being tested. And at 33, I no longer look like the “student” I’m proposing to be when I ask someone for a moment of their time.

I encounter language barriers with my neighbors—real or created—and so I ask Google to help me translate.

“Hola, ¿puedo hacerte una pregunta?”

“¿Quién está ganando?”

“¿Qué te gusta de nuestro vecindario?”

They mostly giggle at me, which, incidentally, makes for good tape too.

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