institute for documentary studies

{Week 7: Radio}

Week 7: Radio

For the past month, I’ve been time traveling. I’ve been venturing out of state to a living history museum that replicates village life in 19th century rural New England and getting to know the historical interpreters: those costumed men and women who operate the village for a curious 21st century public. Donning period clothes, they are trained in period skills, everything from doling out caramels at the general store to printing on an ink press. They do so with a wink and a lesson. Did you know that a skilled compositor, who arranged moveable type, could set 1000 characters an hour? Now you do. Historical interpreters have long fascinated me, the way some other little girls were captivated by Disney Princesses. 100-proof unadulterated magic. On every family vacation and field trip (it’s a rite of passage for most kids in the Massachusetts/Connecticut area), I would try to get one of them alone and ask the questions about who they were “in real life.”

I was never successful until Salt, with an ID card marked “documentary student” and a microphone to cut through the illusion. It’s been wonderful. I can follow my curiosity and ask all the questions I’ve always wanted to. In return, four interpreters—two men and two women with nearly 90 years of experience among them—have shared generously about their professional and personal lives. Their tape is rife with interesting material. The more I listen, the more amazed I am by the alignment of their working lives with their personal values: face-to-face conversation, simplicity, experiential learning, accessibility of history, awareness of food pathways, energy use, and labor. They’ve shared what it means to interpret history and have entrusted me with an interpretation of that intimate knowledge. In many ways, I feel like a historical interpreter to a second degree. I am plagued by a low-lying terror of producing a radio feature that won’t do their work justice.

The past three weeks have been a challenge for precisely that reason. At first, I took a multi-pronged approach to the story out of fear that eliminating angles would dilute the material. My first script read like an extended village scene, a knotted mess of quirky details (e.g. they made condoms from sheep intestines!) without a clear narrative. I began looking elsewhere, inspecting the tape with a spyglass for moments of tension. I wanted Mystery! Intrigue! I wanted to raise the stakes so listeners would take the work of historical interpreters seriously. My second script looked at the business side of living history and how museums had to make history digestible for the sensitive public. It thickened the plot, but with a weak agent. I hadn’t done enough reporting to make a conclusive statement about the managerial evolution of the museum. Back to the drawing board.

No small amount of hair has been spared extraction from my scalp as I’ve tried to salvage my script. I don’t know why it’s been so difficult, but it is. It is extremely difficult to distill real life in all its blithe wildness into a radio story.

Mary, another radio student who is skilled at getting to the heart of matters, took me aside the other day and said: “Why did this story interest you in the first place?” I thought about it.

The answer to that question is very simple: the people. I love these people.

“There’s your story,” she said.

And that is what my radio feature is amounting to. It’s tempting at Salt, where you have so much time, technology, and access to interesting people, to dream up a five-part saga fit for the History Channel. That’s a false idol, I’m coming to realize, for anyone but Ken Burns. Plus you don’t have Morgan Freeman’s voice. You have yours, your time, and your ability to work hard. My piece will probably be six minutes long. It will not make any grand statements or groundbreaking discoveries. Its scope has narrowed and its goals winnowed from a competing jury of many to the one most important: to bring historical interpreters into the purview of the listener and have the listener understand, for six minutes, why someone would want to spend 40 hours a week in another time period. Six minutes of suspended reality, six minutes I need to make worth your time.

Ironically, the person who understood this far better than I did was my main subject. She’s a radio junkie. It’s allowed a nice rapport to develop between us, a give and take that makes our interviewer-interviewee relationship mutually beneficial. She’s fascinated by radio production. I’m fascinated by historical interpretation. We try to make our jobs as transparent to one another as possible.

Our first conversation took place as she was seated behind the counter of a country store skimming a newspaper for sewing machine advertisements. Radio is the first thing we talked about. She understood that I needed to record ambient sounds of her sheep baaing for authenticity, remarking that she would notice if I had recorded sheep at another museum. She said something else too, something that I knew would never make it into the radio feature, would never be heard by anyone but me, but that articulated the challenge of her job, my job, and the job of anyone whose job is to interpret the lives of others: “I love the people who just tell the most boring, mundane, cereal eating parts of their lives, but they’re beautiful because of how they tell the story. It’s not taking the most extraordinary events, but taking everyday events and allowing them to be extraordinary.”