Tips for making a great audio documentary?
July 1, 2009 8:08 AM   Subscribe

So this summer there is a big family reunion and, with my grandparents getting a bit older and more forgetful, I think it would be interesting to make some recordings. Do you have any suggestions?

I guess I was inspired by shows like "This American Life", how the emphasis is on the speakers, how the interviewer always brings out an interesting story naturally. I imagine how cool it would be if someone recorded my great-great grandparents and I could hear it and learn about them. This sort of thing could be an interesting part of our family's history, a good way to link this family of first-generation Americans with future unborn generations. I could burn it onto CDs or put it on USBs and give a copy to everyone for the Holidays.

I already have a quality recorder (Zoom H2) and I'm familiar with simple audio-splitting files so I could edit out boring stuff and noises. Also, I've conducted interviews before, but scientific ones for language documentation projects, so at least I know about basic technical issues.

I'm mainly interested in tips or suggestions for good questions.
If you could do this, what sort of questions would you ask?
Or maybe you've done this already: do you have any tips?

Thanks a lot guys. You're the best (collectively speaking)
posted by mateuslee to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

I'm also going to be doing the same thing this summer when I visit my grandmother, so will be following the question. I bought a cheap digital video recorder and will be doing that in addition to audio-recording.

Suggestions: Have some paper handy so you can take notes of things you want to follow up on or ask more about. That way you won't have to interrupt and follow-up mid-story, but you won't forget your question.

Think ahead of time about whether you want to do this one-on-one or in small groups. One-on-one will make for better sound quality and fewer distractions/ inturruptions, but having more than one person there might be interesting for knowing how different people remember things.

In addition to asking people about themselves, it might be interesting to ask them about their most interesting/special/funny memories of others.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:39 AM on July 1, 2009

A how-to book.
posted by jgirl at 9:05 AM on July 1, 2009

I read that you already have the H2 (awesome recorder by the way) but check out the Livescribe Smartpen - I have both the H2 and the Livescribe and the latter beats the marginally better audio quality of the H2 by its ability to connect notes and the spoken word in an ingenious way.

Its perfect for any setting where you have various family members talking about events which you want to connect afterwards, the pen allows you to sift through largish amounts of audio data quickly (since you presorted everything by taking notes throughout the recording).
posted by mathiu at 9:36 AM on July 1, 2009

I have this book sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me to do the same with my father in law.
posted by sarajane at 12:03 PM on July 1, 2009

I recently had a conversation with my 81 year old Grandmother about what kind of music she listened to in her youth, what kind of dances she did, and where she went to hear music played live.

She wasn't very enthusiastic until I mentioned Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and her memory got jogged she was a fountain of information and regaled me with Swing and Boogie-Woogie tales.

My recommendation is to have a few "memory jogging" thoughts to supply to your elders. I wish I had researched her era better before asking her questions. Also It was hard to keep her on the track I wanted.... I wanted to know about what musicians she liked, she only wanted to talk about my Grandfather playing guitar, which I have heard all about all of my life... So yeah, you have to be able to keep some people on track with a mixture of forcefulness and couth.
posted by goml at 2:43 PM on July 1, 2009

There is another great book called "Legacy" that is a fill-in-the-blank type book on personal history. I used this book with my grandfather before he died and it took several sessions of about 30 - 45 minutes each. The questions are great and we have a several hour recording of his telling the story of his life. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:54 PM on July 1, 2009

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