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May 12, 2009

"Why Do I Like Living in Durham?" -- A Durham Neighborhood College Joint

I Heart Durham

Click it! ------> Why Do I Like Living in Durham? <------

Why Do I Like Living in Durham? is a 9-1/2 minute audio piece by my pal Sarah Ovenall and her teammates Allison Moy, Barbara Lau, Ricardo Correa and Joyce Logan at the Durham Neighborhood College.  Sarah pointed her microphone at me and it was fun.

To turn the tables, I emailed Sarah with some questions about the production. Read on for her fine responses about producing audio docs for the Durham Neighborhood College and for her WXDU show Divaville Lounge.

So, what's this Durham Neighborhood College thing?

Durham Neighborhood College is a ten week course about Durham government, jointly sponsored by the city and county. Each week representatives of different agencies come to the class and talk about what they do, where their funding comes from, how they make decisions, the problems they face, their upcoming goals, etc. I signed up because last year I did some political canvassing in neighborhoods I had never been to before, and often didn't even know were there. Cool neighborhoods where I met friendly, interesting people. It made me realize that despite living in Durham for 22 years, there's so much I don't know about it. I tend to stay in my own little area, go to the same places and see the same people. I wanted to learn more about Durham and the DNC seemed like a good place to start.

And why the audio documentary?  And why "Why Do I Like Living in Durham?"

The class broke into 4 groups which each had to do a project on the topic of "perceptions of Durham." Our group was lucky to get the "pro" argument. It's a lot easier to do a happy project about positive perceptions! 

The specific idea came from someone else in my group. She suggested we do a vox pop, short "man on the street" interviews with no names. (from the Latin vox populi, voice of the people). The original idea was that we use the information in the vox pop to decide what to do our project on. As we started collecting the interviews, we liked them so much that we decided to use the vox pop as the project itself.

The whole group collected the interviews, and then I edited it together into the finished piece. For the DNC presentation we added a slide show of drawings to go with the voices, drawn by a couple of kids we know.

Did the shape of the project change after you started recording?  After you started editing?

I initially thought it should be much longer. My (music) radio show is 2 hours so I'm used to thinking in much larger blocks of time. Due to the prep time available & the number of interviews we had, the version we played for the DNC ended up being about 5 minutes long. Which turned out just right for holding people's attention during a class. Longer than that and people would have been fidgeting in their seats.

After the DNC project was over I collected additional interviews and put together a longer version for WXDU, with music to break it up. That version was about 9-1/2 minutes and I think it worked well for radio.

Your production is 9-1/2 minutes long.  How much time did you spend planning/recording/editing?

I didn't do all the recordings, so I'm not sure how long that took. The ones I did sometimes had to be scheduled, and sometimes just happened off the cuff. For a couple of weeks I carried my recorder with me everywhere.

The editing took about 35-40 minutes for every minute of final audio. That's a bit long for me, because there were so many transitions. For a longer interview I usually plan to spend about 20 minutes editing for each minute of the finished piece.

How was it received?

The DNC class seemed to really enjoy it. It was a strange experience, to stand there watching people listen to audio I had produced. Very different from radio, where you have no contact with the audience. I used to overcome nervousness about being on the radio by telling myself no one was even listening. You can't do that when they're right in front of you!

Were there any things you hoped or expected to happen during the project?  Any things you hoped or expected to hear?

I didn't have any specific expectations, except that I know some really interesting people and I knew they would say good things.

How did you choose your interviewees?

We tried to get people from a range of ages, races, income levels and experiences. We were hoping to widen the range of what people might say, and also to reflect the broad range of people who live in Durham. Two of the people in the vox pop were members of the project -- the man who mentions the Durham Bulls, and the woman who says "funkytown." I regret that I didn't get to record a child or an older person. It would have been really good to have those perspectives in the mix. I did talk to an elderly woman who had lived her whole life in Durham, and she said all kinds of interesting things, but she refused to be recorded. Alas!

Did you worry people might say certain things you didn't want to hear?

I was kind of worried that we'd end up with an undiverse group saying "I like diversity!" over and over, which could sound a little clueless. And a lot of people did mention diversity, but it wasn't the only thing that was said so I think it worked.

Oh yes, "diversity."  How did/do you feel about the words "diversity" "funky" and "gritty"?

Well, some people were obviously looking for a euphemism for Durham's minority population. And some meant crime, which is a genuine issue in Durham, though outsiders perceive it as more of a problem than it actually is. I think people were trying to say that without coming right out and saying it.

But not everyone was euphemizing; I think some of them said "funky" and meant the fun culture in Durham, like the local music scene, or the people with homemade sculptures in their yards, things like that. There are pockets of cool weirdness all over Durham and I think that's a lot of what people were talking about. 

Not everyone bothered with euphemisms: one white guy (who we didn't end up using) came right out and said "I like that black people live here"!

Did anything else in the recording make you cringe? Laugh?

The part that made me laugh, of course, was the young woman saying that Durham is not the armpit of the state! I had a hard time not busting out laughing during the interview when she said that. 

The things that made me cringe weren't included in the final piece. Several people described their liking for Durham in terms of how much better it is than other nearby communities. Like the woman who said "It's not sterile," she actually said "It's not sterile like Chapel Hill." I don't agree with that, and besides, it's not necessary to trash other towns in order to make Durham sound good.

Also when people talked about diversity, sometimes they said cringe-inducing things. Like the guy who said he likes Durham because black people live here. Or another person said "I always wanted to visit Mexico, and now I don't have to because Mexico is moving here!" I'm pretty sure that person did not mean that the way it came out, so I edited it out. 

What were you delighted to discover about the process, or the people, or Durham?

One surprise was that the two people who have traveled the most, both described Durham people as up-front and lacking pretense. It's not something I'd ever thought about, and it was nice to hear!

On the technical side, I hadn't done field recordings before so that was a good learning experience. It's very different from a long interview in a controlled environment.

Many folks want to try their hand at audio docs.  Any advice?

Listen to programs that are doing what you want to do. Don't just listen to what they're saying, but how it sounds: how is it paced? how do they build tension? if there's narration, when does the narrator break in? if there's music, how do they use it? do they edit out all the "ums" or leave a few in? All of those decisions were made for a reason. 

There's a website called Transom.org which is full of advice about audio documentary. The site is specifically aimed at breaking into public radio, but it's useful for anyone doing audio work.

And if you live near Durham, contact WXDU. They have a weekly half-hour documentary program called Durham Noise Network and they are very welcoming of new people.

Speaking of WXDU, tell me about your soundtrack...

The music was two different versions of the theme from the movie The Third Man. It's one of my all-time favorite movies, and if you haven't seen it, you really should! I used the original version which appeared in the movie, played on the zither by Anton Karas, and then a really fun version by the Skatalites.

The music almost made it too easy: it makes everything sound good.

You've done some solo documentary work, haven't you?

I do a show on WXDU about old music like Tin Pan Alley, pop and jazz from the 20s to the 60s. Occasionally I do interviews, and last year I did a series about WWII that I'm proud of: a man who was a child in England during the war, another who was a child in Sicily during the war, and a WWII veteran who served in the US Navy. It was really interesting to hear such different points of view. (the one from England also happens to be my dad.)

I'm working now on a series of interviews with older people who experienced that great music when it was new. So if you know any older folks with interesting musical experiences -- they danced to big bands in the 40s, they went to a famous nightspot to hear the music, they saw a great singer back in the day -- please put them in touch with me!

And where can we find Divaville?

My show is called Divaville Lounge, Sundays from 2-4pm. http://www.divavillelounge.org If you like old music, check it out!


Photo yoinked from Zazzle.com where you can buy the shirt and more.

02:44 PM in Destination Durham, Quotables | Permalink


Thanks for being appearing in the vox pop, and thanks again for turning the tables and interviewing me! Coincidentally, The Third Man will be airing on TCM this Friday, May 15, at 10:45 am.

Posted by: Sarah | May 12, 2009 2:46:10 PM

I also like that black people live here, and I'm glad that Mexico is coming here, too. I'm also glad that white people live here. And I can understand how that could sound pretty terrible, depending on context.

Re: white people, today's Associated Press reports that the Census Bureau is pushing back its estimate on when whites will be the minority.

"The Census Bureau projected last August that white children will become the minority in 2023 and the overall white population will follow in 2042. The agency now says it will recalculate those figures, typically updated every three to four years, because they don't fully take into account anti-immigration policies after the September 2001 terror attacks and the current economic crisis.

The new projections, expected to be released later this year, could delay the tipping point for minorities by 10 years, given the current low rates of immigration, David Waddington, the Census Bureau's chief of projections, said in a telephone interview."

I had forgotten that the tip was supposed to happen in my lifetime. Freaky. Cool. Challenging. A million different meanings. In 2052 I will turn 85 if I'm still around. And should my family stay as close as it is, I will be able to count every single non-white resident that can be traced back to my mom's immigration in ~1963, and my dad's in ~1956. (My mom generated only me, but brought over several siblings, two nieces and a nephew. One niece and nephew are generating more brown faces. The rest have not. My dad is only responsible for me, and that road probably stops here.)

Posted by: Phil | May 14, 2009 12:50:43 PM