Editor’s note: In her second dispatch from the recent Third Coast audio storytelling conference, radio producer Julia Barton looks at the approach the producers of StoryCorps, the non-profit oral history project, take to invisibly piece together their compelling stories. Read her first dispatch from the conference, on the tension between journalism and storytelling.
NPR’s “Morning Edition” airs intense conversations every Friday, conversations you are not likely to forget: a woman forgives the man who shot and killed her son. A boy with Asperger’s syndrome asks his mother if she’s happy he was born. The stories are tender and real, and each one is unadorned by anything but a brief host introduction. There are none of the usual tools of audio storytelling: no narrator, no musical scoring, no “natural sound.”
These StoryCorps segments are only 2.5 minutes each, but they’re culled from 40-minute sessions recorded in the non-profit’s touring “booths” with two microphones and a facilitator who can help make the conversations meaningful.
Now 11 years old, StoryCorps has facilitated 50,000 such recordings. For their session at the Third Coast conference, StoryCorps founder David Isay and producer Michael Garofalo focused on how they get a select few of these recordings into shape for broadcast.
“There’s this illusion that people step into a StoryCorps booth and tell a perfect three-minute story,” Garofalo said. “There’s a lot of editing that goes on.”
No kidding. StoryCorps sessions are transcribed, but Garofalo doesn’t work from the logs. Once his team has selected a recording to break down, they go through it in ProTools, an audio production system, flagging sections by theme, and also flagging transitional words that might come in handy when rearranging bits of conversations. He showed us his list of 23 “buts” for one session.
In the end, the 2.5 minute broadcast version he showed us had 274 separate edits. That’s an average of almost two per second.
But even more goes into the back end of these productions, and that involves the participants themselves. They have to give StoryCorps permission to broadcast, of course, but they also cooperate with fact-checking as producers try to corroborate any incidents or facts that come up in the conversation. And finally, StoryCorps must get their permission for the final edited version before it goes to NPR. No one has ever refused, Garofalo says. In fact, “there’s a lot of crying” when people hear the distillation, he said.
Isay drew the name of his presentation from a Zen proverb he keeps tacked above his desk: “A good craftsman leaves no trace.” That disappearance is very much what StoryCorps is all about: elevating, above all else, those who speak. But so much art and intention goes into leaving no trace, it strikes me as the hardest work of all.
Julia Barton is a longtime public media editor, working with “Life of the Law,” American Public Media, “99% Invisible,” and individual producers. She’s also been the managing editor of Radiotopia, a podcast collective from PRX. Barton’s reporting has appeared on “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible,” “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” and other programs. She lives in Brooklyn in life, online at juliabarton.com.