The Sound of History

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A few months ago the American Radio Works posted a very interesting podcast on the art of making radio documentaries.  The podcast included a live presentation given by Stephen Smith and John Biewen about a new book Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound.  While the whole discussion is very interesting, the second half focuses on Smith’s essay in the book on making historical documentaries: “Living History”.  Smith made a number of documentaries about 20th Century American history using archival sound.  For example, he used the Presidential tapes from Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in The President Calling to show the human side of high politics, by focusing on how presidents persuaded other individuals over the phone.  In another documentary he followed the legal career of the first African American Supreme Court Justice: Thurgood Marshall: Before the court.

As these two topics suggest, using archival sound clips, instead of oral history interviews, might limit historians to focus on the great men and women of the 20th century, as most of us don’t leave hours of audio tape behind.  Smith and his co-producer Katie Ellis did a third documentary: Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches which shifts the focus away from those with power to the great orators of a social movement.  Looking through the list of documentaries on the American Radio Works Website, there are a lot of other projects that look at history in different ways, including ones that use oral history.  A particularly good one that I’ve had the chance to listen to is The Great Textbook War on the early days of the Culture Wars in West Virginia in 1974.  It does a great good job presenting both sides of the struggle through a mix of news recordings from 1974 and oral history interviews.

How many academic historians are making audio documentaries?  I know a lot of people doing oral history, but this still generally involves endless transcription and the production of dissertations, journal articles and books. Not many historians use high enough quality recording equipment or have the audio editing skills to present their research in an audio format. Smith does interview historians to provide context to the sound clips he found, so maybe it makes sense to leave the documentary production to the experts, and academic historians can focus on our strengths.  However, this means that others decide on the focus of the projects.

Joy Parr and Jon van der Veen found a number of creative ways to include sound in their Megaprojects New Media website that complements Parr’s recent book Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003.  While they do not create full audio documentaries, they do use oral history interviews to illuminate the history of the moving of Iroquois Ontario for the St. Lawrence Seaway and some sound compositions to represent the experience of living near the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant in Kincardine, Ontario.

As someone who loves to listen to quality radio documentaries from around the world, I highly recommend listening to the “Reality Radio” interview and I look forward to reading the book.  I study the nineteenth century, which means there are no sound archives or oral history opportunities for my project, but I do hope I can study something in the future that would allow me to learn more about presenting my research in a different medium than our beloved books and journals.

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