Hey everyone! Above is my finished (finished!) oral history interview project about my grandpa Pops’ life. Clocking in at around 2:40h, the interview is broken into 16 clips by topic and arranged chronologically. It covers everything from growing up during the Great Depression to reflecting on a life of raising six kids, 12 grandkids, and countless great-grandkids (single MP3 version).
Why did I do this? Other than “because it feels like the right thing to do,” I’ve always been interested in hearing personal stories. My mom used to bake pumpkin bread loaves around the holidays and take us to deliver them to older people in our church, and during those visits I was always taken by the conversations we’d strike up about their lives, history, family, and kids. As I grew up, I gravitated towards NPR, PBS, and other conversational media. In 9th grade (late 2000) I was assigned an oral history project in History class and chose to do it about my grandpa. It was relatively simple and hastily captured on a cassette tape, but the stories he told in that short half-hour captured my interest. The experience left me with a nagging desire to go back one day and do it justice, with actual preparation.
As my previous blog entries attest to, I’ve been really focused on goals and projects since late 2016. I decided to circle back and do a thorough oral history project with my grandpa, this time with a (more) professional setup, better-researched questions, and a commitment to making something concrete and lasting. Over the July 4th break in 2017, I drove up to Jacksonville with a Shure MV5 microphone (purchased with the cash my grandparents gifted me for Christmas), an iPad Mini, and a document full of questions. After our first session, I backed up all of the raw audio and reviewed as much as I could, creating follow-up questions for the next day’s recording session. At the end of the two days, I’d captured over 8 hours of audio, stories, and memories. It was a good experience, both for what I captured and for the opportunity to spend some good time with my grandparents.
The amount of material was overwhelming—I put the project off for months not knowing what I should do next. For better or worse I’m a big fan of poetic opportunities and I just couldn’t find the right fit for a package for this material. From my year-in-review post for 2017:
Despite having the idea for years, I finally interviewed my grandpa about his life, memories, advice, and everything else I could think of. […] I have yet to figure out exactly what to do with all of the recordings, but that will be a goal for this new year.
After finishing off some goals toward the beginning of the year, I circled back and committed to finishing it. I brainstormed with some friends and eventually settled on “topics sorted chronologically in a YouTube playlist” as the best fit for ease of access, sharing, and preservation. I listened to each of the 50~ raw recordings and made notes about each discrete topic discussed. I then coerced Rob to my office the night of Memorial Day to do a card-sorting exercise.
We wrote each discrete conversation on a sticky note and drew a timeline for important events (birth, going into the service, getting married, etc.). We started grouping topics until all the cards were sorted and gave names to these groups.
I began creating Audition audio projects for each of these topic groups, pulling the raw audio in and roughly cutting out the topics that were relevant. It quickly set in that working with 8 hours of audio, even in this really-organized way, was going to be a huge time sink; even minimal edits to the audio would be tens of hours of review.
Shortly after I got into the thick of things, my grandpa was admitted to the hospital. We’re not entirely sure what happened, but we assume a combination of high blood pressure and his existing medications being unable to compensate appropriately led to a small stroke. He was released to rehab and is back to normal (whatever normal is at 90), but it lit a fire under me to bump this to the top of my list full-time.
Each audio segment went through several rounds of revision and included edits for removal of silence, removal of stumbling, rambling and repetitive remarks, re-arrangement of clip order to add context and generally make more sense, application of noise reduction effects (lots of background noise despite my best attempts), and volume mastering. I also had to re-record my own questions (the mic was pointed away from me) and mix those into the projects. It’s not perfect—my grandma’s moving about the house and doing dishes is present in some clips—but the finished audio really outpaced my expectations. It sounds really good, thank goodness. I saved each project to an MP3, reviewed the audio, make some spot-corrections, and called that part done.
The video portion was less grueling. I designed a simple timeline graphic and prototyped settings for an After Effects generated waveform on top. I acquired and scanned some old photos of my grandpa to include on the video. On a recent flight back from New Hampshire, I came up with titles and summary bullets for each topic clip. I then spun all of these elements together into video clips, threw them on YouTube and into the above playlist, reviewed each (with help from friends!), and finally emailed it all to my grandpa.
It took about 5x the effort I expected but I’m super happy with the results and thrilled that my grandparents have the chance to listen to it in good health. It’s always deflating to put this much work into something and tuck it away on the shelf, but it’s important work and I’m glad to have completed it. An enormous amount of thanks to my grandparents for not only putting up with my weird project for a couple days but being candid and thoughtful during the interview.
Consider doing something like this for relatives, if you have the opportunity! It’ll be very rewarding for both of you.