Oral history is an method of collecting personal testimony. It is a way of documenting life stories and experiences of interviewees from all walks of life who have something of interest to say about themselves, their lives or events they may have witnessed.
When it comes to documenting oral history it requires advanced preparation, we need to understand the complexity of interview relationships, the questioning and listening skills and, as important, the ability to understand oral evidence and uses in a wide variety of settings.
Oral history is not folklore, but it is the tradition of beliefs, customs and stories of the community passed through the generations by word-of-mouth. Until the arrival of the oral historian the transmission of oral history was captured by the pen. However, with the arrival of recording devices we can now document history using personal testimony and first-hand information.
Oral history can be best described as a way of revealing a hidden history; it documents history as seen from “below” meaning from the ordinary individual, as opposed to from above or, as is normally the case, from the people who make history and not from the people who witnesses at a common level. From this point of view oral history has become a valuable resource in many communities that use it to record the memories of their senior members. These recordings can be archived for future reference, and this gives a new dimension to the way we understand history. It is furthermore a democratisation of history as it allows Us, due to new technologies, to record the memoirs of all people. It empowers to historian and the ordinary person in making new information in relation to historical events available to a wider audience. But perhaps one of its greatest uses is that it now balances documentary sources.
When we look at documentary sources such as books, documents, newspapers and periodicals, we must ask, what are they, how useful are they and are they 100% reliable. Are they biased or unbiased or are they just one person’s point of view? When it comes to oral history, we can use it to back up such documentation and the recordings become a second resource. Documents can be partisan or biased, but, from a positive point of view they can also be contemporaneous.
Personal testimony is very unique. As we listen to the person speak, we get an accurate account of their perception of their own lives and the events therein. However, we must also take into consideration such memories are normally retrospective and as such, because of the passing of time, they may be somewhat colored or the speaker may have issues of memory.
Personal narratives differ in the way they are written or spoken. In an interview situation (an exchange) the interviewee is relying totally on their own memory of a given situation. However, from recordings we can also tell certain things from the atmosphere created, the accent, the information, the stories offered. There would also tell us something about the generational bridges which have been crossed.
It is important to remember that an interview is not an interrogation, and the interviewer should always have brief notes which he or she can follow throughout the course of the interview. The interview itself should be conversational, not just a conversation and the interviewee should never be made to feel that he or she is an outsider, but an insider.
Oral history began its life in the early 1940s in the USA. With the publication of the book; Gateway to History (1938) came the first real oral history textbook documenting what has been described as the stories of; “living Americans who have led significant lives’. United States Federal Writers Project in the 1930s and 1940s, also helped with the advancement of the discipline. Recorded interviews with victims of the Great Depression have given great depth to our understanding of history in this era. By the 1960s with issues such as Black rights and women’s rights oral historians have documented substantial information through the recording of living witnesses.
In Britain, Organizations Such As the British Library Sound Archive 1936, School Of Scottish Studies 1950s, Labour and Local History Late 1960s, Oral History Society 1973, Oral History Journal (collection, reservation and use of recorded memories of the past.) Have all contributed to the advancement of the discipline. Publications such as; Evans, Ask The Fellow Who Cut The Hay (1975), Paul Thompson, The Voice Of The Past (1978) And Alastair Thompson, Anzac Memories (1994), Moving Stories (2010) are all now deemed standard textbooks in Oral History.
In Ireland, Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions (1802), Luke Cullen 1830s, Irish Folklore Commission 1937-38 (documenting such issues as patriotism, ruralism, and famine) are all substantial works.
Also in Ireland there are a number of organisations now focused on Oral History recording, compiling and archiving. These include; Irish Folklore Department Archive UCD, Irish Oral History Archive, Cork Northside Project MIC Oral History Archive, Boston College (Dublin) GAA Oral History, Oral History Network of Ireland and MIC Oral History Centre.
The arrival of reality radio journalism coincides with mobile phones; talk radio [phone in radio shows] did not really exist before the 1980s. It is a very cheap form of radio but it does have a number of boundaries before a person in the audience can communicate with other listeners through the studio. These boundaries include the switch board, the producer, time delay, and host. Programs are usually personality based and normally the presenter plays the devil’s advocate. The host communicates on two levels simultaneously with the caller and the listener. The mode of address fits the tone of the program and this style of radio blurs domestic and public technologies.
Interviewing for radio; the first thing the host must do is know the subject matter this calls for research to have the best questions for the interviewee. One usually only gets one chance to ask such questions. It’s best to know something about the person you are interviewing. If you have this information at hand your questions are appropriate and more than likely fair. In the case of a recorded interview it’s best to explore the subject with the interviewee before turning on the recorder.
Space and time; allow the interviewee to answer questions whilst keeping them on the subject. Allow second takes if needed. Best to record an interview indoors to avoid unwanted sound effects such as wind or traffic noises. Be aware that the process of recording itself changes the way people behave. Use a quite space to make recordings, remember, ambient sounds can be recorded and added separately. Listen carefully to what the interviewee is saying and always ensure that the interviewee does most of the speaking.
Questions; it is rarely acceptable to ask questions requiring a yes or no answer. Unless you are speaking to a politician then such questions are often unavoidable. Open questions encourage conversation and always show respect for your interviewee. It’s best to maintain eye contact as much as possible. Ensure that language is acceptable for broadcast and that content is not libellous. Ask only one question at a time and always avoid leading questions.
Make it sound natural: editing creates an aural representation, not reality. Talk about what you can see, feel, smell or touch. Pace conversations in a context, using music, ambient sounds and introductions guide the listener. Use stereo panning to create the sense of space. Observe radio conventions in order to be understood the way you intend.
When is radio not radio? Radio is normally not really radio when it comes to online radio stations playing nonstop automated music, podcasts and radio art are also not forms of conventional radio.
We need now to distinguish between Radio news and documentaries. As discussed news has a cyclical nature and presents a number of short items using the inverted pyramid. News is factual and informative and presented with an authoritative voice. It is anchor based and uses minimal music and ambience and usually ends on a light note.
Radio documentaries have a narrative structure and a long single theme. The detail is slowly revealed and the content is usually impressionistic or investigative. The mode of address is usually a questioning voice and the narrative is presenter led. Radio documentaries will use music and ambience and create mood and structure. They will also arrive at conclusions.
The structure of a documentary consists of a little teaser at the start followed by a brief introduction and title music. After the music there is a more detailed introduction as to the nature of documentary presented with ambient and relevant sound. For example if the documentary is about the sea then we may hear the sound of crashing waves behind the voice of the presenter. (This sound should never crash with the voice of the presenter which normally has priority over sound effects or mood music.) One on one interviews are usually conducted in the studio or in a quiet place where both the voices of the interviewer and the interviewee are clearly heard. The documentary will proffer conclusions or a summary at the end of the broadcast.
The multi-track components of a documentary will include ambient sound and music. These sounds would be suggestive of mood and context which is interspersed with studio narration (identified by the silence around the voice) and/or interviews where we can clearly distinguish between the speakers.
The radio documentary will also provide textual information which shifts in balance between components, creates intrigue while sounds pre-empt text to segment narrative and maintain interest.
In summary radio documentaries use sound material alongside informative text. Information is provided in progressive narrative formats (unlike news programs). Materials are compiled from recordings and they are not necessarily connected in the order they are heard on the finished piece. Radio documentaries depend heavily upon the listener’s imagination.
Radio news exists in time. It is organized for linear consumption which means it is reported, more or less, as it happens. The lead story is usually the most important event of the given hour of the broadcast while subsequent stories follow in terms of importance with the least important story appearing last.
- Radio news offers immediacy in that interviews are often conducted live and on the spot from locations relevant to the story being reported.
- Radio news is presented in cycles and stories are constantly updated in terms of priority and detail.
- The mode of address in radio news is often personal and individual depending on the target audience of the radio station. For example, on a talk station the mode of address may be serious and sombre while on a young person’s pop station it may be fast and far less solemn.
- Radio news is often prepared, produced and presented by a small team of people especially in local stations with little funding to keep them afloat. It is in organizations such as these that news agencies are very cost effective.
- Radio news is often context dislocated and audiences could be almost anywhere in the world. This means that news stories of local interest may have little or no interest to listeners not from the community or listening in a foreign country.
News bulletins usually have a basic structure which involves the main headlines often repeated in cycles, the main stories local, and national or global followed by weather and traffic reports. News bulletins may also contain reports on the daily newspapers, interviews, sport and weather or traffic reports. They may also contain arts, interviews and more recently, at local level, obituary notices.
Broadcast Radio newsrooms have a number of different departments headed by the head of news are news editor whose role it is to manage, schedule and prioritize the news. He or she is usually assisted by a bulletin editor or producer who is focused on styles, language, coordination, and checking. There are also presenters, journalists, researchers and technicians.
Radio news has a number of components and conventions. These are, more often than not, adhered to in most newsrooms. These components and conventions include the use of the studio anchor, telephone interviews, managed debates, outside broadcasts, specialist prepared articles, musical signposts to identify the station, voxpops and less weighty stories at the end of the broadcast.
So how does a new story come about? This is known as radio news flow and the process begins, for example, with an initial call to the news desk whereupon shocked report is prepared and a reporter is sent to investigate the story and to gather more information. The reporter will then prepare a short report prioritized and presented whilst other information is found. The reporter and external informants present the story true the news anchor. The news item is packaged for repeats or developed with updates or sent out for syndication or relegated in priority. The story dies when no new information is forthcoming and the priority of the story drops to the end of the schedule before finally vanishing.