In the summer of 2003, John Biewen, an instructor at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), sent two students to interview a longtime tobacco auctioneer.
Unbeknownst to Biewen, the auctioneer had recently lost his job, the latest casualty of technological advances in the tobacco industry. The students "thought they were just doing a colorful piece about someone who talks really fast," Biewen says. "But they walked into this situation where his life was changing. It was a very powerful moment."
That moment was captured on tape, and integrated into a short audio documentary that the students created as part of Biewen's "Hearing Is Believing I" summer course.
The intensive, weeklong course is one of two offered each summer to continuing-studies students through CDS's Audio Institute. The institute thrives on the sort of "I can do it, too," spirit embodied by the video website YouTube, Biewen says. Students come from across the country and range from radio-documentary fans who dream of producing their own segment for This American Life to elementary-school teachers hoping to create effective teaching tools.
"Hearing Is Believing I," the more elementary of the courses, is an intensive primer in audio documentary-making. Students are paired up and assigned topics related to a broad theme. The first day, they are sent into the field to conduct interviews scheduled in advance by CDS staff. They learn scripting, choose clips, and become accustomed to editing and production software as they put together a four-minute documentary piece. In addition, they hear from special guests who, this year, included Joe Richman, founder of the New York-based, nonprofit production house Radio Diaries.
The second course, subtitled "Making It Sing," is designed for students who have a basic knowledge of documentary form and editing software. They come having already recorded interviews—Biewen's guideline for his own work is an hour of tape for each minute of final product—and spend the week editing and producing a six- to twelve-minute piece, relying on feedback from peers and guest editors.
"There is always a lot of discussion about what their role is in the piece," whether they will be a character in the piece, a detached narrator, or totally absent from the final recording, Biewen says.
The institutes often take on the feel of an adult summer camp. "It's very intense," says Alison Jones, a freelance journalist who has taken both institute courses. "You are making radio, listening to radio, or talking about radio nonstop from the time you get up until the time you fall into bed at night. But that is part of the fun of it, too."
Each course ends with a Saturday morning listening session, where students and interviewees hear finished products for the first time. Often, participants have to rush the night before to get their final tapes in, and they, along with editors, are up until the wee hours of the morning. The result, says Biewen, is "a special sort of magical experience."
Hearing is Believing I & II
Hearing Is Believing I: An Audio Documentary Summer Institute Hearing is Believing II: Making It Sing
August 1, 2007