Stanford students take listeners on a voyage of discovery

Stanford students are producing audio documentaries based on interviews they recorded last summer with funding from Braden Storytelling Grants, which were designed to introduce students to the art of spoken storytelling.

Stanford undergraduate Maria Doerr joins in a discussion about audio production in Jake Warga's audio documentary workshop.

Stanford undergraduate Maria Doerr joins in a discussion about audio production in Jake Warga’s audio documentary workshop. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

While studying “sky burials” in Mongolia, Reade Levinson amassed 20 hours of recordings, including interviews with Tibetan Buddhist lamas, conservation biologists and vulture experts, and the sound of dogs barking, monks praying and cars honking.

Levinson, a senior majoring in Earth systems, spent last summer researching the funeral practice, in which monks place corpses – which they consider empty vessels bereft of spirit – on hillsides for vultures to consume. Buddhists consider sky burials acts of generosity, because they sustain living beings.

While the Mongolian government banned sky burials as a public health hazard in 2013 (when dogs began bringing human remains into its capital city), the practice continues.

“Mongolians are struggling to change their culture in response to changing attitudes toward sky burials,” she said.

Levinson is one of nine Stanford students who are producing audio documentaries using interviews they conducted – and ambient sounds they collected – last summer.

Stanford provided funding for the projects through Braden Storytelling Grants, which were designed to introduce students to the art of spoken storytelling. As part of the grant, they attended a workshop on narrative techniques, interviewing skills and audio technology – how to use the professional digital recorders and microphones provided under the grant.

The Stanford Storytelling Project awards the research grants of up to $3,000 to fund audio documentaries based on original interviews or oral history archives. In addition to the grants, students receive individual mentoring and production assistance. The next round of Braden Grants will be awarded this spring for research in the summer of 2016.

Last summer, the students traveled near and far.

Their interview subjects included women in California prisons; indigenous people in Alaska whose lives have been affected by climate change; impoverished women living in Papua New Guinea; and Jewish refugees from Yemen who have resettled in New York. A student interviewed an elderly Korean woman who was forced into sexual slavery as a child by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, and another student captured the voices of people in Nicaragua talking about controversial plans to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“Building” an audio documentary

During fall quarter, the students turned the material they gathered into audio documentaries suited for public radio stations and podcasts. When completed, the 10- to 20-minute stories will be posted on the Storytelling Project’s website.

Jake Warga

Jake Warga, managing editor of the Stanford Storytelling Project, teaches a workshop on audio documentaries. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

During a weekly workshop, the students learned how to “build” a radio story out of their material, design and create a script, and edit and mix sound. Jake Warga, who worked as an independent radio producer for more than a decade before becoming managing editor of the Storytelling Project, led the workshop.

In one class, Warga talked about techniques used to incorporate ambient sound and translation of foreign languages into audio documentaries.

As an example, he played a clip from an audio podcast from BBC World News about Syrians traveling by ferry to the Greek mainland. The reporter, Fergal Keane, accompanied the refugees on the 12-hour trip from the island of Lesbos to the port of Piraeus.

Warga asked students to pay close attention to the ambient sound – a baby coughing, a woman crying, the engine rumbling, the noisy wake of the boat – as they listened to the reporter narrate the three-minute story.

“The ambient sound behind the narration keeps your attention on the boat, even when we’re hearing narration recorded later in the studio,” he told the students.

Since many students in the workshop had interviewed people speaking foreign languages, Warga also used the BBC audio podcast to show how important it is to find an interpreter who can convey the same emotion as the person being interviewed.

In the BBC podcast, a male interpreter matched the dispassionate tone of voice of a Syrian artist who said: “Syria is finished. There is no place called Syria anymore. There was a nation called Syria. A life called Syria. But now, nothing.” And a female interpreter expressed the sadness of a Syrian woman who said: “Destruction. The war has displaced us all. Everybody has left. Last year, my brother was slaughtered.”

It was one of many “in-class listenings” Warga chose from published radio stories to illustrate the principles of spoken storytelling – classic first lines, opening scenes, music, narration, last lines, conclusions – and to inspire the students.

During the workshop, the students spent most of their time working one-on-one with a professional producer from the Storytelling Project.

“It’s very high-touch coaching,” said Jonah Willihnganz, director of the Storytelling Project, which launched the Braden Storytelling Grants five years ago.

Willihnganz said the popularity of podcasts such as Serial, a spinoff of This American Life, TED Talks and National Public Radio shows such as Radiolab have contributed to a growing desire among students to learn how to turn their research into stories for a general audience.

He said audio documentaries are an effective way to share research findings, because they take listeners on a memorable “voyage of discovery.” In a radio story, listeners tag along as researchers retrace the steps that led to their insights, sharing in their “aha” moments.

“Our brains soak up information and learning in stories much more easily than in analytic essays,” Willihnganz said. “The audio story is particularly appealing to our brains because we get so much powerful information from the sound of someone’s voice and their environment.”

He said that students benefit from the process of creating audio documentaries.

“By situating and reflecting on the journey of their learning as they go, students usually have a deeper engagement with producing new knowledge,” Willihnganz said. “They also often have a more personal experience of their research, with wrestling with not only ideas but methodology and judgments about what kinds of questions and answers are possible and useful.”  

In addition, Willihnganz said, students producing audio documentaries get the experience of being a public intellectual who becomes learned on a topic and speaks about it to a general audience – like Michael Pollan or Cornel West.

“Students, especially early in their undergraduate experience, are still writing for the teacher, for the assignment,” he said. “When students are encouraged to begin writing for some form of public audience, they start to see themselves as a contributor to an ongoing conversation, as participating in a project to help not only themselves, but others, understand something better, more clearly. It helps students experience themselves as new, active participants in meaningful conversations.” 

Students describe their documentaries

Kate Lynn Lindsey, a PhD candidate in linguistics, conducted interviews in Papua New Guinea with a researcher trained in ethnography – the systematic study of people and cultures. They traveled to a remote province in the southwestern part of the island nation to interview women living in Limol, a fishing village.

Lindsey said nothing has ever been written about women – or men – living in that part of the world.

“We set out to find out who they were and give them an opportunity to send a message back out to the rest of the world,” Lindsey said. “We expected – rather naively – an introduction to their culture. We were expecting to hear stories about their lives. Instead they told us how much help they needed to survive. That really changed our project.”

Lindsey said their audio documentary will focus on the untold stories and daily struggles of the women, and bring to light a new look at the idea of love in a survival-based world.

“Our goal is to captivate, to tell a story, to draw people in, and to show that in a world where every day is a struggle between life and death, love is not just an emotion to keep inside, it’s a commitment to help keep your friends and family alive,” she said.

Ariela Safira, a junior majoring in math and computational science, is focusing her audio documentary on the stories of Jews who fled persecution in Yemen.

“When discussing Judaism and the oppression Jews have faced, people tend to think of the Holocaust and Ashkenazi Jews,” she said. “However, there is an entirely different and neglected story to be told about the oppression Sephardic Jews still face in Yemen today. “

Safira interviewed refugees in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in a rural New York hamlet with a large community of Orthodox Jews. Her audio documentary focuses primarily on the experiences of one woman who fled Yemen as a teenager. Safira said the woman, now in her early 30s, shared harrowing stories of verbal abuse, physical abuse, rape, murder and escape.

Safira discovered that an audio documentary is a powerful way to convey emotions.

“Hearing someone’s voice – their sighs, their cries, their moments of silence – conveys a depth that I have never been able to elicit with writing in the third person,” she said.

“There’s something to be said about the moments my interviewees yelled, the moments their voices cracked, and the moments they asserted that they didn’t have the strength to provide more answers,” Safira said. “Simply put, an audio documentary focuses on the interviewee sharing their own story, whereas a research paper written by me focuses on me interviewing others.”