A group of Colby creative writing students spent time last semester with teenagers at a juvenile correctional center—and found they had a lot in common.
The Colby students were enrolled in English 386, Radio Documentaries. The teens were producing their own radio pieces, segments by incarcerated youth for Blunt Youth Radio, a weekly current affairs show on WMPG in South Portland.
An unlikely pairing, perhaps, but it revealed common ground and interests.
“I was impressed with the honesty of their stories and the way students shared some really painful, really personal stories with complete strangers,” said Zoe Sherman ’12. “A lot of the students talked about how the radio class had helped them realize that their stories mattered and that people wanted to hear them.”
Stories like these do matter, says English Professor Debra Spark, whose course, Special Topics: Documentary Radio, has been a resounding hit. Sherman and her classmates learned that stories are everywhere. Then they learned how to give life to those narratives by producing their own radio pieces.
“The class is fun because often people have never done anything like this before,” said Spark, who, after years of admiring public radio, decided to learn the ins and outs of radio documentary so she could teach the course. “Everyone has written before, even if they haven't focused on fiction, but not everyone has tried to make a recording and assemble it into a story.”
Spark’s course asks students to tell engaging stories through the sounds they collect with professional recorders and to edit those sounds into compelling narratives.
As the semester progresses the course takes on a civic engagement component as students go out into the local community and help share its stories. Assignments include working with local nonprofits to create public service announcements, interviewing area residents, and profiling interesting community members whose jobs make sound—last semester a hair stylist, a film projectionist, and a cobbler.
It was Sherman who profiled the shoe repairman, Fred Murphy, at Babe’s Shoe Repair in Waterville. In his shop she found her new skills put to the test.
Ehrenreich, who served as a radio documentary teaching assistant, speaks with area residents at the Waterville Public Library.
“There were so many different sounds to capture—stitching, sanding, hammering, waxing. By the time I was finished collecting all of the sound and speaking with him, I had about three hours of tape to cut down into a five-minute piece,” Sherman said. “I think this would have intimidated me in the beginning of the class, but we had spent a lot of time discussing how to tell a good story and how to edit pieces, so it turned out to be a lot of fun deciding what direction I wanted to take with the story.”
Sherman told the story of how Murphy got into the business and then focused on some of his favorite clients and quirkiest projects, integrating the sounds of him fixing a boot from start to finish.
“It’s cool to see how people integrate sound and show great improvement in their technique over the semester,” said Spark’s teaching assistant, Allison Ehrenreich ’12, who independently produced a series of pieces on the workers at the former Hathaway Shirt factory in Waterville. “I always get really excited to see what my classmates produce, to see the incredible diversity each week. Radio is so incredibly versatile.”
Ehrenreich, who took the course in spring 2011, described the magical quality of hearing her classmates’ stories: “You’re experiencing it for the first time together as opposed to fiction or poetry, where you’re reading it on your own and coming in with your own set of ideas before even getting started,” she said.
“As a creative writer, I never realized the power of hearing people, of radio. I was always moved by music, loved words, loved writing and radio, but I didn’t realize that I had the power to do that myself,” said Ehrenreich, a coeditor of the Echo who hoped to find a job in radio after graduating.
Ehrenreich and Sherman had the encouragement of radio documentary producers who spoke on campus. “As beginning producers, having professionals talk about their work and their process was incredibly valuable,” Ehrenreich said. She valued having producers come to class and reveal the raw moments behind each segment.
Beyond learning how to make her own audio documentaries, Sherman realized there was more to the sounds she heard on her local NPR station. Said Sherman, “Now when I listen to the radio, I think a lot about how a piece was made: How long did it take them to edit it down? How did they pick what music to use? What types of questions did they ask to get a good story?”