BEHIND-THE-SCENES with John Biewen

What is the origin story of Storymakers? Can you walk me through the process?

Storymakers is part of the national Localore: Finding America initiative produced and funded by AIR. I thought it up, with input from key people here in Durham who became partners on the project: SpiritHouse, a black-women-led arts and organizing group, and David Brower, Program Director at North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC. When we were working out plans for the project, Ferguson, Baltimore, the Charleston massacre and the Black Lives Matter movement were very much in the news and on people’s minds. Our hope was that in one diverse town we could get people actually talking to each other about race and class — and try to get some radio stories made that would sound and feel different, that would get to the heart of things in an unusual way because they were conceived and made by citizen storytellers.

The project had two major phases. First, we held a series of “Story Circle” events across the city, partnering with local organizations. These were designed, collectively, to attract a diverse cross-section of the community — black, white, and brown, rich and poor and in between, etc. At each event we had people sit in small groups and tell brief stories about their lives. (The prompt: Tell a story about a time when you had an advantage.) About a hundred people took part in these experiences and it was — well, it was kind of magical, beyond my expectations. People were truly moved by the experience of sitting face to face with strangers and talking — and listening. We don’t do that in our culture these days. Then, phase two: From the people who showed up at the Story Circles, we invited a select group of about fifteen to get more deeply involved. I met with those people in small groups over 5 months — trained them in the basics of audio recording and production, and they worked out their ideas and produced pieces for WUNC and Scene on Radio. We wound up with ten pieces, 4 to 12 minutes long, exploring everything from gentrification and anti-immigrant discrimination to the experience of an Iraqi refugee in Durham.

How does your own identity factor into your work facilitating a project that focuses on race and class? Have you had to think about it in any new ways?

I’ve done a lot of work on race and class over many years and it never leaves my awareness that I’m a white, middle-class dude — who grew up in the Midwest, for that matter. (Though I’ve lived in Durham for 15 years now.) For that reason the first people I reached out to, while still conceiving the project, were Nia Wilson and Mya Hunter at SpiritHouse I wanted them to help me think the project through but also to be partners on the ground floor. They helped to shape the project in major ways. For one thing, interestingly: My first idea was to do a citizen storytelling project focusing on East Durham, the mostly African American side of town. Nia replied, and I’m paraphrasing: "It’s nice when you white folks want to invite the stories of people of color, folks in marginalized communities. But with all that’s going on in the country right now, this feels like a time when we need to be hearing from everybody. Let’s give all kinds of people a chance to reflect on their place in the scheme of things — including privileged white folks." I said, damn, you’re right. That’s a way better idea.

I love that these stories have such individual tones and styles. Can you discuss how you and the producers work to preserve a sense of intimacy and individuality? Are your goals for working with "citizen journalists" different than your goals working with documentary students at CDS?

During those meetings with the Storymakers, I encouraged them to tell their own stories or at least to be characters in their pieces. That seemed to me in keeping with the spirit of the project. Why recruit “citizen storytellers” if you’re going to turn them into detached reporter types? That was my vision from the start and my mantra: Tell us about something that you have been through in this town, or some question that you want to explore, that sheds light on the day-to-day fabric of race and class and the other things that divide us here. In some cases, no nudging was unnecessary. Debby Bussel came with a story she wanted to tell about a racially-loaded incident that she experienced directly in her affluent white neighborhood. It was clear from the start that she would need to use “I” in her piece. With others, it was less obvious. Jamila Davenport, who’s African American, wanted to do a piece about gentrification. I encouraged her to make it personal, to let us in on her feelings about the question and to take us along on her exploration. Both Debby and Jamila wound up making recordings that, instead of sounding like reporter interviews, sound like (because they are) candid and revealing conversations among friends that the rest of us get to listen in on.

With CDS students, too, I tend to encourage making pieces personal or semi-personal, if there is a personal connection to the story — and there often is. But if a student wants to do a traditionally journalistic piece or to leave themselves out entirely, I’m fine with that.

Let's talk about Courtney's story. What were the particular opportunities and challenges her story faced, and how did you work through them together?

Courtney’s piece is fascinating in the sense that it grew organically from the Storymakers project itself. She started out wanting to do something about storytelling, or the lack thereof, among older and younger folks in the black community. What do older African Americans say, and not say, to young people about the struggles they went through in the civil rights era? She spent weeks approaching elders in the city, trying to find people to interview, and it wasn’t going so well. She recorded an interview with her grandmother and there was interesting stuff there but it wasn’t quite taking shape. Meanwhile, Courtney was going to her job at the bakery after Storymakers “class" and having these conversations with her white co-worker, Noah, and her involvement in Storymakers was sparking new energy in those conversations. Eventually she told me about that and I said, well, how about doing your piece about yourself and Noah and these things you two are talking about? She went for it, and added the interview with her sister, Erika, which turned out to be amazingly powerful.

As part of the training I taught the Storymakers the basics of audio editing on Hindenburg. Courtney showed up with her “cuts” pulled, in order — those quotes from Noah and Erika. I could hear the arc of the piece in the tape and we talked it through: What did she need to say to set up this quote, then this one? We mapped it out with bullet points and went into the sound booth and I asked her questions to draw out what became her narration. She’s such a thoughtful and engaging talker and I hoped we could preserve that sound rather than having her script and read her narration. She pulled it off beautifully.

Has the project taught you anything new or surprising about Durham?

I think there’s a genuine spirit in Durham of people wanting to live together, a real desire to figure these things out — to acknowledge and work through the long legacy of racism and inequality, to manage gentrification in a way that doesn’t push people out, to create a fair and humane police force, and so on. I can’t claim that spirit is unique to Durham, though I’ve heard from people who don’t live here but have spent time here that they believe there’s an unusual critical mass of people, of all hues, doing that work in Durham. There’s much, much work to do, here as elsewhere, and it’s daunting. But the way that people jumped at the chance to talk about these things and to participate in this project, that says something.

If Storymakers is a big success - what will that look like for you? Would these producers go on to make more audio stories? Or something else entirely?

I’m confident that some of these producers will make more audio stories. And WUNC is exploring ways to continue working with the Storymakers model in an ongoing way though on a smaller scale. But I suppose my hope would be that other audio people — at stations, podcasts, you name it — would get inspired to try some aspects of this. Collaborating with people in the community on the shaping of story ideas, handing over the recording and production of stories, being willing to break down some of the traditional distinctions between “reporter” and “commentator.” Let’s face it, this was not the most efficient way to get ten short radio stories made. But I like to think there are lessons in this work that a lot of us can draw on, even if we’re not in a position to train citizen storytellers or hand out recorders to them.

Going forward, I have a hunch this experience will influence how I do my more traditional, “producer-produced” stories, as well. For instance, there's that quality in some of the pieces of listening in on conversations among people out in the world, as opposed to tape of someone answering a reporter’s question. It’s not that I’ve never captured tape like that before, but it’s pretty rare. The Storymakers have me thinking about how I can get that flavor of tape more often. I’m always happy to learn from students – and steal from them – and the Storymakers folk are no exception.