About Southern Flight 242
When I was seven years old, my father died in a commercial plane crash. It’s a fact I grew up knowing and something I never wanted to look into, until now.
After I decided to make a radio story about the crash, I often wondered if it was the best choice as my first big project as a new radio producer. It took far longer than I ever expected, in part because it was so personal. But I realized that if I couldn’t answer tough personal questions, how could I expect others to do the same?
The initial kernel of the story idea came back in 1997 when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times about the 20th anniversary of the Southern Flight 242 accident (my family somehow missed being invited). And then in 2012, fifteen years later, I happened to be in Georgia for a conference that was 70 miles from the crash site. The key event in those intervening years was participating in the Transom Story Workshop. In Woods Hole, I learned much of what I needed to tell the story. I learned even more along the way.
Be vulnerable in your interviewing.
Researcher Brene Brown argues that vulnerability is vital for true human connection. Looking back on the project, I see now that I connected with my interview subjects out of weakness. In practice, this meant that my interview subjects knew that I was the child of a crash victim. We empathized with each other. Faith Thomas, the stranger I met in the airport, was scheduled to fly on the same delayed flight; we were equally powerless. Connecting with her was as simple as shaking my head and asking if she’d heard a recent update. Knowing about the power of vulnerability makes me wonder how I’d approach other interview subjects in the future. I’ve heard that oft-told story about Studs Terkel fiddling with his recording equipment and asking his interview subjects for help. Also useful, things like asking interview subjects for directions or advice on where to park even though those could be Googled. It also helps to be introduced by someone. I was fortunate to connect with Cherry Waddell of the New Hope Memorial Flight 242 Committee who was integral to my meeting with survivors and family members.
Get the best sound for the type of story.
I used an Audiotechnica 8010 omnidirectional mic throughout (mostly I paired it with a Sony PCM M-10 but I also had a Zoom H4N as backup). This was important for this project, since I knew that I’d need to be part of it and I also wanted to get location sounds. Unlike non-narrated radio stories where the interviewer needs to become a mime, I loosened up on reacting to the interview subjects and often pointed the mic at myself. It’s still funny to hear my reactions like affirming mmm’s and incomplete sentences. But that’s what happened! I tried to record interviews in quiet spaces but there were still noisy toddlers and determined dishwashers that wouldn’t be silent. In the end, I think all those extraneous sounds help tell the story. Recording on airplanes was a challenge, especially with flight attendants enforcing the no-electronics-during-takeoff rule, but I still managed to secretly record. I had a great foundation on this issue (and lots more) from my radio guru Rob Rosenthal at the Transom Story Workshop.
Gordon and Will Coley
Listen to yourself tell the story.
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