From the Archive: Sticking your microphone where it doesn’t belong

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward long-buried profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. In this installment, we blow the dust off a piece from 2009 that addresses the words every radio producer dreads: “Put that thing away.”

Whether investigating fraud or documenting people’s lives, knowing when to push for more access and when to back off is a dangerous tightrope. Asking timid, polite questions in a soundproof booth rarely makes for great radio. Neither does barging through someone’s front door and immediately asking personal, embarrassing questions. Jen Nathan was a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies when she got her first painful lesson in the balancing act of persistence versus patience.

By Jen Nathan

On a glorious fall weekend in 2007, 30 eager Salt students descended upon Machias, Maine. We were given one day to find a story in a sleepy Down East town that most of us had never been to. My group spent the day yard sale hopping. We were looking forward to a charming afternoon full of knickknacks and coffee talk, discovering who sold what and why. When we saw an ad in the back of the tiny Machias newspaper proclaiming, “Final Moving Sale. Everything Must Go. Lots of Firewood,” we knew we’d found a story. No one in Maine got rid of extra firewood in September.

We picked up a tattered photocopied map from the gas station and headed out of town. Few houses dotted the narrow rural route that led us to an old brown-shingled house. Two tables overflowing with coffee mugs and ceramic figurines greeted us in the front yard. “Hello?” we called, hoping to meet the person who was in such a rush to move out of this big old house.

The front door creaked and a man who looked to be in his 70s emerged. His name was Cedric Chambers and he was eager to sell us the contents of his home. When we asked why he was moving, Cedric sighed, leaned forward, and told us about his longtime friend John Gallagher, who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and was facing it alone at the age of 85. John’s wife had passed away years before, and his four grown children lived all across the country. Cedric, a former nurse, was going to move three hours down the coast of Maine to care for John.

Cedric spoke eloquently and openly about his decision to help John, a man he’d known for 45 years. Cedric was a lifelong bachelor who played beano and drank beer with John and his wife, Florence, when they were younger. They’d drifted apart over the years, but when Cedric heard that Florence was ill, he brought her food and stayed by her side. During her final days, Florence asked Cedric to always look after John.

In the decade after her death, Cedric and John kept in constant contact with nightly phone calls, helping each other balance their checkbooks and refill their prescriptions. Now, the phone calls would be replaced with home-cooked meals. And without the three-hour drive separating them, Cedric could drive John to his growing number of doctor’s appointments. No one knew how long John had to live, but Cedric was confident that three square meals a day could keep him healthy for months or even years. As John cheerfully ambled between the yard sale and the kitchen, it was clear that these two old friends had found a family in one another.

I knew that their unique solution to aging alone would make for a compelling story, especially as John faced the end of his life. I asked Cedric and John if I could document the next few months of their time together. They were puzzled by my request, but agreed to let me come back the next morning as they packed up the truck for the big move. They asked me to give Cedric a few days to settle in before visiting them again. I hesitated, knowing that moving Cedric’s boxes into the house could be an important moment, but decided to abide by their request and come back at the end of the week.

A few days later, I was rewarded with five hours of great tape. They were eager to tell me how their lives were changing, now that Cedric was there to help John. “Every night is a square meal, regardless,” John bragged. “No more SpaghettiOs out of a can for me.” When I asked about John’s health, Cedric beamed and told me how well he was caring for his friend. “It might be me who goes first,” he suggested. I pushed further, asking John if he’d begun preparing for the end of his life. He raised his head and proudly described how he’d picked out his casket, written his obituary, and paid for his funeral.

As the sky grew darker, it felt like the right time to tell them more about how I wanted to tell their story. I explained that I’d need to come back several more times and that I’d like to tag along when they went grocery shopping and to the doctor’s office. “Why us?” John asked. He didn’t understand why I wanted to record so much of their lives. I explained that their story was an example of a larger problem—an aging population growing old hundreds of miles away from their families. I told them that their story could inspire people in similar situations to care for one another. Cedric said okay and John gave a cautious nod. I started to pack up my gear.

Then Cedric asked, “Do you have to be here when John has bad days?” I felt a small burst of panic. I knew my answer could change everything between us. I said, “Um, no, not all the time. I don’t have to be here if you don’t want me to.” This was a mistake. I often look back on that moment and know I did the wrong thing. I should have told them that I needed to be there for those difficult moments. I should I have explained that this was the only way I could tell their story with honesty and integrity. Instead, I stammered and backed off.

I naively assumed that I could spend more time with John and Cedric, build a stronger level of trust, and then ask again to be there when John was sick. After all, I was practically a stranger. Why should they let me into this deeply personal chapter of their lives? Pushing for access can be risky. I didn’t want them to shut me out altogether, so I decided to pull back a little and let them breathe. It was a novice mistake, one I won’t make again.

Journalist Janet Malcolm once wrote, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Why did I want to bring my microphone to a dying man’s bedside anyway? John certainly hadn’t asked me to document the last months of his life, so what was my motivation? Yes, I was inspired by their dedication to each other. I truly did believe that their story could encourage others to care for the elderly people in their lives. But to be honest, I had additional goals in mind.

I wanted to produce a compelling story that would touch people and make them think. I also wanted my name attached to it. My group had agreed to let me follow John and Cedric for my major project. Now I had to make these decisions on my own. As much as I didn’t want my ego to have anything to do with John and Cedric’s life, there it was, tugging at my microphone—a gremlin that urged me not to be straightforward with them out of fear that they would turn me away.

This is a conundrum that documentary producers encounter over and over again.” A documentary is not a news story or even a feature piece. The people we follow deserve to know what we need from them—how many hours of their time, when and where we want to follow them. After all, it is their choice whether or not they want to have their lives documented. Yes, honesty is the key to making that possible. But should we warn them of every uncomfortable moment, every intimate question we may ask? Where do we draw the line and how long do we wait to ask for more?

Dan Collison of Long Haul Productions has taken his microphone into dozens of intense, intimate situations. Along with producer Elizabeth Meister, he has asked real people to share their experiences with topics as personal as homelessness, electroshock therapy, and transracial adoption. I asked him how he handles the situation.

Dan told me about James, a 38-year-old ex-felon whom he spent three months interviewing as James transitioned out of prison and into a halfway house in Chicago. Dan knew it was important for the listener to know about James’ life of drugs, gangs, and theft in order to fully understand how far the man had come since leaving prison. “James flinched a little at first,” Dan said, but by this time, Dan had developed a level of trust and comfort with James that made this conversation easier. “I would not have necessarily asked him that question right after meeting him.”

After some coaxing, James described his previous life of crime, as well as his newfound dedication to change his life, with an honesty that garnered the piece an Edward R. Murrow Award and a Third Coast Public Service Award. Dan credits that initial trust as the foundation of a strong relationship and ultimately a strong piece. Dan says, “The bottom line is that our characters seem to understand that what we choose to put in or leave out is for the good of the story, even if there is a certain level of discomfort with it.”

Tena Rubio, senior producer and host of National Radio Project’s Making Contact, told me about a time when she had to decide when and how to push for more information. Tena received a call from a woman named Grace whose daughter Gina had been diagnosed with cancer while serving a life sentence at the Central California Women’s Facility Prison. Although doctors confirmed that the cancer was treatable, Gina did not receive the care she needed and died in prison at the age of 29.

Grace wanted to share her daughter’s story, but she wasn’t eager to tell Tena what Gina’s life was like before she was incarcerated. Tena knew this would be a challenging conversation for a grieving mother who would rather not tell a stranger why her daughter ended up in jail. Tena remembers thinking, “I needed this woman to trust me if I was going to get the real story and be able to tell it honestly.”

After confirming the facts of the case, Tena flew to Southern California to speak with Grace. Tena knew it was essential to understand the circumstances of Gina’s arrest, but decided to respect Grace’s wishes not to talk about it during their first meeting.

After a series of long and emotional interviews, Grace opened up and shared the details of Gina’s arrest. Tena believes her strategy of building trust and waiting to ask Grace the most difficult questions worked. “Of course, we don’t always have that luxury to wait for someone to open up to us,” Tena acknowledges, “but fortunately, this time I did.”

I hoped I would have the luxury of getting to know John and Cedric better before asking to be there when the cancer worsened. When I met John, he was mobile and active. Other than an occasional deep cough, he seemed healthy. I naively assumed I would have weeks or even months to develop a trusting relationship with John—and before he became ill. I wasn’t prepared for our next phone call.

“John’s not well,” Cedric said gravely. I expressed my sympathy and asked when I could come back. Cedric quickly changed the subject and offered to put John on the phone. John’s words were slurred and his chest rattled with each breath. I asked him when I could come back, and Cedric took back the phone. “John’s sick,” he repeated, “Now’s not a good time.” I immediately regretted the conversation we’d had only a few days earlier, when John’s health seemed so robust.

I told Cedric how important it was to document what he was doing for John. Cedric said, “No, I’d really rather not.” I tried to convince Cedric that John’s story was important and that I needed to be there to witness it, even during these difficult moments. Cedric said no again. Finally, I offered to bring John some ice cream for banana splits, a dish he had described in detail during our last interview. “Okay, he likes strawberry,” Cedric said cautiously. “I’ll be there in an hour,” I replied. I hung up the phone, feeling shaken and embarrassed. It seemed shameful to demand entry into such a difficult part of someone’s life, but I had convinced Cedric to let me in.

After a frantic drive up Route 295, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. John’s mobile home had become a hospital ward, with a narrow metal bed pushed up against the wall. John was naked to the waist. Cedric sat on a plastic commode feeding him mashed potatoes on a quivering spoon. I reached for my microphone and Cedric shook his head no. I leaned forward in my chair, left my microphone in its bag, and watched.

Once John had eaten all he could, Cedric took the half-full dish into the kitchen. I said, “These past few days must have been so hard for you.” Cedric nodded. “Can I ask you about it?” I said tentatively. Cedric sighed and then nodded. I took out my microphone and Cedric told me how John’s health had declined much faster than anyone had anticipated. Then John moaned, and I moved toward his bed. Cedric watched me warily but didn’t ask me to put my microphone away. I recorded a number of tender and telling moments: Cedric shifting John on the bed, whispering comforting words, giving him his medicine. John let out a deep, gurgling cough that seemed to go on for minutes. I winced and looked away but kept my microphone by John’s mouth until Cedric wiped away his phlegm.

After an hour, Cedric said it was time for me to leave. I didn’t want to go, fearing that he wouldn’t let me back again, but I felt I had to respect his wishes. I made my way toward the door and asked Cedric if I could come back tomorrow. He said okay, so I pressed further, asking if I could be here on Friday when the hospice nurse came. Cedric agreed and I thanked him for his time, being sure to tell him how much I appreciated his willingness to share his story.

I didn’t see Cedric again for nine days. He called to cancel each of our scheduled meetings. He wouldn’t give me a reason. Finally he said, “No more visits. No more interviews.” Should I have shown up on his front door anyway, microphone in hand? I felt guilty and uneasy, so I waited. A few days later, I received a terse message, “This is Cedric. John passed away this morning. Thank you.” Click. I called back and no one picked up. I tried again and left a message asking if I could come to the funeral to pay my respects. No reply. I called the next day. Nothing.

As journalists and documentarians, we often enter people’s lives with little more than guarded permission. Even enthusiastic subjects can shy away or deny access when the circumstances of their lives change. Unfortunately, these are the very moments that make stories compelling. You can’t tell the story of the death of a close friend unless you’re there to witness it, or at least the days leading up to it. A documentarian needs to be there for every heartbreaking moment, no matter how uncomfortable it makes everyone involved.

In the end, Cedric allowed me one more interview after John’s death. He told me about how difficult the last week of John’s life was, going into detail about some of the most challenging moments. He answered all of my questions that night. He told me how his life would be different now and what this experience had taught him. Then he told me I couldn’t come back again. He said he was just too tired.

I had enough tape to complete the piece, but did I do the story a disservice by not being there for the most trying moments? It’s difficult not to think back to every misstep, every time I should have stayed longer and recorded more, or left earlier so as to not tire them out. One thing seems certain to me: I should have been clearer with them from the beginning about what I would need from them at the end.

I had no idea how quickly their lives would change and neither did they. A more experienced documentarian might have danced through the minefields of John’s final days with far more ease, but I doubt someone with more experience would have learned as much as I did. I now know the importance of being upfront with the people I document from the very beginning, even when it’s not what they want to hear.

Bringing our microphones into intimate situations requires both strength and honesty—characteristics we must develop with time and practice. There’s no way to know for sure when we’ve pushed too far or held back too long. “Be genuine, be honest. Let people talk and really listen,” Tena Rubio urges. “You’d be surprised how many people want to tell their story.” Our only choice is to grab our microphones and our courage and ask.

Jen Nathan Orris is a writer, editor, and audio producer living in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She is Managing Editor of Edible Asheville and host of Growing Local, a weekly radio series and podcast supported by Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. She is Contributing Editor at WNC Magazine and writes for several magazines and newspapers.

The piece that she produced about this story, “A Square Meal, Regardless” was published by Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2008. Since the story’s production, Cedric Chambers has passed away.