By Anastasia Johnson
[Phone starts ringing.]
ANASTASIA 1: I’m Anastasia Johnson. This is Telling True Stories in Sound. And there’s a backstory to how this audio piece came about. I phone my friend, Jason. It’s usually him who I call when I’m looking to vent.
Jason: Hello! I’m actually not free. I’m very expensive.
Anastasia: I do not have time for these jokes!
Jason: What’s going on? I was just helping my girl.
Anastasia: I lost a hugely, wildly important audio file and I don’t know what to do!
ANASTASIA 2: I’m talking about a Zoom interview I did with husband and wife Hüseyin and Nesrin Usta. They live in Turkey and as students in medical school were imprisoned for political advocacy during the 1980 Turkish Coup d’État. They rarely talk about this time in their lives but somehow, some way I actually got them to. On tape I then proceeded to lose.
Anastasia: I don’t know! I tried to save it as a zoom recording, which I do all the time for interviews and it just didn’t work.
Jason: That’s not ok. That’s not okay.
Anastasia: It’s not okay.
ANASTASIA 3: How could it have been okay—after Nesrin, Hüseyin, their sons and I had gone through all the trouble of coordinating around our crazy schedules, the eight-hour time difference between New York and Turkey and, oh yeah, getting everything translated from Turkish to English. All that, then I sit down to start editing, only to realize the Zoom interview recording is nowhere to be found.
Spoiler: I never did recover the file but if one good thing came out of it, it’s the fact that we’ve landed here: on a piece about the untold stories of lost tape.
DANIEL 1: I am executive producer of a show called Radio Aambulante and in that capacity I went into this prison in Lima. I managed to smuggle a recorder inside in order to record some interviews.
ANASTASIA 4: This is Daniel Alarcón, who also happens to be my teacher. Daniel started recording a bunch of inside stories, but one man in particular had caught his interest. His name was Chocolatin. You could tell that Chocolatin had been an athlete who had fallen on hard times. He had been an acrobat on a national variety show aired on Colombian television, which led to this:
DANIEL 2: He had been married to another trapeze artist and their big sort of signature number was her swinging from one trapeze across the sky, and then him catching her. That’s what they did. One day they had a fight right before the show. They had like, you know, it’s like a typical marital, you know, spat. It was not it was not great, not the best frame of mind to go into a performance. They were doing their routine and when she spun and swung into his arms, he dropped her. And when he dropped her, she fell and she died.
ANASTASIA 5: It’s gut-wrenching, hearing the story of a man who wonders what could have been had he and his wife not fought that day. Daniel was there to take it all in— Chocolatin’s grappling with whether or not he was to blame and the endless other potential outcomes that could have been had there been some sort of safety net. It was then that Daniel realized…
DANIEL 3: I was looking down at my recorder and there was an error sign flashing. So I knew there was sound entering the recorder, what I didn’t know was whether it was being recorded on the SD card or not.
ANASTASIA 6: Here’s the thing about audio recorders. There’s a lot more to keep track of than you would think. On several models, you actually have to press the record button twice. Once to initiate the sound in your headphones and a second time to start the actual recording process. Then there’s the point of making sure that your SD card has been formatted properly. Miss out on either of these and there’s nothing you can do. It’s the latter that happened to Daniel.
DANIEL 4: I was just like, oh, no, oh, no, oh, no.
ANASTASIA 7: When Chocolatin left, Daniel took a deep breath and pressed play.
DANIEL 5: It just said, error, error error…and I pretty much knew that it was over at that point.
ANASTASIA 8: That’s one issue. It can happen to the most entry and professional level journalists in the field, so I’ve come to learn first hand and been told. But as audio journalism student, Rosemarie Miller, knows there can be other tape loss mishaps as well.
ROSEMARIE 1: Last semester during my audio class, we had to do a story based on something that scared us.
ANASTASIA 9: Rosemarie is a self-declared germaphobe and does not like pets. So naturally, as she chose to report at a local New York cat café. Aside from the cat germs…
ROSEMARIE 2: It all went well. I came out with reporting from the owner, from the guy at the desk and a few other workers and even people who were there. It was set, I just knew that this was going to be an amazing assignment.
ANASTASIA 10: At the same time, Rosemarie was also in a video class and had only one SD card for gathering her footage.
ROSEMARIE 3: When it’s time to go shoot my video project later in the week, of course, the SD card is full. Not thinking about the fact that I had another assignment on the SD card that I had not transferred to my external hard drive. I erased the whole SD card to shoot the following video.
ANASTASIA 11: She lost all her cat content and not unlike myself, didn’t realize until it came time to edit.
ROSEMARIE 4: The assignment is due the next day. I have a video for my video but I have no audio from the cat cafe and I wasn’t going to go back and redo the visit because to go to the cat cafe you have to pay $20 and I wasn’t about to pay $40.
ANASTASIA 12: In Rosemarie’s case, she had managed to snag a few recordings of the cats playing around on her phone. With her interviews gone, she ended up using those sound bites as ambient noises and wrote the story as this first person narrative.
The piece was a hit and all in all, Rosemarie was OK. Like it was OK for Daniel when he realized that echoey background noise kind of makes prison a shitty place to gather tape.
That’s another consideration—the sound going on behind the scenes, the echoes, the lagging, the skipping that requires special attention in audio. In particular in the age of COVID and Zoom recordings, Journalism Masters candidate, Soo Min Kim, knows this well too.
SOO 1: I made a long form audio story on the unregulated cosmetic industry in the US for my master’s project. There was a new variant spreading, so I had to switch the majority of my interviews to zoom interviews.
ANASTASIA 13: While Soo’s interviews themselves went smoothly, her experience with the technology did not.
SOO 2: I had so much voice echoing, background noise and like Zoom lag. Like it was all recorded on my files.
ANASTASIA 14: Soo’s audio was so bad that there was no saving it in editing. She had to redo all of her interviews, including one that had been over an hour long. But contacting her sources turned out better than Soo expected.
SOO 3: They were all super nice. They were like, yeah, we’ll do another one. I don’t think I sounded that good for my first interview, so let me actually prepare this time.
ANASTASIA 15: Just like that, Soo was also OK. I can say the same of myself too. It can be easy to romanticize the tape you record—to think that a lost recording was better than it actually was, or that a piece of tape was necessary when it wouldn’t have added to the story at all, really.
Then, there’s the side of losing tape that holds the lessons: the lesson of how to push the buttons to properly record, the importance of backup, double recording and so on. The bottom line is that of the many audio pieces I’ve come to produce, this has by far been the most challenging, most frustrating and most invaluable audio learning experience that I’ve had to date.