Wednesday, August 12, 2009

John: A Failed Interview

I recently had an idea to start a podcast on this blog. I thought, "I could get a nice digital recorder, have homeless people tell me their stories, put the whole thing to music, and voice-over some narration like "This American Life" or "All Things Considered". It'll be a big hit!" Because I also interview people for my work at uwemp, it seemed like a win-win. A new recorder, a new feature for the blog. It sounded like a good idea at the time anyway.

I spent several months writing articles for Demand Studios to raise the money for the recorder and my great technological leap forward. After countless articles and rewrites I finally have enough money. Today is the day. I go to Radio Shack, pick the one I want (I had already spent several hours comparison shopping online), and walk out with my head held high. On the way to my car I realize that I need to go to the bathroom. I made a b-line for the Wendy's across the parking lot.

Who do I see waiting for me outside the door? John. Scraggly hair, mustache, blue sweatshirt; he's asking for another dollar to even out his change for a double stacker inside. "YES!" I think to myself, "Providence has struck! I've only had my new recorder for a few minutes and I will have a chance to try it out."

I offer to take John inside and buy him what he wants with the little cash I have left-over. He graciously accepts. We chit chat for a little while in line. When he gets his food; we sit down, and I rip into my package like a spoiled brat on Christmas. I couldn't get the batteries into the machine fast enough. He told me a little about himself as we sat. He had originally come from Ann Arbor Michigan and had lived in the San Fernando Valley for a while. He was talkative and asked me questions about myself.

I answered politely, but was waiting until I could record the conversation before I asked him about the 'good stuff.' I tested the recorder and it worked beautifully. I told him that I like to learn and share people's stories. I asked him if it was okay with him if I asked him some questions and he said it was. Then I asked him if I could record the conversation and his demeanor immediately changed.

"I really just need to be walking. I don't like to sit in one place for too long."

That was it, conversation over. He finished his meal, I walked with him out the door, and we said our goodbyes. The end.

In the hours since this colossal failure I have begun to examine what went wrong. A number of things might have incited his abrupt departure: 1. Maybe John was genuinely asking for cash, and not a meal, and felt my coziness with him was an intrusion. I doubt this, as he was rather friendly in the beginning (though maybe he felt that he was obligated to be). 2. Maybe he was comfortable talking about his story, but not having it recorded. If a complete stranger asked to record stories from my life I would most certainly turn him down. 3. Maybe things just moved too quickly, and he felt like I was trying to manipulate or get something out of him. 4. Maybe his reasons for becoming homeless, or something else in his past were too shameful, painful, or otherwise private to discuss in such an unanticipated way. 5. Maybe he just didn't like sitting in one place for too long.

In any case, I hope this will prove to be a useful lesson for me. Because I don't think it would be ethical to record their stories without their consent, I think that I will need to build more rapport before offering to record them. I will probably need to have a substantial trusting relationship with them first. That is happening with the people I know from around the church, it will just take more time and patience. I certainly don't want people to feel used. I enjoy their stories and want other people to learn about them. Perhaps I shouldn't try recording them at all.

I welcome your thoughts or comments about these concerns. I fully acknowledge that I have plenty to learn. Speaking of which, while trying to download what little I had recorded to my computer, I accidentally erased all of the files. Alas, the podcast that will never be.


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