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Youth Portraits Resources

We have developed two educational resources around the Youth Portraits Series: the Youth Portraits Study Guide and the Recording and Interviewing Tutorial.


Study Guide

Teachers can use the Youth Portraits stories to help other young people explore their sense of self. The 60-page study guide is more than just a prescriptive curriculum with lesson objectives and end-of-chapter tests; it invites students to relate to the narrators and learn from their stories.

You can download the study guide as PDF file using the link below (please note that the file is 2.8MB and may take some time to download):

Youth Portraits Study Guide [PDF file]

After you've used the study guide, please share your thoughts with us by filling out our study guide evaluation form.

The guide was produced by Stacy Abramson out of WNYC. It is a collaboration between Sound Portraits, WNYC, the New York City Department of Education, and Friends of Island Academy, and was made possible with funding from the Open Society Institute.

To request a print version of the study guide, for copies of the series on CD, or for more information about the guide, please e-mail Rebecca Weinstein at

Recording and Interviewing Tutorial

Learn the Youth Portraits techniques for arranging interviews, making broadcast-quality recordings, and getting good tape. The "Taping Tips" handbook used by Youth Portraits participants is divided into four sections:

  1. Before the interview
  2. Setting up the interview
  3. Getting good tape
  4. Staying organized

You'll also need some basic recording equipment: For recording, we used a Sony MZR700 MiniDisc recorder (approx. $200) and a Shure SM-58 microphone (approx. $100). Then we edited the pieces on an iMac using Digidesign's ProTools Free editing software, which you can download for free from Digidesign's Web site.

Before the Interview

  • Prepare your interviewee. When you set up an appointment, you should explain to the person you are interviewing what the Youth Portraits project is. Tell them how much time the interview will take -- around an hour or so. Also, be sure to ask if it's okay to use excerpts of their interview in your radio piece and on the Web.

  • Prepare your questions. A few days before the interview, write up a list of questions. Bring your list with you, and go over it on the way there. The more familiar you are with your questions, the easier it will be for you to ask them in a conversational style. You want to sound natural, not stiff and formal.

  • Prepare your equipment. Before you head off, make sure your equipment is working. Record yourself talking into the mic for a minute, then play it back. And be sure to bring more supplies than you'll need: at least four MiniDiscs and two extra AA batteries for every interview.

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Setting up at the interview

  • Find a quiet place. Always conduct interviews in the quietest possible place. A living room or bedroom with lots of carpeting is best. Large rooms that have an echo sound terrible. Kitchens sound terrible because they tend to have a a lot of reflective surfaces. Turn off anything that is making noise -- you can even ask your subject if it's okay to unplug an appliance if it's making a sound). Close the door, too. Never record interviews when there's a radio or television on in the background, because the tape will be impossible to edit. When you're visiting a subject and trying to decide where to do the interview, explain what you're looking for sound-wise. You might want to say something like, "This is radio. The room doesn't have to look nice, just sound nice. Even a closet is fine."

  • Hook up the microphone. Connect your microphone to the jack with the red band around it -- the hole farthest to the right, next to the battery cover. Keep the microphone about five inches (one spread-out hand's length) away from the mouth of whoever is talking. You may feel strange getting so close to the person who you are interviewing, but don't worry, you'll get used to it. Never put the microphone down on a table when doing an interview. Always hold it in your hand.

  • Wear headphones. Always wear headphones when recording. If anything sounds weird while you're recording, something is definitely wrong. Stop right there and figure out the problem. There's no point in proceeding. The tape will be unusable.

  • Recording. To record, slide the red RECORD button to the right. Be patient -- the machine will take a couple seconds to get going. Always double-check that you're actually recording. You should see a tiny black REC box and a spinning disc icon in the display and sound should be coming through your headphones. If the sound is too loud or too quiet, adjust headphone volume using the + and - buttons on the machine. Don't use the remote control on the headphone cord. It could mess the machine up.

  • Always hit END SEARCH before you record. This fast-forwards the disc past everything you've already recorded. If you don't do this, you might accidentally record over interviews you've already done. Don't accidentally erase your old interviews! Even if you're using a brand new disk, press END SEARCH anyway, just to stay in the habit.

  • Playing back. The easiest way to play stuff back is to press END SEARCH; use the menu button to scroll through your tracks, and when you reach the right one, press PLAY. If you want to fast-forward to the middle of a track, press and hold down FAST FORWARD until you get where you want to go; if you want to go backwards within a track, press and hold down REWIND.

  • Test your equipment -- again. Always make sure that you're actually recording when you think you are. It's a good idea to make a 10-second test recording at the beginning of an interview and play it back to yourself to make sure everything is okay. Then you can start recording again with peace of mind!

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Getting good tape

  • Get a spoken okay. Tell your interviewee that parts of this interview might appear on the radio or on the Web. Ask if this is okay with them. Tell them they don't have to use their last name if that makes them uncomfortable.

  • Make people comfortable. Remember that people are often nervous about being recorded. Try to act as normal as possible.  Now is a good time to explain that everything will be edited, and that you won't use the whole interview in your story -- only parts.

  • Roll, roll, roll. You can never have too much tape. Start your machine rolling right away. Make it a practice never to turn off or pause your recorder. Leave it running as much as possible.

  • Have intervewees identify themselves. Always start the interview by asking the subject to identify himself. Say something like, "Who are you, how old are you, what do you do?" Or whatever is appropriate for that particular interview.

  • Listen. Look your subject in the eye. Stay interested and engaged.

  • Help the interviewee be more descriptive. When you need your subject to describe something, it often helps to ask them to "paint a picture" with words.

  • Milk the good stuff. Only a small portion of what you record will make it into your final story. So when you hear something dynamite -- something you have a strong feeling you'll use in the final piece -- stick with it. Have the subject talk about it as much as possible. If a good story is told with a bad ending, say to the subject, "This is radio and everything will be edited. Would you please tell the story again?" When you're on to good stuff, milk it; if it's boring, move on.

  • Ask emotional questions. Questions like "How does this make you feel?" often makes for good tape. Don't be afraid to ask them. Cuts with a lot of emotional content work very well on radio.

  • Be yourself. You can laugh with the person you are interviewing or even cry with them. Real moments are the best moments. If your interviewee is shy or reserved, try telling them something personal about yourself. It will probably make them feel much more comfortable and help them open up to you too.

  • Get stories. Encourage your subject to tell you stories. For example, if your subject tells you that she used to get into fights with her father all the time, say, "Tell me about one fight that stands out in your mind." Make sure your subjects tell their stories in chronological sequence, from beginning to end.

  • Don't just sit there. Get people to give you tours and use props. If your grandmother is talking about the house she grew up in, ask if she has any photographs that you can look at together while recording.

  • Narrate the action. Your listeners can't see what's happening. Get your subjects to explain what's going on -- "Right now we're opening up the photo album."

  • Don't be afraid to rerecord. If your subject is reading a document (like a letter or poem), make sure you get the whole thing. If the subject makes any sort of mistake or garbles words, have them go back a little and try it again -- everything can be edited. Make sure you are completely happy with the reading. Feel free to do it as many times as necessary.

  • Be curious and honest and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

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Staying organized

  • Record audio notes. After the interview, record audio notes. Describe what the person was wearing, what they looked like. Paint a picture of the place you were in. Talk about the mood of the interview, how you felt at various points. If things went differently than you expected, describe how. Talk about how you're feeling now that the interview is finished.

  • Keep track of your tracks. Each time you stop and start the machine you create a new "track," just like the tracks on a CD. Keep a list of what is on every single track (e.g., Track 1, "10 second recording test"; Track 2, "Interview with Mom"; Track 3, "Ambience from D train.")

  • Check the time. A blank MiniDisc has room for about one hour and ten minutes of sound. Before you start recording, see much time you have left.

  • Check your batteries. Each AA battery is good for about two hours of recording. Keep an eye on the power indicator in the top right corner of the display and change batteries frequently! It's better to throw away a battery that's only half-used than to have the machine die out right in the middle of a great interview.

  • Don't worry if the machine goes off. The machine powers off after 10 seconds if there's nothing being recorded onto it or nothing being played back. Press END SEARCH to start up again.

  • Store things carefully. Pack up your equipment neatly. If you just throw everything in a bag, your microphone cords will get tangled and your recorder will break. Always pack the recorder in a pouch, and pack that pouch in the padded carrying case.

  • Label your finished discs. When you finish a disc, immediately label it with the name of the subject and the date of the interview. If you want to, you can even open up a couple of fresh discs and create the labels before you go into the interview, so you can move quickly. Guard your finished tapes with your life!

  • Write Protect your discs. Write protecting your discs prevents you from accidentally recording over stuff. Here's how to do it: When you're done with a disc, push the tab at the top all the way to the left. A write-protected disc will look like it has a little hole at the top.

  • Treat your machine gently. It's a lot more fragile than a Walkman, so don't jostle or shake it while playing or recording. Never force a MiniDisc into the recorder. If it doesn't slide in easily, it's facing the wrong way. If you're having trouble, pull the disc out, look for the arrow on the disc, then slip it back into the player in that direction

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- Ariel Corporan | Bernard Skelton | Angie Sanabria | Yovani Whyte | Andre Vaughn -
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