Ι recorded interviews for years without knowing the first thing about oral history theory – I operated on instinct, from a  sincere desire to know someone’s life story, or to find out how they felt about things they’d been through, places they’d worked, events they’d witnessed or taken part in. Turns out that’s about how it should be done anyway. As Sandro Portelli,  one of my favourite oral historians, says of his four-decade project recording the oral histories of Kentucky miners, They Say in Harlan County: “… the most important things I had to offer were my ignorance and my desire to learn.” My other asset was an ability to use a recorder, gained from working in radio.

So what’s the difference between doing oral history and radio interviews? Length, for one thing. Oral history interviews typically go for about two hours at a sitting. The most I’ve done with one person was 11 interviews, over a few months, taking a total of 22 hours to capture the colourful life story of an Italian migrant-turned-furniture tycoon, Nick Scali.

Archiving is another key aspect of oral history. I edit the interviews for diverse narratives such as a book or documentary, but I also preserve the unexpurgated interview, with a timed summary and/or printed transcript, usually in a public archive. This makes it a valuable resource for other researchers, now or in the future. In radio, what goes to air may be preserved in the broadcasting vaults, or increasingly, podcast online, but the out-takes are usually lost. That means no-one but the producer can assess whether material was used in context.

Which brings me to another big difference between radio interviews and oral history: collaboration. Oral historians are not the control freaks that radio journalists have to be. An oral historian facilitates, conducts what some say is not an interview at all but an ‘intersubjective dialogue’, and then defers to the interviewee in terms of what may or may not be used. A journalist assumes editorial responsibility, and while that should mean making ethical choices and not misrepresenting an interviewee, the latter can only hope this is so, as he or she usually hears the edited interview for the first time as a broadcast.

Lastly, oral history is raw material. An interview often contains wonderful gems, but to me they shine brightest when distilled into story.

SOME OF SIOBHAN’S ORAL HISTORY PROJECTS:

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN AND THE VIETNAM WAR: 50 interviews, with nurses, entertainers, journalists, volunteers and others who served in Vietnam, wives and mothers of soldiers, and women in the anti-war movement at home. Archive held HERE in the National Library of Australia

SNOWY MOUNTAINS SCHEME: 100-plus interviews of migrants of 25 nationalities and others who worked on this hydroelectric scheme (1949-’74), plus interviews with local residents, including those displaced by dams. Audio held HERE with manuscripts, photos and documents, at State Library of New South Wales.

COTTON INDUSTRY, NSW: Interviews with key figures, from industry, growers, environmental activism. Held at State Library NSW. Basis for my book, Cottoning On (Hale & Iremonger 1996). Contains unique information on distribution of irrigation water and flood management, still controversial issues in the Murray Darling River Basin in 2012.

ST MARY’S CATHEDRAL CHOIR, SYDNEY: Interviews with choirmasters David Russell, Fr Brian De Luca and Fr Ron Harden span 50 years of this significant choir. Commissioned by St Mary’s Cathedral.

CLIP HERE from MILLERS POINT ORAL HISTORY, recorded 2005/6, preserved in State Library of New South Wales.  This is the much-loved football broadcaster Frank Hyde, recalling how he unwittingly swam with a shark at the old Metal Wharf in this historic part of Sydney. Frank also sang me a lovely version of Danny Boy – at 90! (Thanks to Sarah Barns and Unguarded Moments for hosting clip.)

Full report on the Millers Point Project by my colleague Frank Heimans HERE.

 Historic Houses Trust of NSW2001-2004

Oral history audit across 13 historic properties, including Susannah Place in The Rocks.
Interviewer/ Director on short films including Horsley Homestead and MEROOGAL, the women’s house at Nowra.
Conducted four-hour archival interview with renowned architect HARRY SEIDLER, shortly before he died in 2006.
‘Frozen Music’, a DVD incorporating some of the interview, won a National Trust Heritage award in 2006
Meroogal
 Oral History HERE Sydney Olympic Park Authority 2004
Olympic Coordination Authority, 2000

Siobhan produced Twenty Twenty Hindsight, a 5x CD package on the environmental remediation of the 2000 Sydney Olympics site.
It is an industrial history of Homebush Bay. Years of chemical manufacturing had left 9 million tonnes of industrial waste, including the highly toxic dioxin. The remediation process initiated prior to the Games is still proceeding.
Twenty Twenty Hingsight
Samoan family, Claymore, NSW. (photo: Mayu Kanamori)
NSW Federation of Community Housing Associations, 1997-99
Oral histories of people in social housing across New South Wales – held at State Library NSW
Basis for ‘Shelter from the Storm’ book and ‘Estate of Mind’ radio documentary (ABC 1999)
NSW Dept of Land and Water Conservation 1991-1995: Dambuilders, Irrigation, Flood Management
NSW Dept of Public Works 1994
History of depth sounding