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The On Being Project

Selecting Audio for “African American. Woman. Leader.”

I’d like to talk about some of the journalistic, editorial, and aesthetic considerations that go into using audio clips in Speaking of Faith. We’re not a documentary program, so we use clips sparingly to keep the focus on the conversation. When we do use these elements, there are a number of reasons:

  • To illustrate or cap off a theme that was just discussed by Krista and her guest;
  • To elaborate on something that was implied in a conversational moment (e.g., a passage in a book written by the guest)
  • To cover something that was cut from the interview (e.g., part of a question or answer, the explanation of a concept, a reference to some historical event, etc.);
  • To break up a block of interview that goes on too long; or
  • To add something worthwhile to an interview that’s been cut relatively short.

We had a couple of needs to satisfy in this program with Vashti McKenzie, and created room for two audio clips. One, we decided, had to be of Bishop McKenzie preaching.

I have to admit that I was breathless after watching her Easter sermon at Trinity. There’s this hypnotic build-up to a series of emotional crescendoes. She’s like an orchestral conductor at work. The most powerful, moving, and provocative parts of her sermon are, inevitably, the ones where she reaches those crescendoes. You can’t take your eyes off her. She’s forceful when she’s up there. And it’s tempting to use a clip of that moment in her sermon to illustrate her style of preaching.
The problem is that to go from an intimate interview with Krista to the middle of a highly emotional sermon is jarring to the ear. Worse still, there’s the danger of taking powerful preaching out of its context, turning it into a sound bite, sensationalizing it, pushing people away from it, and hurting the people who are closest to it. That’s exactly what happened earlier this year with the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not something we want to contribute to.
Because of time constraints, we are looking for a quick snapshot, but a snapshot that tells a story. I use the word “snapshot” deliberately because of its ties to our journalistic cousin: photojournalism. Is it possible to tell the story of a complex issue in one photograph? Is it possible to capture the essence of a human being in one portrait? Maybe, maybe not. But to stretch the analogy further, think of a great photograph accompanying a great article — sometimes it tells its own story. Sometimes a photo or an image layers itself onto the richness of the text, helping to give it concrete shape.
In various sermons we considered excerpting from, there were positives and negatives. In one, she’s putting out this intense call to a young generation to rise up and be heard, yet ironically her own voice is drowned out by an unfortunate echo, especially during moments of high intensity. Her Easter sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ is powerful, but does it work as well with an outside audience as it does to members of the church? Are there stories that are short enough and self-contained enough to illustrate her socially conscious preaching and her pulpit personality?
We had trouble isolating something like that from that Easter sermon. And really, because it touches upon the Jeremiah Wright controversy (something we delve into in the second half of the program), we couldn’t use it at the end of the first half, where we had some time for a clip.
We needed to cap off the idea of her social activism, and the reference to “merry-go-round agendas” in her National Cathedral sermon seemed like a great fit. Plus, she talks about Moses, who was so important in abolitionist theology. She’s also strong and forceful, and the audio quality is good.
It’s not an exact science, and we do have a lot of back and forth for elements like these, listening to a clip by itself, listening to it with the preceding segment, talking it over, asking ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and going forward until we’re all satisfied that the clip has added something to the interview rather than detract from the Krista Tippett conversation that we all enjoy.

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