CMN 373

Documentary Production: Audio Documentary

Fall 2007


Dr. Daniel Makagon                                       

Office: SAC 596

Office Hours: TH 4:30-5:30

Phone: 773-325-7376                                     


Course Description and Objectives


In recent years an explosion in the production and accessibility of documentary work has created an unprecedented interest and expansion of the documentary form in nearly all sectors of public life. The increased creation and availability of audio documentary work largely stems from two important factors. First, a proliferation of low-cost digital technologies has virtually democratized the production and editing of audio recordings. Digital sound recording equipment can be purchased for less than $500. Armed with a relatively inexpensive minidisk recorder and microphone, a person can record interviews and sounds, and edit them into a broadcast quality documentary with one of many low-cost (or free) software programs. Second, there are more media outlets willing to air documentary programming. National Public Radio’s (NPR) Morning Edition and All Things Considered have been joined by a variety of radio shows (e.g., This American Life) and Internet sites (e.g., that feature audio documentaries. Taken together, the steady decrease in production costs and the increase in media outlets have helped create conditions that allow people with a range of interests, experiences, and skills to make and disseminate their own work.


Through practical application and the exploration of cultural reporting and documentary approaches to communication, we will consider questions that surround the interpretation and representation of cultural experience. We will analyze and create audio documentaries in an effort to understand better a significant form of storytelling. There are three central learning objectives that will guide us through the course: (1) we will develop an understanding of the techniques people use to observe, (2) we will develop an understanding of the aesthetic and structural choices people make to explain what they do, and (3) we will use this knowledge to inform the production of our audio documentary projects.


Required Materials


Jessica Abel and Ira Glass, Radio: An Illustrated Guide


All other course readings are accessible via a password protected Web site. You are required to print each day’s reading and bring the article with you to class.


Blank minidisks (74 minutes each) available at various corporate electronics outlets or on-line ( usually has very good prices).


Multiple blank CD-Rs and DVD-Rs to store your projects during production and after production. (Note: It is highly recommended that you purchase a portable hard drive with a firewire and usb connection if you are interested in media production more generally. This will ensure that projects can be saved without having to separate files, will allow you to work at home and in the Media Center, and will be a valuable asset if you continue to work on media projects in future classes or jobs.)


Course Assignments


Attendance and class participation                                                                                                 10%

Reading Quizzes                                                                                                                            15%

Hearing Places Assignment                                                                                                             05%

Audio Documentary Preparation                                                                                                     20%

Audio Documentary (8-10 minutes)                                                                                                50%


You are required to complete the reading assignments before you attend class. This will lead to more fruitful discussion.


Hearing Places Assignment: For this assignment you will work with a partner to record and edit a 4-minute soundscape recording of an intersection in Lincoln Park. You will record 8 straight minutes of sound with the microphone directed at the same space. You will then edit that recording down to 4 minutes. The final project will be uploaded to (See assignment sheet in the folder where you download course readings for a complete description of this assignment.)


Research Process:


(1) Each class member will work with a partner. We will select intersections for each pair.


(2) Record your sounds. Document the starting and ending time, where the microphone was placed, and the equipment you used. Perhaps, document other interesting things that were happening at that intersection.


(3) Edit and mix your piece. Burn it to a CD. Listen to the CD on various sound systems (home audio, car, and boombox). Fix anything that doesn’t sound good.


Grading Criteria:


Your soundscape recording should be 4 minutes long. Your recordings should be clear (free from distracting background noise and the mic should be in a good position to record the interviewees and ambient sounds). Basic edits should enhance the recording.


Audio Documentary: You can work alone or with a small group (1-2 other classmates) to record an 8-10 minute audio documentary. The documentary should feature interviews, ambient sounds, and other techniques to help create an engaging story. (See assignment sheet in the folder where you download course readings for a complete description of this assignment, including percentages for each graded portion of your pre-production work.) You are encouraged, but not required, to contribute an audio documentary that uses a specific Chicago neighborhood as a starting point for your story.


Reading quizzes will be multiple-choice. Our reading load in this class is light, since the course is production heavy. We will spend a bulk of our time listening to audio pieces and working in the lab on our production work. You should expect a quiz for every assigned reading.


Course Policies


Promptness is expected as a general rule. If you are consistently late to class your grade will be negatively affected (between 10 and 20 minutes late will constitute ½ absence and later than 20 minutes will constitute an absence).


Attendance and Active Participation are expected and required. If you miss more than two class sessions (which is the equivalent of 2 weeks of classes), you will receive an “F’ in the class (even if the absences are excused). Missing this many class sessions (more than 20% of the term) undermines the integrity of the classroom experience. If you miss this much class because of illness or a family emergency, you should meet with the Dean of Students to discuss withdrawal options. (Leaving at the break will also constitute a full absence.)


All assignments are due on assigned days and in class. There will be NO MAKE-UPS. Documented illness or documented emergencies are the only exception to this policy. Changes in work schedules, personal celebrations (e.g., birthdays), assignments due in other classes, etc. are NOT considered to be legitimate reasons for missing deadlines or class meetings. If you miss a quiz and have documentation for your absence then you will take the quiz on the next date you attend class. Similarly, if you have an excused absence for a class session when you would turn in a project then you can give me the CD on the next date you attend class. (Note: If you will be missing a class because of a religious holiday, let me know in writing at least two weeks before the holiday so we can make arrangements to make up missed work.)


Students with disabilities should provide me with documentation from the Office of Students with Disabilities.


If you have a cellular phone, turn it off during class sessions. Plagiarism will be discussed below but for now you should note that all cell phones must be put away during quizzes and you should not be sending or reading text messages during class sessions.


You must make sure your preferred email address listed in Campus Connect is correct and make sure emails from me will pass through any spam blockers. I will only send email to you from


Plagiarism becomes tempting when students feel pressured. When in doubt, quote. If you are quoting somebody directly or paraphrasing then you need to properly cite your source(s). You can do this in an audio project by explicitly identifying the person you are quoting or paraphrasing and the source of that quote (e.g., “As Chicago mayor Richard Daley noted in a city council meeting last October, ‘Rental inspections have improved the quality of Chicago’s housing stock and created safer living environments for the poor.’”). If you are writing a paper then you should list the information within quotation marks and then cite the proper information. When paraphrasing, just cite the proper information. Never quote others to the point where your ideas become indistinguishable from your source's ideas. We will read a variety of materials that teach us how to construct narratives and produce our own projects, I will be available to discuss problems with and possibilities for your projects, and DePaul’s policy on academic integrity offers useful insights for college-level ( Given all of these resources there is no reason to plagiarize. If you do plagiarize, you will automatically receive a grade of “F” in this class. Moreover, the Academic Affairs office will be contacted.

Grade Scale


A = 93-100, A- = 90-92, B+ = 88-89, B = 83-87, B- = 80-82, C+ = 78-79, C = 73-77, 

C- = 70-72, D = 60-69, F = 0-59 (I do not assign incompletes)