MCS 373/MCS 541/CMNS 509: Audio Documentary

Winter 2014 (Thursday 5:45-9PM)


Dr. Daniel Makagon                          

Office: 14 E Jackson, 18th Floor

Office Hours: TH 9:00-10:00

Phone: 312-362-7979                        


Course Description and Objectives


In the past decade 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 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 be able to identify the techniques people use to observe, (2) we will assess the aesthetic and structural choices people make to explain what they do, and (3) we will apply this knowledge to the production of our audio documentary projects.


Required Materials


Jessica Abel and Ira Glass, Radio: An Illustrated Guide


Daniel Makagon and Mark Neumann, Recording Culture


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.


4 rechargeable Double-A NiMH batteries (and a battery charger)


Recommended: If you use Pro Tools in one of our labs, you will want a portable hard drive to store your project.


Course Assignments


Attendance and class participation                                                                   10%

Reading Quizzes                                                                                             15%

Hearing Places Assignment                                                                            05%



Audio Documentary Preparation                                                                     20%

Audio Documentary (8-10 minutes)                                                               50%




2 short Audio documentaries 3-5 minutes each worth 35% each (see schedule for due dates if you choose this option).


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 alone or with a partner to record and edit a 4-minute soundscape recording of a street intersection. 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 (chopping off sound prior to and after your best 4 minutes of straight ambient sound). The final project will be uploaded to


Research Process:


(1) Each class member will work alone or with a partner. We will select street locations for each person or pair to record.


(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. (This process is described in the Prot Tools—PT—document that is located in the folder where you access our readings. Upload your file to a fileuploading site and email me the link.


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 not hinder the quality of the final recording. Note that a soundscape recording represents sounds as they exist in a particular place at a particular time. You should not be adding effects or creating a sound art piece.



Audio Documentary:


Option 1: 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 non-fiction 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.)


Option 2a: You can work alone or with a small group (1-2 other classmates) to record two different 3-5 minute audio documentaries. Each documentary must feature at least 2 interviews, ambient sound, and narration to help create an engaging non-fiction story. You can work with different partners on each project, can work with a partner or 2 partners on one project and work alone on another. See the course schedule for proposal due dates and project due dates. You will *not* submit any of the other Audio Documentary Preparation Assignments. The proposals will be graded on a credit/no credit basis rather than receiving a letter grade. Instead, the letter grade will be assigned to each of the short documentaries (each worth 35% of your course grade). (See assignment sheet in the folder where you download course readings for a complete description of this assignment.)


Option 2b: This option basically repeats Option 2a but deviates in that we have the opportunity to work with students at St. Louis University on one or two documentary bootcamp projects. That is, students from St. Louis University who are enrolled in a Documentary Storytelling class will come to Chicago for 36 hours and you would team up with them in mixed-university groups to create a story during that window. We would then have the option of going to St. Louis a few weeks later to repeat the process. You would create a 3-minute audio piece featuring two interviews, ambient sound, and narration during that 36-hour window (starting on a Friday night and then presenting on Sunday morning).


Option 2c: The same as 2b only we would work with St. Louis University students in Chicago but not do a return trip to St. Louis.


Reading quizzes: Quizzes will mix short answer and multiple choice to allow me to gauge how well you understand the arguments made in the readings. Unlike your projects and class discussion, where I am interested in your opinions about the issues and the strength of the writer’s argument(s), the quizzes are designed for you to state the author’s argument only. In other words, I am not striving to understand what you think about the issues; rather, I am interested in how well you understand the construction of the author’s argument. If we do not understand what s/he’s saying then our critique of her/his work will not be properly grounded. Possible points for each quiz question will be listed after the question (usually 10 or 20 points per question and usually 1-3 questions per quiz for short answer quizzes and usually 10 questions for multiple choice). Short answers will be graded based on your ability to clearly summarize the author’s argument(s) and use examples from the reading to support your answer(s).

Course Policies


Promptness is expected as a general rule. If you are consistently late to class your grade will be negatively affected. Leaving before the class ends or arriving more than 10 minutes late to class is considered an absence. If you arrive late to class, but within the first 10 minutes of class, make sure you check with me to confirm that I have not marked you absent on my grade roster. This is your responsibility.


Attendance and Active Participation are expected and required. Participation grades are factored by considering how often you participate in class discussion and how that discussion advances our overall learning (i.e., I will consider how your questions help us understand difficult passages, how your contributions further discussion rather than hinder discussion, how your comments foster lively debate, how your participation grows from an engagement with the reading and college experience rather than functioning to advance an autobiographical tale only). If you miss very few classes and your participation level is excellent, you can expect an “A” for this portion of your grade. If you miss very few classes and your participation level is above average (i.e., you participate every other class rather than every class session), you can expect a “B” for this portion of your grade. If you miss very few classes and your participation level is average, you can expect a “C” for this portion of your grade. If you miss the most possible classes you can miss without failing the class and your participation level is average, you can expect a “D” for this portion of your grade.


You are allowed one absence in this class. That absence will need to be excused if you are absent on a date when an assignment is due or we take a quiz and you want to make up that work (e.g., you have documentation about a medical illness/emergency, legal issue/civic responsibility, or are missing because of an official DePaul function). If you miss more than one class session, even if the second absence is excused, you will receive an “F’ in the class. Missing this many class sessions 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.


All assignments are due on assigned days and in class. There will be NO MAKE-UPS. Documented illness or documented emergencies are the only exceptions to this policy. Changes in work schedules, personal celebrations (e.g., birthdays), assignments due in other classes, car problems/EL congestion, etc. are NOT considered to be legitimate reasons for missing deadlines or class meetings. If you have an excused absence for a class session when you would turn in an assignment then you can submit the assignment 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 documentation from the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) #370, Student Center, LPC, (773) 325-1677.


Cellular Phones: If you have a cellular phone or pager, turn it off or set it to vibrate, and keep it in your backpack or purse. All cell phones must be put away during the class session. I will confiscate cellular phones for the remainder of the class session if you are sending or reading text messages or using your phone to check email/surf the Internet.


Written Assignment Requirements: All written work should be typed, double spaced, and use a consistent style (e.g., MLA, APA, etc.). Use one-inch margins and 12-point font. Further details on written assignments can be found in a syllabus addendum on writing academic papers.


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)

Note to graduate students in the class: I understand that the production work we do will be new for most of you; however, I will grade your work with the expectation that the depth of storytelling and creativity will reflect your graduate standing.)