My Personal
FAMILY ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
site: fohp.info - file: howlong.htm

How Long Should An Interview Last? (β)

This shouldn't be a marathon event for the subject —
gauge their stamina and let them stop before tiring.

     Your interview, by necessity, is going to be divided into blocks of time that correspond to the maximum length of your recording medium. However, if you are using a digital voice recorder to capture your interview you may have dozens of hours of continuous recording time available (say, a 64Gb memory card) — at some point, you really will need to take a break.

     If your cassette tape runs 45 minutes per side, then stopping after 40 to 43 minutes for a break is a good idea (it lets your recording engineer fast-forward the tape to it's end and then flip it over so that the full 45 minutes of recording time is available on Side B). 60 minutes is about the maximum amount of time you should go without a break for you and the subject (and, it's the maximum amount of time you'll have on the extended recording-length tapes anyway). The break gives people time to get something to drink, to hit the restroom, to stretch their legs ... A typical college classroom "hour" actually runs 50 minutes; having taught at the college level I can tell you that 50 minutes is a long time to be doing anything continuously (asking questions; answering questions; paying continuous attention to the quality of the recording that is being made; ...); in the evening sections that I taught that were 3 hours long, going 1 hour and 20 minutes until the standard break was a long haul for me and for the students. Imagine how long it would feel for an 80-something interview subject to be more than an hour into an interview, with no apparent break coming up. During the pre-interview process asking the interview subject how long that they feel comfortable going at a stretch gives them some reassurance that this is not going to be an drawn-out ordeal and it gives the recording engineer a cue as to when the interviewer should be signaled to wrap it up if the subject's comfort zone is shorter than the length of a given tape or memory card.

     Usually it is the responsibility of the recording engineer to signal to the interviewer that it is time to "wrap it up" (the agreed-upon time/the tape duration is running out). Preferably, the process of signaling to the interviewer should not distract them or the subject from the question or answer that is currently under way. I accomplish this with a bit of a home-made kluge device — I have an old photographer's darkroom (countdown) timer that I set to a time that is roughly 2 or 3 minutes less than the length of the tape. Connected to the timer box is a small metal desk lamp with a shade, positioned so that only the interviewer can see the (red) lamp bulb. I start the timer when I start the recorder; when the time runs out, the bulb in the lamp comes on. The interviewer knows that it is time to take a break & is able to exit from the current question without abruptly curtailing an answer. Using an oversized egg timer would work, but finding one that passes 28, or 43 or 58 minutes is unlikely. And, if your interviewer would be more comfortable being cued 5 minutes out from the end-of-tape (instead of 2 or 3 minutes) ... you'd need to find a lot of egg timers with odd durations! The photographer's darkroom timer is the perfect device to accomplish this task.

     Not having microphones attached to the bodies of the interviewer & interview subject (the little tie-tack lavalier mics) means that you don't need to keep unwiring and rewiring them as they get up to go to the kitchen or restroom and then return for the next part of the interview. Using microphones that are mounted at a distance (on booms, or using "shotgun" microphones) means that they don't need to be careful about getting around them as they leave and return. Having extra-long microphone cables permits you to run those cables outside of the interview subject's path of access and egress — a microphone that is three feet from the interview subject might be 30 cable feet from the recorder or mixer — but those cables will not become a trip and fall hazard for a 90-year-old! (always a bad idea to break their hip — it tends to bring the interview to a permanent conclusion)

     The older the interview subject, the shorter the window of energy and ambition. If you push on too long without a break, the subject is likely to stop talking on their own, begging off for the rest of the day (or project). 6 hours of taping in a single day is a long time (especially for the interviewer); it should be the limit for any interview session, for any interview subject (regardless of age). Three hours in the morning, followed by a 90 minute lunch, and three hours in the afternoon, followed by a long dinner, is a good schedule to keep. If the subject wants to take a 90 minute lunch and take a 30 minute nap following lunch — well, that's great. (everyone gets to take the nap!)

By the way — you (the producer) are paying for lunch and dinner ... it's part of the price you'll need to pay to keep the subject inclined to do it again, or to recommend the project to other family members.

     Older interview subjects might be limited to two hours before lunch and two hours before dinner, with liberal nap time allowed between cassette tape flips. Subjects that are well into their 80s may nod off frequently — you may only be able to do 30 to 60 minutes during the time block between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. (this is easy to remedy in the editing phase of the project & is why audio recorders have a "Pause" button)

     Evening time should not be considered for interviewing unless the subject states a preference to do it then. For the first 5 years that my mother lived with me she kept the same schedule that she had followed since the early 1930s. Finally, I was able to convinced her that (being in her late 70s to early 80s) it was OK to keep whatever waking, eating, reading, tv watching schedule that she wished to keep. Once she accepted the premise that it was OK, she started to keep a schedule that was more likely to be kept by a college student — really late to bed (3, 4, 5 am) ... sleep until noon, some futzing around with breakfast, go get the paper ... take a nap, watch some tv, more futzing around, cook lunch, take a nap, ... after about a year of that she finally admited that she enjoyed the freedom that a schedule-less lifestyle offered. You may find that your interview subject is like my mom ... and would just as soon be interviewed at 1:00 am instead of 1:00 pm. This is another one of those areas of accomodation to the subject that may pay off in a big way. (alertness and stamina)

     The total length of raw recording time for a given subject might be as little as one hour, or as much as 20 hours ... multi-day recording sessions are not out of the ordinary. Multi-visit recording sessions will usually be required after about 12 hours (or less) of interviewing has been completed. As tired as the subject might be getting, you'll be amazed at how much the whole process takes out of you, the producer/recorder/interviewer. Fatigue will affect the quality of responses and the willingness to followup on those responses.

     And, when budgeting your session time, don't forget to include the setup and teardown of the recording equipment. It will take easily an hour to do the setup and testing prior to the start of a day's interview session, and upwards of an hour to take it all apart and pack it up for transport after the last of the interview sessions. (if you will be conducting interviews over the course of two or more consecutive days it makes sense to just leave everything set up and only tear it all down at the end of the last day of recording)

     Your interview subject may wish to observe all of the setup procedures and ask questions about the equipment, the layout of that equipment, and why you are doing things the way that you are doing them. Your interview subject is, in effect, interviewing you about the interview. This may have the effect of tiring them out significantly before you ask your first question with the tape rolling. Be sure to budget this explanation time as part of the interview session limit.


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    Page last updated
     12-17-2012