As we have collectively hit pause on many routines, projects, and plans, oral historians are considering whether it’s time to pick up the recorder again, and if so, how to conduct interviews from a social distance. The field has long prioritized in-person interviews, but the current pandemic has led some to adapt practices to our current environment. Here Kimberly Moore of the University of Winnipeg’s Oral History Centre reviews Zencastr, a tool that makes remote interviewing possible.
By Kimberley Moore
I have been working from home for seven weeks now. The Manitoba Food History Truck is parked in the secured storage facility where, apart for some spring-maintenance it has been all winter. The festivals and conferences we planned to attend have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The “Manitoba Food History Truck” experiential learning class has been cancelled, too. As part of the Manitoba Food History Project interviews are conducted, for the most part, in a food truck while our interviewees cook a dish that is meaningful to them, or by traveling to more remote areas of Manitoba, like Churchill, to interview people where they live. Since these are logistic impossibilities for the time being, it was easy for us to agree to pause interviewing.
Certainly, none of us planned for year three of our project to proceed amidst a global pandemic. But, as much is on hold for us right now due to COVID-19, much continues: listening to the 53 interviews we’ve already conducted, transcribing (thank you to our research assistants!), producing story maps and podcasts, and research for the book that will come from this. Because doing oral history involves so much non-interviewing work, I lean toward the opinion that if you can wait to do an interview in person, do. There are other things that need doing in the meantime. The Oral History Society has published a comprehensive list of considerations for interviewing at this time, that is well worth visiting before deciding that remote interviewing is the best way to proceed.
But, face to face interviewing isn’t always possible, even in times when we’re not bound by physical distancing for the good of our collective health. For the oral historians attempting to document the experiences of our current moment in time, there is no other way. At the Oral History Centre we’ve used phone hybrids and Skype extensions to do remote interviews in the past, even when we didn’t have to stay six feet apart. For a variety of reasons, you will not always be in the same place as those you want to speak to. Having a reliable tool in place before the occasion arises is good planning.
Although we had agreed that we could pause interviewing, we were contacted by a Winnipeg expat in Halifax who was interested in being interviewed. After a brief email exchange, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to explore the history of food in Manitoba through the memories of an individual who had grown up with Manitoba food, but was now physically distant from it. It was also a great opportunity to test out Zencastr, a browser-based remote recording interface.
The following is part technology review and guide, part interview reflection, written after my first interview using Zencastr.
Zencastr is a podcast production tool. It is an interface that allows you to record VOIP (voice over internet protocol) conversations and, to a degree, enables audio processing within an internet browser. While it is capable of doing more than just recording––you can splice together tracks, apply noise reduction, add music, etc.––I tested only the recording feature in order to gauge the quality of recording and ease of use from both the interviewer’s and interviewee’s perspectives. My goal in testing was to see if this interface was reliable enough to produce archival quality oral history interviews and was simple enough so that interviewees would not be burdened with any technical set-up or problem solving in the process.
As Canadian university researchers, we often find that technologies useful in team work and oral history are inaccessible to us from an ethics and data-security perspective. Many useful tools for collaboration and interview processing are cloud-based, and most of that technological troposphere is physically located on servers in the United States. Our workflows eschew cloud storage and sharing though platforms like Dropbox, and as such, automated transcription tools are, so far, entirely off limits to us. Zencastr has an immediate appeal in that respect, as it does not rely on cloud storage. Although automated uploading to Dropbox or Google Drive is an option, it is not required as the Zencastr recording interface uses the local hard drive space allotted to your browser’s persistent storage to store the recordings.
There are two tiers of Zencastr: a free version, and the subscription “Professional” version. I signed up for the 14-day free trial of the Pro version, which includes production features such as a live editing soundboard, the ability to upload musical accompaniment, and 10 hours of automated post production (for example, noise reduction). I chose the Pro version for the ability to record in 16 bit / 44.1kHz uncompressed WAV format, which is the minimum recommended quality for archival audio recordings. With the Pro version, there is no limit on the number of participants in a call, or the number of recordings you can produce. In contrast, the free version is limited to mp3 recordings and, although restrictions on recording hours and number of participants are lifted for the duration of the pandemic, these are normally limited to two guests per call, and 8 hours of recording per month.
Initial set up is easy. After registering for an account, you may have to grant Zencastr permissions to access your computer’s microphone and browser storage. The system requirements are fairly basic: a recent operating system, either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox browser, and 20GB of free hard drive space to ensure that you have 2GB of local browser storage available. Zencastr provides an automated check on the left side of the home screen showing the amount of browser storage available. If you see a warning here, the way to fix it is ultimately freeing up some hard drive space.
To start a new recording, you simply click “Create New Episode,” to create an invitation email with link. The email includes a list of top 5 “Do’s and Dont’s” (sic) and a button for the interviewee to join the call. After granting Zencastr browser permissions to access microphone and storage, the interviewee sees the same basic screen as the interviewer, which includes one waveform for each speaker, the recording status, and time-counter.
Zencastr records each speaker in a separate audio file, so before proceeding it is important to know you will need basic audio editing skills, or to use the limited post-production tools in order to combine these into a single audio file. In order to create high quality uncompressed recordings (WAV files), each track is captured and stored locally on each participant’s computer before it’s downloaded.
You can choose to interview using audio only, or you can run Zencastr while connecting with a video call, like Google Meet, Skype, or Zoom. If you choose the latter, it is important to uncheck the “Use Built-in VOIP” box so that the VOIP from Zencastr does not conflict with the VOIP from your video chat. If you forget to disable this, we found that you can also mute the mics on the video chat to eliminate the conflict.
How did it go? Interview Reflection.
Before contacting my interviewee, I cajoled my coworkers into several rounds of testing, so I’d be able to walk my interviewee through how to connect and competently deal with any difficulties that might arise. My colleagues and I chatted a few times, recorded a few sessions, and made a few mistakes. I had confidence in the recording interface and my ability to manage it.
Connecting remotely, as it turned out, was a great rapport-builder. Before the interview I outlined our process for my interviewee by email including just the basics: “We will connect via Zoom, then I will send you a hyperlink to join the recording.” I also explained to my interviewee that the interface would work on either Google Chrome or Firefox, but requested we use the latter. Although the interface uses local storage, I don’t know enough about Google’s data collection to have confidence the recording would be secure, so erred on the side of caution with Firefox. I explained this, too.
We established a video connection using Zoom, and I sent the link to join the Zencastr recording via Zoom’s chat-window, which will open in the default browser. Once connected in Zencastr, I muted the audio in Zoom to eliminate the competing VOIP systems. I hit record, and we could both see the waveforms and record timer counting.
My interviewee and I agreed to talk for about one hour. This seemed like a reasonable threshold for any video chat, and I was hesitant to push Zencastr too far in this initial experiment. I also had concerns that a long interview would result in a long wait for files to process. The initial connection was easy, and the internet was smooth sailing, but for one brief interruption that most of us have come to associate with working at home in COVID-19 times.
A few minutes into our interview I could hear, on the interviewee’s line, what sounded like a baby crying. This was the interviewee’s cat. I had not sequestered my cat or dog for the interview (they normally ignore me and sleep, respectively). Yet, shortly after the cat began to yowl on her end, the dog woke up on my end and began to whimper in a way that only an insecure, senile, geriatric dog can. I leaned over to pick up the dog, startling him into a blood-curdling yelp. As I was doing so, my cat joined us on my desk to block the camera with her tail as she walked across my keyboard.
Knowing that this scene will exist in the Oral History Centre’s archives for an eternity does not bring me joy. However mortifying, I have come to terms with it as a laughable moment that, in the archive, will be a record of widely shared “work from home” circumstance. I will archive this reflection so that future historians who listen will be able to make sense of this ruckus, and know that my elderly, confused dog’s yelp was absolutely not the result of any punitive measures on my part.
As disruptive as this was, on the recording it does not last nearly as long as it felt, and we quickly turned back to the interview. We talked about memory and food, about the politics of food across cultures and within families, of berry-picking at the lake, among other things. After about an hour, the internet connection began to stutter, and my interviewee let me know that a warning about connectivity trouble had popped up in Zoom (Zencastr was still running smoothly in the background, but this connection issue is audible in the recording). We agreed to end the interview and meet virtually again at the same time next week. We are not nearly finished talking.
Although one of the concerns with remote interviewing is that it might interfere with developing a good rapport with interviewees, that wasn’t my experience here. I think the necessity of having to explain the process, and work together to set up the recording interface on both ends actually helped. It is reasonable to be cautious of this, but like choosing whether or not to remote interview itself, it depends on circumstance. As many oral historians can tell you, being in the same room as someone does not guarantee good rapport. The enthusiasm of both participants counts for a lot.
Ending the Interview
Once we’d concluded the interview, I reminded my interviewee that neither of us should close the browser tab with Zencastr until the files were completely saved, as doing so would result in an incomplete file that cannot be downloaded.
After hitting “stop” the recordings began saving in our browsers, and we watched the progress of each WAV and mp3 file. There are four files in total: one mp3 and one WAV for each participant. Once completed, you can direct download the files to your computer. A word of warning: the longer you’ve recorded, the longer it will take for these files to process. You have two options here: you can hang up the call and ask your interviewee to leave the browser open until all files have reached 100%, or you can watch the files progress and make small talk. We waited on the line with one another, and talked about the current state of the world and our experience of working from home.
Conclusions and Cautions
In this trial run, Zencastr worked great as a tool for recording high quality interviews. We’ve subscribed to the Pro version for other occasions where remote interviewing is the only option; the uncompressed audio meets our archival standards, and it is very easy to use. Both ends of the recording sound excellent given the conditions of their creation and the separate recordings were easy to splice together using editing software. Our preference will still be to interview on the food truck and in-person, but in the meantime, we can use this tool to talk to people with whom we might not have otherwise connected. Just as with face-to-face interviews, we will anticipate occasional imperfections and technological hiccups.
I do caution that there is no reason to expect it will go so smoothly every time. An interviewee’s internet speed, the amount of available disk and browser storage, and the integrity of both internet connections are variables. You can always request interviewees do an internet speed test, to double check if they have 20GB free storage on their hard-drive, and to set up in a room where the connection is reliable and there are lots of soft surfaces to help eliminate any echo on the recording. However, these extra steps undermine the ease of use aspect, resulting in a fair amount of interview preparation, which might negatively impact their enthusiasm for the occasion.
Pros and cons weighed, I’m willing to roll the dice with Zencastr on occasions that call for it. Interviews are never predictable. There is no guarantee of rapport with an interviewee, whether you are in the same room or not. There is no guarantee that recording technology won’t fail you. In the case of the Manitoba Food History Project, there is no guarantee that rain won’t start to leak through the roof of the food truck, or that a generator or exhaust fan won’t conk out for mysterious reasons, or that the interview won’t be disrupted by unexpected guests. Like with any other interview, the best strategy is to practice until you are comfortable, and know which problems you can fix in the moment and which you cannot. Then you hope for the best.
Interview Excerpt with unexpected Guests
Kimberley Moore is the Program Coordinator and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre. She develops and teaches oral history workshops, creates educational materials, provides consultation in oral history, and helps to maintain order in the OHC Archive. She is a collaborator in the Manitoba Food History Project.
Featured image of Poirot the cat, courtesy of the author.