April 18, 2019  

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Ross Walton

Ross Walton is the sound engineer and administrative assistant for The University of Southern Mississippi Department of History's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage (COHCH). Walton, who joined the Center’s staff in 2008, is in charge of the Center’s digital production and preservation, and creates high definition digital audio files of original analog recordings from our oral history collection for the purposes of preservation and distribution. He also prepares new recordings of oral histories for inclusion in the collection; writes and produces original programming for broadcasts and podcasts, such as Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s “Mississippi Moments,” utilizing source material from the Center’s archive; and trains, advises and assists museums, researchers, libraries, media outlets, historical societies, and students with various projects. Southern Miss Now caught up with the Mendenhall, Miss. native recently to discuss his work at the Center, the value of oral history, and other projects he is engaged in.    

Q: Why is it important to secure the stories that make up the COCH collection?

A: Oral history is history from the perspective of the individual. The personal narrative has been woven into the fabric of our national identity from the beginning. As current events fade into history and newspapers yellow, these stories contextualize headlines, and push back against the tendency to over-simplify the motives and aspirations of the people involved. Transcripts are important for research, but audio is even more important, because words on paper can never fully convey the emotional impact and power of the human voice.

Q: Who benefits from these oral histories?

A: Anyone interested in the struggles, tragedies and accomplishments of those individuals who have taken the time to share their stories with us over the past 45 years. Many of these people have passed away in the decades since their interviews were conducted, some leaving little or no record of their lives beyond these recordings. Museums, researchers, libraries, the media, historical societies, and students gain valuable insights from these oral histories, but sometimes, it is the family of an interviewee who benefits by being able to hear the voice of their lost loved one, one more time.

Q: Which ones are your favorites?

A: Having listened to thousands of these interviews, it’s hard to narrow down the list to just a few favorites, but I would say that my favorite oral histories are of those natural storytellers who are able to surprise and delight with their observations and insights. Storytellers come from all walks of life and are not always easy to pick out of a crowd, but when you come across one, it’s inevitably a rewarding experience. Usually, it’s the people who don’t think they have anything interesting to say that end up telling the best stories.

Q: What are the keys to a good oral history interview?
A: Come prepared! Ask open-ended questions, listen closely so you can ask good follow-up questions, let the interviewee talk about what they think is important first, and don’t interrupt or make any sounds while they are speaking. Put fresh batteries in the recorder and make sure you’ve thoroughly read the owner’s manual. Do a test recording before you begin to check for quality. Listen carefully for ambient noise pollution: clocks, radios, tv, children playing, dogs barking, loud appliances. Give an introduction at the beginning including the date, time, location and your name. Don’t forget to have the person state their name and spell it. Download a ‘Gift of Personal Statement’ and biography sheet from our website and have them sign it.

Q: Describe what you do in the preservation/digitization process.

A: Usually, the interviewer brings me the recorder and I take the audio directly from the equipment. Recorders today store sound digitally, so it makes my job easier. The Oral History Association’s Best Standards and Practices dictate that archived audio be stored in uncompressed WAV format. It is better if the interview is recorded in WAV rather than MP3, or some other compressed format, but I will convert it to WAV regardless for archiving and create an MP3 copy for distribution. Without the signed gift form, I cannot add it to the collection and ‘paperless’ interviews are eventually deleted.

Q: What is Mississippi Moments? Describe this relationship with Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB), and other projects that COCHN collaborates on with outside entities, in addition to MPB.

A: Mississippi Moments is a weekly audio podcast sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, from which 90 second excerpts are broadcast statewide, Monday through Friday at 12:31 pm on MPB Think Radio. The average daily audience for the broadcast is 5,000 and the podcast is downloaded over 2,000 times per month. Each episode contains audio clips taken from our oral history collection with contextual information voiced by Bill Ellison, host of MPB’s weekly radio music show, Grass Roots. Listeners can subscribe to Mississippi Moments through the usual podcast sources, by visiting http://www.mississippimoments.org , or through our Facebook page.

Other entities we have worked with include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mississippi Department of Archives and History as well as our own School of Mass Communications and Journalism and Department of History. We also train and equip schools and civic organizations to conduct their own oral history projects and provide a home for those projects, once completed.

Q: Assess the advancement of technology with regard to its intersection with the work you do for the COCH.

A: The ability to create and store high quality digital audio has opened new windows of opportunity even as it presents us with new challenges. Born-digital recordings, while cleaner than those made on analog tapes are less forgiving when it comes to setting the record levels, are subject to file corruption and hacking, demand ever-larger storage systems, and are more likely to be made obsolete as computer platforms evolve. Digital also requires archivists and content producers to work together as a worldwide community to stay up-to-date on the latest software and equipment and maintain a strict adherence to the best standards and practices.

We have an expanding vision for the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage as the face of Public History at USM. Today, documentaries can be produced with desktop computers for a fraction of the cost of years past. I am currently taking a digital production class (MCJ 340), with an eye towards moving into documentary and education video production. After 45 years of collecting the stories of Mississippians from all walks of life, the COHCH stands astride a mountain of content that we want to share with the taxpayers who fund the Mississippi Oral History Project, which has been housed here at Southern Miss since its inception in 1999.

I see opportunities to collaborate with USM faculty and students in such entities as its School of Mass Communication and Journalism, Department of History and Department of Theatre to produce these documentaries and videos, with funding raised through the USM Foundation, Mississippi Humanities Council, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and others.

Q: Obviously, researchers benefit from the COHCH’s collection – what about ordinary citizens, individuals who want to learn about family members? Are there any encounters you’ve had with people who discovered more about their family or community that made an impact on them?

A: One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when someone calls and says that they just learned that their late husband or grandmother, etc., was interviewed by us years ago and wonders if they could obtain a copy of the audio and transcript. I am often able to provide them with a downloadable link to those files within minutes, which is new. It is an emotional experience for them and we have received touching letters of thanks, letting us know how much it means to their family to hear that voice from so long ago.

Q: What other projects are you involved with that examine Mississippi history?

A: I am a member of the Simpson County (Miss.)  Historical & Genealogical Society, and documenting the history of my hometown and county using the skills developed here at Southern Miss has proved rewarding. Another pet project of mine is the Holiday Inn Oral History Project, documenting the history of the company and its numerous connections to Mississippi. I am currently developing a short documentary that explores those connections, and hope to have it completed in time for the opening of two new Hattiesburg hotels currently under construction: Holiday Inn and Hotel Indigo (another IHG brand).  We are exploring the idea of hosting a Holiday Inn exhibit to coincide with the release of the documentary.

Q: What do you like most about your work?

A: When I returned to school at Southern Miss 20 years after graduating with a marketing degree, I knew wanted to study creative writing and to tell the stories of average Mississippians.  The COHCH has offered me the opportunity to do both those things in a way that fosters a greater understanding and appreciation of our state’s history and celebrates the diversity of our people. At the same time, this current period of ideological divisiveness and intolerance makes it more important than ever to look past our differences and embrace our similarities.  There exists a universality in the human experience that we can only begin to appreciate when we stop talking past each other and start listening to each other.  And that, in my opinion, begins when we share our stories.