Vox Pop

The art and science of the interview

This was Q

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Jian

Among the logistical sciences is inventory movement and control.  So with the recent firing of Q host Jian Ghomeshi, I began to wonder what will happen to the thousands of interviews he has recorded over the years for the popular Canadian Broadcasting Company program?  Ghomeshi began hosting the program in April 2007.  Since then, with at least three interviews per 90 minute program (2 hours on Friday), a conservative guess is that he has logged more than 5000 interviews in seven years.  And they’ve included cultural icons ranging from Joni Mitchell to Kermit the Frog to Bjork.  Many of stars he has talked with have died and thus, they are immortalized in the Q archive.

Q and the CBC own those interviews, but how will they replay them?  Will it be a circumstance similar to the BBC, which for six years banned the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams?  Or will a time come when Mr. Ghomeshi’s voice can be heard by listeners, but in doses?  Or will the CBC begin the arduous process of re-editing those precious conversations with a different hosting voice?  Right now, by all indications, he has been thoroughly scrubbed from CBC’s websites.  But I bet those conversations of what to do with those priceless interviews are in process.

As I look at recent interview airings by Q since Mr. Ghomeshi’s October 26th firing, they are selecting conversations he has not conducted.  But I’m guessing the ratio of guest host interviews to Ghomeshi’s interviews is tiny.  That well may run dry relatively soon. “Encore” and “archived” programs give a variety show like “Q” breathing room.  Without a cushion of pre-recorded stuff, pressure is on to create it.

This is the double edged sword of a successful concern, no matter what it is.  If it is mission based, people flock to it mostly for what it does.  However, if it is personality based, people flock to it for who does it.  Mission based is much more durable but much less sexy.  And when the cult figure tilts and falls, what to do with that legacy, whether emotional or digital?

Written by Interviewer

November 1, 2014 at 05:05

This is the Problem with Pretaping

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OPB Exterior

To paraphrase, that’s what OPB’s Dave Miller said before a retake on the intro to a story about a report issued by the state on elder and disabled adult abuse.  The story was the second segment on this morning’s “Think OutLoud”.  He was retaking the intro because he wasn’t happy with how he had said the words “vunerable adults” as he described that upcoming story.  It was one of those rare moments when you get to peek behind the veil of what seems so often like aural perfection to see the tiny screw ups that most producers and editors successfully remove.

It also made me realize that Think Outloud isn’t live.  They’re clear that the evening rebroadcast isn’t live, but I’ve always thought the morning version is.  It isn’t, but it suddenly made sense why they tell listeners earlier in the morning to start submitting comments for Think Outloud; because they begin recording the program at 10 a.m. and are finished between 11 and noon, which is when they broadcast the taped version for the first time.

I’ve talked about these kind of mistakes before, noting that with the sophistication of equipment and the crunch of time, it can sometimes be easy to miss a retake until you hear it later.  It can be a cringe worthy moment.

It will be interesting if Mr. Miller’s retake is in the evening re-broadcast.

Written by Interviewer

October 31, 2014 at 02:40

Posted in Scratchpad

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Yes, No Thank You

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Confusion

Politicians is what makes politics interesting. Specificially, how they use language and perception to try to bend time, space and minds.  You can see this when, for example, a politician votes for or speaks on the behalf of something that they know has absolutely no chance of becoming law.  They may not even agree with it but dare not speak against it for fear of alienating a potential constitutiency.  So, they throw their support behind a sinking ship so they can say, “See, I support you” knowing they’re true intent is as safe as if it were in a mother’s arms.

You can see a version of this “yes means no” thinking sometimes when it comes to interviewing them.  You can try for weeks to interview someone.  And each time, they or their aide promptly send back a reply saying “I’ll be available in a few weeks”, or “Call and we’ll set something up” or “Give me some options”.  So, you wait, or you call or you propose.  And again, a prompt reply saying, “Still out of town” or “Sorry we missed you” or “Those won’t work for me”.  So you wait, or try again or suggest alternatives.  Strangely, nothing ever seems to work.  And yet, when you look at who’s never available versus who makes themselves available, it’s easy to wonder, “Hmmmm, A’s campaign or prospects don’t seem nearly as hectic as B’s, yet, B and me talked last week and A is still in the wind.  Curious”.

Then, when the prospect of a conversation is obviously off the table because of time or some other factor, there are emails of apology.  And in those moments come the easy realization that they never intended to talk with you.  But as a way of seeming accomodating, they stay in touch, respond promptly and are always polite but never available.  Politicians want love, even from people they won’t meet.  They really are experts at what they do even if they way some of them do it, sometimes, seems pretty unseemly.

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2014 at 22:40

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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Punctuation

Post means post-production, or the phase of an interview when its time to fix any problems that may have come up during the interview and turn the conversation into something concise and coherent.  Many times, if you’re lucky, this isn’t necessary.  Most interviewees stay on point and can compartmentalize thoughts within their answers, so their argument is both logical and chronological.  This means the discussion tracks an order of importance path; from introducing the listener to the interviewee, to the meat of the discussion, to a more light-hearted conclusion.  It’s a standard interview arc and one listeners have come to expect, mostly because it works.

But when an interviewee rarely uses punctuation, editing the conversation into a listenable final product can be a nightmare.  There are people who can talk for long minutes at a time and never take a breath.  Sometimes, talking without a break is less malicious than psychological.  Some people are never asked to give their opinion or are never allowed to finish once they start.  So they are delighted to talk and because it may be rare to have someone actually listening, they may not know the cues of polite society that should tell them it’s time to pause and allow dialogue.

I suspect though that some interviewees have learned to do this purposely and as a strategy (1) to prevent the interviewer from immediately challenging the interviewee’s suppositions, (2) in an attempt to shift power in the conversation to the interviewee, or (3) to purposely make editing difficult.

When an interviewee talks without letting the interviewer ask follow up questions, they are trying to push an agenda.  They are forcing out talking points that represent an ideology which has no tolerance for examination.  Or they are trying to plant something in the listener’s mind with such force that they hope an interviewer’s questions won’t uproot it.  That’s hard to deal with but not impossible.  The best way, if you’re not up against the clock, is to simply say you have X number of questions and you want to get them all asked before you finish.  You’ve put the interviewee on notice that no matter how long they talk, they know every question is going to get asked no matter how long they try to delay you asking them.  If you are up against the clock, you either take control of the interview or end it.

And this can lead to shifting power which can be a tougher problem, because then, it’s not about the content of the conversation as much as it’s about the dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewee.  But an aggressive interviewee can be dealt with in a couple ways.  An interviewer can butt heads with them once as a way to show them they are not going to dominate the conversation but then choose not to escalate confrontation beyond that.  If the interviewee chooses to escalate, the interviewer lets them while remaining calm, knowing it it they who will come off looking like an ass.  Otherwise, an interviewer may try to reign in a confrontational interviewee with a long pause after a tirade, or they may come back with a dispassionately asked follow up question devoid of any emotional energy.  Using the interviewee’s name is also another method of bringing the discussion back to a balanced interaction.  The key is for the interviewer to not let themselves be drawn into the interviewee’s own unique form of crazy.

But no matter why run-on answers happen, they can cause real technical problems.  Namely, someone who isn’t using punctuation doesn’t have natural breaks in their speech, or if they do, they may not always line up with logical breaks.  Natural breaks are places where people take a breath or where their inflection falls such that editing that point to another point where it later rises makes for an almost unnoticeable transition.  Logical breaks are where someone carries a complete thought to its conclusion. The thing is they don’t always happen at the same time and are a lot less likely to happen without punctuation.

Ideally, editing is where a natural break coincides with a logical break.  But now imagine two lanes of traffic, both moving in the same direction but at different speeds.  Trying to shoot an arrow across both lanes without hitting something is almost impossible and that’s what editing an interview with someone speaking in run-on sentences is like.  It can make for a jerky sounding interview and no producer or audience wants to listen to that.  From an aesthetic point of view, unfortunately, smooth sounding bullshit sounds a lot better than choppy sounding truth.

But no self respecting editor will give a message they believe is being manipulated a pass.  They will use every tool in the effects tab to smooth, to separate, to equalize and to make each word of a circular breather stand on its own, not lean on those around it like a phalanx of bullies trying to bums rush the listener.

REphrase Me

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Steering Wheel

Talking to people with an agenda and a need to frame a message is very interesting.  I have talked with several politicians in recent weeks who have endeavored to restate the question I asked, not because it was inaccurate, but because it casts attention on an aspect of a particular issue that they wish to divert attention from.  Specifics would be indelicate, but suffice it to say that some politicians of some persuasions have a vested interest in casting a subject in the best light, in part by not using the language they perceive to belong to their opponent.

If politician A calls something X, politician B may choose to call it Y in part, to not acknowledge that the two actually share a common definition.  To admit commonality anywhere with the opposing party could put the support of their diehard constituents in jeopardy.  Or to use the language of the other side might risk giving credence to that other argument (even if they agree with it), which must be avoided at all costs.

I talked about message control and agenda setting in an earlier post, but there, I was talking about how people speak.  Here, I’m talking about what they actually do or don’t say in an effort to steer. The job of the interviewer isn’t to let the interviewee drone on their message unchallenged in an attempt to put it, them or their party in an unexamined light.

But it is interesting to watch when they try.

Written by Interviewer

October 2, 2014 at 11:52

Posted in Scratchpad

Calling the Media’s Hand

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Big Kanuna

Sometimes, as media and journalists, we can get caught in our own rules of fairness.

I don’t have a good handle on why some media outlets focus solely on major party candidates during forums in advance of presidential, general and off year elections. Maybe it’s got to do with polling and how the issues of third party candidates aren’t always the same main issues as they are for the majors. Maybe it’s got to do with the influence of the majors who want the punch bowl all to themselves and more or less convince the media through ad buys that they deserve it. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that the numbers of the minors don’t come close to those of two party candidates and so, the media – a numbers driven concern – makes an economic decision that the largest audience comes from those who capture the largest numbers. I don’t know.

But I do know the standards of Sigma Delta Chi, which is the organization for the Society of Professional Journalists. And its stated missions are (1) to promote and defend the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; (2) encourage high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism; and (3) promote and support diversity in journalism. So when Third Party candidate Jason Levin crashed a debate between only Democratic Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson at the editorial offices of the Pamplin Media Group on September 23rd, it was kinda what the latter three deserved.

Political forums are not private love-ins. They’re should be more like racous holiday dinners where the whole family is at the table.  Of course, maybe that’s just me.  I happen to like the idea of the unpredictable and the un-anointed peeing in the sacred pool.  That’s why although I think weather modeling and the Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average are cute, they show us every day that we have no idea what will or should happen next.  I root not for the havoc, but the humbling.

Besides, if Oregon’s Ballot Measure 90 passes, getting a seat at that table may be even more difficult for third party candidates in the future. Congratulations to Mr. Levin for having the kahunas to pull out his own chair and forcing forum hosts to put their journalistic principles above whatever it was that made them initially not.

Paying it Forward

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240_OWEECHALLENGE3

I was the media manager for a non profit in Salt Lake called One World Everybody Eats from 2005 to 2010.  OWEE is a successful pay-what-you-can community kitchen that prepared gourmet vegetarian, meat and vegan main courses, appetizers, soups, salads & desserts.  As a board member, one of the perks was that I got to eat free, which I seldom did.  None of us did very often.

The kitchen relied on volunteers and plainly speaking, some volunteers were simply better than others.  I understand a volunteer is gift.  But the work they do is directly linked to the passion with which they do it.  And a volunteer with a bad attitude, a hidden agenda or an ego complex in tow is not a gift.  Sometimes, we had to work with volunteers for awhile to really see where they were.  Sometimes, weak starters finished strong.  Sometimes, the consistent were consistent throughout.  Sometimes, a volunteer who couldn’t or wouldn’t do A did B like a champion.  But the biggest disappointment were those who make the biggest promises in the beginning but failed by choice.

Suprisingly, this is something research bore out with volunteers and customers.  Jude Higgins is an anthropologist for the University of Utah.  She was smitten by our PWYC model.  So much so, she investigated the social engineering behind how these type of kitchens work.  It led to a research project that found among other findings, that the people who tended to do the most talking about how they resonated with the concept were most likely to be the ones who tried to game the system somehow.  Their rationale: “Because I am so much like you, you should give me a pass to enjoy benefits not reserved for me.”  In both cases, those customers and those volunteers thought that because they had known the founder since the start, that they were on her level and therefore knew what she knew, had the same scars she had, the same sleepless nights, the same legal responsibilities, the same fears, the same to-the-bitter-end commitment, the same deep in-your-bones passion.

They did not.

Specifically, some customers would go through the line, pile their plates with food and pay nothing.  Meanwhile, some volunteers conflated their good work on project X as an entitlement to behave poorly when we did or did not give them project Y.  In other cases, when we called them on their behavior, they were indignant.  “How dare you question me” is a summary of what we often heard both from big eaters and volunteers who felt we were too stupid to truly appreciate their commitment or capabilities.  After awhile, we started to get the feeling that these people were never troubled by the condemnation of others since evidence of their poor performance was probably something they had long since learned to live with.

The volunteers without the egos were the ones who went on to start their own kitchens, manage their own volunteers and otherwise, shine.  We followed their progress with joy and pride.  The ones with the egos left us convincing themselves that they were smarter than we would ever be and we would always be assholes.  We didn’t keep up on their progress.

One World Everybody Eats continues to thrive and it continues to rely on volunteers.  What we started in Salt Lake 10 years ago has grown to nearly 100 community kitchens all over the country. I think there are even a few internationally.  In September 2004, we received our 501c3 and we were off.  I ocassionaly get an email from Denise Ceretta (the founder) telling me they miss me and it makes me feel wonderful that my work helped One World get to where it is.  We had some amazing times, like when Rush Limbaugh apologized for insulting us and we subsequently sent him a box of our Everything Cookie.  But that’s another story.

I learned a lot about leadership at One World by learning a lot about volunteers.

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