Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

The Batphone is Red

leave a comment »

PledgeTheBook

That’s the first thought that hit my brain when I saw the preliminary artwork for my book from the terrific graphic artist who created it. Ren (short for Karen) and I worked on the front and back cover for no more than a week after the phone cover art was finished. But we haggled for months over that cover art, which we both knew would have to be definitive and signature.

I wanted something boring. I just didn’t know it was boring. I knew I wanted a phone on the cover, since what better exemplifies a public radio pledge drive than a phone? But I wanted a generic, black, 1950ish version. And I wanted it on a white cover because I thought it would draw the viewers eye..

Ren liked the basic idea. “I can work with that”, she told me. But it was by no means a finished idea. For weeks, we went back and forth about design. She developed a version of the phone that was more stylized and interesting than what I was thinking. Big body, big dial, big handset. You hear pledge drive phones during pitch breaks because the ring is supposed to conjure up in your mind the icon of telephone – a thing that equals the noise it makes and the attention it garners. Think Peter Sellers as the US President in “Dr Strangelove” pleading with his Russian counterpart on a big clunky phone that the bomb heading his way isn’t intentional. It wouldn’t do to have Androids vibrating on tabletops as the sound that you’re supposed to associate with the dynamism of giving.

Likewise, Ren felt the image needed to draw on that association to power and formality but at the same time, not be that. So when she completed my black phone on a white cover, I was thrilled. She, not so much. “White covers are death”, she said. “But I love it” I whined, even as I felt I had already lost the argument.

I mumbled something about white space, but Ren pressed on. “I’m sending you a variation I’ve been playing with”, she said. “Keep an open mind”. Her variation was a halting fire engine red phone on a black background. I stared at it, not wanting to be that guy who couldn’t swallow ideas not his own. “Waddya think?”

I deferred. It was attention getting. Still, I clung to my boring black and white version. “Well, since we’re experimenting, can you give me some color combinations for the phone and the covers?” She did, handily, as if to say, “You know this design is the best one. Just admit it.”

And, she was right. The more I looked at it, the more it grabbed my attention. It made me think of urgency. It made me think of the pressure to reach a goal by a deadline. It made me think of disappointment and defeat if the goal is missed and the crime of the consequences that could follow. And it made me think of valiant efforts to not let that happen by public radio crusaders.

Caped crusaders.

P.S.  To learn more about the coming book, visit @pledgethebook & http://www.pledgethebook.com. To see more work from Karen Green, visit https://rengreen.wordpress.com/ and linkedin page? https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-green-102579b9

Written by Interviewer

May 24, 2016 at 10:16

Hitting the &$%@#* Button!

leave a comment »

Red Button

Today, while listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s midday news magazine/talk show, “Think Outloud”, I heard something that I don’t often hear.  As Mark Zusman, publisher of Portland’s “Willamette Week” newspaper, praised the work of the late Oregon writer, Catherine Dunn, he recounted a story of a lapel button she frequently wore as she wrote for the paper.  Mr. Zusman presaged the comment by saying, “I don’t know if I can say this”, and Think Outloud host Dave Miller recommended he edit his memory for a radio-friendly audience.

Apparently, Mr. Zusman chose not to do that because the next thing I heard was Mr. Miller translating the button into, “The Meek shall Inherit Bupkis”.  Bupkis, for those who don’t know, is Yiddish and means, “nothing”.  So, with Ms. Dunn’s flair for the English language, it’s safe to assume the button said something like, “The Meek Shall Inherit Not Shit”.  And I know I didn’t hear Mr. Zussman say it because after the translation, Mr. Miller said he thought he saw his producer “Hit the Button”.

“The Button” is slang for the more technical term, “Broadcast Delay”.  Whenever something is said that could possibly offend either community standards or the FCC, stations and hosts have the responsibility to use technology that makes certain the offending word never makes to the public airwaves.  To a listener, it might sound like a bad audio edit; one second, the person talking is about to say whatever they’re going to say and the next second, they are saying something completely different.  This happens because all radio broadcasts operate on a delay of between seven and 30 seconds.  That means what you, the listener is hearing, is actually seven to 30 seconds after when it was actually said.  If there is something stations have to cut, they trigger a circut that removes the offending audio in real time at the station but what you hear is the edit.

Why some guests speak the profanity anyway is partly the fault of the stations  themselves.  The “beep”, or the sound that many producers have used for years to indicate the place where the profanity was, has itself become iconic.  To be “beeped out” is kinda cool, like it gives you radio street cred.  Guests know cursing on the radio is frowned upon, so that might be another reason – they get to be a little “bad”.  They don’t always realize this doesn’t work as well for a live rather than a pre-produced program.  Or, maybe guests figure they have the literary license to speak truthfully about whatever it is and leave it to the stations to sort it out.

This technology varies depending on what stations can afford.  Because it is expensive, some systems have a limited capacity to do this, meaning, if there are more than, say, three such oopsies in one conversation, the system might stop working and then the station is in danger of a fine.  And after the 2004 Super Bowl “Wardrobe Malfunction” incident involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, that fine went from about $35,000 per violation to about $350,000.  So stations are really, really paranoid about profanity.

However, I have noticed some very interesting exceptions to that rule.  I’ll be talking about those in a later post.

Mine.

leave a comment »

Child Hugging Toy

This is a quickie.

And I may be way off about this.  If I am, somebody tell me.

Yesterday, KOIN Channel 6 did an exclusive interview with Donald Trump.  Later, KPTV Channel 12 referenced the interview and used video from it but didn’t identify the station that conducted it.

I’ve noticed that reporters and outlets, (whether broadcast or print), can be very protective of their work and their brand.  In a society of professionals like journalists, I’m not sure why that is.  But rarely do some outlets credit other outlets for stories they either break or conduct. And the times that I’ve called an outlet to follow up on information in a story of theirs, they share source contact information almost never.

Maybe, the case of yesterday’s pair of stories is a special case.  Perhaps, there is an internal agreement amongst stations that works with video in a pool the same way it works with audio.  FYI, when  a bunch of stations decide to air an event,  often one of them agrees to collect video and audio for all of them so all of them don’t have to duplicate the effort and expend those resources.  That’s called a “pool”.

Maybe it’s a selfish thing – “I had to work to get it, you work to get it”.  Or maybe it’s a mistrust that they won’t get credit from their competitive peers.  But if that was the case, nobody would ever again use anything from anywhere and claim proper “attribution” or “fair use”.

Legitimately, record company X could say, “Why, media outlet, should I let you use a snippet of a Prince song?  If you haven’t paid a royalty fee, you need to find some musician to create a Prince sound-a-like, and BTW, if it sounds too similar, expect to be sued.”  Or author X could say, “My article is fully copywrited and even if you properly attribute me as the author of its conclusions, but without my expressed and written permission, expect to be sued.”

Or maybe it’s a liability thing, as in, reporters don’t want any other reporter suffering from the outcomes of stories they uncover if those outcomes are bad.   Or perhaps reporters can be protective of their scoop like some researchers, who don’t necessarily want any other longhairs dinking around with their original conclusions.

Those two are kind of longshots.

Sometimes, I wish the society of professional journalists behaved more like a society.

P.S. Coincidentally, I found this article by NPR media critic David Folkenflik as I was researching my book about the public radio fund drive.  In it, he asks some of the same questions I ask about why media can be so insular.  I admit that the subjects of companies not giving each other credit and companies not letting reporters talk are not directly related, but in the areas of trust giving and trust getting, they are first cousins.

Written by Interviewer

May 8, 2016 at 03:18

A Shout Out to the Assignment Desk

leave a comment »

tornado

It seems strangely calm, that place in the corner of the TV newsroom.  A single person taking phone calls, listening to police scanners, reading press releases, flipping through traffic cameras or watching social media.  But, the assignment desk is the broadcasting equivalent to the low pressure area at the center of a tornado.

The assignment editor sits at the assignment desk.  In radio. the news director can be the assignment editor too.  But in both cases, they are responsible for taking the minute by minute pulse of story newsworthiness by watching their city electronically.  And they are also gatekeepers by taking tips from callers and forwarding them to the right reporter.  They then send those reporters and camera operators out the door into storms, floods, power failures, traffic accidents and crime scenes.  They run them ragged, from one shoot to the next or divert them in route.  They command them back because the story needs to run at noon, or five or eleven.

Everyday, stations have news meetings where the anchors and reporters postulate on what the best stories that day will be and where they are likely hiding.  And everyday, they walk out of that room, with that plan in hand and into a shower of tiny wrenches.  The assignment desk reminds them that the location of the open house has changed because the keynote speaker is delayed, or the city just closed Highway X, and now, you have to use Highway Y, which is going to make getting to that 1:30 press conference a challenge.  Or what was going to be a voice-over video only shoot is now going to be a live remote, and oh, have you been trained on the new module?  And BTW, you were going to have a reporter but now, you have to shoot it yourself.

Back in the newsroom, reporters, camera operators and producers hover around the assignment desk like moths to a flame.  Or they yell back and forth to it from across the room.

“Who, again?”  “What was it?”  “When does it start?”  “Where, exactly?”  “Why are they doing that?”  “How the hell did that happen?”

In response, assignment editors can be grumpy, but it is a grumpiness that I think is really a kind of world weariness.  They know everything in their town; every schedule, every intersection, every official, every phone number, URL or email address.  They know their team and may have even gotten into a shouting match or two with some the more high-maintenance among them.  And they know each other.  The know other desks can be just has loud, hot and turbulent as their own..

They truly are, constantly, drinking from a firehose.  I can imagine that when these folks go home at the end of the day, they want to be as far away as possible from any word, voice, sound or picture that comes out of the end of a wire.

Seven days a week, 24-hours a day, the assignment desk is manned (or womanned).  I have watched assignment editors work.  They look calm, sitting over there by themselves.

But they are a force of nature, and everybody knows it.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2016 at 00:38

Radio Silence

leave a comment »

Flatline

At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static.  When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem.  I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station.  I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you.  I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control.  At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line.  I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.

The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned.  And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening.  Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that.  Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem.  So, why no mention?

My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control.  It makes sense.  Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever.  Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio.  So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there.  The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.

But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge.  And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners.  We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories.  All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives.  It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.

So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs?  If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?

When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over.  Or, there would be long stretches of dead air.  I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation.  Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW.  Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.

But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass.  And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative.  One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience.  And that is a mistake.

Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it.  Stuff happens.”  And yes, that’s true.  Why should we care?  I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?

Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember?  Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support.  When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.

It’s a little thing, but not really.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2016 at 10:06

Extruded Answer

leave a comment »

toothpaste

Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was talking to Jeff Selingo, author of the book, “There is Life after College“.  He responded to a comment Mr. Selingo made about how, instead of recruiting seniors, businesses are now looking at sophmores so they can “try them out before they buy them.”

“That’s a little harsh”, Mr. Ryssdal responded.  And then, three seconds of silence which, in radio, is a least one and a half forevers.

You could feel Mr. Selingo being pulled through the tiny hole Mr. Ryssdal had formed around his incredulity over how colleges are being ruthlessly business-like.  Eventually, almost reluctantly it seemed, he replied.  This led me to two observations;

1.  I thought Marketplace was a business program that stared clear and cold eyed at business realities.  This surprises you, really?

2.  Again, the crushing weight of radio silence bent another human to its will.

I’ve talked about the host pause before, so no need to dwell on it here except to say, man, does it work.

 

 

Written by Interviewer

April 20, 2016 at 05:48

Going Dark

leave a comment »

 

Al Jazeera Logo 2

I have been inside a broadcast facility twice when it lost power.  Once was in Korea when lightning hit the antenna of AFKN, aka the military run, American Forces Korea Network.  The other was at WKRC in Cincinnati.  High up on Highland Drive, that huge red and white, 500-foot antenna also was a lightning magnet.

In both cases, it was very, very creepy.  Somebody like me, who has practically grown up in studios, production rooms, edit bays, and news pits, surrounded by lights, buzzes, beeps, bells, flashes and static; to have all of that go dark and silent – for a minute, it can feel like the end of the world.

And God help you if you are in the path of a engineer, rocketing through the building with a waving flashlight and screaming that they have to get to the backup generator.  Meanwhile, everybody sort of mills around with literally nothing to do because they have, literally, no way to do it.

A dark and silent TV or radio station is a thing against nature.

So it is with some sadness that I read that Al-Jazeera America is going dark after three years of trying to create an American market for it’s brand of newscasting.  In Arabic, the name means, “The Peninsula”, a direct reference to the fact that the parent of Al Jazeera America is based in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.

According to Wikipedia, the network, which had its first broadcast on November 1, 1996, is sometimes perceived to have mainly Islamist perspectives, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and having a pro-Sunni and an anti-Shia bias in its reporting of regional issues. It also accused of having an anti-Western bias. However, Al Jazeera insists it covers all sides of a debate

In an article by Laura Wagner, she quotes NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik as saying about the network:

“After an earlier channel called Al-Jazeera English failed to make a dent in the U.S., Al-Jazeera America was built on the acquisition of a liberal cable network called Current.”

Al Jazeera purchased Current in 2013, which was itself a struggling news network, from a consortium headed by former Vice President Al Gore.  Folkenflik adds:

“The deal intended to ensure major distribution, but some cable providers resisted, saying that was a bait and switch. Al-Jazeera executives also promised the channel would not distribute its shows online, which meant that much of its content never became available digitally. Internal strife proved common and Al-Jazeera America never caught on — drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Ultimately, the channel’s Qatari patrons pulled the plug.”

Wagner says “the network’s goal was to produce serious journalism and thorough reports, and it won several awards during its short run, including a Peabody and an Emmy. Its most well-known documentary was an expose that alleged several professional athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. Much of the evidence, however, hinged on the word of one person, Charlie Sly, a former intern at an Indianapolis clinic, who later recanted his story. The documentary was slammed by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the athletes implicated in the story, and prompted defamation lawsuits from Major League Baseball players Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard.”

Al Jazeera will go dark Tuesday night after it airs, and repeats, a three-hour farewell.  As a reporter and journalist, editor, writer, talent and lover of all things broadcasting, and politics notwithstanding, turning off that transmitter is a sadness I will feel in my bones.

Written by Interviewer

April 12, 2016 at 10:15

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,104 other followers