Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Rats

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Rats

I’ve spent the afternoon listening to the rebroadcast of All Things Considered.  The local public radio station plays two hours of ATC and then, replays it.  Two hours ago, I heard all of the stories I was now hearing again.  And I was remembering the finer points of each story.  Once you’ve heard something once, you have a pretty good idea of what it’ll sound like if you hear it again.  And, it checks your memory when what you hear differs from what you remember.

I bring this up because I told Q host Piya Chattopadhyay via Twitter that I heard her say, “I’m Piya Chattopadhyay sitting in for Jian Ghomeshi” at the start of a story about the Mars One project.  When I heard that, I thought “This must be an archive interview from before Ghomeshi’s dismissal in October 2014″.  But I went online and saw the interview was actually today, not six months ago.

While listening to ATC, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I remember this story and that story.  I remember that cadence, those words, that pause.”  In other words, the stuff my ears were linking to my memory was a lot more complicated than the eight words I was certain I heard Ms. Chattopadhyay say on Q earlier in the day.

All stations use something called an aircheck, which is a device that records every second of every minute of broadcasts for legal and archival purposes for a time.  I suggested she check that file since what I heard was before the story that appears on the Q website.  Later in the day, she very kindly responded and told me she said something that was distantly similar but not what I remembered.

So, I have two choices and neither are all that great.  Argue with someone who insists they said one thing.  Or deny myself my recollection of the other thing.  And at this moment, I am reminded of the essentially ethereal nature of radio.  Once the sound is gone, it’s gone and there is no way the public can prove what was said.  In this case, I am the public.

How important is this, really?  Well, I don’t like to be wrong.  I’ll start there.  But I can’t do what I do, being a journalist, without admitting that I can be even if it makes me look bad.  And who wants to admit looking bad.  So there’s that.

And honestly, to go any further with this just seems petty.

I was wrong.

I’ll stop there.

Written by Interviewer

March 24, 2015 at 11:54

Mike Murad Gone

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Mike Murad Gone

Ten months ago, I posted a blog post about the fickleness of broadcast management when it comes to who they have sitting in the anchor chair.  At the time, the sacrifice du joir was former KOIN morning anchor Chad Carter.  Mr. Carter’s chair was still warm when they brought in Mike Murad.  Mr. Murad was formely from KBOI and Boise’s Treasure Valley.  And his landing seemed to kick off a fresh look and feel for KOIN’s morning news, including a new and snappy ad campaign that included Meteorologist Sally Showman, Anchor Jenny Hansson, Traffic’s Carly Kennelly and Murad, all getting along swimmingly in front of a new set and behind new graphics.

Fast forward to last week, and a Twitter post (see above) where Mr. Murad is suddenly unemployed.  And he has to be gracious about it because he’s probably looking for work in another market and he doesn’t want to look like a bad sport to a future employer.  He simply says “Management said they wanted to go in another direction.”

Again?  This is the kind of thing that can make a viewer wonder exactly who is driving the train, or car, or clown car.  You know he was vetted.  You know he was focused grouped to death.  You know they spent a lot of money believing he was money, baby.  And now, he and Mr. Carter share a pitiful truth about the broadcasting business.  It quite possibly doesn’t know what it’s doing.

And just like before, I wonder how the staff is weathering the change. This is hard shit.  For months, we were fed that happy, cheerful spot of the four of them seemingly loving each other’s company as a way of convincing us we would too.  But I wonder if this is just another reason for people at the station to worry about their own jobs and, like Madame Secretary, know they better just hold it in and keep going.

While the station possibly looks for a new face, long time local rock of a reporter, Ken Boddie, is joining Jenny Hansson at the anchor desk.  Seeing these two pros side by side makes me marvel that anybody ever gets to stay long enough to become a pro.  And seeing Mr. Boddie in Murad’s old seat tells me KOIN management didn’t have anyone warming up in the bullpen which makes me think this departure was sudden rather than the previous one which seemed more planned.

Just as an aside, Mr. Murad’s tweet is dated March 16th, which was a Monday.  I first noticed something was wrong after I started counting the number of vacation days he probably had that I though he had certainly used up by now.  So, he’s been off the air at least two weeks.  If industry norms prevail, he was probably let go on a Friday.  And that tweet is from his own account because according to Twitter, his KOIN twitter account, @MikeKOIN, doesn’t exist anymore.  It was almost certainly and immediately deactivated.

Nice.  Real nice.

Written by Interviewer

March 23, 2015 at 13:12

Host Flip Flops

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Flip Flop Fish

Sometimes, an interviewer has a bias and they conduct their interview that way.  They have a slant, a tilt, an opinion that they think the guest they are interviewing shares.  But then, in the course of the conversation, the guest says something that disputes that bias and the direction the interviewer is going.  It shouldn’t happen since interviewers usually research their guests, know their views in advance and build the conversation around legitimate pro and con aspects.

But when it does happen, the interviewer has three choices; to drop down into neutral (which is probably where they shoud’ve been all along), or switch up, drop references to their bias and agree with the guest’s view or confront the guest, either by directly disagreeing or continuing to hold the view by periodically questioning the guest’s views.

This is never a good situation.  There is no point in an interviewer asking a guest onto a program to then discount the expert opinion the were invited to provide … except when the point of the interview is to generate contention and entertainment, not necessarily an informative discussion.  I’ve talked before about how an interviewer might not personally like an interviewee or even morally agree with some position they hold.  But I think neutrality of the interviewer is necessary to let the audience decide how they feel about the issue, not for the interviewer to inject themselves into the balance.  That is not the interviewer’s job.

If an interviewer does this, switching up, too many times, they can start to look and sound wishy washy, i.e., lose credibility.  That’s certain death for someone who wants what they do taken seriously.

Written by Interviewer

March 21, 2015 at 01:01

Journalistic Defaults

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Default

In the course of reading, watching or listening to stories, you will come across these phrases.  Although they may sometimes sound similar and other times, sound like gibberish, they have specific legal meanings that journalists must be careful to follow.

Regarding Requesting Comment:
Did not respond to a request for comment
Did not make anyone available for comment
Did not get back to us

Declined to respond to requests for comment.
Did not immediately respond to a request for comment*
Did not respond by airtime/deadline*

*They possibly did respond later

Regarding Official Statements from Entities or Officials:
In a prepared statement (Source decided to prepare statement for mass dissemination, or respond specifically to one point/reporter. Either way, they chose to not provide the voice of a spokesperson)
Could not comment because has not received official notice/paperwork/indictment, etc.*
Could not comment because of the ongoing investigation/lawsuit, etc.*
Could not comment because of no comment policy regarding specific individuals, records or situations*
Could not comment because the terms of the settlement are confidential*
Did not comment because they have taken steps to correct the problem and choose to move forward

Did not discuss details.

*An organization may use all of these to shield itself from the need to say anything at every point in the story.

Regarding the Credibility of Source’s Statements:
Ms. X said – directly attributable (highest credibility)
A spokesperson said – reportable but no direct attribution (somewhat credible)
An unnamed source said – reportable but no attribution (lowest credibility)

Regarding What Is and Isn’t Reportable:
On the Record – attributable and reportable
On Background –  main aspects can be reported but no direct quotes
On Deep Background –  information that is not reported but confirmed by other sources to enhance reporter’s understanding of story
Off the Record – not reportable or attributable*

*A reporter may request that, rather than being off the record, a source allows information to be on background or on deep background

Regarding the Assignment of Culpability (see Credibility)
X Source (court papers, etc) accuse Mr. Y of doing or saying Z
Mr. Y allegedly (he is accused by experts, bystanders, arresting officers, etc) did or said Z
We observed Mr. Y (first person observation) doing or saying Z

Written by Interviewer

March 19, 2015 at 02:38

Gear 2.0

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Mixer and Inline Patch Setup

I’ve written about gear and gear related frustrations before here, here, here, and here.  I’ve been through three mixers, two phone patches, a half dozen visits by the phone company and a number of wiring configurations on the way to where I finally am today.  That place is interviewing happy land.  Through two years of trial and error, I’ve reached a point where the telephone interviews I conduct (1) have no line noise, (2) can be heard by the person I’m talking to, (3) have audio levels between us that are balanced and (4) uses a setup configuration that makes sense.  If you’re doing telephone interviews, each of these is important but radically different from the other.  I’ve found lots of stuff online that was, to some extent, helpful.  So I want to give some advice and some help back.

(1) No line noise means just that.  I think when most people use the phone, they only notice line noise like scratching or hum when its obvious.  But when you’re doing interviews and there are moments when the guest is responding to a question, there can be long seconds of silence.  That is where you’ll hear even the quietest hum and that is the sign of a substandard setup.  Hum can be caused by transformers too close to gear inside the house.  But make sure you have the phone company check the wiring and the line to make sure it isn’t them.  A shorted wire can cause it.  Maybe your old 4-strand wiring needs to be replaced with Cat-5 or higher wiring.  Also some lines are just noisy and you can ask the phone company to install on your line an industrial version of the little transformer that is at the end of many older USB cables.

(2) Being heard by the other person has a lot to do with how well the telephone patch separates your voice from who you’re talking to.  I’m no expert at this, but I’ve learned that before a mixer can do you any good, meaning before you can put your voice on one channel and the caller’s voice on another, the phone patch has to split them.  It does this with something called a digital hybrid circuit.  And once the call gets to your mixer, the mixer has to employ something called mix minus, meaning your own voice doesn’t get fed back to the line.  If it does, it gets cancelled and that can contribute to the third problem, equal audio levels.

(3) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an interviewee tell me they can’t hear me very well.  I sound like I’m far away.  I sound like I’m in a box.  This is because digital hybrids also differ in how loud each side of the call (caller v called) is.  Most have a 20db difference between the two, meaning the caller is going to be louder than you going into the mixer.  And even if the hybrid has split the call and the mixer has each side on a different channel, the mixer can’t compensate for the difference.  You have to have a hybrid that lets you control levels on both sides of the call so you can adjust them manually.  For reference, an increase of 3db means the audio just doubled in intensity.  So imagine how quiet a reduction of 20db can be.

(4) The mixer I started with was tiny.  It didn’t have a lot of the extra jacks I needed to give me the flexibility to control aspects of the call.  The next mixer had more jacks, but honestly, I didn’t know how to use them.  And let me tell you, looking for help either online or in gear stores was futile experience.  Audio stores like, for instance, Guitar Center, know mixers for recording bands.  They know nothing about configurations for broadcast, podcast or telephone interviews.  So when I showed them a block diagram I drew as a way to try to understand why my interviews were so poor, they couldn’t help.  After months and months of switchiing out gear and switching around cables, I finally stumbled upon a setup that works perfectly.  And that also means I don’t have three or four sliders up or a handful of pots turned in crazy ways.  I took a picture of the setup so I can never screw it up.

Now, for the help. If you’re doing telephone interviews for broadcast or podcast, I’ve discovered there are lots of ways to record phone calls.  The easiest seems to be with Google Voice.  Then, there are a number of digital plug ins you can use with mobile devices.  Me, I think the Plain Old Telephone System is going to be around for a little while longer, and since I’m not that enamoured with VOIP, I’m sticking with analog.  So, if you are too, here’s what I’m using:

– JK Audio Telephone Inline Patch (Less expensive than the Broadcast Host and does almost everything BH does for $200 less. Has 40db rather than 20db separation.  Apparently, more is better).
– PROFX8 Mixer with USB
– Shure SM7B Microphone

But the most valuable thing you need is someone to tell you if you setup works before you’re on the line with an important interviewee who can’t hear you.  That means you need a caller to call.  But I can tell you people get annoyed quick if you call them over and over and over, which is what you need to do the test your gear and check your setup.  So, I suggest you use something called “Tell Me” (408-752-8052).  Tell Me is a voice activated service that can deliver sports, weather, news and much more over the phone.  It works by voice command.  And because it works by voice command, that means it knows what a voice at proper volume should sound like.  So you can call it to check your system.  Talk through your microphone, through your mixer, through your phone patch, to Tell Me.  If something is wrong, you’ll figure it out quickly.  It’s not a free service, but its per-minute rate is not overly expensive.

And even though, as I said earlier, there isn’t much online that can help (even many of the YouTube videos weren’t specific enough), this instruction sheet from BSW was helpful – http://www.bswusa.com/assets/pdf/BSW_HowTo_BroadcastHost.pdf

I’m glad to say I think this is my last post about gear problems for awhile.  Yaaaaay!

Iconography

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Spock 3

“The traditional or conventional symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject”.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

Sometimes, reporters and hosts get iconography wrong, which, when you hear it isn’t something you expect since we expect them to be on the cutting edge of culture.  They are who we go to to learn about culture.  They are, arguably, the most well informed about it and most equipped to interpret it.

So imagine my surprise when me, a trekkie, heard a host of a popular radio newsmagazine begin a discussion about the late Leonary Nimoy by referring to him as “Dr. Spock.”  And, then ending that discussion by misquoting his culturally embedded catchphrase as “Be Well and Prosper” rather than “Live Long and Prosper”.  I mean, he ended his Twitter tweets with as “LLAP”. C’mon.

I recently watched the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”.  Anne Hathaway is an assistant to Meryl Streep, who plays the boss at the fictitious magazine “Runway”.  It was rumoured, when the movie came out, that it was actually a movie about Anna Wintour, the equally notorious Editor-in-Chief at Vogue magazine.

Anyway, Hathaway starts the job as a frump, not knowing or caring about fashion.  But in a :30 scene, Streep deconstructs a bargain basement sweater Hathaway is wearing by giving a history of its creation, including its color, weave, style, design and distribution which originated on a runway years before.  In that moment, Hathaway realizes she really needs to care about the role she’s in by accepting the responsibility of being in it.

People who are spokespeople for society need to know the society they are speaking for.  Otherwise, amongst some of corners of that society, they lose credibility, even if in teeny tiny ways.  When a reporter is reporting on a story, facts need to be correct.  I’ve talked about that before.  Because culture moves fast, cultural references may not always be timely but they should be accurate.

And they certainly shouldn’t be flat out wrong.

The Power of the Can

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Open_can_solderless_seam

OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil (love his name) did a story last month for OPB about how the community of Gold Beach on Oregon’s Pacific Coast was building a hospital.  That wouldn’t normally be news except that Gold Beach and practically every other community along the upper West Coast of the United States is tsunami ground zero from the next Ocean based earthquake.

The US Geological Survey says there is a 37% chance that a 9.0 magnitude level earthquake will strike the West coast within the next 50 years.  His story focused on what seemed to the locals to be a reasonable balance between what was necessary for safety, what was needed for the community and what they could afford.

But Mr. Foden-Vencil’s story just, this minute, finished airing on NPR’s All Things Considered.

In journalism parlence, his story was “evergreen”, meaning, some stories hold their age well and can be told now or later because there isn’t anything that locks them to a specific date.  And evergreen stories tend to end up “in the can”, another colloquialism of journalism that means a place where we keep evergreen stories to run them when we need them.

A station needs a cache of such stories.  Sometimes it’s a slow news day.  Or, sometimes, you’re short staffed.  Or sometimes, the editorial calender keeps pushing your story out of the way for more timely stories.  And I’ve talked about the necessity of a can full of such stories before.  The point is, you dear listener, may hear a story that sounds hauntingly familiar.

To coin a term from the last century, you are not being gas lighted.

Written by Interviewer

February 27, 2015 at 09:31

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