Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Tick Tock, You Don’t Stop

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Time Master

Occasionally, I write something about gear.  Right now, I want to talk about a very handy little device that you may not think much about unless you need to do some precise time juggling and you realize only this can do it.  I’m talking about a time calculator.  It’s amazing what a time calculator can do.  I first saw them used by the Traffic & Continuity Department at an Armed Forces Broadcasting facility in Europe.  Then, I got one around the time of working for FEMA as a PA during Katrina and Rita.  That one disappeared, but I’ve had another one for about two years.  From Calculated Industries, it adds and subtracts hours, minutes and seconds, and converts time in decimals to hours, minutes and seconds.  It converts 12 to 24 hours settings and from A.M to P.M.  Also, a timer and a stopwatch.  A remarkable little device.   


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November 9, 2017 at 02:29

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“Let’s Listen.”

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Let's Listen

I’m noticing more public radio reporters saying this before their stories.  It reminds me of when NPR began saying, “Live, from NPR news” before each newscast.  Is it designed to invite listeners into a closer relationship with the storytelling, in a “C’mon, let’s go!” kind of way?  Being more personal with listeners by asking them directly to come along for the ride?  To invest themselves at that moment?  If I hear it throughout public radio’s news offerings, I’ll bet it’s based on some memo somewhere about a new set of psychographics that suggests it will help boost pledge drive giving.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:55

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Reality Check

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Throwing Shade 2

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about dialogue.  Specifically, the unwillingness to accept reality that defines how different groups talk to each other.  Democrats, once again, have been repeating their claim to hope that the Republican effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act is “dead.”  Their insistence sounds a lot like their certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidency.

There is nothing wrong with believing in your side.  But, as the old Scottish rhyme goes, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets.”  In other words, believing it doesn’t make it so.  And when you turn out wrong because your belief accounted neither for history or the determination of your opponents, you end up looking weaker, not stronger.

I can’t think of anything that fires up an opponent faster than considering them stupid or their own passionate cause, dead.  Democrats and those on the left may consider themselves on the right side of morality but their insistence in trying to smash an opposition just as capable as them puts them on the wrong side of reality.  At the very least, those on the left need to remember that, at every turn, their opponents are human, like them.  Thoughtful, like them.  Afraid, like them.  Determined, like them.

There are bad actors on both sides (Hillary’s campaign throwing Bernie under the bus) and good actors (Tillerson, Mathis and Kelly trying to keep their President presidential in the American spirit).  Maybe that makes for a slow moving conversation forward.  Or maybe talks stall.  But by not throwing so much shade (as Sophia Loren is clearly and infamously casting over Jayne Mansfield’s breasts), at least it doesn’t go backwards.

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October 25, 2017 at 02:19

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Flags and Tote Bags

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Flag in truck

Since the 2016 election, I have noticed a plethora of big flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks in Oregon.  I don’t know how common this is across the country.  But it occured to me the other day that this display of affiliation; i.e., people who want to be known as “true” Americans, is kindred with people who carry public radio tote bags.  This is just a guess on my part.  Though, anedcotally, they are probably on opposite sides of the political spectrum, now might a good time to apply public radio research which, weirdly, seems to tie them together.

Audience 98, a seminal public radio study, was the culmination of decades of deep dives into who listen to and financially supports public radio.  For many years, it was the road map for how stations plotted their survivial by tuning their pledge drives to study results.  And one of the main things the work revealed was that certain types of listeners liked showing off their connection to public radio.  They liked not only setting themselves apart as people who gave to public radio in their own minds, but also letting everybody else know they’re in that distinctive class.  And the tote bag was how public radio responded.

The bags, hauled through grocery stores, antique shops, jazz concerts, wine tastings and all of the other venues any respectable public radiophile knows they need to patronize, immediately associates them with the “I’m better than you” crowd.  And when I see a fifteen square foot “Stars and Stripes” violently whipping in front of me on the interstate, I think, “Holy Shit, this person is saying exactly the same thing”.  As much as they would deny it, both groups are people who are desperate to convince me of something, though they’d probably say what I think isn’t important.


Plug in your own experience.  “People who tend to vehemently deny that they’re ________________, often secretly are”.  With this rock solid meme, the flag/tote bag dynamic starts to look less like a preference and more like a character trait.  It’s ironic to me that scratching the surface could show tote bag shoulder swingers and pickup truck flag fliers probably have more in common than they’d think.  But sadly, one of those might be their belief that they each, of course, think they are better than the other.

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August 13, 2017 at 23:08

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Quiet as it’s Kept

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I’ve been feverishly working on my book about the public radio pledge drive.  But very early this morning, something that you probably never knew could happened, didn’t happen.  And how it went down is something I find both characteristic and intimately related to that book.

NPR reporters were operating without a contract since June 30th.  They had been in negotiations for a new contract.  NPR management, like all management, wanted to reduce costs and increase its flexibility by cutting salaries, healthcare and expanding the use of non-union, possibly less qualified workers to do work being done by current staff.

Did you ever hear about this?  I’m sure not.  Just like you probably didn’t hear about the last set of contract negotiations in 2015.  That agreement extended to the start of the most recent set of talks.  The difference is this time, a federal mediator was called in because the sides couldn’t agree.  And, BIG difference, the employees had agreed to ask their union, SAG-AFTRA, to authorize a strike vote.

Who thinks this kind of thing happens at the cerebral NPR?  Nobody, because listeners never hear anything except the dulcet tones of Michelle Martin or Kelly McEvers or the soothing twang of John Burnett.   When nurses, firefighters, teachers or hotel workers strike, you hear about it for weeks in advance.  The chess moves are all the same, of course.  Late night negotiations, last minute concessions, rush, twist, restate.

But NPR is too polite for all that crap.  Too classy.  And, too concerned that if listeners knew it too has nasty family fights, there might be the tiniest chance they might rethink where their pledge dollars go.  The network is already on a political knife edge, what with attacks from the current administration and about one in five of its listeners in partial to full agreement with the President.  That’s 20% it can’t afford to alienate.  So it’s no surprise nobody knew.  Although, it has used attacks from without to generate listener support and tsunamis of cash in the past.

But, after all, its a media organization.  If it doesn’t want people to know something, nobody can turn a spigot off tighter.  If the employees had wanted to be really nasty, they could’ve waited until about October, when stations across the country were starting their Fall pledge drives and really needed the network’s gravitas to pull them across their finish lines.  I can’t imagine that piece of leverage wasn’t considered as employees and their union strategized what to do.

I support each and every voice, producer and writer, as I have always supported any set of troops.   Managers are also in their box and have their own set of marching orders.  And it must be hard, since many of them have also come up from the ranks.  Hopefully, this latest round of contract fights won’t lead to any recriminations, like firings or show cancellations.  Congratulations, #wemakeNPR.


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July 16, 2017 at 22:45

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Journalists sometimes bait people.  And they do it under the guise of asking the simple, seemingly innocent question.  For instance, when Gayle King of CBSThisMorning asks today interviewee Chelsea Clinton if she has anything she wants to “pass along” to tomorrow interviewee, Ivanka Trump, the questions seems not to be an invitation to share ideas.  Because since the entire conversation focused on her mother’s loss of the 2016 election, the disagreements Chelsea Clinton feels with the Trump administration and whether or not she herself will run for future office,  Ms. King’s offer, instead, sounded like a prompt to get Ms. Clinton to do Ms. King’s dirty work, i.e., say some shit-stirring thing that she as an “unbiased” journalists couldn’t or shouldn’t say.


But something else.  After the third or fourth ask of whether or not she herself would run for office, you could see Ms. Clinton’s brow knit for a split second.  It was a microexpresssion and a true indication of her annoyance with the insistence of the program’s hosts to try to pin her down regarding her political intentions.  Of course, she was prepared for this, and of course, this is what journalists do.  But this post is about feelings obviously felt, but not necessarily shared in all of their pointy sharpness.

Microexpressions, identified by the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) are the tendency of a human face to reveal instantaneous emotion in reaction to a stimulus.  People almost always flash them across their face whenever they have feelings of disgust, fear, anger, surprise or one of the other, basic emotions.  But depending of the context, they may, in the next second, try to hide those expressions to present a more socially acceptable, sustained expression.

Radio is my thing but I’ve spent many years in TV and video production.  And radio interviews often require sitting face to face across a table with someone.  So, as with anyone who has worked in the business and done lots of interviews, I am trained to pick up on microexpressions.

As I’m sure are the journalists at CBSThisMorning.

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April 4, 2017 at 22:35

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Boiled Down

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In the course of my work on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found a lot of very strong opinions for and against NPR and the work it does.  But in light of the most recent presidential election, this comment, from a 2005 Metafilter post, reflects the views of many angry progressives I’ve heard:

“NPR is what the neocons hate about middle-class liberals. They’re so comfortable and self-content that they lack guts. The neocon movement has some of the vilest people alive, but all of them have guts. They have brass huevos to bust in here and tear down our constitution and start pushing our armies around. We liberals are going to knit our brows and wring our hands while they take the bank and torch our wilderness.”

And, the other side:

“Your second to last paragraph was brilliant, if misdirected. Your caricature of the complacent yet occasionally whiny liberal is dead on. NPR isn’t to blame though. Take NPR for what it is, and not what you want it to be. It’s not IndyMedia Radio. It’s not the liberal counterpart to AM agitprop. NPR, instead, stands as the closest and most respectable form of true journalism I’ve ever seen in America. It caters to rational independent thought without spoon feeding the “proper” opinion like IndyMedia or Rush Limbaugh would. Presenting a national public debate, giving each mainstream* side equal time with their strongest minds, is about as principled as journalism comes. One would assume that in issues as “nuclear testing within 50 miles of low-income housing,” that the side with the best argument would clearly win in front of millions of listeners. Why would you want to stifle that? Where else would you find that debate? Crossfire? Hannity and Colmes?

* this is where I find the weakness in the debate format: the assumption that one of two mainstream sides of an issue have it right, or worse yet, the truth is always in the middle.”

The inside/out dynamic is just as powerful of the traditional left/right one.  Angry people on both sides, as evidenced with Trump voters that would’ve just as easily voted for Bernie Sanders.  You have to wonder if politics is turning a corner somehow, and if the kind of emotion, expressed by this public radio supporter, is coming into the mix.   What will the outcome be?  More angry people yelling at each other, or both sides getting a much clear picture of where the other really stands with less “intellect” in the way?

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January 31, 2017 at 02:02