Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for April 2013

Joke’s on Somebody

leave a comment »


This is about interviewing, AND it’s directed at Saturday Night Live.

Skit #1 – The Talkover
A Western media outlet anchor is on the phone with a subject, preferably someone with a noticeably foreign accent on a bad connection. In the course of the discussion, the person on the phone takes offense to something the anchor has said or implied. The person on the phone is defensive and tries to get out what they’re trying to say. But the anchor, when continuing the question or asking a follow up question, continues to plow through, and over, and under the person on the phone even as they are responding or trying to respond. The anchor makes sure they get their complete question asked even- when-their-speaking-speed-falls-to-one-deliberate-and-unyielding-word-per-second.

Would it be funny on SNL? Probably. Is it funny on the air? Not really, because it shows how arrogant anchors can be, though it’s understandable where this came from. It used to be that a bully interviewee could out talk the interviewer such that the interviewer looked and sounded like they didn’t have what it took to keep control of the interview. But as communication has advanced, with human nature being what it is, and journalism being the dark art it can sometimes be, an adversarial interview is a good excuse for a good interviewer to softly beat the hell out of somebody just like this. I mean, an interviewer is supposed to be asking the questions they think the audience wants to hear. But sometimes, these can feel and sound like poking the bear, appropriate to nothing.

Skit #2 – Splain Me
A Western media outlet anchor is talking to a subject and the subject makes a common, cultural reference, and the anchor inserts a verbal ellipse, essentially grinding the interview to a halt and says, “That means blah, blah, blah …” for that uninitiated audience member who just for the first time, cracked open the door of their 1953 bomb shelter. To wit;

Guest – Within about 25 years, the Earth will …
Anchor – And just to be clear, we’re talking about the third planet from the sun …
Guest – Uh, yeah, anyway …

This is sort of understandable too. Back in the 70s and 80s, was when we were just starting to hear about how American school students didn’t know state capitals. And that got news organizations worrying that Americans didn’t know basic geography. Sadly, every so often Conan or Dave Letterman, or Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson show, that for some of us, this is still true. But back then, it wasn’t so funny. So the networks started using more graphics and maps, and taking more time to explain the basic connections to the story they might be in the middle of telling. But now, with as much instant communication and ubiquitous access to Google and Wikipedia as there is, I’m starting to think that if people don’t know, it’s a lot like non-smoking education; it’s not because the information isn’t out there, maybe they just don’t care. This is something similar from a comment board called “” from 2007:

Guest: “And then Franklin Roosevelt created . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States.”

Guest: “Yes. Anyway, then FDR created . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “FDR being Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Guest: “Yes. Then FDR created the Works Progress Administration . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “Commonly known as the WPA.”

. . . and so on . . .
Posted by: Paul W. | Link to this comment | 02- 2-07 11:36 PM horizontal rule

OK, they may be a little less informed than you, but you’ve got them covered. So, maybe we can ease up on dropping the encyclopedia on the table in the middle of a good conversation.

SNL, these could be two new versions of your standard NPR skit setpiece. Pleeeeeze.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2013 at 04:10


leave a comment »


There are two ways to write a story.

One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time.  In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not.  Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring.  But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence.  God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.

The other way is to start out by knowing nothing.  You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective.  You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions.  You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases.  And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships.  You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams.  And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write.  And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.

That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends.  But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go.  You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2013 at 10:16

Shout Out to Reporters

leave a comment »

Pen Sword

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about reporting.

Two things.

First, a reporter may, in his or her career, be a lot of things; spokesperson, marketing expert, advertising consultant, author.  But of them all, being a reporter like being a marine, is forever.   Especially if being a reporter was first, because the reporter never forgets that the truth is what is really important.  To a reporter, the crooked can never be made straight no matter the size of the giant or the paycheck.  If someone is trying to make them see something one way, it will never look right to them.  It will eat at them because their DNA is lit from within with the power of the pen.  Eventually, they’ll start truthtelling because even if the reporter has stopped using his teeth, he never loses them and they resharpen quickly.  Semper Fi.

Secondly, I am sick of hearing people who say that a reporter can never be objective so they shouldn’t try.  Weak people point to human base nature as an excuse to do nothing.  They say that since we can’t be “pure”, any attempt at objectivity is failed and thus, discredited and useless.  So reporters should just report with their biases with no attempt to be balanced.

If we’re going to pretend to be civilized, then we should play it out, and that means swallowing the higher ideals hook too.  Person A gets away with too much shit while trying to crush Person B for theirs.  I’m not for double dealing, but I’m for hypocrisy even less.  So, I guess I do care that some get away with it and others don’t simply because some thieves are thicker than others.

In journalism,  decent reporters load everything they can find out about questionable someones into the reporter’s centrifuge and whirl the hell out of it until everything has separated, and then burn up what’s left in the reporter’s autoclave until all you’re left with is something that is as pure as you can get.  And then you serve it back to the public and wait for what happens.  Because in the end, if anything changes, they’ll be the ones to change it.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than nothing, and well above the curve for effort.  I’ll take it.

Written by Interviewer

April 26, 2013 at 14:34

New Track: To My Soundcloud Followers

leave a comment »

A new track on SoundCloud “To My Soundcloud Followers”:

Just a quick note to my followers thanking you for following me and asking a few questions to help me make my interviews better.

Written by Interviewer

April 24, 2013 at 07:24

Posted in Scratchpad

It’s About the Story, not the Calendar

leave a comment »


I just heard Robin Young of the PRI program Here and Now interview Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band, Heart.  She interviewed them in October 2012 and replayed the interview because of their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  This again, speaks to the necessity of a good interviewer knowing how to conduct a good interview.  Ms. Young was able to remind listeners of why Heart made it into the Hall of Fame with a six-month old interview because her questions were essentially timeless.

She asked Ann and Nancy about their relationship as sisters and got them to talk about the strong roots of their military family.  She asked them about the timeless notoriousness of the record industry and they talked about their hit, “Barracuda.”  And she asked them about trials outside of the band that orbited the band, like their fiasco with Annie Lebowitz, and about other work, like decades of film scoring.

That’s why a good interview has no expiration date, because it’s not about events as much as it’s about people.  And even if the people change between when you last talked to them and when you next talk to them, they’ll probably be glad to update you on the changes, which only makes the conversation more true to what it means to be human, which is why people listen to interviews anyway.

Good job, Ms. Young.

Written by Interviewer

April 24, 2013 at 00:17

Just A Quick Test

leave a comment »

Test.  See, told you.

Written by Interviewer

April 17, 2013 at 13:12

Posted in Scratchpad

Kicking and Screaming toward Competency

leave a comment »


For those of you who read my last post, you’ll understand when I say I’m using my dishwasher to tell this story. Here’s what happened when I decided I wanted to take video that I had shot and put it on YouTube.

I realized that my favorite version of Windows Movie Maker was on a dead PC. So I went looking for an open source video editor. First I went to a favorite website of mine, Kim Komando. While I was there, I got distracted by a video call she received in 2010 where she bought a laptop and plane tickets for a caller who was trying to get to Palestine to do humanitarian work. It was really nice, but I digress.

I then went to SourceForge, looked at and downloaded three different video editing software packages. One was script based and I know nothing about that. And two were simple editors without the option of layering tracks or adding audio. They were basically slideshow creators.  So then I went looking for the latest version of Windows Movie Maker even though the Internet was full of people furious that Windows had essentially neutered the XP version.

Apparently, the newest version that Windows created for Windows 7 is so stripped-down that everybody hated it. I downloaded it and tried to use it the way I had used the old version and my experience was somewhere between a joke and an insult. But I found that someone had posted a link that had the old version that was compatible with Windows 7 somehow.  I dunno.  Anyway, I downloaded that version after I deleted the new bad version.

Then, discovered that the video I had shot was in the MP4 format, which this version of Movie Maker couldn’t import. So now I was on the hunt for a video conversion program. On my dead PC was something called Any Video Converter. I remember it being both free and flexible.  So I went looking for the new version because I assumed there was one, and lo’,  there was. It was preset to convert any imported video to play on the iPhone. So I had to putz around with it until I found the .wmv format for Windows. But I found it, converted the video and now am editing with the old new moviemaker. Piece of cake, right?

For people who do this kind of work while they’re playing three-dimensional chess and writing code in Pearl, I’m sure this is nothing.  But for common folks who are pissed that Windows 95 is gone, and that no cars come with points and a distributor cap anymore, this kind of self detective and self tech-support work is the minimum of what you need to know do anything on the Internet it seems.  It’s sort of the equivalent of knowing how to change your own oil, lest you end up at some oil change place, paying hundreds of dollars for stuff you don’t know you don’t need. It’s grunt work, like unclogging the toilet or cleaning the lint screen on the dryer.  It’s not very technical, but it can be tedious and if you don’t do it, you’re asking for trouble down the line.  I once knew a lady whose brother didn’t know he had to clean his lint screen and the dryer eventually set his house on fire.

You’re forced to stumble around as you learn this constantly changing stuff.  No wonder the Amish fight to hold onto to simplicity.

Written by Interviewer

April 17, 2013 at 08:06

New Track: Rootz Underground Interview

leave a comment »

A new track on SoundCloud “Rootz Underground Interview”:

Rootz Underground is all about uplifting people with their passion for reggae. And they couldn’t have a better spokesman than bassist Colin Young. Don Merrill talked with Mr. Young about Rootz Underground, their love for their music and their concern for the Earth.

Written by Interviewer

April 15, 2013 at 10:54

Posted in Scratchpad

Giving People What They Want

leave a comment »

Transcript Image

I do interviews.  And recently, I thought it might be good to start providing transcripts of the interviews I do.  For those of you that don’t know what a transcript it, it’s a written verbatim copy of a recorded interview.  The advantage of transcripts is you can search them very fast with keywords and find something you’re looking for instead of having to listen to an entire interview because you have no idea where what you want is.

And I thought about charging a fee to read the transcripts.  I thought this because creating transcripts is labor intensive, as opposed to recording interviews, where the labor is hidden in the pleasure of doing the interview.  By contrast, transcribing is not pleasurable.  For someone who likes to cook, a good analogy is you love preparing recipes, but you hate doing the dishes.  Transcribing is doing the dishes.

To carry the analogy a little further, I just got a dishwasher, meaning, I just got a program that listens to my audio and transcribes it.  But, it’s trained for my voice as it learned it through my desk microphone, not other voices over terrible phone lines.  So, even though it can understand at least 1/2 of all of my interviews; my half, it might hear the other half and give me text that looks like this:

~it is one of the respect each other we make intelligent decisions that is together a demented in other crimes musical vision certainly in the latest presented week we just you have simpatico thing going on I just love everything does just the way it is within the work to the~

This is from the Air Supply interview that I did a couple months ago.  Did you get all of that?

So when this happens, I have to listen to it and fix it.  Even when the software hears everything right, touch ups can take 30% longer than the interview itself.  But for garble like this, well … I’ve logged probably 5 hours on this 30 minute interview and I’ve got at least another hour to go.

But I appreciate transcripts when I need them.  And it made me wonder though, if anybody uses them besides me.  My real question is, does anybody read anymore?  With a YouTube, Pinterest, Conversus rich environment of images and video and sound, why would anybody drag themselves by the face through pages of the written word?

So, I called National Public Radio (NPR).  They sit at the top of the transcript mountain.  They produce gobs of programming and transcripts for all of it.  So I asked them – transcripts; yes or no?

Until 2009, NPR was charging $3.95 per transcript.  They still use an independent company to create those transcripts.  This company gets weekday news show transcripts up in a few hours and weekend news show transcripts up by the next day.  But back then, NPR reached a point where they decided that listening to the audio was no different from reading the transcript since both were part of experiencing the interview.  I thought that was very interesting considering how the NYT and others are still struggling through the whole paywall thing.  NPR had a paywall of sorts years ago and abandoned it.

This very nice young lady on the phone told me that while some people read transcripts to better their English, the hearing impaired might read transcripts because the audio program is a problem for them.  People who hear something in a live program but aren’t sure of what they heard, they can always go to the transcript and read it to be sure of what they heard.  And of course, I thought of people who are doing research and need to find something fast without having to waste time listening to an entire interview.  And she said that although she didn’t know how many people click the transcript button, she could say that it does get clicked and clicked enough that the button is still there.

So, I’m left with two bottom lines.  If NPR isn’t charging for transcripts, economies of scale tell me that I probably shouldn’t either.  But why do I want to go through the work of creating them?  Because, if it will help people enjoy the interviews better, it’s probably worth it.

Written by Interviewer

April 13, 2013 at 09:53

Late Night Quickie

leave a comment »

I just got a new piece of software that will let me create transcripts of my interviews.  It’s amazing technology.  I just drag the audio file into a box and it listens to the audio and creates a written version.  I listen and make spot corrections, of course.  But it’ll transcribe my longest, hour long interviews and all I have to do is go to the start of the finished transcript, put on the headphones, click the audio file and touch up as I go.  I’ve transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews by hand over the years and it can be misery.  I created a rule of thumb that said each minute of audio took three minutes to carefully listen to and accurately transcribe.  So an hour of audio could easily take three hours to transcribe.  Now, for this same hour-long interview, I expect it will only take an extra 30 minutes, not 180.  This is exquisite.

Soon, I expect to have readable transcripts for all of my interviews.  I’ll put the transcribe icon right next to the microphone (get interviewed) icon and beside the preview and interview boxes beneath each completed interview on my Conversus website –  And it’ll be great because the Internet looks for tags and keywords.  So, all of the references in the written versions will make them that much easier to find online.  It’ll be one stop shopping.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2013 at 14:21