Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for September 2013


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I started a group on Soundcloud about five months ago called “Listen” – I call it “a group for interviewers about interviewing”. It’s a place where people who do interviews can post them for me to critique. Constance A. Dunn started posting her interviews almost immediately. Constance is in the Balkans and she finds these fascinating people that she talks to “on the couch”.

I just finished listening to an interview she did with Bulgarian & Turkish Street Artist Metin of SK2. Constance’s interviews impress me because she has a very calm, conversational style and at the same time, she is relentless in her questioning. Two things impressed me about this particular interview. One is that she has the interviewer’s nightmare; a guest that answers in one word answers. That means she has to either have a list of questions as long as a parchment or be really creative and really listen to her guest so she can be constantly be coming up with new ones. The other is she has a technical problem with Skype that periodically makes Metin’s voice go in and out from beneath a gravel parking lot.

In both cases, Constance is professional. She peppers him with questions and coaxes him out to where, sometimes, you can hear his passion for his street art, until he clams up again. And technically, tells the listener a couple of times that, yes the quality may suffer, but it’s important to let him have all of his words.

I admire that especially. In this age of high tech equipment that guarantees us the highest, highest audio quality, we have all come to expect to hear sound better than our cilium can register. We’ve gotten spoiled by the gear. It used to be, when interviews were done over the phone, they sounded like phone conversations – static and all, and we were none the wiser. Now that so much of it is digital, or phone conversations take place in studios, the static from the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) is all gone and we think every conversation should be Memorex (glass breaking), Sprint (pin dropping) quality. And when there is the tiniest bit of distortion, hosts are quick to apologize, like it’s the ugly baby in the nursery.

But in life, we talk to people all the time who have diction problems, or are trying to talk to us over club music or jack hammers. It’s OK to have to do a little work to hear what someone is trying to say in not the best circumstances. Sometimes, if we really care about what they’re telling us, we bend out heads, turn our ears and strain a little.

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September 30, 2013 at 00:40

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New Track: Bill McKibben Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Bill McKibben Interview”:

Journalist and activist Bill McKibben has won numerous humanitarian awards including the Gandhi Award for Peace. He has been writing about how human activity is changing the Earth for more than a decade and outlined those changes in his last book, “Eaarth”. His newest book, “Oil and Honey, The Education of an Unlikely Activist”, looks at the personal and global story of the fight to build and preserve a sustainable planet. Don Merrill talks with Mr. McKibben in this interview.

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September 24, 2013 at 05:07

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You Fight for the People You Love

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gayle and oprah

This isn’t as much about interviewing as it is about the media and friendship.

Gayle King is Oprah Winfrey’s besty. And this morning, as an anchor for CBS This Morning, she defended the former Queen of Daytime TV from the hyperbole that is the news business. We all have all had times when we’ve have so much on our plate that we kinda sorta feel like, “What the hell am I doing with all this stuff on my plate?” But that doesn’t make most of us wanna sit in a corner in the fetal position, or have a screaming fit. Most of us, most times follow the popular meme; keep calm, and carry on.

But when you’re a A-plus-pluser like Oprah, people are always looking for chinks in your armor. Jealous maybe, I don’t know. I think about her fight with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association back in 1998. People are always out to get somebody like her who has done well by doing good. So in this latest iteration, somewhere, somebody started the rumor that Oprah was on the verge of, or having, or had a nervous breakdown. And you gotta wonder where this stuff comes from. Was it fact checked? It’s an old and unfortunate saying that the media likes to eat its young. And considering that Oprah Winfrey have given the world just about the best examples of personal and celebrity revelation that have ever sprung from the head of TV, you would think people on the button side of the camera would be a little better with their due diligence.

Well, whatever was going on, Gayle wasn’t having it. To paraphrase, she said the stories aren’t true and blow stuff out of proportion. And she quickly got support from co-anchor Nora O’Donnell that, yes, sometimes, it’s just an overabundance of busy that can make you feel overwhelmed, but that doesn’t have to translate into a month in the country.

I know Gayle came to Oprah’s defense for the 8 a.m. Pacific Time live airing of CBSTM, but I don’t know if she had repeated that message for the live broadcasts to Eastern, Central and Mountain timezones. I do know that I admire Ms. King for using her catbird seat near the tippy tippy top of the morning news mountain to cross the line back over to friend and be one to Oprah Winfrey. Clearly, she’s not afraid to take a swipe at the industry she currently works in. By doing that, she said what so many people in crappy jobs wish they could as clearly say – this is a job, it’s not my life. It’s not even the most important thing in my life.

If you can defend someone you love, you should and she did.

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September 23, 2013 at 23:27

Our Next Guest …

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steel door

Sometimes, an interview reminds me of that scene from Top Gun where the jets are chasing each other through desert canyons. That was the one today between Janeane Garofalo and Jian Gomeshi.

Garofalo is a balls-to-the-wall stand up comedian with a long and impressive list of experience, from Seinfield to SNL. And she is a feminist and political activist with a passion for the free speech progressivism of Air America to the in-your-face activism of Code Pink. I walked by the radio and was caught by was seemed to be a building interview malestrom, so I dropped what I was doing to listen.

I came in on how she was adamantly refusing to let Jian praise or glorify her or her work. The impression I got was she felt it would seem pretentious and undeserved. I’ve talked to several artists, Squarepusher among them, who also want people to not focus so much on them but on what they are saying. I would guess that kind of self policing helps keep them humble and focused.

Jian stayed in there with her and was willing to take punches as well throw a few. And, it seemed for a minute like a mutual respect was building between them to where she started to see him as worthy of her because maybe she thought he “got” her. I don’t know if that meant he agreed to let her define the terms with which he would interact with her, or if it was simply because he knows she is professionally tough and doesn’t do weak. But whenever he pushed as is his style, she pushed back and harder.

Somewhere in the middle, she tries to throw him off by talking about how she breathes and how it sounds like asthma, and by saying she’s catching his HPV sounding breathing from him after he admits that he does, in fact, have asthma. At that point, the color of the conversation seemed to be getting a little dark, sliding a little downhill. But Ms. Garafalo seems to be not one for nuance. In 1991, she married a writer for the Ben Stiller show thinking it was a joke. She only realized it wasn’t when she tried to really marry somebody else. The fake marriage was dissolved in 2012.

When the conversation turns to peers like Sean Penn, she dismisses Jian Gomeshi’s assertion that Sean Penn worries about feeling respected as compared to her, a woman. She says she has always been fighting for her respect, at which point, she shouts him down from his rolling interactive style by telling him that although it’s his show, and she doesn’t want to step on his toes, she will (and does) because she feels he isn’t letting her finish her point. And when he makes a comment about lipstick and appearances, she reprimands him on his style sense of her like a grandmother reprimands a grandchild, saying,”Jian, Jian!”

At one point, he wants to play a clip of her standup and she protests, but weakly, saying replayed standup isn’t funny. He disagrees and, like a listener should, I waited for the seque to the clip. But in the meantime, he tells her that on stage, she is as much of an open book as she is being in the interview. She responds in what sounds to him like a condescending tone. He calls her on it and that’s when the interview turns. It seems to me that Jian has had enough, and an overly long stretch of dead air from him told me he was employing the interviewer silence. You can hear her try to recover the insult, but suddenly, the interview is over. He didn’t play the clip and he didn’t say his signature “Such a pleasure to have you here.” The next thing I hear is a utilitarian outro of the interview followed by his system cue for the network break. I don’t hear her voice again. It was very uncharacteristic of Q and speaks to how, yes, sometimes interviewers want it to be over.

And throughout it all, I was thinking, “My God, this is the edited version”. I can only imagine that Jian and his staff had gone through the time and effort to get Ms. Garofalo, had fit her into his production and broadcast schedule, and wasn’t going to omit the interview just because it was rocky. For sure, it let us all have a chance to experience her the way he did since what we heard was his edit.

It’s an example of how sometimes, someone known for stream of consciousness can be clueless and someone known for engaging can slam down a steel door – full stop. “Our next guest …

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September 21, 2013 at 05:29

Better Gear; Better Life

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I posted about a Behringer mixer I bought earlier this year that I thought would meet my needs. When I talked about the smaller Xenyx 502, I was happy with the construction of the box, the clean signal with no noise, and the simplicity. But what I didn’t realize when using an analog mixer (which is slowly going out of fashion it seem in favor of digital mixers), with an analog telephone auto hybrid (digital versions of these are also touted to be better), the problem is feedback. I’m not an engineer, and believe me, I’ve posted to audio websites and harassed engineers in person and over the phone to try to help me thresh this out.

But in a nutshell, the issue is when the audio comes into the auto hybrid, which is a box that turns the telephone signal into something the mixer can hear, and is then fed into the mixer, the 502 didn’t prevent the signal from seeing itself. Somehow, and I don’t know how exactly, the voice coming in collided with the voice going out within the mixer and so, when caller audio passed through the auto hybrid on the way back to the caller’s earpiece, there seemed to be two problems. First, that collision seemed to cause the microphone I’m using to drop so low that the caller couldn’t hear me. Second, because the caller’s incoming audio and the microphone audio were somehow intermingled, when I tried to boost the caller’s audio if it got too low, there would be massive feedback. Likewise if I tried to boost my audio, the microphone was terribly distorted and the audio was garbage. I’m sure part of the problem too was that the 502 allowed me to input my audio only through LINE IN inputs and hear my audio from MAIN OUT outputs.

The Xenyx 802 apparently solves that problem with two different sets of jacks connected by a process. The jacks, FX SEND and STEREO AUX RETURN let me feed the auto hybrid’s input to the former and output the caller’s audio through the latter. The process in-between is something called “Mix Minus”. This, apparently, returns all of the sound the mixer hears to the auto hybrid except the caller audio. These advancements, something the 502 didn’t have, eliminated feedback and separated the microphone and the telephone line. I now have full control over the caller audio and can boost it without feedback. Likewise, I can increase microphone levels if I need to and now, the caller can hear me with no problem.

This problem, as readers of my blog know, has dogged me for months. It now seems solved. I have to say how much I appreciate all of the people who listened to my problems. In the end though, I was the one who understood the uniqueness of the problem and I was the one who had to research how to fix it. That isn’t to say nobody else helped, but it wasn’t their problem and bottom line, they had their own stuff. That’s the thing about fixing problems. In the end, they’re ultimately yours to abandon, live with or solve. Of course, for anybody else with this problem, I’m glad to gallop to the rescue.

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September 18, 2013 at 21:36

You Won’t Be Missed

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This isn’t about interviewing.

Yeah, sure … it’s a shame when a politician can’t keep it in his pants, whether we’re talking about his wallet or something else. Blah, blah, blah.

But the people I end up thinking about are the ones who get up early, and stay late. Who spend their own gas money, and answer the phones and ring doorbells and sell their friends on a candidate who turns out the be a sleaze. What are those volunteers, those stumpers, those true believers supposed to do? How do they justify their efforts to their consoling friends.

No amount of qualified, dismissive or self serving apology makes up for a lousy politician’s passion fueled destruction, whether by graft or sex, of trust to the system we all depend on. At the start of their run, they studied demographics, finances and issues. But they probably should’ve done a thorough assessment of their weaknesses before they considered running for office. Instead, as sociopaths, some politicians leave messes like overflowed toilets for the rest of us to clean up.

Now and forever, you won’t be missed.

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September 8, 2013 at 03:19

Posted in Scratchpad

Gilding the Lily

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One of the best interviews I’ve ever heard was today on NPR between Shon Hopwood and Judge Richard Kopf, moderated by Melissa Block. The first part of it was about Mr. Hopwood, who robbed several banks and was sentenced by Judge Kopf to 13 years in federal prison. He became a jail house attorney and, over years of work, managed to get a petition heard by the Supreme Court. Apparently, that is almost unheard of for a practicing attorney, let alone by a prisoner pecking away anonymously on a typewriter in prison. And then, years later, he did it again.

Now, as an aside, some may see this as an excuse to remove law books from prisons because they may think inmates have no business learning, let alone applying law principles. This story is a testimony to justice and redemption, and blocking people from the only avenue they have to achieve both, other than waiting out their time, kills another chance for either.

When Hopwood got out of prison, he was granted a full scholarship to University of Washington in Seattle Law College.

But deeper into the interview were two huge reveals. The first was from Judge Kopf. He was convinced when he sentenced Hopwood fourteen years ago, that he was a punk who would never see the light of day again. The judge said in the interview that after hearing Hopwood’s story, he realized that there are many times in the subsequent years when he could’ve been wrong. He said his characterization of Hopwood had made him realize that just because he is a judge, that he is not always right.

The other twist came in Hopwood’s response. When asked if he felt the judge was right, Hopwood said yes. He admitted to being a troubled young man, deserving of the sentence he was given. The takeaway for me was that both of these men, essentially in the dark as to the true nature of the other, learned only after more than a decade that they both were essentially right … and wrong. In response to Shon, the judge replied that Shon has intellectual honesty and introspection.

Mr. Hopwood will be clerking for Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown, of the US Appellate Court for the District of Columbia. He plans to apply to the Bar.

One of the things that makes this interview great is the same thing that makes lasagna great; the aging. If you make a lasagna, on the first night, it’s good. But when it sits in the refrigerator overnight, the next night, it’s fabulous. That’s because, cooks will tell you, time has had a chance to season all of the ingredients. I think the same is true with this story. Essentially, what makes this story exceptional is that both people followed the classical Greek story arc. Shon starts out bad and ends up good. The judge starts out sure and ends up not so sure. Both stories are on parallel tracks but invisible to each other. Only time can cause their paths to unexpectedly cross again.

Block asked the judge if he had anything to add to Shon’s revelation that he deserved what he got but that he worked hard to be a calmer, better person who could inspire others. The judge said no, because he said he could’nt “gild that lilly.” Beautifully said. I can only hope that I either stumble across stories like this, or be able to go deep into my craft and turn them into stories like this.

In this case, the art of journalism doesn’t imitate life … the art is life. To hear the full interview, go here –

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September 6, 2013 at 08:33

Posted in Scratchpad