Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for January 2014

New Track: Judge Raines Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Judge Raines Interview”:

Judge Keith Raines is a sitting judge for Oregon’s 20th Judicial Dist. Circuit Court in Washington County and he is running for re-election. He talked with Don Merrill about judicial activism, running a court on a tight budget and how sharing his own mistakes with the people standing before him is a good thing. *These interviews are part of a project to invite all Oregon candidates for the 2014 election to share their views. A transcript of this interview will be posted shortly.

Written by Interviewer

January 30, 2014 at 13:32

Posted in Scratchpad

The Audio Doesn’t Lie

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audio

This is a quickie.

The interesting thing about interviewing is you can tell where the passion is very easily in someone’s views, arguments, whatever, and it’s not always where you think it would be.  As an interviewer listening to someone voice an opinion, you would think that if you follow their logic, their thinking would lead you to a conclusion and it is in that conclusion where their greatest passion and truth would lie.  But as an editor, watching the waveform of them speaking, you can see the most heat isn’t always at the end of a reasoned and well lit conclusion.

At the outset, I want to say that of course it is important to take the natural rise and fall in a person’s speaking style into account. But, with that said, I find me wondering about the conviction a speaker may have for whatever points they are making when I start paying attention to the volume of their voice as they speak.  When the needle gets peaked or buried in places you don’t expect, I go back and listen to what they were saying and ask why, if that is where they imply they are most affected, doesn’t their emotion reflect that?  Alternately, something that seems insignificant is actually a source of their real passion.  

When they talk in hushed tones about something that they say is important, is it them being reverential or unsure? When they swing loudly upward, are they showing conviction or insecurity? I would expect a researcher could have a lot of fun comparing points of the highest and lowest volume of a speaker’s voice against where those speakers place their most relevant logical arguments.  Anecdotally though, they don’t always match, which sometimes makes me wonder about the sincerity of the message.

As an editor though, all I really care about is that riding those highs and lows isn’t too much work for the listener. So, I usually end up smoothing those peaks and valleys out with compression or leveling software. Fortunately for me, all I have worry about is turning that picture into story for the listener to interpret for themselves.

But is it is one of those things that make you go, “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm …”

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January 30, 2014 at 05:36

Joining the Conversation

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bait and switch

Public radio stations have adopted online message and comment boards as forums. They use them strategically, 1) To mine them for particularly relevant comments related to whatever story they want to highlight, 2) To find people who might be good candidates for future stories, and 3) To let people feel like they are being heard by the station. But conversation isn’t always the intention or the outcome and it is questionable as to whether this medium hurts or helps journalism and public engagement.

Often, general interest programs take callers. But callers can be volatile in different ways. They can of course, be abrasive. That’s why almost all stations have kill switches that let hosts or engineers cut off rude callers. They are able to do this because the program you are hearing is being delivered to you anywhere between 7 and 20 seconds behind the actual program at the station. When a caller becomes inappropriate, they are cut off in some cases before you ever hear them.

Another way callers can be volatile is by forcefully continuing to talk as the host is running out of time. Radio programs run on tight schedules, especially if they are part of a network that must let affiliates down the line jump in and out of network programming to meet their own local needs. Missing times can upset affiliates and consequently, their advertisers. So hitting time cues is critical. A caller that won’t stop talking can cause big problems for stations because hosts don’t want to seem rude but sometimes must be abrupt to keep to the clock.

For these and other reasons, many general interest programs have stopped taking as many callers and have moved to comments posted on social networks. This way, they can get the same public engagement by cherry picking the best comments without the fear of being surprised by rudeness or droning. But these programs often receive so many commenters that they don’t even have time to include most of the condensed responses they get on social networks. And since many of them rebroadcast their daytime programs in the evening, those programs have been encouraging people to “join the conversation.”

But this can sometimes sound like “pass the buck” on the obligation to actually give people an opportunity and a voice to engage the subject of the story about a particular issue. What people want is to ask the expert, which is why the program invited them on it in the first place. Instead, what these programs are doing is giving participants who use comment boards the less than ideal substitute of engaging each other. This can have benefits in terms of allowing people to see that listeners of the same program can differ widely about its message. But sometimes, relying on comment boards leads to disastrous results for the commenters and the entity.

Online comments aren’t free from volatility. Some publications with similar online comment boards like the Huffington Post, have ended anonymous comments and now force users to use their real names. They and others make this choice to insure people who post vicious comments are out in the open with the thinking apparently being that sunlight kills germs. Mainstays like Wired Magaazine and Popular Science have ended comment boards altogether. The latter choosing so because research has shown that even a small number of people who post wrong information can skew the perception of the entire group. As a publication dedicated to science and research, suffering the ignorant minority at the expense of the innocent majority was something PS could not stomach.

Some see the solution to better comment boards as being heavier moderation while others are pinning their hopes on software that looks for offensive keywords or polices syntax to remove phrases that have antisocial intentions. But some reporters and journalists say comment boards are true forums for public discussion and the poisons injected by trolls and flamers is the price we pay for free speech in a free country.

Still, when a station or a program invites me to “join the conversation”, it feels cheap. They are trying to convince me that they are listening and that I matter and I’ll be part of a vibrant, thoughtful and intelligent community discussion on the issue of the day. I suspect that what is actually happening, as it has happened all too often, is that I am joining nothing and conversing with no one.

Air Supply Promo

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Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell make the legendary duo “Air Supply.” Hear an interview with them at http://www.soundcloud.com/interviewer-1.

Written by Interviewer

January 27, 2014 at 01:17

Annoying Interviewer Traits

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interviewer

I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile because I listen to a lot of interviews and the thing about becoming familiar with a particular interviewer is that you become familiar with how they structure their conversations with their guests. You learn how they talk, their tics and mannerisms, the way they pose their questions.  And after awhile, you realize it gives credence to that old saw, “Familiarity breeds Contempt”.

And because I do a lot of interviews, I listen to a lot of interviewers.  It’s sort of a requirement of the guild of interviewers to keep up on the styles and techniques of others.  In particular, I listen to a lot of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Jian Ghomeshi, Bob Garfield, Ira Glass, Michelle Martin, Dick Gordon, Melissa Block, Gwen Iffil, Bob Edwards, Jonathan Goldstein, Tavis Smiley, John Stewart, Brooke Gladstone, David Letterman.  And I listen to a lot of regional and local interviewers too.  But one interviewer in particular has some really annoying traits that I am having trouble dealing with.

This person says “um” or “you know” almost constantly.  He (and it is a he) asks the first part of his questions and then has this annoying way of slipping in an “I mean …” as a way of trying to rephrase the same question without making it sound unbearably long and drawn out.  But when he does ask questions, sometimes they’re long and drawn out anyway.  I sometimes hear him suck in his breath in preparation of his next question and I wonder if he is truly listening to the guest or just biding his time until he can line through the next question on his list.  And finally, he has this tendency to uptalk which is a kind of grating in a universe all its own.

I listen to this guy on a regular basis and I am full of respect and criticism.  I of course admire all he had done to find his guests, research them, schedule them, visit them, interview them, edit them and present them.  His guests seem happy.  His audience seems appreciative.  But I hear these traits of his and I just want to pull my hair out.

I know he is getting better, slowly.  I can hear him trying to pace himself so he doesn’t slur words.  He doesn’t seem to use “um” so much.  He holds his breath for a beat after the guest stops talks so he doesn’t sound like he’s rushing through his questions.

Little by little, he’s improving.  I’m guessing knows he’s got a lot of work to do to be anywhere near as good as any of the people I mentioned above.  But my standards as a listener are high.  The pros have set the bar and this guy, although I like him, doesn’t get a pass for his mistakes.  At best, he gets my patience while I look over his shoulder, watching and waiting for him to improve; to be as good as he wants to be.

I have faith in him, though.  He’ll get there.

New Track: Jason Heym Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Jason Heym Interview”:

Jason Heym is campaigning for the 1st Position Judgeship in the Columbia County Circuit Court.  The court, in Oregon’s 19th Judicial District, is a trial court and Heym is thinking seriously about being a trial court judge.  Don Merrill talks with this Goldberg Jones attorney about his gritty style and how he says he will do everything he can to protect a person’s right to their day in court.

Written by Interviewer

January 23, 2014 at 15:54

Posted in Scratchpad

Stump the Chump

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stump

I sometimes talk about the “dark art” aspects of journalism and interviewing.  This one is firmly rooted in the “How To’s” of discrediting an interviewee and making yourself sound smarter or more of an authority than you are.  Stump the Chump means asking questions, or pursuing lines of questioning that, on some occasions, are rhetorical and on other occasions, esoteric.  But both are intended to throw the interviewee way off their game.

How?  I have conducted interviews with people about to start a new job.  Since these people have worked very hard for this job, a listener might assume that they must have done all of their due diligence to learn about every aspect of it.  I mean, that is what the idea of “hitting the ground running” is all about.  An employer or a constituency wants to be confident that the person they have just put in this important position knows as much about it as the person about to leave it so there can be as little disruption as possible.

Journalists and interviewers can exploit this assumption to the extreme however by asking the interviewee questions purposely engineered to be outside of their knowledge.  For example, let’s say the interviewee will be part of a department that is responsible for an interactive system that updates the public on something or other.  If there have been changes to that system, or if it has been down for maintenance, a Stump the Chump question might be, “So, what can you tell me about XYZ system, and why has it been down so long?”  It’s possible that the interviewee will know about XYZ system, but it is much more likely that they don’t because they have been overly occupied in learning the broader aspects of the job; the direct responsibilities of their soon to be predecessor, the politics of the position, the specific day to day requirements, organizational structure and so forth.

But a question that seems to be germane to their duties that they have difficulty answering can make them sound unsure at best and incompetent at worst.

A good interviewer spends at least hours, and probably days plotting a course through the interviewee’s experience with a list of questions.  With that kind of birds-eye view of the interviewee, a general knowledge of the job and an overall understanding of the culture as it relates to both, interviewers can cogently test an interviewee’s knowledge in a way the listener can relate to and evaluate.

But although journalists and interviewers are intelligent and savvy enough to discover and formulate legitimate questions that the interviewee considers expertly posed, they are not the experts they are interviewing.  Journalist and interviewers with the intention to embarrass interviewees can find themselves on thin ice if they pursue this tact.  And those experts can fight back against Stump the Chump questions.

The simplest way is to simply ask them to “explain” what they mean.  Unless the interviewer has relatively deep knowledge of the inner workings of the issue, they may find themselves stuck and unable to further explain their question.  A variation of this is if the interviewee reasks the interviewer’s question “for the purposes of clarity” in an equally complex way but from a different technical direction.  Since the interviewer may have only investigated one aspect of the problem, an interviewee that forces them to repose the question from another direction can shut down that line of questioning.

Another way the interviewee can avoid being cornered is to say something along the lines of “I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I would be glad to get back to you or one of your staff with an answer/solution before the end of the day”.  This is a good come back because it shows that although they don’t know,  they promise to find out.  This can give them credibility with listeners.

Most interviewers are professional, meaning, their intention is to not think for the listeners.  That can mean not trying to funnel or filter audience thinking through their own by way of questions that emphasize one aspect of the interviewee or denigrating others aspects.  A professional interviewer asks open, honest, straightforward questions with no subtext on the assumption that the audience is intelligent and can come to their own opinions about the interviewee, their experience and qualifications for the position.  Stump the Chump questions are asked by amateurs who lack confidence or so-called professionals with an agenda.

Written by Interviewer

January 21, 2014 at 06:57