Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Across the Room

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Man uses an ear trumpet

This blog talks about many aspects of the interview, from ethics to technique.  Sometimes, it’s about gear and sometimes it’s about science.  This post is about science.

I’ve been noticing more radio reports recently that sound as if the subjects were being recorded from across the room.  This is not something that radio reporters want to do, BTW.  There is a lot of handheld gear out there that reporters covet that can be set to record sound and voice in extremely high quality.  Tascam, Zoom and Olympus recorders come to mind.  All of this stuff lets subjects be recorded in crystal clear formats. And we all know what this sounds like.  A good interview recorded on a good piece of gear, and listened to over a high quality pair of headphones can make the subject sound like they’re right beside you.

But what I’ve been hearing instead are stories with voices almost buried in high signal to noise ratios.  Quickly, S/N is the ratio of sound to background noise.  Background noise is every sound between a subject’s mouth and the recorder’s microphone.  The more distance between the two and the more space around the two, the more background noise, which can sound like hiss.

Besides the background noise itself, sound has a physics problem with distance.  Any sound our ears hear decreases by 50% every time the distance doubles. In other words, if someone is talking to you at conversation level 1 foot away and they move 2 feet away, they get two times harder to hear.  So imagine if a reporter is pointing their recorder at a speaker standing at a podium 20 feet away.  They are 20 times harder to hear than if they are one foot away.  Plus, there’s the hiss and other noise.

I’ve been at plenty of press conferences and public meetings where the option was stay back in the throng and hold your recorder up high or muscle your way to the podium and duct tape it on somebody else’s mic stand.  Whenever I brought back bad audio, bosses weren’t happy.  But after awhile, it’s wasn’t about them anymore.  It became getting as close to the front row as possible.  Then, it’s about sociology, but that’s a different discussion.

I’ve talked about the quality of interviews before over telephones.  Reporters can’t always control the quality of the land lines or the behavior of cell phone networks.  But although in public settings, a voice barely audible is probably better than nothing, it’s the least preferred and achievable option, inverse distance law or not.

Sometimes, you really can’t get closer for reasons that are way beyond your control.  But sometimes, you’ve got to sharpen those elbows and get in there.

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Written by Interviewer

January 15, 2015 at 01:00

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