Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for July 2015

What Do You Think?

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Flight 370

A common thing radio hosts and interviewers ask their correspondents and reporters to do is speculate.  They’re assumption is that those people, on the ground at the site have as much information about something as they can possibly have at that moment.  And since it is a news program, those reporters should share and summarize their reporting into an opinion.

But as a listener, I am clear that when I hear the reporter speculate as to the what or why of something, I am no longer listening to news, but to conjecture.  And even some reporters don’t seem all that comfortable engaging in it.

On July 30th, Melissa Block of NPR’s All Things Considered was talking with science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel about the discovery of debris that washed up on the French Island of Le Reunion.  Media reports were that the debris was possibly from Malaysian flight 370 that disappeared in March 2014.  Until now, no debris from that crash has been found and the many false reports were frustrating to family members but fodder for less reputable news outfits.

At the end of the report, Ms. Block asked Mr. Brunfiel if he thought the investigation “was much closer now to knowing what happened to the missing plane and solving the mystery behind that?”  To his credit, Mr. Brunfiel said he could not definitively say and would have to wait until French investigators have been able to examine the debris.

Reporters on the ground are the eyes and ears of the listening audience.  They’re job is to synthesize, simplify, boil down complex situations so the public has what they need to help them make decisions in their own daily lives.  And to that end, they can restate facts when asked to sum up what they’ve presented.  But they are not the agencies or professionals they are tasked to report on and can’t know the situations as well, with one exception.

That exception is investigative journalism which is an entirely different animal from spot news.  An indepth investigative journalism piece may take weeks to months to years to develop.  And at the end, those journalists may, in fact, know more about a situation than the agencies and professionals involved.

But otherwise, to ask a correspondent to guess in those kind of complicated, constantly changing situations doesn’t seem feasible to the news mission or fair to the audience.

*Photo by Sam Catherman of State Column.

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There’s a Book in There Somewhere

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Fund Drive

I was at the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Washington DC for two and a half of four days last week but had to leave for a family emergency. I was there to get information and contacts for my book about the public radio fund drive.  I’ve had people tell me nobody would read a book on fund drives while others have said they would be the first to read it.  I’ve heard people say the audience isn’t really interested in whether stations make their fund drive goals while, unknown to audiences, staff that don’t make those goals feel demoralized (though, they’re told, if they want to keep their jobs, they better not show it).  That the data being crunched at the national level on fund drives is overwhelmingly abundant, detailed and focused, and at the same time, there are local stations essentially doing their own thing with regards to fund drives for which there is absolutely no data.

Two focus groups I ran before going there said people do want to know how much programs cost, including how much do stations pay to join NPR, how does that affect the shows they hear, and why are fund drives so boring.  Meanwhile, stations seem to be in a stranglehold of costs v revenue, staff v the ability to dive deep on administration and storytelling (hence the heavy reliance on volunteers), and autonomy v the long shadow of NPR, CPB and PBS.

At the conference, I noticed an obsession with language and how, rather than incite or insult, to infer the right (contributing) attitudes amongst listeners … although the inferences seem to change as rapidly as the language so as not to infer wrong attitudes.   More than once, I’ve heard someone (as in someone on the front line of a station somewhere) say, “Public radio doesn’t want to deal with this, talk about that, address this”, which makes me wonder if there is there a disconnect between the snappy promos moving downstream and something else going on regarding relationships at all levels,  And all of this orbits “you” (not “you all”); the donor, giver, sustainer, contributor, member, listener, audience. I have learned the fund drive is a relentless effort by stations to continue to spiral up in a deathly fear of themselves spiraling down.

Another friend in radio called the entire industry of public radio fundraising, “dastardly”.

Fund drives are about money, and public radio must be torn.  How do you use language that is both unambiguous and painfully transparent to raise huge sums of money from a public that wants high quality news, information and entertainment but not be overly annoyed by the ask?  How do you retire programs that should”ve been gone long ago except for big, loyal and financially powerful bases protecting them?  How do you reconcile with reeling stations and pissed off fans over cancelled programs that probably never should’ve been cancelled but for the fact that their base didn’t or couldn’t rally because they just didn’t have the numbers.

Fund drives are about business and business is about money.  “This model works”, pitchers say over and over.  But does it?

This is part of the state of the public radio fund drive.

Sounds like there’s a book in there somewhere.

Written by Interviewer

July 19, 2015 at 23:51