Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for January 2016

When Someone You’ve Interviewed Dies

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Microphone and Ribbon

Robert LeVoy Finicum died on Highway 395 late yesterday afternoon, somewhere between the towns of Burns and John Day, Oregon.  Mr. Finicum was the spokesperson for the occupiers at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.  Eight others were arrested.  As of yet, law enforcement has not given any details about what transpired on that highway.

This post was inspired by OPBs host of it’s midday news program, “Think Outloud”.  Dave Miller talked with Mr. Finicum twice in the last week about the standoff at the refuge.   This isn’t about the developments at the refuge.  Readers can find that in a number of other places, especially at the OPB website.

This is about when someone you’ve interviewed dies.  And of course, I can’t speak to what Mr. Miller may or may not be feeling in the wake of Mr. Finicum’s death.  But I can talk about my own experience and it has only happened to me once.  In 1980, I was stationed at Ft. Devens, MA, which was about 35 miles west of Boston via Route 2A.  I was a new Army Broadcaster and my first job was to operate the post’s closed circuit radio station, WFDB.  But I wasn’t content with playing the impressive collection of albums and 45s.  And when I found a 1976 Billboard Talent Directory, I knew what I was going to do.

I started calling promoters and agents of stars who were performing in Boston.  I told them I represented a military audience of several thousand (the number of active duty at Ft. Devens) and it worked.  In my year there, I interviewed A-listers of the day; Harry Chapin, Kenny Rogers, Bob James, Gladys Knight and Kool and the Gang.  Kool was a phone interview.  I talked to Mr. Rogers as part of a press pool in Manchester, N.H.  Mr. James and Ms. Knight and the Pips performed at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston.  I talked with Mr. Chapin on May 31, 1981.  He was performing at Chateau DeVille in Framingham.

Mr. Chapin, I remember, was clearly stoned.  But he was funny and warm and genuine.  Coming and going to the interview, I was singing every song of his in my head that I knew; Cats in the Cradle, Taxi, She’s Always Seventeen, W.O.L.D. and others.  I was thrilled to talk with him.  And I rushed back to edit and play our conversation on the cable radio station.  About eight years later, I loaned the tape to a co-worker at one of my broadcasting assignments and absent-mindedly forgot to get it back before I left the service.

Anyway, about six weeks later, on July 17, 1981, I heard that Harry Chapin had been killed when his little car pulled in front of a fast moving semi-tractor trailer on the Long Island Expressway.  I was stunned.  I’d grown up with his music.  Cats in the Cradle, especially, had a big effect on me and my Dad.  I think it’s a song many sons and fathers have in their minds whenever life changes their relationship.

Hearing about his death, it felt weird.  An interview is like a speed date.  It’s not like somebody you pass on the street or see everyday on the bus.  But it’s not like you’re exactly good friends either.  It’s somewhere in the middle.  You get to know people deeply and intimately, but quickly.  And just as quickly, you may never see them again.  It’s kind of a shock to think that you were just laughing at this person’s jokes, admiring (or being intimidated by) their work ethic, or noticing a tell or some personal mannerism that makes them uniquely them … something other people might not have noticed.

And then, they’re gone.

Mr. Chapin’s death changed how I looked at life.  I could die like that.  I could die at any time.  Everything I plan could go unfinished.  I might not die in my sleep or surrounded by loved ones or saving someone else’s life.   It made me ask harder questions like what should I be doing and how much shit will I put up with from others in my own life?

And his death changed how I would do interviews in the future.  I would not ask pedantic questions because every second with someone with a story to tell is a gift and every question needed to answer somebody’s else’s question.  I would tell them how much I admired whatever they excelled at but not gush because they get enough of that and they have to be somewhere else soon enough.  I would research the hell out of them so they knew I did my homework and could feel respected by the effort on my part.  And I would always try to remember to show my appreciation by saying “thank you” for their time.

Someone like Terry Gross or Charlie Rose has probably figured a way to ease themselves through the loss of someone they’ve come to know through a good, long talk.  Like I said, it’s only happened to me once.  I don’t know how many times it’s happened to Mr. Miller.

But every brutal goodbye is a rough one.

Yeech

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Prison Bars

On the dividing line between “funny ha ha” and “funny strange”, radio sometimes dangles toes on both sides.

This morning, on NPR’s “Here and Now”, host Jeremy Hobson was talking to reporter Steve Chiotakis of KCRW in Los Angeles about a recent escape of three inmates from the Orange County Men’s Central Jail near Santa Ana, California.  The three pulled off a daring escape, “Shawshank Redemption” style, and now may possibly be harbored by members of the nearby Vietnamese community.

Anyway, in the course of describing the break, Mr. Hobson says something like, “And these men have committed crimes that we probably wouldn’t want to describe on the radio” in that manner of radio hosts where they make a statement into a question by hanging a big empty space on the end of it.

And Mr. Chiotakis, taking his cue, begins to describe the crimes the men committed.

This is one of the many things about reporting and journalism that I think listeners can sometimes find annoying.  Don’t be cagey or cutesy or self-impressively clever about how you skirt lines you draw, please.

Say or don’t say, but don’t be “yeech” about it.

Written by Interviewer

January 27, 2016 at 03:10

Propaganda, Cowboy Style

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Shot Up Flag

I am working on a project that I don’t really have time to interrupt.  Except here I am doing it because I have found a quote that so exquisitely explains what is happening in Malheur county near Burns, Oregon, that I just have to share it.

As you may know, armed militants, protesters, occupiers or patriots (depending on to what degree you agree or disagree with their intentions) have taken over a Federal Wildlife Refuge.  Their trigger was the arrest of a father and son for setting fire to federal lands and being sent to prison a second time after a court ruled the time they initially spent in jail for the crime wasn’t sufficient.

And their ultimate goal may be to go out in a blaze of glory; a combination of Waco, Texas and Timothy McVeigh with the intention of starting a new Sagebrush Rebellion to sweep across the west.  But their stated reason, today, for remaining at the refuge, today, includes convincing local farmers and ranchers that the land upon which the refuge sits belongs to them, the true owners, not the federal government.

There are many tangents to that line of thinking, including how, if you want to get technical, it is the Paiute Indians; the 13,000 year prior residents who may have the ultimate, bonafide claim.  Another tangent is how, an armed group of white men can commandeer a federal facility with police, sheriffs, marshals, FBI and military within spitting distance and nobody gets shot.  But an unarmed and innocent black man in any one of a dozen U.S. cities can be shot by police because the officers feel their lives “were in danger”.

And then, there is the Constitutional interpretation, which unfortunately, like the Bible, can be interpreted to mean anything by those believing they are the chosen ones to interpret it.

But I digress.

Back in 1961, during a seminar hosted by the National Educational Association of Broadcasters, University of Illinois, Urbana faculty member Harry Skornea told a story about his work in East Germany just after the Berlin Wall went up:

“This reminds me of 1948 when I struggled a good deal with the organization of a news department for RIAS (Radio In The American Sector) in Berlin. The blockade was starting and our people were trying to set up a good news department that would cause the people to listen to RIAS instead of the much more powerful East Berlin station. And one of the things that I thought they were doing wrong and which we finally were able to put a stop to was that, good as our news department was, the communists were using us, or manipulating us. When one of the East German leaders, Grotewohl or someone else would speak, or when there would be an enormous rally in Leipzig, our newsmen would be real proud of the fact that they were able to cover it.  And I said, “Don’t you realize that in a great many cases these meetings are being staged precisely so you will cover them and report them?  And that you’re being used time after time?  You’ve got to have the courage not to cover certain things which have propaganda implications, because unless you’re extremely perceptive, you may be lending yourself to their nefarious ends.  And I think that in a great many cases, we fail to recognize the extent to which things we relay are “managed” in some way or other by people who are a little bit more skillful than we are, and I think we are going to have to begin to screen more carefully ourselves”.

The news cycle is such a circular heroin injection and any news porn that fills the seconds is considered to be serving the highest standards of the Society of Professional Journalists, or at least the drooling demands of advertisers.  But does telling the public all about it all the time make them informed such that they will solve the problem without, as Oregon Governor Kate Brown lamented regarding the Malheur situation, “tearing themselves apart”?  Can it make the perpetrators think about the philosophy of the matter at a depth deeper than their ego without making them laugh so hard that they piss themselves?

Or does it just make journalists punks?

Wired

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Wired

This isn’t about interviews.  It is about somebody who does interviews.  But it’s not about the interviews they do.  It’s about something else.

A good friend of mine is a high ranking public affairs officer at the Environmental Protection Agency.  She’s been there for more than 10 years.  She’s held numerous positions.  She’s excellent at her job.  Everybody knows and respects her work.

She’s a badass.

She told me recently that she applied for a job that she didn’t get.

“I think the job was “wired”.
“Wired?”
“Yeah, you know, when there’s a direct connection that you can’t see because it’s hidden behind a wall”.

Apparently, federal hiring managers often announce a vacancy but already have someone in mind.  So they skirt rules of the Office of Personnel Management by making the public notice of the vacancy very short (there are no federal regulations for how long a vacancy must be listed on USAJobs), tailoring the job requirements very tightly and then, interview applicants which, by design, are few.  Then, when the interviews close, they hire who they always intended.  They were never going to hire anyone else but they had to follow the process to make it look fair.

She says she gets it.  It’s a good ole’ boys network, and most of the hires are white men.  Even here in Portland, city government just today instituted a new policy that requires commissioners to interview at least one qualified minority candidate, female candidate and candidate with a disability for bureau director and other top positions. It seems the last seven hires were middle aged white men.

Bad optics.

So it’s not just a Federal tendency.  She says after the position closed, people pulled her aside to say it wasn’t about her.  They just wanted somebody they felt comfortable with, whatever that meant.

Of course, she didn’t know what really went on about her or her qualifications.  Apparently there was a split vote and a spirited discussion.  And for a moment, she thought she, a black woman, might break through.  But when a well informed friend used the word “wired” as part of the autopsy, she knew.  And she felt a little betrayed.

The EPA, like a lot of Federal agencies, is now required to see the world through what it calls a “diversity lens”.  New terminology for an old ideal.  When I worked for the feds, walls of my agency were blanketed with mission statements and policy letters that screamed its best self.  Now she’s come to believe that deep down, every organization secretly likes the taste of chaw.  She started humming the “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”.  We laughed about it.

Apparently, companies of all sorts are inconsiderate like this all the time.

Wired.  I’d never heard of such a thing.

If you have, tell me about it.

Mike Murad Update

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Mike Murad

This is a real quickie.

There is life in TV after TV.  On May 23, 2015, Mike Murad was still looking for work.  By August, he was the evening anchor for WLUK Fox 11 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.   It’s likely everyone at KOIN Fox 12 knows about the new job, but the many people in the Portland market who liked Mr. Murad might not.

He’s OK.

Written by Interviewer

January 7, 2016 at 05:12

Stage Left

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Twilight

There is a commercial currently running for Centurylink’s PrismTV.  In it, the camera switches back and forth between different families talking about how they enjoy the service.   But there is something else going on.

In the first shot, a man and woman couple talk about service benefits. In the second shot, three family members are sitting on a couch behind someone in the foreground who is also praising the service.  But while two of the family members are looking at the speaker, one of them, a young woman, is looking intensely off to her right.  This is clearly not something the producers could have wanted, but somehow, the shot didn’t get re-shot.  So now, instead of the audience listening to the benefits of Centurylink, I can imagine people are sitting at home looking at this woman and thinking, “What is she looking at?”

You don’t want any of your on-camera subjects doing something that is not involving the audience because their distraction will distract the audience from your message.  If their looks or movements are intended to ignore the viewer, people get that.  But if it’s unintentional, the audience will spend the rest of the commercial wondering what are they missing?

That kind of thing, along with jackets that mysteriously button and unbutton between camera angles and glasses that appear and disappear on tabletops is called a continuity problem.  Usually, camera crews have someone whose only job is to make sure those kind of things don’t happen so that the audience isn’t disrupted by jagged flow.  Considering this spot has been running for several months now, Centurylink must’ve decided it doesn’t care that the young woman is staring at something stage left.

But it is distracting.

Written by Interviewer

January 5, 2016 at 13:48

Bye Bye Q

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Canada2C

It is interesting that John Sepulvado of OPB, who was one of two fund drive pitchers for OPB’s one-day, end of year drive early this week, talked up the interviews of “Q”, the Canadian radio variety program that was airing at the same time.  But OPB is dropping Q as of January 4, 2016.  And nowhere in any of the pitches during that hour of Q was that mentioned.  Also, nowhere in any of the announcements from OPB that “All Things Considered” is moving from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m. PST was it said that as PRI’s “The World” moves from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m., that Q is disappearing completely.  They have been announcing the coming change for about two weeks.

It’s reasonable for Q’s loyal listeners to think that if ATC is moving, and PRI is moving, Q must also be moving.  Why not just say it’s not?

They will no doubt meet the disappearance with first, confusion.  Then anger and then, possibly, resignation.  But I wonder what kind of explanation they will get.  They may never know why Q has gone away.  That public radio stations regularly do this is not unusual but it is, at the very least, insensitive to the people who support their favorite programs as a demonstration of trust in the stations which air them.  They deserve more than that.

The omission of the future of Q shows how public radio is so afraid of criticism that it talks up the positive while avoiding anything that could possibly stir up bad feelings from listeners and jeopardize future giving.  This is an example of much I’ve read about the need for greater transparency in public radio.  I mean, if an opportunity to say something so logically obvious and appropriate was so purposely avoided, listeners might reasonably wonder what else isn’t being told especially when openness is the supposed currency of public radio.

Written by Interviewer

January 2, 2016 at 14:44