Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for March 2016

Social Engineering, Radio Style

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Mouth and Microphone

You can hear an announcer sound friendly.  It’s when the corners of their mouth go up in a smile as they talk.  You can actually hear it in your earbuds or speakers when it happens.  It’s tangible.  Just like you can hear when they inject a momentary laugh (that sounds almost like a stutter) into a sentence.  In both cases, the speaker is trying to connect with you emotionally because they’ve been trained that a happy announcer makes for a relaxed listener.

You’ll hear that very short laugh, most often, when the speaker has made a mistake, like if they mispronounce a word.  Almost instantly, you’ll hear the stutter laugh, which is deployed in a self-deprecating manner that says, “I’m human and I made a mistake. Isn’t that funny?”   It’s interesting that so many announcers do it considering they are also trained to not draw attention to mistakes.  But you’ll also hear that laugh when the announcer is trying to grease a thought that will help you slide along beside their intention.  For instance, if a news reader is talking about a non profit’s mission that they believe in, although they can’t say so, they may unconsciously give a stutter laugh that quickly says, “This thing is good”, thus sending a flash message that it’s worth your consideration.

I also hear the stutter laugh is when the announcer, host or interviewer has a degree of contempt for something they’ve just heard or read.  But most professionals are savvy enough to know that also sends a quick and clear message that could cause the audience to question their credibility and impartiality (if their audience cares about such things), so they don’t use that laugh as much.  Often, I hear it used somewhere in a statement to add a momentary bit of levity to that statement.  And sometimes, I hear it when the speaker is reacting to something that either is or isn’t funny, but only mildly so.  But in almost all cases, it’s not about humor.

The smiling behind the mic is a little more involved.  Admittedly, when I hear someone who sounds technically proficient but low on emotion versus someone who sounds warm, I gravitate to the warmth.  In most situations where someone you can’t see is talking through a smile, they’re going to sound warm.  The thing about that is even though it sounds really sincere, you couldn’t get away with it in person.

There’s this thing called the Facial Action Coding System, which was developed back in the 1970s.  It identified every muscle of the face and created a matrix of combinations that identified almost every human emotion depending on which muscles you moved.  Whether the test subjects actually felt the emotions that gave them the faces, or whether they forced the faces, the emotions, strangely, followed.

But faked emotions don’t work when you’re facing another human being because we’re way too sophisticated to be fooled by feelings that aren’t real even if all the right muscles are pulled.  We add body language and vocal quality to facial expressions to help us calculate the honesty of the person we’re talking to.  In interviews where people are sitting across from each other and feelings are faked, you can hear the conversation fall like a cinder block into a cow pasture.

You can only pull off false sincerity if nobody can see you (though, political campaigns would seem to contradict this).  That’s different from a conversation that both people are clearly enjoying.  There, you can hear the goodwill and the smiles are not fake.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about the other thing; a solo announcer talking to and trying to somehow sway, the coveted “you”.

Talking through smiles and stutter laughs are two tools people behind microphones use to connect with you.  And most likely, they use them so well, you hardly notice because they’re designed to set you at ease, not raise your awareness.  These people don’t know you, but they want you to feel like they do (or would want to).  Because in the world of broadcasting, where a successful connection means money or feet on the street, that’s good enough.

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Written by Interviewer

March 22, 2016 at 05:14

You Gotta Be Schitting Me

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Shit Creek

American culture can be weird.  For example, the second season of the CBS comedy, “Schitt’s Creek” was previewed in an interview with its two top billed stars, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on CBS This Morning.  The show name was plastered on plasma TV screens all over the studio.  Yet everyone at the table, including three professional journalists, were straining to avoiding saying the title, which is a wordplay on a profanity.

Americans love to be tittilated (whoopsie).  Whether it’s going to the ballet to see who’s going to fall, watching sports waiting for the next big hit or following political debates to see who is going to have the next Lloyd Bentsen moment.  But this is a little confusing, because in this case, tittilation would be if the actual word, “shit” was being used or skirted, not a substitute for the word.

I used to live in Utah, and its residents had the same relationship with the word, “fuck”.  In my twelve years there, I saw the substitutes for “fuck” mutate from “flip” to “frick” to “fudge” – all “f” words.  It seemed that as a version got too closely associated with the real profanity, a new one replaced it and moved into the vocabulary.  I used to fantasize that someday, it would return to “fuck”.  I wonder what it is now.

The late George Carlin, a master at comedy that emphasized such wordplay, used to eat this stuff for breakfast.  Carlin, as you may remember, was named in a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case between the FCC and the Pacifica radio network that forever enshrined the seven dirty words you couldn’t say in broadcasting.  They are, for the record and in mostly alphabetical order, “cocksucker”, “cunt”, “fuck”, “motherfucker”, “piss”, “tits” and of course, “shit”.

In an HBO comedy special, Carlin himself made fun of people’s discomfort with the actual words, commenting that at one point, a man asked him to remove motherfucker from his routine.  Carlin said, “He says motherfucker is a duplication of the word fuck, technically, because fuck is the root form, motherfucker being derivative; therefore, it constitutes duplication. And I said, ‘Hey, motherfucker, how did you get my phone number, anyway?'”

He later added the word back to his routine, claiming the bit’s rhythm didn’t work without it.  Carlin made fun of each word; for example, he would say that tits should not be on the list because it sounds like a nickname for a snack (“New Nabisco Tits! …corn tits, cheese tits, tater tits!”).

Maybe, after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Superbowl and the subsequent hiking of indecency fines by the FCC from 35-thousand dollars to more than 300-thousand dollars per violation, U.S. radio and TV networks got religion and all forms and flavors.  But it’s a little like the Simpsons episode where Bart is in the back seat yelling the word “bitch” and Homer grits his teeth because Marge says, “Homey, it is the name of a female dog.”

Hey CBS, own it.

When Elephants Fight

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elephant-fight-far

“When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” – African Proverb

In the course of working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I stumbled upon a conversation between two leaders in the public radio realm. Adam Davidson, who has been a content producer for NPR and APM with a particular interest in economics, and John Sutton, a long time radio researcher and fundraising consultant who has been following audience behaviour for decades.

Mr. Sutton responded to a conversation Mr. Davidson posted about the future of audio content and how public radio in general is facing an existential threat from new, long-form journalism from podcasts like “Serial”. Mr. Sutton responded that people don’t use podcasts the way they use radio as it currently exists and even with the technological changes that have rocked public radio, their effect in the long term will be smoothed out.  As time went on, their conversation got a lot livelier and their critiques of each other’s point of view, much more, … um … pointed.

Fortunately, what I’m working on isn’t specifically about program production, audience behaviour or technological innovation as it affects public radio. There are people are much smarter about those things than I will ever be. But it reveals the problem with experts. What is the public to do when standing between two people who have the credentials to clearly and cogently defend opposite points of view?

Pubcasters do everything they can to keep the public happy and in a giving mood and that means drawing as little attention as possible to such conversations. But in the deep underbelly of public radio, they ultimately direct bigger conversations. Like, for example, those over the success of Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new CEO who wants to bring more high value donors into NPR. It’s a strategy that drew justifiable skepticism from the host of OPB’s daily flagship radio news program in 2014.

Maybe the extra cash will help public radio rely less on pledge drives, give producers more freedom to produce higher quality programming and help it avoid future bloodbaths like the one that rocked the network in 2014. ICYMI, NPR made deep cuts in staff and programming in a cost saving move.

In their August 2015 conversation, both men do agree on one thing – the key to public radio’s success is producing programs the audience will listen to and pay for. Their discussion, found here, is probably only one of many such fights between such elephants deep within the public radio milieu.

Written by Interviewer

March 12, 2016 at 08:59