Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Search Results

An “Ol G” of News

leave a comment »


In my opinion, PRI’s “The Takeaway” is very near to its perfect form.  But it wasn’t always so.  The Takeway arose from the ashes of the Bryant Park Project, an effort in the early 2000s by National Public Radio to create and present a hip, fast paced morning talk show geared toward a younger audience.  BPP was groundbreaking in the way it tried to present its own avant-garde style of news.  But one person’s innovative is another person’s disjointed.  And NPR responded to BPP’s poor ratings by cancelling the program within a few short years of its debut.

The Takeaway, with co-hosts John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee quickly filled the void and came on strong with hard hitting, fast paced and topical news and feature programming.  It was a response to what public radio listeners wanted in conjunction with NPR’s flagship news program, “Morning Edition”. The Takeaway didn’t chase people away from their radios after Morning Edition as BPP had done.  But early Takeaway had different problems.

Namely, it rocketed through its segments with such speed listeners often didn’t have a chance to take in what they had just heard before they were hearing something new.  And although the two host format does add variety to the mix, it can also contribute to an already too fast pace by making listeners feel they are trying to follow a ping pong ball.  The news was good, the announcing was good, the format was good.

But now, it’s much better.  Hockenberry has taken over the announcing chair.  And in exchange for speed, the program is now “tight”.  Here’s the difference.  Any program that tries to smash too many stories into too little time or does too much experimenting with how it presents news can leave listeners under-informed and frustrated.  It can sound hurried, rushed and unsatisfying. And within that hurriedness there can be other problems.  Dead air, stories that don’t complete the storytelling arc and a flipness to reporting that can sound almost careless point not just to production problems but conceptual problems.

By contrast, calling a program “tight”, in production parlance, is high praise.  Tight means there is a flow between segments with transitions that make sense.  And it means those transitions are so seamless that you don’t notice them. It means the authority of the narration doesn’t talk down to you.  And it means that the mix of that narration, orchestrated with interviews, soundbytes, music and sound effects is credible.  Plus, The Takeaway’s partnerships with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston along with Mr. Hockenberry’s presentation give it a width and depth that is rare even within public radio.

Also, Hockenberry is ballsy.  He eschews labels and rolls up to the assumptions society is all to eager to swallow about itself.  He is pushy, relatively loud (by public radio standards) and, dare I say, sometimes indelicate.  That is what makes him so great.  He is, probably, the coolest old white public radio dude ever.  But, I’ll bet he knows that.

Faith Sailee, the original BPP host, along with Celeste Headlee, Mr. Hockenberry’s original co-host have both moved on.  Ms. Sailee is a fixture on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  And Ms. Headlee is an alternate host for Michelle Martin’s Tell Me More.  While I’m sure Mr. Hockenberry is not satisfied yet with The Takeaway, as a listener, I can see the program has traveled parsecs from where it started.  I am grateful for everything it went through and everyone who worked on it to get it there.

The term “old school” has become shorthand for the measure twice cut once mindset that typifies high quality work.  But sometimes, for some people, you have to go a little further. Back in the day, you called the best of the best an “Ol G“.  As I listen to The Takeaway, I am convinced Mr. Hockenberry has moved into the ranks of an Ol G.

Gilding the Lily

leave a comment »


One of the best interviews I’ve ever heard was today on NPR between Shon Hopwood and Judge Richard Kopf, moderated by Melissa Block. The first part of it was about Mr. Hopwood, who robbed several banks and was sentenced by Judge Kopf to 13 years in federal prison. He became a jail house attorney and, over years of work, managed to get a petition heard by the Supreme Court. Apparently, that is almost unheard of for a practicing attorney, let alone by a prisoner pecking away anonymously on a typewriter in prison. And then, years later, he did it again.

Now, as an aside, some may see this as an excuse to remove law books from prisons because they may think inmates have no business learning, let alone applying law principles. This story is a testimony to justice and redemption, and blocking people from the only avenue they have to achieve both, other than waiting out their time, kills another chance for either.

When Hopwood got out of prison, he was granted a full scholarship to University of Washington in Seattle Law College.

But deeper into the interview were two huge reveals. The first was from Judge Kopf. He was convinced when he sentenced Hopwood fourteen years ago, that he was a punk who would never see the light of day again. The judge said in the interview that after hearing Hopwood’s story, he realized that there are many times in the subsequent years when he could’ve been wrong. He said his characterization of Hopwood had made him realize that just because he is a judge, that he is not always right.

The other twist came in Hopwood’s response. When asked if he felt the judge was right, Hopwood said yes. He admitted to being a troubled young man, deserving of the sentence he was given. The takeaway for me was that both of these men, essentially in the dark as to the true nature of the other, learned only after more than a decade that they both were essentially right … and wrong. In response to Shon, the judge replied that Shon has intellectual honesty and introspection.

Mr. Hopwood will be clerking for Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown, of the US Appellate Court for the District of Columbia. He plans to apply to the Bar.

One of the things that makes this interview great is the same thing that makes lasagna great; the aging. If you make a lasagna, on the first night, it’s good. But when it sits in the refrigerator overnight, the next night, it’s fabulous. That’s because, cooks will tell you, time has had a chance to season all of the ingredients. I think the same is true with this story. Essentially, what makes this story exceptional is that both people followed the classical Greek story arc. Shon starts out bad and ends up good. The judge starts out sure and ends up not so sure. Both stories are on parallel tracks but invisible to each other. Only time can cause their paths to unexpectedly cross again.

Block asked the judge if he had anything to add to Shon’s revelation that he deserved what he got but that he worked hard to be a calmer, better person who could inspire others. The judge said no, because he said he could’nt “gild that lilly.” Beautifully said. I can only hope that I either stumble across stories like this, or be able to go deep into my craft and turn them into stories like this.

In this case, the art of journalism doesn’t imitate life … the art is life. To hear the full interview, go here –

Written by Interviewer

September 6, 2013 at 08:33

Posted in Scratchpad

The Worst Interview in the History of Radio Broadcasting

leave a comment »

The Bryant Park Project was an NPR morning show that ran from about 2007 to 2008 and was promptly replaced by The Takeaway, a much slicker, faster, newsier program.  The BPP, co-hosted by Faith Sailee, was an experiment in how stodgy NPR could reach a younger, edgier audience.  The fact that the show isn’t around anymore proves they did some things wrong.  But, this autopsy of the worst interview in the history of radio, is one Oscar winning work they should be commended for.  Watch the interview and its dissection, and try not to cringe.


Written by Interviewer

September 21, 2012 at 00:21

Posted in Scratchpad

Tight as Hell

leave a comment »

Hair on Fire

I recently listened to a program where the guests were talking  about climate change as it affected water use in California.  At the end of the program, the editor identified themselves.  It was the answer to a question I’d wondered for the entire 59 minutes.

I’ve talked about the benefits of a program being “tight” before.  But when you listen to a conversation, you’re not just listening to the words.  You’re listening for a rythmn, a pacing, a cadence.  You want to be able to settle into a cycle of up and down, of ebb and flow.

Smoothness is just as important as volume and pitch in a well produced and edited conversation.  And that means hearing the natural breaks between words, the natural pauses between sentences.  The breaths.

This program was amazing in that it packed so many questions and answers from these four people into such a short period of time.  But the entire program sounded winded from the beginning.  The edits were so close, they threatened to draw blood from each other.

I understand wanting something to move quickly so that it stays interesting.  And I understand having so much information that you want to insure you get it all in.  But you don’t want whatever it is you are editing to sound like one long run on sentence.  You don’t want your listener to be exhausted by the time they get to the end, because if they are, did they really hear it?

To that end, don’t artificially move a conversation faster than it should move.  On one side, that means don’t edit it so tightly that light can’t escape from the gaps.  Or, don’t use technology to speed up the programming; something that is happening in both TV and radio.  On the other side, if you have too much information and only so much time, be a producer and do what producers must sometimes do for quality’s sake.


Written by Interviewer

December 9, 2015 at 03:48

Posted in Scratchpad

A Viewer’s Perspective on the Greenpeace Protest Coverage

leave a comment »

St. Johns Bridge

I watched drama under Portland’s St. John’s bridge unfold yesterday.

At 7 a.m., the CBS Morning News began as usual. But at 7:05, local affiliate KOIN cut in with breaking news about a protest by activists to prevent the Fennica, a ship owned by Shell Oil, from moving northward on the Willamette River. Apparently, as the ship left dry dock around 2 a.m., protestors were already positioning themselves to dangle themselves in front of it. The ship is an icebreaker and has the ability to cap blown out oil wells.  The US Government gave Shell permission to drill in the Arctic only if that capability is on site.  By blocking its passage and preventing the ship from leaving, activists were preventing the drilling.

The protest was clearly illegal, but it was also quite elegant. Thirteen protestors suspended themselves in hammocks from climber’s ropes beneath the deck of the bridge. They hung low in the shipping traffic route of the Willamette. Their intention was to prevent the high masted Fennica from passing by daring the ship to endanger them in an attempt to pass them. As the Fennica approached, the protestors lowered themselves another 50 feet to make it even more difficult for the ship. And, connecting each protestor was an even lower hanging cable that looped from one to the next to the next. Long and colorful red and yellow streamers waved downwind of many of them.  Over the next hour, the Fennica would stop, turn, retreat and advance as authorities tried to figure out what to do.

I soon realized that this was an great chance to see how all of Portland’s TV news teams covered an event with international appeal. So I started switching between all four stations; KGW Channel 8, KPTV Channel 12, KOIN Channel 6 and KATU Channel 2. It was hard to pay attention to all of the nuances of each station’s coverage considering the story was fast developing and had lots of moving parts. But I had some overall impressions.

  • CBS affiliate KOIN’s video feed from the river shoreline was intermittently terrible. Perhaps it was because the microwave signal for the camera operator was in a bad location. Or maybe they were using a technology other than microwave. But the picture was frequently pixelated. However, Ken Boddie in studio, Brent Weisberg on the river, and Elishah Oesch at the street level were professional and comprehensive in their reporting despite technical difficulties. KOIN did get some beautiful shore level video of protestors hanging from the bridge.
  • NBC affiliate KGW relied heavily on their helicopter, as did KATU and KPTV, although I couldn’t tell if KGW had a reporter in theirs. The footage they shot gave excellent perspectives on kayakers, protestors hanging from the bridge and the moving Fennica thanks to anchor Russ Lewis and reporters Stephanie Stricklen and Rachel Rafanelli.
  • ABC affiliate KATU’s Mike Warner was their reporter in the air. His reporting personalized what was happening on the water and made me appreciate that his play by play was just as if not more important than an aerial view with no commentary. I counted four and maybe five KATU staff on this story including reporters Katherine Kisiel, Matt Johnson, and Warner as well as anchors Lincoln Graves and Natalie Marmion.
  • KPTV provided the most long lasting coverage. As each network affiliate left Portland’s local coverage at 8 a.m. PST to rejoin network programming, channel 12 stayed and continued to follow events. Anchors Pete Ferryman and Kim Maus, along with reporters Anthony Congi and Debra Gill worked it for at least another hour.

One takeaway for me was the advantage a helicopter provides to a station’s coverage. For example, both channels 8 and 2 seemed to report on a hang glider dangerously manuvering amongst the suspended protestors from their choppers at least a minute before 6 did. But KOIN had some impressive water level shots of the Fennica. And using its long range lens, the ship looked massive and imposing. Plus, KOIN’s Carly Kennelly seemed to be the only one I saw using ODOT traffic views of the St. John’s bridge.

By afternoon, U.S. Coast Guard and Portland Police had cleared a path for the Fennica ending a nearly 40 hour standoff. Portland’s fire and rescue team rappelled off the bridge and managed to remove three of the 13 protestors who hung over the center of the river channel.

Overall, the coverage by all of the locals was outstanding. And this kind of unique protest is what Portland is known for. Although opponents could argue that the protest was illegal, supporters can also argue that it was both ethical and necessary. If there is a positive, it is that worldwide attention was focused on something other than a mass shooting.  Here, both sides can claim a degree of victory with no injuries or loss of life.

Written by Interviewer

August 1, 2015 at 03:25

Say What?

leave a comment »

ISIS Syria 2

I just heard an interview where the interviewer was talking with someone who left Syria just before the group ISIS (or Da’ish) began their campaign of retributive kidnappings and murders.  The interviewer asked why they stopped their humanitarian efforts of distributing blankets.  It was a confusing question since the interview centered around the worsening conditions for aid workers in recent years as well as the just confirmed death of aide worker Kayle Jean Mueller of Prescott, Arizona.  To a listener, it would make perfect sense why the worker stopped providing that aid and the question would’ve probably seemed unnecessary.

But in the follow up question, the interviewer asked the former aid worker if they were naïve for going to Syria in the first place.  Again, it was a strange question since, as the worker pointed out much earlier in the interview, conditions were very different at the beginning of the conflict and distributing the aid was both easier and more accepted by local authorities.

Perhaps, as is the practice of many interviewers, this is an example of covering all of the bases by playing “devils advocate”.  But to me, it’s less that than of the interviewer not listening to the answers or thinking through the history of a subject when preparing for the conversation.  These kind of questions are maddening because poor preparation or inattention by the interviewer can confuse a good topic and a cogent interviewee and leave the listener with no clear takeaway.

I’ve talked about this before; questions that dilute or miss the point.  It happens.  I just wish it happened a little less often.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2015 at 01:47

Inside the House

leave a comment »


There is a difference between an interview and a report. Basically, the report is shorter and much more to the point. But it has all of the same elements; a host, an expert, a subject, a conversation, a takeaway. A report is to an interview as a teaspoon of soup is to the pot.

Just listened to David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for NPR report about the just announced departure of NPR’s CEO, Gary Knell. What I admired about his report was how he was not afraid to talk about prickly stuff. See, when you’re inside an organization and you report on the potential problems in the secret sauce, co-workers can get prickly, even though reporting is what the whole shebang is about. Folkenflik talked honestly, though with ever so slight hesitancy about the turnover of CEO’s; 7 in 7 years, the looming budget shortfall; more than $6 million dollars, the compromise over “Here and Now”; an effort to keep peace among the affiliates and the problem current and potential advertisers might have; does the revolving door at the top make them hesitant to support the network? I heard him stutter step twice and that tells me he didn’t want to pull back the covers on the place he probably loves, but it was his job.

This is not pretty stuff. Public and community radio is under siege from all directions. And NPR got its newest CEO two years ago after disastrous episodes surrounding the firing of Juan Williams, secret videotapes of questionable behavior of NPR fundraisers, and finally, in light of it all, the resignation of the previous CEO. But Folkenflik plowed through it all because he is, I think, like Internal Affairs in a police department. He reports on the reporting. That means he goes deeper and probably feels the respect and simultaneously, the wariness of every journalist in the building.

Folkenflik, like Simon, Totenberg, Sarhaddi-Nelson, and the scores of top notch reporters who have armed me every day against this nutty world; he and they deserve good leadership and I have no doubt the NPR board will provide it. Because courageousness like his, even in his own house, is what credibility is all about.

Written by Interviewer

August 20, 2013 at 07:39

Posted in Scratchpad