Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Oregon Public Broadcasting

Hitting the &$%@#* Button!

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Red Button

Today, while listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s midday news magazine/talk show, “Think Outloud”, I heard something that I don’t often hear.  As Mark Zusman, publisher of Portland’s “Willamette Week” newspaper, praised the work of the late Oregon writer, Catherine Dunn, he recounted a story of a lapel button she frequently wore as she wrote for the paper.  Mr. Zusman presaged the comment by saying, “I don’t know if I can say this”, and Think Outloud host Dave Miller recommended he edit his memory for a radio-friendly audience.

Apparently, Mr. Zusman chose not to do that because the next thing I heard was Mr. Miller translating the button into, “The Meek shall Inherit Bupkis”.  Bupkis, for those who don’t know, is Yiddish and means, “nothing”.  So, with Ms. Dunn’s flair for the English language, it’s safe to assume the button said something like, “The Meek Shall Inherit Not Shit”.  And I know I didn’t hear Mr. Zussman say it because after the translation, Mr. Miller said he thought he saw his producer “Hit the Button”.

“The Button” is slang for the more technical term, “Broadcast Delay”.  Whenever something is said that could possibly offend either community standards or the FCC, stations and hosts have the responsibility to use technology that makes certain the offending word never makes to the public airwaves.  To a listener, it might sound like a bad audio edit; one second, the person talking is about to say whatever they’re going to say and the next second, they are saying something completely different.  This happens because all radio broadcasts operate on a delay of between seven and 30 seconds.  That means what you, the listener is hearing, is actually seven to 30 seconds after when it was actually said.  If there is something stations have to cut, they trigger a circut that removes the offending audio in real time at the station but what you hear is the edit.

Why some guests speak the profanity anyway is partly the fault of the stations  themselves.  The “beep”, or the sound that many producers have used for years to indicate the place where the profanity was, has itself become iconic.  To be “beeped out” is kinda cool, like it gives you radio street cred.  Guests know cursing on the radio is frowned upon, so that might be another reason – they get to be a little “bad”.  They don’t always realize this doesn’t work as well for a live rather than a pre-produced program.  Or, maybe guests figure they have the literary license to speak truthfully about whatever it is and leave it to the stations to sort it out.

This technology varies depending on what stations can afford.  Because it is expensive, some systems have a limited capacity to do this, meaning, if there are more than, say, three such oopsies in one conversation, the system might stop working and then the station is in danger of a fine.  And after the 2004 Super Bowl “Wardrobe Malfunction” incident involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, that fine went from about $35,000 per violation to about $350,000.  So stations are really, really paranoid about profanity.

However, I have noticed some very interesting exceptions to that rule.  I’ll be talking about those in a later post.

Don’t Forget the X Factor

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Female terrorist

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said Oregonians have a moral obligation to accept Syrian refugees despite reports that one of the Paris attackers had a Syrian passport.  According to NPR, this has led 23 governors to say they do not want any Syrian refugees and that the President should reconsider his policy of admitting up to ten-thousand refugees.

In a subsequent OPB story, emphasis was placed on the number of single, combat aged men, who assumedly are most capable of conducting such terrorist operations.  However, the story ignored the number of single, combat aged women.  Jayne Huckerby, an associate professor at Duke University law school who advises governments in counter-terrorism strategies told the Los Angeles Times that female terrorists have a long history of exploiting gender stereotypes to avoid detection, and through counter-terrorism measures, have become more effective.  She says women account for about 10% of those joining Islamic State from Europe and about 20% of those joining from France.

Female terrorist ranks include 57-year old grandmother Fatima Omar Mahmoud Al Majjar.  She attempted to kill two Israeli soldiers in 2007.  Also, Samantha Lewthwaite, the infamous “White Widow” for her involvement in a case in Kenya in 2011.  According to Philip Perry of Liberty Voice, female acts of terrorism have skyrocketed since the 1980s, taking place in such countries as Palestine, Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Sri Lanka. Half the suicide bombings in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya since 2002 have been perpetrated by women. In 2008 Iraqi female bombers had detonated themselves 21 times before the year was even halfway over.

The moral obligation of the United States to help people fleeing for their lives remains unchanged.  And as these stories are told, the media must continue to struggle to not profile.  But newsworthy statistics that are part of the equation should also be part of the story.

Women are equally deadly.

Photo by Hanna Kozlowska of the Chauthi Duniya newspaper

Written by Interviewer

November 18, 2015 at 06:31

Biting the Hand that Sort of Feeds You

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Biting the Hand

Kudos to Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Outloud” for the voicing fears and suspicions of KOPB staff. Mr. Miller was interviewing the new NPR President, Jarl Mohn.  Mr. Mohn had spent much of the conversation talking about the importance of fundraising for the future of NPR, mentioning that the mammoth Ray Kroc (founder of McDonalds) endowment to NPR of a quarter billion dollars in the early 2000s may necessarily be considered “small” in the face of NPR’s future financial needs and fundraising asks.

At one point, Mr. Mohn said he looks forward to “helping” NPR affiliates with their fundraising, to which Mr. Miller, God Bless Him, said that he knows a lot of dedicated people doing fundraising at public radio stations around the country who are already working hard to fundraise, and how do they know that Mr. Mohn’s offer to “help” isn’t just an excuse for NPR HQ to skim more money off the operating budgets of already struggling stations?

Ka-POW!

NPR programs are not cheap. Consider what it costs for a local affiliate just to meet overhead; that’s lights, taxes, licenses, fees. Then, salaries and benefit packages, capital expenditures, lawyers. Then marketing and advertising, maintenance, insurance. And none of that includes the cost of the programs.  I’ve heard pitchers on OPB say that flagship offerings like Morning Edition and All Things Considered can cost a million dollars or more each year.  Then, there’s very popular programs like Science Friday, Here and Now and the relatively new TED Radio Hour.   All of that has to be covered by whatever grants and endowments a station can scrounge. But the center tent pole for any station is fundraising. As a former federal employee, I’m well familiar with the phrase “Hi, I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”. Consider this piece from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2010 that looks how how much it costs to run NPR.  It makes sense that affiliates who’ve got their own thing going don’t necessarily want HQ’s nose under their own tent flap.

And it also doesn’t help that NPR has cycled through five presidents since 1994.  No doubt, local folks look at the turmoil at a place that is supposed to be rock solid and wonder if their own management is a little more stable and locally focused.

Mr. Mohn’s charm offensive had the overtones of a PR campaign. And although he said that if stations didn’t want the help, they didn’t have to take it, you could tell by the occasional edge in his voice that he had heard those concerns before. And now, good journalism or not, KOPB in general and Dave Miller in particular have Mr. Mohn’s attention, if for no other reason, because the station dared to give voice to the question that so many dedicated staffs around the country mutter to each other in hallways and breakrooms.  And for folks who think HQs don’t ever seek recriminations against affiliates for personal slights, a review of Pacifica turmoil might give them more to consider.

George Orwell said journalism is telling something somebody doesn’t want you to tell and everything else is public relations.

OPB – Journalism Done Here.  Good job … and buckle up.

Crickets

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Crickets

This is a quickie.

Sometimes, an interviewer will introduce a guest or a number of guests with the expectation that after he finishes the introduction, the guests will acknowledge the introduction by saying something like how glad they are to be there or how grateful they are to have to opportunity to talk.  It’s the official go ahead to the host that the interview can commence.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen.  Sometimes there is dead silence from everybody.  Then, the host is stuck in that wierd little moment between waiting for the guest(s) to acknowledge the introduction and deciding to plow forward without it.

That happened today with Dave Miller, the host of the Oregon Public Broadcasting noontime radio news program “Think Outloud”.  Following a long and flowing introduction of three people who were on the program to speak of their history with former Oregon Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh who had just been honored in a memorial service, none of them said anything.  After a couple seconds, he moved on but you could tell he was caught a little off guard.  After all, you might expect one person out of three to not say anything.  But three out of three?

As an interviewer, you always wonder when that happens why that happens.  It’s sort of a social convention – equivalent to saying thank you when someone holds open a door.  When the convention gets broken, it can be a surprise.  And the dynamics can be a little hard to understand.  Maybe the longer any guest doesn’t hear any other guest speak first, the longer none of them choose to speak first.  Maybe they consider the nicety superflurous and so they don’t participate in it.  Maybe they didn’t hear the introduction or weren’t paying attention to it.  Or maybe they just want to punk the host.  All have happened to me.  Who knows?

But interviewers, journalist, reporters; anyone who publicly  engages the public knows that expecting people to behave a certain way is risky.  You want to give them their respect and make room for cordiality.  When it doesn’t come though, you can’t blink.  You just think to yourself, “Well, it is what it is” and just keep going.

Written by Interviewer

September 4, 2014 at 02:33

It’s News, it’s Live and it’s Legal.

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black and white

Tonight, I heard Jeff Norcross of Oregon Public Broadcasting apologize to the listening audience for comments made on the Thursday night edition of OPBs “Think Out Loud” program.  The comments came from Fred Stewart, a real estate broker, Northeast Portland resident and former President of the King Neighborhood Association.  Mr. Stewart made dubiously ethical comments regarding the resistance of the Portland African American Leadership Forum to the development of a Trader Joes at the corner of Alberta and NE Martin Luther King.   Mr. Norcross said Mr. Stewart’s comments didn’t reflect OPB and he apologized on behalf of OPB for any injury Mr. Stewart’s comments may have caused.

Setting aside the fact that the issue is incendiary enough on it’s own, and the fact that live radio is by nature unpredictable, I’m not sure if the way OPB responded to Mr. Stewart’s comments were entirely ethical either.  At several points during the program, Mr. Stewart emphasized his wish that “white” Portland media would stop listening to PAALF as the representative of “black” Portland because, according to him, it was not.  And on OPB’s website, the link to this program contains a note that it has been edited.  I can’t tell if the editing was for time or for content.

But at the end of the interview, when asked how can groups work together on development, Mr. Stewart said that “if all of those guys [on the PAALF board] had a heart attack tonight, Portland would be doing very very much better”.  And you can hear the engineer trying to kill his microphone, except there were two live microphones, so you still heard him.  Hear it here at 29:32.  As crude as those comments might have been to some listeners, they did not violate any FCC rules of profanity and were fully within Mr. Stewart’s free speech rights.  If OPB has standards where they reserve the specific right to remove what they consider objectionable speech, they should probably post that on their website or have it as a disclaimer at the beginning of any live program.  This safeguard already exists for profanity.  “Kill switches” with 5 to 45 second delays let hosts stop expletives from ever reaching the antenna.  But, that’s for profanity.

What OPB does say on its website is there shall be no “undue influence”, meaning intentionally coercive behavior undertaken by any source – including but not limited to governmental agencies, private corporations, funders, audience members, news or content sources, powerful individuals, or special interest groups – that seeks to influence or interfere with the accurate, impartial, professional creation of content for news coverage or programming.  As a caveat, OPB also says “This policy is not intended to diminish or prevent internal editing or quality control practices designed to ensure the maintenance of professional journalistic and/or program production standards”.  To me, that says nobody can mess with the message, except us, that is.

But in the next paragraph, under “Editorial Policy”, OPB says:

(b) Programming should be of a high professional quality and, in its totality, represent a well-balanced diversity of views, and

(c) Programming should be credible, accurate, fair, valuable, stimulating and relevant to OPB’s audience.

To me, these say we will be honest in what we broadcast to you.  And to me, their freedom to filter the message comes in direct conflict with the integrity that promises that they won’t.

I listened to the entire program, as I’m sure did many Oregon listeners.  But I couldn’t decide if the sanitizing was an effort to protect the delicate ears of adults or protect Mr. Stewart from himself or to help OPB adhere to what seem like confusing standards.  But no fixing seemed necessary to me.  I thought journalism was an endeavor where reporters presented the facts as best as they knew them and let their audience decide if the message and messenger are credible.  Mr. Stewart’s comments, OPB concluded, were too crude to let the community decide what is or isn’t an honest, legitimate if uncomfortable message.  In the future, I expect that OPB will leave it to the community to decide by letting it hear the legal comments from invited guests air in their entirety.

For OPB to turn down a microphone, in the same manner that Republican Congressman Darryl Issa tried to cut the microphone of Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee just two days ago is, well, eerie.

Not a parallel I expected.