Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘radio

Mine.

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Child Hugging Toy

This is a quickie.

And I may be way off about this.  If I am, somebody tell me.

Yesterday, KOIN Channel 6 did an exclusive interview with Donald Trump.  Later, KPTV Channel 12 referenced the interview and used video from it but didn’t identify the station that conducted it.

I’ve noticed that reporters and outlets, (whether broadcast or print), can be very protective of their work and their brand.  In a society of professionals like journalists, I’m not sure why that is.  But rarely do some outlets credit other outlets for stories they either break or conduct. And the times that I’ve called an outlet to follow up on information in a story of theirs, they share source contact information almost never.

Maybe, the case of yesterday’s pair of stories is a special case.  Perhaps, there is an internal agreement amongst stations that works with video in a pool the same way it works with audio.  FYI, when  a bunch of stations decide to air an event,  often one of them agrees to collect video and audio for all of them so all of them don’t have to duplicate the effort and expend those resources.  That’s called a “pool”.

Maybe it’s a selfish thing – “I had to work to get it, you work to get it”.  Or maybe it’s a mistrust that they won’t get credit from their competitive peers.  But if that was the case, nobody would ever again use anything from anywhere and claim proper “attribution” or “fair use”.

Legitimately, record company X could say, “Why, media outlet, should I let you use a snippet of a Prince song?  If you haven’t paid a royalty fee, you need to find some musician to create a Prince sound-a-like, and BTW, if it sounds too similar, expect to be sued.”  Or author X could say, “My article is fully copywrited and even if you properly attribute me as the author of its conclusions, but without my expressed and written permission, expect to be sued.”

Or maybe it’s a liability thing, as in, reporters don’t want any other reporter suffering from the outcomes of stories they uncover if those outcomes are bad.   Or perhaps reporters can be protective of their scoop like some researchers, who don’t necessarily want any other longhairs dinking around with their original conclusions.

Those two are kind of longshots.

Sometimes, I wish the society of professional journalists behaved more like a society.

P.S. Coincidentally, I found this article by NPR media critic David Folkenflik as I was researching my book about the public radio fund drive.  In it, he asks some of the same questions I ask about why media can be so insular.  I admit that the subjects of companies not giving each other credit and companies not letting reporters talk are not directly related, but in the areas of trust giving and trust getting, they are first cousins.

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Written by Interviewer

May 8, 2016 at 03:18

Radio Silence

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Flatline

At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static.  When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem.  I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station.  I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you.  I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control.  At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line.  I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.

The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned.  And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening.  Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that.  Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem.  So, why no mention?

My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control.  It makes sense.  Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever.  Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio.  So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there.  The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.

But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge.  And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners.  We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories.  All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives.  It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.

So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs?  If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?

When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over.  Or, there would be long stretches of dead air.  I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation.  Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW.  Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.

But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass.  And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative.  One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience.  And that is a mistake.

Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it.  Stuff happens.”  And yes, that’s true.  Why should we care?  I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?

Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember?  Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support.  When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.

It’s a little thing, but not really.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2016 at 10:06

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

How to Be Smooth

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Wireless Microphone

This is a quickie.

TV and radio are technical professions.  Everybody depends on everybody else for a smooth outcome.  Mistakes happen; lights burn out, things fall over, the wrong button gets pushed, a graphic disappears, a computer crashes.  But when they happen, people work to make them as unnoticable as possible.  That doesn’t always happen.  Reporters, anchors and hosts get caught off guard by flubs, both those of other people and their own.  They might apologize, do double takes, start something over, laugh or do any one of a thousand things people do when they’re surprised.

But being smooth is part of being professional, and sometimes, someone is so simply casual about fixing a fix that you have to admire them for it.  Such was the case with KOIN’s Sally Showman this morning.  At the 8:30 local news, traffic and weather break, the camera cut to her giving her weather forecast.  Her lips were moving but nothing was coming out.  There was a problem with her audio.  And smoothly, almost unnoticably, she reached around behind her own back, switched on her wireless microphone, and, as they say in the Army, “continued to march.”

How did she know we couldn’t hear her?  Possibly someone on the studio floor motioned to her that her mic wasn’t working.  Maybe (if she was wearing an earpiece), the director told her to turn it on.  But considering the blooper tapes I’ve seen in my life, even pros can sometimes make something as simple as pushing a button look like a Steve Martin routine.

Live broadcasting is an acquired skill.  It is a dance; gear, people, timing and electronics all choreographed while you drink your coffee.  You’ve seen so many dances that you, discerning audience that you are, know when somebody is stumbling.  So, when there’s a problem, it’s not enough to just fix it.  The fix must also be as ordinary as it is elegant.

Smooth.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2016 at 00:01

Hertz

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Dog with Tilted Head

I know people who can’t take a tone above about 4000 cycles per second, or hertz.  That’s about the frequency of the standard 1950’s plastic whistle.  Spending so much time in TV and radio, you get used to hearing test tones, squeals, hums and buzzes as you wander through a station and past various studios, editing bays and engineering benches.  But you assume they are temporary; the equipment is warming up, somebody is checking gear, whatever.

But tonight I heard something in an NPR story by Tom Bowman that I’m sure couldn’t have made him happy.  While he reported on a story, I heard a tone at about 12,000 hertz.  At that frequency, the sound is like a teeny, needle sized drill going into the side of your head.  And I know how it happened.

Sometimes, when you’re working in a studio, something isn’t quite right.  There is a mismatch somewhere, a loose cable, a bad circuit, a bleedthrough, an open pot – something.  And you think you’re hearing it but you’re just not sure.  So you record your narration and you edit the soundbyte and the piece is finished.  But then, you hear it later and you hear that thing you hoped wasn’t there, but clearly now; 12,000 hertz that isn’t in the soundbyte.  And you know what that means … it was you.  Not the field gear, not the phone, you.

And to the audience, they might think they’re hearing something else coming from somewhere else; it’s the refrigerator, or the TV or the computer.  Maybe it’s the Android.  But for Bowman and every newsie or producer/editor who spends their day hunched in front of Audacity or Adobe Audition, they know it’s not that.  They know the audience isn’t imagining things.  They’re hearing something that shouldn’t be there, they just aren’t sure what it is.

But we know, and man, that sucks.

Written by Interviewer

December 2, 2015 at 11:24

Media Questions About Charlie Hebdo Not Naval Gazing This Time

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Charlie Hebdo

Media is a human institution, just like every other institution on this planet.  It is not perfect.  The media has been accused of everything from under focusing on the right thing to over focusing on the inane thing.  But sometimes, it gets the hard look at itself right.

NPR’s Here and Now had a discussion with Eric Wimple, Media Columnist for the Washington Post on whether there is a level of hypocrisy amongst the media regarding the reprinting of debatable political cartoons by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  Two and possibly three terrorists involved in the killings of Charlie Hebdo staff and French police were killed in and outside of Paris by French police.  The hashtag “#Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) has popped up as a sign of solidarity with the right to free speech as expressed in their political cartoons.

But there has been a counter hash tag, “#Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo” (I am not Charlie Hebdo) as a way of saying although the killings were unacceptable, some of the cartoons the magazine published were purposely incendiary and equally unacceptable to some.

This has landed some media smack in the middle of the question of how much support they will give Charlie Hebdo.  It should be noted that the publication itself has already said they will meet their next printing deadline on time and publish as usual.  But the New York Times and Slate are revealed to be on opposite sides of that intention of support.

Here and Now reported that the New York Times will not re-publish any of Charlie Hebdo’s more controversial cartoons, esp. those that depict the prophet Mohammed.  Slate, by contrast, will.  And the question for journalists is, where is the line separating the brotherhood of the pen from what their audience (including advertisers) will bear?

Charlie Hebdo does not need other publications to carry their water.  They have hoisted their own load onto their own shoulders, terrorists be damned.  The ink still pulses within them and that makes anyone who truly is a “journalist” proud.  But journalists don’t make the business decisions where stockholders and cultures with fickle morals compasses are concerned.

But at least this time, the conversations within the Fourth and Fifth Estates are actually rocking the houses.