Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Research

Time to make the Donuts

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The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

When Elephants Fight

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“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

Giving People What They Want

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Transcript Image

I do interviews.  And recently, I thought it might be good to start providing transcripts of the interviews I do.  For those of you that don’t know what a transcript it, it’s a written verbatim copy of a recorded interview.  The advantage of transcripts is you can search them very fast with keywords and find something you’re looking for instead of having to listen to an entire interview because you have no idea where what you want is.

And I thought about charging a fee to read the transcripts.  I thought this because creating transcripts is labor intensive, as opposed to recording interviews, where the labor is hidden in the pleasure of doing the interview.  By contrast, transcribing is not pleasurable.  For someone who likes to cook, a good analogy is you love preparing recipes, but you hate doing the dishes.  Transcribing is doing the dishes.

To carry the analogy a little further, I just got a dishwasher, meaning, I just got a program that listens to my audio and transcribes it.  But, it’s trained for my voice as it learned it through my desk microphone, not other voices over terrible phone lines.  So, even though it can understand at least 1/2 of all of my interviews; my half, it might hear the other half and give me text that looks like this:

~it is one of the respect each other we make intelligent decisions that is together a demented in other crimes musical vision certainly in the latest presented week we just you have simpatico thing going on I just love everything does just the way it is within the work to the~

This is from the Air Supply interview that I did a couple months ago.  Did you get all of that?

So when this happens, I have to listen to it and fix it.  Even when the software hears everything right, touch ups can take 30% longer than the interview itself.  But for garble like this, well … I’ve logged probably 5 hours on this 30 minute interview and I’ve got at least another hour to go.

But I appreciate transcripts when I need them.  And it made me wonder though, if anybody uses them besides me.  My real question is, does anybody read anymore?  With a YouTube, Pinterest, Conversus rich environment of images and video and sound, why would anybody drag themselves by the face through pages of the written word?

So, I called National Public Radio (NPR).  They sit at the top of the transcript mountain.  They produce gobs of programming and transcripts for all of it.  So I asked them – transcripts; yes or no?

Until 2009, NPR was charging $3.95 per transcript.  They still use an independent company to create those transcripts.  This company gets weekday news show transcripts up in a few hours and weekend news show transcripts up by the next day.  But back then, NPR reached a point where they decided that listening to the audio was no different from reading the transcript since both were part of experiencing the interview.  I thought that was very interesting considering how the NYT and others are still struggling through the whole paywall thing.  NPR had a paywall of sorts years ago and abandoned it.

This very nice young lady on the phone told me that while some people read transcripts to better their English, the hearing impaired might read transcripts because the audio program is a problem for them.  People who hear something in a live program but aren’t sure of what they heard, they can always go to the transcript and read it to be sure of what they heard.  And of course, I thought of people who are doing research and need to find something fast without having to waste time listening to an entire interview.  And she said that although she didn’t know how many people click the transcript button, she could say that it does get clicked and clicked enough that the button is still there.

So, I’m left with two bottom lines.  If NPR isn’t charging for transcripts, economies of scale tell me that I probably shouldn’t either.  But why do I want to go through the work of creating them?  Because, if it will help people enjoy the interviews better, it’s probably worth it.

Written by Interviewer

April 13, 2013 at 09:53