Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘transcript

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

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

Late Night Quickie

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I just got a new piece of software that will let me create transcripts of my interviews.  It’s amazing technology.  I just drag the audio file into a box and it listens to the audio and creates a written version.  I listen and make spot corrections, of course.  But it’ll transcribe my longest, hour long interviews and all I have to do is go to the start of the finished transcript, put on the headphones, click the audio file and touch up as I go.  I’ve transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews by hand over the years and it can be misery.  I created a rule of thumb that said each minute of audio took three minutes to carefully listen to and accurately transcribe.  So an hour of audio could easily take three hours to transcribe.  Now, for this same hour-long interview, I expect it will only take an extra 30 minutes, not 180.  This is exquisite.

Soon, I expect to have readable transcripts for all of my interviews.  I’ll put the transcribe icon right next to the microphone (get interviewed) icon and beside the preview and interview boxes beneath each completed interview on my Conversus website –  And it’ll be great because the Internet looks for tags and keywords.  So, all of the references in the written versions will make them that much easier to find online.  It’ll be one stop shopping.

Written by Interviewer

April 11, 2013 at 14:21