When Nina Totenberg reports on legal affairs for NPR, I stop and listen. Nina has an uncanny ability to deliver complex legal facts and courtroom dialogue clearly and dramatically. Her stories are worth turning up. And that’s what I did back in January when she reported on buffer zones at health clinics in Massachusetts.
I was surprised this time to hear Nina reporting from the street in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Most of the time, it seems, Nina is either in a studio or recording in a quiet place in the field. Rarely, in my listening experience, do I hear her recording a stand-up or interviewing people on location. Aside from her dramatic recreations of court dialogue, her stories are rarely scene-driven.
I was so impressed with her approach, I commended her in an email. I was completely taken aback by her response. You’ll have to listen to find out what she said.
PS – Thanks to Dan Tritle at WCAI for recording my interview with Nina.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 12:16 — 11.3MB)
Suzanne and Loretta ten years ago (photo courtesy of Suzanne via Long Haul Productions).
I hope you don’t mind if I get a little personal. February of 2014 marks the first anniversary of my reunion with my birth mother — my “first mother,” as I like to call her. I was placed for adoption in 1962 and, long story short, we made contact in August of 2012. A few months later, we met face-to-face. Reconnecting, even after fifty years, was the exact right thing to do.
As you might imagine, a big life event like that prompted me to think about adoption stories. There are quite a few at PRX well worth listening to. Two in particular catch my ear: “Inside the Adoption Circle” (produced by my partner and others I work with at at transom.org, for full disclosure) and the story featured on this edition of HowSound, “Dear Birth Mother,” produced by Elizabeth Meister and Dan Collison in 2005. “Dear Birth Mother” won a first place award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
If, after listening to HowSound and all of the adoption stories at PRX you’re still hungry for more, I recommend Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away. Ann produced a movie, too.
Thanks for listening. And, happy anniversary “First Mom!”
Podcast: Download (Duration: 32:58 — 30.3MB)
Some radio producers ask interviewees to wear USB headphones with a built-in during interviews recorded via video chat.
When students of mine say to me “I’m going to record an interview via Skype,” I tend to freak-out. Recording the best possible sound is so ingrained in me, a Skype interview is close to the last thing I’d consider because of the poor sound quality. And yet, I’ve succumbed to the dark side.
Recently, I produced a story for the Greenpeace Canada podcast where I recorded all of the interviewees via Skype. And, get this — they all wore USB headsets with a built-in microphone. A sacrilegious act in my book, but one that worked… sort of.
I’m not the only producer making these choices. I hear Skype interviews on public radio with increasing regularity. Colleagues collect sound using smart phones. Others will even ask interviewees to record themselves using an app on a smart phone or tablet. What!??!
I’m not convinced the results are good. Passable, maybe, but not good. And when I say “passable,” I’m being very generous in some cases. But, alas, this seems to be a direction producers are taking more and more.
On this HowSound, I speak with three people who’ve tried alternatives to recording by the book: Andrew Norton of Greenpeace Canada, print reporter and radio freelancer Jenny Gustafsson, and long-time audio producer Dmae Roberts. If you’re adventurous and looking to try new recording methods, you’ll find their experiences informative.
One big challenge they spoke of when employing not-by-the book recording methods is asking an interviewee to do your job. If you were on location, you’d take care of mic placement, extraneous noise, cell phone interference, monitoring levels, etc. But, since you’re not there, the interviewee pays attention to all those details. That seems fraught to me. And, we already ask a lot of our interviewees. Now we’re going to require them to monitor recording levels and mic placement, too? Hmmmmmm….
But, sometimes, recording in person or hiring a producer for a tape synch is logistically or economically not feasible, like the interviews I did for Greenpeace Canada. The people I spoke with were in northern Canada, rural Sweden, and London. Of course, there’s always the option to record an interview over the phone. Yet, if you’re like me, you don’t have the gear at home to do that. So, it may be worth looking into recording alternatives and asking interviewees to help.
When preparing for, say, a Skype interview, Andrew says he starts from the premise that a producer is at the mercy of the interviewee. “You have to keep your ears peeled while you’re talking to them,” he told me, “because there’s not a person there who’s trained in audio and knows what the different things are that could come up in the tape that would suck, that wouldn’t sound good.”
The instructions Andrew and the others I spoke with give their interviewees is pretty standard:
- Find a quiet room to record in.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Turn off radios and television sets.
- Speak close to the mic, even if it’s a built-in computer microphone.
Other directions are unique to the way the interview is recorded. For Skype recordings:
- Close anything on the computer that might take up bandwidth such as iTunes, email, and web browsers. Turn off the video chat, too. (Though, it may be useful to leave it on at first so that you can see what the interviewee is doing and offer suggestions to improve the sound if need be.)
- Let them know they can’t multi-task during the recording because typing and sounds from software can be heard on the recording.
- Tell the interviewee that you may need them to repeat some answers in the event that the internet connection is glitchy and the audio drops out from time to time.
If the interviewee is recording to a smart phone or tablet:
- Be sure they use a good app such as Tascam’s PCM Recorder (I’ve written a short outline on how to use this app). Avoid apps like the iPhone’s Voice Memo. It records files that are too compressed for broadcast.
- You’ll need to tell them where the files are located on the phone and how to download them.
- Instruct the interviewee on proper levels in the VU meters.
- Make sure it’s in “record” not in “record pause.”
And, lastly, if you decide your interviewee should use USB headphones with a built-in mic, tell them to move the mic down toward their chin to avoid p-pops.
So, in the end, after speaking with Andrew, Dmae, and Jenny and taking a couple of stabs recording not by the book myself, I’m still rigorous about collecting the best sound possible in all the tried-and-true ways. But, now I’m willing to add a chapter to my book, if you will, and remain open to alternative recording methods when standard practices won’t work.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 17:13 — 15.9MB)
Have mic, will travel. Producer Laura Starecheski. (Photo by Bob Torrez)
Not too long ago, Laura Starecheski and I were chatting about stories where the producer worked for years in the field. Dave Isay came to mind. But, Dave “only” spent a week with the young people in Ghetto Life 101 and three months at The Sunshine Hotel. This American Life producers worked in the field for five months on Harper High…. The only producer who came to mind was Tony Schwartz. Tony recorded his niece for much of her early life and produced this time-lapsed audio piece.
And then there’s Laura herself. She spent a decade — ten years! — working on “The Hospital Always Wins.” That’s an inordinate amount of time. She started in 2004 and finished in 2013. Laura laughs when she says “Doing the piece basically spanned my career in radio, so far.”
The documentary follows the story of Issa Ibrahim, an artist and a patient at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. The twists and turns in Issa’s story are remarkable and so is Laura’s production backstory.
“The Hospital Always Wins” aired on The State of the Re:Union in the fall of 2013. I’ve excerpted a portion of the documentary on this edition of HowSound but you should make sure to listen to the whole story, start to finish. It won’t disappoint. Believe me.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 21:08 — 19.4MB)
The idea is practically ludicrous – a radio program about the English soundscape 400 years ago…. when there were no recordings! How on Earth do you accomplish that, for an hour no less? Well, Chris Brookes, Paolo Pietropaolo, and Alan Hall figured out a way to do it and it’s genius. Of course it would be. Brookes, Pietropaolo, and Hall are three of the most creative radio producers around.
The three produced the documentary in 2008 and it’s called “Hark! The Acoustic World of Elizabethan England.” I found the program so stimulating that it sparked a New Year’s resolution – listen deliberately to the sounds around me as often as possible.
As the doc’s title suggests, “Hark!” explores what the English city and countryside may have sounded like some four centuries ago. While doing so, the piece places our modern soundscape under an audio microscope and poses some cogent questions about what we listen to day in and day out – hence my New Year’s resolution.
Please take time to listen to this doc. It’s lengthy and well worth your attention. I recommend headphones or planting yourself in front of your favorite speakers. You won’t regret it.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 55:48 — 51.2MB)
Martha Lillard inside her “iron lung.” Lillard contracted polio when she was six and needs the “lung” to breathe. (Photo by Julia Scott)
Julia Scott had no interest in climbing into an “iron lung.” She told me the device looks like something only Dracula would lay in. Of course, Martha Lillard, who uses the iron lung pictured above, is no Dracula. She’s a victim of the polio epidemic of the 1950s and needs the lung to stay alive.
Julia produced a story on Martha and her iron lung — one of only about a dozen still in use in the United States — for PRX’s Stem Story Project, a series of features focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. After interviewing and collecting the sound of the machine, Martha asked Julia if she’d like to get in and try it out. Despite her trepidation, Julia timidly said “yes” and she’s glad she did.
Laying inside the lung gave Julia a new perspective. She says she viscerally became aware of what it meant to have a machine take over breathing, an understanding she couldn’t have gained from an interview alone. To be sure, Julia didn’t use the lung for nearly sixty years like Martha has, but that sort of “participant observation”, even if brief, was incredibly valuable when writing the story, she says.
Have a listen to Julia’s feature “The Last of the Iron Lungs” on this edition of HowSound.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 13:25 — 12.4MB)
Michael McGee, Lt. Col., United States Air Force, Retired (Photo by Kathy Tu)
ATTENTION: Please wear headphones for this HowSound. They’re mandatory. Put them on now.
Ira Glass once said of Jad Abumrad “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Is Kathy Tu the new, new sheriff? Clearly, it’s much too early to say, but take a listen to Kathy’s story on this edition of HowSound and you may ask yourself that very question.
The story is called “The Fighter Pilot” and it’s only the second story Kathy has ever produced (both stories were produced at the Fall 2013 Transom Story Workshop). She estimates she cut, mixed, and assembled sound design elements for “The Fighter Pilot” for seven hours — per minute of the six and a half minute story!
What’s even more impressive is that Kathy is a lawyer by training. In fact, she takes her bar exams soon. While I wish her luck, I sure hope she follows her ears and pursues her passion for radio.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 9:59 — 9.2MB)
Devastation near the home of Virgina and Tim Miller in Apison, Tennessee after the deadly tornado of April 27, 2011. (Photo by the Millers.)
Mary Helen Miller put a big smile on my face when she offered the following advice to station-based producers: Sneak out the back door with the tape recorder and make something good.
Mary Helen worked at WUTC in Chattanooga, Tennessee for a while where she said she left the station with her microphone as often as possible — even when no one was looking. She says working in the field means more work but the tape you gather brings life to a story so she “snuck out” whenever she could.
One of her forays in to the field led to the production of a story that won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award in 2013. The piece is called “Just Plumb Gone.”
Congratulations, Mary Helen and hopefully you’ll inspire other producers to “sneak out the back door.”
Podcast: Download (Duration: 17:43 — 16.3MB)
Photo of Joseph Curtin by David Schulman.
I always admire producers who pushes themselves, who try something new. So, David Schulman automatically gets a thumbs up from me for a story he recently produced.
You may know David from his “Musicians in Their Own Words” series. He says he’s produced over a hundred stories on music for that series and many other public radio programs. All of his work is non-narrated.
Then, earlier this year for PRX’s Stem Story Project, David stepped out of his usual role as a hidden producer with his narrated story “The Elusive Digital Stradivarius.” On top of that, it’s a science piece — David’s not a science reporter.
On this HowSound David talks about how he simplified complex information about acoustics and he offers an incredibly solid tip on interviewing musicians…. interviewing anyone, actually. Listen up.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 16:30 — 15.2MB)
Journalist Meron Estefanos reports on Eritrean hostages held captive in the Sinai Desert. (Photo by Trabelsi Productions.)
Yowei Shaw amassed 325 pages of transcripts after she completed logging her tape for a recent This American Life story. Yowei had help from TAL producer Brian Reed and Eritrean reporter Bealfan Hailey. But still, 325? That’s a lot!
The transcripts were for Yowei’s piece “This Story May Be Recorded… To Save Your Life,” which aired on This American Life in August of 2013. Yowei tells the story of reporter Meron Estefenos and the Eritrean hostages in the Sinai Desert that she’s attempting to rescue through her reporting and a public campaign.
In some respects, logging the recordings was the easy part for Yowei. First, she had to get all the audio files from Meron — hours and hours and hours of it. Then it had to be translated — all the calls were in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea. On top of that, Yowei along with Brian and Bealfan, had to figure out the story as they sifted through hundreds of phone calls with some 200 people!
And then there’s the content of the recordings. The hostages describe torture and beatings and their longing to be free — their begging to be free. The tape is brutal to listen to.
On this HowSound, Yowei describes her behind-the-scenes process and how the grueling effort to assemble this story took its toll on her.
Be forewarned. This program has descriptions of graphic violence.
PS – Some time ago, This American Life published a comic book on audio storytelling. It’s genius. Do yourself a favor and get a copy.
Clarification: The translation of Meren’s phone call recordings took place in both Silver Springs, Maryland and New York City, not just Silver Springs. And, Meren Estefanos is not a freelance reporter but, rather, works for Radio Erena.
Podcast: Download (Duration: 16:32 — 15.2MB)