Radio Interview Production Workshop #3: Who You Gonna Call?

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So now that you’ve got your equipment (see here and here), it’s time to get out there and find a guest to interview. The first person I ever interviewed kind of happened by accident. My wife and I were at a small casual screening in upstate New York of an independent film  which was trying to make it big on the festival circuit. I was very taken by the film, and I felt it would be great if the movie got more exposure. After the film, the director talked with the audience about how he had made the film and so on, and I found it fascinating. When we left, I expressed regret to my wife, Linda, that only a handful of people had turned out to this screening. As we were about to get into our car,  Linda asked me why didn’t I try to interview him.

Well, I was then a volunteer at listener-sponsored public radio WBAI, and I had done a bit of work for the news department such as it was, but I had never done a feature interview. But Linda’s words had struck a chord in me, so I turned back, and found the director, and asked if he would like to do a radio interview. I didn’t really know how I was going to do this at the time, but he said yes. It turned out he was flying out to Europe the next day. He said if I liked, we could have a conversation over Skype in a few days. So I did, and that was the first interview. While I was waiting to interview him I asked the host of Arts Express, Prairie Miller, whether she would be interested in running such an interview, and even though she knew I was a rookie, she took me on.

I tell this story for the following reasons: 1) One of the best ways to interview people who intrigue you for broadcast or podcast is simply to ask them. Many times people are flattered and see it as a real opportunity to promote themselves and their ideas. 2) You don’t always need to know everything from the beginning—just enough to get you to the next step is often what will help you carve out your own path. I did lots of things that first interview that I would do very differently now, but it was important to take that first step.

So going directly to the source is an important way to get guests. But of course, in the commercial world, there are often layers of middle-level people when trying  to contact an artist, especially the more well-known someone is, so direct contact at first is not always possible. In that case, if there’s a book I’ve read, or play that seems interesting, I will do a bit of research and see who the publisher’s PR person is, or see who is handling publicity for a given event. PR people are possessive of their clients and they can sometimes be a pain to deal with, but on the other hand, if they feel you’ve treated one of their clients fairly in the past, they can be a source of future contacts, and eventually, they will start reaching out to you. PR people can be dismissive if they don’t feel the media you represent is powerful enough; but on the other hand, you can often make a case for your outlet as being one that would have a special targeted audience for that particular guest.

The ideal interview situation, in my opinion, even with an edited interview for later broadcast or podcast, is face to face. If it is at all possible, that’s what you should ask for, assuming the two of you are in the same city. Of course, you will offer to go out to a place they deem suitable, and you will simply bring along your digital recorder and microphone.  Or, if the guest is amenable, s/he can meet you on your home turf. In either event, you want to make sure that there’s some way of controlling the ambient noise in the room you’ll be doing the interview in, although in a pinch, a bit of ambient background sound can add to the authenticity and charm of the interview. Less desirable, but probably the circumstance I encounter the most, is that of a phone interview, because the guest is in another city, or scheduling does not allow an alternative. I like face to face interviews because it’s easier to create rapport when making eye contact with the person I’m interviewing, and the back and forth between the guest and myself is more natural. It’s also a matter of sound quality—the sound is generally an order of magnitude cleaner and clearer in person as opposed to over the telephone.

That said, as I mentioned, many of the interviews that I do are, necessarily, over the phone. What’s the best way to do that? I can’t say that I’ve found a fully satisfactory answer, though I have found a “good enough” solution. I’ll mention a few things I’ve explored that haven’t been satisfactory for me. I’m not saying that someone with more expertise than myself couldn’t make them work, just that I wasn’t able to figure out how to get clean sound from them.

First, is what I tried in that first interview I mentioned above—Skype. My understanding is that there are plenty of broadcasters who use Skype for this purpose, but for me it was not a very good solution. If you have each side talking into a laptop on their side while Skype is running, there are all kinds of echoes, sound drops, and volume problems. There are apps that automatically record both ends of the conversation, but even with the visual feedback, people just naturally turn their heads away from the built-in computer mics at inopportune times unless they are wearing headsets. Unless you can guarantee some headset on your guest’s side and an external mic for yourself, it’s probably better to try something else.

Another possible solution is to attach an external recording device to your phone. Theoretically this is supposed to record your voice and the incoming voice on your phone. I bought a device like this from Radio Shack once, which came with a little rubber suction cup that you were supposed to apply to your phone. I could never get the thing to work at all.

The solution that I use now, imperfect as it is, is a service called It is a free website which provides a call-in number which both you and your guest call in to. Through a webpage interface you can then start recording the call, and after you’ve finished you can download an MP3 digital recording of the call. In order to get the most out of it, you and your guest should be on landlines and neither of you should be on speakerphones, otherwise the sound quality is going to be too degraded for broadcast. And before the interview you should instruct your guest to talk directly into the speaker of her or his phone.

The recordings that are made through are recorded at 96kbs which is not the greatest quality, but it will do for two people just talking. I wouldn’t attempt to record music in this way, however. Also, a quirk of this system is that I find inevitably the sound quality is better on one side of the conversation that the other. Strangely enough, I can never predict which side the better audio is going to turn up on. It seems pretty random. Nevertheless, with some post-production massaging with Audacity, you can end up with an acceptable sound quality on both sides.

I’m sure there are other ways of recording off a phone conversation in this kind of situation  that I know nothing about, and would welcome suggestions.

But now that you’ve set up the interview and know how you’re going to record it, you’ve got to prepare to do the interview itself. I’ll talk more about that next time, in a week from now. See you then.

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