Stephen Fry leads Hugh Laurie in a masterpiece of pedagogical punditry.
Thanks to YouTuber irehouse
You’ve made it this far and now you’re ready to prepare an outline. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) An outline is not a hard and fast script, but it is a road map. It’s what allows one the freedom to improvise during an interview, knowing that there’s a safe place to return to if the conversation wanders about or goes South. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine doing an interview without an outline. It would be like trying to navigate in a strange city without a GPS. An interview outline will determine—more than anything else—even more than your audio editing—the final shape and content of your interview.
The three parts I have in my interview outline are the intro, the questions I want to ask, and the outro. Let’s take each part, one at a time.
In the intro, I want to intrigue the audience, introduce the interviewee with his or her project, and begin my first interaction with the guest. To begin, I also always first want to introduce myself to the radio audience. While it’s very important to be able to hang up your ego as an interviewer (more about this in future installments), I don’t believe in the aesthetic of a faceless, generic questioner. As the interviewer, you are in some sense a proxy for the curiosity of your audience. It’s important for them to know who you are, so I get that out of the way at the very beginning. For me, it’s just simply, “Hi, this is Jack Shalom,” at the top of the segment. Others do it more artfully, pulling a teaser quote first from the guest, for example, and then working in their identification, but I believe that if you don’t do it, or wait until the end, the audience will be left with an annoying unanswered question.
After introducing myself, I try to give a hook and teaser for the audience, setting up my introduction of the guest. Here’s an example of an introduction I did for an interview a while back:
“Hi. I’m Jack Shalom. Public education in the United States has historically been a segregated affair, and today that segregation has taken on a new and sometimes disguised form. Author Noliwe Rooks explicates that history and analyzes that new form in her new book Cutting School. Ms. Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and for ten years was the associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of White Money/Black Power and Hair Raising. I’m happy to be talking today with Noliwe Rooks. (WAIT)”
So you can see here, I’ve first introduced myself. Next, I’m setting the context by talking about public school segregation, and then I segue into introducing my guest and her book. I also include some of the guest’s most interesting or well-known credits.
Sometimes people jump into an interview and record the introductory material at a later (or earlier) time than the actual interview. I like to speak my introduction while the guest is with me, or on the phone, because I want the guest to know up front that I am not some berserk maniac. When they listen to the intro, they know I have done my research, and I am appreciative of their work. While I often ask my guests challenging questions, I don’t want them to think that the interview is going to be some kind of confrontational set-up. I want them to feel that I am on their side. Part of my job is to build trust.
You’ll see in the intro above that I have the word WAIT in caps in parentheses. That is because I am an idiot and I always need to remind myself that at that point in the intro, I need to…well…WAIT for my guest’s reply. It’s the guest’s first chance to speak, even if it’s just “Hi,” or “Thanks,” but you don’t want to step on that by talking over them. Sounds silly, but I’ve messed that up many times. Don’t worry if you have to wait a while while the guest figures out that it’s their turn to speak—you can edit out the pause later. Typically now, just before I start an interview, I’ll tell the guest that I’ll be doing a short intro and that they should answer after I say, “Hi, [guest’s name]” or “Welcome to the show.”
By the way, the other thing I ask my guests beforehand is the proper way to pronounce their name, and how they would like to be addressed e.g. Noliwe? Ms. Rooks? Dr. Rooks? Professor Rooks? I think every guest I’ve spoken to has always opted for first name, but I think it’s an important courtesy to extend beforehand. Again, it helps to build trust and to relax the guest.
The introduction should last no more than 45 seconds. The listeners are waiting for the guest to speak, not you. You don’t want to lose the audience before the interview even begins. I’ll often read out my intro out loud beforehand, watching a clock to time how long it goes. If it’s over 45 seconds, I will ruthlessly cut some of it from my outline. I never wing the intro. The intro and the outro are the one thing that I read verbatim from my outline. I want to make sure I get all the details correct.
The next part of my interview outline is the list of questions. The most interesting questions to me are those that the interviewer genuinely does not know the answer to, and has a curiosity to know more about. I think it’s very important that an interviewer does research beforehand. I know there are interviewers who feel that they should be as blank a slate as their audiences are with regard to the guest and his or her project, but I feel that is a mistake, and for me, at least, unsatisfying. I think it always shows when the research has not been done, and the guest will not be as open to someone who is not familiar with the guest’s issues. Moreover, without research or prior knowledge the interviewer becomes subject to the guest’s agenda, and the guest ends up controlling the direction of the conversation. With a brilliant, dynamic speaker that might be okay, but the more likely result is that the guest will be repeating the same canned words that s/he has given to many other interviewers before. I think if an interviewer is doing the job right, in the best possible case, both the interviewer and guest are surprised and happy about the spontaneous turns of conversation that result. That is very unlikely to happen without a fair amount of preparation.
I see the interviewer as bridging the gap between the audience and the guest. My interviewing stance is that I am an intelligent layman who enjoys knowing more about my guest and my guest’s work, and I want to get my audience to join me in my exploration. That requires that my questions set up an introductory context and then lead into more interesting areas. All of that requires familiarity and research.
More about questions next week. See you then.
You’ve determined who you want to interview, you’ve made your contact, you have your equipment, and your sound editing software, so now you need to prepare for the actual interview. How much time should you ask for? You need to ask for an explicit amount of time when making your arrangements. It’s very bad form to extend an interview past the time to which you’ve both agreed. If you go over on time, there’s the chance that your guest or one of their assistants will unceremoniously cut off the interview, and you may never get the opportunity to ask a lot of what you wanted to ask. Of course, you can ask your guest if s/he would like to go over the allotted time during the course of the interview, but especially with more famous people, that may be met negatively. Often when a person is promoting a project, they have one press interview lined up after another, and the time is tight.
Because of that, in the initial email contacts, I always specify how much time I would like up front. I used to think the more time the better, but I’ve since learned that that is a big mistake. It really depends upon the amount of time your finished segment needs to be. The longer the interview in relation to the final cut, the more editing that will have to be done. And when that interview to final cut ratio is large, the editing becomes very difficult and time consuming. It becomes harder to match material from one part of the interview to another. It becomes harder to remember what was said when. It becomes harder to follow the thread of an argument. It becomes more tedious reviewing all the material each revision. And besides the tedium of wading through the irrelevant material, the regret factor also increases with a long interview. Necessarily, there will be more tape left on the virtual cutting room floor, and while that can be some of your favorite material, it may not fit into the limited time available.
I’ve found my ideal ratio is about two to one, that is, I gather about twice the material that I’ll ultimately use. So if I’m preparing a 15-minute segment, then 30-35 minutes is a good interview length for me. That allows me to pick out the most interesting and essential parts of the interview without getting overwhelmed by the mass of material. Sometimes if the rapport is very good with a guest, and the conversation goes long, the best solution is either to make the produced segment longer, or to break up the interview into two separate segments. Of course, in commercial radio, interviewers are more strictly bound to their time constraints and this probably won’t be possible, but I am lucky that in my situation my time limits are more flexible. Presumably, if you are producing your own podcast, you will have that flexibility as well. But don’t take that flexibility as a reason not to edit tightly, or to gather too much material. I have learned from experience that that is not a good idea. Like a sonnet or short story, form and limitation are your friends. They give you the container into which you can shape your story. Time in a bottle. Two to one has been a realistic and very useful guide for me.
Once you know how much time you’ll have with your guest, you’ll be able to prepare your outline of questions. Preparing an outline really deserves its own post, so next week I’ll talk about what I do to prepare the framework for a good radio conversation. See you then.
You can find the next installment here:
If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.
Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.
It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.
When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?
There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.
But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.
For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.
What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.
(Click to enlarge)
And from a slightly shifted position, a few steps to the left (note the shadow as well):
“Doble Creu” by Carles Berga
Castell de Montjuic
See this video for more perspectives:
More at Carles Berga
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 freeconferencecall.com. 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 freeconferencecall.com 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.
You can read the next installment here:
Mr. Laurie’s splendid Dylan-like folk singer imitation in which he tells us “All We Gotta Do Is.” In such trying times as these, we can only be thankful for his clear vision.
Thanks to Youtuber thereallalablue
(Click to enlarge)
From an exterior wall of the Sagrada Familia Church designed by Antoni Gaudi.
The sum of the numbers in every row is 33.
The sum of the numbers in every column is 33.
The sum of the numbers in each diagonal is 33.
The sum of the numbers in the four corners is 33.
The sum of the numbers in the center 2×2 square is 33.
The sum of the numbers in each 2×2 square in each of the corners is 33.
If you’ve gotten together your digital recorder, headphones, and microphone as recommended in last week’s post, you’re ready for the most important resource in putting together radio interviews for broadcast or podcast: an audio editing program for your computer.
In the old days, radio folk used to cut and splice reel-to-reel tape just as the old time film editors used to do. But now, of course, with the wide availability of digital editors, the power to accomplish necessary tasks is so much easier. As I said last week, a good audio editor can help to forgive and solve a multitude of radio sins, and make your segment far more polished. A good audio editor can help you, at the minimum: 1) clean up background noise; 2) remove uninteresting portions of an interview; 3) re-structure the order of an interview; 4) remove verbal tics, hesitations, stumbles, and interruptions; 5) allow for mixing in intro and outros; 6) improve overall sound quality; 7) fit segments into predetermined time limits; 8) add underlying music and sound effects tracks; 9) convert from one digital format to another; 10) select the best parts from a group of different takes; 11) fade in and out, and smooth out contrasting volumes within a segment.
In short, an audio editor is to audio what a red pencil is to a draft of a manuscript. It is your way to revise, shape, and find out what the meaning of your piece is really about. There are many interviews I’ve done where I’ve been more proud of the work I’ve accomplished as an editor than with the actual interviewing itself. The audience will, of course, not see that part of the work, but to me, editing is the most enjoyable and satisfying part of the process.
There are many audio editors on the market and some of them can be quite expensive. One of the most popular is Adobe’s Audition, which has a very clean and intuitive interface, and does just about everything that you would want such a program to do. The problem with Audition, however, is its cost. Adobe has moved to a vampire squid-sucking rental model for its headline products such as Photoshop, Audition, and Premiere Pro. That is, you can no longer buy these products outright, but you pay a monthly fee for their use. In the case of Audition, the cost is $240 a year.
Yes, it’s ridiculous. If you happen to have access to a computer that uses it, fine. But otherwise, you’ll want another solution.
It’s a little tricky, because some of the other commercial sound editing and mixing software programs do not necessarily have the functionality you’ll need for producing radio. Some software programs, instead, are more oriented to producing and mixing music tracks.
Fortunately, there is a wonderful open source program called Audacity, which is free and available for both Mac and Windows computers. It is truly a great gift from the software programmers who have designed it, coded it, and kept it up to date. The trade off is that the interface is somewhat less intuitive than say, Audition, but if you can use a word processor like Microsoft Word on a computer, then you should be able to learn the basic functions you’ll need on Audacity fairly quickly. And once you do learn those functions, you’ll find that if you wish to explore it further, Audacity has more features and power than even many commercial programs.
Audacity is constantly being updated, so it is important to download the most recent release for your particular computer. The official download page is here:
As of this writing, the latest version of Audacity is 2.2.2 for both Windows and Mac computers. If you have either kind of computer made within the last 10 years, that’s the version you want, unless you see a later version posted after this was written. It’s easy enough to click on the download and install it onto your computer.
The one annoying part about installing Audacity is that due to patent issues, there are two separate small support programs that you should also download in addition to Audacity, which are not included in the Audacity program itself. These support programs will allow you to import, export, and convert from one digital format to another easily within Audacity. You won’t need their functionality until you need them, and then you’ll be glad you have them; so although they are a bit of a pain to configure, it’s best to do it now, once, and you’ll never have to be bothered with it again.
The two support programs you need are called LAME MP3 encoder and FFmpeg import/export library.
Once you’ve downloaded the main Audacity program, you can download and install those two support programs by following the directions on the following page of the Audacity online manual:
Focus on the sections entitled “How do I download and install the LAME MP3 encoder?” and “How do I download and install the FFmpeg import/export library?” Follow the directions there, depending on what kind of computer you have. When you get to it, follow the directions that say “Recommended installer package.”
In future posts, I’ll talk about how to use Audacity, but now that you have all your tools, in the next post of the series, next week, I’ll be talking about how to begin preparing for an interview. See you then.