Before The First Question
You have characters. Check.
You have a sense of what you want to record for ambient sound and active tape (the close-up sound of people doing things). Check.
You’ve researched the topic and the people in the story. And, you’ve got a rough outline of how you think the story might be told.
Now it’s time to head out and start interviewing. What needs to happen before you ask the first question? Here’s my preparation checklist, the tasks I tackle before I start interviewing. Follow this list and, while I can’t guarantee a stellar interview or a perfect story, I do think it will increase your likelihood for success.
1. Type out your questions. I print them and bring them with me to the interview. More on that in a moment.
2. Check your gear bag. Got everything? Recorder. Mic. Extra batteries (that you’ve tested). Mic cable (ideally more than one since they’re “the weakest link”). Headphones. A fully charged cell phone. Notebook and pens.
3. Clothes. Yeah. I know. I sound like your mother. But, do you have the right clothes on? A colleague recently told me they wore sneakers to a hog farm – oops! Also, I never wear sunglasses during an outside interview because I want to make eye contact. So, I always bring a baseball cap to shade my eyes.
4. Double check the directions and leave early. Let’s just say I hate being late. It’s rude.
5. Re-read your questions. I almost never place my typed questions in front of me during an interview. I want my interviews to feel like a conversation. Having questions sitting in front of me is a distraction, a barrier to dialogue. So, instead, I’ll re-read my questions just before I go in to do an interview. That way, they’re fresh in my mind. I might read them in the driveway or sometimes I’ll check them over a short distance from my destination so I don’t look peculiar sitting in the driveway for a long time. When I’m done, I’ll fold the questions up and put them in my shirt pocket. (At some point in my interview, usually when I’ve run out of questions, I’ll pull the list out and make sure I haven’t missed anything.)
6. “Pulling a Radiolab.” It seems like the folks at Radiolab start recording on their way to the interview – walking up to the door, saying hello, etc. If you do that, just be sure to tell your interviewee in advance that you’ll be showing up with your gear on and recording.
7. Politely take control. Once you’re in and you’ve said hello, it’s important to ask for what you want – the best recording situation. You’ll need to tell people what will work for you.
a. Avoid kitchens. Refrigerators are bad news – too noisy. And, kitchens tend to be “echo-y.” Usually the family room is best for a recording. Carpeting, cushy furniture, and curtains help absorb sound.
b. Become annoying, politely. Ask to turn off televisions, radios, and cell phones. Keep an ear out for noisy computers. And, in some cases, you’ll need to ask to close windows or turn off air conditioning.
c. Rearrange furniture. If turning everything off didn’t get you kicked out, now redecorate. It’s important to sit close to your interviewee, usually directly across or catty-corner. I want to be so close to someone I can rest my elbow on my knee or the arm of a chair and still have the mic close enough for an intimate recording. Often this requires moving furniture. I can’t tell you how many coffee tables and chairs I’ve moved. And, if I’m in an office, I nearly always ask people to get out from behind their desk. (By the way, I try to never interview someone on a couch. I find it uncomfortable because of the odd angle you have to sit at to be close and able to look them in the eye.)
This all seems like a lot to ask a stranger. It feels like an imposition – an invasion, even. But, I always couch my requests this way. “I want to make sure you sound good. Can we…” As soon as you say, “I want you to sound good” people will accommodate your requests because they want to sound good, too. And, I say “we” because I think of my interviewee as a collaborator in creating the best possible conditions for recording.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect recording situation in the field. If there’s a noise you can’t control, sit so your mic is facing away from the sound.
Is it time to ask the first question yet? Nope.
8. Make idle chitchat. Assemble your gear and talk about the weather, the dog, whatever. Don’t ask questions related to your story yet. I’ve noticed photographers ask about photos placed around the house before they start shooting. It’s a good idea. It gets people talking about personal subjects but doesn’t seem invasive.
9. Wear headphones. It’s the law. With your mic and recorder all set to go, put your damn headphones on and start recording. In addition to state and federal requirements regarding headphones, you need to assure a good recording. The only way to do that is to wear headphones.
10. Slate the tape. Right at the start, record the following: the date, the location, the name of the person you’re interviewing, the subject matter. “Slating the tape” helps you quickly figure out what’s on the file later.
11. What’s this all about? There’s a good chance your interviewee may not recall exactly what the interview is about or how it’s going to be used. While the tape is rolling, tell them what you probably told them on the phone when you set up the interview, something like “Well, as you might remember, I’m producing a radio story for WXXX. It’s about the decline in eel populations. Since you are a long-time eel fisherman, I want to talk with you about the fishery and the changes you’ve seen.” They’ll probably say, “Okay, sounds good,” or something.
Saying this on tape accomplishes a few things. First, it orients the interviewee. Second, it “activates” the part of their brain that stores info on the subject you’re talking about. And, third, it’s a recording of their permission. Of course, the fact that they’re talking to you with a mic in their face suggests they are giving permission. But, since I don’t use release forms (and most radio reporters don’t), I feel like this is a good thing to record. To be honest, I usually don’t get that on tape. That conversation tends to happen as I’m setting up my gear. But, I try to wait until the tape is rolling.
12. What did you have for breakfast? Set the recording levels with a throwaway question. “What did you have for breakfast?” is an old-school radio trick for getting someone to talk in a conversational voice. Adjust your recording levels as they talk. I never ask someone to count to ten or recite the alphabet to set the levels. That’s not normal conversation.
13. Who even are you? This is the last step. Ask your interviewee to introduce him or her self. “Could you introduce yourself? Tell me who you are, where you live, how old you are, what you do.” That’s another way to slate the tape. But, more importantly, you might be able to use their introduction in your story. And, sometimes, they’ll reveal something about themselves you never considered.
Okay, are you ready? After all that, you should be! Go ahead. Ask your first question. Make it a good one.
Rob Rosenthal is an independent producer and a teacher. He’s the host for How Sound, PRX’s podcast on radio storytelling. He ran the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies’ radio track for 11 years. And, he is now the lead teacher for the Transom Story Workshop, which launched in the fall of 2011.