Bionic Pancreas

Listen to “Bionic Pancreas”

After a day of interviewing and working in the field, I come home drained. It’s exhausting. I work alone the vast majority of the time which means the responsibility for gathering all the elements to make a good piece of radio – interviews, ambient sound, active tape – falls to me. Only me.

Here’s how a day in the field typically goes:

  • Arrive early and find the location of the interview
  • Review questions
  • Meet the interviewee
  • Find a quiet location for the interview; address any problems like background noise, open windows, air conditioning, etc.
  • Arrange the furniture to be close to the interviewee
  • Set up my gear and make small talk
  • Conduct the interview listening hard not only to their answers but to hear if the answers are phrased in a way that’s usable for a story
  • Keep a well-focused ear on the recording to make sure it sounds as good as possible
  • Make sure they are giving in-depth answers
  • Listen for a beginning, middle, and end of the story
  • Then, if there are scenes to record, collect sound of people doing things. Making sure to gather sounds that accurately capture the location and the action.
  • Repeat all of these steps if you have more than one interview in a day, which is common.

That’s a lot to be think about and keep track of. Oh, and I left out this: remain fully present at all times. Listen. Listen hard.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have help? In some cases people do. Sometimes, both a reporter and a producer are sent to work on a piece. The producer is charged with keeping an eye on the big picture – the arc of the story, making sure they get what they need, etc. While the reporter is focused on the details – conducting the interview, gathering ambient sounds and action tape.

Rebecca Davis is a producer at NPR’s Science Desk. Rebecca has worked at the network for 20 years. And, she was the producer for the story we’re featuring on this edition of HowSound – a story about a bionic pancreas reported by Rob Stein.

During our interview, Rebecca gave me a comprehensive list of tasks that make producers so valuable to a reporter. Listening to her, I thought “Who wouldn’t want a producer to help in the field?”

Listen to “A producer’s job description”

Rebecca and Rob told me that they spent a great deal of time planning for their fieldwork on the bionic pancreas story. (You can listen to the full story here.)

Having a second person – a producer – in the field simply allows a reporter to do more.

For instance, there was an important meeting to report on where the “bionic pancreas” was being tested. The meeting took place in a room full of people who were spread out. Since both Rob and Rebecca attended the meeting, they were able to interview different people at different locations at the same time. If Rob reported the story alone, most likely, he would have returned with a lot less tape to use in the story.

And, here’s something they did that’s really interesting – something that Rob feels he wouldn’t have had time or the foresight to do if he were working on the story alone – they mailed a tape deck to the main character before they went to report the story. The idea was for the main character to collect some tape at night and then send a file back to Rob and Rebecca. It’s sort of like a pre-interview only it’s a pre-recording. Rebecca says there are a few other creative reasons to send a recorder in advance.

Listen to “The value of sending a recorder in advance”

I’ll be honest. I used to think when a reporter worked with a producer it was cheating. I thought “Radio reporters are supposed to ‘go it alone.’ We’re a one-person recording and interviewing tour-de-force. We can handle anything.” Now, after talking to Rebecca and Rob, I’m not so sure. In fact, I just might be jealous.

Listen to “That’s cheating”

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