When bad things happen to good interviews
Published: March 19, 2002
|Come with me now on a journey to Tape Recording Hell. Picture, if you will, a valuable interview subject who has finally agreed to talk to you after concerted effort on your part. It could be someone whose rich anecdotes and storied past will make your story sparkle, or perhaps some obscure figure who happens to be a walking encyclopedia on your topic, or maybe a celebrity you can't believe you're actually talking to face to face, or some fine artist or craftsman whose words are as eloquent as her work.|
Now let us picture the glow in your heart as your subject opens up wonderfully for your story, setting off the little light in every interviewer's head that signals: This is really good stuff. And of course, thanks to the blessings of technology, you're capturing every precious word and nuance of your subject on tape.
|Except that you're not. No, you're not getting a single blessed word of it. Maybe it's a wrong setting on the tape recorder, stale batteries, a careless placement of the microphone, a noisy room or some other reason, but some way, somehow, you have managed to screw up the tape recording completely and it is all gone forever. Gone.|
You screw up a dream interview and you'll never forget it. Perhaps I'm speaking here from painful experience.
Cut to 1979, or thereabouts. I'm 25, a newspaper reporter in Cleveland and a certified jazz fanatic trying to develop some freelance work on the side. I know that Oscar Peterson, one of the most accomplished jazz pianists in history, will be in town to perform. I have long been in awe of Oscar's talent and prodigious technique. How great it would be to land an interview with him. I figure, what the heck, I'll give it a shot—I'll make some calls, see if I can get through to him, make my pitch. All he can do is say no.
But he says yes. Incredible: an audience with a true jazz god.
Concert day arrives. I listen to his fabulous performance and then, tape recorder and questions in hand, make my way to a backstage room to meet the man. Oscar turns out to be an interviewer's dream: warm, articulate, intelligent. Things go beautifully. I've got myself a great story. I'm walking on a cloud as I leave the concert hall and head out onto Euclid Avenue.
Eagerly, I stop for a moment to give the tape a listen. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. My heart starts pounding. A gush of profanity pours out. Desperate, I keep checking, rewinding here, fast-forwarding there, flipping the tape over, adjusting the buttons. The entire interview is a wash. It seems I hadn't turned up the volume level enough on my decrepit old tape recorder.
I wanted to smash the thing to the ground. I thought life would not go on.
Today, many stories later, I've arrived at my own solution to Tape Recording Hell. I now take two tape recorders to every interview for this magazine—one a standard cassette player, the other a voice-activated micro-cassette recorder—and run them both. I think it's well worth the slight amount of fussing. For phone interviews, I try to type a rough backup copy at my computer as I tape the interview.
If you have had your own tape-recording nightmare, take some comfort in knowing you're not alone. A group of accomplished writers shared their own tales—plus a little advice—for this story.
Read 'em and weep—or chuckle, if you prefer.
Lynn Alfino, freelance writer
I once conducted a telephone interview with the owner of a dog kennel. I was using a new fax/phone/recorder unit that used mini-tape cassettes. It came with one tape installed, so I bought a package of extra mini-tapes, as I knew I had plenty of interviewing ahead. I put the new unit through some rehearsals, and all seemed set.
The interview went without a hitch. I filled 1½ tapes, and eagerly set about the task of transcribing them for my article. Imagine my horror when I found every third word was drowned out with dogs howling or sharp-pitched yelping! The transcribed tape resembled this:
"Well, we went to yeooooow! and then woof-woof! Suddenly, 15 yelp-yelp! And then woof-woof! We didn't know ah-ooooo!"
How did I salvage the "interview"? I pieced together what I could and e-mailed questions "for clarification," which were really newly reworded questions from the original interview. My interviewee had no idea I was repeating questions.
So to avoid interview problems, I advise that if there is any background noise, ask your interviewee to go into a quieter room for the interview. You'd be surprised what tapes pick up!
Take notes simultaneously while recording—not to the extent that it detracts from the flow of conversation, but just the main ideas and main words, and ask for correct spellings of names. Finally, don't hesitate to e-mail or call with questions for follow-up.
Greg Kot, rock critic, Chicago Tribune
I had arranged an interview in 1990 with Lou Reed, backstage at Farm Aid in Indianapolis, to talk about Songs for Drella, his new album with John Cale. Reed was notorious for chewing up journalists, and it was my first interview with one of my boyhood heroes, so I was anxious for things to go well.
When I got backstage, Reed was wearing his usual armor—shades and leather—and looking quite intimidating. Even worse, I realized as I entered his sanctuary that my tape recorder wasn't working. I tried to act cool, but inside I was panicking.
Reed saw that I was having trouble, though, and to my amazement offered to help. He fiddled with the contraption, and we ended up talking about how unreliable technology can be. The tape recorder never did work, but the ice had been broken, and Reed gave me a great interview—which I furiously transcribed, in longhand, in my reporter's notebook.
John Brady, freelance writer and consultant, author of The Craft of Interviewing
One of the funniest instances of taped interview bloopers that I know of happened to a journalist friend who met with a subject for an interview over lunch at Bookbinders in Philadelphia. He called me afterward from his office.
"I've just listened to the tape of an interview I did over lunch, and everything went wrong," he said, laughing.
The tape recorder's condenser microphone had picked up an assortment of things the interviewer wasn't even aware of as he tossed questions to his subject—the hum of an air conditioner in the room, for instance, blotted out many of the middle-range tones of answers. An efficient waiter and busboy cut in regularly with sounds of clattering silverware and intrusive chatter. When ice water was poured, it sounded like the tape recorder was going over Niagara Falls.
"But the most amusing thing of all," my colleague said, "was a conversation the tape recorder picked up at a nearby table, where two women were talking about their marriage problems in intimate detail."
"I may have lost my interview," he said, "but if I ever find those two women again—that's the story I want to write!"
|Jim Stingl, columnist, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel|
I tried using a tape recorder to capture testimony during the trial of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 1992. News gatherers from all over the world were in Milwaukee for the trial and I wanted to be certain the quotes in my story matched those in other media outlets.
At that time, I was working for The Milwaukee Journal, which was an afternoon newspaper. So deadline pressure during morning testimony was extreme. I switched on the handheld recorder, and when the psychi-atrist on the stand said something particularly interesting, I looked at the counter on the handheld recorder and made a note of the number. That way I could quickly fly through the tape and find the segments that I wanted.
Armed with a list of counter numbers, I ran to the pressroom during a break to file as much as I could as fast as I could. On the way, my hand bumped the reset button on the recorder, causing the counter to read zero. It must not have been on zero when I started the day because now, none of my counter settings lined up with any of the testimony I wanted to quote.
I covered the rest of the trial with a pen and notepad.
Steve Doig, professor, Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University
During my career, I rarely used a tape recorder while interviewing. I felt about tape recorders like football coach Woody Hayes felt about forward passes: Several things could happen when you used them, but most of those things were bad.
One of the few occasions I used a recorder came when I was working on a multi-part series about Florida prisons for The Miami Herald. I arranged a confrontation interview with Louie Wainwright, who at the time was head of the state Department of Corrections and the lightning rod for much ongoing criticism about the prison system.
The interview was in his office, so I set up my recorder on the top of Wainwright's desk and began asking questions. I was somewhat distracted by keeping track of when I had to turn the cassette over, making sure the battery didn't run down, checking the volume meter, etc.
Luckily, I still had enough attention span to take pretty good notes, because when I returned to the office to listen to the tape, there was nothing on it but an hour-long hum. I belatedly realized that I had placed the recorder next to Wainwright's fluorescent desk lamp, which apparently had produced enough electronic and/or magnetic interference to wipe the tape even as it was being recorded.
Dorman T. Shindler, freelancer specializing in author interviews
It was my third professional interview with a writer. I was more nervous this time around because I would be interviewing Martin Cruz Smith, a writer I admire. As with the first two, this one would be conducted over the telephone. Unfortunately, this time out I was distracted by a recent death in the family. But I foolishly decided I could handle this simple task.
I went over my checklist: Tape recorder and telephone properly connected? Check! Audiotape in tape machine? Check! And just to be sure my recording machine was working properly, I called a local number. It sounded great on playback. I rewound the tape. Then Mr. Smith called, a bit earlier than expected.
I fumbled the receiver, tripped over my tongue a few times, and then recovered brilliantly, proceeding to have a witty conversation (filled with on-the-money questions and insightful answers). After an hour of this, I thanked Mr. Smith and hung up, smiling at my professionalism.
Then I noticed the recording machine hadn't been turned back on.
The solution? Check, double-check and triple-check everything before conducting an interview. You can even let the subject know that you're checking connections and equipment again—they'll appreciate your honesty and vigilance.
And if you've just had a tumultuous experience in your personal life, don't be shy about rescheduling an interview until you're ready. It'll save time for everyone involved.
Patrick McGilligan, biographer of film stars
My first job outside of Wisconsin was for The Boston Globe. I was younger than anyone else on the staff and had to learn a lot of things. I had to buy an expensive tape recorder to carry around. (Well, I thought it was expensive at the time.)
One time I spent all day with Jimmy Stewart. I mean all day. We had a great time at the restaurant interview, so afterward he took me home with him, toured me from room to room in his house, picking up little plaques and ornaments and telling me all about them in laborious detail.
He ended up by telling me some terribly personal story about himself and (I think it probably was) It's a Wonderful Life and breaking down weeping. Several hours on tape. The definitive Jimmy Stewart interview.
Of course, when I got back to my car I immediately played a few minutes of tape to glory in what I had.
Well, actually, very interesting static and every once in a while a burb or gurgle. OK, nothing. When I got back to where I was crashing (I never stayed in a hotel in those days), I played the whole thing in a dead sweat.
Lots of nothing.
So, being the newspaperman I was (in those days), I sat down and in a desperate frenzy wrote down everything I remembered, and wrote what we used to call a "long Sunday piece." But the interview was lost, lost, lost. Don't ask me how or why.
Of course, years later, I realized that many Hollywood people give the same interviews over and over again, and that actors (and ordinary people) often cry when they get to the moment when they have cried before. And I ran into other people who also had experienced the world's greatest interview with Jimmy Stewart, who took them home with him, and then wept into their tape recorders, which worked.
The opposite anecdote—a laughing one instead of a weeping one—is the time I interviewed writer-director Billy Wilder, oh, over 25 years ago now, and he really made me physically ill, he was so funny. I was really looking forward to seeing his humor in print (and he wasn't as repetitive as Jimmy Stewart in his interviews).
Again, nothing. Lots of static and yawps. With a deep sigh, I reconstructed the interview and wrote my "long Sunday piece."
For some reason, I kept the tape, labeled. Years later, I was going to throw it out, and I decided to put it on and see if the tape was defective or whether I might reuse it for another interview. Lo and behold, there was Wilder's voice, clear and loud, the whole interview.
Don't ask me how or why.
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.
Photography by Jim Forbes.
--Posted March 19, 2002