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Interviewing Tutorial

by Sue Supriano (sfbay-audio [at]

Getting and scheduling the interview-- Don't be shy! Most authors, activists, organizers, speakers, politicians, etc. want to get their message out and will be motivated to talk to you. They also are often very busy so make your request very concise and clear. Tell them how much of their time you will need and where and when, or if you're flexible. Be ready to get their telephone number and give them yours. If you have a card that's great. If not, be sure to write your identifying information-- name, tel., org., if any, and what you want-- so when they read it later they will know what it is. They may well be moving fast so you also must move fast. If they're from out of town find out at first how long they will be in town so you can know how quickly you need to speak with them.

Equipment-- know your tape recorder and equipment-- in or out of studios. Practice with it until you feel comfortable. It's preferable by far for broadcast quality interviews to have a Sony TCD5M or a Sony Walkman Pro or a Marantz. Dats are good also. These are all quite expensive. Marantz is the least expensive. These days I use a Sharp Minidisc Recorder the most because it's small, affordable and sound is good AND, you can do some editing on it. It is important to have levels you can see, but if you simply can't afford or have access to one of these recorders, use the best quality one you can. It's best to have an external microphone so you can put it close to the interviewees mouth. If you have to use a recorder with a built-in mic then hold the recorder close to the person's mouth. Also, be sure to mic yourself in the same way you mic the interviewee.

Use headphones always!!! This is all about sound. Even if you can see levels use headphones so you can hear how it is getting recorded. Sometimes sounds you wouldn't even notice without headphones come out loud on the tape-- like background sounds, lip-smacking, wind, refrigerators, air conditioners, fans, etc.. Never eat during interviews or drink. Sounds horrible over the air or on tape. If you have a choice find a quiet place for the interview. If not, even an interview in a noisy crowd can work if you have a good recorder and the correct microphone techniques and if its part of the story. But don't meet for lunch and do an interview in a cafe. A demonstration or out on the street or in a meeting is ok if its the context of the story. If background sounds are constant that's not necessarily a problem. I really dislike slamming doors, telephones ringing and people yelling because its startling to the listener and therefore unpleasant. If you can't control it it's sometimes good to refer to what the noise is and where you are so the listener doesn't get distracted by "wondering". What's impt. to be good for the radio is that the person sounds like they are right there next to the radio listener. Otherwise, though you might be able to understand it if you try, it's called "off mic" and the radio listener will turn it right off because they usually don't want to have work real hard to understand. Always remember that most people listen in cars, over radios that aren't so clear, with other things going on in the room they are in, while they are washing dishes ........ whatever......... so its your job to make the sound as clear and crisp as possible. Also remember that they tune in and out and are often distracted. With headphones you can adjust the sound. Over time your ears will become more sensitive to the differences. With the visual levels I, personally, like to record so the levels jump into the red sometimes but are mostly at the highest part of the black.

If you notice "popping "p's" aim the mic at the nose or chin of the person. With most mics its important to use a windscreen.

If you're using batteries make sure they're good because you don't want to have to break the flow of an interview to change batteries and obviously you don't want the recorder to die or fade. Good to have an extension chord and a plug.

I do interviews I don't edit and I like to have a timer so I can start it when the interview begins, and watch how the time is passing so I can know how to direct the interview to have a beginning , middle and end on time. That's a big part of my job. To make sure that happens with a smooth flow,. Also it's good to identify the interviewee (and maybe yourself) at least every 15 minutes because people tune in at different times and wonder what's going on. If you're going to edit you can just let the person go on as long as you and they have agreed to and have time for, but you still might want to know how time is passing so you don't find yourself out of time before you have covered the major points.

Make the interviewee comfortable in advance-- both physically and psychically!!-- You should be comfortable too, but they must be because you want them to not have to think about anything but their subject and to feel relaxed. It's good to chat while you're setting up and use that time to "connect" and get comfortable with the person and them with you while not taking too much time or being too "eyeball to eyeball." It's your job to control the microphone! Tell them this before you start because a lot of people will try to take the mic to be helpful. You are in control and want to stay that way. You must learn to handle the mic without hand noise which will come onto the tape. This is another reason to practice and wear headphones. You don't want those sounds on the tape. I use one mic when interviewing even several people because 1) I only have one mic and 2) I can control the evenness of the sound and 3) I know how to hold the mic without moving my hand on the shaft or if I have to change position I do it carefully so the sound doesn't get on the tape. Move from the elbow. I prefer, when possible, to have a table to put the recorder on where I can see the levels and not lose eye contact too much with the person and where I can prop my elbow so it doesn't get too tired. I have interviewed people in all kinds of wierd places and positions because I do the moving and the setting up while wearing headphones so the sound is ok. Sometimes I'm uncomfortable but I try to minimize their awareness of this and I figure it's worth it. What and how it's recorded on tape is what is important. Listen for echoes too, though sometimes you just can't avoid them. If you can, do. I've done many interesting,good sounding interviews sitting on the floor in corners in halls- even bathrooms, sitting in cars, etc. .

Once you get the hang of it you can be very flexible as you often have to be if y ou want to get the person while you are both available.

If there are telephones around make sure you have turned them off or removed them. If it's somewhere like a house or office and you can ask others to stay away or be quiet (like don't move "quiet") or hang a sign on the door not to disturb, do so. Agree on the time you want and or have for the interview.

The actual interview-- I think it's not good to talk about what you're going to talk about. Spontaneity is important and repitition can lessen spontaneity. A few sentences about the subject are ok beforehand, and if the interviewee is uptight just reassure them that they know their subject and are sure to be interesting. I never show people questions beforehand. Pick people to interview who know their subject or don't do it. They can be any sort of person-- from illiterate to a Ph.D-- but they should be talking about what they know about. I assure nervous interviewees that it will be a "conversation", not a "test". There is no right or wrong and it is my job to move things along. Which it is. I should know something about the subject and presumably I wouldn't be doing the interview if I weren't interested. But I don't have to be an expert. In fact, often it is counterproductive if I do know a lot because the conversation will be over the heads of a general audience. To be interested and to listen are most important.

My personal opinion is that it is good to be responsive to the interviewee. The interviewer should have thought about the subject and have some questions in her/his head and/or on paper but, for me, to ask a question, get an answer, and just move on to the next question without any response can sound very impolite, stiff and disjointed. Always the interviewer should talk much less than the interviewee but I, personally, prefer some responsiveness and interaction. But each interview and person is different and we need to develop our own styles. As an activist I almost always interview people whose ideas I want to get out to the listening audience so I don't play too neutral. However it is always important to let the interviewee do the majority of the talking. It is the interviewer's job to bring that person out and be a vehicle by asking, taking responsibility for the technical aspects, setting up the form if necessary (short identification and description of what the person does-- organization, writings, teaches and lives where, how long has been involved, etc.. Don't have to do this all every time- 2 to 5 sentences-- a couple of min. max are fine. Just to place the person in a context. Keep those things written in front of you so you don't forget and can use them again in the outro.)

Warmth and interest and listening are extremely important. If you are sincerely interested and listening then the interview will flow. For this you must pay attention to what the person is saying rather than what your plan is for what to say next. This gets easier with experience, but it is crucial. Eye contact, contact, connection -- VERY IMPT.. Because I use one mic I tell the person I need to sit very close and warn them that I control the mic and that I'm going to have to put it very close to their mouth. The fact is that if they look at my eyes they will be less distracted by the mic and feel more supported by me. (I don't tell them this.) And, of course, sincerity is important. Also very important are nonverbal responses so the sound doesn't get on the tape, but you are giving the interviewee positive reinforcement while they speak. Nod, smile- whatever. VERY IMPT.. Talking at the same time sounds really bad on the radio or tape. Use hand signals if you need to get a word in. Mention that time is almost up. I put up 5 fingers for 5 min. before end and 2 fingers to signify 2 remaining minutes. I explain this beforehand and I also ask beforehand if the person is going to want to give tel. numbers, fax, address, etc. so we can both be prepared and I can leave time for them. Since I don't edit but either of us could have a problem and have to stop I tell the person to point at the recorder meaning to put it in "pause" rather than say "turn it off". If that happens I turn off the recorder and stop the timer. When I begin again I start the timer along with the recorder but start the timer first so the beep of the timer doesn't get recorded. If I've forgotten, for example, to turn off the tel. and it rings, I put the recorder on pause right away, deal with the phone and when I go back to the recorder I find the last place on the tape that I can start again, back up the tape to that point, put it on "record" and "pause" and take off the pause where the interview continues.

Written by-
Sue Supriano
Tel: (510) 540-8850

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