Your audio storytelling assignment in this lesson will be to conduct, record, and produce an audio interview. You will also want to combine other audio elements with your interview, such as ambient or natural sounds.
In this topic, we will consider the basics of interviewing. By the end, you will prepare a list of questions to conduct your assignment interview.
The first thing you may be wondering is who you are going to interview. That depends on what type of story interests you!
Take, for instance, if you are interested in hunting and planning a grizzly bear hunt story, some possible interview subjects you may have encountered in your research include:
Hunters and hunting advocates.
Government employees who research and write policy.
You may also consider interviewing:
People who have a personal connection to what you are writing.
Scholars and university researchers.
Participants at an event.
Once you have determined who you would like to interview, you should reach out via email and ask their permission. It might be easier to reach out to family or a friend who has an interesting story to tell. Perhaps your interview is like an oral history interview. Which is a great opportunity to preserve a story for future generations. Oh, and this can also make for a great animation one day.
While it is possible to record an interview over the phone or computer, it is highly recommended to conduct your interview in-person, if possible. This is because their voice will sound clear, and your interview will benefit from your own proximity to who you are talking to – it’s more natural to speak face-to-face and make eye contact.
When you reach out to your interviewee, this is considered part of the “pre-interview.” “The Art of the Pre-Interview,” by Sally Herships, provides good information and guidelines on how to conduct a pre-interview. In this stage, they may wish to have a sense of what you will ask them. It’s more than okay to provide them with a few sample questions. As well, you should get a sense of how your interviewee actually talks: loudly? In a whisper? In short or long sentences? Take note of this so you will better understand where to place your recorder for your interview.
Once your interview is scheduled, it’s time to prepare. An interview is, at its core, simply a conversation between two people. However, as the interviewer, you will have lots to consider while that conversation takes place. Radio producer Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk outlines “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” I have found that watching this talk helped me feel less nervous in the interview preparation process. Watch the talk and, as you go forward, keep in mind Headlee’s insistence on good listening.
Headlee, C. (2015). 10 ways to have a better conversation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation
Another resource for conducting good interviews is Paul McLaughlin’s book, Asking Questions: The Art of the Media Interview. Review the section, Guidelines for Your Interview. Keep McLaughlin’s principles in mind as you peruse some of the interviews posted in the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. Terkel was one of the 20th century’s best interviewer’s – just listening to his varied interviews is a good way to understand how you are essentially conducting a conversation on tape. Note that Terkel and other interviewers, such as preeminent podcast host, Ira Glass, plan their interviews step-by-step in order to sound so relaxed. Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life, discusses his process in “Longform Podcast #159.”
As you prepare your questions, write them out in the order that you think you will follow logically in the conversation. For example:
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
What’s new about this (project, topic, event, etc.)?
What do you think I should know?
Consider writing questions in all caps because they are easier to read. You will want to write questions down by hand in a notebook so that you are not fumbling with your phone throughout.
The trick for preparing interview questions is that you want them to sound like they haven’t been prepared at all. A good way to do that is to start with a very relaxed question like:
How are you doing?
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
It’s then a good idea to give a short, one-sentence explanation of your project. Often, describing your topic will inspire the interview subject to start talking on their own.
From here, make a list of 4-5 short questions that you absolutely need answered. You then have the shell of your interview planned and are free to ask follow-up questions. Follow-up questions can’t be planned because they come from what your interviewee actually says in their answers. Most typical follow-up questions sound like:
Why do you think that is?
Then what happened?
What did you think about that?
Prepare Interview Questions
Now that we covered the steps preparing for an interview, it is time to actually prepare a list of questions that you will ask your interviewee.
Identify two possible interviewees. Explain why you think each of these individuals would be worthwhile to interview. What might they contribute to your story? What perspective would they bring?
Make a list of 6-10 questions for each interview.
Make note of how the interview questions vary depending on who you are interviewing.
You can repeat this process for as many possible interviewees as you like.
Techniques for Gathering Audio
–For the audio interview assignment, you will not simply submit audio of a conversation; you will also include sounds. Before and during your recording, an audio technologist would have created a soundscape to help guide them. For simplicity, you will create your soundscape throughout your process and ensure it matches your short audio interview before you submit it.
There’s a template for this assignment on Moodle. So you will have two items to submit: a document and an audio file or a link to the audio file.
To build soundscape audio, you will need to keep in mind the sounds around you.
Next, you will learn about techniques for recording your interview and gathering soundscape audio.
Before you start recording or even set out to collect your audio (interview and sounds), ensure you have everything you need. Here’s a checklist to use:
Recorder or cell phone with recording app.
If you are going to use your cell phone for recording (which many students choose to do), read the article, “Audio Recording With a Smartphone,” for a breakdown about recording with a smartphone.
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Extra batteries or external phone charger and cords.
Notebook and pen.
Write directions to your interview location in your notebook to prevent it from becoming accidentally deleted.
The Interview Location
Plan to arrive at your interview location early, giving yourself enough time to get lost along the way.
As you arrive at your location, turn your recorder on. This is called “pulling a Radiolab” (Rosenthal, 2015, para. 11), a reference to the popular Radiolab podcast, which often includes audio of its reporters arriving on-location and introducing themselves to people. This captures interesting ambient and background noise that you can use later in the editing process.
Setting up Equipment
Next, set up your recording equipment. To make sure you get “good” sound:
Avoid kitchens: They are noisy and “echo-y.”
Avoid the outdoors, or put your back to the wind.
Be assertive: Ask to turn off TVs, radios, cell phones, to close windows or doors.
Ask to redecorate: Get your recorder as close as you can. Find a room with carpets and rugs, which help muffle sounds that echo.
Don’t interview on the couch – more often than not, it’s awkward.
If you’re interviewing more than one person, have them gather around the recorder, rather than trying to follow them with it.
For more guidance on setting up your recording environment, “Recording not by the Book,” from the audio organization Transom, is a good resource.
Check Audio Levels
Once you have set up your equipment, you will need to “check your levels.” To fairly assess this, you should understand the terms “hot” and “cold” audio.
Hot Audio means that it’s too loud for the average person’s ear. You can gauge this by looking at the bars that move up and down on the recorder’s screen as you talk. If the bars are reaching very high on the screen (and often turning red), the recorder is too close to the person who is talking. Move the recorder until you find a spot where the lines are near the middle.
Cold Audio is the exact opposite – it’s too quiet, and the bars are not jumping high enough to capture the sound. Like with hot audio, simply move your recorder until the bars manage to reach the middle.
You’ll figure audio levels out by having some idle chit-chat with your interview subject before you start the actual interview. Tell them that you are just making sure the audio will sound good, and ask what they had for breakfast that day.
Know that it’s not uncommon for parts of your audio to be hot or cold. This can be fixed in the editing stage, but it’s important that the majority of your audio is balanced – even cell phone recorders will show the bouncing lines of your audio.
You’ll also want to be aware of “p-pops.” P-pops are moments in your tape that are unexpectedly hot because of emphasis on certain letters. This is normal and can be altered in editing, but should be avoided as much as possible. The Transom guide, “P-Pops and Other Plosives,” will help you understand how to prevent this.
Once you’ve set up your recording environment and considered your audio levels, you are ready to start recording. Press the record button and “slate the tape” – that is, saying the date, time, and who is conducting the conversation.
Then it’s time to ask your previously prepared interview questions! Before you start, warn your interviewee that you may be checking your recorder throughout so they don’t get distracted.
During the interview, remain engaged with the interviewee so that you can ask follow-up questions, and rest easy knowing that you have some questions written down in your notebook if there is a lull. Try to keep these tips in mind:
Keep eye contact.
Silence is okay – sometimes, interviewees will fill in the gaps of a silence with interesting thoughts.
Try not to “listen audibly” by agreeing, making affirmative sounds, etc. You can’t cut this out and can be distracting.
Background and Ambient Noise
As mentioned before, your audio will not simply comprise of a conversation with someone. You will need to keep in mind background and ambient audio.
If your topic has to do with an event, for instance, be sure to show up to the event that your interviewee talked about. Gather sounds of the event itself, whether that’s crowd noise, cheering, chants, or just the chirping of birds. Just as with your interview, maintain your levels and move around to get the best clips possible.
This NPR story about a civil rights protest, “May Day Demonstrations in Washington against Vietnam War,” is a great example of capturing background noise while also conducting interviews.
You may choose to include a voice-over in your audio file, like the S-Town podcast clips we heard earlier. Remember, voice-overs are used when you want to tell a story but your interview, background, and ambient sounds can’t do that on their own. You become the narrator, filling in gaps for the listener.
Recording a voice-over is different from recording an interview or gathering background noise – this is because you have far more control over what you will say and how.
The first step to recording a voice-over is to write a script and practice it. Write it out in all caps (it’s easier to read this way – this is how all radio hosts read content on-air) and read it out loud many times to fix grammar and become comfortable with the content. The Transom guide, “Sounding Like Yourself,” reviews how to actually “sound like yourself” when recording audio.
You will then want to record the audio itself. Find a location that is quiet. This may sound silly, but many podcast hosts record their segments in their closets, sitting on the floor, because the clothes work to keep their levels balanced. Just as with interviews and background noise, adjust your recorder’s position to ensure your voice will not be too “hot” or “cold.” Do as many “takes” as needed.
Practice Recording Audio
Before you actually record the audio of your interview, practice working with your equipment to test how it functions and to get used to what to listen for when gathering audio. This is an important step in interview preparation. You are asking someone for a time commitment and will want the interview to go as smoothly as possible. If you have not practiced and your sound quality is lacking, you may not have the opportunity to go back and re-interview.
Find a family member or friend who is willing to participate in a mini-interview. Practice interviewing them in various rooms and locations to test sound quality. Take note of the surroundings in the room. Is there tile, laminate, hardwood, or rug floor? Is there soft or hard furniture in the room? Are there animals or other people in the room or close by? Are there traffic noises or children playing outside? Take note of the surroundings for each mini-interview so that you start to get a sense of how your equipment is functioning and where you would make adjustments.
Record ambient sounds. Take a walk in your neighborhood or in the country and record the sounds as you move around in different locations. Again, make clear notes of your surroundings (Are there trees, traffic, snow, water?) and partner them with your recordings to make sure you have a good understanding of what you will want to be aware of when recording ambient sound. The crunch of someone walking in snow may be an important component of your story.
Record a voice-over. Again, try recording your voice in different locations, including a closet. Make note of popping Ps and hot and cold audio. This will also help prepare you for your interview.
Strategies for Editing Audio
It may sound counter-intuitive, but editing is one of the most important stages in the storytelling process. Once you have gathered all your audio components, it’s up to you to stitch them together in a compelling way – the editing stage is where you make it all make sense.
The first step in the editing process is to transfer all the audio that you have recorded from your recording device onto the computer you will be using to edit it.