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RECORD YOUR OWN RADIO DOCUMENTARY
 > A tutorial by producer David Isay.


[ INTERVIEW GUIDE | INTERVIEW CHECKLIST ]

Interview Guide

Here are six steps to getting a great interview:

1. Practice using the equipment

Before your interview, get comfortable with your equipment. Record yourself. Find a friend and do a mock interview. A few things to remember:

Always wear headphones when recording. Your headphones are your "ears" for the interview; they tell you exactly what you'll hear on your finished recording. Use them to adjust the microphone position so the sound is as clear as possible. If you hear anything weird such as "humming" or "clicks" stop recording and figure out the problem.

Mic close. Hold the microphone about seven inches (roughly a hand's length) from your subject's mouth and slightly off to the side. Always hold the mic in your hand, moving it between you and your subject, just like a TV news reporter. At the start of the interview, you can ask your subject to wait a moment before responding to your questions so that you have time to move the microphone back and forth. If the sound is too loud in your headphones, lower the headphone volume instead of moving the mic farther away.

Be careful of mic noise. The low rumbling sound you might hear when you move the mic in your hands is known as "mic handling noise." You can avoid it by using a light touch and not shifting around too much. If you must move the mic, make sure to wait until your subject has finished speaking.

Avoid popping "p" and sharp "s" sounds (unnatural plosives and sibilance). If you hear either, move the mic farther to the side of the subject's mouth. Both occur only in a relatively narrow zone directly in front of the mouth. (To see for yourself, say the word "pop" with your hand directly in front of your mouth. Now say it again while moving your hand to the side. You'll be surprised how quickly the plosive zone disappears.)

2. Choose a quiet interview location.

A carpeted living room or bedroom makes for warm, intimate recordings. Avoid large, empty rooms, and stay away from kitchens, which have a lot of reflective surfaces and appliance noise.

Rooms are full of all sorts of sounds that you normally don't notice but that can wreak havoc on your recording. Close the door, unplug the phone, make sure your chairs don't creak, turn off anything that is making noise: ticking clocks, buzzing fluorescent lights, air conditioners, fans, etc. Listen and adjust during the interview as well. If you hear noise as your subject fiddles with her necklace, for example, feel free to let her know. Never record interviews when there's a radio or television on in the background.

3. Test the equipment.

Set up your equipment as early as possible and make sure you're comfortable with it. This way you'll be able to focus on the person you are interviewing and not the equipment. Before you begin your interview, record your subject talking for a few seconds to make sure everything is working. Ask warm-up questions like, "Can you describe what this room looks like?" or "Tell me what you had for breakfast." Take all the time you need to adjust your microphone placement and eliminate background noise. Stop, rewind, and listen to the recording you just made to make sure everything is working. Just remember to press "record" again when you start recording for real.

4. Begin the conversation.

Begin your interview with warm-up questions or small talk to help put your subject at ease. Start each tape with an ID, having the subject state his or her name, age, the date, and the location of the interview. For example, "Hi, my name is Christopher. I'm forty-one years old. The date is August 3, 1492, and we're sitting here on my ship called the Santa Maria in the port of Palos." Repeat this at the start of any new tapes.

Don't make noise when your subject is talking. Don't say, "uh huh," or interrupt when something interesting or important is being said. Instead, use visual cues like nodding your head.

5. Get great stories.

Listen closely. Look at your subject's eyes (not the mic). Stay interested and engaged.

Stick with the good stuff. When you hear something that moves you, feel free to talk about it more. If you think the current topic isn't interesting, steer the conversation somewhere else.

Help the subject be more descriptive. When you need your subject to describe something, it can help to ask him to "paint a picture with words."

Don't be afraid to record again. If the subject garbles words or makes a mistake, ask him to repeat himself. If a story never quite gets to the end or your subject loses his train of thought, you can ask for the ending again. Make sure you are happy with what you're recording. You can record as many times as necessary (as long as you're not driving your subject crazy).

Ask emotional questions. Questions like "How does this make you feel?" often elicits thoughtful responses. Don't be afraid to ask.

Take notes. Write down any questions or stories you might want to return to later in your interview. Also write down or record notes for your script: how people look, what they're wearing, what the environment looks like, etc. This should be done on location.

Be curious and honest. Great things will happen.

6. Wrap it up.

Before you turn off your recorder, ask the subject if there is anything else that he or she wants to talk about. Also, record two minutes of "room tone," that is the room's ambient sound. You can use this sound to make smooth transitions in and out of the scene when you edit. You can also use it to lay a "sound bed" underneath the interview in the final mix to give it a sense of place.

When you're done, label and write-protect your tapes or MiniDiscs. Store them in a cool place out of direct sunlight.


Interview Checklist

Things to bring to the interview

  • Your question list
  • Recording device
  • Microphone
  • Microphone cable
  • Headphones
  • Extra batteries (at least one full set)
  • Pre-labeled tapes or MiniDiscs (twice as many as you think you'll need)
  • Pen or pencil

Before you begin your interview

  • Find the quietest place possible to record.
  • Turn off or move away from noisy appliances like clocks, TVs, and refrigerators.
  • Make sure you and your storyteller are comfortable.
  • Do a test recording, holding the microphone about one hand's distance from your storyteller's mouth. If anything sounds strange, stop and figure out what the problem is before starting the interview.

During your interview

  • Double check that the recorder is actually recording (not on pause).
  • Start each tape with an ID: State your name, your age, the date, and the location of the interview. For example, "Hi, my name is Christopher. I'm forty-one years old. The date is August 3, 1492, and we're sitting here on my ship called the Santa Maria in the port of Palos." Ask your storyteller to state the same information.
  • Stay quiet when your subject is talking. Don't say, "Uh, huh." Instead, nod your head.
  • Feel free to rerecord. If your storyteller makes a mistake or if a noisy truck passes by, feel free to ask her to repeat the story.
  • Ask emotional questions like "How did this make you feel?"
  • Look your storyteller in the eyes and stay engaged.
  • Stick with amazing moments in the interview. Follow-up questions often yield the best material.
  • Be curious and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

When you finish

  • Label and write-protect your tapes or MiniDiscs. Store them in a cool place out of direct sunlight.

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