This article is authored by Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. He also hosts the Demystifying Media podcast, in which he interviews leading journalists and media scholars.
Audio is enjoying a creative and critical renaissance right now. Meanwhile, podcasting – driven by the ability to listen on smartphones and smart speakers, coupled with low barriers to entry, and the creative possibilities of an unregulated media environment – is experiencing its own golden age.
As more and more players move into the audio and podcasting space, here are six tips to help journalists and audio producers get the most out of their interviews.
Preparation is key
Doing your homework is fundamental for any successful interview. That does not just mean researching the person you are interviewing and the subject they will be talking to you about. It also means ascertain if this is the right person to interview.
Your interviewee may know the subject matter, but that does not necessarily mean that person is a great fit for a live (or studio) interview.
Is the person you are talking to engaging? Can they explain ideas and concepts (from scientific findings through to a 'this happened' narrative) in a manner which anyone can understand?
Do they have an accent? That is fine, but be sure they can they be understood if you cannot see them.
When you only have the audio to listen to, visual cues – like body language and lip reading - are absent. You therefore need to ensure that your interviewee(s) can be understood. Conducting a pre-interview, prior to taping – or going live – can help here.
Location, Location, Location
There are times when getting out of the studio makes a huge difference to your interview. The setting of the interview can be a key ingredient in the storytelling. A few quick examples:
Want to discuss the impact of droughts with a farmer? Do the interview out in the fields. Sounds – from animals to machinery, even the wind – will help to give a sense of place.
Telling a story about the Toyosu fish market in Tokyo, or Pike Place in Seattle? Be sure to talk to your interviewees in their native environment.
You do not have to do this for your entire piece, or indeed your entire interview, but interviewing on location, especially if it is in the right location – namely one that is intrinsically linked to your story – can add real colour and flavour to your content. Listen to the radio pieces from Will Grant, the BBC's Mexico, Central America and Cuba Correspondent, for well-executed examples of this technique.
If in doubt, move
Your job is, in part, to make an interviewee sound good. Certainly from a technical perspective. Nobody wants to give an interview in which they cannot be heard clearly. (For an example of where this happened to me, listen to this.)
If the recording quality is compromised (coffee shops are a good example of this) try to move to a different location. If this is impossible, reschedule the interview.
You are the expert. Your interviewee will respect your professional judgement. Just explain why you need to move or reschedule.
Silence is golden
In real life, we constantly provide signals of understanding and encouragement to the people we are talking to. Often those are small noises like 'uh-huh' or 'ah-ha' etc.
That is fine in day-to-day conversation but tends to be a real no-no in audioland. It is distracting and off-putting and sounds intrusive. Instead, you want the words of your interviewee to be as clean as possible.
Michael Barbaro, host of the New York Times’ excellent podcast The Daily is an honourable exception to this rule. His frequent audible reactions ("hmmm") to the revelations of his interviewees often mimic our own as listeners.
Audio interviewers need to use silent affirmation – lots of nodding and eye contact – instead as a means to provide mid-interview feedback. Ideally, you want to get out of the way and only be heard when you are asking a question.
Getting the most out of your interviewee
The best interviewers ask the questions you want answered and you would have asked. Or they ask a question which you would have never thought of, but wish you had.
Much of this comes from preparation, but it also stems from the ability to pivot away from a pre-prepared script, based on the responses provided by an interviewee.
With human interest stories, the best questions tend to be open-ended. Encourage the interviewee to do most of the talking and to provide the colour and detail. Questions which ask: "So, how did…" or "Tell us about" or "Can you explain..." help to tee up these types of responses.
if you have recorded a 30-minute interview for a 3-minute segment, I would recommend not trying to edit down the entire conversation. Pick the choicest bits. You can always summarise some of the other parts of the discussion in your intro or conclusion.
Alongside this, I often get asked about editing out silence and 'errs and ums'. My general recommendation would be not to do this.
First, it is very time-consuming. Secondly, if an interviewee has paused (within reason) before answering your question, the listener needs to hear that. The silence tells us something.
Cutting it to speed things up means you are essentially manipulating the interview and misrepresenting how your interviewee behaved and responded.
It is fine to edit. Of course. Just do so in a manner which is honest and true to the tone of the interview and your interviewee.
After all, authenticity, in all journalism and especially in audio, is the bedrock of our profession.
This is a specially adapted extract from a Chapter on interviewing for radio and podcasts, in "Interviewing: The Oregon Method Second Edition" edited by Peter Laufer with John Russial. Read the full chapter here.