Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Need a Snazzy Name...Suggestions?

A couple of Saturdays ago, I stopped by the Operations corner to grab some headphones. Operations is the department of the radio station responsible for making sure everything sounds right on the air. Basically, the people in Ops are in charge of sound and anything technological that goes with it.
I’m supposed to be training in Ops this semester, so I introduced myself to the man at the post. He shared a few enlightening tidbits about the radio business.
James started out as a DJ at a station in the South. He told me that this is how he learned broadcast delivery. Now, I’m not sure I want to be an anchor. On the other hand, I’m not ruling it out. After all, I think I would clean computer keyboards for the rest of my life if that’s what it took to be in radio. And, because I’m a radio nerd, I would enjoy it, too.
Anyway, back from digression, James talked to me about the art of using your voice to project a mood. When he was a DJ, he had to switch between different moods. Sad song to peppy song, slow to fast, etc. It’s all about nuance, he said. And honestly, I don’t think I could transition like that without a lot of practice.
This is why anchors get angry at a producer who doesn’t pair news stories in a logical way (or so I’ve heard). Follow a story about a dancing clown doing something cute with a story about dead babies, and even the most experienced anchor can sound stupid. I know I’ve seen anchors on TV that ticked me off this way. They looked and sounded a little too chipper when they told me about that deadly mudslide. Even if you can’t see the smile or the chortle, you can hear it in radio. A good story flow helps, but an anchor in control can change the entire feel of a newscast with his voice. And again, I have no clue how.
And then James used his power of inflection to trick me. Ah, trick the intern, everyone’s favorite game. He was telling me about how anchoring is like talking to your friend. You have to read your script like you are having a conversation with one person. James focused his eyes over my shoulder and said “Hey, guess what?” Thinking someone was behind me, I flipped around. False alarm. No one home but the hypothetical radio audience.
And I hear that a lot in my journalism classes, as well as around the station. Be conversational. Usually this mantra is applied to writing for radio or television. This was the first time I thought about it in terms of radio.
He also told me about what it’s like to work at odd hours. News is 24/7, remember. That means someone has to be manning that Operations corner all the time. On that Saturday, James had come in at three in the morning as was about to get off at 11:00 a.m. The trick, he said, is the stay up really late on Thursday night. That was you’re tired enough to go to be at 7:00 p.m. on Friday. Wake up at 1:30, you’re ready to go. And did I mention no partying the night before. That would be a crash and burn in the making.
So maybe I didn’t learn as much about working in Ops as I thought I would, but I learned a little bit about a day in the life. And that’s what internships are supposed to be about.
But if I want this to be a day in MY life, I have one major setback: one major setback: my name. It’s not catchy. If I want to be like James, I need to get a tag. Hmmm, “Caitlin” doesn’t really rhyme or pun with anything, does it? OK, so joke over, I’m not trying to become a DJ on a soul station. That might be beyond me for other reasons.
But I could end up doing almost anything in radio. I’m learning the technical and the storytelling aspects of the game. After all, James has also done sound for Public Television and radio, among other places. I’m hoping to get his take on that history, too. And, don’t worry, I’ll be learning more about Operations any day now. I have to—I put it down on my internship sheet!

Don't You Dare Call Me on that Cell Phone

I’m going to type this, and it’s going to look stupid. That is, it’s going to look so obvious in print that nobody is going to believe I had the audacity to put it on the internet. I mean, this is the internet, no stupidity allowed.
Ok, seriously, I’m going to stop delaying and type it: Radio is about sound.
And you’re saying: Yeah. Duh. What’s your point?
My point is that the world doesn’t have a lot of pure, perfect, unadulterated sound out there. At a radio station, a large amount of time goes into making real noises sound, well, realer than real.
Take a phone interview. Say we’re having someone call in to give us his big-wig take on President Obama’s health care plan. The phone rings, the assistant editor picks up the phone. She thanks Mr. Pundit in advance for his time and she connects him to the anchors in the studio. But this isn’t enough. She has to use her ears before she pushes that button. Because Mr. Pundit is on his blackberry.
And you’re really annoyed at me now. Maybe you like your Blackberry very much. Or maybe you’re an iPhone person. Then again, you could still be using that Nokia your mom gave you in seventh grade so you could call her when soccer practice was cancelled.
We all like cell phones. I know I like mine. But they can be a real pain for live radio. I don’t have a real, technical explanation for why, but cell phones sound a million times worse than landline phones on the radio. If you look at the waveform, someone’s voice recorded from a cell phone seems to jump all over the place. It has no attention span or consistency. One second, the person’s voice will peak at top amplitude, the next you’ll strain to hear the words. Sometimes the sound cuts out completely.
My best guess is this has something to do with air. I could be very off here, and I promise someday soon I’ll do a Google search on this. But waves travel through air. Your cell phone signal has to swim in the world for a little bit before it gets where it’s going. Maybe on the way they get obstructed a little bit—stuck in traffic or unable to see around some fat woman in the crowd.
If I’m not, again, ignorant, this is why most of the radio and television stations are in Northwest D.C. This is the highest point in the city. The signal doesn’t have much of a chance it will get blocked by anything.
So as the person answering the phone, you listen to see if you can hear that auditory craziness. If the sound quality isn’t good, you ask Mr. Pundit if they’re on a cell phone. If they are, you ask him if he can switch to a land line. You know. That super big phone that plugs into the wall. Weird, I know.
An interesting but not entirely germane side note: do you have any idea what these live pundits are doing while they’re live on air. We all know they’re doing an interview, but there’s a good chance Mr. Pundit is at home. And wireless phones are not uncommon. We once had a woman on a cell phone with a strong, clear signal (the exception, not the rule). She was walking her dog. I’m pretty sure she was enlightening the world about foreign affairs or bureaucracy while Poochie was doing his business. Not important, but a little funny.
Anyway, let’s get back to the newsroom. Think back to the last time you listened to talk radio. Rush Limbaugh or whoever you jive with is taking listener calls. Do you remember how every woman sounded a little like Julia Child? People’s voices don’t sound normal over the phone. I know I cringe whenever I catch the sound of my voicemail message. When you pump that sound through the radio waves, it sounds even worse. FM radio is infamous for that fuzzy, distorted radio/phone voice.
To counter this, we use a special filter on anything recorded through a phone line. This goes for the phone interview I do at my workstation as well as for anything that goes live on the air with the anchors. I can guide you through my editing process. I choose an FFT filtercalled “telephone bandpass”. This gets rid of the hazy sound. On the other hand, I have to be precise about it. If I accidentally filter something in-studio anchor says, then his voice sounds distorted.

Make it Shorter and Get Rid of the "Ums"

Radio doesn’t get to close down on the weekends like other businesses. People drive on the weekends, so they need their traffic and weather. On the eights. And they need someone pumping the news into their ears. A nice distraction, lest they unleash their road rage and slam into that guy in the red pickup who seems determined to cut them off at every turn.
And the station where I intern has more weekend employees on duty than the normal nine-to-five, paper-crunching office building. But the news is another story. It never completely stops, but on the weekends some of the main headline-factories do. Government gets weekends off. So does Wall Street. But all-news stations still have hour blocks to fill. No to mention slow news directly translates to low ratings for the station. People will only enjoy listening to radio if they can tune in to something interesting. Pete the windsurfing budgerigar isn’t it. And neither is last week’s big budget meeting.
Stations can only recycle news if they can find a way to add to the information people already know. One fresh way to do this is by airing interviews with experts. That way, listeners get a new point of view.
That’s where interns like me come in. The station I work at is a CBS affiliate. That means we can air CBS material and we also run a CBS news update at the top of ever hour. So say we need something to fill the weekend newscast (we always do). There’s an illuminating interview with Dan Raviv and a guy who just published a new book comparing military protocol to how the rest of the world is run. The interview is seven minutes long, but the producer wants something to fit in a three minute space.
No, we don’t find a shorter interview. Instead, the intern takes Dan Raviv and his friend to the chopping block.
The block is actually a computer program called Adobe Audition. It is an audio-editing program that displays recorded sound as a waveform that scrolls across the screen as it plays. I keep meaning to look up how commonly used the program is, but I do know that it’s the program I learned in my radio classes at school. I wasn’t at all proficient when I started, but this internship has focused my skills. Now, I spend more time in front of Audition than I do at Microsoft Word. Which, for a junior in college, is saying something.
The first thing I do on the CBS interview weight-loss plan is separate the different questions and answers in the interview. I copy and paste the original interview into a blank sound file. That way, I’m not altering the original copy, so I always have something to go back to if I mess up, which, believe me, happens. Then I isolate each question and answer by adding a few seconds of generated silence between each question and response. This makes choosing which questions stay and which and gives me flexibility if I want to change the order of the questions.
After I’ve chosen the questions I want, chances are the interview is still too long. I’ll still have to trim some off the responses. So I start with the parts that have to go—the parts that sound bad.
People don’t usually speak in a clean way. That goes for conversations on the street corner as well as planned interviews. People stutter, they say “uh” and “um”, they repeat words, they take long pauses. And this is why radio stations have interns.
I actually really enjoy cleaning up what people say. Actually, I like physical cleaning too, and editing people’s not-yet-proofread papers. The act of taking something imperfect and smoothing out its flaws is empowering. In my time at WTOP, I’ve gotten much better at this. At first, the “um” would be gone, but the surrounding words would sound jerky or clipped. Even worse, sometimes a digital click or a pop would spike up where I cut the “um”.
The evening producer gave me a tutorial on how to edit human speech. I learned to delete the “um’s” waveform in Audition. Without moving my cursor, I then generate 0.2 seconds of silence where the offending “um” used to be. Then I fade out the tail of the preceding word and fade in the beginning of the next word. To finish it off, I gradually eat away at the silence I created until the pause between the two words sounds natural.
On a radio station sometimes described as NPR on caffeine, pauses are clipped to a minimum. Breathing isn’t a priority for guests on a fast-paced news station, I guess. So I also spend a lot of time shortening the gaps where people stop to find their next word. The consensus varies on this technique: I had a radio class where the professor warned us against cutting out breaths. The theory is that this sounds unnatural and can even be unnerving on the ear. It doesn’t sound too out of place on WTOP though, so this might be more of a matter of style.
After the interview is cleaned up on the most primitive level, I take some time to edit the responses of questions for content. One of my gurus in the summer portion of my internship taught me a trick—cut from the end of a response and work back towards the beginning. As people on the air answer a question, they start to repeat themselves. Human nature has them spit out the main part of their answer in the first few seconds, leaving time for blabbering. The same rules of flow apply to cutting content—fades and gaps should fall where a cut sounds unnatural. And special attention must go to inflection. Nothing stings the ear like weird inflection.
Finally, I run the finished cut interview through a compressor. Without being too technical, you could say this stretches out the waveform a little. It makes the tail longer, and mellows out the highs and lows. Many different compressors exist. The one I use is named after the station and gives the recorded voices the characteristic sound of the station.
Now that the actual Audition editing is done, I need to make sure it can fit into a newscast. This is where my journalism major comes in. I get to write an introduction. Actually, I am replacing an existing introduction. Dan Raviv already told his audience about the guy he interviewed, why the interview is important to them and how it fits into current events. Of course, Dan Raviv won’t be making a personal appearance on my local station today, so I need to rework this intro so one of my station’s anchors can read it. And Dan’s lovely intro gets the boot and mine goes in.
Ok, I admit. I don’t always listen very carefully when I do the grunt editing. I get a little caught up in looking for “ums”. So I usually take another listen. Then I write, not like the thesis of a paper, but more like a sample plate. I want listeners to wonder and care about what they are about to hear.
To end the journey, I save the finished sound file under a special number system. Then I stick it right into the story. This lets the anchors call it up by pressing a button.
This process is low-pressure, mainly because it goes on the air the next day at the earliest. I’ve got some time to be fastidious about the details. On the other hand, my heart really starts pounding when I have to edit a live interview to be aired in its improved form later in the same day.
But I’ll have more on that later, lest I begin to sound like a chipper textbook. I mean, let’s face it, I’m much more interested in this than the average junior in college.