Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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.

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