Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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.

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