Thursday, October 15, 2009

Intern. Fail.

Last Friday, I was doing the intern thing as usual. I was sitting with the investigative reporter helping him tally (by hand. Actual tally marks on paper. Woah) all of the transgressions of Metro bus and train operators in the past five years. The numbers are crazy. I'll probably have more on that after the story breaks. Anyway, sitting at the table. Tallying. And then the producer comes in. He asks me if I can come in Sunday afternoon instead of my usual Saturday morning. He wants someone to go down to a sports pub in Cleveland Park and ask fans about the Redskins game.
Some background about myself. I am a curious person, interested in many many areas of live, academia, and culture. I know a lot of useless facts. My friends used to joke that they keep me around because I know the answer to life's most trivial questions. I know, for example, why cats' eyes glow at night and I can say "the crayfish broke the boat of yesteryear" in French.
But one thing I don't know anything about is football. Granted, I know a little about the Redskins. I know the newsy stuff that drops down on the wires. I know they are really bad. I know they recently brought in an offensive consultant (which offends me...haha bad pun, sorry). I also know that the Virginia lottery now offers a Redskins scratch card. Plus, i know that there's a bit of controversy over the name of the team.
On the other hand, ask me how many points a field goal is worth, and I can't tell you. Are they even worth points? Field goal is football, right? Home run?
So I came in on Sunday and I try to catch up on the game. I had one eye on the TV, one eye on Redskins twitter, one eye on my phone, because I kept texting my little brother about football plays.
I went over to talk to the sports guy on duty. He told me the game was a pretty boring one (I thought so, too, but I wasn't going to say anything). The redskins were winning, for the moment. he told me to ask the fans about offense and defense. That sounded good to me.
So I set sail for Cleveland Park. I had to walk there, but it was a beautiful day. I headed south with hopes of hitting the neighborhood. to be safe, I had the name and address of the sports bar. My brother told me I had a couple of hours left in the game (!) so I was fine on time.
When I got to Cleveland Park, I walked one way. Then the other. Then I trekked until I hit the zoo (too far). After that, I crossed the street and did it again. Being one of those obnoxious iPhone users, I used the map on my phone, following the little blue dot (me) to the little red pin (the pub). No luck.
More background information: I have a famously bad sense of direction. I once was trying to get to Iowa City from Des Moines (insert corn joke if you must). I ended up in Minnesota. That might not sound so bad, except one is in the east and the other in the north.
So naturally, I just thought my navigation was off. But after awhile I noticed that the flower vendor was staring at me. I'd passed him about twenty times, microphone with mic flag in hand.
I pulled out my phone again. I googled the pub. OK, I wasn't crazy. The place had gone bankrupt and had closed. Plus, I noted, the pub was underground anyway, making it harder to find. That last part I added just to make myself feel better.
So I found another sports bar. I walked in, painfully aware that I'm underage and know nothing about football. I looked around. Everyone was wearing team jerseys. But, ah fate! Only three Redskins jersys in the bunch. The game had ended.
Now I would have thought that you're at a sports bar, the game ends, you hang around awhile anyway to rant about plays and finish your beer. No. Apparently if your team loses, you clear out, IMMEDIATELY.
I got one guy to talk to me. I was supposed to get at least five.
So I called the newsroom, admitted defeat, and walked back.
At least it was a pretty day. Better luck next time?

Bugging people on the street

Walk along Wisconsin Avenue between Tenleytown and the National Cathedral, and you have a decent chance of catching one of the WTOP interns at work. They'll be easy to spot: on foot, either alone or in pairs, and carrying an Olympus digital recorder. Sometimes this recorder will be tethered to a handheld microphone with a WTOP mic flag.
Point of interest (to me, anyway), mic flags, which are the square, plastic banners you see on television microphones, usually with the stations' name on the side, are about two hundred dollars apiece. I had a professor offer extra credit to a girl in my class for doing journalism arts and crafts. That is, making cheap mic flags out of wooden blocks and acrylic paint.
Anyway, when you see the interns out on the sidewalk, they are doing something we call "MOS". MOS stands for "man on street". It's the practice of soliciting people on the street for their opinion. The goal is to get sound bites from enough people so that you can put them together to illustrate how everyday people feel about different issues.
I've done a good amount of MOS over the past few months. Some of my favorite topics include the new Angus burger at Mcdonalds (we had to stand outside McDonalds and ask people if they knew how much fat/sodium/calories were in their lunch), the decline of the American diner, stores charging for grocery bags, the death of Michael Jackson (the afternoon of), summer movies, and many many more.
I joked once that journalism students are actually majoring in creepology. That is, reporters have to put aside any shyness or inhibition in order to get information. People don't always want to talk on tape. They might not like the radio station, they might not like the sound of their own voice , or they might not care about the subject. Sometimes, people reluctant to be interviewed are rude. I've heard every gutteral grunt and pffft and ssshhhpt and I've even had a girl run away from me (I'm not a scary person, I swear). One day, no one on the street knew any English. I'm a little skeptical about that though, since one of the guys let me know by saying "My English is not yet proficient." Sure, man, whatever you say.
The trick, the professional reporters tell me, is to not to take anything personally. Which is, as you might imagine, easier in theory than in practice. A deadline is ticking, the producer or the reporter who gave you the assignment needs the sound. What if no one talks to me? What if no one says anything good? Come on people, I'm just an intern. Help me out.
I used to catch my voice on tape as I approached people. "Excuse me, I'm from WTOP Radio and...." I sounded like they had sent me to interview the lord of darkness. Terrified. I've grown out of that, but I admit I still need to work on the charm. I probably still come across as more cowardly than inviting.I used to catch my voice on tape as I approached people. "Excuse me, I'm from WTOP Radio and...." I sounded like they had sent me to interview the lord of darkness. Terrified. I've grown out of that, but I admit I still need to work on the charm. I probably still come across as more cowardly than inviting.
Of course, there are some techniques. Give people a brief description of what you're talking about today. Let them know they don't have to be experts, they just need to have an opinion. when asking questions, avoid yes or no questions. Often, people won't volunteer anything past the "uh huh" or the "nope", so you have to give them an open-ended version. you need to encourage them, but not lead them into an insincere response.
As always, audio quality matters. One of the biggest mistakes MOS beginners make is responding to their interviewee. Weird, right? Don't you WANT to look engaged? Yes, but not to the point where your "mmmm hmmmms" and "that's exactly right" and "yeahs" get into your voice recorder. You can't edit out one person's voice if it overlaps another person's voice. that means you have to keep encouragement to nods and smiles. Laughter is out. Mmmm hmm is out. A related note: don't jump to the next question immediately after the person is done talking. This is because a lot of times the person isn't actually done talking, you just THINK they are. they might think of something else to say, or they're just a long pauser. Either way, you can end up talking over them or interrupting. Again, not something you can edit out.
Then there's the one thing I always forget to do. I need to get about 30 seconds of ambient sound. That means the sound of the place. The background noise. On Wisconsin Avenue, that means the hum (and sometimes the roar) of traffic, the polite din of Starbucks customers, the patter of footsteps, the wind. Later, this sound can ease the transition between the reporter's voice, recorded in a sterile newsroom, and the interviewee's voices, recorded in the chaos of the world.
To wrap up this post, my favorite MOS responses so far. On the topic of McDonalds...."Right now I'm pretty hung over and I just want to get something greasy to eat." Two other interns got a woman who, when asked for her pirate impression, growled and barked like a dog. And who could forget the girl who told us that she thought charging money for grocery bags was a conspiracy. Never mind how she feels about paying for plastic bags, she doesn't trust the D.C. government to use the money how they say they're going to. The MOS lesson, people are fun.

Pictures coming soon!