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!