Friday, November 20, 2009


I've sat in at Operations a couple of time now. In case you're just tuning in, the person who works in Operations is in charge of making sure things get on the air correctly. They get reporter's stories from the field, they record weather reports and program them to be played at the touch of a button, they pull sound from the wire services or news feeds, and they listen closely to make sure nothing sounds wrong.

The operations desk sits in a corner by itself. It's always unnaturally warm or unnaturally cold over there for some reason. The desk has two computers. Each one has two screens (one cool thing about WTOP, all of the computers have two monitors). There are cabinets that hold various cables and interconnects and headphones and microphones. Also, there are different devices that pick up feeds. Ops has it's own on air light so the person working there knows when the anchors are live. Most impressively, there's a huge board at ops.

Lights flicker everywhere. Faders going up and down, buttons to be pressed, sound coming in from every direction. the phone rings a lot. It's overwheliming. In my opinion, it's the most overwhelming spot in the newsroom.

I thought I had gotten pretty good at editing audio using Adobe Audition. Well, I have gotten better and faster and more accurate. But the people at ops make me look like a two year old trying to run a nuclear physics lab. They know all of the keyboard commands, they know exactly where to put their cursor to ct correctly. It's fast, it's accurate and almost graceful.

A side note: the Audition is usually gray with green highlights. One of the women who works in ops (a former intern, I might add), knows how to change the colors. Her Audition is fuchsia and purple. It's my secret goal to learn how to chameleonize (not a real word) Audition to be teal and aubergine. I'll let you know if I ever achieve this.

I saw a lot of things happen that I never even thought about. WTOP puts WJLA Channel 7 weathermen on air. Only some of the weather reports are live, others are prerecorded throughout the day. To get prerecorded weather, the weatherman calls the ops desk and records the forecast through the phone. Each weather report has to be an exact length or it can't go on the air. The ops people have to edit it down if it's too long. Also, ops likes working with some weathermen better than others because some are better at recording the forecast in one take.

Ops then loads the final weather forecast into the board. That way, the anchors can hit a single button to play the weather in the studio. Weather is always on the eights (1:08, 2:08, 5:08, etc.) so the button needs to be loaded before this. That way, if live weather fails, there's a backup.

The least favorite job in operations (unanimously) is helping the entertainment editor. He does movie reviews, but does not know how to edit or record audio. When he knows what he wants to say, he grabs the person in ops. They go to a small empty studio. (There are many studios of various sizes at WTOP. Just in case one stops working. And another stops working. And another.) Once there, the ops person starts the computer, opens Adobe Audition and hits record. Then they leave and let the movie reviewer record his piece to air later.

When he's done, he grabs the person from ops again. They stop the recording and save the file. Then they get to edit it down to about a minute's worth of material. Often, they tell me, the file is twenty minutes long. They let me listen to some of it. It's full of mess ups, false starts, musings, swearing...The editing process takes a long time.

And a disclaimer, everyone likes the entertainment editor a lot. His reviews are clever and he has a good on-air presence. I know the op people have a lot of fondness for him. I'm not trying to make him look bad.

Anyway, sitting in at ops has given me a lot to think about skills-wise. I have goals, especially since many former interns work in ops. Aubergine and teal Audition, here I come!

First Response

Working in radio news has its perks. For one, it's definitely not a desk job and it changes every day. Also, you get to hear about everything that's happening in the world first. Basically, this means that when Michael Jackson died, I knew right away. And when Justice Sotomayor was confirmed. The list goes on.

And now I get to stop sounding like a cheery journalism textbook. Knowing what's happening when it happens can also lead to a good amount of stress and strife. When I'm in the newsroom, I'm forced to think about crises constantly. And then I have to edit down commentary on crises. There's no escape.

I was in the newsroom the night one Metro train crashed into another. We got the news, and everyone dropped everything. The typical lineup of stories (some fun, some features, some money-related stuff, some sports) went out the window. Someone pulled out the "breaking news" music. Without being told (amazing for a student to see), every reporter was on the phone trying to get whatever information they could from whoever might now it.

I'm writing this after the fact, so this post might have already lost some of it's impact. Remember, the first thing we heard was a train had crashed. We had to put together everything else from that. Where the crash was, how many people were hurt, how many trains, how are people going to get out, what's going to happen to train service, how do people find out if their loved ones are on the train, why did the crash happen, how is the cleanup going to happen, is Metro going to issue a statement, can anyone see the crash, what's new, what's new, what's new. There's a lot of questions, and it's live, breaking news so we have to get as much information as fast and accurately as possible.

WTOP sent two reporters to the scene immediately. The crash happened around 5:30, but later I found out that they didn't get to go home until 4:00 a.m. That's a lot of time, considering these reporters were already midway through their shifts. One of them told me later that there was a reporter from another organization there. She arrived directly from another assignment. She was wearing stiletto heels, and she continued wearing them and standing up all night long.

Back in the newsroom, I was told to stand by one of the many televisions and simply watch. One of the things I never realized about news is how much copying takes place. I was supposed to watch local TV coverage and let the assistant editor know if I heard any new information in other stations' coverage. That is, whenever a number popped up, I ran to tell someone.

I watched the death toll rise from one to two to five to seven. the next day, the numbers were up to nine dead. And even though I was many miles away inside the newsroom, it was a different type of impact than what I've felt watching a tragedy from my living room.

The reporters kept calling in live reports. No one in the newsroom left to go home. People who were supposed to leave at six were still at their desks at 9:00. This is news, you can't put it down and pick it up the next day.

One of the professors at American University is studying the connection between journalism and stress. his findings show that journalists experience the same levels of stress as first responders. That is, an EMT or a police officer and a journalist feel the same tension in an event like this.

The Metro crash was special. It was tragic local at the same time. But the numbers come in from something like the Fort Hood shooting, too. It's everyone's job to listen. I wonder what it was like to be in a newsroom on 9/11? I'm not saying I wish I could have seen it...but if I had, there's no telling what I might have learned.

It's part of the business. Plus, like I said before, you don't get this sort of thing in a classroom.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Learning by watching

On Saturday, I went out with WTOP reporter Rahul Bali. Hands-on learning is good, but I tried the watch and learn approach for a day. It was worth it.
We drove to FedEx Field (home of the Redskins. Maybe you know that, but I always assume ignorance when it comes to sports. After all, I am mostly ignorant myself on that topic). There, Rahul was supposed to cover a veterans health event, where vets could come and have several medical tests for free. As part of the coverage, he was going to meet up with Joe Theismann, a former Redskins player that is famous, partially, for his gruesome leg injury broadcast on Monday Night Football. (Watch at your own risk)

The interview had many aims. For one, the Redskins aren't doing very well this season. OK, they're actually doing a phenomenally bad job this season. And WTOP is getting some on-air commentary from John Riggins, a Hall of Fame running back. (OK, I'm honestly not sure what a running back does.) As far as I understand, he wants the Redskins under new management NOW and he's being pretty vocal about who he thinks is at fault for the team's dismal record. So Rahul was supposed to get some feedback on that.

Also, we needed to get some quotes about veterans' mental health services in light of the recent Fort Hood shooting.

Going out with a pro is good for couple of reasons. For one, I get a lot of advice about the field, including some information about how to find a job one day (eek!). Also, I get to see how things really work, outside of textbooks and classroom lectures. Rahul even hit the speaker phone button and let me listen in while he and the producer made decisions about his story.

Some interesting things I learned...

Things to keep in a reporter's bag (they all lug bulky satchels and totes): a flashlight (for reading notes or scripts when reporting after sunset); a pack of cigarettes, even though Rahul doesn't smoke (people might talk to you if you offer them a smoke, especially in a situation where they can't leave the scene to get a cigarette somewhere else).

Things I need to know to function at my first job: high school and college sports (first-time journalists usually get jobs in smaller towns. In these places, the whole population can turn out at a high school football game). This is going to be tough for me.

How to get the best sound bite: make sure your question matches the emotional level of the response you want. An example, Rahul covers Redskins fans. Instead of asking a team fanatic "What do you think about the game so far?" Rahul will jam the microphone in the person's face and simply yell "What the hell is going on out there?!" The fans pick up on the emotion and they'll yell back. I tried this the other day in a phone interview and it works. I still need some practice, though.

I also got to play with some neato technology. WTOP owns a device the reporters call an "access". It uses a 3G network or wireless internet to connect to the newsroom. This way, a reporter can call in a story live without worrying about being near a phone or the iffy signal of a cell phone. The access is about the size of a pound cake. To use it, you simply plug in a battery, stick the wireless card inside of it, turn it on, and wait for it to connect with the newsroom. Rahul said most newsrooms don't have these devices yet.

Another good thing about the access, it works best outdoors. At FedEx field that means, well, on the field. I got to stand on a football field for the first time in my life. And I realized that 100 yards is actually pretty small. It looks much bigger on TV.

Everyone is busy, so we'll let the intern do it.

I was at my all-time favorite shift this week (7:00 a.m. on Tuesdays)...and you know if I'm writing about something that happened that early in the morning, it has to be good. Or, at least, it sounds pretty cool when I say it.
One of the reporters was supposed to do an interview with the Lieutenant (see, I'm a journalism major--I spelled that right, first try) Governor of Maryland. She wasn't going to be in the office at the appropriate time, so she passed the interview to a different reporter. He had to step out to cover a story, so the assignment got passed a few rungs lower on the ladder--to me.
This is the amazing thing about being allowed to play with all of the equipment. I get to hit all the buttons and I know how to work the phone (that one took a bit of practice, I'll admit) and I get to log into ENPS at my own desk and play with Adobe Audition. And, now that I've been the intern for several months, the management knows that, technically speaking, I know what I'm doing.
So got to interview the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. OK, that title could be a little more impressive. I'm thinking you might be gasping more if the "Lieutenant" was dropped from the title or if Maryland was actually New York or California or, while we're dreaming, the title was "President Obama". But still, I'm a junior in college. Plus I'm an intern, not a real reporter.
I got a little nervous. How do you address the Lieutenant Governor? Do I even know anything about this man? the best I could do was read up on the subject matter of the interview (mental health resources for veterans).
The thing about important people, they have staff. The call came through to the newsroom. It was a woman (secretary? PR person, I have no idea). she asked for my full name. Then, she connected me to the room where the Lieutenant (OK, now I'm showing off) Governor was sitting. Another woman said something like "Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, you are speaking with Caitlin Hillyard from WTOP Radio". Now the pressure's on. He knows my name so there's no running now.
I had five to eight minutes to get this done, the press release said. So we talked about Maryland's new initiative for veteran support services. I asked him what was new about the initiative, why he thinks it's going to be a model for other states, whether he thinks it's difficult to get veterans to seek help for mental health concerns, what his personal connection is to veterans, what he hopes to see in the future, etc.
I'm pleased with the interview. I passed the saved audio onto the reporter who was supposed tp write the story. I'm always a little nervous about this part. My interviewing style is a pretty personal thing. Here I am, subjecting my questioning style, the sound of my recorded voice, and the information I was able to gather on to a professional. In retrospect, I think I got the Lieutenant Governor to say a lot. At the same time, I feel like we were both a little stiff.
So I have my goal for next time--warm up a little. Don't be nervous, it's just a person on the other line, someone with something he cares about to say. And yes, there's probably press secretary whispering in his ear the whole time. And yes, he's probably already talked to a dozen seasoned reporters today and will talk to several more after he hangs up with me. But, I figure, that's the only way to learn. I jumped in there, I did it, and now I know what I need to work on.
Next Tuesday? Who knows? Maybe I'll get to chat with Obama's dog groomer or something.