In early March, I had my first taste of using audio in the hopes of creating a podcast. I was using SPJ’s iPod Video with digital voice recording, and hopefully the results will be posted to SPJ.org soon, assuming the quality is good enough.
The iPod was simple to use (push “play”), and it whetted my appetite for using audio to help tell stories. While few editors are asking for audio, except for the wire services, it’s a good idea for freelancers to consider multimedia elements to their stories to stay marketable.
How do you use audio? What elements are important to telling the story for the ear as opposed to the eye? What kind of investment in equipment is required? How does the possibility of audio encourage you to expand your storytelling?
Butler Cain, an SPJ member and news director at Alabama Public Radio, shared tips on using audio at an SPJ co-sponsored narrative writing workshop in Anniston, Ala. While some of the tips apply more to radio than Web, most of the information can be used for both.
Envision what you want to do before setting out. Is there a key character whose story is told best in his or her voice? Is there a scene that offers compelling audio? Remember that on the Web, it will augment your written story, not replace it.
Set the scene to tell listeners where you are, whether that’s in a busy restaurant or a nature preserve or a chapel. Cain refers to “active sound,” which means you go to the interview subject and record them in their element.
“You need to catch the story when it’s happening,” he said.
Use sound to move through the story and put the listener in the scene. Do we hear dishes clanging, background chatter, birds chirping or a preacher talking? All of these background elements help in telling the audio story.
Practice a bit on your friends and family to become familiar with the conversational tone required for good audio.
“You must hook your listeners immediately, within the first 10 to 20 seconds of a piece,” Cain said.
Record plenty of ambient sound by standing in place and letting the recorder run for about 90 seconds. But make sure the ambient sound makes sense to the story you’re trying to tell. For example, during this year’s Bloody Sunday remembrance in Selma, Ala., Cain said the reporter got down on the ground and recorded the sound of people walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Record more than you think you will need because you never know will come up in the editing/producing process.
Today’s microphones are highly sensitive. The iPod video recorder and Belkin microphone attachment I was using picked up everything including the opening and closing of the door in the rear of the auditorium, every sniffle and cough in the audience, the creaking of the wooden stage as speakers shifted from one foot to the other, and even the conversation taking place in the hallway outside.
As print journalists, we’re used to keeping our distance and letting our notebooks stand between our subjects and us. When using audio, you need to get close to the person to adequately capture the sound. You wouldn’t want to come back and be straining to hear what was said over the background noise.
Just as good journalists don’t immediately take out their notebooks, Cain said you have to be aware of the “recoil factor” when you thrust a recorder or mic in someone’s face.
“Try not to draw attention to the equipment,” he said.
Just talk a bit before you start, but then keep the recorder running afterward while you’re thanking the subject because, just as in print interviews, some of the best stuff comes when wrapping up.
Cain recommends wearing headphones while recording so you can hear what your mic is picking up and whether it’s audible. You don’t want to get back to preparing the audio only to hear the overwhelmingly annoying sound of lights buzzing in the room.
Avoid sound cliches such as a recording of “Taps” at a funeral or school bells for an education piece. And never, ever let go of the microphone.
“Once you do, you’ve lost total control of your story,” Cain said.
Don’t be intimidated. This opens up vast opportunities and can even cause you to think differently about how and where you pitch stories.
Wendy A. Hoke is SPJ’s membership manager and a freelance writer.