Lyle Lovett, country music singer-songwriter and 1979 Texas A&M journalism grad, returned for decades to the journalism department to chat with a couple of his favorite professors. Prior to a concert on campus during one of his visits, he granted “The Battalion,” A&M’s 20,000-circulation newspaper, an interview.
As student publications manager, I suggested one of my beginning reporters sit in with the editor to write the story for a class assignment. Our editor-in-chief used his tape recorder in his office during a lengthy session with Lovett.
Unfortunately, the recorder failed miserably. He never was sure what happened, but nothing was on the tape.
Fortunately, the student journalist took lengthy notes, including a few key direct quotes. The next morning’s front page had two bylines on the lead story, a collaboration from the editor’s memory and the novice notetaker’s accurate accumulation of facts.
Two years later I had an interview appointment with Tom Bodett, known as the voice of Motel 6 for “leaving the light on for you.” It was at his recording studio in Homer, Alaska. Multi-talented Bodett, unknown to many in the lower 48, is author of several books, a radio host and actor (movies as well as voice). I later sensed a well-deserved chip on his shoulder for only being called the voice for the motel chain.
As research, I had consumed three or four of his humorous paperbacks prior to the flight to Alaska. Recalling the Lovett fiasco, I made sure my tiny, voice-activated tape recorder was fully functional. With new batteries (and backups on hand), it was tested to perfection.
But unlike his booming radio voice, Bodett is somewhat soft-spoken in person. So faint, in fact, the first few words of every sentence did not begin the tape recorder. But my habit when using a recording device is to ignore its presence and take notes furiously. It worked in Homer, since my scribbling included those missing sentence starts.
That advice is one I still pass along to my writing students, if they feel the need to use a recorder. They are forced to conduct interviews for a few of their many writing exercises.
Besides the personal pitfalls mentioned above, we discuss pros and cons of a taping device, whether a clunky tape recorder or a smartphone. The recording provides actual proof of the interview content with total accuracy. It can even get posted on the publication’s website or podcast.
However, journalists under daily deadline pressure will have a difficult task constantly replaying and transcribing the interview.
(On the other hand, feature writers usually have the benefit of multiple listening and replaying efforts to get all the details needed for their articles. In fact, a guest speaker who writes features for a Georgia daily told my students last month she is supposed to record all her interviews. Ah, the luxury of time.)
Of course, modern machinery can fail, as it did for “The Battalion” 30 years ago. Batteries stop working or electricity goes off. Or the wrong button gets pushed simply to play instead of record. The volume can be too low or external noises can interfere with quality sound.
No matter how an interview is conducted, a student or professional journalist needs to begin the writing process with more than enough information garnered during that one-on-one session with the source. A final tip for that to occur is to eliminate or limit any “yes/no” questions. Otherwise, you wind up indirectly quoting yourself for the actual query.
Dr. Randy Hines teaches journalism at the University of North Georgia. He’s co-author of “The Writer’s Toolbox: Blueprints for Successful Communicators” (2019, Kendall Hunt). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.