Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

6×6: audio

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 26, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The fifth in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

audio

Audio is one of the most powerful mediums available to the multimedia journalist. Whether its radio, podcasts, on video  or audio slideshows, audio brings a piece to life. So why is it almost always an afterthought? Too many good films and audio slideshows have been let down by bad quality audio. Here’s 6 tips to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

01. let sound breathe

…as soon as a voice comes out of the speakers, the listener attempts to visualise what he hears to create in the mind’s eye the owner of the voice…unlike where the pictures are limited to the size of the screen, radio pictures are any size you care to make them.

Robert McLeish, Radio Production

In other words, with audio your limit is the size of the imagination. Last time I checked, that was pretty big.

So for the love of God, show audio some respect. First off a piece of audio does not have to consist entirely of voices with no gaps in between.  In fact that sucks. When you’re out recording, take a moment to listen for sounds – in radio it’s called actuality and it is a key ingredient in bringing sound to life. Doing a story about some people on a boat? We want to hear the water lapping up against the bow. Is your scene in a cafe? Let’s hear the cups clinking, the chatter of everyday conversation, the whoosh! of the coffee machine in action.

This more often than not recorded as wildtrack. After filming, taking photos, interviewing, whatever, record at least 60 seconds of actuality. It’ll make editing a lot easier too.

Let the audio breathe. Give it a few seconds just to play in your listeners imagination and don’t talk over it. It’ll do more to paint a picture than overladen voice over will.

Marantz PMD620

Marantz PMD620

02. invest in a good microphone

Audio is so often an afterthought for video and photo journalists alike. This is mostly manifested in using a crap microphone. VJs – don’t use your camera’s onboard mic unless you’re lucky to have something nice like a Canon XL2, Sony EX3, Z1 etc. If you can, buy an external microphone to attach to your cameras horseshoe. For interviews, it is worth investing in a lapel mic.

Rodemic do some pretty decent offers, including a camera mic for under £100 ($180). For radio journalists, or photo journalists doing audio slideshows, there are a good range of digital audio recorders you can look at. The Marantz PMD620 is small, easy to use and so reliable you’d let it babysit your kids. I took it out to Iraq earlier this year and it was great. It starts at around £300/$500.

The Edirol R-09HR (£211/$349)  has had produced some great sounding audio for freelancer Ciara Leeming and journalists are raving about the Olympus DS-40(£82/$135)

03. get the mic in close

Microphones do not have selective hearing like our ears do: they won’t pick out the voice across the room you’re pointing them at. So get in close to your interviewee – really close – like a little under their chin (if they’re ok with that). It eliminates a lot of  background noise, like air conditioning, traffic, squeaks of chairs and all that. And more often than not it gives the recording a richness and an intimacy.

Compare, for example, the effect of these two recordings: the first with a mic held too far away in a large room, the other with it right in close.

Another great tip I picked up: if you can, record your interviews outside – it eliminates that shallow echo you get in peoples’ offices and living rooms.

04. let the characters talk

A bit of a personal bugbear this, but often the temptation with multimedia projects is to talk all over them, y’know, like they do on the TV and that. But new media means new ways of doing things. And I think one of the great new trends emerging is the silencing of the journalist/reporter voice over.

If you’ve recorded some great audio for your story, let it breathe – let the characters tell their own story. We don’t need to hear you saying “Angie is a mum of three struggling to make ends meet” when we can hear Angie saying “things are really hard right now, tryin’ to support three kids, y’know, payin’ the bills…every days a struggle.”

This takes some planning in the interview stages – most of all, you need to ask open questions, so your interviewees answers start as full sentences. It has been industry practice for many years to ask interviewees to include your question in their answer:

Why are you finding it so hard to make ends meet?

I’m finding it so hard to make ends meet because….etc.

05. use pauses

If you’re new to using audio, especially if you’re moving from print or photo journalism, the first thing you will notice when you listen back to your interviews is yourself. Going “uhuh, yeah, hmmmm, sure…” all over their answers.

Ask a question – then keep shtum. This pays dividends in some interviews – especially emotional ones – where your interviewee finishes their point. There’s a pause…you would normally fill it by asking a question…but don’t. Stay silent – and let the interviewee fill the pause. It’s a bit mean, but it gets them to reiterate their point, and in the process show what they’re really thinking.

And then keep those pauses in your piece. They are a natural part of speech and often reveal more about your character than their words.

06. take them on a journey

There are times when it’s right to bring yourself into the piece. But try not to use it just for dry voice overs recorded in a studio. Your voice is best when you’re somewhere your audience wants to be, and you can show them what it’s like.

To achieve this, you’ll need to be very descriptive in your writing. Tell people where you are and what you’re doing in vivid detail.

For the best examples, we have to go way back, to the first broadcast journalists:

I began to see what was happening to Berlin. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies-the four thousand pound high explosives-were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad.

And then, as we started down again still held in the light, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly. And the light still held it, and I was very frightened. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate.

Ed Murrow, on a boming raid over Berlin, 1944


Richard Dimbleby

Richard Dimbleby

There were perhaps a 150 of them, all so thin that their skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they’d  never lived at all.  They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.

At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a small fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight.

Richard Dimbleby at Bergen Belsen, 1945


The BBC’s Alan Little is one of the finest radio writers, still alive – here’s his advice:

Try to use old words, words that reach into the very core, the very oldest part of the language. They have the most impact….beware of adjectives. This is a rule I keep breaking and I have to exercise great vigilance to rein myself in. Adjectives are fine in moderation and when they genuinely add to the meaning or clarity of the image being conveyed.

The final word…

From award-winning multimedia producers Duckrabbit, the combo of a great photographer and a great audio producer:

Many great photographers make really bad audio slideshows because they treat audio as afterthought, or they try to do a voiceover without having any presentation skills. They might as well not bother.

Actually I’d go further then that.  When you put your photos together with poor audio you actually diminish the value of your photos. Good audio is like a bad dog. It gets its teeth into you and won’t let go.

Next time: making things happen!

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Journalism posts: a summary

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 26, 2009

Here’s a summary of some of the practical journalism posts I’ve written this year.

Image: LynGi (Creative Commons Licence)

Multimedia journalism

Great free apps for multimedia journalists :: the most popular one by far, covering some online sites to aid journo production

Shooting multimedia-a lot to juggle :: the challenges of covering stories in multimedia in the field; in this case, Iraq.

Video Journalism

The ultimate budget film making kit :: a guide to how I kitted myself out for video journalism on a £500 budget

Broadcast Journalism

The radio emergency survival guide :: how radio newsrooms should prepare for major news events

Making the most of your network :: a good example of how to use other journalists in your group

Three ways to instantly improve your newswriting :: a quick guide to broadcast writing

Five even quicker ways to improve your newswriting :: more tips

Covering court cases-the questions you were afraid to ask :: everything from what to wear in court, and where to sit

How to avoid being THAT annoying PR person :: advice for those unfortunate PR professionals

9 questions for newsreaders :: a checklist for newsreaders

5 even quicker ways to improve your newswriting

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 28, 2009

writingNot long ago I put down Three Ways to Instantly Improve your Newswriting.

It’s occured to me since, there are even more – even quicker – ways to instantly make your copy shine just that bit more.

Note: these ones are more for broadcasters, who write to be heard not read.

01. Get rid of “that”

Once you’ve written some copy, go through it and remove the word “that” and see what a difference it makes. For example:

“The International Monetary Fund has said that Britain will be hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It has predicted that the economy will shrink by over 2.8 percent in the next year.

Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims that the British government will be saddled with debt for the next 20 years.”

OK, so remove the “that”s and we’re left with something which slips off the tongue far more easily:

“The International Monetary Fund has said Britain will be hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It has predicted the economy will shrink by over 2.8 percent in the next year.

Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims the British government will be saddled with debt for the next 20 years.”

02. Contract words

This one is simple and should become automatic for broadcast writers. Contract everything where possible:

He is –> He’s

She will –> She’ll etc.

So our recession copy above can be improved further:

“The International Monetary Fund’s said Britain will be hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It’s predicted the economy will shrink by over 2.8 percent in the next year.

Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims the British government’ll be saddled with debt for the next 20 years.”

The only possible exception is ‘will’. It’s not so easy to contract that down – although I’ve done it after “government” in the example above.

03.  Knock it all into the present tense

Especially the top line. News is about what’s happening now. If you can’t put your topline into the present tense, you need to find a new angle on the story. If you can’t do that, it’s time to can the story.

“The International Monetary Fund says Britain will be hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It’s predicting the economy will shrink by over 2.8 percent in the next year.

Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims the British government’ll be saddled with debt for the next 20 years.”

04. A new top line

Let’s be honest, this copy is pretty boring. More bad news about the economy. Instantly sharpen it up by sticking in a new top line – something short pacy, which sums up the whole story.

Another headache for Gordon Brown tonight…

The International Monetary Fund says Britain will be hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It’s predicting the economy will shrink by over 2.8 percent in the next year.

Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims the British government’ll be saddled with debt for the next 20 years.”

05. Over is out

This is the one thing that turns me into a grammar nazi: the difference between “over” and “more than”.

When you’re talking about numbers, figures, statistics, you use more than. You can’t go over a number. You go over a hill.

So it’s “…the economy will shrink by more than 2.8 percent in the next year.”

Five quick steps and we’ve knocked that boring bit of econo-copy into shape.  On top of that, I’d get rid of the long organisation names and replace a few ‘says’/’claims’ with ‘reckons’.  But you get the point.

Any other tips you’ve picked up? Stick ’em in the comments box!


How to avoid being “that annoying PR person”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 17, 2009

The phone rings – London number.

“Newsdesk, Adam speaking.”

[Excitedly] “Hello Adam, it’s Christabelle here calling from Markettowers PR*, how are you?”

Markettowers. Bollocks.

[Tersely] “I’m OK thanks.”

“Great, that’s great. Hey look, I’ve got a great story which I think you’ll really like – with some great local stats.”

“…go on”

“Well we’ve done some research into when people fill in their tax returns, and discovered that 18% of people in your area leave it until the last day.”

“Right.”

“And we’ve got David Nobody from Tesco.com available for interview tomorrow morning to talk about why we should get them in sooner – can I book you in for a slot?”

“Send a press release and we’ll take a look delete it immediately.”

And so another London PR agency calls with another lame story. It’s one of the minor annoyances of local journalism, albeit a neccessary one, as once in every 15 calls, they bring you a story with some tickle factor that you know will make a light mid-bulletin filler.

It wasn’t until I saw a job ad in the Guardian that I realised what the game really was: it advertised a position at a marketing agency – and the job was to “sell” (their word) stories to radio stations.

Essentially it’s a glorified call centre job. And when I also spotted they get paid £10k more than me, my patience for PR hacks fell through the floor.

So if you work in PR, if – heaven forbid – it is your job to ‘sell’ stories to busy journalists, please read the following advice – it might stop your press release entering the recycle bin.

Don’t call anywhere near the top of the hour

Radio journalists in particular read the news at the top of every hour. Calling anytime after 00:40 will most likely result in a brisk “sod off”. It’s different for newspaper and TV journos of course.

Pitch in 10 seconds or less

It’s a skill journalists are trained to do, so you should too. If you can’t explain your story in less than 10 seconds, don’t bother.

Do your research

I have actually had calls offering me “great local stats” for the wrong county. The phone was hung up pretty soon after. Also, for many local media, regional stats are not local stats.

Do your research

I’ve had calls offering stories about where to invest your money-when most of my target audience shop at Iceland. Sell it to Classic FM, not me.

Do your research

Local commercial radio does bulletins of no longer than 3 minutes. They never do longer interviews unless its with someone off X-Factor. So don’t pitch long 2 ways. Journalists need short clips.

Don’t keep calling

Newdesks fully realise the more times you call, the more desperate you are, ergo the fewer other outlets have used your story, ergo your story blows. Call to pitch, and don’t call back. If a journalist likes the story they’ll make the call – we’re quite clever, you know.

And know your client will very rarely get a name check

You may pitch them as ‘David Nobody from Tesco.com” but 9 times out of 10 they’ll be referenced on air as ‘Money expert David Nobody”. We’re not interested that it’s Tesco, sorry.

*not a real company

9 questions for newsreaders

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 15, 2009

Aaah, reading the news. Some people wait years to get to do it. Some people have to fight, and beg, and slog it out to get a chance.

And if you work in radio – particularly local radio – you could find yourself behind the mic weeks out of college.

Many big media groups offer on the job training and voice coaching. But what else must the newsreader know?

Adam Westbrook

Image: Adam Westbrook

Here are 9 questions for a newsreader to ask themselves after every bulletin:

01. it legally sound and accurate?

Possibly the most important one. Have you remembered your ‘allegedlys’ your ‘he denies the charges’ and your Section 39?

02. Did you treat stories in a responsible way?

Sometimes it’s easy to exaggerate the stories, especially if you’re trying to make it a lead, or even in the pursuit of creativity.

03. Were they appropriate for a family audience?

Dogs die in hot cars, and kids cry in hot cars when the radio’s talking about graphic violence and sex.

04. Would the listener trust you? Have you left any questions unanswered?

It’s vital you are straight with your listener. Keep your scripts simple, and for the love of God, don’t include phrases, terms or explanations when even you don’t know what they mean. This is even more important during the recession. When you tell your audience a local company has gone into receivership, what does that mean? Getting it wrong, or skimming over it doesn’t help anyone understand these difficult times.

05. Have you been creative, but not confusing?

Being creative with your audio and your writing is what makes you stand out in a competitive market. That’s split clips (sometimes called turbos), creative voxes, asking questions, even being poetic. But don’t confuse your listener or distort the story in the pursuit of creativity.

06. Did you involve the listener?

Radio was creating virtual communties long before social networking. How can you involve your listener? Can they text or email their thoughts? Do you have an answerphone line they can call? A montage of listener calls on the hot topic of the day is always a winner.

07. Did you help increase web traffic?

Use every opportunity to throw listeners to your website. But be wary of reading out a web address after every story. The website is very useful if there’s an important story, like the Middle East, which is just too dry. Give it two lines, and then tell your listener to go online if they want more.

08. Did you speak directly to your listener?

That means phrases like “as we told you earlier” “you might remember we told you about” “you’ve been getting in touch with us about…”. The old adage of radio remains: you’re talking to a single listener not a million. It is a personal medium. Talk to them, not at them.

09. Did the stories you chose reflect what your listeners are talking about?

It’s difficult to know what the talking point is when you’re stuck on a newdesk. Use your reporters. Watch the news channels. But don’t be pressured into a lead, just because your rivals are.

Taken from a selection of questions Bauer Radio journalists are often asked to ask themselves.