First lesson in audio for journalists

I am getting a little weary of hearing journalists and educators say they don’t know how to do audio.

Let’s see whether I can translate my less-than-50-minute* lesson into plain text.

Gathering Audio

It helps if you are holding the recorder, mic and cable — and demonstrating while you teach this. (Sorry, I don’t have video of me teaching it!)

  1. Always use an external microphone.
  2. Make sure the recorder is recording before you start.
  3. Let the subject do the talking.
  4. Don’t say “Uh huh” or “Mm hm.” Learn to nod silently and make great eye contact so they know you are listening closely.
  5. Ask questions that lead the subject to tell a story.
  6. Collect relevant natural sound, e.g., hammers, crowds, water, traffic, street musicians.
  7. Never let the subject hold the mic, and don’t move your hand on the mic.
  8. Don’t swing or bump the mic cable.
  9. Carry spare batteries.
  10. Ask the subject to say his or her full name, job title, home town, etc. — at the end. If they say it too fast, ask them to say it again, more slowly.

Practice Gathering Audio

If you have gear, or if the students have gear:

  1. Put students in teams of two, with one recorder and one mic for each pair.
  2. Send them outdoors, and tell them to interview each other (one at a time, please) for five minutes.
  3. Tell them to be careful about background noise in the spot they choose.
  4. Require them to WEAR HEADPHONES while they conduct the interview. What they hear in the headphones is what the recorder is recording. (If the interview subject’s P’s and S’s are too pronounced, the mic is too close to the subject’s mouth. Move it.)

Editing Audio

Editing audio in Audacity, a free program

  1. Open Audacity (more about that below).
  2. Open this file (or one like it) in Audacity. This file is a good one to use because: (a) it is very short; and (b) it has clear pauses between statements, which make it easy to demonstrate selecting bites.
  3. Show the students how to delete the preliminary stuff at the beginning: Select and delete (press the Delete key).
  4. Show the students how to undo (Edit menu, or Ctrl-Z, or Cmd-Z).
  5. Show the students how to MOVE a piece of audio from the end of the clip to another place in the clip: Select, cut, click on the new place, and paste (use the Edit menu, or use Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V; on a Mac, it’s Cmd-X and Cmd-V).

You’re done. Those are the basics of editing digital audio.

I always tell students: It’s like using Microsoft Word, which every reporter already knows how to do. Cut, copy, paste. You already know how to do this.

Practice Editing Audio

If you have computers, or if the students have computers, with Audacity installed:

  1. Copy the file onto the hard drive.
  2. Convert from WMA to WAV (if necessary).
  3. Open the file in Audacity.
  4. Edit the interview you just completed to a length of 45 to 60 seconds.
  5. Cut out all the “ums” and “ahs.”
  6. Move the subject’s introduction from the end to the beginning.
  7. Save and export as an MP3 file.

If you are a journalism educator, I can promise you — these take less time to grade than a 300-word (written) news story. You can complete this entire training — including gathering AND editing — in less than three hours. I have done it lots of times! The students can turn in their first edited audio project at the end of the class.

* If it’s all hands-on, you’ll need about 2.5 to 3 hours. If it’s only show-and-tell, with no hands-on, you can do it in less than one hour.

Grading Criteria for First Audio Exercise

  • 2 points: The audio is interesting and tells a coherent story.
  • 2 points: The audio sounds clear, and the quality is good.
  • 1 point: The length is between 45 and 60 seconds.

(I am assuming your students already know how to conduct a journalistic interview.)

Use this handout (PDF, 236 KB) for instructions. It explains not only how to do all of the editing, but also, how to download and install Audacity — which is free and works on Windows, Mac and Linux.

In most cases, I’m using a sub-$100 Olympus digital recorder. I have mics that cost abut $100 each and others that cost about $15 each. The cable costs about $10. So you can put together a usable audio kit for about $100 altogether.

When you are ready for more, look here.

15 Comments on “First lesson in audio for journalists

  1. The ONLY ones who say they “can’t do” audio are the ones who haven’t tried it. If you’re spending 50 minutes teaching this, then I’m not sure what you’re telling them – I give them 10-15 on recording and 15 on editing.

    Making them DO it is more important than talking about it. The Gannett folks explain a lot of video editing by comparing it to cut and pasting in Word – a lot of light bulbs get turned on that way.

  2. These may be too basic to mention, but since you’re writing for absolute beginners, they’re worth emphasizing:

    1. Turn off the stereo/TV/video game playing in the background. It makes editing really tricky, since every cut is revealed by a jump in the music.

    2. Turn off your cell phone/smart phone/blackberry. I don’t mean just the ringer, shut the whole thing down. Otherwise you’ll get that machine-gun interference sound right in the middle of some good audio. If you must leave it on, place it several feet away from the mic and recorder (not in your shirt pocket).

    Those two, at least, are lessons from my latest efforts.


  3. Oh, Mark, okay, I’ll be more precise: When I teach this (not hands-on) to professionals, with 20 to 100 people in the room, it takes about 50 minutes because I show them a couple of Soundslides too, and take a lot of questions.

    In a hands-on class, especially with college students, the actual TALKING about what they will do and how they will do it takes 15 and 15, for a total of 30 minutes.

    Which is EXACTLY why ANY journalism instructor can teach this stuff! It’s too easy!!

  4. Nice tip about the cell phone, Kevin. My phone is always in my purse 😀 — so it’s not usually close to the mic at all.

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  6. Great tips Mindy. But I would add something to your fourth point — the warning to not to “listen out loud” by saying uh uh or mmm mmm. When I teach my students about broadcast interviewing, I tell them the best way to make your guest feel you are listening to them is not to say uh uh or even to nod, but rather to ask questions that follow naturally from what they just said. All the nodding in the world won’t persuade them you are listening if they say “That’s when I saw the woman come running out of the house” and you follow with a question like “How long have you lived on this street?” And, we hear and see that far too often on radio and television.

  7. Well, speaking from someone who was (re) taught audio training from Mindy recently, I can tell you that her tips work well. I have posted recent podcasts on my blog as a result.

    I originally learned audio on an old program called “soundedit,” which is similar to audacity, but Mindy’s way does seem easier.

    And it only takes about 15 minutes for her lesson 🙂

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  9. Mindy,

    Excellent post. I need to print this out and show it to my coworkers. A lot of them make many of the mistakes you listed.

    My biggest pet peeve is when I am with a print reporter and we are working on a story together while doing a joint interview with a subject. I, of course, am completely silent while the subject is talking, while the print person makes noises throughout the entire response. The worst is when they stop an interesting response to ask them to repeat something. I have it recorded! Or you could ask for clarification when they aren’t giving a kick-ass response.

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  11. One more thing to add. I ran into this during a recent interview and it may become more prevalent as the technology becomes more available. The Apple iPhone causes a tremendous amount of interference, especially when the phone receives an e-mail. You can hear it over the headphones and it really disrupts the audio. It has to be turned off during taping. Just one more thing to worry about 🙂

  12. I never thought of the phone interference before but that makes perfect sense. I’ll need to make a note of that and send a memo out to people.

    My cell phone is always interfering with speakers and other things every day. This is all the more reason to always wear headphones when recording audio. So many people don’t wear headphones, which is a very important part of capturing good audio.

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