How Not to Record Interviews

By | April 30, 2006

I call it my Aung San Suu Kyi Moment, mainly because I’m a show off and like to drop names of famous people I once interviewed over the phone. It was September 1988 and I was a rookie reporter in Bangkok, one of several of us in a wire service who spent most of the day trying to reach Rangoon, as it then was, via one of less than a dozen phone lines between Thailand (as it still is) and Burma (as it then was). If any one of us got through, it was an important moment, because news was so hard go get out of the growing street rebellion against the military government. One of the leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi (as she still is), and if we managed to get her on the line everyone would crowd around to listen to the interview on the speaker phone. We’d record the interview too, via a cable that plugged into our tape recorder, in case we missed anything. It was a wild life.

On my first week on the job I got her on the line and asked all the right questions, mainly because my boss was writing them down and passing them to me. I hung up, elated. Everyone gave me a slap on the back, right up until I realised I had put the cable in the earphone socket rather than the microphone socket. I had recorded only silence. In my excitement, of course, I hadn’t taken any notes. One of my superiors, an American helicopter pilot, gave his wry smile and said, “better luck next time, kiddo,” or something like that. I was crushed, and learned an important lesson: Never to let people call me kiddo. Sorry, I mean to never let technology outwit me at key moments.

Since then, for example, I’ve tried to tape over the earphone socket so I don’t make the same mistake, but occasionally I do, and the Law of the Aung San Suu Kyi Moment seems to be: The Likelihood that You Will Plug the Wrong Cable into Your Tape Recorder Is in Exact Proportion to the Importance of the Interview and in Inverse Proportion to the Quality of Any Handwritten Notes You Take During the Interview.

My first bugbear is this: Why don’t I take better notes? That of course, is related to my own incompetence at shorthand and the fact that if the person I’m interviewing is important I want to maintain as much eye contact as possible, reducing the time available to take notes to about three seconds, usually long enough to write something trite and meaningless, and then only to show them I’m listening. This important Journalistic Technique is less effective over the phone, of course. Then I don’t take many notes because I’m usually staring out of the window or scratching some body part, often one of my own.

Anyway, my second bugbear is this: Why can’t people who make these recording devices put the sockets further apart, color-code them (some do, admittedly) or at least mark them so they don’t look exactly alike, as per this one from Olympus?


As you can see, in a hurry of an interview situation, scrambling to plug the microphone in to the socket, you’re likely to miss entirely and jab it it into the ear socket next to it, which would result in you recording an interview with yourself, and any other ambient noises that happened to be going on (such as the scratching).

It’s not as if laptops are any better. In fact they’re slightly worse. Many put their sockets at the back of the unit, with no color coding and with icons that make about as much sense as a junta press conference. Take this one from Acer for example:


Not going to win any design awards, that one. I’m in favour of putting them somewhere we can actually reach them, color coding them clearly and intuitively, labelling them, and not putting them next to each other. Us journalists should be allowed to scratch without these kind of worries.

One thought on “How Not to Record Interviews

  1. Thomason

    I favor a industry-supported panel to set standards for color-coding I/O ports, and recommend that you,I and others be panelists, and that the panel get an expense account so that it can meet in diverse locations, thereby involving the global community of I/O users that our efforts would serve. With that panel and an adequate expense account, we should be able to knock out some color standards after only 1 or 2 years.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.